full fight video: Phetjee Jaa vs Nong Praew in Surin (above)
Twenty minutes before Phetjee Jaa turned 13 years old, we were sitting together on a mat against the aluminum fence separating the schoolyard field from the “stadium” inside the fence that houses the ring in which we both just fought. We’re leaning with our backs against the fence and are huddled under blankets, although not the same one. I push Jai Dee, my maybe 10-month-old dog and who Jee Jaa loves, out from where he’s curled in my lap and over to Jee Jaa, so that he’s lying against the side of her body. He kind of blinks at being woken up, then tucks his nose under Jee Jaa’s arm and goes back to sleep. She strokes his head and says his name, which she pronounces all the time as if she’s chastising him, then removes her hand and goes back to her distant stare in the direction of the ring but not at what’s going on in it. I’m checking my watch every few minutes, counting down to midnight when I can wish her a Happy Birthday. But Jee Jaa is sullen. She just lost her fight, probably her first loss in years and out of over 160 fights likely one of only a handful of losses ever. What do you say in such a situation?
Part of me just wants to tell her it’s okay, but it feels so asinine. It’s also hard to locate her emotions; she’s clearly upset and embarrassed, but is it the normal feelings of losing a fight, something she’s not well-practiced in? Any time Jee Jaa fights her name is announced a dozen times throughout the program leading up to the fight. She’s a celebrity. Her older brother, Mawin, is intruded as “Phetjee Jaa’s brother” when he enters the ring. Her reputation precedes her. It’s a lot of pressure for her to perform and, quite frankly, she always does. This opponent she just faced in the ring was bigger than I am, both heavier and taller, and was clearly both experienced and skilled. Jee Jaa trains with me every day but she’s never had a fight against someone so much bigger – probably 12 kg (26 lbs) difference between them. I give her a hard time in the clinch now because my skills have advanced enough that my size becomes immovable. It’s the same obstacle in this fight for Phetjee Jaa. As was watching her fight this fight, I can see it’s the same frustration that I feel off of her sometimes when we’re training. And as I’m sitting there at the lip of the ring, seated next to a tiny girl who as a fan took a photo with Jee Jaa, at a certain point in the fight I can see Jee Jaa give in. She doesn’t give up, but she gives in to the impossibility. The little girl next to me had in the 3rd round been arguing with a little boy who is equally tiny and maybe even younger; he’s got a small voice. Their high-pitched baby words had gone back and forth as the little girl fan insisted that the fight is only 3 rounds (it’s not; it’s 5 rounds) and after the fourth round, when the crowd goes silent as it becomes clear this fight is mathematically over, points-wise, the little boy says through the silence Phetjee Jaa paaaeeee, extending the word for “to lose.” He’s stating what we all know already, that she’s lost this fight unless something miraculous happens, but he’s saying it out of a child’s understanding of the disbelief of the loss itself, not in relation to the fight at all – he doesn’t see how or why she’s losing. He just knows that she is and that we’re all uncomfortable.
There’s nothing Jee Jaa could have done. Nine times out of ten she loses that fight. The opponent was just too big and too skilled, the combination of the two making it impossible. And Jee Jaa fought hard, even when she’d given in to the impossibility of a win, she was beautiful. I’ve seen her do this in training. I’ve seen her “check out” mentally because her dad is being micro-critical or because she’s frustrated. She can bang out 5 beautiful rounds on the pads or an hour-straight of clinch while sniffing through tears. And if you had the sound off, so to speak, you’d have no idea she was crying. If you didn’t know her or if you didn’t pay attention closely, you’d have no notion she was even upset. She just works through it. And part of this is that she’s been a “show fighter” for years now. Mawin and Jee Jaa will earn a little money doing demonstration fights at the bars in Pattaya. In fact, a video of one of these show fights has been circulating on Facebook for over a year now with the majority of the commenters having no clue at all that it’s not a real fight. This is to say that Jee Jaa knows how to perform, how to “act” within the movements of a fight. When I was watching her in the ring, I saw her change. Her opponent actually fouled by “breaking the back” in a clinch move, bending Jee Jaa backwards and dropping her onto the mat. The ref didn’t call it as a foul and it happened one more time in the opposite corner. This was the end – this is when Jee Jaa’s face fell. I’ve done this to her in training. It’s a fine-line between what’s allowed, what’s tolerated and what’s a foul with this move. In training, it’s something I resort to when I have few other options and nearly every time it pisses Jee Jaa off; it can break her in training, when we’re all tired and emotionally volatile. Perhaps, even, the frustration she’s trained with me by responding to this move at her home ring was primed for it to come out in this fight – she’d practiced being cracked by it, emotionally, for months with me in the ring. And maybe because I’d seen it so many times before I was able to see it now. I’m not sure that anyone else in the crowd saw it. After the fight, when I pointed out this moment to her father as a) a foul, and b) the moment that changed the fight, it was as if he didn’t see it the way I did; but he immediately started repeating it to others as the reason the fight was lost. It helps that it was a foul. But the fight was impossible to begin with.
When we’d first arrived at the venue it was still empty. There were a few vendors on this inside of the fence but that was pretty much it. Maybe 30 minutes after we sat down on our mats I was introduced to my opponent; 10 or so minutes after that Jee Jaa was brought over to the other side of the ring, where a small group of gamblers who had accumulated over the time we’d been there without me realizing it had assembled, and stood shoulder to shoulder with her opponent. There was already a 50,000 Baht “side bet” on the fight. Meaning each side puts up half the money and the winner takes all. The opponent was bigger than the promoter had said. He’d claimed she was 47 kg – my actual size – and had been truthful about her height being pretty tall. He’d also, according to Sangwean, claimed she didn’t know how to clinch well. But standing there next to each other, it was pretty obvious that the size difference was greater than anticipated. This girl was probably 50-51 kg; she was the size of the opponents I face pretty regularly. I didn’t see them standing together as it was on the other side of the ring and I didn’t go over to watch. But when Jee Jaa came back she looked confident. She was smiling and at ease, almost as though her “game face” had relaxed away. She is very serious in the car and the hours leading up to fights; that seemed to dissipate after she’d seen her opponent. I thought that was strange, given that she was bigger than promised. But I was happy to see it because Jee Jaa looked relaxed. In the time between the shoulder to shoulder comparison and actually getting into the ring, the “side bet” doubled – 100,000 Baht to the winner (according to Sangwean).
When it became evident that Jee Jaa was not going to win this fight, in round 4 when it was obvious that it was “knock out or nothing” and the KO was certainly not looking likely, she kept glancing at her corner. Her lip was trembling and she kept biting it; she was pretty close to crying right there in the ring, which I’ve actually seen her opponents do. I’ve seen her train through tears, so I wasn’t too concerned with it. It was just intense to see her like this in a fight because usually she’s smashing her opponent with relative ease. The fights I’ve seen where she’s fighting bigger, less-experienced girls were unsatisfying; Jee Jaa just isn’t challenged in them. But I saw her fight a boy at her own size, a very skilled fighter from Samart’s gym and incidentally it was the kid she was supposed to fight on TV the year before when the announcement was made – in the ring – that she was no longer permitted to fight boys. Her fight against that boy was dominant, she won decisively, but it was a good fight. I saw her get whacked and she actually got a little pissed off and just went into another gear. She hasn’t had to do that in the fights against bigger girls I’ve seen her fight since. Against this much bigger opponent now she kept going, she kept performing just as she does in training when she’s struggling emotionally, but she kept looking at her corner to see what they wanted her to do. At this point she got permission from her father to just ride it out. This happens in fights, in the fifth round, when one fighter is far ahead and there’s not much other than a miracle that can turn the tables – the fighters will “dance it off.” They keep moving around but don’t really fight anymore; they stay at a close distance and just kind of hop around to burn time in the round. It’s concession on the part of the fighter who has lost and it’s kind of polite mercy on the part of the fighter who is winning. No need to do unnecessary damage to either bodies or ego, I guess. Seeing Sangwean give her permission to concede, I was surprised. But not because of the permission, because he was so calm in doing so. He screams at me and Mawin in the corner. It’s actually very socially uncouth to do this, but part of me believes that he takes the risk of appearing so jai rohn (“hot hearted” and emotionally volatile) as a performance for the audience. Not entirely, when he’s yelling at me he’s fucking sincere about what he’s saying and he is definitely not happy with what I’m doing – but I also believe, and this is hard to say because it’s far more complicated than just this one statement, that the fights that Phetjee Jaa and Mawin fight are not always what they seem. Jee Jaa can “hustle” a little bit – she can make the first couple rounds look close and then tear off on her other levels and end the fight when the gamblers have already bought in to the illusion of a close match. Knowing that she is capable of and practiced in doing this, as well as all the practice Mawin has “losing” the show fights that they two of them do in the bars of Pattaya, I just wonder if somehow the risk was not as big as it appeared.
Phetjee Jaa climbed out of the ring and an envelop with the 100,000 Baht was handed to her opponent, who posed for a few photos and then climbed out herself. I had to duck under the ring to get out of my spot from where I filmed. The crowd was quiet and the gamblers all looked Jee Jaa in the face as she weaved between them – she did not return the looks. Her father and “Grandpa” silently removed her gloves and wraps. Mawin sat behind them wrapping his own hands; he’d be getting in the ring after only one more fight. I wanted to hug Jee Jaa, or put my hand on her shoulder or something. But that’s not a very Thai expression; it wouldn’t mean here what it means in my inclination to offer it. Instead I just start tending to her in small ways: wiping her face with a tissue, folding her clean shirt that she’ll change into. Once her wraps are off she wordlessly squats next to Mawin, who is now lying supine on the mats as Jee Jaa and Sangwean rub his limbs with oil. A drunk old man comes over and starts telling Jee Jaa she has to fight harder. He’s only saying three or four words but over and over again in this drunken insistence. Jee Jaa looks at him and looks away; her parents only look away and ignore him. This is also very Thai, to just ignore people who are acting outside of proper conduct. I want to stand up and say something because I’m not Thai and my instinct is to shut this guy up for talking to a kid like this, and I’ve been on the receiving end of drunk men muttering at me endlessly about what I should do in a fight before I go in the ring – I hate it. In Chiang Mai my friend Eh Paweena saved me once, politely telling the old man hounding me before a fight that I had to focus and he toddered off. In this case, with Phetjee Jaa feeling humiliated and this old goat braying at her, a kind man from a little distance away worked his way over and dragged the old man away to buy him a hot coffee at a nearby stall. That man was a good man.
Mawin goes into the ring and Jee Jaa doesn’t follow along with the family. This is unusual. She’s usually at ringside with her brother for his fights. I think she didn’t want to be subjected to the crowd again, but I don’t know. She pulls the blankets over herself and lies down with her back against the metal fence. She watches toward the ring, but I’m lying next to her and I know neither of us can see anything. I try to push Jai Dee on her and she doesn’t want the comfort. I monitor my wristwatch closely – I have no idea what to say to her about this loss – and as the digital face reads 00:00 for midnight, I hold my wrist out for her to see the time and I say, “Happy Birthday, Nin!” She looks at the watch and smiles, a real genuine smile, and asks me in Thai if it’s really her birthday. I nodded and said, sipsam pee laew (“13 years already”) and she grinned. It was sweet. Birthdays are not celebrated the same here and the whole “Oh my God, it’s midnight!” thing is not universal in the west either, but maybe she understood that I was excited about it. And I guess not knowing what to say is something I should get used to, because I remember being a 13-year-old girl and, quite often, there was nothing anyone could say. It’s not about comfort at that age. It’s just about understanding – quiet understanding is best. And this moment of testing out the waters with a much bigger opponent, just seeing where the limits are, and coming face-to-face with the disappointment of what already is with opponents that are too easy and the disappointment of what might be with opponents who are bigger and older and skilled… well that pretty much feels like 13, too.
Lying there next to Phetjee Jaa in the very cold night up in Surin after watching her lose and at the moment she turns thirteen years old, I felt very clearly what I’ve thought about her before. She is a concentrated, undulating core of possibility. I feel close to her.
If you want to read more on Phetjee Jaa you can check out my Phetjee Jaa Archive.