The Reality of Fight Matchups in Thailand – The Wild, Wild West

  There was an Internet meme created to try an smear my record and what I’m doing. It was posted most widely by the Warriors of the Mongkol Facebook...

 

There was an Internet meme created to try an smear my record and what I’m doing. It was posted most widely by the Warriors of the Mongkol Facebook page, though they very kindly deleted it after lots of ignorant comments and probably realizing that it was mean-spirted and very untrue, and issued a public apology, very much to their credit. But the one thing that this meme does do is give occasion to talk honestly about matchups in Thailand, especially for farang, but also between Thais (something few westerners pay attention to).  Kelly Creegan, an Irish fighter at the Sitmonchai gym here in Thailand, wrote a brilliant post on her own blog “It’s Pandamonium” about matchups in Thailand.  It’s absolutely a must-read and Kelly has a great voice.  She covers the reality of ages of fighters in Thailand and I can speak to that a little, but the main focus of my post here is to talk about the nature of fight matchups and the relationships that surround them, and also my fight record, the ways I’ve tried to keep it as honest and transparent as possible.

There is no better place to fight Muay Thai in the world than in Thailand. Plain and simple. There isn’t even a second or third choice. The entire country is dedicated to the art at some level, from Royal and nationalist ideology, high-profile Bangkok productions, right down to the village and temple fairs that are the very fabric of the countryside.  Thailand is Muay Thai, and Muay Thai is Thailand.

But for those who come here there can be culture shock. The first and golden rule about understanding Muay Thai fighting in Thailand is this: It’s the “Wild, Wild West” out here. Anything can happen, even on a big, televised production. You can step into the ring with anyone, not even the person you thought you were fighting 5 minutes before. For a westerner it can be a huge life lesson in learning to just roll with the punches. But also as a westerner you are entering a culture and situations where relationships, hierarchy and respect play a very important part in the social glue that keeps things going. Anything can happen, but as a serious fighter here you also realize that if anything does happen you have an obligation to your gym, or the promoters that puts you in a pretty passive position. There can be big consequences for causing someone to lose face. As a fighter you are more or less at the mercy and the judgement of your gym because that’s who arranges things. As a respectful person you go with what is put before you. A lot may be said against farang who fight unfair matchups in the tourist zones, win and gloat about victories that posed very little risk, but it is important to understand that these are often westerners who are just following their gym.  As a westerner, early on, you take cues from looking at what is going on around you. The local “normal” becomes your compass. The gym says we have a fight, and you go fight. Part of being a respectful visitor in a foreign culture is following what is expected, mostly because it takes quite a long time to gain any perspective from which you can be critical of it, and end up respectfully saying “no”.

For me, this “no” didn’t really come because I was getting too easy an opponent with my first gym in Thailand, Lanna Muay Thai, a gym I still hold a lot of love for and consider part of my fight family. It came because we got to a point where my opponents just started getting bigger and bigger, and better and better at the same time. I never knew who I was fighting in Chiang Mai pretty much until I saw them warming up on the mat or until I stepped into the ring, but somehow the gym got aligned with promoters who decided the most lucrative match up was me against someone big. It started with me fighting opponents I found out were world champions (after the fact) several weight classes bigger than me, which felt okay at the time. I like tough challenges and did alright against them, but it really came to a head the night they put a very experienced 60 kg girl opposite me by surprise, and I was asked while standing in the corner, do I want to fight? My trainer wasn’t happy about the matchup and apparently hadn’t been told prior to getting in the ring; if I refused, he’d lose face.  I told him, “up to you; you know me, you know her,” and I just trusted my gym to decide. I fought that fight and it ended up being not a big deal (I wasn’t hurt, my post fight video reaction is below), but the growing sense that my gym really wasn’t looking out for me, or cared about my person had taken root. I finally had to say no when the same promoter tried to pair me with a 65 kg girl a hour before my fight (I walk around at 48 kg; they called in a replacement who was still around 56 kg), and then all respect was out the window when I showed up and had to fight in an MMA cage. An MMA cage in Thailand! Ugh.

these were my thoughts after losing to the 60 kg fighter Phet Nam Ngaam Phettonphung. I was mostly just upset I didn’t perform better.

I think the promoter and probably my trainers all thought this was funny to some degree. There can be an amazing light-heartedness regarding fight matchups in Thailand, and this is something I REALLY love. It is something that just allowed me to keep fighting and fighting in Chiang Mai, (about 30 fights a year) something I’m convinced could never have gained momentum at any other gym in Thailand. My trainers and the promoter had probably just come to see me as indestructible. Keep making the girls bigger. Keep making them better… but it got to a point where the sense that my gym just wasn’t looking out for me, not only in match ups, but also in making me a better fighter who could get to the next level, so finally I had to leave.

But this is how it is. It wasn’t just my gym, or that promoter or set of promoters. Thailand is the “Wild West.” Gyms and promoters will set up fights that sell tickets, that produce gambling. As bad a wrap as gambling takes, it actually has a far better influence on the fairness of the sport than does tourism. People think that Rajadamnern and Lumpinee are hallowed grounds – I heard endlessly about this from expert-sounding men across the internet in debates about whether women should be allowed to fight there – but few people know that regularly farang with very little top experience fight in both stadia just to sell tickets to farang. It’s a tourist game. I know someone who fought his first fight at Rajadamnern, his first fight, in a total mismatch and got his ass handed to him (he’s a nice guy, just respectfully following what his gym told him should do). It’s the Wild West. At least gambling-oriented fight scenarios steer towards good matchups. Promoters have an incentive to produce at least the impression of a close fight, and build their reputation and name. When you are fighting on cards that mostly are before tourists, really anything goes.

Onto 100 Fights

So when I came down to Pattaya I was riding the wave of the inspiration of my fighting in Chiang Mai. Fights were easy to find up there, they practically grew on trees. I had almost always been fighting girls bigger than me, and frankly more skilled, and had struggled through the matchups. It was a great growing experience for me. I really had stopped noticing size differences in an odd kind of body dysmorphia. I’d look at a girl who’s 51-52 and think we were about the same size. It increased my confidence. I hoped to start right where I left off, just with maybe more fairly matched fights. Hopefully the girls were closer to my size, but maybe even more skilled? I had fought a couple of girls from Pattaya during my first visit, including a world champion in Star, it looked promising. But it really wasn’t the case. Thailand is about relationships. Fights are booked through connections and who-knows-whom, and establishing the respect and trust in fight game relationships can be complicated. I accidentally offended one of my first gyms in Pattaya by taking a fight offered by someone else, and that offense echoed through until that first gym, WKO, was lost to me. Soon I was walking on egg shells trying to figure out who could or would book me fights. My main gym here, Petchrungruang, focuses almost exclusively on raising kids to fight at Lumpinee, and though they will book fights for farang who train there they really have no serious interest in it. Kru Nu who owns Petchrungruang just doesn’t really care about the tourist fighter dollar, and it is one of the reasons I love it there. One of the things you have to do in deciphering your gym or promoter relationships is to look at where their real motivations lie. And most of their motivations probably lie outside of things you can see or intuit without a lot of time and experience here.

Here’s a clue to deciphering motivations though: look to precisely how a gym’s (or promoter’s) money is made. In Thailand, the way money is made will also outline the relationships and alliances that are formed, it will also let you know where the focus of efforts and values is. A gym which makes its bulk of money moving through lots of farang, over and over, is going to be in the business of handling farang – its basically an adventure tourist operation. This isn’t going to mean that you can’t learn something there, or otherwise flourish – many do – but you will want to watch for when your needs or values could conflict with the main purpose of the gym or promoters.

In any case, committed to my dream of fighting 100 fights in Thailand, and even more importantly to my belief that I thrive when fighting very frequently and that it is important for me to do so, so I can grow as a fighter, I was faced with finding fights, but doing so without offending my gym. Through a combination of lots of internet friends, my Go Fund Me, and the very easy going nature of Kru Nu at Petchrungruang (who gave me his blessing to find fights through other avenues), and a heap of luck, I’ve been able to cobble together almost a whole family of people who look for fights for me now. I have Emma Thomas, Kru Singh and Master Toddy in Bangkok, Frances Wattanaya and Pi Dit in Isaan, Kru Nu here in Pattaya, O. Meekhun Gym here in Pattaya (which I also train at), and Yo, a promoter in Bangkok, and even a few others. But this kind of assemblage in Thailand is intensely complicated.

By pairing myself with so many people looking out for me I expose myself to the Wild Wild West of Thailand in a very big way. Each of these people or gyms have their own motivations and needs. They will see themselves in competition over me as I become an asset. This is a question not only of money, but of name/face and respect. These are braided in Thailand. It is extremely important to respect and follow each of them, even if they put me in matchups that are not appropriate. Turning down a fight without proper protocol is basically closing off a relationship. Add to this, each of these people are connected to other promoters, each with their own motivations. What I’m doing here is highly unorthodox, and a real balancing act. And I’m doing it because I want to fight.

As a result, I’m getting fights of all kinds. I have Sangwean of O. Meekhun gym taking me into the outlying areas so that I can be “the ringer” and he can cash in on a bet. I absolutely refuse to sandbag the first two rounds of a fight, so he learned quickly that that strategy isn’t going to work. He’s found me much tougher fights lately. I have Giatbundit Gym in Isaan booking me for temple fights with opponents that seem to just appear out of nowhere. Some of these opponents have been real challenges, some not. I’m treating this as a phase we have to go through before that gym figures out how to arrange high-profile matches in Isaan, but has enough belief in me to wager a large sum of money. It’s a process. A process in building a relationship. No one fight matters, but it is extremely important that I don’t back out of any fights, even those that might be mismatches. While I’ve never been keen on refusing fights, it can be frustrating when the matchups are outright bad, but it is something I’m willing to undergo. And then we have Emma and Master Toddy who found me that spectacular Queen’s Birthday fight, a fight that put a lot of pressure on me. I really wanted to win so that they looked good. Since then, Yo, a promoter I found through them, has become really excited about me as a fighter, simply because I’m so small but so strong. I suspect he sees that he can win big against unsuspecting gamblers who tend to go for the bigger fighter (and the Thai). He put me against giant 55 kg girls, but then against a very slick 49 kg fighter (a size match he liked, calling it “more fun”), and is now looking for high profile fights. This is a huge array of Wild West. I basically am turning myself over, in trust, to a handful of different people, attempting to build respectful, long-term relationships with all of them.

But understand, this “free agent” approach that we are so comfortable with in the west, the approach that characterizes every commercial transaction, is VERY un-Thai. It rides right up against the grain of  important Thai values. I remember when I seriously offended my first Thai person. It was during our initial visit to Thailand in 2010. There was a wonderful husband and wife vender that sold delicious pineapple and other fruits in the back of a pick up on the way from my hotel room to the gym. I bought pineapple there everyday, and there was a really sweet smile from them that I grew to love. It was a great little moment that I cherished when coming home exhausted from my training. But things change, and I got tired of pineapple and started buying other things from other venders farther down the street, a soi lined with venders. It was a like a big smorgasbord of choices. Well, that’s how a westerner sees it. A few days into this my pineapple friends changed. They refused to look at me when I passed. Very quickly our relationship turned sour. I had expressed investment in them and their family, and then I began investing in other families, at the expense of theirs and it was a personal offense. It was just pineapple, but it goes right to the core of Thai values. Thai culture, Thai sociability, is largely made up of walled gardens. It is no accident that the traditional Kai Muay is a ring and bag built within a walled home. Thai relationships are gated. And they are made from, more or less, the shifting alliances of other walled gardens. You can’t just pick and choose between them without crushing garden flowers.

I’ve been really lucky that the walled gardens that make up people looking for fights for me have not considered the others to be too much in competition. But in navigating these paths one is always stepping very carefully. And part of being careful is that when fights are booked for you, you honor them. No questions asked. No matter who they put you up against, you fight.

Western Fighters in Thailand

This bends all the way back to the meme, which is suggesting that I’m somehow targeting young, defenseless fighters, and even that I’m getting enjoyment in doing so. Just a nasty dude behind a keyboard, really. But what it does bring up is that there are real cultural differences between the west and Thailand, and fighters DO find themselves in fights they would rather not fight. I’ve fought 88 times in Thailand so far, and 4 times I faced a fighter I’d rather not fight because, for whatever combination of reasons, it just was not a good matchup. That actually is pretty amazing considering how chaotic match ups can be. As I’ve expressed elsewhere, when there has been some difference in skill to my advantage, this has largely been countered by me being given a substantial weight disadvantage. This is very common in Thai vs Thai matchups. In fact though, most of my fights have been with me giving up both the weight and skill/experience disadvantage. For the middle majority of my fights in Thailand I knew that if the fight went to a decision I would lose, I just didn’t have the size and skill/experience to control a fight enough and win a decision back then. It was more or less either TKO by knees, or lose. Below is a breakdown of the weight of my Thailand opponents, by number of fights in each category.

Opponent Weights Thailand - Sylvie Muay Thai

I’ve also really tried to be honest about my fights. A lot of farang come to Thailand and are embarrassed by the match ups they end up with, there can be some very poor ones down in the islands, I hear. I’ve felt it is important to put video of all of my fights up, not only to document and share my experiences hopefully to inspire others, but also so that anyone who wants to look can easily see the size and skill of someone I fought. All my fights, most with detailed articles about them are found here: All my fight video and blog posts. I’ve also felt it is important to record the names of my Thai opponents. Too many times westerners fight “a Thai”, often talking about “Thais” in a near racist manner, as if Thais are substitutable – I know Thai names are hard to understand, but this is not entirely what is happening. I heard a tourist fighter in Phuket announce that his dream was to “defeat a Thai in a spectacular fashion,” which he posted video of (a short clip of just the KO) on his FB page. This is an extreme example, but the idea that “Thais” are just faceless is something none of us should further, even unconsciously.

My record is here Complete Fight Record it includes all the relevant details of fights, including names, approximate weights and locations. It is a pain to put together, but if more fighters would keep records and post them female fighting in general would benefit, and grow.

One of the reasons why the meme took off among people who don’t know me, or frankly anything substantive about Muay Thai in Thailand, is that fighters who fight here fail to share information or video of their fights. Sometimes it is just not caring about filming – obviously not everyone is going to have a YouTube channel of their fights -, but often it acts to (intentionally) hide embarrassing matchups, especially in the tourist zones like Phuket, Koh Phangan and Chiang Mai. It is a dirty little secret that westerners come to Thailand and frequently substantially outweigh their Thai opponents, score a win, and take a picture. Even very experienced fighters can participate in this. Recently a western female fighter with a large number of fights came back to Thailand, and despite being well over 65 kg herself fought and beat a girl I fought and beat at 56 kg. The sharing of this fight on social media mentioned nothing of the matchup weight disparity. It was just another “win” posted to Facebook. That’s nearly a 20 kg difference (44 lbs) between myself and that other western fighter. The only reason I knew the weights is because I know her Thai opponent by name. And just the other day, because I can read some Thai (double checking my translation with my trainer), I saw in Muay Siam, the main Thai Muay Thai magazine in Thailand, that a Thai fighter who had lost to the same Phuket gym opponent 10 times in a row finally beat her.  I suspect that the only reason it was mentioned in Muay Siam is that this Thai fighter won with 5-1 odds against her – someone made some money!  Not because it’s unusual, not because it’s “wrong” to fight the same matchups repeatedly.  But this is it. It is the Wild, Wild West out here. In some ways even these experienced western girls find themselves in mismatches that are very hard to get out of. What is terrible is that this becomes a dirty secret that a lot of folks choose to collectively hide. If fighters put up more of their fights, even the mismatches, we could start to change the culture of circus tourism, and we could also start to come to grips with the real Thai sensibilities of what makes a good matchup, something that is in many cases very different than what westerners think.

A Question of Age

As for the accusation of me fighting children, it’s true that the many of my opponents are under the age of 18 and every single one of them is younger than my 31 years.  While in the west many of the top female Muay Thai fighters are in their 30’s (Miriam Nakamoto, Julie Kitchen, Caley Reece, et al) in Thailand very, very few fighters continue fighting well into – let alone past – their 20’s….especially female fighters, for whom the big promotions and big money simply aren’t options.  These western women in their 30’s have been in the sport for more than 10 years; for Thais, a 17-year-old fighter has probably been in the sport for about that time as well.  Because my weight is on the small end of the fighting scale, the fighters who are close to my size are teenagers and generally by 16-18 years old the development of breasts and hips will put them well above my weight and, in many cases, out of the fight game entirely.  It’s very much like gymnastics in this way – the sport is dominated by youth and the changes in the body brought about by natural development can literally end a career; for women, anyway.  That said, I’m not fighting 12 and 13 year olds.  A lot of my opponents are bigger than I am partially because of their age – they were likely fighting at my actual weight a year or so ago and then as they become 15, 16, 17+ their bodies develop to a few classes bigger and they fight me at that higher weight.  Star was like this.  The first time we fought she was maybe 15 years old and pretty near my weight at or 48-49 kg (she had just won the Interim WPMF championship 3 months earlier, beating another 15 year old from Japan, Saya Ito.  Both fighters have 100+ fights).  Six months later, at 16 years old Star is 52 kg and her breasts get in the way of her clinch.  She was world champion but I doubt she will be fighting into her 20’s and maybe not even in the next couple years.  When my trainers talk about her (and they’ve known her for years) they shake their heads and say she’s no longer able to be a great fighter because she’s bpum bpui (“soft”, “chubby,” “plump”) and are intensely disapproving of her large breasts.  They seem to be anathema to the possibility of being a Muay Thai fighter for these men.  I still look like a young boy because of my size and very small breasts, so because I don’t carry overt “markers” of being a woman, I can kind of “get by.”  A female fighter who looks like a boy = fighter; a female fighter who looks more like a women = should stop fighting and be a woman.

The women who do fight into their 20’s generally do so out of Muay Thai being their job.  These women sometimes are mothers and the win/loss outcome of the fight means very little, unless they’re gambling on themselves.  I fought one such fighter in Chiang Mai (Nong Kwang) a handful of times (a few times prior to her having a baby, once after) and she could be keen to lay down after one or two hard knees, really giving a dramatic performance of her inability to continue.  It’s a pay-day for her.  She’d typically try to very aggressively win early, she loves elbows to try to cut, or at least intimidate, but she’s perfectly happy to let the fight end when it gets too difficult. In fact, she stopped me in a fight in Phayao with an elbow that resulted in a small cut in round 1 – it sent me to the hospital as the fight was in the middle of nowhere – this after bizarrely proposing a complicated bet with my trainer on the sly, ostensibly to throw the fight and make money for her upcoming wedding(!). She was proposing we take it easy in the early rounds and then have a friendly endgame.  I never had heard of such a thing in Thailand and told my trainer “no fucking way,” regarding the bet. I was fighting straight up as I always do. It has also been my experience in Thailand that anytime someone proposes any kind of “take it easy”, they are coming after you.  Perhaps the bet went on without my participation, or perhaps she was trying to set me up for an early attack and was betting heavily on herself. I have no idea if she made any money with the stoppage, she may have even placed two bets, its that complicated. All I can do is fight. There’s also a really wonderful fighter up in Chiang Mai, who I actually really like, named Mint.  She’s pretty big by Thai female fighter standards at about 55 kg and she’s tasked with fighting all the bigger female falang up in Chiang Mai.  Sometimes the weights and fights are close, but I’ve seen her fight way above her weight and just get smashed.   It’s kind of her job to fight these bigger westerners.  I reckon she’s in her early 20’s and she can give a beating as well as take one.  Maybe it’s equivalent to a boxing “club fighter” in the US in the 50’s. These women, still very young by international standards in their early 20’s, are largely no longer in their prime as fighters, they are workers.  That is to say, if I were to fight someone my own age in Thailand – if that even exists among women here – the fight would be a complete side-show.  Teenagers are professional fighters, they often are in their prime at the 16-20 years age group, and quite frankly the choices are to fight who is in front of you or not fight at all.

 

 

 

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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