A few days before my 23rd fight I was in the ring with Nook doing padwork. There wasn’t a lot of hitting of pads going on, not only because Nook loves to mess around and move the pad after calling for a strike but before you actually make contact, but also because he was spending a lot of each round lying on me against the ropes in quasi-clinch.
Nook is a big man. He’s probably around 165-170 lbs and is built solid. He’s 53 years old and has more strength than energy, so when he decides to press on someone it’s like a boulder rolling with the intention of crushing something. I’m so much smaller than Nook that there’s really no way for me to get out of some of the positions I find myself in, with my back bending the ropes out and my feet being lifted from the mat by pressure or a turn. I’ve turned Nook a handful of times, but only while he’s still moving; if he’s got his weight pressed on me in one spot there’s nothing for it. There are some options for knee strikes, but they disappear quickly.
So I’m pressed against the ropes near the corner, Nook is performing his maniacal giggle as he leans into me and his chin digs into my shoulder, making my left arm go limp. I can’t fight my way out of this, so I just relax everything and wait for him to break the clinch and start over. A lot of times when a clinch goes neutral, a ref will break it and pull both fighters to the center of the ring to restart. Nook didn’t see it this way and his next utterance surprised me. He took a step back, looked right at me and said, “No, no, no fear.”
This is something Tor (an 18-year-old Thai fighter at the gym) says to me in the corner between rounds sometimes as he’s putting my mouthpiece back in. I’ve often resisted the statement by proclaiming (to myself, really) that I’m not afraid. Nook saying it to me now, as I’m refusing to struggle in an impossible position with my body pressed between a boulder and the limit of the ring-space, suddenly the expression took on a new meaning. What Nook meant by this phrase at this moment was “do not recede.”
When I stopped pushing or working for angles while Nook pressed on me, he could feel me giving in, receding in energy. This is what it looks like when a kick lands and then keeps the fighter from coming in, or when she is bettered in some way and shows psychological affect: she has receded. I was understanding it as fear in the sense of being afraid to be hit, but what Nook clarified for me in that moment was that the Thai aesthetic of strength to always move forward does not require physical movement at all (not necessarily), but rather an energy of pressing back, of having an answer that is strong. This doesn’t mean don’t “retreat,” as fighting defensively and backwards are rewarded if done strategically and with strong tactic and will – but like a wave that pulls back, all that backward movement must be culled into a forward momentum in order to bring balance.
This is how I won my 23rd fight: my opponent began to tire and in her fatigue she bagan to recede in energy. Suddenly her backwards movement was not seen as a defensive strategy, but rather a running from. What Nook was explaining to me in that moment was that you don’t need to move at all in order to run from someone; you can be pressed into out-bending ropes with a body crushing your every movement and still be running… or, from this same position and this same immobility you can be fighting forward. It’s a matter of energy, of power in the form of refusing to recede.