Day 23 – Use Your Advantages
This morning on the way to Petchrungruang I was actually retching on the bike and continued to feel really nauseated as I was warming up. Given that Kru Nu is one of few trainers who is capable of making me feel tired and sometimes to the point of gagging between rounds (sorry to be so crude, but also not sorry at all – welcome to Muay Thai!), so I did worry just slightly that I’d be sick over the side of the ring at some point during training.
I didn’t throw up, but I was struggling on a few different levels during padwork. Mostly I was just very fatigued, kind of a “dead on my feet” kind of day. But I threw what I could with what I had and it was a good experience. Kevin was laughing at me be tired and Kru Nu, not quite understanding Kevin’s particular sense of humor (he laughs when I get hit, too, because he knows I can take anything) said mai nuui! (“not tired!”) sip yok dai! (“can go 10 rounds!”) Maybe it’s because he trains young fighters, basically grows champions, so he has kids struggling on some days, training when sick, injured, bored, etc. It’s refreshing for me to be around that attitude; it’s inspiring. After I’d finished my workout and came out of the other room, where I do my drills, shadow and conditioning, I walked in on Kru Nu and Kevin talking about me. Kru Nu was telling Kevin that he thinks I can destroy my opponent on the 19th if I just hit her with my right hand – anywhere, basically. He told me that he can feel me through his bellypad and he’s bigger than I am – a Thai woman my size with no bellypad would not be standing. I’ve never had one of my trainers have such firm confidence in me. Well, not stated to me at any rate. It feels really good; gotta get that right hand going.
Sakmongkol went home last night (he’s about 2 hours away to his “hometown” where his parents live) and had sent me a message that he wouldn’t be back until 3:00 today, so we didn’t have a private session. That meant I got an extra hour of sleep though, which was glorious. Glorious! I’m feeling a bit under the weather so I had some orange juice before my nap, which in Thailand is a delicious and strange flavor because the oranges here are different. They’re small and very sweet, not as acidic – the juice is almost not even citric; it’s like Tang or a melted popsicle or something. He ended up being a little bit later than he’d expected, so I shadowed by myself for about 30 minutes in the ring before he arrived. It gave me time to get all the “damn I’m tired” clutter out of my head by just moving through it. I was downstairs when Sakmongkol actually arrived on the top floor, but Kevin tells me he ran up the stairs and looked around for me, almost frantically, asking if I’d done padwork yet. (Kru Mutt was there and I did believe I’d be getting my first experience of padwork with him if Mong didn’t show up.) He jumped right into the ring and strapped himself into his crazy bellypad/thighpad gear. I think we did more than five rounds because nobody was counting, but it was fun. It was mostly just moving around, trying anything and everything. Near the end of the last rounds, which went beyond their time-limits, he started getting frustrated with me because I was becoming visibly frustrated by not being able to reach him with my hand strikes. Only now as I write this do I realize how cleanly that rolls from Kru Nu basically building on my present advantages into literally not being able to use that exact advantage at all in my padwork with Kru Mong.
Mong yelled at me for something and I talked back – such a bad idea, always – but I told him flat out that I was frustrated by not being able to reach him. He told me that’s because “I know!”, meaning he knows what I’m trying to do so he’s just avoiding it like a fighter who knows what you’re doing would do. He wanted me to just fee meu, which is just to skill around and be cocky and evasive in the last round of a fight. That’s great for Thais, but unless I’m already winning a fight I can’t do this. And if I’m not landing any strikes, I won’t be winning the fight. Sakmongkol went off on me, yelling at me about how he wouldn’t yell at me if he didn’t care but he’s losing his voice because he wants me to be good. He said that someone who was at my last fight told him “your student no good,” and that hearing that means that he, as the teacher is no good. That just made me feel like total shit. I started losing my heart because being told that someone was talking shit about you, saying you’re “no good” is pretty much not the kind of thing you can just let roll off your back if you care at all about your art, your trainer, your path… all the things I care about. Exactly the same as Mong telling me that he’s losing his voice yelling at me because he cares, I’m losing my heart and feeling like shit about being a bad student for the exact same reason. I finished out the round going hard and trying to respond in a way that’s contrary to believing that I’m no good, but it still affected me.
When he called time and I was leaning against the ropes with my back he came over and tapped me on the head with his Thai pad. That sounds less sweet and affectionate than it is, but it’s a nice gesture. I asked me kao jai mai (“understand?”) and I nodded, then explained in kind of slippery Thai, because I was emotional, that someone saying I’m “no good” makes me lose confidence and makes me feel bad. He grunted and gave me a “no, no, no, you not bad just want you better.” I said I understood that, but he – or whoever – is literally saying I’m no good.
As I was hitting the bag and calming down Mong started talking to Kevin and kind of me about how he wants me to move around. He says he wants to change my style and that my style is easy for my opponent, but if I do his style it’s harder. That’s true. He also told me not to feel bad about not being able to hit him because he’s a champion and very good and experienced whereas my opponent is clearly not at his level. I get that, too – train hard, fight easy. But I tried to explain to him that I can’t win a fight on the outside. I tried to explain that a tall fighter who has a “reach advantage” is actually at a disadvantage if that fighter doesn’t know how to use reach. I’m a strong fighter (earlier, in padwork, Sakmongkol had been complaining that I’m not fast enough and said “I’m bigger, why am I faster than you?!”, to which I responded, “because I’m stronger,” which made him laugh and hit me) but if I can’t use my strength – like if I’m not able to reach my opponent to land anything – then my “advantage” is nullified. My Thai vocabulary is seriously lacking in trying to explain this. He didn’t understand. I tried in English and he told me to try again in Thai, but it wasn’t working. Kevin jumped in and we got Kru Mutt leaning over the ropes listening – he’s seen me fight twice now, so he knows I would not have almost won my last fight if I had stayed on the outside – and the message got through, but the rest of the argument was in Thai between Kru Mutt and Kru Mong. Basically Mong conceded that I need to be on the inside but wants me to move at close range, rather than plowing in like a tank. Fair enough.
He’s said it many times now, but today he said it a lot: “I was like you,” Sakmongkol says. He means when he was a young fighter. He means how I train, how hard I am on myself… all of it. But he became a world champion – he’s a legend looking back on it in retrospect and seeing his mistakes having lived them. I don’t have that outside validation – I’m still a “work in progress” and every fight is part of that; I don’t even know what my finish line looks like, whereas he’s crossed his and has actually started a second career on the other side of it. It is only a compliment to have him recognize himself in me, and more so that he is invested in me. Those are advantages – my advantages.
Morning Padwork w/ Kru Nu at Petchrunruang
Afternoon w/ Sakmongkol at WKO
Day 24 – Novelties and No Sakmongkol
Yesterday was unexpectedly a day off. I’d been feeling that I was getting sick the day prior and that night was pretty rough. By morning I decided to take the day to kick this in the butt and come back strong, rather than training through it; I figured one day of rest would resolve most of the problems. I wrote about getting sick at Thai camps, you can read about that here.
Today I had my regular training in the AM at Petchrungruang, except for Kru Nu deciding he’s going to start pushing on my conditioning for this fight, which is a little less than a week away now. I felt a little snag in my breathing, making everything just a little harder, but I was pushing through the rounds with as much power as I could throw on anything Kru Nu was asking for. He could see I was struggling a little bit, but he could also see I was pushing through it. After our second round he said to me in Thai that I’m “better” than one of his 15-year-old fighters who is up for a fight at Lumpinee this weekend. He meant that I hide my struggle better, that I push through it and keep my power going in padwork better than this kid does. I’ve watched him in padwork – he’s very skilled and very strong, but he likes to display how uncomfortable or tired he is and he tries to cheat by stopping to move a glove out of the way; something you might step on but totally showing his focus is not on the padwork. It’s a compliment about my heart, which is a high compliment from Thais. Not to let me coast on anything though, Kru Nu added in 50 kicks on each leg and 50 marching knees before starting our final round of just boxing. That wasn’t easy but it was really good for me. It teaches you that you can keep going when you’re tired, so if you feel tired in a fight you aren’t afraid of it. I’ve done this, you think.
First 3 Rounds of Padwork with Kru Nu
Fatigue Round with Hands – Kru Nu
My morning training ended up running a little bit long – I’m not sure why – and we finished with breakfast when I would already be lying down for a nap. So I only got about 45 minutes to lie down, but I used it well. When we got to WKO for afternoon training the receptionist told me that Sakmonkol would be coming in at 3:00. That meant no private session and also meant an hour by myself before he even arrived. So I just went upstairs and did my regular training, just earlier: shadow, bagwork, a little conditioning. At 3:00 he still wasn’t there and his car was nowhere to be seen out the window, so I decided I’d do my situps and pullups while waiting for him. Before heading to the weight room I hurried down to the bottom floor to grab a drink and there I saw Sakmongkol and his two visiting students from the US all hanging out in the lobby. Mong looked absolutely shot. He didn’t even talk to me, just pointed to his neck with a look of total despair, indicating that he was feeling the same sick that I felt yesterday when I took the day off. When he finally came upstairs, dragging himself up the four flights to the top where the ring is, he let me know that he didn’t want to hold pads for me and basically wanted to stay far away from me to avoid getting me sick. He pointed to everyone else in the room and said they’re not fighting, so he can hold for them. Just not for me.
That obviously sucks, but I do understand where he’s coming from. He really looked miserable and I think more than anything he just feels burned out. Exactly why I took the day off yesterday, to try to just get rid of that feeling more than the cough or whatever. But what was kind of exciting about it was that Kru Mutt would be holding pads for me. He’s cornered for me twice now but we’ve never worked together in the ring. Mutt reminds me a little bit of Daeng at Lanna – he’s always joking a little bit and when he speaks English he kind of drags out the words in a slightly sarcastic way that’s very funny if you’re in on it. He’s also kind of lazy in that nobody he trains is focused on their own improvement so much as just having a fun way to stay in shape, so he doesn’t have to get anything out of anybody other than sweat and heavy breathing. That’s not the case with me. For one, it’s hard to make me tired. I make my trainers tired more often and even if I do start to get slower and short of breath, I’m dragging whoever is holding for me down into the deep waters with me. It’s not easy holding pads for me. But that’s fun, too! He’s seen me fight as my cornerman twice now and so he knows I have power in some ways but he’s never felt it. It’s also interesting to go with new padholders and trainers because it requires adjustment at almost every moment. Nobody holds the same and any trainer who is worth their salt makes adjustments to what their student can and can’t do, making each round more difficult by small degrees. Mutt is a good trainer, so this is what I was in for.
At first he made me wait for the clock to go back around on the timer before starting our rounds. Daeng would totally do this also. Another trainer, a westerner who teaches boxing, was making fun of Mutt’s music that was blaring on the stereo. It’s country music – like, really bad American country music. I don’t want to offend anybody, I’ll just go ahead and fess up that I don’t like country so I don’t know what’s “good” or “bad” or whatever, but lyrics like “if french fries were fat free and you still love me,” are not what I qualify as good. So to shut this guy up Mutt jumped out of the ring like a cat and fiddled around with his phone, attached to the stereo by a cord, ultimately landing on a Creedence Clearwater Revival song that was, by my standards, better but the other trainer made a “I’m taking a nap” mime and Mutt stared at him, put up his chin and sniffed. I hopped in the ring and with even half a minute of rest time to go Kru Mutt was all ready to start. He yelled maa (“come!”) and held out his pad for me to jab it. I gave it a stiff jab and his eyes shot open and he let out a yell of approval. I tried to give him power on everything and stay on my toes, which was a little wonky at first because Kru Mong wants doubles on everything. If one kick lands you throw two more, but Kru Mutt wants you always to be transitioning between things. So I’m all ready to throw the second kick and he’s already repositioned for something else. Truly staying on my toes.
It was incredible fun though. Usually I hear him yelling at the westerners he holds for, “a good one!”, meaning to strike harder. He didn’t say this to me at all, except once or twice on my left leg getting a little lame on the 10 repeat kicks at the end of each round. He just wanted it harder, and to make it more difficult he held the pads up very high, like a headkick for my stature. Wicked. He showed me some cool new tricks, one of which is a low kick and immediate teep to the same thigh. It’s wildly disorienting from the receiving end. He also showed me how to throw a hard left knee off of the ropes and immediately step outside the opponent as you land off of it, allowing you to pivot and throw a kick as they kind of fall into the ropes. Awesome. I loved the experience of padwork with Kru Mutt and do hope it happens again, although I of course miss padwork with Sakmongkol. If I could do 10 rounds with both of them, I would.
Since I’d started so early we decided to go back to the apartment for a quick shower and rest before heading back to Petchrungruang. Kru Nu had told me that I’d be sparring tonight because my usual clinching partners were away at a Boyscout adventure. (Being a Scout is compulsory for a number of years at school.) When we got to the gym I was paired up with a young Italian kid who is maybe 10-11 years old and very cool. He’s a champion of some sort and has been training at the gym for years already; he’s in the gangly phase of his growth and is already nearly my height but probably only 35 kg… maybe. His dad was watching from the side of the ring, so I knew he wasn’t going to go easy on me, but I definitely have the size advantage. Kru Nu let us know, via telling Filippo in front of us, that we would do 20 minutes of sparring and then directly into 20 minutes of clinching. For the first maybe 5-10 minutes I was backing up a lot. This kid is much smaller, so there’s no reason for me to be doing that. I don’t fight like that. I got a few good angles going, pivoting off to the side and landing kicks. A little Thai kid two days ago had sat down next to me on the situp incline benches and gawked at my arms before saying glaam, which today he repeated with a huge smile when I walked in, like it’s my new nickname from him. It’s kind of awesome, actually. I’d thought that it meant “scar” because he was pointing at some scars on my arm, but it actually means “muscle.” So my nickname is Muscle, apparently. Anyway, this Thai kid started razzing the Italian kid right in front of the Italian kid’d dad and he actually stopped sparring with me for a second to lean out of the ropes and swipe at the Thai kid. It was funny. But that made him come after me a bit more seriously and Kru Nu then chastised me for not being deliberate enough in my counters and strikes. “For what?” he said, imitating me looking a bit floppy with three lame attacks rather than a single block, a steady beat of pause before delivering a kick back at the little Italian kid that was twice as hard as anything I was throwing at him. He actually fell backwards a bit. That’s how my trainers kick me. They don’t care how small I am. So I started taking my time, which actually got me moving forward more and even though I wasn’t using my significant size/strength advantage I was able to put a lot of pressure on this kid and he started becoming more frazzled. He looked at his dad every few minutes and was relieved to tell me when the 20 minutes was up.
Then we got to clinching. The Patriarch of the gym, Kru Nu’s father named Bamrung, who I like immensely and is very generous with me when he watches and offers tips during my clinching, propped himself on the edge of the ring where he likes to sit and watch me get my ass kicked by little Thai kids. This Italian kid simply doesn’t have the size and mass to move me the way these Thai kids I usually clinch with do. Kru Nu’s son, my usual partner, is only 40 kg or so but he’s massively strong and can wrench me around with the use of angles and strength. Normally, Kru Nu is yelling at me to be harder on his son, whose fight name is Tongchai (“Victory Flag”). But today he was only yelling at the Italian kid to go harder on me, to really tug on my neck and let it rip with the knees. Filippo actually stepped in once and translated the message into Italian, even though this kid is pretty fluent in Thai. I don’t speak Italian, but I understand Latin roots enough to know he was asking the kid if the problem was that he didn’t want to hit a woman. The kid shook his head with an emphatic “no.” He rolled his eyes a little bit and I totally know that feeling – it’s because he felt overpowered… I do this. At first I had offered him a chan dua yai gwaa (“I’m bigger”) excuse when he hadn’t been able to escape a tight hold around his body, pinning his arm to his torso. But being kind wasn’t helping him feel strong. So I just started getting a little rougher with him; I even told him his knees didn’t hurt, trying to kind of spur him. When I threw him down and Kru Nu gave out a “oi!” and a laugh that is entirely meant to hit a little boy right in the ego, the Italian kid looked over at his father in slight dismay and then began coming after me a little more. So I threw him again. He came back harder. Then I took his back and he went crazy – it was awesome. He was throwing his knees full power, the kind of knees that he would be trying to knock out a kid his own size with. I smiled, caught his knees and threw him down again. He came back with two flying knees, both landed. I said seeoui, mai jep! (“I’m ‘the cannibal’, no pain!”) and he just went nuts. The Patriarch was cheering and miming how I should be catching the knees to drop him to the floor; Kru Nu was adding fuel to the rage fire by taking my side every time I evaded or turned this kid. I looked at the clock and let him know we had two more minutes, to try to knock me out. He went for it. This kid is just awesome.
He was definitely happy for it to be over. I know how he feels – this is what normally happens to me in clinch, whether with the boys at Lanna, with Den, with anyone bigger than I am or even these kids smaller than I am at Petchrungruang. It doesn’t feel good. But it makes you better. I got out of the ring and the Patriarch started showing me in pantomime what he wants me to be doing with turns while the Italian kid was immediately pitted against someone closer to his size, to wash the taste out of his mouth. It’s a good tactic. I “cooled down” by working clinch knees on the bag, just playing, and doing my 200 jumping knees as a drill. I could hear Kru Nu and his father talking about me, about how much better I’ve gotten already. Kru Nu then started talking to an Italian guy behind me, in English, saying how the first day I’d come about two weeks ago I’d clinched with the little kids and done terribly, now I’m better. I turned around and added that the little one, Joseph, who is only 27 kg had put me on the canvas that day. I figured that might have been an additional difficulty for the Italian kid. Joseph has clinched with me a few times since then and kind of experienced my growth; the Italian kid hasn’t played with me since that first day, so he probably expected it to go much more like it had that first time, before I’d gotten all this practice. But I’ve been at Ninja school. The best part though is that Kru Nu and his father see that I can be taught, which means they’ll give me more because their attention is paying off. Especially the Patriarch, who watches me clinch almost every time I come and he gives me lots of tips and advice – I don’t see him paying so much attention to anyone else. He likes me; he’s interested in me. That’s something I can’t ask for, it’s just a very precious offering.
Padwork w/ Kru Mutt at WKO
Post Padwork Update – First Time with Mutt
This is part of a near-daily Muay Thai series Training with Sakmongkol wherein I describe my training experiences with him at WKO Pattaya. For those interested I recount my decision to temporarily leave my training in Chiang Mai to take the opportunity to learn from one of the best Thai fighters of his generation and a uniquely gifted teacher in my post: In Search of Sakmongkol. In these posts I try to include as much extensive video as possible so that others can see in detail how and what he is teaching me.