*** A quick note on how these days are numbered: I go by only counting actual days of training with Sakmongkol, so I’ve been in Pattaya longer than 26 days and these two days actually have a day of rest between them.
Day 25 – Back to Training with Mong
On Saturday I finally got Sakmongkol to agree to hold pads for me after nearly a week of not training our extra hour and a few days of him not holding pads for me at all. We both got sick and I took Wednesday off to recover, when I came back on Thursday Kru Mong refused to train me because he thought he’d make me sicker through proximity. On Saturday he said he’d hold for me but he wouldn’t talk to me – that was his compromise, I guess.
Padwork was fine but it had been a few days since he’d held for me and nearly a week since he’d instructed me, so it felt a little wonky. Like, getting back to normal type of feeling. But it was good. I had trained in the morning with Kru Nu at Petchrungruang and he’d told me that I wasn’t as good today, although to be fair I’d really rocked the hell out of training a couple days prior. But he had a good attitude about it. He trains kids who go through everything, so his expression is basically, “every day body not the same.” Some days it’s strong, some days not so much. No problem. Today wasn’t such a strong day. Kru Nu put me on an herbal medicine for my cough because taking antibiotics this close to a fight isn’t fun – I’ve fought while on antibiotics before; so tired. But the thing about feeling sick, being sick, feeling drained, not being able to breathe – any and all these things – is that you just keep your effort up. You don’t have to have power, just throw with all the power you do have. Trainers have been to more than one rodeo and they know when you’re tired or sick or whatever, they just want you to give what you’ve got. They honestly don’t care if what you’ve got wouldn’t crush a fly against the pad or if you’re gasping for air after only one kick, just so long as you’re gasping for air in order to try to kick again. So my morning was still a success. This afternoon with Sakmongkol I was just trying to bring the energy that I could, the same way if you have to fight on a night that you don’t feel good, you still bring the fight to the fight. Kru Mong didn’t say anything either way regarding my work with him but he totally ignored me the rest of the time I was there, so either I had a shit attitude and didn’t realize it or he was displeased with me. Or both.
One of the fighters at Petchrungruang had a fight at Lumpinee that afternoon (the new stadium) so there was no training over there for me. (Usually I leave WKO at 5:00 and head back over to Petchrungruang for clinching with their boys.) I decided I’d get a long run in, since I’ve pretty much had to neglect my running to accommodate my schedule between the two gyms; the tradeoff is the clinch practice I’m getting. I had asked Sakmongkol if I could spar with this young Thai guy who trains at the gym, Nate, but Mong said it was a bad idea. He said this kid has no control and because he’s bigger than I am there’s no good in it for me. I was bummed but respect Mong’s judgement, so I was kind of in a state of half pissed off and half resigned when three and then four of the men started clinching at the end of the training session. Kevin went home because I was going to run and I decided to watch the clinching for a while, see if I could learn something since I wasn’t allowed to play.
I chatted with a very nice, very shy woman – one of the students visiting Sakmongkol from where he used to train in Colorado – while we watched the clinching in the ring. The boys had varying degrees of skill and size, so there was a lot of give and take as everyone changed partners. One guy, a novice who has been at the gym for maybe three weeks now, jumped in and became the fourth guy without having really been “invited.” But when you’re a guy, you’re always invited. He had no clinch training at all and when he started moving around with the Thai guy, Nate, who Sakmongkol won’t let me spar with, the two of them were a big mess, like a dog fight. Sakmongkol had explained as part of his reason for why I can’t play with Nate that he doesn’t “play;” he has to win in training and takes everything too seriously. This other kid was not quite that way, but given that he didn’t know how to clinch at all and there’s this weird thing with Thai trainers in regular gyms that they don’t necessarily train you right away. They don’t instruct. You’re just supposed to figure it out. But this kid was coming at it all wrong. He didn’t know anything but was going 100%, just charging full force and basically pushing the Thai guy into the ropes and, through very impressive strength, throwing him to the ground here and there. He had long nails and accidentally scratched very wide claw-marks on the back of Nate’s neck, which didn’t help the situation.
Mong told this kid to stop pushing so hard, “this Muay Thai, not Sumo!” he yelled. That was too cryptic, given that English is neither Mong nor this kid’s first language. But this kid just kept going 100% and finally Mong stepped in himself to go against him, pretty much pitting himself as someone this kid could not push around. Sakmongkol is not a small guy but he’s still unbelievably strong for his size. This kid simply could not move him. But he was trying and still going full-bore in a way that is not real “practice etiquette.” Mong didn’t like this kid’s attitude and started crushing him down over and over again, sometimes landing with his own full body weight on top of the kid on the mat. (To clarify, I call people up to their 20’s “this kid,” so Mong was not doing this against an actual child. This guy is probably in his early 20’s.) I have an Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Heeler) and they are some of the most obstinate beings this planet has to offer. My little hellion Zoa has to be put in her place sometimes and the way of doing this is to pin her down to the floor with my body and keep her there until she stops resisting. You have to “break” her to reestablish dominance. That’s kind of what Sakmongkol was doing here, trying to calm this guy down, to “break” him. But this kid wasn’t getting it and soon enough Mong’s rage was real and it became very uncomfortable to watch. Thais don’t really show a lot of emotion in any direction, but especially not anger. When they do, however, they go for broke. Mong wasn’t out of control by any means, but seeing him having an actual, very real emotional response of rage toward this kid was stomach-knotting. It reminded me of when I was a kid and my dad would rage – it was never directed at me, just as this wasn’t, but it was horrifying. I’m not a kid anymore, so my response is different, but I wasn’t quite sure how everyone else in the room was interpreting it given that it was so context and culture based. Nate, as a Thai, politely pretended to not see any of it. I couldn’t read the two Americans at all. And when Sakmongkol finally pulled himself off of the kid after crushing him the final time and used his index finger pointing out of the ring in the most universally understandable “get the fuck out!” sign ever, the kid got up and, standing way too close to Sakmongkol, looked him right in the face to say he didn’t understand what this was all about. He was fronting!
Mong shook his head and got out of the ring to cool off. His male student from Colorado got in and started trying to calmly explain to this guy how he should be using his arms to turn, swim to the inside – technique, basically. He’s right, that’s what Sakmongkol was trying to tell this kid to do, but that’s not why this happened. You see this a lot between westerners and Thais when they spar hard but pretty much never between two Thais. It’s because Thais can go really hard – pretty much indistinguishable in terms of power from a real fight – but it remains “light” in spirit; that sounds kind of hippi-dippy but it’s still playing. The establishing of dominance is real, it just stays kind of at a simmer with the constant understanding that any escalation will be evened out. Westerners by and large don’t keep their heart out if it and it gets too serious. Don’t get me wrong, you can get your ass kicked for real in training and your teacher might be yelling at you quite seriously, tearing your ego apart with precision – it’s real – but there’s a definite “end scene” that separates the game from everything else. There was a coloring-outside-the-lines of these rules going on with this kid pushing so hard in his aggressive approach. What was weird was that he kind of understood it because he kept saying, in English, “it’s just my face, not my heart,” indicating that his face looked angry but he was not sincerely angry. That’s what bringing the fight energy without actually being in a fight is about, but whatever his understanding of the difference between his face and his heart was didn’t match the general etiquette of how training is run in gyms. You could feel it was out of line; well, I and Sakmongkol could feel it.
After things settled down a bit Mong got back in the ring and started showing the kid how to grapple, swimming the arms to the inside and tugging firmly, but only a suggestion of the real danger, on the neck to land knees and to turn. You know, instruction. After that there was a discussion outside the ring where Mong was trying to explain to the guy what he’d done wrong that had caused Mong’s reaction and the kid still didn’t understand. Sakmongkol looked at me and just started speaking in Thai, assuming I’d translate for him. Because this kid believed that he had not crossed the “heart” line, it was difficult to explain how his perception and the outside perception were in opposition. He blinked his eyes at me and said, “I don’t know yet,” meaning he doesn’t have technique and from the western – I actually believe this guy is Japanese, so maybe just outside South East Asia? – perspective that means the teacher should teach you. But the Thai perspective is that you come at it from the hierarchical position of not knowing and that you take your whippings and show your heart through persistence before a trainer will start giving you knowledge. I explained that he’d come at this wrong from that aspect in going 100% in strength and aggression without the technique – basically, “I’ll use my hammer until you provide a better tool.”
Day 25 – AM w/ Kru Nu at Petchrungruang
Day 25 – PM w/ Sakmongkol at WKO
Day 26 – Playing the Opponent
Skip to today (day 26) when I got back to training with Sakmongkol and we’re doing padwork in the ring. It’s been nearly a week since he’s really trained me, at least in terms of giving me instruction and correction. Today he tells me he’s not going to talk to me again, so he’s holding pads and being very stern and stoic about everything, not giving me any kind of indication of approval or disapproval in anything I’m doing as I choose mostly my own combinations and movements with a few called-for kicks here and there. At times I try to close the distance because that’s what I’m going to have to do in this fight and he takes the opportunity to clobber me, which is good despite it feeling quite frustrating and overwhelming. Again, he didn’t give me any kind of indication that he was pleased or displeased with my padwork and that didn’t really matter. I was frustrated with myself for how I’d dealt with (or not really dealt with) his kicks, so I asked him what I should be doing as a fairly constant response. He acted like it was a laughably stupid question and exclaimed that because I’m strong I should just move forward and smash this girl – with anything, really. He calls this my style, in contrast to his style. I nodded and agreed, saying I understood, but I was disappointed in myself because I hadn’t forced myself to practice actually doing this in our padwork, even though I knew that to be the obvious solution. I can come in against a bag all day long but once a person is actually kicking me those triggers might be very different.
On Saturday, the day Mong had to put this kid in his place during clinching, he’d stopped showing the kid how to do some technique in order to start hounding me. He’d seen a video of me training at this other camp where I was getting instruction to push the face, what I generally refer to as a “face smush.” It’s highly effective but Mong doesn’t like it – he hated it immediately two years ago when I first met him in Colorado – because with your arms outstretched you are completely open to knees right into your ribs or your core, which are high scoring and can knock you out. On Saturday he said, “okay, opponent stupid you can do this; but opponent smart…” and then he showed how to yank the head in order to get the person’s grip off your own face and just plow them with knees. He showed me instead a way to smush the face and step behind the person’s leg, which causes them to turn entirely sideways and you can put them on the floor without even using much strength. It’s amazing. I made the mistake of opening my mouth instead of just taking the information and what I meant was that simple techniques will generally work in my fights rather than abandoning them for more complex versions – I should obviously learn both – but when I said pooying bplam mai bpen, meaning “women can’t clinch,” which probably requires a lot of explanation to not sound like I’m a sexist asshole, but there it is without the explanation other than that it’s incredibly difficult and rare for women to be advanced in the clinch because we have very different opportunities (or lack of opportunities) to learn it thoroughly. Mong saw this as a dismissal and started going off about how I say “women fight like this,” or “women don’t do this,” which I have indeed said when talking about the majority of the women I’ve faced in Thailand, the majority of whom have patterns of how they fight, strategies, holes in their arsenal, strengths and weaknesses. I’m talking about the nearly 60 fights in Thailand I’ve had over the past 2 years, drawing from my own experience. He has a good point, which is that if you assume your opponents aren’t good boxers and some day you come up against a great boxer you’re pretty much screwed. I agree: learn everything; train everything. We had different points of focus in time, mine is short-term, his is overall, which is where the disagreement happens – over the course of an overall learning process, we agree.
All of that is background to Sakmongkol launching back into this when I look disappointed about having not just now done what I need to do regarding the kick in this fight. I tried to tell him that I was annoyed that I had not just now done this in training. Trouble is, there are not really temporal tenses in Thai and my vocabulary isn’t so stellar that I can express that I have just now failed to do something and instead what I’m expressing is something along the lines of the infinitive of I don’t train this. So he saw it as me saying I don’t train this ever, so why learn it? But what I meant was that I had not just trained this, which frustrated me. He could tell we were having some kind of miscommunication and he got out of the ring to talk to me. What’s nice for my growth is he always pushes me to explain myself in Thai; what’s not nice is I’m not quite able to do so yet. I wished very much that my Thai was better – I could understand him but I couldn’t express that I was not saying what he thought I was saying, so we kind of hashed it out. He tells me all the time that if he didn’t care about me getting better then he wouldn’t be hard on me; he wouldn’t say anything. I’m a child sometimes, so I pointed out that he hadn’t actually said anything to me in a week. He laughed and told me that’s because he was sick so he actually didn’t have a voice and couldn’t talk, as well as not wanting to get me more sick so he didn’t want to be near me. I was still frustrated. I started to break down emotionally. Sakmongkol could see this and he gave me a very kind hand on the shoulder as I put my gloves down to go have my freak-out in private outside the gym space.
I came back and did my workout, including some work with Kevin and me each wearing a shinpad and practicing me blocking or not blocking a kick and responding with an attack, stepping forward, whatever. Mong watched this with interest from inside the ring. He never said anything, he just watched. As I finished out my drills Kevin went to Mong and talked to him a little about me – he wanted to make sure that Mong understands that I want to learn, I’m not rejecting any avenues, but that I get frustrated with myself. Sakmongkol understands this. I didn’t hear their conversation at all but Kevin talked to me about it later and it was very clear that all Sakmongkol wants from me when he’s hard on me, when he won’t talk to me, when he holds pads with expressionless stoicism, that he’s not giving me anything because he wants me to bring the fight to him. My opponent will not give me approval; my opponent won’t tell me that I’m not moving enough or to more of this or less of that or whatever, so he’s forcing me to bring the fight, to be the fight in practice. There’s an “end scene” that I talked about earlier and given our size difference and the training space he won’t try to knock me out or punish me to the full extent of severity for bad judgements, as might happen by a good opponent in a fight, but other than that safety net he is offering me an approximation of fighting – training me how to fight, how to be a fighter when you need to be, rather than techniques and tactics – that nobody else ever has. He’s training my heart.
Day 26 – AM w/ Kru Nu at Petchrungruang – “bao bao” (light)
Day 26 – PM w/ Sakmongkol at WKO
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.