In Sam Sheridan’s 2008 book exploring various fighting arts, titled “A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through the World of Fighting,” he spends a little time on the upsetting subject of dog fighting. While there’s not much about that chapter that I enjoyed reading, there was one concept that has stuck with me for years: scratching. There are dogs that want to fight and dogs that don’t. At some point in a fight the dogs will be separated across the fighting pit and held, a grotesque version of going to one’s corner between rounds. The dogs are held behind the “scratch line” and once released have to enter back into the fight on their own accord. Some dogs tear off the scratch line and go right back after the other dog; others come off the line more slowly as the fight progresses, or not at all. Scratching is intended to show gameness, something Sheridan equates to “heart” in a fighter but maybe a step further. It’s not only willingness to fight, but eagerness.
The important principle here is that dog fighting is not about dogs, or even dogs fighting, it’s about gameness. That’s why a dog turning is so critical, and that’s the whole point of the endless scratching: we almost don’t care how good the dog fights, the fight is just an elaborate test to check his gameness. John, a dogman in Oakland, told me, “Give me a game dog any day, a dog that bites as hard as tissue paper but keeps coming back, and I’ll take him.” Gameness was more important than fighting ability. (p. 248)
This concept of gameness carries over to Muay Thai in many ways; in strong ways. The skill of a fighter is important, but it’s absolutely secondary to the heart of the fighter. A couple years ago when I was training and fighting out of Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai, I was still convincing my trainers that I wanted to fight as much as I said I wanted to fight. Sometimes I’d come back to the gym after a loss and wear my embarrassment and disappointment on my face. I’d show it in my body; everywhere. I was sorry for letting my trainers down and came off a bit sheepish, maybe, like a kid who’d been bad trying to keep low profile in the house for a day or two. I wasn’t hurt, I could train to full capacity, but my heart showed wear on it. And I’d tell my trainer, Den, that I wanted to get back into the ring again, to wash the taste of the fight out of my mouth with another chance. He’d look me over, studying me, weighing me, silently. And often he wouldn’t go jump to schedule another fight, which made me feel worse. Like he didn’t believe in me.
It took me a long time to figure it out, but when the realization came it was crystal clear. He wasn’t disappointed in my last performance – he, like everyone else who isn’t the fighter, had already forgotten about it – rather, he was waiting to see me scratch. Telling him I wanted to fight again with the shroud of my last defeat draped over my slouched shoulders like a wet blanket meant I wasn’t “ready.” But showing him that I was ready to get the fuck back to it by enthusiastically getting back to it, with confidence and resolve… well, he’d let me fight with a broken hand if I looked like I was ready to smash something.
As a fighter it’s hard to remember that nobody cares as much about your performance as you do. Your victories are exciting and people share in your celebration, but not for long; and your losses are disappointing because people want you to win, but nobody really cares beyond the initial pang of, “ah, well that’s a bummer,” that comes with hearing the news. My fights have changed somewhat now that I’m here in Pattaya in that there’s money being played, so the outcome isn’t just what numbers go into which columns on my record, it’s also sometimes significant financial gains or losses for those who finance the bets. It feels like a lot of pressure to know that there’s 100,000 Baht riding on the outcome of my fight. But here’s the thing: gamblers, like fighters, are experienced in both winning and losing. They get over it; they bet on the next fight. All they care about is whether I fought to the extent of my abilities. Only once have I been chided by my corner after a loss for having not fought well. And you know what? I didn’t fight well.
Knowing that my trainers believe in me will always be important. As much as I’d love to erase any reliance on outside approval for my self-confidence, it’s just not possible. I care what Pi Nu thinks; I feel bad when it seems like Sangwean isn’t interested in me. But I do know that all they’re really looking for is that gameness. I don’t have to worry about why my right hand isn’t technically beautiful for their sake – wanting to be skillful is my concern, not theirs. When Pi Nu pushes me to the point of wanting to cry in our mornings together, he’s not trying to make sure my kick stays technically sound – he’s not even that worried about whether or not I actually break down and cry; it’s whether or not I’ll keep coming with the tears rolling down my face, or whether I’ll push back when it seems as though there’s nothing left to give. Pi Nu is notoriously not big on compliments; he looks at me baffled when talking about trainers who pepper their western clients with, “good, good,” without actually approving of their performance. So when I’m peeling myself off the mat for the umpteenth time after being tossed and nearly collapsing when the final bell sounds and I’m rescued from being physically bettered, I know what Nu is referencing when he puts his hand on my head and says, “good.”
Earlier this month I was scheduled to rematch an opponent I’d beat twice. The event was to be fairly large and coincided with a national holiday. As far as “hometown” favoritism goes, I was pretty far on the outside of that favor. Pi Nu told me that he didn’t trust the referee (which in Thai is the same word for judges, so not sure which he meant; maybe all of them, like how we’d say “officials”) and so he wasn’t going to put “a lot” of money on the fight. At first I wasn’t sure why he was telling me. I’ve only been included in on discussions about gambling on my fights fairly recently, but I understood quite naturally that his mentioning of it wasn’t only thinking out loud, but was indeed his way of explaining to me that the relatively low side-bet was not an indication of his lack of belief in me but rather an indication of his lack of belief in the scenario. It actually meant quite a lot to me at the time because I’d been struggling in training a little bit, feeling sorry for myself and getting a bit down. Only someone who knows me would see it; I know Nu could see it. But he believed I’d be able to push through it, which marks a huge difference in his belief in me now from many months ago after that loss where he told me in no uncertain terms as I came back to my corner after the decision, “you didn’t fight good.” After that fight he didn’t book me for another for over 2 months. I hadn’t scratched.
I fought three days ago and, other than checking in with Pi Nu for a couple minutes, I haven’t been to training. The reason for this is that I have stitches in my head for the second time in as many months. Sutures mandate a couple of days away from training so they can get a good scab closure and these stitches in particular are a bit difficult because the ring “doctor” (who I doubt had much experience at all, but was a very nice young man) only gave me 3 stitches on a long cut that probably should have taken 7-8 stitches. I don’t much mind cuts but having to take time off to heal up the stitches is difficult for me. On top of that, I lost the fight by decision despite perhaps winning it on points (that’s not “robbery,” it’s just one of the many outcomes possible in Thailand and I understand what happened and can work on that) and the stink of losing coupled with the mandated time away from the gym has me feeling especially down. I’m scratching to get back in, in one regard, but I’m also keenly aware of how I’m feeling sorry for myself and that, my friends, is not gameness at all – that’s the kind of thing that Pi Nu will pick up on and either put a great deal of pressure on me to snap out of it or he’ll bench me by having me “take it easy” for a week or so. The latter is punishment, really.
But because I’m not at the gym right now (I plan to go back tomorrow, so this is really a time-sensitive realization), I have the opportunity to get my mind right before entering back into the realm of judgement by my trainers. I can’t hide from Pi Nu, and I know this because I’ve tried. He’s looking even when he’s not looking and on more occasions than I can count I’ve been keenly aware of him studying my attitude from a distance. I’ll flash a grin at him when I’m caught skulking around feeling deflated which, even though the smile is completely counterfeit, he accepts as effort toward how I want to be feeling. He’s not happy about the stitches, either, which means that I’ve got to take the lead for the both of us in how they ought to be perceived: as something temporary, something that catalyses the changes that need to be made in a more general way for me to continue developing as a forward fighter. I know Nu has misgivings about me being a woman and getting cut, so he’s extended himself to some degree by helping to form me into a fighter that risks this kind of damage. So I have to extend myself as well, I have to make clear that I value his belief in me enough to not only accept it, but validate it. It’s not about the individual fights any more than it’s about the individual thumps of a heart. It’s about the heartbeat, the rhythmic perpetuation of wanting to fight.