above: Saya Ito, me and Phetjee Jaa
I’m standing outside the ring in the late evening, maybe around 7:30 PM, watching Japanese world champion Saya Ito crawl under the bottom rope to stand next to Phetjee Jaa. I’ve got stitches in my head, so I’m not allowed to clinch yet but I’m staying to watch. Saya has been training at the O. Meekhun Gym for a couple weeks now. It’s her second time at the gym since I’ve been training here and she’s gearing up for a WPMF title fight in Japan on April 5th (today!). She’s not good at clinching. In fact, it was specifically the difference in our clinching abilities that allowed me to beat Saya pretty decisively when we met in the ring for the Queen’s Cup in Bangkok, 2013. Japanese female fighters can struggle in the clinch, and that is probably why she’s come to train with Phetjee Jaa who is one of the best clinching females on the planet, despite being only 13 – and incidentally with me, as clinch is my game as well. We were actually scheduled to fight again in January, but I believe that when Saya (or her coach) discovered it was me she had been matched up again the fight was cancelled. Instead, much to my surprise at the time, she came to train at the same gym with me then for a few days, and now has returned for a longer stint. It’s given a great opportunity to experience and think about the nature of competition among women. It is not without possibility that one day I’ll find myself across the ring from her, again.
So now I’m watching Jee Jaa putz around for a couple minutes to avoid starting the actual clinching and I stride over to where Saya is standing by the ropes. I say her name and she looks at me, smiles and then squats down so that we’re face-to-face through the ropes. She speaks a little Thai, no English and my only Japanese is single words I’ve picked up off of Anime shows, so most of our communication is like a game of Charades. I show her how she should keep her hands on her head as a block against how Jee Jaa likes to enter the clinch – Saya nods – and then I point to my hips and push them way back, butt out, and shake my head “no,” then push them forward to show how she needs to not keep her ass back during clinching. I’ve told her this many times already now and she grins, nodding her head in approval and chirps, “ka!”
Prior to getting my stitches, Saya, Jee Jaa and I all clinched together in a circuit. Jee Jaa is a monster to clinch with. She’s impossibly strong for her size (even for my size) and her technique added to that power just crushes your soul. I can still overpower her (but for how long?) because of our size difference, but I really have to work for it. And when I do manage to get her down on the ground, sheerly out of my strength advantage, she hates it and comes back like a blood-thirsty tiger. This happened the other day. I don’t think I did anything out of sorts – I truly believe it was 90% due to whatever Jee Jaa’s attitude was that day, which was cultivated long before I even got to the gym – but when I crushed her down to the ground she was furious. She was “in the middle” in terms of the clinching theme we use, where one person remains “it” and any time someone is put down a new partner rotates in. So, as Jee Jaa hit the canvas I walked away because now it was Saya’s turn. Jee Jaa wanted revenge and actually pushed Saya away with her forearm, kind of sweeping her to the side, while coming straight back at me. I hopped to attention and felt the vengeance of Jee Jaa’s knees, growing more powerful with her desire to punish me. We grappled for another couple of minutes and I put her down again, this time probably entirely because of her own frustration. She popped back up and wanted to come back at me but I moved away and Saya stepped in. So Jee Jaa just ripped Saya’s head down and turned her, landed a few knees and tried to throw her. Saya’s got great balance in not being thrown, so even though she was being totally worked around she didn’t fall. Jee Jaa pushed her against the ropes and on the bounce-out used her foot to kick out Saya’s legs and down she went. All of this was a minor annoyance to Jee Jaa while she tried to get back to me for revenge. It went on like this for 20 minutes of clinch while she was the man in the middle. She might as well have been the scary-ass bad guy in a western, walking into a saloon and just pointing at me and saying, “you.” Then taking me outside and shooting me.
Now that’s competition. Phetjee Jaa and I share a (mostly) healthy competition between us as training partners, perhaps because we’ve both really always been the only females in our own gyms and neither of us likes to be bested. I kind of thought to myself that she was more competitive than I am because it seems like she’s the one who always starts these little pissing contests by refusing to be bettered at all in training, but the fact is that I never let her go harder without turning it up myself; so I guess that’s the same thing. And we make each other better because of it. Jee Jaa is facing bigger opponents all the time now, a way to try to 1) even out her incredible experience and skill, and 2) simply a way to even have a reasonable pool of competition to draw from since there are so few fighters at her actual weight, now that she’s no longer allowed to fight against boys. So she’s fighting opponents who are pretty close to my size, which makes training with me a huge benefit for her being able to feel what works.
When Saya first arrived we actually didn’t train directly with one another the first time around. Jee Jaa’s father, Sangwean, would have Jee Jaa clinch with both me and Saya but wouldn’t have me and Saya clinch together. He’d done this when I first started training at O. Meekhun as well – I was permitted to clinch with Mawin, Jee Jaa’s older but smaller brother, but not Jee Jaa. This time I wondered if he was holding us apart because he thought I didn’t have enough control or because he was weighing in his mind the possibility of our ever fighting again (me and Saya). Seemingly a lifetime ago, I’d organized an all-female sparring circle in NY to bring women of different gyms together for sparring. A way to create community but mostly for the purpose of even having female sparring partners because so many of us were isolated in our various gyms. One woman my size was never there even though her teammates sometimes came. I found out much later she was forbidden from participating by her coaches because they thought she and I would eventually fight and therefore we couldn’t possibly train together. We never fought.
Saya and I were once actual competitors in the ring and it’s possible that we will be again. But we’re not in competition with one another as persons. In fact, I see it as that we’re in this together. I know, first hand, how hard it is to learn clinch as a woman. My advantage – and Jee Jaa’s advantage – over anyone I’ve ever beat in a fight is the clinch. Saya clearly came to O. Meekhun gym to work on this part of her Muay Thai and it seems absolutely ridiculous for me to reason that I ought not to work with her because we might ever face each other in the ring again. If we don’t ever fight again, I’d feel like such an ass for withholding the chance for each of us to improve one another when we trained side-by-side; and if we do fight again I want to fight the best Saya possible.
The Price of Competition – Hording Edges
The second time that Saya came to O. Meekhun, Sangwean had us clinch together almost immediately. It was interesting to climb into the ring with her and make physical contact again after probably 7 months since our fight. It felt quite different to lock up with her in a training scenario, which is unlike a fight in so many ways. But Saya trains “soft” as well, so you won’t know from feeling her kind of gentle and gummy training mode that she can throw with bad intentions and power when she gets into fight mode. But as we clinched together I could feel that I was even more dominant in the clinch now than I was 7 months ago when we fought. I would let her get stuck in a lock a few times before showing her one way to avoid it. She’d nod and thank me, then try the block or escape. I’d show her again, not so much “moves” as general technical positions that make the posture of clinching more successful – keeping the hips in, the head down but not bent over, grabbing higher on the head, keeping your elbows forward as a malleable block, etc. All of these things will make Saya a better clincher and all of them take countless hours of repetition practice to actually learn. And that’s the real advantage I have over Saya, and that Jee Jaa has over me and everybody else: it’s the hours and hours of practice under pressure. Me showing Saya one or two “tricks” doesn’t do much, but spending 30-60 minutes every evening in the clinch with her makes a huge difference. And that’s the gift I have from Jee Jaa, and that she has from me, is actually standing in the ring together and working. Even if I don’t explain a single thing to Saya, just making contact with her helps her get better. If I were to explain a simple trick and then refuse to work with her, it would be useless.
In general, women are behind the ball when it comes to the breadth of knowledge and skill within martial arts that the best men have. That’s because we have so many disadvantages in actually acquiring and being able to practice the same things that men have access to without ever having to ask. Fighters like Phetjee Jaa aren’t so astoundingly good because they train with men; they’re astoundingly good because like men they were given access and hours to work on and hone their skills. That’s the best thing we can offer to one another as women: time and contact.
I follow female fighters in Japan with interest. Of those I pay close attention to, none of them has much of a clinch game. Saya’s real competition pool is in Japan and if she learns even just a little clinch, she’ll have an advantage. I want her to have that. And if she’s generous with other women, she’ll share that advantage with others and then work harder to stay at the front… not by keeping it secret or closing others out. We as women cannot afford to hoard the small advantages we may have. The saying goes that a rising tide lifts all boats and by offering ourselves to each other and raising competition as a concept, rather than breaking it down to the individual persons that are competitors, we can raise the level all around.
One reason I started teaching Jee Jaa and Mawin English was because, in the global market sense, it will open doors for them. English language is a tool, but what you actually say is entirely different. It’s the same with Muay Thai. Sharing the techniques and working with one another to acquire proficiency in the language of movement is one thing, and how we actually use it is another. When we compete we’re speaking to one another, debating perhaps; winning a debate by having refused to teach your opponent crucial vocabulary is pretty lame. I’m grateful to all the women who have worked with me, who simply for the sake of also being women are my competition – the women who have determined that even if it’s only the first one to cross the finish line who wins, for the duration of the race we’re running together. So let’s run together.
Far From Home
Saya speaks a little bit of Thai, but mostly only numbers. This means she can be directed to knee the bag 1,000 times but there’s struggle in comprehending any verbal explanation for how to do it. This is a complicating factor in learning clinch, which is so much about feeling out the balance, dangers, movements of your own body and your partner. I could point to my hips and move them back the way she had them, make the “no, no” sign with my hand and then push them forward to how they ought to be and get her, “ka!” to show understanding. But I couldn’t explain the reasons or call out to her while she was clinching with Jee Jaa that her hips had moved; I’d have to wait my turn and then physically demonstrate again. When Sangwean gives instructions he does a great job of physically mimicking what he wants you to do, but it comes with a long (often funny) verbal explanation that includes why what you were doing was wrong and he’ll physically demonstrate the wrong way as well. So, if you don’t comprehend that he’s giving you two examples, one right and one wrong, or if you pay too much attention to the verbal part and miss the physical demonstration you might be very lost. Nobody here speaks Japanese – at all – so anything Saya doesn’t understand has no backup explanation. When I don’t understand something there’s always the staccato version of single-word English to help me out, “no!”, “this better,” etc. Saya doesn’t have that; she doesn’t speak English either, so there’s literally no default. One time, Jee Jaa had been pushing Saya around in clinch and kept grabbing her neck and yanking on it, not fully executing the move but just almost shaking Saya’s whole body through her neck in a demonstration that “this is bad” rather than actually pulling her head down and finishing her, as Jee Jaa would do in a fight. Finally, frustrated by Saya’s “soft” training style, Jee Jaa offered a little advice or maybe even a command about firming up, saying, “Sai-ya, tam keng (make firm).” Saya nodded and nothing changed. She was trying to be agreeable but had no idea what Jee Jaa had just said. It’s conceptual; it’s not numbers.
And Saya showed up without any trainer, no coach or friend or family member. It’s just her, left at the camp to be trained and fed and sheltered – and she’s 16. The photos she shares on her Facebook page clearly indicate that bonding did occur, and I can attest to it myself in what I witnessed in seeing her at the gym, but there’s just so much quiet distance surrounding any points of connection. Her second time training at O. Meekhun Saya was housed with another female training there, Lucerne from Australia. This was in Lucerne’s tiny apartment, the two of them sharing a bed but sharing no common communication tools. There was no TV, but perhaps enough Wifi for them to have internet on the phones? I asked Lucerne how that was going and she laughed, saying, “there’s just a lot of silence.” After a week though, Lucerne was saying single words of Japanese to Saya – like the word for “cute” when we took a photo together – and they seemed to share a bond when both standing together at the single water bucket for the gym. It’s the same training so far from home: even if you can’t understand each other; even when there’s so much silence, you’re doing the same thing as everyone else: you’re all training together. The pad goes up and you hit it; you get called into the ring and you clinch; you get put on the bag with a number you understand and you count out the knees or kicks in whatever language is in your head until you’re finished. It’s the language of Muay Thai.
And maybe that’s what allows a 16-year-old to travel alone to a family camp set up in a field, with no connection other than the training itself. That’s what allows Saya and I – two former and perhaps even future opponents – to share a space together as friends, trying to make each other better. What we have in common is the desire to get better and that’s what training is.
[Update 4/6: Looks like Saya won it in the clinch]