I watched a documentary on YouTube last night on the subject of Muay Thai, “Born to Fight.” At one point the owner/manager of the “most famous gym in Thailand” (according to the video), said one can learn Muay Thai as an art or as an occupation. Because of my nationality and gender, I do not experience this divide in the way that young Thai boys do when they go to learn Muay Thai. But I do understand the difference. And maybe because of my situation, I find that I am challenged particularly by trying to accomplish both of these roles in the singular performance of my fights. I do not fight for money, but being a fighter is a large part of my identity and bringing the art and beauty of Muay Thai to the ring is my greatest hope – beyond winning.
My experience in fights is greatly influenced by this goal. I have never felt very accomplished after a fight. Stepping out of the ring, I have just experienced a pure and undiluted dose of Muay Thai in a matter of 6 minutes. You can train for hours every day for a year and never learn as much about yourself as you do in those 6 minutes. I had suspected as much when I first decided to fight, feeling that one could not really know the art of Muay Thai without being pressured in a fight – hitting pads is one thing, hitting a fighter who hits you back is something else. And what I did not consider was what that reflection might look like when you are faced with yourself in the ring. It’s not flattering – not yet anyway. All I see are mistakes when I first step out of the ring. Everything I failed to do and all the ways I failed my teachers floods me. This sounds incredibly negative, but it forces me to confront my weakness. There are positives too, I just don’t see them at this proximity to a fight. And it’s independent of victory or defeat – I feel this way even if I win because never have I performed the way I want to – not yet, anyway.
A lot of fighters get nervous. I don’t. This is not necessarily a function of confidence on my part; it’s simply that I know that I’ve put in the work, I’ve trained for this and there’s nothing else to do before getting in that ring. There’s no turning back; I feel this more when my hands are wrapped. Once those wraps go on, I’m calm. This has only been the case since I fought in Thailand, where there is so much ceremony leading up to the fight. These preparations protract the fight itself. You’re already doing Muay Thai before you get in the ring. This, among many other things, is a big reason why I will never fight without the Ram Muay.
The wraps feel amazing. Cloth wraps for practice feel nothing like the gauze wraps for a fight. Your hands actually become something else in fight wraps – bones and knuckles awaken to an awareness all their own and the “packing” of the fist (slamming the palm against the knuckles to flatten the gauze) makes me itch to punch.
The nam mun muay (boxing oil) is peppery and it burns when it goes on your skin. The massage is to get the blood flowing, so the heat takes over your whole body and your skin comes alive. By this point my muscles are loose and reactive and shadow boxing blows cold air over hot skin as I move around. And I sweat, beads running down my back and freckling on my arms.
Standing at the edge of the staging room is intense. You’re “on deck” so to speak, next in line and there’s nothing to do now but stand there until your name is announced and then you walk, not feeling your body at all – light as air – up to the ring while the crowd disappears beyond the bright lights of the ring. The ring feels huge – bigger than you remember – and your corner never feels like the right one. The music starts and you bow into your corner, shutting off everything but yourself, sealing off the ring so that there’s only you and your opponent inside those ropes. You don’t feel the eyes on you and you can’t see out anyway; it’s just the ring.
Facing your opponent in the center of the ring for the ref spiel is bizarre. You’re listening, almost mouthing the words along with him and you look at your opponent who may or may not be looking at you. There might be smiles, maybe not – the transformation isn’t there yet for either of you. But when you come out of your corner and your gloves meet to start the match, there is a sudden flip when the person in front of you simply becomes an element – like fire, maybe. How do you battle fire? You forget everything; you have a plan and it’s totally bogus now because she’s not playing along and everything you do happens before you command it and your mind can only grasp it after it’s happened, “I just kicked” rather than “kick now!” And if you try to reverse it, telling your body to do something, it ignores you – you haven’t learned this part yet.
Between rounds you sit in your corner, listening to your coach’s voice as if through cotton – you hear it and you understand it and when you come out for round two, you’re calmer, maybe even faster. But you’re alone. Your corner can tell you things you didn’t notice, that your opponent is always stepping left or that she’s responding to your leg kicks, but they aren’t in there with you. It’s just you. And really, it’s not even you. The fight is something beyond you or your opponent, something you are creating together and it either expresses your strength or your weakness and you struggle to shift the emphasis to your strength while emphasizing your opponent’s weakness.
There isn’t pain in the ring. The first time I fought without gear in Thailand I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle being kicked in the shin. This hurts so bad even with shin-pads on in practice, I thought it would end the fight. But you don’t feel it; not in the ring. Afterward you feel everything, things you didn’t think would hurt creep into your body and curl up for days. But in the ring it doesn’t matter. You get hit and it takes your fear away of being hit again. The whole fight is a progressive reduction of fear – there is nothing else in my world that is like this. For this last fight, during the blessing by the monk at the Thai temple, I prayed for help to respect my opponent all the way through the fight. I always respect my opponents going into the ring and coming back out, but in the ring you can underestimate people. And if you fear someone, you don’t respect them. To maintain respect for my opponent all the way through the fight means to meet her without fear and to see her for her strengths and her weaknesses.
After the fight the wraps are cut off, their magic already completely drained. I don’t feel my body and my mind is full. The fight is so short – it feels like you’ve been robbed of time because there wasn’t a chance to correct all the things you see now. It’s over and there’s no going back, no correction, no more chances. All that disappointment sinks in and it makes you antsy to get up, to get back to training, to improve and move. You don’t want rest, you want redemption… even if you won. But there’s the trick of it. No matter how short the fight, no matter how poorly you think you did and no matter how many things you wish you could do over, you’re already somebody else. You never step out of the ring the same fighter you were when you stepped in. And no matter the outcome, you’re always better. Always. Even if you can’t feel a thing.