Wrapped and Oiled, Ready to Fight
I was standing on the mat looking attentively at a fight in the ring. It was between two little girls, one of whom reminded me so much of a mini-Phetjee Jaa. I was the fight after next, and a man from this little girl’s gym had agreed to corner for me, a task he agreed to immediately when I explained that nobody from my gym had come with me to the fights. I had approached them a few hours ago, having scanned the crowd for a reasonable person to ask; when I saw a female fighter (although she was about 8 years old) I reckoned that was a good group to ask and this guy willingly volunteered. Turns out that he’s the uncle (น้า) of Sawsing, probably the most famous and accomplished female fighter in Thailand. (He actually mistook me for the other Sylvie (Charbonneau) and told me I’d fought Sawsing before (Sylvie did, when Sawsing was much younger) and I had to explain that it wasn’t me, even though we look similar.) It is just amazing the kind of connections found in a stadium of tin sheeting and bleachers that’s put up just for the monthly occasion, 50+ fighters getting ready at the outer edge and behind the stands. The crowd was roaring, the voices bounding off of the tin.
I’ve already written about the Muay Thai side bet in Thailand: The 80% Fight: A Hidden Story Behind Western/Thai Matchups this is something of a follow up on that post.
It was loud but I was in my head space, ready to fight. But man in a King’s Yellow shirt and carrying a clipboard came up to me and told me to take off my handwraps. I know he’s an official of some kind – they all wear this same shirt and the clipboard has the fight card with all the bygone matches crossed out. I look at him with puzzlement and hear distinctly the words mai soo (“no fight”). It took several rounds of back and forth but I did understand that my opponent had already left the stadium – like, gone. No fight. After waiting for three hours to fight, even wrapping my own hands, it was over.
I was totally frustrated. I’d even seen my opponent and stood next to her a couple hours ago when she first arrived. Often when fighters haven’t met before their two gyms will have them stand shoulder-to-shoulder and everyone makes noises and complaints about relative size (even in really close matches – you have to complain, it’s like haggling) and then heads begin to nod, hands are shaken and the fight is on. This happened with the two of us. She was a bit taller than I am, but she was also wearing shoes. We were close in size and we all agreed to the match up. Shortly after this two men who had remembered me from my last fight up here asked me excitedly about the derm pan (“side bet”), which was listed on the program at 40,000 Baht. That’s a medium sized bet, but the third largest on the program. I was also a co-main event. Pi Nu had never mentioned anything about the side bet and I don’t carry around (or have) 40,000 Baht for gambling, so I told them I didn’t have it. They seemed to be weighing whether or not they were going to add to the derm pan – it’s a good bet because it’s double-or-nothing, so you aren’t playing the odds. But even without the derm pan they both said they were going to len (“play” or gamble) on me. Fast forward a couple hours to when I’ve been told my opponent left the stadium already and I’m trying to understand why. As soon as the guy with the yellow shirt and clipboard tells me there’s no fight I launched myself into the crowd to find this gambler and ask for his help. There was a group of Thais around me, all trying to explain the situation. They said she didn’t want to fight because there was no derm pan and so there’s no reason to “get hurt” for nothing – that’s what this lady who thought she spoke some English was telling me, in Thai, but she kept saying in English, “Okay, okay, no boxing.” That confused me. I thought she was saying okay to the fight but that I wasn’t allowed to punch her so she wouldn’t be hurt. But she was just literally translating muay to be boxing and was saying not to worry, that there was no fight and the promoter told me he’d still give me my fight purse, even though I wasn’t fighting. That’s best case scenario for most Thai fighters – you get paid but don’t have to work, sweet deal!
I wanted to fight first and foremost. I asked the promoter, “Is there anyone here I can fight?” These stadia are often filled with active fighters, in fact later that night I saw Namdan (“Sugar”) walking around, probably the 2nd most famous female fighter in Thailand, at about 60 kg… that would have been an interesting fight. He pointed to this 65+ kg girl, overweight, in the bleachers who was staring at our little group conversation. I smiled at her and she emphatically shook her head “no fucking way” to the promoter. So, that was that. No fight.
This is a really interesting aspect in telling the “side bet” story in Thailand. As I wrote in the 80% fight post the side bet, derm pan in Thai, is the foundation of a legitimate fight outside of big stadium fights (and is always part of big stadium fights as well). As much as people bemoan the influence gambling has had on top stadia Muay Thai, it is actually the side bet that confirms that a fight is (very likely) 100% real. It lets other gamblers who will bet on the fight in shifting odds during the rounds know that each side is trying their hardest and that something substantial is at stake. Frances Watthanaya wrote about the importance of the side bet in Isaan, even stating that, in Isaan, if there is no side bet then often there is no fight. This is something she told me as well when I fought up there with her former gym, but in fact more than one of my fights in Isaan, arranged through her, did not have side bets and this did not seem unheard of. In fact I’ve also seen Phetjee Jaa go from a very large side bet to no side bet in provincial fights when the opponent turned out to be much larger than advertized. (In side bets I’ve encountered you don’t actually put any money into the hands of a middle-man until minutes before a fight; unless the sums are very large – upward of 100,000 Baht – and then you might have had to put money down earlier as a kind of “guarantee”; if you pull out or don’t make weight you lose that money.) There are fights without side bets in the provinces, but at the very least we have to say that the presence or absence of a side bet, or the size of a side bet, radically changes the meaning of a fight. And in the case of my last fight, if a fight would even happen.
I ended up at this event alone because the other fighter from my gym, little phenom Jozef, is temporarily unable to fight due to an infection. Under normal circumstances – meaning if it were any fighter other than me – Pi Nu would have just cancelled both fighters, but he knows I want the fight. Nobody from the gym could come with me because my corner, Mod Ek, doesn’t have a car and we’d be coming down from another fight in Chiang Mai so we couldn’t drive him from Pattaya. So Pi Nu told me I could just try to find a corner at the venue, which means it’s not unheard of to do so. I didn’t have a problem with any of this, but the side bet issue – as it appeared – put my side at fault. If you say you’re going to bet and then show up with no money, you’re the jerk. Pi Nu later claimed to me that nobody told him about it, that the promoter never mentioned a derm pan. It is the case that promoters like to put big side bet numbers on programs because it looks good, whets the appetites of gamblers and legitimizes fights. Jozef was also on the card – he’s a big draw – even though the promoter had known for over a week that he wasn’t able to fight, so there were definitely elements of deception and inaccuracy involved on the program. It is extremely hard to penetrate realities around these kinds of things because the game of booking fights is one of continued shifts in negotiation as each party tries to get the edge. Various different things will be denied, invented and demanded. It’s all a game of infighting by gyms and promoters, and it seems like getting the circumstances surrounding fights in your favor is almost more important than winning the fight. It goes to saving face and making reputation.
The tactic of making a decision about a derm pan on the spot in a match up is seldom in my favor. When fighters are put shoulder to shoulder there are experienced fighters who know how to shrink themselves with baggy clothing and a slouch. I’m not one of those, but I do always try to wear sleeves if I’m going to be sized up because my upper body is unusual for a female fighter. Thai women though can expertly hide some fucking massive legs. Opponents when they get in the ring somehow look inexplicably larger than they did when they stood next to me a few hours ago, slumped down. In this case delay in canceling the fight leads me to think that maybe the camp decided they just didn’t want to fight me and used the derm pan as an excuse. They’d agreed when we stood side by side with our street clothes on, but once my shirt comes off for oil and massage things can change fast. Gamblers start staring at my body, which looks like no Thai female fighter anywhere. I’ve fought in this stadium (Ban Sang Market) before, just outside of Ayutthaya city, and it was a very quick end of a fight against a strong girl who was much bigger than I. There were gamblers who remembered me from that previous fight, and gamblers talk to each other. It seems like in the intervening hours my opponent, perhaps based on someone seeing me with my T-shirt off, or hearing intel on my previous fight or whatever else, decided the fight was not worth it. They had brought the 40,000 baht, I assume, but given how I look, maybe my growing reputation of being a “hard” Muay Khao fighter, it just wasn’t worth it to fight without the side bet.
It is difficult to tell exactly what the thinking was there: were they willing to maybe lose 40,000 baht on the chance she could knock me out for a big payday but unwilling to have low risk, low reward for just the fight purse and a hard fight? Did they take the lack of side bet as an exit excuse, or were they genuinely offended by the change in terms? My opponent’s fight name suggests she’s from Ubon, equidistant to my trip down from Chiang Mai which for me had just been a 7 hour drive. Had she traveled far for this fight? In which case, how is the cost of coming down off-set by not even fighting for a purse? In Chiang Mai last month I’d fought with a side bet of 10,000 Baht and my opponent had driven one hour from Lampang. My corner teased the opponent’s mother/manager by saying he’d “forgotten” the money and she immediately went white, saying they’d all only come out for the side bet. But that’s only one hour of driving home if you refuse to fight. Had the promoter simply engineered this matchup without anyone knowing the real terms? Telling one side there was a derm pan to draw them and just assuming my side would agree because generally our gym fights with side bets? I do concede the possibility that Pi Nu just said he’d never heard about the derm pan to save face in this situation – he also has not been on great terms with this promoter because he’s fooled Pi Nu before, switching opponents at last minute. That happened to both me and Jozef at our last fight at this show. So maybe Pi Nu didn’t care that the promoter lost face about the derm pan but felt bad for me, so said he’d never heard about it. I don’t really know. But he thinks the idea of refusing a fight at this kind of stadium because there’s no side bet is ridiculous. After I’d talked to him about it he kept teasing me during padwork, saying, “this girl must be very famous; she must be really, really good because she won’t fight without derm pan. Sylvie, she must be a celebrity. Did you get a picture with her?” He’s quite funny.
Why Muay Thai in Thailand is Like Poker
These are the mysteries of fight negotiations. But I want to use an analogy here to present a broader picture. Professional Muay Thai fighting in Thailand is like real life games of poker. Whether it is a high stakes professional poker match or a neighborhood game, you don’t play poker without money in the pot. You have to ante up, and you have to gamble to be in the game. It’s the very nature of poker. When we in the west come to poker schools (Muay Thai gyms) and then want to play in poker games (fights) we still generally aren’t part of professional poker in Thailand. Yes, there is tourist poker, which is to say Muay Thai fights that go on in stadia in Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya, and some places in Bangkok, where there is no real money at stake, and games are played with empty chips for the purpose of selling tickets to foreigners. But this isn’t real poker. “Real poker” is between fighters who have been backed or banked by gyms or supporters. When my fight in Ban Sang went from being a game of poker with 40,000 baht on the line to being a game just played with plastic chips it was no longer attractive to my opponent. It could be that she just backed out and used the money as an excuse, or as leverage with the promoter for future negotiations (he still gave me my fight money, which means he didn’t see me in the wrong in this case), but the change in the fight was radical. Gamblers in the stadium thought the fight was going to go on. They seemed excited by it, but the meaning of the fight did not suit my opponent any longer.
So when I tell Pi Nu at Petchrungruang that I want to fight, please find me fights, I’m asking something more of him than just, “find me an opponent and let’s just fight at the local stadium in Pattaya.” That isn’t how real poker is played. Women here don’t fight for plastic chips unless there is a reason to. In non side bet cases maybe they are a part of a tourist Muay Thai circuit and that is just their job, more or less, to fight farang. It’s like punching a time clock and there are no big stakes to winning or losing. Or maybe there is a belt on the line, 0r reputation of some kind. Perhaps they are testing the waters for a future big side bet fight. But my asking to have a fight in the real Muay Thai world is asking Pi Nu to not only bank roll me (place a side bet on me, which is what his uncle does as the sponsor of the gym), but also finding me an opponent who is willing to bet on themselves, substantially, against me. Pi Nu simply doesn’t travel in the world of female fighters; rather, he raises Lumpinee fighting boys, so this isn’t easy at all for him. He relies on others ancillary to the gym to make these kinds of connections. I seldom fight in Pattaya for this reason, even though I live 5 minutes’ drive from 3 different stadia (Pattaya Boxing World, Max Muay Thai and Thepprasit Stadium).
The only fights I’ve personally been able to book by putting down my own side bet have been in situations where the odds are dramatically stacked against me and with a long way to travel. (And the sums are significantly less than what Pi Nu’s uncle can put up.) They’ve been against two world champion level fighters a few weight classes above me, on their own home turf in Chiang Mai (Tanonchanok and Cherry). I’m sure each of them thought they were just taking candy from a baby with so many factors in their favor. I almost beat both of them in extremely close fights, but these are very long odds and I simply can’t keep taking these fights and losing that money. Instead I’m carefully walking the line of trying to find new promotions or locations where fighters have not heard too much about me (I’m fighting in Hua Hin this week, for instance), and so no side bet is required, while still trying to keep the side bet fights coming with both Petchrungruang and O. Meekhun. But it’s a delicate balance. If I fight and lose then people no longer enthusiastically want to bank roll me, and if I fight and win nobody my size wants to fight me. I have to then fight at weights larger than myself, which again skews the odds back against me. And this makes my backers less enthused about the matchup because weight is a big deal in side bet negotiations. It’s a dizzying circle.
A good example is that I’d love to rematch The Star again, who’s grown up here in Pattaya. She’s someone I’ve lost two close fights to when she was lighter, but she’s become heavier now, maybe 55 kg? And even though I think I have a good chance of beating her it is very hard to convince others that I can take this former world champion giving up 6+ kg, fighting her in her home town of Pattaya (which can influence judges because in Thailand relationships matter). Without a side bet its an easy fight to arrange. We just go at it and see what happens. You would think it’s no problem. We both risk injury, we both walk away with a modest ka dtua (maybe 2,000 baht, $60). But she doesn’t want to fight without a side bet. She wants to try and take somebody’s money. She’s been fighting since she was a little girl, that’s what professional Muay Thai fighting is about. That’s the game of Muay Thai.
So I keep pressing for new ways of finding matchups, and in the process uncovering the importance of the side bet. This last week was one more lesson in that. You just can’t play professional poker if you don’t have money on the table.