Sometimes you have bad days. It’s just an inevitability of spending hours upon hours of doing something. Thing is, it wasn’t that I was “off” in terms of my movements; instead I was unable to understand what was being asked and allowed my frustration to get the better of me. I was on the verge of tears for a good stretch of my work with Sakmongkol and he tried to explain to me, with success, that he’s going to be hard on me in training. He’s going to yell at me and be critical – he emphasized this by pantomiming a backhand slap with a stern face – because “I want you good!” he said. He pointed to another American man outside the ring and said, “he 56 years old,” then he put his hands up against his face in a wai, the Thai gesture of showing respect. “But when I train him, in the ring, I the trainer,” then he did the backhand again. “After, friends,” he said. I get exactly what he means. Thai culture is incredibly hierarchical – endlessly so – and this guy being 56 years old means that his status is higher than Sakmongkol’s, who is only 40 years old. He’s changing status when they step in the ring, pulling rank as the trainer and not deferring to his elder because his job is to correct and improve. Don’t drop your damn hands or you’ll get hit. But then outside the ring, outside of that power exchange, everything goes back to normal. They’re friends, equals, or staggered according to age.
I told him I understand. I’m not upset that he’s being firm with me because I know that it’s for my improvement. What was getting to me, I think, was that I respond well to being told what is wanted from me but I don’t deal well with being told what not to do. Obviously this is a problem of mine because there has to be a balance between these to sides of instruction. I struggle with the latter because I feel that I’m causing my trainer frustration, or that I’m disappointing him. He wanted me to kick him harder in our free-form sparring. He was wearing one shinguard, I wasn’t wearing any padding at all – no gloves, no shinguards… nothing. I fight without shinguards and that’s no problem. In a fight the adrenaline takes care of any pain, in training that’s not so much the case. Plus, Sakmongkol hurts; his body hurts. I tried to explain I wasn’t worried about hurting him, that the problem is that by kicking him it is hurting me. That didn’t come across. He was more concerned about my energy, I think. He wants me to see openings and attack them, then attack again if that strike lands as it should. It’s simple but it’s difficult. He’s trying to draw me away from the “button masher” style that I have now – you know, when you play videogames and don’t know any of the “combos” so you just hit all the buttons in a flurry and hope for the best, sometimes with great success – and change me into a deliberate, calm, mean fighter. I want that, too. But trying to get there means walking through a lot of mistakes first.
When we were done with our private I grabbed my towel and scurried down the stairs to the women’s locker room and had a quick cry. I just lost it. It’s not necessarily anything that happened so much as it was feeling strangled by my own frustration. It’s the same tension that my trainers, beginning with Master K, have always complained about. It doesn’t bother me so much. I mean, I want to relax and be a relaxed, smooth fighter but I’m not bothered by my tension the way my trainers are because I can fight through it. It’s like a scar that I forget about because it’s on my face but everybody who looks at me is constantly confronted with it. But sometimes I become aware of it. Sometimes that tension just chokes me up, I guess. I’ve written before about how crying is good and I don’t think it’s a problem other than how it might be interpreted by my trainers and Thai trainers particularly. That’s why you bring that nonsense to the bathroom – like an adult. I told myself it was okay, these are just growing pains. I’m just learning.
After maybe 10 minutes I came back upstairs and had some padwork with Mong. He just wanted me to move, pick my own shots and put it together myself. It’s like language: you learn words but you can’t just speak in the same phrases over and over again if you want to actually learn how to express yourself. It’s not fluency unless your pulling the words together as they come to you. Same with Muay Thai – I know all the moves but Sakmongkol wants me to be able to converse. It went well. It could have gone better, mentally.
As I was working the bag two young American guys came in and Sakmongkol and Mutt (the other Thai trainer) called them into the ring. They’re both well trained and were comfortable and at times impressive in padwork, but one of them was spent within two rounds and started taking keeled-over breathers in the corner for long stretches in each subsequent round. He looked fit so I just assumed he’s a smoker. I see this a lot up at Lanna. When they were finished and I had peeled myself off the bag from my clinch knee work to do my shadow blocks, Mutt was sitting in the corner of the ring and Mong was inspecting me as he leaned against the ropes. I walked up to Mong and told him in Thai, “You tell me I train too much. That Falang was spent after two rounds – two rounds,” then I pretended to peer around Mong to see the clock behind him, “- and I’m three hours in and still strong.” I paused for a moment, then grinned and said, “I train too much, eh?” Mutt laughed with glee and then looked at Mong, smirking, to see his response. Mong looked at me with surprise, a long pause, then his tagline, “up to you!”
However, when I climbed into the ring for my shadow cool-down I went for my usual 15 minutes and then stopped. Mong is usually waving his hands at me and telling me to stop for the day by this time, but he was leaning with his back against the ropes, watching me. He looked at me sternly, then said, po laeow พอแล้ว – “enough already” – with a question in his voice. Like, “oh, are you done now?” He was responding to my challenge about training hard. He did explain to me with that last shadow work what he’s trying to do with me. He gave me the Thai word and asked me what it is in English: fee meuu ฝีมือ. I’ve never heard this before so I didn’t know what the concept was, let alone what it might be in English. Both Mong and Mutt demonstrated, basically the same thing Mong has been asking me to do for a week: relaxed but quick backwards fighting. I shrugged, unsure. Mong held his hands up, palms facing each other about 6 inches apart. He pointed to one palm with the opposite index finger, “fighter,” he said, then pointed to the other palm and looked at me questioningly. “I don’t know, the opposite of a fighter?” He shook his head, then indicated each palm again, saying for each, “man… woman.” I nodded, “yeah, opposites. I don’t know what the opposite of a fighter is.” I laughed internally because we have the “lover not a fighter” phrase in English but that’s not what he meant. He then pantomimed a brawler, someone just swinging like crazy, then went back to his cool, slick, calm and relaxed technical fighting. I offered him a “boxer” versus a “brawler,” showing that one is technical and cunning and the other is brutish and aggressive. I nodded enthusiastically, “yes, what in English?” We don’t really have a word for what he meant. He found that amazing, that there wasn’t a word for it in English. It’s what trainers call to their fighters in the fifth round when they’re already winning and they can just “dance” the rest of the fight. Just back up and defend, be stylish, skillful. “Like Mayweather,” he offered. So I moved around the ring like I was just mocking someone coming at me, just dodging, teeping, slipping. Being cocky, basically. Mong gave approving cheers as I went. I asked him what is “cocky” in Thai. He laughed and did an imitation of cocky, which wasn’t quite right – more arrogant it seemed – but he said aat อาด, which my dictionary lists as “bold,” but that’s close enough. I can imitate that. I think we got somewhere in those last 20 minutes.
Finally he said to me that next time he wants me to take over in the last 30 seconds of every round, the final sprint. “Three minutes my style,” he said, one hand extended out as if holding a ball, “30 seconds your style,” he continued, holding the other hand out the same way. Then he brought his hands together as if sticking two pieces of clay together to form one ball. Or, you know, one fighter.
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.