We arranged a private session for clinch instruction just before regular afternoon training today. I wasn’t in a good mood entering the gym, which is unfortunate because my attitude and how I’m “read” by trainers is a significant factor in how my training goes, not just on any given day but how it develops as well.
I warmed up with shadowboxing and after a while Sakmongkol called me into the ring. He checked with me three separate times that it was clinching we were working on. We’ve worked clinch before – in fact, that’s what my training in Colorado was, almost exclusively – but here in Thailand it seems a bit different. He doesn’t have a problem with it and when we actually got to work he didn’t have any kind of awkwardness or limitations, but it was interesting to note the difference between the “no problem… easy!” response to asking for clinch in Colorado (i.e. in the West) and the response here after four days already of training.
His instruction is just phenomenal though. Immediately my mood lifted because I was having so much fun. He had watched a few rounds from various fights of mine that I sent him the night before and when he was done making fun of me for my crappy style he dove straight in to correcting it. He’s brilliant at creating the perfect “temperature” for development and growth in training because he causes me just enough pressure to be uncomfortable but not fully overwhelmed. I can make choices instead of simply responding. And even though he’s much larger than I am, which usually makes clinching pretty difficult to experiment with, he found ways to force me to find a way out or respond to the pressure in a way that wasn’t simply about size. I actually dropped him, twice, with a knee to the inner-thigh and a firm twist up top. He didn’t fall for effect, he actually made his surprised grunt and rolled on the ground. I could get my face bashed in for the rest of the day and still be proud of myself for those throws.
Mong wants me to back up a lot because I’m small but I keep telling him that the women I fight are also small (even when they’re bigger than I am), so their game is to back up. I’m usually the one going forward. So he backed up and had me put him into the ropes or the corners and attack with the clinch there. It was incredibly fun. I’m super nervous kicking in sparring without shinpads, which is maybe silly because I kick in fights without them and don’t care. But the adrenaline of fights takes care of the pain of clashing against bones and, quite frankly, none of my opponents are made of steel the way fighters like Mong are. So I was pulling kicks in a way that made me off balance, but my punches and knees were strong and after clocking him a few times in the head he got excited and jumped out of the ring to put gloves on himself. (I think he wanted to hit me back and realized he couldn’t without the gloves, coupled with wanting a bit more protection for his own guard by wearing the gear.) He told me to relax, which I know already – you can’t “muscle” your way through clinch; it’s relax, relax, burst of movement, relax, relax, etc. He showed me how you can just wear an opponent down with steady, relaxed pressure. Like a boa constrictor. It was glorious, the semi-sparring and clinch-work mixed together. If I felt like that in fights I would be killing my opponents. Just crushing them.
Afterwards I could tell Sakmongkol was tired. He jokingly asked if I wanted padwork and I said yes, which surprised him. He looked at me for a moment, then smiled and said, “okay, but I not teach you,” meaning he wants me to work on what we learned yesterday and improvise movements for myself, rather than responding to what he’s asking for. It went well. I was pivoting and driving him backwards at times. He was getting legitimately excited, how fighters get when the fight energy strikes them. Master K is still like this – he misses the fight like a caged tiger misses the jungle. Such good work; all of it.
I hit the bag for the rest of training, working on the kick-to-block we worked on yesterday. Then I took off my wraps and did some clinch knees on the bag, the way Mong taught me the other day. He showed me how to push the bag away from me, like throwing an opponent off when you’re tired and don’t want to clinch, then teep and punch in combinations before grabbing for the clinch and throwing the crazy jumping knees. Mong was surprised and a little horrified (maybe) when I told him I had to do a few rounds on the bag like this. He had told me to call it a day already. His wife works the front desk and told Sakmongkol that I’ve been coming in during mornings to train myself, which he also brought up as being “too much.” (To be clear, there’s a mistranslation that sometimes occurs between Thai and English where the Thai (yer yer) really means “so much,” rather than the negative connotation of the English “too much,” which in Thai is gern bai. So I’m not sure which he means because he’s speaking English.) We tried to explain that this is normal, that all of Thailand trains twice per day in regular Thai camps, which he remembers from his youth. I think he’s removed from that kind of training, having spent over a year in the US and however many years at this gym with its other structure. Kevin said, “Sylvie loves Muay Thai,” and Mong threw his arms up in the air, exclaiming, “I know, I know! Before, I train like this.” He was talking to Kevin when he said it, but he was looking at me. “I never see before,” he said, “in the west women not train like this.” [paraphrased] I laughed at the time because I have heard this before from people who meet me at gyms in Thailand. My friend Frankie who I met at Lanna says she has never met anybody with my passion and that only Iman Barlow matches my cardio. It’s a high compliment. But what’s so interesting to me about what Sakmongkol is saying and what he finds so surprising about me is that it’s the intersection of my being western and being a woman. If I were a man, maybe it would just be impressive that I work hard; I’d be “serious.” If I were Thai, I’d be doing what Thais do when they train.
It’s the same Thai sexism that I come up against anywhere (including Master K’s basement), that women are not “real” Nakmuay in a sense; we’re always imitating in some way. Northern Thailand traditions keep me out of the Men’s Ring at the gym and there’s a recurring wall I face that no matter how many times I fight, no matter how dedicated I am to training, I will never be a man so my potential is fundamentally limited. This is the same sexism that causes Sakmongkol to stand agape when I outwork everybody he’s seen in his gyms over the past few years and indeed it’s that he’s never seen a woman train like this, but his interpretation falls short of ascribing a limitation. Who knows for sure how far these thoughts and considerations go for him, but in what he’s expressing to me the limitation is in what he’s seen before, not what is possible for me.
As I was saying goodbye to head downstairs for my run Sakmongkol looked at me with a little glint in his eye and asked, “Sylvie, tomorrow gan mueh,” which I didn’t understand until he clarified “rematch.” He meant more clinching and sparring. I grinned and nodded, then added chan chanah nae non! (“I win for sure.”) To which Sakmongkol let out a joyous laugh and gave me two, TWO thumbs up and a strong, “good!”
Instructional Sparring and Clinch:
Freeform: He said “like a fight,” I can hit anywhere below the neck:
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.