I am so, so sore today. That’s a good feeling in some ways and unpleasant in other, more obvious, ways. As I was shadowboxing and warming up before clinch training, Sakmongkol put on his bellypad, shinguards and slowly strapped Thai pads on to his forearms. This is unusual clinch attire, but as we actually began he told me to “do everything,” including clinch. It became evident in a short time that the focus was on transitioning into the clinch from strikes. If Master K were here he’d be shouting, “Finally! We need that one!” It’s difficult though. Moving smoothly from strikes into clinch requires a level of confidence and deliberateness that is generally lacking in my arsenal. So it’s really good that we’re working on it – it will absolutely make me a significantly better (and nastier) fighter – but first attempts on weaknesses are always frustrating. It was fun though.
He had me wear gloves, so I couldn’t grip with my fingers and between rounds he loves to douse himself in water, dumping a good portion over his head and letting it run down and soak into his shinpads, which then go sop, sop, slap when he kicks me with them. But it also makes him slippery and very hard to grip. Mong told me to be more deliberate, that once you grab on you are in control. He kept saying, “like Spiderman,” and then putting his palms up flat like a mime. “I don’t know in English,” he said, so I told him to say it in Thai, to which he laughed and said, “I don’t know! Spiderman!” He then stuck his hands to the wall and pretended to climb, like Spiderman. Nee-aow! he finally decided (“sticky”) and stuck his hands in various clinch positions on my neck, head and arms. Got it. The opposite of “slippery.”
Through my fatigue I was struggling to stay active and aggressive when I got him into the corner and he went passive, which is his way of indicating that I should finish it. Definitely a lot to work on there, but I was getting some good power and flurries at times. At one point he kicked me in the hip that he teeped me in yesterday and I let out a yelp, which caused him to yell and then rush me. I got crushed against the ropes and Mong threw flying knees, ultra-theatrically, while he shouted with delight. “Knock out!” he cheered (Thais always emphasize that second word) and I woke up and charged back after him, saying mirthfully, in Thai, “I eat sticky rice, cannot be knocked out.” First his eyes popped open wide, then he laughed and repeated “sticky rice” (khao nee-aow) – I wasn’t sure if he was unfamiliar with the North/Northeastern belief in sticky rice or if he was surprised that I am. Once, when he’d overwhelmed me and I kind of went passive, he asked if I wanted to stop for some water. I firmly said, “no” and he rushed me again, pinning me against the ropes with his thigh on a pulled flying knee. He wants me to be sure of things.
Transition Into Clinch
After our private session we sat in the corner of the ring for a bit, talking. He was stretched out on the canvas, tired but comfortable, and he, Kevin and I were talking about female Muay Thai fighters. Mong claimed that he does not like female fighters in Thailand. (Although this is not about women so much as about Thai women, since he seems to think “Falang women fighter better.”) He named a few who he’d read about in Muay Siam as being really good and then when he watched them he didn’t dig it; he made the funniest stink-face to demonstrate his response to watching Sawsing, who is one of the top and most visible female fighters in Thailand and who I like. When he imitated what he saw as her style it seemed as though his objection is to how female fighters (he was now talking about more than just Sawsing) perform in the ring, like the attitude performance. The thing is, I remember Emma Thomas of “Under the Ropes” mentioning that Dieselnoi, who hangs out and trains with them at Master Toddy’s Bangkok Gym sometimes, was complaining about another top female fighter (perhaps the top fighter, according to Muay Siam) that she only throws one side, that she’s really only one kick. Some of the women I fight (and have lost to) are this same way; it works, even if it’s not stylish. What’s interesting about both Sakmongkol and Dieselnoi’s different complaints (and I don’t reckon either of them sit around watching a great deal of female fights, so these are based on singular or at least minimal impressions) is that they’re comparing female fighters to male fighters. Muay Thai is the performance of Thai masculinity, so female fighters who imitate it aren’t “passing” and female fighters who perform a different attitude are not performing according to Muay Thai aesthetic. And that affects technique and style as well. I was determined to find a Thai female who Sakmongkol likes – most of the names I listed he simply had never heard of – but when I named my favorite female fighter, Phetjee Jaa O. Mee Khun he immediately conceded. “Ah, Phetjee Jaa good!” he said, giving a strong thumbs up, “Muay Thai good, strong!”
Padwork was a lot of footwork and cutting angles. After four rounds he pulled off my gloves and had me shadowbox. I did my best to do as he’s shown me many times now with relaxed, springy movements. He let me go for two rounds before telling me to put my gloves back on and we did two more rounds. He wanted me to be more deliberate. Midway through the round he cut off the other trainer and westerner in the ring by standing in front of me, like creating a little sound barrier. “Watch him,” he said to me, “I no want you move like him.” I peered around Mong’s looming frame and saw that the westerner was standing still other than launching power shots, but he was always tense in the way that I’m tense. “Slow OK,” Mong said, “look, see, go!” He meant it’s not about speed, I don’t have to rush, but when I move for a strike it should be deliberate, it should be that I saw an opening and I’m attacking it or moving in order to create one. Then he showed me (again) that he wants me to push on him as I move – just sometimes – in order to make the space that I want or off-balance the opponent. Mong made it clear that he’s too big to push so he just wants me to kind of do quick little shoves that would move someone my size. So as I was moving over to my left, outside his cross, I used the palm of my jab hand to push on him and then launch a right kick. Mong threw his arms in the air and screamed, “yes!” then slammed both pads onto his thighs in exasperation and yelled, “easy! You see? Easy!!” I think he was legitimately pissed that it had taken me so long to figure this out after he’d asked so many times and then I did it well; like, I could have been doing that this whole time.
First Few Rounds:
Shadow to Relax, More Padwork:
And then on the bag he would check on me here and there, telling me how he wanted me to move around it or to relax. Once, he came over to the ropes just next to the bag I was kicking and didn’t even give me new instruction. He just looked at me sternly and said, khao jai mai (“do you understand?”). I did; it’s the same thing: relax… play. When I had carved out space around my favorite hanging bag, chasing some dudes sitting around and shooting the shit out of the way, Mong jumped out of the ring and showed me how to play on the bag. He was emphasizing that you can still be very much in control when you’re tired. He showed me how to push it off, throw a long kick, then move and let the distance close for a short kick. Move, jab, move… dance. It was beautiful. I let go of the idea of doing it “correctly” and just did what felt fun. In essence, I was playing and it felt relaxing.
How to Play on the Bag:
At the start of every session Mong fills a plastic watering can and sprinkles water all over the canvas of the ring. He says it’s so we don’t slip. I love watching him stroll back and forth across the ring, basically watering it. I like it so much because the ring is a garden: he’s growing fighters.
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.