Even though it’s Sunday, which is usually a rest day, Sakmongkol invited me to come train with him for two hours in the morning because he didn’t want to do padwork yesterday. He had let me know, however, that he wasn’t going to “teach” me today. He would just hold and work with me and have me go through everything we’ve been working on so far – no training wheels, so to speak.
This wasn’t easy. In padwork I was doing well tracking him and following up on kicks when he was open. But mostly he seemed excited when I would pivot off to the side instead of just moving forward and back, which is something I definitely need practice in and was a little impressed for myself at how readily I could do it… at times. It still needs a lot of work. After about three rounds Mong had me put on shinpads and we worked some sparring. He really wanted me to free flow, which I was able to do to some degree the other day when we first sparred, but today my hands felt utterly useless and I was very kick-focused. That’s actually a good thing because I’ve never been a big kicker. I reckon it’s the change in my stance that has me ready to kick far more, so I want to kick more than when I have my hips back and my head forward, which is far more conducive to boxing (mainly because it’s not conducive to kicking). That was exciting by itself but for whatever reason I was in the mode of practicing the leg kicks that we’ve been working on since yesterday. I wasn’t “drilling” per se, but I was definitely repeating the same things over and over again to the point that Mong pointed out to me that he knew what I was going to throw. He also told me, for the second time ever but something that apparently is a common complaint to his students in general, that I was “too slow.”
Sparring in Thai
In the third round of our sparring he started coming after me and showed me how one can kick continuously (more or less) and just not leave much chance for an opponent to counter. He also, in this demonstration, wanted me to counter, or to move away or charge in or something to change what he was doing. Break the pattern. I didn’t do that. I tried to keep up with him with counters for bit and did try to punch, but I got overwhelmed and a few times didn’t answer his kick, giving him the “final word.” He saw that I was overwhelmed and he stopped. Leaning against the ropes, in Thai he started telling me that today I’m no good. That’s okay, he explained, because not every day can be a great day in training but he went on to explain that my poor performance made him feel bad. I tried to explain that I was frustrated with myself and that I’m just trying to be a good student; he shouldn’t feel bad because it’s nothing wrong, it’s just not my day. But it’s hard for me to find all the right words in Thai – concepts aren’t necessarily interchangeable between languages. He kept repeating mai dok-jai, which means to not be afraid or startled. There’s another word in Thai for fear in the sense of a feeling of foreboding or danger; dok-jai is more fear in the sense of being startled, the fright of a scary movie where stuff jumps out at you. He meant that I was too excited, another word he keeps using when he’s telling me to relax. He says mai dtoon-den, which is the word for excitement or agitation. Don’t be that. Be cold, calculating, calm.
I felt terrible because he actually stopped sparring with me. I tried not to let my face fall, but it was too late at that point. That’s another thing I really have to work on: getting the fight out of my face. On the spectrum of betraying emotion through facial expressions during training and fights, I’m actually pretty dead-pan. That said, on the Thai scale of poker-face to public weeping, I still have big tells. It can affect fights, for sure, but worse for me is that it affects training because of what I am telling my trainers without meaning to “say” whatever it is my face is reading, which is usually that I don’t enjoy what we’re doing. And the fact is I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value it or don’t want to continue. But the point is to actually learn to enjoy it – to love pressure. Watch Saenchai for reference, the guy literally laughs in fights.
So we just worked shadow for a while, focusing on relaxation and pulling the kick into a floating block (which is what we’re calling it now).
Kicking it Out
From there we worked that on the bag – the big, evil bag that’s chewing up my skin right now. I thought yesterday it’s that my foot is hitting the rubbery surface but it’s actually that the bag is torn and has edges, so I’m basically kicking a soft cheese grater and it’s putting rug burn on my shin and foot. I don’t care about the discomfort but in the tropics infections are a real consideration, so I just have to keep it clean. Anyway, Sakmongkol let me kick on this bag for a million hours (below: 20 minutes, 1 break). He had me just working kick, block, kick kick kick, block in various combinations. He just sat on the tires and watched me, saying “good” when I did something he liked and I’d try to locate what it was and repeat it. But when he watches, he is actively watching. He’s not sitting back and letting me tire myself out – which he might actually be trying to let me do just so he can see where that limit is; we haven’t hit it yet – but instead he is always watching closely, diagnosing shifts in weight, angles, balance, closing distance, etc. I don’t actually feel pressure to do the move right every time because I know that by doing it as “naturally” as possible, the way I would in a fight or on my own, allows him to see what I’m really going to do and we can work to adjust it. That alone is an invaluable experience for training.
After everything I shadowed in the ring again and Sakmongkol had me put my arms down and totally relax. “Just play,” he said. I pictured an opponent and the channeled my boxing coach from NY Ray Valez, who promotes the kind of attitude that a little punk kid would have playing tag where you just can’t get him. I faked and moved around and Mong grunted happily. I kept doing this for maybe 15 minutes, just being relaxed and moving, just footwork really. It felt very different from anything I’ve done before, but it didn’t feel hard – I didn’t have to put effort into it, even though I was focused.
As I was leaving I did feel a bit emotional. Mostly because I’m tired, but also just part of the difficulty of days in training that feel like you sucked. It’s okay to suck, really it is, but I just wish I had a better attitude on those days so that it had a different meaning between my trainers and I. I thanked Mong and told him I was heading downstairs to run. His eyes shot open wide and he smiled while making a “what?!” sound of surprise. He’s still not used to my work rate – I don’t think he even knows yet that I train in the morning (and today the afternoon) on my own. But the run felt good. I kept the pace easy and listened to my favorite Thai music (Baowee) while I stared out the window at two motorcycle taxi drivers clapping their hands and beckoning to every pedestrian on the street. My emotional disappointment melted away and I left the gym feeling good. I need to find a way to relax into movement with an opponent in front of me the way I can relax into movement with miles ahead of me. It’s same same, but different.
Sakmongkol and the New Lumpinee
Flashing back to when we were finished I sat on the edge of the ring, on the inside of the ropes, and asked Sakmongkol how old he was when he first fought at Lumpinee. (He had been talking about how when he was a kid he trained every day, no day off; “if no fight, train easy,” he said.) He considered both 13 and 14 years old, then shook his head and said he wasn’t sure. I mentioned that next month there will be a new Lumpinee and Mong shook his head and frowned. I offered that I don’t like the new Lumpinee and he agreed. He pointed to the ropes, the ring, the ceiling and the walls, saying “sponsor, sponsor” at each one, indicating that the new stadium is covered in advertisements. Mai suay, he said (“not beautiful”). For those who have not been to Lumpinee, it’s one of the two national stadia in Bangkok (Rajadamnern is the other) that has a long-established history and little Nakmuay dream of one day fighting at and ultimately winning a Lumpinee belt. To have done this, to have a Lumpinee belt from arguably the greatest years of Muay Thai in modern Thailand, is something truly remarkable. So to have the building that is steeped in this history and these dreams – and the realization of these dreams through the bright lights, sweat, blood, ice, spilled beer and shouting fans – be shut down in order to move into a modern building that looks pretty much like a mall… well, it’s not something I would expect any champion to like. When I visited Lumpinee I was astounded at how gritty it is. It’s hot and stuffy, the ceiling fans don’t seem to do much except press the heat of a thousand bodies back down onto the crowd and the stands are difficult enough to walk on sober that I can’t imagine the drunken crowd trying to move on them. There are cats and dogs that actually live in there, slipping in and out of sight in the empty areas of the stands and on one side, like a wave crashing violently against rocks in a cove, is a throng of gamblers forever shouting to one another, placing bets and cheering their fighters on. And I loved it. It felt like the place was alive, like we were in the belly of the whale and it was attacking a ship with us inside. This, this is what is lacking in a slick, clean, sponsor-covered new stadium. But with enough time and work, you can break it in.