Today was my first double session. There is no Muay Thai in the morning but they gym is open all day, so I got up and headed over to arrive at the gym by 9:00 AM. Mornings are very breezy here, just a little jaunt up the road from the beach. I ran on the treadmill in the weight room, finding it difficult to find a setting that felt fast enough. I remembered this from treadmills at a 24 hour gym I was a member of back in New York – some older treadmills are kind of warn out and just don’t have power to go fast. So I kept it at a steady enough clip and just increased the incline as I felt I could push harder. I got 4 miles in while the weight room was still basically empty, except for a few older men wandering around more than actually lifting anything.
After my run I headed up two more floors to the boxing gym and was happy to find it empty. The ceiling doesn’t connect to the roof and there’s about 6 inches gap where the outside air gets in. (The big windows are also always open, so it feels like connected to the outdoors in a nice way.) The wind was flipping some of the metal sheeting on the roof and it crashed down in rhythm, making the most incredible loud noise. Like gunfire or an engine backfiring every few minutes. Keeps you on your toes.
I was very happy working by myself up there, going through the things I’d learned from Sakmongkol over the past couple days, just working them on them on the bag and in shadow. I kept thinking about going into 7-11 or a pharmacy on the way home with my shirt all drenched in sweat and wished I’d brought my running jacket. It’s no problem – I go in Tesco completely dripping with sweat on the way home from Lanna all the time, but they know me there – but for whatever reason the idea was giving me anxiety. So, noting that the gym was completely mine, I did something very unusual and just took my T-shirt off and hung it on a hook near the open window to dry out. I’ve never trained in just a sports bra. Not in the US, not in Thailand – it’s just not my style, really. I fought once or twice in just a sports bra and hated it, feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable. But just then, with the decision all my own and the gym mine as well, it felt amazing. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I took position back at the bag and with my reflection looking like a Muay Thai fighter and the emptiness of the gym, having my shirt off felt very masculine, which to me feels very Muay Thai. I’d never thought of it this way because the conservative way of Northern Thailand and the male-space of gyms doesn’t permit for wardrobe to be considered lightly, but I’ve always thought of fighting in just a sports bra as a little risque. (To be sure, many women fight in just a sports bra and it’s no issue at all. For those new to the blog I write about gender in Muay Thai, especially as I’m experiencing it as a woman in Thailand. Two articles for some background: The Male Nature of the Thai Clinch and Playing to Type – the Sexy Exchange Student and Muay Thai) However, the way I saw myself in the mirror just then and the immediate association of what a fighter looks like to me altered the thought of how revealing a sports bra is to how masculine that particular kind of reveal is. Every movement felt different. And I don’t know that any of that would have occurred if I were not alone – I certainly never would have removed my shirt, but I mean the feeling might have been different – nor am I sure that I would feel this kind of thing at any other time prior to today in my career in Muay Thai. It’s an interesting experience.
For afternoon training I headed over to the gym early and did another run on the treadmill. It’s a bit strange, running indoors on a machine and staring out a window when I’m used to discovering the area I’m inhabiting through the process of running. But when my choices are busy streets and busy boardwalks, I think the exploration outdoors can come at a slow pace. I’ll go for an exploratory run in the morning tomorrow. After the run I headed upstairs and found that there were maybe five or six men with one trainer working on boxing. A few guys were hitting bags, one was in the ring with the trainer and a couple were wandering around doing conditioning. The past two days Kevin and I have been virtually ignored in the space, which I don’t mind so much except that it feels deliberate and the guys in the space are certainly watching my work with Sakmongkol. But today, maybe a different group at this time on a Saturday, a few of these guys talked to Kevin in a casual, friendly way.
I jumped rope, wrapped my hands and started shadowboxing and got a good 15 minutes in before Sakmongkol appeared behind me. He’d been in Bangkok with his wife’s family and had just arrived back. After he observed and corrected my shadow for another 10 minutes or so he told me to put gloves on and hit the bag. He explained he was very tired today and wouldn’t be holding pads. That was disappointing because he’s such an incredible teacher that even one session without pads feels like I’m going to be missing something, plus it’s fun to work with him, but I understand being tired. So I started hitting the bag and Mong watched for a while. A small semi-circle formed in front of me as the guys from boxing stood around watching me and after a couple rounds Mong showed me how he wanted me to hit the bag more relaxed, more causal and without blasting every strike. “Relax, teep, move,” he said as he demonstrated. I followed his lead and he grunted his approval before going in the ring to show a new student how to do basic moves. Every now and then he’d call out an instruction to me as the rounds continued, “Sylvie! Two kick!” And I’d double my kick… grunt of approval.
He moved me on to a giant bag that’s a little rubbery, so my punches and kicks kind of bounce back at me. It’s also so huge that my kicks land flat against it and my foot hits also, so the skin started rubbing off on the tops of my feet. I frowned and showed Kevin, referring to it as “Falang feet,” because so many people just starting at the camp get this from kicking the bags incorrectly, hitting with their feet instead of the shin. I was hitting with my shin, some of my knee and my foot. I’ll have to figure it out because I’m positive there’s a way around it. But Sakmongkol had me working with free-flow, just hitting with everything and moving around. Then he didn’t like my low-kick and we worked on that for a long time. His low-kick is weird; he likes it fully extended so you snap your leg straight at the peak of the impact, rather than keeping the leg bent and kind of jumping into the opponent’s leg the way I’m used to. He says you can get punched in the face doing that, which is true if you’re not blocking or going far enough to the side. But, strange as his leg kick seems to me I refuse to argue with it because I’ve seen him use it in Karate fights. And man… I do not want any of that.
He let me continue on the bag forever while he worked with the beginner student. He’d come over to me every five minutes or so and add something or correct something, taking me off the bag to practice how this would work in motion, with footwork, against an actual foe. I love how practical he is – everything is fight context and he has you try it against him or feel it as the poor opponent (with him demonstrating) so you can feel how it works “in real time,” so to speak.
While we were shadow-sparring leg kicks, moving forward and backing up, he was trying to explain to me how you keep your balance such that you are always able to block, counter, throw a second strike, etc. I offered what I thought he meant in Thai, prom ta-loat, “always ready,” and his face lit up with excitement. “Yes!” he exclaimed in Thai, “Chai! Prom taloat!” I’m trying to speak Thai with him more, even mostly, because it’s good for me in trying to improve and it’s comfortable for him and he’s more talkative. We had a five minute discussion in the ring about how I fight bigger opponents, all in Thai, that never would have happened in English. Mong got so comfortable that he started talking to my husband in Thai, asking him something twice before realizing why Kevin didn’t understand him, “Oh! Sorry! I forget, speak Thai,” he laughed. It was awesome.
I realized in Sakmongkol’s “always be ready” tactic that it’s all in the footwork, all in the stance. The base is very wide, which I associated with Boran style when I first met him two years ago, but staying up on the toes with the back leg wide and weight balanced between the two feet. It allows you to move in any direction very quickly and it also allows you to respond to either attacks or the recession of an opponent. It’s the “water skipper” hopping that Master K has always advocated without so much jumping, more like a “water stepper”. By using this and being able to maintain it in my bagwork and shadow, it changes how everything feels for me. I can tell that my stance was too narrow and too square, which simply has made me too slow in my responses to either attacking openings or defense. Rather than “always ready,” I was “not quite ready.” Just barely missing each opportunity by a millisecond.
What I realized about the stance and how a narrow base makes everything just a little delayed; “a little delayed” = too late.
Lastly Mong put me in the ring, as he likes me to do, and had me shadowbox in there while playing against the ropes. He showed me how to back up into the ropes and then use the limit against my back to move into a block that is almost impossible to get around. Kaensak used to do this to me against the “cage” in his gym in New Jersey, just keeping his back against the chain-link and one leg up in block that he could teep with and I just had no options. It sucked and it made me so frustrated. This is what Sakmongkol is showing me to do to someone else. As I was moving around he asked me about something I was doing against the bag a couple hours ago, which was actually me practicing locking up my leg on a caught kick. To him it looked like I was going from a kick to a block without putting my foot down and he was amazed that I knew this move already. I laughed and explained that I didn’t, that this was me trying to get accustomed to the caught kick. He understood, but couldn’t let go of his shock that I had known this other thing. But he did proceed to show me how that worked and it’s incredible. So we practiced that a lot, testing it out on the bag so that I know how to practice it on my own. When I was able to do it a few times in a row he added a punch to it, making it nastier. He pointed at his temple with his index finger, his sign language for being a smart fighter. Then he staggered his hands, one higher than the other, saying, “opponent smart,” then he moved the other hand higher than the first, “you, smarter,” he smiled, moving the other hand up higher again, demonstrating the never-ending arms race of intelligent fighting. I’m working on it.
The kick-to-block move. Earlier in the session Mong had kicked me while I blocked and he just barely touched me, it really was a gentle kick, but it hurt like hell because experienced fighters are made of iron – or Adamantium – and when you touch them it hurts, even when you have tough shins (which I do). So that’s why my block is ridiculous with my arms getting in there… I’m just trying to limit the bare shin contact.