I certainly don’t expect that there are many sports, arts, or even personal relationships that are entirely open to a student splitting themselves between two places. To the most obvious point, the relationship between teacher and student, master and apprentice is an A-B conversation, so to speak. In the most ideal situations, a student learns a style or system from their teacher and employs it, giving the student the pride of carrying on the system and the teacher the pride of passing it on, as well as “bringing up” the student in the style or system s/he has devised. So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me that there is some contention with me being in the middle of two gyms, training at both Petchrungruang and WKO with Sakmongkol. The disappointment I feel is from having done so before (in Jan-Feb of this year) with no immediately apparent issue – although to be perfectly fair I was a guest at both and now I’ve moved here and I’m matriculating, so to speak, at gyms where I was previously a medium-term guest. And, in Thai society tensions can run both deep and quiet, especially to western ears. Just because nobody confronts you or says anything about something in Thailand, doesn’t mean it’s not a problem… potentially a big problem.
My problem is this: I go to both gyms because each has what the other is lacking and both are incredibly good for me. I don’t do so out of disrespect or out of lack of commitment to each place; rather, I’m working doubly hard to commit myself in two places, working at rate few people would. Of course I understand that it isn’t seen that way by the gyms. Sakmongkol doesn’t want to give me full attention and commit himself to training me and changing my style because I’m not monogamous to his training. I get that. But the first time we came to Pattaya, in January, it was to train only with Sakmongkol and unfortunately he wasn’t willing to put in the time that is required to train full-time the way I do. An hour a day, even if it’s an “induction period” of sorts, simply isn’t enough to develop at the rate I need to. I don’t have a few years to wade in, the way a kid coming to a Muay Thai camp can do. I can’t go from training six hours a day, six days per week to 1.5 hours per day, even if it is for the purpose of “rebooting” my training. Muay Thai is absolutely like language for me and immersion is undoubtedly required.
It is a bummer though because I know how committed and appreciative I am of each gym, but I can’t expect others to see through my eyes. All I can do is show through my heart and dedication how much gratitude I have and appreciation for what I’m learning. Of course when I fail each gym will likely blame the other and when I succeed each will want (and each will certainly deserve) the credit. This does, incidentally, put a lot of pressure on me to win my fights right now. If I were actually just training casually it wouldn’t be a problem, but as a frequent fighter it can be highly problematic to be even perceived as “representing” more than one gym, group, or system. WKO doesn’t have Muay Thai fighters and generally I don’t have training partners often – although I will say that Noi, while not always there, offers amazing experience in clinching and sparring with him, Kru Mutt is a fantastic trainer and of course Sakmongkol is one of the best teachers and fighters in the world. But I need foundational work, the kind of thing kids get by playing with each other for years when they’re developing. Petchrungruang (PRR) has fighters my size to clinch with, to spar with, and Kru Nu and the system at PRR is exceptionally good at “bringing up” fighters who will be (and some who are) champions in Muay Thai. This is really important. Kru Nu is a very special teacher of Muay Thai. He has an incredibly careful eye, and a way about him that just develops potential, quietly, slowly, with an indirect kind of pressure. It is remarkable that we discovered him. He brings out a lot in me.
Yet, PRR doesn’t have one of the greatest fighters of all time teaching there. This isn’t a small difference. I think immediately of that scene in “The Avengers” where it seems impossible to beat this innumerate swarm of enemies, in addition to a powerful and demonic god, Tony Stark’s response to why they still have the upper hand is, “but we have a Hulk.” If you have Sakmongkol, you have something nowhere else does. And it is hard to describe, but mostly what Sakmongkol is teaching me is beyond technicalities…he teaches energy, fight energy, and mentality. Thankfully, what Sakmongkol and Kru Nu want from me and the style they are pushing for is surprisingly similar. Each of them might not know this and because I’m not yet adroit at it it might seem as though my limitations are coming from a conflict of style, or incompatible training styles. But that’s quite the opposite of what’s true. Each agrees with and builds upon the other, I see it every day. Never am I corrected away from what I had learned from the other. There are small differences: Sakmongkol wants more fakes and Kru Nu wants more immovable dominance, but both want more decisive strikes, the same balance, explosiveness, similar use of knees, guard, even low-kick and teeps. There is a lot of variation in Muay Thai styles, but between WKO and PRR, there is not really a great deal of conflicting variance – I consider myself lucky. Right now it is looking like I am a full time trainer and fighter out of Petchrungruang, fully engaged in their process, and I am supplementing my work there with Sakmongkol (and Kru Mutt) at WKO… in fact, neither gym knows it, but I am also spending a little extra time at O. Meekhun gym, the home of PhetJee Jaa and her brother Mawin, so I can get even more clinch variety experience (both are excellent clinchers). O. Meekhun is very open and flexible and happy to have me for the 30 minutes or so. It is an experiment in metallurgy.
In ancient times bronze was made by combining two softer metals, copper with a little tin. They discovery changed the world. Sometimes combinations of softer elements amplify the suppressed strengths of each.
When I become more the fighter that each of my current trainers wants me to be, each will be happy because they are not at odds with one another. And for me; I see what they are asking from me and I am absolutely inspired and moved by what it looks and feels like. If I can be what they are shaping me towards, I will be the most happy of all.We really came to this situation because this is how I have always approached the solving of my training limitations. I started pursuing Muay Thai when I lived 40 miles from any quality Muay Thai gyms in New York. I started at one and when the training wasn’t optimal I combined it with that instructor’s teacher (how I met Master K). When Master K couldn’t give me the more fight specific contexts (he would not spar or clinch) I tried to start a sparring circle of women from different gyms in the NYC area (we succeeded for a while, but ultimately there was gym resistance). I then, instead, sought to combine his teaching with Kru Nat (Chok Sabai) who became my fight coach. When I needed more hands, head defense and sparring I added Ray Velez of TSK, and then when needing more advanced technique I moved to train with the extraordinary Kaensak (AMA). I’ve always looked to supplement what is possible. Finally, I just needed to fight, something I couldn’t get in the States, so I moved to Chiang Mai. Then, now, I needed to spar and clinch a great deal more than I was, so I moved to Pattaya. I’ve always been a bit of a Muay Thai nomad, a seeker of possibilities. But this was never out of disloyalty. It is because I have never been a common student. I started Muay Thai late (24), I had zero background in any contact sports as a kid, and for my first two years almost no sparring contact. I have come from such an unusual beginning point I just have kept pushing towards whatever teaching or experience can help me grow. And eventually this developed into my 100 fight goal. More than anything I would have loved to have a permanent fight team, a fight family, and I do know that in many ways I have suffered for not having one. Instead my fight family have been all those who understand me, those many who have helped me along the less-traveled road.
I don’t really advise anyone to do what I have done, except in that you should honor your passion, and if you see a way forward for you to challenge yourself and improve, do everything you can to commit to it. And do everything you can to respect those who have helped you. Quite frankly, as women in gyms we are already dancing with the unorthodox. If I did what gyms said and never wavered out of obedience (which is not the same as respect), I wouldn’t be fighting – perhaps none of us would. Going against the grain and breaking form is meant to be exceptional and by and large I follow the rules. But a ship has the ability to turn its sails for a reason – to catch the wind that will drive toward its destination.
I wrote more about the process of self direction in my post: The Art of Choosing Your Fighting Style.