The Idea of duu-lae
There is a two word phrase that my trainer at Kru Nu uses in English quite often, “take care.” It’s a meaningful phrase, possibly one of the most important Thai concepts for a long-term fighter in a Thai gym. In Thai you would say duu-lae rak-saa (ดูแล รักษา), meaning to “watch and take care of,” although colloquially you’d shorten it to just the first part, meaning to “look after” and “protect.”, duu-lae. My understanding of this phrase and how Nu uses it have deepened in my time training with him at Petchrungruang here in Pattaya. It’s an value integral to the romanticization from the west in how a Thai gym is “like a family,” and also how in Thailand it sometimes unromantically is a family. The gym takes care of its fighters and in return the fighters work for, and fight for the gym. In the traditional pedagogy of fighters being raised by a gym, sometimes to be contrasted to the commercial relationships of westerners who are paying for training, this exchange is at the very heart of the camp. The high-turnover of westerners at a gym on short stays and the commerce of paying a gym as a business for the service of being trained complicates this traditional exchange between fighter and gym – certainly your gym should be looking out for you; but the investment from both sides can be reduced when the relationship is fairly short-lived or motivated by money values alone.
As a fighter at a gym for any significant span of time (in your hometown or in a foreign country), you become aware of when you’re being taken care of and when you’re not. There are many ways in which I have been taken care of and looked after by people very important to me at different gyms throughout my career. But there are circumstances in which you will intuit that duu-lae is not happening for you. And it’s important that you listen to those intuitions. And in a country like Thailand where duu-lae is woven into gym culture, the failure to take care is absolutely something to take note of.
There is a difference between somewhat minor instances of neglect and much larger intuitions of not being looked after. Early in my fighting career, back in the United States, I was pushed toward a fight I had no business taking at that point, simply because it would have looked good for the gym. It wasn’t in my best interest, but it would look good on an accomplishment resume. A belt was even being offered to sweeten the prize. I refused the fight at that time, and refusal probably began the end of my relationship with my gym. That is an early example of an unshakeable feeling that I wasn’t being looked out for. Many years later I experienced different forms of not taking care when I was in Chiang Mai. Sometimes it was very small things, like my teenaged cornermen making me wait until their pool game was finished before wrapping my hands, even if my fight was imminent. A few times recently with fight situations out of Pattaya I’ve wrapped my own hands even when there are helpers who should be doing this and even when it’s a big fight. But hand-wrapping and having to do your own oil are small annoyances on the scale of not caring and even when my cornermen neglected the duties of getting me prepped for the ring, oftentimes they were still excellent 20 minutes later when actually working in the corner for me. The fight-prep example is annoying but didn’t lead me to feel in a general way that my well-being and interests were not being looked after.
On the other hand, shortly before I decided to leave Lanna, which was a hard decision and it does not take anything from all the many things I have to be grateful for from that gym, I came to realize, at the time, that nobody was looking out for me when my opponents just kept getting bigger and the quality was all over the place. It was clear, at the time, that the promoter didn’t care as well when he would put me in against opponents who outweighed me by 6-13 kg (13-29 lbs), some with skill levels that meant disappointing fights for me and some with skills that made the size difference potentially dangerous. In either case, neither scenario was good for me; it was done for the good of gambling and spectacle, as sometimes happens in tourist-driven Muay Thai in Thailand. In a stretch I found that my trainers weren’t “taking care”, insisting on better competition with opponents closer to my size, etc – it should be said: the camp was going through serious transitions then, a change in ownership/management, and in many ways the trainers themselves were no longer being “taken care” of as they once were. In one telling case the promoter kind of tricked me into the ring with a 60 kg opponent (30 lbs heavier than I am) and without telling my trainer beforehand. We were both shocked. But when it came down to whether or not I’d fight her the issue was losing face, not protecting me – the relationship with the promoter is what was “taken care of,” rather than the relationship with the fighter (me). This is an important dimension of fighting in Thailand. While your gym or trainers may be very nice people, their relationships with promoters can be far longer lasting, and of more importance, than their relationship with you. A gym/promoter relationship can be the life’s blood of the gym. When dealing with promoters and paying western fighters the balance of who is “taken care” of will find a different balance point than in more traditional circumstances. Kru Nu, my trainer now, will pull his fighters out of even moderately unfair matchups if he feels promoters or other gyms are being sneaky. His fighters are kids, so he takes care much more diligently than would be required for someone like me, but in that moment in the ring up in Chiang Mai with a 60 kg girl suddenly opposite me in the ring, I was very clear on which relationship was being looked after; and it wasn’t the one with me.
It should be said, while at times I was put in fights against giants, I was also being put in fights against world-class competition, which is really good for me. It wasn’t all bad and I wouldn’t have been able to fight the way I did or as much as I did anywhere other than at Lanna, and that’s because they looked out for my interest in allowing me to be fighting as much as possible, which is exactly what I asked of them. If they’d taken care too much I would have had my opponents and fight opportunities limited – only fighting opponents I could beat, for example, would have been terrible. For this I’m eternally grateful. I also do currently trust my former trainers at Lanna to arrange fights for me. Only last week they put together a wonderful match with the standing WPMF champion Tanonchanok for me, which I drove up for. I am speaking more about a place we had come to in the past, a time.
What I’m talking about with “taking care” and not taking care is not cut and dry – it’s an intuition and I’m writing this to urge fighters to listen to their inner voices about this. You may be taken care of in several ways, but then not in others. It is something that may change and shift over time. And even when you are not taken care of it does not mean that others are “bad people”, they just may have other interests they need to take care of, interests more important than you. What it comes down to is your intuition. I received a series of messages from a western fighter preparing for her first fight at a gym in Thailand. She described her training and what was going on with her coaches at length through messages to me. A lot of what she told me wasn’t out of the ordinary for what I’ve seen in scattered examples in my time training and fighting here in Thailand. Everything she described was something one could “tough out.” What concerned me though was that it was clear in her writing that she didn’t feel that the coaches, trainers and gym were looking out for her. She was doing everything they asked to prepare for her fight, a lot of it kinda crazy but not altogether unheard of, but her hesitance came from the intuitive feeling that she was doing all this without the trainers taking care of her. I remember running sprints while my muscles felt shredded and nearly crying while Dang finished every pad session with a round of slamming his Thai pad into my stomach at the same time I kneed – four minutes of this to finish out every session – but I could push through it because I felt he was getting me ready. He wasn’t torturing me; he was looking out for me and I could feel his investment. If I didn’t intuit his care in this method, it would have felt precisely the opposite, like the purpose was to break me down rather than make me unbreakable.
Turning Down a World Title Fight
A couple days ago I was offered a World Title fight against a very good opponent, two weight classes above me, in Japan. The title is from a major sanctioning body with a top reputation, a belt many would want. This is the kind of opportunity that kind of makes you jump. But as I pressed for details on the offer, questions arose, and the answers illuminated a road with red flags. The arrangements of the fight were not in my best interest and as I was weighing my decision the only thing that was hard to let go of was that this fight might not be offered again, and that if I took this chance it might lead to more like it. I’d been offered a couple world title shots in a very short period of time, both highly problematic. It’s not something I like to turn down but when it becomes evident that nobody is looking out for you, that you have no advocate, it gets easier to say “no.” So, how do you find yourself turning down a world title shot?
After several rounds of questions it became clear that I could not bring my own corner or my husband, seemingly even if I paid for their passage out of pocket. I was to go alone, to be given a room of my own, expected to fight, and then return. I was assured that I would be “looked after”, and given a corner of some kind. I was even sent me a photo of a male falang fighter who I was told was going, as if his presence was an answer to my concerns, an assurance of duu-lae. I spent 12 hours weighing the opportunity of a World Title fight, which may not be presented to me ever again, against the value of taking care. The decision became simpler for me when I finally talked to Kru Nu at Petchrungruang and presented the offer. He looked at me in disbelief and shook his head, amazed that they would expect a fighter to contend for a title without his/her own corner or support. When I followed over to O. Meekhun later that night and told Sangwean about the offer he balked; he was even more upset by the prospect of a fighter traveling without gym support. He told me that the same promoter who contacted me had offered to fly Jee Jaa to China or Turkey in the same process – only the fighter and no trainer, no parent. At the time this was offered, Jee Jaa was 12 years old. Both Petchrungruang and O. Meekhun are family gyms. In the case of Phetjee Jaa, her “corner” would literally be her parents and the notion of sending their daughter/fighter out for a show without anyone they know to take care of her is exactly as insane as it sounds as a parent.
I know a handful of western fighters here in Thailand who have traveled to China or Japan for fights. China in particular is becoming a trend. The draw is bigger fight money on a big show, but traveling without one’s own corner seems to be not unusual. As much as you can say as a fighter that “it’s only you in the ring,” having the support of your gym or family is massively important, especially if you’re in an alien environment. I’ve talked to a few women who have had very negative experiences traveling more or less alone to fights and finding that nobody is looking out for them. In one example a very experienced western fighter traveled to China for a card that paid well. She even went in with the knowledge that in mainland China it is typical to only be able to win with a knockout and her attitude seemed to be that a loss wasn’t a big deal and that this was just a “pay day,” so to speak. Male western fighters love to talk about the “easy money” of fighting in China. But this female fighter, prepared as she was mentally for a hometown robbery or whatever else might come from being “shipped in” as a promotion tool, was not prepared for the absence of duu-lae. In this case she even had a friend in her corner, a male fighter who had advised her about the easy money of fighting in China and had done the pay-grab himself, but he didn’t take care of her. The whole experience was a disaster and I believe she would admit that it has had lasting mental effects and affected her fight path, despite how mentally strong and confident she is as a person. When I was weighing all the variables of this fight in Japan for myself, I considered whether being aware of – and I guess therefore prepared for – the chaos and lack of support, promoters potentially treating me like shit or the corner provided for me having no idea what they’re doing would make it manageable; if being ready for the worst will make the worst case scenario any better.
My goal has been 100 fights in Thailand and in chasing that goal I have said “yes” to virtually every fight opportunity presented to me. You don’t get to 100+ by being picky. That being said, I have turned down a handful of fights, perhaps 6, and in every case it has been because I have sensed that duu-lae was missing. Often it was missing because I did not have an advocate in the situation, or because my supposed advocate was failing me. Sometimes it was because the situation itself lacked duu-lae. You develop a sensitivity to when the forces around an event are not invested in you. Having fought over 100 fights already, these occasions are pretty rare. I’ve been blessed to have had a wide variety of people surrounding me (gyms, trainers, corners, promoters, fellow fighters) who I feel have been looking out for me, and the preponderance of promotions are looking to care about the fighters involved. It is good business to have duu-lae. But part of why I’m writing this is that I want to urge other fighters to respect their own sense of duu-lae, of knowing that someone is “taking care,” whether it’s from the gym that you’re fighting from or the promotion you’re fighting in. Fighting is family. As much as a title fight is supposed to be this summit of fighting excellence, what makes a fighter great or a particular fight of any real value is respect and caring, in the sense that it matters. The value of taking care is so important to the culture of gyms and fighting in Thailand that when this vital aspect of is missing, and your intuition is telling you that it’s missing, it’s probably best to move on.
There is an additional element to duu-lae and fight promotions that I haven’t really talked about here. It is something that requires its own blog post, and that is the role that money and side bets play in making matches fair. It it is something I hope to write about in the coming weeks.
[Update, below is the post I mentioned just above]