Some people have shown interest in following the story of Angie, the kathoey fighter at my gym Petchrungruang in Pattaya. I interviewed her just before her first ever fight and last night was her second time in the ring. Her first fight ended very quickly in a TKO, when her opponent fell at an awkward angle on her own elbow and was unable to continue. So, a bit of a disappointment in not being able to have a full fight, but for her second fight Angie would be facing a very experienced Thai woman. (Her first fight was against another beginner, who outweighed Angie by about 7+ kg and was from Romania. Angie has been training for only about 3 months.) Angie was maybe 3 kg bigger than this Thai opponent, Phetnaree, but the experience gap was huge. I’d guess Phetnaree has more than 30 fights already and against some top-tier fighters around Pattaya.
Gender Matchups – Male, Kathoey, Female
There has been some question from those following my Facebook page about the fairness of Angie, being born a man, fighting against women. It’s a much longer discussion than can be summed up here, and honestly I don’t think it’s one that is ever “settled,” you just have two sides to it. But my side goes like this: in the real world of fighting there are advantages and disadvantages, and for responsible match-making and good competition those advantages should be divided between both sides of the competition. One side should never have all the advantages and no single advantage is the “trump card” that defeats all other advantages. In men vs. men fights and women vs. women fights, size difference and experience difference, fight styles, strength, etc., all go into trying to strike a balance to make a good fight. So, yes, being born a man offers some advantages; having 30+ fights compared to 1 fight is also a significant advantage and that goes against Angie. Whether you agree with the concept of trans folks fighting cis folks or not, the ultimate question for me is whether or not everyone is aware of the facts and whether or not they agree to the fight. Eventually, Angie will fight men. But as she’s starting out she is facing women and everyone involved has all the facts to make informed decisions and that’s how these fights come to be.
I’ve been training with Angie in the mornings, which is really nice for me because there are literally no other women training at the gym, almost ever. She’s a friend to me and Pi Nu has kind of put me in charge of teaching her how to clinch, which is really interesting because it’s a position of authority that didn’t exist a year ago. And Angie has kind of assumed this authority for me as well. She’ll come up to me in the morning to say hello, her face wet from running up and down the residential street in front of the gym, and will ask me, “what are you going to teach me today?” It’s a bit funny to me, because I’m not an instructor. But when I think back on it, I’ve definitely given her some tips on how to correct her kick, have better balance coming off of strikes, and loads of stuff in the clinch. I don’t think of it as “teaching,” maybe because I don’t take that authority upon myself, but just “trying to help a sister out,” kind of thing. But I got to act as Angie’s corner during this fight. In Thai it’s called pee-lee-ang and those are the people who actually go into the ring, whereas the trainer will generally stay outside the ropes and just bark instructions. It’s not unusual to see women acting as corners for other women during fights (it is rare to see them cornering for men), but it’s certainly not prevalent. I’ve been in Thailand for almost 4 years now and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cornered. It’s slightly cumbersome because I have to crawl under the ropes in order to get in and out of the ring, which is easy enough to do just twice when you’re fighting, but doing this between every round and in jeans is a bit more tricky. It’s very exciting though – I quite like it.
For this fight, probably because her opponent was so experienced, Angie was nervous. I could see it in her disposition before the fight and she kept making these exasperated sighing noises as we sat watching the early fights. “It’s okay,” I told her, “I still get nervous, too.” Angie wears makeup in the ring; she wears dresses and fancy shoes as her pre-fight ensemble before changing into her fight shorts. I love it. It’s exactly the kind of thing that a cis woman probably won’t do because we either can’t be bothered to dress up for a fight or because we wouldn’t be taken seriously. But for Angie, the performance of femininity is like my performance of masculinity when I think of fighting. So I tried to keep her mind calm and fussed around her a little more than I ever would with one of the boys at the gym. The young boys helped with her massage, which was part of my job as well. I took over the more delicate parts of the massage, like Angie’s stomach and back and shoulders. Boys are so rough when they do the massage, partially to take some distance to the whole process and de-sexualize it because it’s a bit of a transgressive practice anyway. Often the promoters who bring me to fights in the outskirts will find a girl in the crowd – literally any girl – to do my massage for me because it’s “uncouth” for a man to do it. So, me taking part in the preparation of Angie is actually a way of coding her as more female, which I think is important for both of us. One of the trainers at the gym, who is a fantastic man, jokingly pretends to “honk” Angie’s breasts sometimes. He’d never do that to a cis woman outside of a brothel, but the position that katheoy hold is a bit of a constant sexual joke. Straight men fall all along the spectrum of those who keep a distance (homophobia kind of deal), those who are a bit dismissive but polite, and those who flirt like crazy. So, my position in Angie’s corner, as a fighter and someone who is established with some authority at the gym, actually brings a bit of security and sincerity. The men behave a little better with me around, I think, simply by me being there.
A huge group of us went over to Angie’s corner. She’d brought a group of friends, her brother-in-law, and then a large number of the young fighters and also the trainers from our gym. Between rounds I was in charge of Angie’s left leg, a guy whose name I don’t know was in charge of her right side. Angie’s left leg was getting kicked a lot in those early rounds and so the men outside the ropes were in a panic, telling me to ice it and rub it – as if I’ve never dealt with a kicked leg before. And poor Angie, she had a half-dozen men shouting at her from outside the ropes between every round. This is totally normal, but more exaggerated when you don’t have a head-honcho in your corner. If you have the head of the gym or something everyone will be quiet until he’s said his piece, then they’ll jump in with their own advice. Gamblers included. But there was no one in charge outside the ropes so there were a million voices going at once, including a bunch of the men telling me what they wanted me to convey to Angie. Mostly to punch and elbow. She was doing great on the outside but kept getting hit with straight knees when caught in the clinch (those are huge points) and she’d take a step back after her own strikes, which put her in distance for those low kicks. I told her to block the leg kicks and then fire a punch or elbow. I ducked out of the ring, the round started and Angie didn’t check a single kick. Sigh. That’s okay. That happens.
The next break I hurried into the ring and before all the voices could get going I made eye-contact and told Angie, “if you don’t want to block, just teep with your left leg. If you teep, she can’t kick you.” The leg was already swollen, a big red mark on the back of the knee starting to deepen into a blue. Angie nodded. The men outside the ring shouted and gestured wildly at me. They all had money on the fight. So Angie goes back in and starts teeping like a boss. She doesn’t get tagged in the leg at all, the teeps are awesome. I’m so proud of myself for giving good advice but even more happy that Angie is coachable – it’s her first time in a full fight and she’s doing what the corner tells her to do. That’s impressive! I’ve only been able to do that for maybe 20 fights now. Angie kills this round, she totally dominates and backs her opponent into her own corner and is just tagging her with a string of punches. They’re sloppy, yes, but they’re landing. And Phetnaree, her opponent, wants to quit. I can see it in her body language, but Angie is getting tired and doesn’t know yet how to push someone who wants to quit over the edge. So the round ends, Angie is in the lead and the voices from the gamblers and the men in the corner are just this enormous din. Angie’s shirt has come down from a teep, slightly exposing her breast, and I fly up onto the ring and duck under as the bell is still sounding in order to pull her top up. Because she’s kathoey, I think the men would have done this, whereas for me I think it would have been massively awkward – they may have tried to find a woman to do it. I tell Angie that when she’s punching and gets tired she can knee to take a break, then punch again. That her opponent wants to quit. The men are all telling Angie to look at her opponent in her corner, they’re all pointing with glee at how tired she is on her stool. “Just go get her!” they’re yelling.
Angie is exhausted, but she’s game. She pushes forward, she punches in bunches and throws a few kicks. She’s doing great, even though both women in the ring are at the end of their gas tanks. It’s only Phetnaree’s experience that flips the fight, in the last minute of the last round. She grabs Angie in the clinch and Angie defaults into putting her hips back, kind of bending forward, which makes the knees Phetnaree is throwing look like they’re having a much greater impact than they deserve. But that’s real. Those are huge points. By the time there are 15 seconds left in the fight our corner is quiet because we all know it’s already decided and there’s nothing more to yell. I can see Angie isn’t sure when she comes to the corner and she’s disappointed when her opponent’s hand is raised. I take her hand to help her down the stairs and find her shoes for her, telling her that it was so close and experience just took that fight from her. It’s hard to hear anything right after fights. I know her leg hurts, I know her shin hurts, and she’s so tired.
As I’m taking off Angie’s wraps in the changing room there is a cluster of her friends around her and a promoter I know comes in and is very excited about Angie. He wants her to come fight for him and he takes her phone number. Angie’s friend whispers to me, “is it okay for him to take her number?” I say sure, this guy is a promoter and she nods. It’s then that he notices me and then throws me into the mix, saying that Angie and I will both come fight at the same show. But this guy totally cheated me in my last fight for him and I’m not into the offer; I wait until he’s gone before telling this to Angie, but she’s pretty much lost in thought about the disappointment of losing and the fatigue of a full fight. The “come down” is hard, but eventually she’ll believe me that she fought so well. Her heart was amazing. I can’t wait for the next one… and the next morning when I walked into the gym, Pi Nu was already telling me I have to get Angie better at clinch. It’s not a criticism, but kind of a paternal command – like when my parents left my brothers in charge of me and told them, “take care of your little sister!” That’s the kind of responsibility I feel, which is pretty much how the boys at the gym have been raised together.