Last night we reached our 2nd year anniversary in Thailand, and Sylvie fought her 34th fight of the year, giving her 62 since we moved here so she could devote herself to being the best fighter she could be. In a way though that really isn’t true, because all along Sylvie has being trying to achieve something much deeper, much more powerful than being the best fighter. She has been engaged in a project, a highly personal, extremely intimate and difficult project. Last year at this time I wrote about what the first year of her fighting meant to me, and this is a follow up on that post, a year later.
Last year I compared Sylvie’s fighting to a kind of repeated alchemy experiment, watching her heat herself to extreme temperature each and every time she gets in the ring, and coming out a different fighter, a different person each time. This is, I believe, something that happens to everyone who gets in that magic square, and that she was doing at an accelerated rate (more than 2 fights a month in that year) was simply that, quickened transformation.
Somehow this year has impacted me differently. I have the same feelings of admiration and even awe at watching her fight, but there has been a growing awareness that even more was happening than that. Sylvie has been doing something very particular. She has been trying to become Muay Thai.
Now that may sound like a very odd thing to say. One learns Muay Thai. One fights Muay Thai. One uses Muay Thai. But Muay Thai is more than a fighting sport. It is more than techniques and scoring aesthetics. It is a certain kind of practice, a regime, that in Thailand has a kind of form. Fighters come to Thailand and want to “fight a Thai”, or even learn to “fight like a Thai”, but Muay Thai is something much more than this. Muay Thai – for a variety of economic, gender, class and cultural reasons imposes itself on Thais in very particular ways. And so much of this – the very narrow job path, the personal destiny of most Thai fighters – is simply not a part of any westerner’s reality. You can come to a camp, you can train as hard as you like, but you simply are not in the same universe as those that you are training with (if there are Thai fighters raised at your camp), or those you are fighting.
Becoming Muay Thai
Against the backdrop of this impossibility of a shared universe Sylvie has been fighting at an extraordinary rate in her 2nd year, about every 10.7 days, and this includes her taking a month off for stitches to heal. As unprecedented as this rate is – I know of no western woman who has fought like this for 1 year (or really 2 years) – the number doesn’t even tell the half of it. What is even more remarkable than the fights is the training. Sylvie rarely misses sessions. If you think fighting every 10 days is something, you aren’t thinking about the 11th day, when Sylvie gets back to training with busted shins, etc., working to correct what wasn’t working in the fight. She trains relentlessly through pains and around injuries that simply stop other people from training, often for weeks (we know, we’ve seen lots of fighters training). With her fight rate, and her notorious commitment to training she has every excuse to stop presented to her nearly daily. She can always take a day off and nobody would blink an eye. And many people advise her to “take it easy”, the ultimate excuse of “don’t over train” gets thrown around like a prescription. What people don’t get is that Sylvie is attempting something else. She is doing something more. She is, as best as she can, becoming Muay Thai. She is aiming higher and further than belts or even technique. She is aiming at experience, and it is jaw-dropping.
So what do I mean by becoming Muay Thai? Understand that even though Sylvie fights at an extreme rate for a foreigner, the women she fights, in stretches, fight more often. This week Sylvie fought on Wednesday and Saturday. On Saturday we saw a girl who fight who fought also on Wednesday, but also fought on Thursday and possibly Friday. It is not unheard of for males to fight as many as 30 times in a few months at some point. Understand, everyone who loves Muay Thai in the west, in Thailand Muay Thai is work. It is work in the way that being a cowboy was once regular work in the US, maybe 60 years ago. You can go and win calf roping titles and bull riding cups, but that isn’t the same as being a cowboy. Some of the women and girls that Sylvie fights, indeed fight far more frequently than her. Some of them come across from Isaan and go on fighting streaks that produce a great number of fights, collecting small purses and winning bets. Some of them take on much larger farang regularly and get beaten and smashed repeatedly. In this context Sylvie is just another working fighter, in the low sense. In choosing this fight path she is choosing to expose herself to some of the experiences that make and define Muay Thai in Thailand, the experiences of repeated fighting that largely impose themselves on the people of Muay Thai in every province. This is far from the glittering names and matches that end up in magazines. It is the very form of Muay Thai. If you do not experience it, you do not know it.
So what is going on here? When you put yourself under a regime that belongs to an art and a culture, one cannot help but be transformed. One is never to become Thai – the paths of freedom are very different – and that isn’t the goal. Instead there is something about Muay Thai – the language, the people, the aesthetic, the fans – that speaks very deeply to Sylvie, that whispers…beautiful. The regime of endless, painful training days, mental hurdles of fear and disappointment, the nearly weekly clashing of bodies, limbs and wills, only to be repeated, that creates patterns of intensity on the body (and the soul) that evoke a transformation that can occur in no other way. When people are drawn to a culture that is not their own, and an art within that culture, it speaks to them the possibilities of a transformation that is unique, and priceless, if you are willing to commit to it. Somewhere some years ago when training under Master K in his basement, Muay Thai said to Sylvie a quiet voice: become Muay Thai. And this is the only way Sylvie knows, an all-out commitment forward.
What does it mean for a husband to see this? First of all it elevates me, and it elevates us. I see Sylvie attempting and in fact doing something that nobody else from her culture has done, and doing it as a woman. This is just incredible. She is excavating herself to such an extreme degree, most of it hidden from others eyes, having her body and her ego beat down daily, refashioning herself as stronger and stronger – not just physically, but mentally. You cannot know the daily grit, the tears uncried and cried daily. She is electing to let Muay Thai shape her in the most intense way possible, and not have control over just what it will do to her. She is risking the monstrous, as well as beauty. She does not know what 100 fights in Thailand will do, but out of love she is willing to discover it, to abandon herself to it.
She hasn’t fought a girl her size in maybe 25 fights. All of them are bigger than her, most of them more experienced – in fact some are outsized champions now. As a husband my awareness of the possibility of injury from a continuous line of bigger opponents has increased, but I balance this with awareness of the magnitude of the endeavor. Risk is what creates value. What she is attempting is far closer to swimming the North Pole like Lewis Pugh did, or running the Saraha like Ultra Marathoners did, than pursuing a coveted belt. It is a kind of becoming intimate with Muay Thai, and letting it change you into what it is, with very rough hands over years. People who do not fight and train like this simply cannot know what she has seen, they can only guess.
Let it be clear. Sylvie has written about it. She is attempting a gender transformation. This does not mean that she is attempting to become a man, but it does mean that she is putting herself through a acute regimen that is the domain of heavily coded Thai masculinity, hyper-masculinity. She is exposing herself to the process of becoming what is considered Thai male. I don’t think it can be argued that any fighter – male or female – who trains and fights Muay Thai seriously in Thailand is doing anything other than that. The codes include cultural aesthetics of aggression, Buddhist valuations of calm detachment, imperviousness, viciousness, work horse mentalities, continuous displays of dominance, submissions to male authority hierarchies, rehearsed play, yant magical beliefs, and beneath it all jai dee…heart. What does it mean for a western woman to undergo a Thai masculinization processes? As a husband I see this as Sylvie creating an arc, a tremendous arc made of the incandescent stuff of her gender. It is a radiating shooting star formed of the intensities that her body is capable of supporting. She dons the very difficult robes of Thai Muay Thai to let that garment, the unceasing disciplining of her physical pain and her shore of fears, create a gendered trajectory that is both masculine and feminine. One of the advantages of doing this across cultures is that the mapping is much more exo-gamous, it allows you to project yourself into an unknown of promise and creation (rather than onto well-known territories of simple assumed masculinity). The Thai female fighters of Thailand either doll themselves up (Sawsing Sor. Sopit, Cherry Gor. Tawin to name two) to insulate themselves against encroaching masculinity, or they are “Tom” like in presentation – Toms are a type of Thai lesbian sexuality – (Lommanee Sor. Hurin, Tanonchanok Rongriang Lampang). More complexly, Thai Muay Thai masculinity also has elements that cross-map to western femininity. To use one example: how feemur is praised above attack. In this context of contested gender cross-markers in a foreign land Sylvie is mapping herself as intensely as possible, becoming what she historically is not. At risk of stating things too starkly: to me this is an extreme female power, to undergo counter-regimens and change your destiny, to harness what is impossible by harvesting what is alien as a line of becoming. Sylvie is exploring her own gender powers by submitting to the beauty and brutality of Muay Thai as it currently exists, concretely, to the absolute limits of her capability to feel and do, given what she is in history as a woman of the west. That is what 100 fights in Thailand really is about. It is throwing personal lines into the sky.
This is what martial arts is all about about, trajectories. People make the mistake of assuming that trajectories are merely moves made in a fight or on a practice mat. They are not. They are the trajectories that cut right through the soul of who you are, and the souls of what other people can be. They are made of culture, of belief, of magic, of masculine and feminine.
And Sylvie is only two-thirds there on this mission. I cannot wait to see what this next year brings.
If you’d like to read more deeply into how I view transformation into something you are not, and what it means to expose oneself to the intensities of a regimen, this philosophical essay I wrote some years ago may be of interest: Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets.