A few days ago I sat on the edge of the ring, dripping sweat from my nose making a splatter pattern on the concrete a few feet below me while I loosened the laces on my gloves after padwork. Den put his shoes on at the opposite side of the ring and then hopped down, put on his shirt and walked over to where I was sitting. He spoke animatedly to a young Thai teen whose anatomy resembled a stick-figure and then the trainer of that kid, who isn’t part of our gym but this trainer often brings his students to train with us – it’s a wonderful thing in my book – the trainer nodded and I saw Den imitate the kind of clinching he wants me to do to further explain whatever he was talking about to the kid and the trainer. Then Den looked at me and told me I was to clinch with the Thai teen. I nodded and started unwrapping my hands while Den turned and headed out for his run in the dusky light.
I washed my hands and alerted another woman who was training at the gym that day and had organized a plan to clinch with me that we were starting, then we all hopped in the ring. The Thai kid and I clinched first. His arms are about as long as my legs and incredibly thin, but he was strong and difficult to maneuver. Gradually I began taking better positions as our arms snaked around each other and when he tried to clinch my waist the favor fell to me and I was able to control him better. After a round he took a break and I began clinching with the woman, another westerner, who outsized me and had a bizarre clinching style but her comfort with it caused problems for me and she often had advantages. Then she and the Thai boy clinched and by the time they broke and I started again with him I could see his frustration with the experience. The other woman outsized this kid by quite a lot, not in height but definitely in strength and weight. She’d spooked him a little and his countenance was less open than it had been when we first began.
I started controlling him more and more. As he was trying to use his height to bear down on my head to drive it down I managed to take advantage of his narrowed stance and off-balanced him almost enough to knock him over. Nook, who was watching from the edge of the ring, made a delighted “Oh! Oh!” cry and began laughing, much to the embarrassment of this kid. He struggled harder as our limbs knotted around one another’s and when he left his arm out too straight behind my neck I popped it up from the elbow and ducked under before hugging him in close at the shoulder and pinning him, driving a few very gentle knees into his belly. Nook exploded in laughter and sounds to the effect of “you just got served!” and this kid just fell apart.
At that moment I faced a crossroads. I’m an over empathizer, it’s my M.O., and for a brief moment I considered stopping and showing the kid what I was doing so he could work to prevent it, as I would if I were clinching with a novice woman at the gym who I basically instruct in clinch in exchange for the opportunity to practice the little clinching I do know on someone who isn’t ninja-level, like my trainers and the Lanna Thai boys. On the other hand, I could ignore Nook and just keep going as if nobody hears him, which is what I choose to do, not slowing or lowering my efforts in the least. In fact, I pop the arm over again when the kid puts himself in a similar position and this time I trip him backwards so he falls on his butt. He’s miserable, being tossed around by two girls. And he should be – I am on the verge of tears when I’m being thrown around by my trainers or the Lanna Thai boys and I just have to get up – adapt or forever be bettered by the same thing.
This was an important lesson, this exercise in not acting upon the empathy I felt for this teenager. Would I back down if my opponent in the ring began feeling overwhelmed or embarrassed? Obviously not. So why practice something you don’t want to perform? I wasn’t rubbing this kid’s face in it and I wasn’t laughing at him – I was quietly applying pressure to the spot he just betrayed himself by pointing out its tenderness. If you aren’t prepared to dominate someone, don’t do Muay Thai – it is the art of dominance, especially as performed by Thai men in Thailand.
My tendency to want to back off in training in order to spare the embarrassment of my young training partner is like wanting to be a great Battle Rapper but not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. “You’re mama’s so fat, but she’s diabetic so it’s really a complicated issue…” or “your rhymes suck but you probably don’t have access to a rhyming dictionary,” are crappy ways to win a Rap Battle. So backing off of someone in a fight situation who is using weakness as a method for preventing further dominance is a disservice to the art, as well as to the poor kid who thinks that shrinking away will somehow get the lion to stop mauling him. I’ve said it many times on this blog: if I show that something hurt me in sparring or padwork, Den will try to destroy me by capitalizing on that exact pain. If I ignore it, we are all tricked into believing it never existed in the first place.
But clinching with this kid was the opposite end of that lesson. I’m used to picking myself up off the canvas and charging back in, but only because Den doesn’t back down. If Den stopped and tended to my emotional state when I was bettered by him (which pretty much all the time), I would never have exercised this tenacity enough to have it at the ready when I need it. So I owe it to my training partners as well to not back off. It’s a favor, a gift, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the slightest when you’re being beaten. But its also a gift to myself, to practice the kind of dominance that I see in great fighters and want so deeply to have for myself. It’s not a change of character; it’s a refining of qualities within one’s performance of self.