Anniversary – 1 Year
April 6th was the one year anniversary of our arrival in Thailand. It feels quite monumental, which is perhaps both strange and ordinary since I don’t really pay a great deal of attention to anniversaries (ordinary) but this one feels like it marks the accomplishment of both goals and dreams that seemed at a time unattainable (strange). What is most peculiar about the feelings I have surrounding this anniversary is how fast it seemed – it’s like the calendar is lying to me that it’s been a whole year and yet when I look at how much has been packed into that time, I’m also impressed.
I trained in the afternoon on the first day we arrived in Chiang Mai, after a few hours sleep in a hotel in Bangkok between flights. That’s how eager I was to start this whole process of a Muay Thai life. It was very hot, incredibly bright, and the faces at the gym had hardly changed. Other than one trainer from before missing and one trainer who I didn’t know having been added, it was almost as if no time had passed between our last (and first) visit to Chiang Mai three years before, and this one. The young boys, however, had all grown into young men – their faces cutting angles that only a few years before were very soft and mass added to their bodies like packing clay onto a frame and then smoothing it over. I was greeted with warmth and recognition by those at the gym who had been there before, including other westerners who’d first found Lanna at the same time we did, AND including the dogs who, perhaps more than anybody, had aged.
I’d contacted Den through Facebook prior to our move. I’d let him know that I’d had 12 fights in all over the years that I’d been absent from Thailand and that I wanted to fight “a lot,” and that ultimately I’d like to have 50 fights. He had written things like “OK” without any reference to which part of my excitement he was confirming. For the first few months of training and fighting I was asking for more fights immediately upon getting out of the ring at the stadium and reminding him for days afterward. He knew I wanted to fight a lot but I don’t think Den trusted that I knew what I was asking for or my ability to keep up the pace. A few months after that Daeng started telling me I was fighting a lot and the trainers would talk amongst themselves (although openly in front of me) about my two fights per month with praise in their tones. Then it moved to three and sometimes four in a month. And then Den stopped needing me to ask for fights – I’d arrive at the gym and see the next date next to my name, sometimes two dates – and then he started using my frequency of fights to make fun of fit, able western men who didn’t want to fight “yet” and the Thai boys who rarely trained two days in a row.
But even with the frequency of my fights and the earnest intentions I brought to training I had not yet established my place in the gym. My primary trainer after the first fight and for many months after was Taywin, who is a good source for technique and I even started learning some Boran from him on Sundays until he very uncomfortably started insisting that I wait until “after my fight” to train Boran. This was problematic because after my fight is always before my next fight, so there’s never a space of not gearing up for a fight when I could learn. I knew it was because other trainers were, perhaps tacitly and perhaps vocally, judgmental of devoting energy toward training that is deemed abstractly as being irrelevant to ring fighting. I don’t see it that way – I think Boran can absolutely be taken into the ring – but the training fizzled nonetheless.
Developments in Training
Then Taywin left for the Philippines for a month to train the national team there. This is his pattern: he’s always reaching out to train short-term abroad, always planning for the next trip. In his absence I was trained by Daeng and Den and the holes in my training with Taywin were painfully evident. He’s the laziest trainer and I’m the hardest worker in the gym, so we were a terrible match. Prior to his return to the camp I let Den know that I did not want to return to being trained exclusively by Taywin and that I wanted Daeng and Den to keep training me when he got back. It is difficult to read the subtle gym politics of who is training whom, but this felt like this was an important thing to say. There was an uncomfortable change upon his return and his attitude toward training in general, coupled with a very nasty way of putting me down for no reason other than power dynamic and ego changed my “not exclusively by Taywin” stipulation to not at all by Taywin. And that was our falling out. It wasn’t a smooth transition, but gradually Den became my primary trainer and it was the best change for me. My training became more intense with Den pressuring me and pushing me, forcing me to fight out of corners during padwork and establish dominance even when shots were being called. About 4 months ago I started supplementing my full time training with hour 1 on 1 sessions with Neung, focused only on boxing, several times a week. It has really helped with defense, balance and rhythm.
I was still asking for clinch training and sparring all the time, although my requests were always met by affirmation that we would “clinch tomorrow” and then it wouldn’t happen (or it would, once, and then not again for weeks) or the argument that because I was fighting so much I “really didn’t need to spar.” It was terribly frustrating. Every time I got in the ring and failed to do a few things that my corner was asking for I would reiterate that I needed to spar in order to practice these things under pressure and every time the response was one of non-understanding. A year in I’m still not sparring or clinching as much as I need to. Learning how to ask in a way that is no longer requesting is my work in progress.
When having an entire year to dedicate to improvement and fighting as much as possible makes it seem, on the outside or abstractly, like there’s plenty of time to work things out. When I was living in New York and training with Master K and then eventually with Kaensak as well I had to drive for an hour one way in order to get one or two hours of training. I did this as often as was possible, usually several times per week, but the commute was exhausting and eventually gas prices and work made the frequency with which I could have training sessions less and less. Growth or change in this kind of training is slow, spotty and ultimately easily traceable because it’s one small thing at a time. You’re overturning on your right kick and then you’re not anymore. The change from training maybe 8 hours per week to 7 hours per day means that the changes are no longer as noticeable. The day-to-day training may not necessarily be all that different from the kind of training you can get elsewhere in the world – it is far different from the kind of training I was getting, since padwork and sparring were not part of my regular training – but the collective day-by-day repetition and hours is unlike anything else. It’s like taking riding lessons versus working on a ranch where you’re actually just on the damn horse for hours and hours at a time. It’s hard to note the changes because they happen gradually and at the same time that other things are falling apart – you stop over-rotating on the kick at the same time that your left hook starts to become your focus, so you might miss the correction at the expense of noting the error.
How Time Moves Here
In short, impatience is not mitigated by having a lot of time. And time here progresses at a really strange pace – it goes by both quickly and slowly. If I don’t fight every week, even 10 or 14 days between fights can feel irrationally long, as if I’m developing “ring rust” even at such a short interval. And yet, travelers will come to the gym for relatively long periods of time like 3 or 6 months and that time will go by like it’s nothing. Sometimes I’ll rematch an opponent from half a year ago and it seems like I just fought her last month. I reckon this is partly due to the regimented schedule I keep, which is basically training, sleeping, eating and maybe an outing here or there. Something I did in training in the morning might feel like a few days ago by afternoon because of the deep nap I took in the middle of the day. And because of this I can think that I’ve been working on something for weeks when it has been, in actual fact only a few days.
This time protraction is at it’s worst when I have some injury because it will feel like it’s taking forever to heal. In the real world you take a week to heal an injury and it sucks because you’d rather be training but it’s “only a week.” In my world that week or even a few days seems unbearably long and that’s without even taking time off. I train around injuries and have only taken a few days actually off from training this last time I got stitches in order to try to hasten the healing time – Den had insisted I not sweat which is pretty much impossible in this heat – and also to take a short break after reaching a milestone of 40 fights and it felt terribly long, like I’d taken a month off.
This kind of non-stop training and hours put in at the gym also caused me to realize quite recently that I’ve spent more time with the trainers and Thai boys at the gym than nearly any other people in my life besides my family and perhaps my college roommates, whom I lived with for all four years. That’s pretty incredible, that I’ve spent more time in one year with Den, Nook, Neung and Daeng than I have with the coworkers at my job for over four years. It makes the notion of not seeing them every day very sad, indeed, if that should come to pass.
The 28 Fights – Fighting in Numbers
In the past year I’ve fought 28 times, bringing my total number of Muay Thai fights to 40. My trainers have shared in my madness, hesitantly at first but now they’re all on board and know what I’m doing, that I’m serious when I say “I want to fight a lot.” I don’t know of other farang fighters who have done this same thing, male or female, but I do know that I want to repeat it again this coming year – 30 would be even better than 28 – and that once anything is done it can be done again by me or anyone else. The women I fight out here fight a lot as well. I’ve seen the same woman I just fought on a fight card the next week when we’re both fighting different people, as well as fighting twice in just a few days or even on the same day. Although they don’t do this consistently, it is something that fighters in Thailand experience as just being part of fighting, part of the culture of fighting. It’s a job, it’s livelihood and a way of life – and that’s one of the most beautiful things to me about fighting in Thailand. It reminds my husband of “club boxing” in the 50’s in America when boxers would fight pretty much constantly. Something Mike Tyson did in his early career, which we call “Tyson in the Catskills” and absolutely made him the kind of fighter he was in his youth.
To Know Where You’re Going, Look Where You’ve Been
The thought of getting a year in Thailand was so unbelievable for a long time that it’s still a little hard to swallow the fact of it. My husband and I worked hard to get here and I shy away from using the word “sacrifice” for the things we gave up in order to make it happen because the primacy of getting to Thailand was so far above whatever it was we needed to omit from our lives in order to get here. Maybe a better way to say it is that we simplified our lives greatly in order to be here – it’s very simple how much I miss Master K and also how much I honestly feel that the best way to honor what he’s taught me and what he means to me is to be here, doing this. By being here.
Now that we have a second year in front of us, there’s almost no blueprint for how it feels even though we’ve just done it. A second year doesn’t feel like the first year. It’s a continuation of it, to be sure, but we knew from the onset that one year would make me a good fighter, but two years were needed to become a really good, or even great fighter. Now that the second year is a reality, all the work of the first takes on a new meaning as I look forward to the hard work and determination that will be carried over and ultimately transformed by the second. I always tell people who are looking to fight in Thailand that they should aim for two fights. This is because the first will never feel like enough, whether it’s because you did great and want more or didn’t do what you wanted to do and want a second chance – the second fight changes the meaning of the first simply by existing. And a second year of fighting every 10 days, training every day and working toward becoming a better fighter is exactly the same thing. Doing anything once is an accomplishment and shouldn’t be underappreciated. But wanting to be a great fighter, which I do, is not a matter of one versus two years. Aristotle said that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” A second year of habitually training and fighting will unquestionably make me a better, perhaps even a great, fighter. But it won’t end there because it’s not a result, not an endgame of accomplishment. With one year behind me I want to stand on top of it, not at the end of it, and look toward the endless possibilities in front of me that merely begin with the start of a second year, and every year beyond it.
Special thanks to everyone who has supported me and made this possible: my family (especially my parents for loving my dog Zoa while I’m gone), Master K who is my inspiration and teacher, Kaensak who helped lift my focus, Andy Thomson and Pom, the trainers and fighters of Lanna Muay Thai – Kiat Busaba – Daeng, Neung, Nook, JR and Boy, Big, Off, and special thanks to Den who really has made it a point to make me the best fighter he can. And thank you to the kind neighborhood folds of Chang Kian (who feed me and cheer me when I run and ask me about my fights) and Pook at the Mong Pearl who makes me breakfast every day; and to all the supporters of this website 8limb.us, through Kickstarter and beyond, so that I have somewhere to put all these experiences.