When I get to the gym with my husband on fight night there is always at least one Thai from the camp sitting on a stone bench outside the convenience store, located across the driveway from the gym. There is always an exchange of nods if they’re kids and a polite wai if it’s a trainer. Sometimes a group of westerners are huddled around each other. I usually smile and nod as I walk past them and then we enter into the dark gym.
There are a few fluorescent lights around the gym that give off light like a space ship, or those electric fly zappers that hang over doorways. It’s usually a little breezy yet the bags and flags from around the world hang inert over the softly silver cement floor. Dogs trot past, not bothering to greet us at this hour. There is usually muffled laughter drifting from the house behind the gym, the soft red glow of a home in stark contrast to the sharp blue of the alien fluorescence.
My husband and I sit together for about 10 minutes. Trainers move in and out of the space until someone finally gets in a truck and starts the engine. Then it’s time to move. We get in the back of the truck and it pulls out into the driveway, pausing for a moment when it reaches the mouth. The westerners pile in, beers in hand and a kind of slow excitement while more often than not a Thai kid frantically darts across the yard and grabs the bamboo mat, ice bucket and bag with the required equipment for the corner. For whatever reason this is always last-minute. It would feel strange otherwise.
It’s a long ride to the stadium, looping around the Old City and through part of the Night Bazaar. If Thai boys are in the truck there is chatter that sounds like gossip, interrupted only by excited tapping or slapping of each other to look at young ladies on motorbikes in the city traffic. If Boy is in charge he sings to his head phones. Without the Thai boys there is short and casual conversation between the westerners, usually in varying degrees of familiarity with each other from the gym. Every so often someone will direct a question to me, usually about the fight. I’m never interested in the fight as topic for conversation, so I probably come off as dismissive. I share so much of myself and my experiences online and in conversation that it must seem that I’m a really open and expressive person, but those moments are not my most extroverted.
At the Venue
Every time I walk into Kalare Stadium it looks different. It’s like going to your grandmother’s house and she’s rearranged the furniture. The ring is always in the same spot and chairs are organized around it, but the sections are different – the opening in the gate around the seating area has moved. We find a spot against the “back wall” – which is a green tarp covering a chain link fence – and spread the bamboo mats on the floor to stake our claim. We’ve just made a dressing room. The Thai kids plop down on the mat and start messing with their phones or else they immediately go off together somewhere outside of the stadium. I put my backpack down and kick my shoes off before sitting on the mat and leaning against my husband to look over the fight order.
This past fight I’d only been sitting for a minute when a familiar Thai man approached me. I smiled and wai-ed to him, not entirely sure how I know him. A lot of the men who bet on the fights will come up to me for a close look or to talk to me in Thai and a few select English words to express that I’m strong (gaeng) and offer thumbs up for probably having won money at one of my fights.
This guy now in front of me told me to stand and I did. I’d worn a long sleeve shirt and my muscles weren’t “up for grabs” as is usual – total strangers will come over and basically feel up my arms as you would inspect a race horse or something – so I figured this guy wanted a look at my size. He made an “oh” sound when I stood and he called over a Thai girl who was standing a short distance away. She came over and I greeted her with a smile, then he lined the two of us up. She was taller than I am, by only a few inches. He made her remove her sandals and she dropped down a quarter of an inch. He started speaking to Daeng, my trainer, who was standing nearby. Daeng looked at us, made the same “oh” sound and then went to find Den. When Den arrived the first Thai fellow had a second girl come over, a smaller girl, who I also greeted with a smile and she stood next to me. She was maybe a quarter of an inch shorter than I am and smaller in frame. The Thai man – who I now had easily deduced was their coach – started feeling my arms and shoulder. I flexed as he made contact and his face changed. I smiled; a little intimidation never hurts.
The Thai coach and my two coaches started talking. It sounded like a negotiation and the first, taller Thai girl stayed standing there while the other walked away and I sat down. Den kept shaking his head. None of the conversation sounded heated, but there was a disagreement. Finally they dispersed and I asked Den whom I was fighting. He pointed and said, “the small one,” and walked away. The other coach had tried to do a switch – and I’ll probably face the bigger girl in another fight – but this was an amazing display of how fights are matched in Chiang Mai.
Waiting with the Camp Kids
I’m sitting with my back against my husband and he’s got his back against the fence. The Chinese kid who is fighting right after me is curled up with his cell phone to our right, Boy is sitting right in front of him, then Chopper, the 16-year-old addition to the gym from Isaan is kind of squished between them, there’s a young woman on the other side of them and Big is talking to her with his knees crossed against hers. I think she’s JR’s wife.
Andy arrives, all silhouette until he’s nearly right in front of me, holding the end of a leash which is attached to Pup at the other end. Pup is pulling and straining against his green harness, something he only wears when Andy takes him out to fights, and Andy’s other hand is cradling a 6-pack of beer. I wai to him from the floor and he gives me a big smile before handing the beer to one Thai boy (to put in the ice bucket) and the leash to Big. I tell him I’m the 6th fight, Aya (the Chinese kid) is 7th and Pak (a friend of Boy’s who’d never fought before but trains at the gym sometimes) was 8th: the last three fights. Andy said, “good, I have some things I have to do,” and off he went.
The Stadium is busier than usual. I can’t see the fights from where we’re sitting because there are so many men standing in front of us. The Thai boys never really watch the fights and it’s too early to wrap my hands, so they’re messing around with Aya’s phone. It seems that Aya is using a program on his phone to translate words from Chinese to Thai for Boy and Chopper. Boy and Chopper are really excited and I’m guessing that the words he’s translating are of keen interest to 16-year-old boys. Chopper keeps smiling, then getting really serious and circling his mouth with his index finger and then pointing to the phone. He must want Aya to look something particular up, but it’s getting lost in the sign language.
Four fights in Big finally gets the command from Den to wrap my hands. Den and Big arrange themselves on either side of me and start wrapping my hands simultaneously. I have to make a fist and spread my fingers at varying stages of the wrap and trying to keep it straight between both hands with two different wrappers is difficult. Big pinches me when I don’t make a fist fast enough. My friend Boom has appeared with a friend of hers to deliver some custom shorts and they’re watching with keen interest as my fists are gauzed and taped and mummified. When the wrapping is done both Den and Big hop over a few feet and start wrapping Aya. Boom and her friend Katie want me to stand up and take pictures with them, which I’m very happy to do. I love when women are excited about Muay Thai processes.
I’m sitting again, cradled on a little piece of mat between the puzzle pieces of my husband, Boy, Chopper, Aya, two of Boy’s friends who aren’t fighting and Big on the far side. Someone’s phone has a game on it which is an animation of a machine gun that makes a firing sound and spits shells and flares when you hit a button. The boys are beside themselves with delight over it, shooting at each other and periodically at Pup’s exposed maleness. They’re really cracking up at that one. Then Boy kind of looks sideways at me, tries to hid the phone with his shoulders while he repositions it and then he’s trying to fire at me, but I’m behind him and he keeps having trouble with the trigger. Chopper is looking at me dead serious and I feint an elbow across the back of Boy’s ear before saying, “sock jing-jing” which means, roughly, “elbow is real.”
Boy turns back to shooting at Pup and Chopper cracks up, his smile swinging over his face like a hammock between his ears and he repeats what I just said, twice, poking Boy to make sure he heard it. This is probably the first time I’ve conveyed a concept and told a joke in Thai. There’s not an app for that.
Wrapped and Ready
I’ve got my tank top on now, hands wrapped and body oiled, so I weave my way through the crowd to make one last trip to the restroom. I slide my way between two men, one of whom is Den, and slip past the elbow-high fence that separates the ticketed seats from the gamblers. As I make my way along the edge of the seats toward the restroom I am basically on display, runway style, for the front row of betters. They all look at me as I move past them, eyes taking inventory of my size, muscle, height, movement – anything that will give a clue to my potential odds in the fight. I smile at a few of the men who offer me a thumbs up, giving a wave to the few who sing, “Siv-vee-ah!” as I pass by, a moment of recognition rather than assessment.
I have to wait outside the bathroom door as a little 60 lbs kid is changing out of his fight shorts. While leaning against a cool stone wall I see Aya finding his way over toward me, but he gets called over by a Thai man sitting on the open bed of a truck. The Thai puts his cigarette in his mouth and taps the space next to him on the tail gate. Aya looks at me for only a moment before going over and taking a seat. Their exchange looks casual – they don’t share a language so there is a lot of gesturing – and when the little kid exits the bathroom he first gives me a look of shock and then bounces over to the truck where he switches places with Aya.
There is tremendous access to fighters among audience members and groups from the various gyms who have brought fighters. It’s not unusual for an unfamiliar coach, cornerman, or just some guy to have a pre- or post-fight exchange with a fighter. It’s wonderful, in a way. To me it solidifies the status of being a fighter as who you are and how you relate to the figures who shape and give meaning to that status, rather than it being relegated to the actions performed within the ring. As proof, I’m about to walk back along the fence, on display to the entire stadium with my chin up and my hands loosely at my sides – a posture that is the exact opposite of a fighter in the ring; for every 10 minutes I spend fighting in the ring, there are hundreds and thousands of hours outside of it that are also the fight experience.