Intensity and Purpose
I don’t believe I’ve ever trained harder than for my 22nd fight. It’s a different world of training and fighting here in Thailand, so to the western reader that sentence may be interpreted to mean I trained hard specifically for my 22nd fight, but that conclusion is incomplete.
In Thailand I don’t know who my opponent is until I am looking at her from across the ring, or when her camp walks by me in the stadium and they give me more than the “once over” and it becomes obvious who I’ll be fighting. There’s no studying of tape; no inference from her record, number of fights, etc.; I’m never told if she’s bigger than I am or if she’s orthodox or south paw. These things are determined within the fight itself, so there’s no training for a particular opponent so much as training because there’s an opponent in general.
When I say that I’ve trained harder than ever before it is in reference to the day-by-day experience of pushing myself to the edge of ability and facing my weakness straight on. With that experience in pocket I went into this fight thinking that I’d developed a particular set of skills that I expected to be at the ready; mainly: keeping my guard up to prevent further damage on my broken nose, cutting off the ring and using my stronger guard to improve speed and power in my kicks. Pretty simple.
If looking at only these three criteria, I can find positive references within the fight. My guard was better than it’s ever been and, though I did get hit in my nose it was only once; I did cut off the ring a few times; and I kicked more frequently and with more success than ever before. But at the same time I didn’t do enough to succeed in this fight. By “succeed” I don’t mean to win, I mean to have accomplished enough within the time frame and context of the fight to both see and feel tangible progress. I chased more than I cut off – as a point of fact, I’d trained circling to my right so strongly that I didn’t even notice within the context of the fight that it was when I circled to my left that my opponent was trapped. My guard was sloppy and inconsistent to the point that my strikes were open, imprecise and singular to an extent that I can count on one hand the number of combinations I threw.
It’s hard to feel yourself losing a fight within the fight itself. After round 1 Andy told me that my kicks were “beautiful” and to throw more. He’s been away for the entire duration of my training between these two fights, so he saw none of my progression in practice and must have been surprised to see me actually landing kicks. Without my guard in place, however, my kicks fell apart. As the rounds progressed my corner became frustrated by my catching of my opponents kicks – something I do automatically and without thought. Had I caught and swept her kicks, or even stepped back instead of charging in once captured, there would have been drastic changes in how that fight went. But I didn’t because I wasn’t aware of myself.
Andy kept telling me, “what you’re doing isn’t working, so do something else.” I couldn’t figure out “something else” for myself and by the 5th round Den was telling me, “you lose this fight if you don’t grab her and knee in the 5th. You can take this fight. No more kicks, just grab her, turn and knee, knee, knee.” So I stopped kicking and just charged but with more of the same. My opponent neutralized the clinch immediately (and I didn’t adjust by just throwing her, which would have been terrible for her tactic) and the ref broke it before I could really work to turn her. Den was screaming at me, “Sylvie quick, quick!” and I could feel his urgency, my body wanted to respond but I didn’t know how.
Directly after the fight, with my gloves being taken off by two of my teenaged cornermen, I asked Andy what I could have done. He’s brilliant at offering condensed advice in the form of sayings that motivate and inspire, but he’s reticent in offering specifics. He told me a handful of things I did wrong and reiterated how happy he was about my kicks at the start, then told me that the Thais were going to “take the piss out of me” for the next few days but that’s how they make me better. He said I was lucky that the Thai trainers were absent at the moment (they were cornering another fighter from our gym right after me) as they would likely be criticizing me right now. I laughed, but the truth is that I hardly ever get any feedback from my trainers right after a fight. Daeng will talk about me in Thai to Den right in front of me and I have powers of deduction strong enough to know what he’s on about, but he doesn’t say it to me. I think he knows that I know though.
It’s terrible to feel that I’ve let my trainers down. The urgency and frustration in their voices and faces every time I came to the corner was that of people who believe I can do something better, that my capacity is greater. Andy’s prefight words are always, “fight good,” and Den holds both shoulders while saying, “do your best.” I know that those words are not trite, despite their potential toward platitude. Den really wants me to do my best and when he sees me failing to reach that goal he is disappointed. I didn’t need to win that fight – he certainly thought I should have – to please Den, but I needed to fight to my capacity and potential.
In many ways I did fight to my capacity, or at least to the limit of my training. I’ve had a number of arguments with both Andy and Den regarding my need for sparring. They both tell me that because I fight so often I “don’t need” sparring, in addition to it being a potential detriment since I could get hurt. But because I don’t have the experience of having sparred a great deal prior to this, unlike the Thai boys who no longer spar and train pretty minimally before each fight, each having 50 or so fights to their names. So my experimentation comes through fighting – fighting is my sparring. So my learning curve is much slower than it can be and my capacity is limited to what I have practiced and very little of that has been practiced in the context of a fight. I’m like an actor who rehearses lines without the rest of the cast and gets to perform on stage every couple of weeks. How much more would her potential be with the addition of contact with other characters in the plot?
There’s a Chinese kid named Aya (oh-ye) who is visiting with his trainer, JR, who used to be a fighter and trainer at Lanna. Aya has it rough in China, training at a gym with an incredible teacher (JR) and practically no peers. Everyone at his gym is an “old man” according to JR – which basically means over the age of 30 to Thais – so he has no clinch, no sparring, no direct teammates. When Aya first showed up he would sheepishly tap at the bags while Den barked at him. Aya doesn’t speak Thai or English, so the communication was pretty difficult at first. He’s 15 years old and maybe 100 lbs. He’s built like a swan, all delicate length and concealed density with a modest center. He won his first fight with a knee K.O. and when he came back to training his newly earned credibility landed him in “Thai kid” status.
Trainers started ordering him around, hitting him when he wasn’t fast enough on the bag or backing up too much in the ring. He’d made it. Big kind of took him on as a friend or little apprentice and they started sparring together every day. Big beat the hell out of Aya and I was pretty impressed by how well Aya took it. He wasn’t just being bettered, which is expected alongside humiliation when going against really experienced Thai fighters at the gym, but he was also taking some damage to the thighs and arms from kicks that are definitely not full power, but far enough from “light” that it triggers the fight or flight chemicals in the body. Aya flitted around the ring like a caged bird, flapping from rope to rope until he was cornered, took a series of nasty blows and struck back with force and ineptitude before fleeing to another corner.
Big is a fantastic sparring partner for two reasons: 1) he will make it feel real by hitting hard enough to scare you and just barely light enough that you’ll recover in a couple days; and 2) he doesn’t back down even if you’re freaking out. The way out is through with Big; he doesn’t “let” you anything. I sparred with Big once a few months ago and it freaked the gym out. He beat me up and I stood in there. I was crying, snot and tears everywhere but I was still in it. I had a black eye swelling up on one side and he kept hitting me on that side until I figured out how to defend it. If you show your weakness, expect it to be exploited.
When the sparring between Aya and Big was finally finished they both hopped out of the ring. Aya kept rubbing his nose like it was broken (it wasn’t) and checking for blood (none), then sat closing into himself on the conditioning equipment at the front of the gym. Big sauntered over to the bathroom and rinsed his hands, fluffed his hair in the mirror and did some nose-to-mirror inspection of his skin. After he’d given Aya some time, he walked over and put his hand on Aya’s shoulder, smiled and patted his back. It was perfect – just like after a fight.
Aya fought directly after me on this last card. The reason I was spared the verbal whip or performed ignoring by my trainers was because they were in his corner when I exited the ring. Aya fought beautifully. He was quick and strong and deliberate. He latched on to his opponent and fed him heaping doses of knees into the sternum for half a round before the kid just decided not to get back up. The crowd cheered and Aya raised his hands high as he ran a lap around the ring. I turned to Andy and said, “that was awesome. Aya got his ass kicked all week by Big and now he gets to be the shark in the tank.” Andy smiled his big, genuine joy smile and nodded.
I know that’s what I need. I know that Den watches my bagwork and padwork, holds for me and feels my power and thinks that I look good in training and then can’t figure out why I fail in the ring. I don’t think he minds if I look ugly in the ring. He’s only interested in heart and he knows I have it; ugly fighters become beautiful fighters over time if they just get enough experience in the ring. When I asked him if I could fight again in one week he stared at me, steady, and said, “when you fight like this, you can always be ready to fight next day.” He was upset. He was telling me that if I don’t fight in a fight I will always be well enough to go again, whereas if I really put myself in there and fight hard I’ll need time between fights.
I hate disappointing my trainers because I don’t reach their expectations, which I’m grateful are high. But I also hate being disappointed that my own training – even when it’s the hardest I’ve ever had – does not prepare me for what I will realistically be facing in a fight. Den needs to see me fail in practice – in sparring – many times so that he is able to see where my shortcomings are before we ever move into a stadium setting. I guess what I’m saying is that my disappointment is more practiced than that of my trainers, but through the right kind of training, with the intention and intensity that I’m able to bring to it, our expectations will become more realistically aligned with my capacity. Then I will have done my best.