I get excited by the idea of fighting with other fighters from the gym – I like the shared experience of preparations, watching each other get our hands wrapped in order of who fights first, the low hum of anticipation and relaxation of performing actions that have taken place so many times before. It’s not my excitement or boredom, it’s that dissolved into the shared waters of our experience.
It’s not an experience I get very often. Frequently I’m scheduled with other fighters from the gym and then when it comes time for the actual event the other fighters have been rescheduled to another night and I’m the only one who remained fixed. This is Thailand – fights can be arranged and rearranged at a moments notice and that’s part of what I love about this process as opposed to the rigidity (despite so much uncertainty) of promotions in the US.
As it happened, I was supposed to fight on the same card as Big and Off this past Tuesday, October 23rd. On fight day when I arrived at the gym for my oil massage and shadowboxing, only my name was on the board and Big and Off had been moved to Friday. I feel disappointed at the loss of the shared experience, but I’m also happy to fight either way and will enjoy going to watch the boys fight in the very different-feeling experience of a spectator.
I waited for a long while, sitting on the warped, wooden benches that line the cement wall that acts as a partition between the road and the gym for a Thai boy to appear so that I could ask for my oil massage. I chatted with Andy about Hill Camp and watched as the new puppy, Lucky, tortured the even newer puppy (unnamed as of now) with a glee I recognize as her relishing being the bigger dog for once. Their soft little bodies roll around under our seats, behind our legs, and little whelps and almost-dog-sounding barks punctuate our silences. I watch as the gym begins to stir with activity and I feel comfortably outside of it, still waiting for any of the boys to appear.
Finally I decide I’ll skip the massage and just rub some Thai oil on the back of my stiff right leg before stepping into the gym space – like wading into lapping water – to shadowbox. My limbs are a little stiff from taking the day off, but they waken with every movement, remembering the arcs of kicks, the snaps of punches. After about five minutes Den stops in his tracks and asks me if I’m oiled. I say, “no” and explain why, to which he shakes his head and says I shouldn’t shadow before the massage because sweating makes the oil burn. I laugh because the oil burns anyway, but I’m a good student and I agree to towel off and wait for an oil massage.
I wipe myself down with the extra T-shirt I wore to the gym over my tank top in order to avoid the strange and somewhat exposed feeling I get from the eyes on the street between my apartment and the gym. I’m not dressed any less than many of the young Thai women on the road, but for whatever reason my strange, foreign and muscular body appears far more naked in comparison to the soft, long-limbed locals. Inconveniently, removing a shirt once within the gym walls makes me appear more naked than if I’d just appeared in the tank top to begin with.
Den lets me sit for a few minutes before he lifts the corner of my tank top to feel the skin on my side to see if I’m still sweating. It’s Thailand, so the skin is still hot and a little damp. He laughs and tells me to lie down anyway. He failed to locate any of the boys to do my massage also, so I cover my face with my shirt against the afternoon sun as Den begins the massage himself. It’s unusual to be massaged by a trainer – these oil massages are grunt work for the lower status teens to execute and, having experienced my share of pre-fight oil rub-downs, it’s remarkable how differently a grown man goes about the massage as compared to a 16 or 19 year old boy. There’s a nervousness and at once disinterest in the process of teenagers who are completing a chore that is at once a transgressive mixed-gender process – the more boys involved the more giddy they may be by the shared experience. Grown men are methodical, steady and patterned in their approach, each muscle addressed in exactly the same way it has been and will be addressed forever more. But Thai men are also charmingly eternally boyish and Den begins making fun of me because my skin is turning red as the oil seeps into my pores and, indeed, burns.
When I get back up and begin shadowboxing I marvel at how much better it feels than without the oil. The Thai oil is made with chilies, something immediately evident in its powerful, nasal opening aroma. With or without sweat the oil goes on hot and burns but quickly simmers down into a low ember that warms the muscles. Limbs whip through the air with ease and looseness that feels like flying, cool wind blowing over the skin as it cuts through the air. It’s like splashing cold water on sport-flushed cheeks.
By the time I get in the shower to rinse off the burn, heat and energy of the oil has worn off. The strong menthol smell has sunk into the skin (and will not be eliminated by mere mortal water and soap) and muscles begin to feel normal again. It’s a quick magic.
After dinner I get a phone call from Andy, just an hour before we would be heading over to the gym to drive down to the venue, that the fight is cancelled. I’m not surprised but I am disappointed. It halts the rituals that lay ahead for the night and it highlights the meaninglessness of those that led to this moment – the day off from training, the oil massage, the laying out of my fight clothes and collecting of necessary items. Andy says he’s not sure why the fight was cancelled but that maybe I’ll be put on Friday’s show with Big and Off. It doesn’t feel better, but I do prefer a postponement to a full cancellation. It’s been 11 days since my last fight and it is exactly 11 days until my next scheduled fight. It already feels like too long since I was in the ring and the thought of waiting twice as long again plus missing a fight feels more significant than it actually is in the grand scheme of things.
So I set my alarm to wake up for training in the morning. My schedule is set for fighting – I fight at 10:00 – 12:00 at night which is much later than my training schedule which has me waking up at 6:00 AM to run, so I can’t fall asleep until it’s nearly dawn and I wake up after only a few hours sleep. It would make sense to take the morning off to try to get back on schedule as if I’d fought (I usually return to training the next afternoon), but because I need to be ready to fight on Friday I want to get back to training immediately.
My sleepiness crumbles off me like so much dry sand as I walk to the gym, but I remain drained due to the lack of sleep. The gym is tired, too. There is only one other fighter, a Thai man who is about to have his first Muay Thai fight after years of training and he’s just beaming with energy and strength. The trainers display their different manners: Neung, a newer trainer, sweeps the men’s ring; Daeng stands watching Neung from the floor, kind of spacing out; Nook sits on the edge of the women’s ring, rubbing his bad leg; and Den is sitting on the benches by the wall of the gym. He smiles with sleepy eyes as I wai to him and points at Daeng, “his fault you don’t fight,” he says. Apparently my fight was moved to Friday along with Big and Off in the first place, but that fact got lost in communication between the promoter and Daeng at the time of the initial move. I’m just happy that I’m fighting on Friday for sure.
It’s been a long sequence of unexpected events, none of which are actually so far out of the ordinary. Fights moving so that I’m the only fighter, no boys to give the oil massage, cancellation of my fight on short notice is the first time for me but isn’t that unusual at all, the disruption of my training-to-fighting schedule… all of these things are unexpected but none really should be. It’s Thailand and things can change at a moment’s notice, which is also something I love about it.
At the end of training I was doing drills on the bag and Andy came over to ask me how I feel. It’s a trick question when Andy asks it, so I’m always great. I tell him I plan on training tomorrow morning, despite it being a “rest day” as the day prior to a fight because I had already taken a day off for the fight that was moved. He agreed it was a good idea and added, “you should probably train in the afternoon as well. Maybe even some light training the morning of your fight.”
I felt a grin spread across my face and could feel it all the way down in my chest. I’d expected agreement to training a little the day before the fight, but Andy had not only accepted that as a good idea but upped the ante as well. This would never happen in the US – to be fair, none of any of this would happen in the US. My first words were, “I love Thailand!” I explained to Andy that I’ve already stopped taking the day before fights off completely (as most other fighters do) because it makes me feel tired; my body isn’t used to days off and it seems to me that a little training keeps me fresh without failing to have time to get good rest for the fight itself. Andy nodded, “I know lots of top fighters who train the morning of their fights,” he said. “Now is the time for trying things out, see what feels good to you and play with it a little bit; experiment.”
I love so much that affecting a fight isn’t a bad thing, it’s how you learn what is right for you. Patterns and rituals are good guidelines – I get my oil massage and shadow before a fight because I was told this is what you do, but I’ve since made small adjustments to when I get the massage or how I shadow. Other than Den’s refrain, “eat good, sleep good,” he doesn’t bother much with how one prepares for a fight outside of training hard. There’s no “do what the gym says because it’s the best and only way” approach; there’s no desire for that kind of control by the trainers here. The important thing, to me, is that despite mishaps, miscommunications, disruption of rituals or expectations the fights will go on. And that’s the only certainty I need.