Understanding is Simple Addition: Control of the Self and the Fight in Muay Thai

 Brother My brother Shane and I are close in disposition and age; he is two years my elder.  As the younger siblings we were subjected to both the physical...

My brother Shane and I are close in disposition and age; he is two years my elder.  As the younger siblings we were subjected to both the physical maturity and emotional immaturity of our older two siblings and, though I have written here about my difficulties in being the youngest and the odd girl out, I think Shane had it harder in some ways as the youngest brother.

Our similarities, however, have always allowed us to learn from one another in a way that I feel is deeper than what you learn from a sibling who is farther away in age, one whose footsteps you follow or whose struggles you witness from the safety or insensitivity of being at a different stage of development.

Toughening Up

A few of mornings ago I Skyped with my parents and Shane, who is at the nest for a couple months before departing to a year abroad to work on his Philosophy Ph.D dissertation.  During that talk Shane remarked that he’d been moved by one of my blog posts on the difficulty of sparring with a trainer who I had no chance of bettering.  He identified with my description of my body betraying me and my struggle to appear pleased by the experience so that it would be viewed as positive by my trainer and increase the chances of it happening repeatedly, while at the same time fighting back tears because the experience, while positive for me is also incredibly emotionally difficult to me as it’s occurring.  Shane identified with the experience, with the betrayal of one’s emotional response to a situation in which appearing “tough” is more beneficial, by recalling how our oldest brother tormented him (endlessly) when Shane was young with the explanation that he was “toughening him up.”

Shane said he’d wanted to respond to the post but wasn’t certain he’d developed an adequate statement yet, but he did post this reply shortly after that conversation:

I had been imagining that when you stepped into the ring, the contest might be described in terms like these: to the fighter who can best control her body goes the victory; and perhaps this superiority is decided by which fighter can best control not only her own body, but in so doing can also in a way control the body of her opponent.

But now, reading your comments above, I understand better how you can say that you have despaired more at some victories than ever you did at some defeats, and rejoiced more at some defeats than ever you did at some victories. If now I understand correctly, the contest is not about dominating your own body and that of your opponent, using both however you wish; but the contest is rather about knowing that you yourself are at the top of your game, that your will and your body are as one – neither failing the other or falling behind. If you can feel that way, who cares whether your opponent gets in more hits?


Shared Truth

Interestingly, just after the conversation with Shane I’d gone to breakfast and had a discussion on this same distinction.  Shane’s first understanding is not a false one and is, indeed, the way judges objectively score a fight.  The fighter who is stronger, better conditioned, more effective, emotionally and psychologically unaffected and with greater physical equilibrium wins.  Every time.  Controlling the space, one’s own body and the movement and will of one’s opponent is the perfect fight.

But it’s all of these things in measure.  If you’re going to try to out-strength your opponent then the fight will be close physically where small details have great weight.  If you are only going to dominate physically, then you’re asking for a close fight.  Whereas if you try to out-perform your opponent, with grace, flow, relaxation and joyful or playful finesse, then the physical domination becomes part of a greater overall dominance of the fight and it won’t appear close.

The other night we watched Saenchai fighting on TV against a fellow from Uganda named Umar Semata.  Honestly, I’ve never seen a foreigner look so good against a really experienced and stylistic Thai fighter, but Semata still got blown out of the water by Saenchai’s playfulness, finesse and unwavering confidence.  Semata was visibly frustrated and appeared brittle in comparison to the fluidity of Saenchai’s movement.  It wasn’t physical at that point – any gap in strength had been pried open by technique and spirit to make the overall disparity between the two seem boundless.

The example of Saenchai’s fight speaks to the second part of Shane’s comment.  To be unaffected by your opponent, whether she’s landing more points is almost not relevant compared to your reaction to it.  Shane’s description isn’t wrong but is incomplete in that it disregards the opponent for the sake of personal exploration, rather than dismissing the effects of the opponent’s strikes.  A fight is not an individual experience, one that is a personal and introverted growth amidst distraction.  Rather, the fight is a physical and psychotic event into which you’ve almost disappeared, becoming part of something greater than the sum of your individual parts of body against body.

The struggle is over who gets to shape the thing of which you are both part, who gets to steer when the wheels must only turn one direction at once.  The strength of the body against another body will always be measured by similarity – two fighters in the ring are meant to be equals in nearly every measurable way – and that fight will be won by inches.  But the strength of one will against another, confidence against question and joy against effort will be a far more deliberate fight, one that is measured by disparity that grows as the fight wears on.  This is where the two understandings presented by my brother Shane collapse into a single experience, both equal in possibility – a close physical dominance or a broad disparity of will.


Read the post and Shane’s full comment here




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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay


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