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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

The Craft of Legendary Fighters - How Fighters Become Artists

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Chatchai and Sylvie.jpg

We were talking to Chatchai Sasakul, a fighter who fought so many of the greats in the Golden Age in Muay Thai, and then came into fame winning the WBC World Championship western boxing belt. He's in the Library here, and we are about to add another session with him. We were asking him why in his fight style back in the day he wasn't doing many of the things that he was advocating now. He said, "back then I didn't know". He looked at us like we were crazy, like "what do you think I've been doing for 20 years since I retired" or "of course I didn't know, I was young". It brought home for me one of the most special things about the Library. We talk about it as if it is preserving the literal techniques of the Golden Age, but it is much more than that. It's preserving those techniques AS they have undergone a period of reflection and refinement. If you talked to an active fighter you may very well get some very noteworthy pointers on how to fight. But if you talk to that fighter 15 or 20 years later you get something very different. You get those elements having passed through a very long stage of reflection. You get to see those elements, very often, taken up as craft.

samson isaan.jpg

Sometimes, if that fighter has fallen out from the fight game entirely, like maybe someone like Samson Isaan (in the Library here), and who is a taxi driver, this is mostly the craft of recollection, of memory. What he knows and thinks about are all the things that worked for him, and probably some of the things that didn't work for him, things that had success against him. The whole thing goes into a process of memory's slow boil, low and slow, and what you get is a condensed essence of fight knowledge, his style, under refinement. Even if he isn't actively working on improving on or conveying his fighting style, it has been worked on by memory and reflection. It is the art of his style, his knowledge.

On the other hand when you have someone like Sagat - you can find him in the Library here - this is someone who has been teaching Muay Thai for probably three decades. Not only is he bringing his fight style, the one he once had, but he has become a craftman about it. What he is teaching is a rarified, purified form of his fighting style, something that has been honed and polished over decades of communication and thought. What he is showing you in the ring today is very different than what he would have showed you 30 years ago. It is enhanced, has been worked on endlessly. Not in the "I've got to be a better teacher" way, but rather that each time you try to convey something you touch it a little, you change it, you add reflection on it. Sagat teaches a great deal of precision and correction on his strikes, as does Chatchai, who also has been teaching for years. Chatchai as a fighter would drift away on his jab. Today he insists, do not do this, this is stupid.

sagat and Sylvie.jpg

I've seen Sagat incorporate things into his teaching that I know he recently has experienced - for instance he has been helping General Tunwakom teach Muay Lertrit lately. These internal elbows are now in his mind, as he teaches movements. Sagat is 60 years old, and his Muay is still evolving. I've watch Karuhat come up with brilliant throws, things he is simply inventing on the spot, feeling his way on, things I've never seen before, because Karuhat when he was a fighter in his gym would always be experimenting, stealing things from others, dreaming up new wrinkles. When we look back in time, through our telescope of the Library it isn't like how starlight is reaching us from far away, how it was years ago. It's instead coming to us with immediacy, having passed through the reflections of these men, as they have become craftsmen, working on the raw materials of their fight days, lifting it to art.

Perhaps nobody is more like this than Master K, Sylvie's first instructor back in America. He's 80 years old now, and his Muay Thai is this incredible time capsule of Muay Thai before the Golden Age, the Muay Thai of the late 1960s 1970s. But...it also is filtered and hand sanded by the mind of a Thai man who was no longer in Thailand, reflected on, improved and dreamed up through watching the great boxers of the decades, long ruminations in his own basement kicking the bag until 2 AM, the result of a craft-work of elaboration and self-creation. I think that is what a lot of us miss. These men, all of these men, are producing the work of their mind, as artists, as creators, bringing to life and carrying forward a new thing. It isn't just their techniques, or even their fighting styles. It's the fecundity of the years since they stopped fighting. It is their meditation.

What is also kind of incredible is that these ruminations, these craft-works, have been documented and continue to be documented. And that Sylvie has first hand seen them.
You can see the full library here.

 

master K and Sylvie.jpg

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The ruminations of these great men are fascinating. You hit it in one. They have gone from journeymen to craftsmen and all the steps in between. Like everyone, as we age we don't see things or do things the way we did thirty years ago. Everything undergoes evolution. 

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7 hours ago, Jeremy Stewart said:

The ruminations of these great men are fascinating. You hit it in one. They have gone from journeymen to craftsmen and all the steps in between. Like everyone, as we age we don't see things or do things the way we did thirty years ago. Everything undergoes evolution. 

In everything we do in life too if its going as it should. At 48 I dont train like I did at 30 or 15. My style "evolved" from a take one to give one, tank style fighter to more muay Femur out of necessity from too much damage in my youth. Seeing these fighters turn coach and evolve is like sipping fine wine. Makes me excited for all the fighters I love watching now and where they will head in the later years. 

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15 hours ago, Coach James Poidog said:

In everything we do in life too if its going as it should. At 48 I dont train like I did at 30 or 15. My style "evolved" from a take one to give one, tank style fighter to more muay Femur out of necessity from too much damage in my youth. Seeing these fighters turn coach and evolve is like sipping fine wine. Makes me excited for all the fighters I love watching now and where they will head in the later years. 

In one of Sylvie's videos, I think it was with Sagat. His eye's just lit up, I can't do the feeling I got from seeing that with words that do it any justice. I'm pretty sure all I could come up with was, wow look at his eyes. But those eyes were a great insight to him at that very moment in time.

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I love how your juxtaposition of different fighters’ craft is shared from first hand observation. I sense the awe and appreciation for each fighter's “chosen” style of preservation (for example, Samson v Karuhat). Especially given the mission - “Preserve the Legacy,” I think it is special to tap into individual modes of preservation bc each legend’s relationship to the art is absorbed and “shelved” differently in their mind and muscle memory. Thank you for this angle in the forum! 

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    • This idea of "soul stuff" (from Wolters) is summarized by Michael Charney in his book on Southeast Asian Warfare, woven together with his own thesis from the historical record, that in warfare "soul stuff" could be captured, as expressed in the old cultures of headhunting.
    • On pages 17-19 he introduces the concept of "soul stuff", specifically in the context of the "cognatic kinship" of the lowland regions of Mainland Southeast Asia: This kinship is one in which inheritance and conceptual descent passes equally from males and females. Importantly, powers (rights and otherwise) are not confined by particular gender. These are not family trees of continuous energetic progeny, of men or women, but rather individuals are emphasized by in the genealogy, by their performance. What he is breaking away from is the idea that "power" (however it is conceived, is much less structured by institutional positioning, and not even by lines of familial descent, than by the idea that through performance one can acquire, and also signify personal power..."soul stuff". You didn't get it from your "title" or your father, per se.     If you've been in Thailand long you'll recognize the "big men" of political or social power. He though places this within a larger idea of "prowess", which some sense of martial performance. (In the appendix in the post above emphasis is on spiritual performance, even to the degree of asceticism, in Balinese and Javanese cultures which perhaps DO place more emphasis on direct lineage). The idea he's forwarding though is one of almost spiritual (or even charismatic) social mobility, as endemic to mainland Southeast Asia, achieved through performance, read as "prowess".  
    • This is a transcription of Appendix A of the preeminent anthropologist O. W. Walter's History Culture and Religion in Southeast Asian Perspectives (1982, 1999/2004), covering a very significant principle of his interpretation of early Southeast Asian beliefs. It is for him an essential under-belief which animates meaningful social structures within different SEA cultures, and for the study of the history and meaning of Siam/Thailand's Muay Thai it can be particularly illuminating. It's not a text I could find online, so I put it here. Miscellaneous Notes On "Soul Stuff" and "Prowess" I became interested in the phenomena of "Soul Stuff" when I was studying the "Hinduism" of seventh-century Cambodia and suspected that Hindu devotionalism (bhakti) made sense to the Khmers by a process of self-Hinduization generated by their own notions of what Thomas A. Kirsch, writing about the hill tribes of mainland Southeast Asia, calls "inequality of souls". 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Potent humans and also potent rocks, for example, are said to be in "the state of kerre (makerre)". Sumange is associated with descent from the Creator God and signified by white blood, but this is not always so. Individuals with remarkable prowess can suddenly appear from nowhere, and the explanation is that they are makerre. Kerre is not invariably contingent on white blood.  In Bali the Sanskrit word sakti ("spiritual energy") is associated with Vishnu. Vishnu represents sakti engaged in the world, and a well-formed ancestor group is the social form required to actualize sakti. But sakti is Bali is not related to immobile social situations, for Vishnu's preferred vehicle is "an ascendant, expanding ancestor group." Such a group is led by someone of remarkable prowess.  Benedict Anderson in his essay on "The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture," does not refer to "soul stuff"; his focus is on Power, or the divine energy which animates the universe. 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