It’s incredible how much happens in a single evening. Maybe it’s part of being “outside” of the culture in which one is immersed, as it attunes the mental and emotional feelers to everything and little details create sensational waves of experience: a 2-year-old girl practicing her wai for temple on top of an ice bin; a family of 5 packed onto a motorbike; a family of chickens fleeing under a garden fence as I run by whereas the dog sleeping two feet away was no problem at all.
Going to fights is just such a thing. Not only is one in a state of heightened awareness because one is about to enter into a situation in which that skill is greatly needed, but fight nights are an exaggerated opportunity for people-watching. And people are amazing.
Two teenaged boys from New Zealand were put on Friday’s fight card on short notice and with three of us fighting on one card, the back of Andy’s pickup was packed full of fighters, cornermen and spectators. I nestled comfortably into a small corner of the bed of the truck with Kevin creating a third wall on my left, his arm crossed over in front of me to hold the tailgate and sealing me in all snug. On the edge of the tailgate sat the father of the New Zealand boys (only one is really his son, but he’s a father to both out here in Thailand), next to him sat Wung and packed in tight were Off, one of the fighters and two young men from England and Australia. We chatted about fights, MMA, training, and boxing.
As we rounded a corner that brings us parallel to the Mae Ping river we passed by a large, white, hive-shaped monument that often has blessing chains hanging on it (flowers that can be hung around the neck or on statues, doors, etc). The Thai boys always wai to the hive and as Wung did this the father of the New Zealand boys followed suit. A silence fell over the occupants of the truck and Wung asked, “do you know this one?” The father shook his head “no” and Wung began to explain that there had been a conest between Myanmar and Siam at the river. I asked my Thai teacher a few days later and it was a diving contest. The Burmese came up after 2 minutes and the contestant from Lanna stayed down more than 10 minutes. They sent divers to go find out what happened and discovered he’d tied his legs to rocks, sacrificing himself for victory and winning independence for Lanna. The bones of that diver are entombed within the Chedi. I looked out over the inky water, flashing with lights from the night market alongside it. There was a beauty to that moment that was suspended in the stillness of the water, the lightness of the air that whipped through the back of the truck as we crossed over the final bridge.
Upon arriving at the stadium we all jumped out of the truck and headed over to the gate. I picked up a copy of the fight card and scanned it twice before realizing that my name was at the top – I was the first fight of the night and was not facing the girl I’d anticipated, but rather was rematching (for our 4th meeting in the ring) Yordying sor Sumalee (you can see and read more about that fight here). Been a while since I was the first bout and I felt good as we passed into the stadium and spread out the bamboo mats.
Only a few minutes after setting up our “green room” Den told me to sit down so he could wrap my hands. Man, it’s such a different experience getting ready right away rather than waiting a few hours, timing visits to the doctor, the bathroom, hand wrapping, oil massage and shadow to the pace of fights. Den had Off helping him with the tape, sticking 4 inch strips to the leg of his pants and then rolling them like clay snakes to be plastered over my knuckles in strips, building up the knuckle. As Den was finishing the first layer of the wrap Wung appeared and sat on the other side of me, taking my left hand to begin wrapping.
It’s bizarre to have two people wrapping my hands at the same time. Not only do I have to split my concentration between the two, watching and listening to see who wants a fist and who wants the hand open and trying to keep both arms very still, but I end up with drastically different feeling (and structured) wraps. Wung looked over and started copying the snakes that Den had made. Before beginning to affix them to my knuckle, however, he picked up the half-page flier that had pictures of all the Farang fighters of the night (including a picture of me that the promoter had taken at the camp earlier that week) and folded it over until it fit across my knuckles. Then he taped it down and started building the snakes over it. He integrated my image into my own fist. I watched with some fascination and a little disbelief as Wung kept building. After many layers he asked me to slam my knuckles into my opposite palm to check the plaster. My fist stuck to my palm and peeled away – it felt good, I guess. Wung nodded and began wrapping the cotton Thai wraps over the pile of snakes.
With my hands wrapped Boi and Off told me to go change so they could do my oil massage. I looked over to the right of the mats and saw a string of Thai teens (and pre-teens; some of those kids looked really young) sitting on the ground next to our “green room” – because huge lights shine through a green tarp keeping people from seeing the fights from the parking lot the whole area by us is bathed in green light They were smoking and gawking with equal conviction and I decided it was better to go change into my shorts in the restroom rather than right there on the mats as I normally do. (I wear long boxer-briefs under my shorts, so changing is swift and pretty unspectacular.) When I came back in my shorts I told Boi I was going to run over to the doctor before the massage – it seemed inappropriate to get oil all over the doctor’s blood pressure strap. I removed my zippered sweatshirt and hurried over to the doctor’s table, feeling the row of little pre-teen heads turn as I did.
The doctor is cool. He likes to tell me I’m small as he puts a little check next to my name and then pretends that my arms are too big to fit in the blood-pressure gauge. On my way back to the mats, a mere 40 feet away, three different Thai men tell me to grab my opponent and knee her. “Not slow,” they tell me, “fast, fast, knee, knee.” Two even offer a pantomime demonstration of what I should do. I laugh and nod my head, then hurry back to the mat.
I kick my shoes off and try to figure out where the boys want me to lie down because they’re both still sitting on the mats. I see Wung walk over from wherever he was standing over by the betting area and tell the Thai teenagers to beat it, seemingly telling them that they can’t smoke next to me because I’m fighting, but I can feel (and everybody can tell) he’s sparing me from having a row of boys gawking at me as I have to lift my shirt and lie down to get my oil massage. It was a gesture of protection and honor from Wung and he was doing right by me. The boys only moved about 10 feet away and Boi told me to flip around on the mat so that my feet were pointed toward them – a rude gesture in Thai culture and it was absolutely not by accident.
After the massage I warm up a bit. More Thai men come up to me to tell me to throw knees and I start to shadow box. Finally it’s time to go over to the ring and I climb up and go under the ropes to take a bow to empty judges seats (not there yet) and to a completely silent audience. I go to my corner and Andy puts on the Mongkol. We stand in our corners as the Royal Anthem plays and then it’s time to fight.
The walk back to the mats after the fight is to the meter of betters giving me thumbs up, smiling because they’ve made some money and a few of them giving honorary knees to the air as I pass. The boys unwrap my hands, abandoning my left one when a piece of tape refuses to budge and I’m fiddling with it as Andy talks to me about everything I did wrong. This is good – if he only says negative things, you know you did a lot of things well. Finally Ben comes over and uses his keys to cut the tape and then drops them on the mat behind him as he unwraps the rest of my hand. I see Daeng immediately grab Ben’s keys and stuff them underneath a towel on the mat to hide them, then jumps up from his seat and stands a little distance away so that Ben won’t suspect the keys were moved by him. It goes unnoticed for along time. As we’re peeling the one-piece plaster off of my hand Wung jumps over and tells me to keep track of it – his handy work – so that we don’t have to take so long each time. I only have one, I’ll have to ask him to make me a second one at the camp this week, but I happily put it in my bag for later.
The next fight after mine is also women, at 60 kg, but the Thai corner is from my “enemy” gym, JitAree. I love their fighter – she’s a total tank and tough as hell. The woman she’s fighting is Australian, from a Globo-Gym type and there’s no way she’s only 60 kg. I know this isn’t unusual – my fight was listed at 50 kg and my opponent and I each weigh on either side of that, with me at 46 kg usually. But it’s a brawl and from a western standpoint the Australian is winning, but from Thai scoring (and we’re in Thailand) she’s throwing strings of punches that aren’t scoring as they hit the Thai’s guard. As we’re watching I see Chopper come through the gate and walk over to me. I laugh and tell him I’m already finished fighting. He laughs and then realizes I’m serious, then apologizes for missing it. I think it’s awesome that he was 20 minutes late and missed my entire fight.
In the middle of the card is a fight between a Farang and a Thai fighter from the police gym. The police gym is close with Lanna and some of their fighters train with us before fights. I really like the guy I call “swimmy knee kid” and I see him prepping their fighter to walk into the ring. The foreign fighter is crazy tall – probably 6’5″ at least – and Kevin jokes that he looks like the guy we saw on TV last week fighting at Lumphini. Then we watch his Ram Muay and start to believe it actually is the guy we saw on TV. So I go look at the card to see what gym he’s from (it’s Globo-Gym) and mention it to Andy and he says that yes, this guy is the same guy we saw fight on TV at Lumphini. Andy doesn’t say nice things and then sounds upset that he’s fighting “Bo”, the Thai fighter. It’s ridiculous to see the two men stand in the center of the ring as they touch gloves – the westerner is about a foot taller and probably has 30 lbs on Bo. The fight looks similar to the fights I saw on TV – I saw the western guy fight twice with one loss and then a rematch a few weeks later which he won through the sheer exhaustion of the Thai fighter. After he won that fight he did this ridiculous “chicken dance” in the ring and got a 20 second interview with the hosts of Lumphini, which I’ve never seen before. His style isn’t beautiful, but I’d thought, “good for him for coming back with an answer” for the second fight.
The Lumphini Fighter
Watching this fight now in the ring in front of me was an intense version of watching that same fight on TV. The crowd was going crazy, nearly divided in half with loud cheers for each fighter’s landed strikes. Bo was incredible – he caught a kick and then head kicked the westerner (freaking a foot above his own head!) and was launching jumping elbows. This western dude can take a punch the way King Kong takes bullets from airplanes and as the rounds went by he started catching Bo in the clinch and landing knees. He was so much taller that just bringing his knee up to a normal level was landing in Bo’s upper ribs and sternum and once he got a good hold of Bo it ended with a kind of turned knee into the rib. Bo collapsed and couldn’t get up, even when his corner came to collect him. The westerner did his chicken dance, the 20 people in his corner went crazy and two drunken Brits stood up and started singing some pub song with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders.
It was an exciting fight, so I can see how one get’s amped by the crowd and when you’re in the ring, you’re there to fight and do what’s necessary to win. But the display was disrespectful. A huge group carried Bo over to his gym’s mats and he laid down with a large group (including most of our gym) gathered around him. Wung went to work massaging his ribs and stomach – Bo was really in a lot of pain – and the westerner sat in a chair right next to the commotion. After Wung had taken care of Bo he went over to the westerner and started asking him how much he weighs. They guy said 75 kg, which was what was listed on the sheet of paper and Wung didn’t believe him, “80!” he insisted and the guy shook his head, “no, 75.”
Ben and Andy:
Size discrepancies between westerners and Thais are a dime a dozen in Thailand. Usually it’s a trade off of size for experience and I don’t think this was an exception. Bo was clearly a much more skilled fighter and was, quite obviously, winning that fight. His mistake was allowing himself to get caught by a giant, coming in to trade at clinching range. If he’d danced and fought defensively it would have been a blow out – the westerner almost didn’t land anything other than knees. What bothered me about it was the attitude of the westerner and his entire camp (and the two dudes in the crowd). If I knocked out a girl I outsized by that much I don’t think I’d be gloating about it, no matter how skilled she was. I don’t know who that guy could reasonably fight in Thailand – he’s so tall that there’s not even a stock of other Farang he could face off against and with that height comes serious weight, which in-shape Thais simply don’t meet. I don’t think he was 75 kg (165 lbs). Kevin walked by him to do a “drive by” height test and at 6’1″ Kevin looked a good 3 inches shorter. This guy is lanky, but he’s solid. I don’t know – I weigh less than what I look because of my muscular build. Again, it’s not the size disparity, it was – on this particular occasion – the attitude of the team, the fighter and certain attendees in the crowd.
The final fights of the night were the two New Zealand boys. They only had one pair of shorts with red on them, so they shared, which was actually kind of cool. The first kid went in and was tight and serious right off the bat. He started throwing straight clinch knees and it was clear it wouldn’t last long. I told the kid waiting to go in that he should start warming up, even while he was watching his friend. “If – if – this goes all 5 rounds you have about 15 minutes until you’re in there,” I told him after round 1. I think it was a round 3 KO by knees, the exact knees Daeng had been working with the boys on. Both were ecstatic and the first fighter nearly crashed into his friend as he ran back to the mat and stripped off the shorts to trade and get the other kid in there. “Throw knees!” he said.
The second fight started out strong and got strange after the first round. The Thai fighter somehow decided he was going to box and the New Zealand kid did a great job of covering and just letting his opponent wear out. He wasn’t quite experienced yet to know how to attack and get points while being punched, but he did once throw a beautiful left kick into his opponent’s ribs while he was punching and the guy backed off 10 feet and stayed back for a while. There were spinning backfists and exchanges back and forth that threatened to turn the fight in different directions. By the 4th round the two of them looked so exhausted that the announcer actually said, “final round!” at the starting bell. The crowd was cheering and some women behind me were laughing at the loping punches of the exhausted blue corner. At the end of the round the fighters sat in their corners, obviously indicating a fifth round and when the bell rang the Thai fighter wouldn’t come out and the ref counted him out while the New Zealand boy jumped into the middle of the ring and did an impressive number of clap-pushups to show his fitness. Then he ran and leaped over the top rope, almost doing a cartwheel down into the crowd.
Home in the Truck
At the end of the night when all fighters have a win to ride home on, the joy in the back of the truck is an excited hum. Den was so happy as he climbed in the back of the truck and Wung tucked himself behind one of the New Zealand boys as he sat on the corner of the tailgate. (Two years ago I sat in that spot and Wung kicked me out, pointing to the plastic on the gate and pretended his name was carved into it, “Says name: Wung!”) Den told the boys that because they are leaving on Tuesday, on Monday they must spar with him so they can go home with “blue eyes.” I love fight nights.