Twenty seconds into sparring with Den this afternoon, I’m already frustrated. There are hundreds of reasons why I shouldn’t be: Den has 300 fights to his name and that doesn’t happen without countless hours of training, of trying and retrying until “moves” become movement; he’s bigger than I am, faster than I am, has reach advantage and can see everything I’m thinking of doing while I’m still thinking it; and he’s laughing the whole time, reminding me each time he takes my breath away with a punch to the gut or a kick to my ribs that this is fun. It is, no matter how real my mind and body make it, just a game – it’s not a fight.
And so my tactic is to stay calm, dead-pan and non reactive to the ten kicks he’s landed on me and the punches that are causing my eyes to water in just the last minute of this first round. I’m trying to relax, to not think my next strike but just to throw it. I’m trying to maintain my balance and stance so that I’m at least ready to throw a punch or a kick even if I don’t actually get to it in the time it takes Den to hit me again or dance away. I’m pressed into the corner and can think of a dozen ways out but not one of them is actually happening.
Part of my petrified mind – a large part – comes from anticipation of increase. What the hell does that mean? It goes like this: when I was a kid I was the youngest, smallest kid in the family. My brothers picked on each other in the proper pecking order of their ages, but the younger brothers grew larger than the older brothers and eventually the possibility of evening the score worked out. I didn’t grow bigger than my brothers and my age gap was such that there was no way that my single-digit-aged body could cause damage to my pre-teen or teenaged brothers. If, at some point, I got in a Hulk-like rage and managed to hurt one of my brothers, the return was terrible and unfairly hard. My rage increased the energy of the altercation and it became scarier, more painful, more unfair in favor of my tormentor.
So I have this same fear when I’m sparring with a man who is making me feel impotent while he’s taking it easy on me. There is a beautiful thing in Muay Thai and the culture of Thailand and its particular masculinity that all “points” (meaning demonstrations of dominance, landed strikes, etc) must immediately be neutralized or matched – even in play, even when no one is watching. If I decide to just come forward and eat as many kicks or punches as it takes to reach Den and land something on him, there will be a quick and explosive response to bring the score back to Den’s favor. Every time I try to kick him I end up on the floor from my standing leg being swept; so I’m hesitant to kick. I get blasted into the ropes every time I land a punch on his arms, let alone to his body and I’m being conditioned to know that whatever dominance I show will result in a greater display of his power to correct the balance.
The lesson, then, is to know that you have it coming back to you and go anyway, while being prepared to launch a counter to the counter and so on. And just as the return of a blow is quick, the return to a neutral plane where anyone can score is equally fast. My dog is an Australian Cattle Dog or Blue Heeler (she stayed in America with my parents). The temperament of the breed is wonderful and bizarre and one of my favorite things about them is that they act first and think later; they are incredibly stubborn. If you push your Cattle Dog off the couch or accidentally kick it in the jaw because it’s following you too closely (happens a lot) it will “bottle nose” or nip you immediately to bring the score back to zero before giving you a “what was that?” look, or even an apologetic wag of the tale.
My ACD, Zoa.
In this same way the response from a Thai fighter will be immediate and too-fast-for-thought, but it doesn’t last. The escalation of energy is just enough to even the score or pull it into his favor and then it goes quiet again. Getting a strike in on Den does not mean the whole rest of the round is an overwhelming ass-kicking; the escalation, the increase is only enough to even the score and a second strike follows to tip the scale. It is not so much a fall down an endless rabbit hole, but rather a ball being juggled in mid-air.