I’m seated, hunched over on this plastic bench at the far end of the gym and dripping sweat into a puddle at my feet. Angie is sitting on the wooden chair next to me, our knees almost touching and forming a “V” as we try to face each other. She’s soaked with sweat as well, which gives her this kind of glow in orange light of sunset that shoots through the gaps in the tin roof. Angie is slowly wrapping her hands as we chat, each of our voices occasionally drowned out by the slapping of kicks against pads of the interrupting shouts from training. She’s telling me about a series of interviews she’s had over the past couple weeks, since she became the first Trans fighter to compete (and win by KO) at Lumpinee Stadium. She’s telling me that everyone keeps asking her if she wants to be champion. She seems embarrassed by this question, in fact she kind of laughs as she repeats it and says, “impossible,” because she’s still so new to fighting. That’s not the point though, I tell her. There are all kinds of belts, all kinds of people who hold championship titles with all kinds of standards. The belt isn’t the point, I tell her. Look at Somrak Khamsing, Thailand’s first Olympic Gold medalist in western boxing and one of the all-time great Muay Thai fighters, perhaps the best ever – he never even fought for a belt. It was political and the politics weren’t in his favor. That doesn’t make him a lesser fighter, it makes belts less distinct as a signifier for greatness. “I want to be a great fighter,” I say to her, “which you can do with or without a belt.” Angie is studying my face, considering what I’m saying. “I look at my favorite fighters, the greats from the Golden Age, they can fight anybody. Their muay is incredible. That’s the part I’m reaching for; that’s the part I want.” Angie is nodding. “Forget the possibility,” I say to her, “do you want to be champion, with or without a belt?” Angie looks shy again. She giggles and twists her mouth. “Yes,” she finally says. This makes me smile.
This conversation is in some ways a realization for me, one that took many years. I used to say I wanted to be “good,” which honestly doesn’t mean anything. That’s why it’s a crap goal, because there’s no definition to those lines. It’s not even exciting. Like, even if it was possible to wake up one morning and think, “wow, I’m finally good,” what does that even mean? It’s not motivating. And you never wake up to that thought; even if you’re really, really good. But when I watch these legends move in space, when they’re showing me something or just slipping into their muay for a second in order to be what they are, it’s breath-taking. Recently I was at Poptheeratham Gym to train with Samart, one of most loved fighters of all time. He would break periodically to stand in front of a fan, explaining his very moderate, out-of-breath moments by saying he hadn’t trained anyone, or himself, in 2 years. He also recently had a relatively mild heart attack (he’s fully recovered), which is something to consider as well when marveling at how his version of “out of shape” is pretty epically super-heroish compared to most average versions of out of shape. But here’s the thing: Samart is 56 years old and spends way more time doing filming and celebrity-type appointments than working on his Muay, but his balance is incredible, to this day. It’s what struck me like a thunderclap when I was in front of him. He starts to move to show a technique and it’s like music. Like, he couldn’t do it wrong if he tried (Cus D’Amato). Same with my very first trainer, Master K. His heart was nearly choked before he had angioplasty to open his arteries and his movements and energy with 70% of his heart closed off was still so far beyond what any novice can do. Like, Jimmy Page is never going to be “good” at guitar. When Jimmy Page picks up a guitar, it doesn’t matter what he plays, it’s like the instrument is an extension of his soul. That’s what real yodmuay Muay Thai looks like. That’s what it must feel like – what does a guitar feel like in Page’s hands? I want to feel that.
And just like every prolific guitar rock god grew up pretending to be their favorite guitarists, fingering the air to the guitar riffs on their records and mimicking the hip leans and characteristic stage moves of that rockstar, that’s what little nakmuay do, too. Before you have a style, you mimic the legends. A couple weeks ago I was sitting on the edge of the ring, watching the padwork of this Swedish fellow named Daniel. He’s lived in Thailand for many years and has fought at Lumpinee. He’s around my age (30’s) and as he crossed the ropes into the ring for padwork he sighed and gave a little laugh as he said, “mai ow,” to me – meaning he wasn’t feeling it today. But then he just fucking smashed it in padwork, because that’s what mai ow looks like at that level. Ronda Rousey called it being, “champion on your worst day.” Daniel was hitting pads with Pi Gai, or “Chicken Man,” as Pi Nu calls him, who is in this altitude of fighters who have solid, devastating technique but never got into the current of Bangkok and National Stadium Muay Thai. I made a vlog while watching this padwork, because Daniel and Chicken Man have very different technique, very different styles, and are different types of men. But what you see when you watch their incredible dance isn’t a demonstration of technique – what you see is a performance of their masculinities, playing together. What’s brilliant, to me, is that the technique is good enough that it doesn’t get in the way of this expression. Like, your English is good enough that the technical elements of pronunciation and grammar don’t get in the way of what you’re trying to say. I had a teacher in elementary school who emphasized the importance of grammar in writing because small spelling errors or a missing comma are like giving a great speech with your fly down: nobody will hear your words. In Muay it’s not just having clean technique so as not to see the errors, it’s so that the technique disappears and you just see the man, an expression of who he is, in the ring. In contrast, I point the camera to two young boys clinching. Their technique is “good,” but it’s in the way – it’s what you see instead of who they are. That’s the folly of aiming to be “good.”
My vlog of Chicken Man vs Daniel
I have a hard time feeling this in myself. When I imitate Karuhat, like when I steal his mannerisms and pantomime his characteristic moves, I can feel the freedom in them. There’s something in me that connects to whatever that something is in him. I watch my trainer’s 3-year-old son rotate the same Spiderman, Batman and Ironman outfits and occasionally throw out a signature move from one of them. The wrist webs, the turbo hands, or whatever it is Batman does. Matt Groening – creator of the Simpsons – said:
The secret of designing cartoon characters — and I’m giving away this secret now to all of you out there — is: you make a character that you can tell who it is in silhouette.
So, Spiderman and Deadpool look pretty similar in color cutout, except maybe you can see Deadpool’s crossed swords, but they stand totally differently. Spiderman has that crouch that nobody else has. Wolverine has that forward lean with the elbows back and blades out. Or my favorite, Thanos, just brooding in his chair. Nobody broods like Thanos. No details needed: silhouette. I can slip on these outfits of my favorite fighters, performing their “silhouettes” in honor of their qualities, mannerisms, and expressions of masculinity. Those are physical examples, but I always go back to music, which I think bridges the matter of expression better than comic book characters do.
There are thousands of rappers, some better at rhyming, some with total shit lyrics and others incredible, but what really matters is the flow. You can say any words at all, but if you don’t flow like Biggie or Nas, nobody knows who you’re impersonating. You’re just saying words. Like just doing technique. But if you can imitate the unique flow, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying – it could be gibberish – but it sounds like that rapper. There are lots of slow-flow rappers, but nobody like Snoop. You’d never be like, “is this Snoop?” Yeah, who the fuck else could it be? Nobody else sounds like him. Conversely, you can get people who are clearly trying to be Nas, but aren’t. You can hear the difference. That’s a silhouette, at least conceptually, an outline against the noise. That’s what makes a yodmuay. All the legends are kicking, punching, kneeing, elbowing and moving. They all favor certain techniques over others – they use different word combinations or rhymes – but the flow, the flow is completely unique to each man. That’s what you see in my Muay Thai Library. That’s the part that expresses the man through the art. That’s what I’m reaching for. That’s what “good” has fuck all to do with, why wanting to be champion isn’t the same as wanting to be free like Somrak.
It’s a struggle, because in the end it’s removing the struggle. Like how Dorothy had the way home the whole time, right on her feet, but had to be made aware of it. You can’t work hard enough to become who you are, you just have to get out of the way of who you are expressing itself beautifully. There’s this incredible quote from Michaelangelo about sculpting, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” People think you build a fighter, you collect techniques and tricks and combinations. In all my interactions with the legends of Muay Thai I’ve noted very strongly the simplicity, the purity, of their forms. It’s a carving away of excess, not a multiplication of pieces. But you have to see the angel to know where to carve away. And for me, the hardest part is seeing the picture of what’s trying to come out. I’ve spent years with my chisel against the marble thinking I want to make something “good,” which is formless and meaningless. I see flashes of this fighter that I will be, ultimately. I feel her when I’m not trying to do something. I’ve felt her most vividly in my Kard Chuek fights and try to make room for her in other spaces, like inviting a ghost but not sure how to communicate through the different dimensions of being. Part of the attempt to channel her has been treating every fight like a Kard Chuek fight (no points, no score) and Kevin has seen strong evidence of her when I play with my idol, Karuhat. It feels like Poltergeist or some movie like this, where there’s this energy or entity just flitting around and wanting so badly to be heard or understood, and the medium has to find ways to channel the energy into a lamp or possessed person or something to give it language. That yodmuay energy is there, the angel is in the marble. My duty is to set them free.