I have never seen this before in my four and a half years in Thailand. One of my favorite moments ever in the gym.
This kid stands about 3 feet tall, barely as tall as Pi Nu’s waist, as he climbs into the ring and presents himself in front of our trainer. It is late in the evening session and all the other training has finished, save for a few of the smaller kids getting padwork in the background. This little kid has been bouncing on the tire for about 20 minutes, purposely and completely ignored, waiting for his turn to be given any attention. First he’s directly to stand below the shrine high up in the corner of the ring, next to portraits of the King and Queen of Thailand. He kneels down, wais, and bows his head to the floor three times. Something he’s done hundreds times in his 7 years on this planet. Then he stands up and goes over to Pi Nu, who tells him to take his shirt off. The little kid slumps his shoulders forward and rolls his head back in the classic “exhausted child” pose, then lets out a kind of dismayed sigh to really sell how tired he is. But Pi Nu ignores him and just bends down to help him take his tiny shirt off. He has never done a moment of Muay Thai, he’s maybe seven.
Pi Nu gently positions the arms and stance of the kid, like posing a doll or mannequin, making his “fight stance” just right. Then Pi Nu steps back and leans against the ropes, setting the timer on his phone that normally counts out the rounds for every fighter at the gym and hits “start.” And the kid just stands there, holding this fight pose for an entire round while the fighters behind him, Podee and Mini Mini Neung, slam their limbs against the pads. But the kid is just perfectly still, looking straight ahead at Pi Nu. And Pi Nu is leaning against the ropes and looking around, purposefully showing both inattention and attention to the kid in front of him. I know this trick; I’ve been here for a while. He’s watching even when he’s not looking. This kid will learn that, too.
above, a brief video of holding the fight stance
In the 2+ years I’ve been at Petchrungruang there haven’t been any new “official” additions to the gym, that is fighters who have taken on the gym name by contract, except for one kid who was signed a few weeks ago just so he could fight at Lumpinee. That kid, Gaen Gat, is technically the responsibility of Chicken Man, a peripheral trainer at the gym. But Pi Nu acquiesced to contracting Gaen Gat to the gym so that he could have the stamp of the good Petchrungruang name in order to fight at the National Stadium in Bangkok; without a recognized name, it’s very hard to fight there as a young Thai. I say Pi Nu gave in because he’s expressed to me on several occasions that he does not want to sign any new fighters until his son Nat, now 2 years old, is old enough to start training at about age 5. Then, he says, he’ll start a new stable of very young fighters to be raised up alongside Nat, the next generation of the boys. Currently all the boys at the gym are within a few years of each other in the 14-18 age range of Pi Nu’s older son, Bank (16 years old). Pi Nu’s insistence on not signing new fighters over the next few years has made me sad. I’ve talked to him about it a dozen times at least. Petchrungruang is one of only two officially registered Thai gyms in Pattaya which does not principally make its money from Muay Thai tourism. A Thai gym is not a Thai gym without kids, without the fighters coming up together, I tell him. Without that aspect it’s just a business. Without the brotherhood, it’s a different world entirely. And I think Pi Nu knows this, and is weighing it as the gym moves forward. As he was raised in this gym with his brother, for him it is the family bond that keeps everyone together rather than the complicated and emotionally tumultuous legal contracts. And I understand Pi Nu’s resistance to the influx of new fighters, given the pain and betrayal he’s suffered in the 2 years since I arrived at the gym. He lost two of his best and longest-standing fighters in fairly rapid succession, to two very awful circumstances. He felt betrayed by them after having raised them up in the gym to be recognized and competitive Lumpinee fighters since they were 8 or 9 years old, a solid 9-10 years respectively. That’s a long time. It’s half the kids’ lives. And to be fair, the fighters themselves are just young men so their responsibilities and autonomy in these decisions are pretty limited; it’s the fathers who really betrayed Pi Nu. But it’s the sons that hurt, their absence. It’s because of this that Pi Nu doesn’t want new fighters. He doesn’t want to deal with the heartache of investing years into a boy only to have him ripped away by their parents once he’s marketable to the big gyms in Bangkok.
So all of that is background to watching this little 7-year-old kid standing there, holding his fight stance for the duration of a round. It’s with this background that I watch Pi Nu gently guide his body positions and lead him through a session of holding his little leg up on the rope for a full round, then switching to the other leg – something I’ve never seen him do before. The little boy counts out 10 pushups and then Pi Nu flops his long legs over the straightened little legs of the kid so he can do 3 sets of 10 situps. Pi Nu looks around, disinterested as the kid counts, his little voice adding the polite “khap” at the end of every number, so polite and formal and sweet. And between sets when Pi Nu tells him to rest he watches the face of the little boy, looking for signs of… anything: fatigue, dedication, interest, commitment, focus… all of it. I can’t imagine all that Pi Nu sees when he looks, his eyes having seen countless fighters start from exactly this moment and go through the years and years of crying and failing and pushing in order to become a fighter. I know he sees an incredible lot when he looks at me, and he’s never even seen one of me before; he must see everything in this little boy’s face.
above, a short video of his day one situps
Of all the things I’ve seen in Thailand, witnessing the inaugural training session of this kid is among my favorites, ever. There was something in the combination of how casual and mundane it was and yet so special, seemingly rare, that felt like I was seeing something very real. The little boy wiped his face with his balled up shirt, the same way I’ve seen the boys who are 10 years into their careers do between rounds on the pads, during clinching. Between his second and third set of 10 situps Pi Nu told the kid to rest but he announced that he didn’t need it. “Oh?” Pi Nu said, “okay, go then.” And the kid busted out 20. That’s a good sign. But even with how precious I found this whole ordeal to be, there’s no real promise that this kid will be here tomorrow. Or that he’ll be cracking the pads in a year. You just don’t know, and that’s what Pi Nu has been dealing with for decades. It’s part of the life of a gym, this not-knowing. But he’s generous anyway. The care he gave to this little boy is there whether the kid comes back or not. The carefully measured attention and inattention by Pi Nu is like a gardener who has planted 20+ years of gardens, gently padding the seed into the ground and never knowing if it will blossom. But the care is there anyway. The beauty of the process, of the practice of patience. It’s the same patience I’ve been treated with and this moment I witnessed allows me to see it and recognize it more clearly. It is precious.
UPDATE: And the next day he is back in his stance, I found out today his name is Nong Chitdert:
If you enjoyed this post, you may like this article by my husband Kevin: The Slow Cook vs the Hack
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