I’m watching Angie smash the pads with Pi Nu. She becomes very still when he tags her legs with kicks – they don’t look hard from here, and they’re definitely not full power, but I’ve been on the receiving end of them and they fucking hurt – but she stays strong. She pauses after the strike, the expression on her face becomes hardened and she comes back with a full-power strike and a grunt, almost a growl, in return. She’s preparing for a fight and she’s serious. Her last fight was almost 5 months ago and it was a tough loss for her, but she’s new to Muay Thai. Angie has only been training for a little under a year and this will be her 4th fight. I can tell she’s nervous.
Breathing heavily and doused in cold water from her drinking bottle, Angie scoots herself off the ring and tries to catch her breath for a minute before starting her 100 kicks on the bag. She works hard without anyone prompting her; she’s tough. Her fight is at Max Stadium, the most expensive and big production in Pattaya and it’s become a big draw for fighters all around Thailand. They have fights every night of the week and big televised events over the weekends. Angie will be fighting on the daily show, un-televised and the cards are a brief 3 fights. Women aren’t allowed to fight at Max and Angie is a Khathoey (kah-toy), the “third gender” or male-to-female transgender. She’ll be fighting against a man for the first time. Before she has fought 3 times against women at a 1-2 result, but after her last fight the authorities in Bangkok cracked down and said she’s not allowed to fight women anymore, as male vs. female fights are illegal in Thailand and Angie hasn’t undergone full reassignment surgery. She’s been taking hormones for 10+ years and has had top surgery, but without the full transition she’s “legally” considered male by the sport authorities. So she has to fight with men.
It’s a tricky situation because the hormones have affected Angie’s body in ways that make her very different from an average man’s body. She’s very thin, slim and a bit willowy, but she’s also very strong and perhaps more so than a biological woman her same size, in an average sense. So when she fought against women, one was much bigger (she lost to Angie by TKO after falling on her own elbow and couldn’t continue) and two were very slightly smaller but with far more experience than Angie (she lost both those fights by decision). Angie is my age, 32 years old, and just starting out. So it’s very hard to find opponents her same size, at around 55 kg, with also very little experience. Most fighters at that weight are teenagers or young adults who have already had 5-10 years in the sport and dozens of fights. That’s even more the case with young men, then you can add to that difficulty the complication that not a lot of men are eager or even willing to step into the ring with a Khatoey, because it’s demeaning and losing or looking bad would be a terrible embarrassment to his masculinity. There are a few famous Khatoey fighters, the biggest of which is “The Beautiful Boxer,” Nong Toom, and another is Nong Rose, who is really amazing and fights on televised cards against men but refuses to fight at Lumpinee and Rajadamnern (she is skilled enough for both) because the uniform rules require the fighters to be without a shirt and she won’t fight topless (she is pre-surgery), which is understandable. Still, with very few Khatoey fighters outside of “entertainment” shows, meaning serious fighters, people aren’t used to seeing fighters like Angie. Further, there just aren’t enough Trans fighters for them to be competing against each other.
Angie’s fight at Max is a big step for her. Her first two fights were at the local Thepprasit Stadium, which is where all local Pattaya Thai fighters cut their teeth but it’s mostly kids for the local gamblers. Max is a big name, big money (put into the promotions, not the payout for the weekday fighters), and Pi Nu said the idea was to build Angie during the daily shows and get her some experience so that she could, eventually, fight on the televised shows. That’s a huge opportunity for her, and one that I find a bit baffling because Max has taken a “no women” stance on their shows; but because she’s not biologically or legally a woman this ban doesn’t apply to her. They’re not going to start a whole Khathoey league, but it’s fascinating to me that Khathoey occupy this kind of flexible space between genders… but importantly not a woman. Unfortunately, her opponent for this card was switched out last-minute without anyone letting our gym, or the promoter trying to build her, know. The first opponent offered was a Chinese guy who had very little experience. According to Pi Nu, he found out he was fighting a “ladyboy” and just went home. So the same camp offered a second opponent, same size, who is a Thai guy with only 4-5 fights, same as Angie. For whatever reason, that guy didn’t end up being her opponent and a different promoter or official in charge of the show arranged with the same camp for the third option, this guy she ended up fighting, who has 30+ fights… not the option presented to and agreed upon by Pi Nu. I thought there would be a weight disparity because of Angie’s physiology, but Pi Nu told me they weighed in the same. But the opponent, this kid from the Sitpholek Gym down the road, looks a lot smaller (shorter) but is all muscle, whereas Angie looks a full head taller but is very willowy and a big chest. Not a good match.
I’m sitting in an empty row behind the red corner, waiting for the show to start. I’m there as Angie’s corner, but I know I’m not allowed to work up on the ring as a second and I was told by our own team’s Italian manager, Filippo, that I wasn’t allowed backstage. I’m not sure if that’s a rule of Max or if he just told me to wait outside because there were so many people back there already and he made a lame authoritative call. I should have been back there with Angie; I was there to be her support and the others who came to actually work her corner don’t have the relationship with her that I do – we’ve trained a lot together and become friends. I feel like I failed her because of that, but what can you do? The venue was full in two sections facing each other on either side of the ring and empty everywhere else. It’s midweek, having a full stadium isn’t expected and these cards are short with only 3 fights in the night. Every single person in the stands is a Chinese tourist, all having come in tour groups delivered to the door in giant buses – Chinese tourism has been seriously on the rise in the last year or so. The announcer only speaks Chinese (on weekends the MC’s speak Thai and English) and there’s a 5 minute video on the screen before the fights, telling the history of Muay Thai with Chinese voiceover and Thai/English subtitles.
It turns out Angie is up first and I’m unable to sit still when she’s introduced and her image appears on the enormous screen. Her expression is intense, she’s looking straight out and her name is spelled in crazy phonetic translation from the Thai interpretation back into the English. The screen parts in the middle and Angie steps out, looking tiny because the stage is so huge. She can’t hold in her smile, although she tries. I love that smile of hers, it’s almost devious but she kind of tries to pull her lips around the grin. Her mean face totally fails and I love her for it. She shadowboxes a bit and then struts the walkway out to the ring. She goes over the ropes, like a man, then our corner helps her remove the boxing robe and her body is revealed, like a woman.
the full fight video which was live streamed on my Facebook Page – hence the low quality
From the first few moments of the fight, it was clear Angie was in trouble. She was terribly outmatched by this opponent who had so much more experience and was hitting hard. Within the first 30 seconds of the fight the blue corner landed a hard elbow to Angie’s face and her cheek swelled up. He kept catching her kicks and sweeping her to the ground, where she would land with an audibly heavy thud. As the fight went on the men working in our corner became more quiet. They still gave her instructions between rounds but there weren’t calling out to her during the action anymore. She’s still very inexperienced so she doesn’t hear or respond to direction during the fight, but there’s also a tendency in “saving face” for the team of a fighter who had nearly no chance of winning a fight to kind of check out from it. My first trainer, Master K, cornered my first fight and walked away from the ring before the end of the first round. It was rough. I understand it now, but at the time it was confusing, confounding and heart-wrenchingly sad. Angie is Thai, so I’m not sure how she interpreted it, but every time she came back to the corner her face was stern and she looked tired, though not defeated. She was closing into herself, I could tell. In round 3 she finally started letting it all go, just throwing what she could with as much power as she could muster. I think her opponent had also taken it down a notch, having secured his dominance, but Angie’s long knees were a thing of beauty. I was so proud of her – I am so proud of her. Tears were welling up in my eyes, not because she lost but because she stayed so strong. She just fucking stayed the course and fought as hard as she could and to the best of her current abilities.
She climbed down from the ring and one of the officials took her by the glove and led her around the entire periphary of the stadium. The crowd clapped and a few members of the audience reached their hands out to receive a high-five from Angie’s free glove. When she got backstage I marched straight back, not giving a damn if anyone tried to stop me, or if I was allowed to be there. Angie was smiling, then looking down and sad, then laughing again. She had a lot going on. The men from her corner (all from our gym) surrounded her and tried to remove her gloves and wraps while Pi Earn held a ball of ice against her cheek and pressed hard to try to stop the swelling. Angie winced and I just put my hands flat on her back, just to touch her and be there; there was no room to stand in front of her, so I just kind of half-held her from behind. A promoter was on his cell phone to the side of me, very angry and cussing up a storm to whomever was on the other side of the line. There was a lot of “hia, hia,” which is a favorite curse among men that kind of means “fucker” and “fuck you” at the same time. He’d apparently been left out of the loop on the change of opponent and was pissed that the match up was so unfair. Angie looked at me when I came around to face her, “I’m sorry,” she said. I fucking lost it, I started crying and telling her she was so amazing and how inspired I am. Nothing that made her lose that fight was her fault. Yes, she could have done things differently, but not then, not now, not with all things being as they are. She pounded her heart into that fight and that is what makes a fight great. That’s what makes a fighter great.
You can subscribe to my writings from Thailand here for free.