When Taking Pity Takes Too Much
We have a new woman at the gym. She’s only trained a handful of weeks, ever, and will have her first fight at the end of the month. So Pi Nu is really putting her through the trials to get her ready and I suspect that part of his Draconian directives that she clinch everyday comes from him watching me have success with clinch over the past 1.5 years that I’ve been under his instruction at the gym. He watched me go from unable to unstoppable, so I think he’s become a real believer in relentless clinch training for women.
I’ve got stitches in my face, so I’m only allowed to clinch with a few people who have good control or are smaller than I am. As a result, I’ve been put in charge of coaching while this new fighter, let’s call her “T”, clinches with some of the younger boys. Pi Nu has pretty much told me “teach her to clinch” for both Angie and T – if there were any other women, I’d be put to task on them as well. I do like it. I like being able to instruct because there really isn’t much of that in Thailand – you just get thrown in and thrown around until you figure out how to solve things on your own. You don’t instruct a baby on how to walk, you just let him keep falling until he’s falling less and then walking. Same with clinch. And there are lots of really, really bad falls in that process.
Today T was “man in the middle” with Alex and Bet. Alex is tall and lanky, but probably 15 kilos less than T, who is tall and strong. Bet is even smaller, but stocky – maybe 4’8″ and 36 kg or so. Small, but crazy strong. He’s very muscular and actually, proportionately, looks just like a muscled man who has been shrunk down to miniature size. Pi Nu instructs the kids to kaa man, which is a not-so-polite way of saying “kill her.” So the kids go nuts, climbing on her like a jungle gym and wrenching her head down. Once you’ve had your head pulled down like this two or three times you simply lose your neck strength for the day. It’s like having whiplash and there’s nothing you can do, muscularly, to protect or fix it. You just have to change up your game and go for arm-clinching, but that’s pretty advanced and nearly impossible when the kids are literally flying through the air at you. T has a great attitude and was laughing, despite how overwhelming this can feel. I waited and watched for a good 10 minutes before suggesting she focus on keeping her feet wider with Alex and because Bet is so short, just work on turning him because she can’t actually lock his neck from her height. She did great, made adjustments, turned Bet like a champ, and laughed when the boys were endlessly cruel in their neck wrenching.
After a good 15 minutes Bet was sent off to clinch a smaller kid and Gan, who is taller than T and, though also a beginner, he’s pretty strong now but with minimal technique, replaced Bet in the “let’s kill T” game. So, still T in the middle and Alex and Gan never giving her a rest. I could see her struggling with the pain in her neck. She winces when they pull down and she gets to the point where she can’t just pull back, but she braves it out. She doesn’t ask for a break. Every time Pi Nu looks over he yells for the boys to go harder. If he sees a momentary break as they’re switching partners, he yells for them to attack her faster. I’ve been here; it’s exhausting and emotionally overwhelming. But T keeps pushing. I suggest that because she’s so exhausted by now, she start pushing Gan in little pumps rather than big, long strides. Just to off-balance him, just enough to take away some of his strength. And it works, she does great and when I yell for her to knee she just keeps kneeing. Her head is pinned down at a horribly painful level in Gan’s grasp, but she’s landing knees. She’s scoring. And the more she pushes and then she starts to pull, she actually throws Gan to the ground not once, but twice. It’s amazing. I’m clapping and cheering, Gan is a cool kid so he’s laughing and nodding in approval, but T is lost in her own head already. She just wants this to stop. And when you want it to stop, it never comes – it becomes endless.
But here’s where it becomes a breaking point or a broken point – they’re not the same. As much as I’ve been where T is, as much as I know that this sucks and you just want it to stop, I know what a horrible thing it would be to take this moment from her.
Pi Nu demands 5 more minutes, even though he had stated 2 more minutes a good 7 minutes ago. This is “Thai time.” T is exhausted and there just comes a point when you’re going to cry whether you want to or not. Pi Nu tells Alex to clinch with her again and Alex protests, saying in Thai that he doesn’t want to because T is crying. His voice is whiny, like he doesn’t want to put his shirt on because it’s wet. But here’s where it becomes a breaking point or a broken point – they’re not the same. As much as I’ve been where T is, as much as I know that this sucks and you just want it to stop, I know what a horrible thing it would be to take this moment from her. I give Alex a look, a “don’t you fucking take this from her,” look and Pi Nu, I love him, firmly says, “2 minutes, go!” Alex looks at me and then reaches for T, who kind of shrinks at the agony of this not ending. I grab Alex’s hand, which is already on T’s neck, and tell him, “don’t pull so hard.” He nods and just becomes a noodle in T’s arms, offering no resistance. I slap him on the ribs, “no, not light, just don’t wrench her neck anymore; clinch with your arms.” Alex nods and makes the adjustment and T just turns him and knees for the remaining minutes before Pi Nu says, “enough.”
T doesn’t hide her tears, she just fixes her hair and tries to catch her breath. She instructs everyone else on how the tears should be handled by how she’s handling them: quietly ignoring them while she carries on. Pi Nu tells me to take her in the other room and teach her how to use the neck weight; he offers no soft looks and no compassion; definitely no encouragement like, “good job.” He’s allowing her space to define this experience for herself. We hop out of the ring and slink into the weight room, where we both collapse onto the blue mats that cover the floor. I show T how to stretch her neck and then sit facing her, but with our shoulders almost touching, so I’m looking behind her, not at her. I offer some words, how I know how she feels, I cry all the fucking time, and that I know she doesn’t feel it – because that drill just feels like being attacked by a pack of dogs – but she actually was doing well. In a fight, she would have been winning. And I also tell her that in a real fight it would have been over many, many times. In training we keep going, you link wins and losses in a constant interchange of unending movement, but in a real fight there endings and breaks. That part seemed to give her a little piece of relief, that the fight won’t feel like that. Even if it did, a fight is 10 minutes… we clinch for 30 or 60 minutes at a time.
My words either mattered or they didn’t, but I told T to make sure to smile at Pi Nu when she saw him before she left, so that he would know she’s OK. She laughed and said something like, “I know.” That smile is like emerging from under the dog-pile of bodies in a game to reveal that you still have the ball. You didn’t take anything from me, it says. It was amazing for me to watch this process, because I’ve been in that fire for 1.5 years now. I could feel every frustration and from where I stand now I can offer advice like, “when it feels confusing, just simplify,” but how the fuck did I get from there to here? By doing exactly what T just did, over and over again, that’s how. And I’ll get better by doing it more, the same damn process, just as she will get better by having made it through this with a good attitude. In the 30 minutes of clinch that T underwent, it was those last 2 minutes that made any real difference. The saying goes that it’s not about how many times you fall, it’s how many times you stand back up. That’s true, that’s important; but it’s incomplete. It matters that those around you let you fall and know that the will to get up is immediate, even if the doing of getting up seems to take so fucking long.
A Few Weeks Later
T is in the ring, the rush of a real fight at the same time seizing her limbs and powering them to move. I’ve got my hands on the skirt of the ring, the edge of the canvas pressing into my ribs as I lean forward and yell for T to knee. The bell rings and T returns, somewhat disoriented, to her corner. Bet and I leap up onto the ring and through (under for me) the ropes, where we vigorously rub ice and water over T’s arms and legs. She’s breathing heavily, but she nods at me when I speak to her. There is nothing in training that prepares you for the details of a fight. The lights, the audience, the intention of your opponent… but choosing to keep going when you’re already breaking; that prepares you for all of it. And that’s exactly how T has been training.
I tell her to keep kneeing because her opponent wants to quit. She’s tired after only one round of T’s knees and, sure enough, when the bell sounds again for the start of round 2, T’s opponent comes out hard, trying to scare, intimidate, or even KO T before she loses even more energy. But T is focused – as focused as one can be in a first fight, anyway – and she keeps kneeing even when her position makes no sense. It’s exactly like her clinching with Gan, when her head was down by his chest but she could keep throwing those knees up into his sides. I’m excited and I’m yelling for T to keep going. I know this feeling, too, when you’re giving all you have and it seems like even 2 more seconds is far too much to ask; but then 5 seconds go by, then 10, and you’re still going. The referee sees that T’s opponent isn’t able to answer back and he calls off the fight. T is so confused by the abrupt stop that she just stands there. Even after the referee has raised her hand and pointed her back to her corner, as I take her mouth-piece out of her mouth and hold the rope up for her to exit the ring, T looks at me and asks, “why did they stop it?” Because you won, Buddy. The fight’s over.
“I won?!” she says, surprised. Yeah, you won. You overwhelmed her in exactly the way you were overwhelmed for weeks leading up to this fight. And T was overwhelmed, too. This opponent was no tomato can and she was trying to win. She was putting the kind of pressure on T that would have backed up or paralyzed an opponent who hadn’t been inoculated to that kind of pressure. T hadn’t been hit like that in training – it wasn’t a direct comparison. Rather, she’d spent time under pressure before – any pressure – and she’d touched her breaking point. But because Pi Nu forced her to confront that difficulty and then stood back to let her interpret it for herself, it was something she could withstand. When we walked back to the dressing room to removed T’s gloves and wraps, one of the trainers came up to her, grinning, and said humorously “don’t cry,” and then gave her a thumbs up. If she’d quit in training, the tears would only be an embarrassment. They’d never be mentioned out loud, but they’d be an unspoken limitation. Instead, they’re a frequent joke and T is teased about it on most days. They’re funny because they weren’t the end for her; because like her knees she didn’t stop.
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