Petchrungruang, Pattaya – Technique and Fear
Yesterday I had the opportunity to take a 1 hour private lesson with Yodkhunpon, nicknamed “Elbow Hunter of 100 Needles (stitches)”. His fight name the first part, is basically “the ultimate warlord.” Both are appropriate names for his fighting style and persona. When you watch his fights you see this relentless man, always walking forward (like he’s cruising down the street) and then just shredding his opponents with elbows and knees. He was champion at 118 lbs at both Rajadamnern and Lumpinee – holding both titles makes him the top fighter at that weight, in the Golden Age of Muay Thai. You can see his highlights here:.
I’ve known Pon for about a year and a half now. He likes me because he knows I fight a lot, but he uses the gym space to give private lessons to western men rather than being a trainer at my gym, so he kind of keeps a distance to me, I think out of respect for Pi Nu. Whenever we see each other he asks me when my next fight is and then when I tell him, every time, asks if I’m fighting a man or a woman. I think he’s only half kidding. But I got Pi Nu’s permission and set up a private session with Pon for a Nak Muay Nation video. I was very excited, actually.
Pon is not a big man. He fought at 118 lbs (53.5 kg) and probably still weighs somewhere around there now. He’s incredibly unassuming, quiet, and doesn’t like to draw a lot of attention to himself. But when he moves in the ring, you can see all that venom is still potent. He was showing me how to do this very long elbow. You start from far enough back that it’s hardly even kicking range, your front hand touching the hand of your opponent. Then you take this enormous step forward and pivot to the side, collapsing your front arm into an elbow that crashes right onto your opponent’s face and, as you step to the side, then you’re ready to knee or kick them on top of that. It’s scary as hell when he does it. And his arms are really long – or feel that way – to the point where they look like they’re somehow unfolding at the joints as he elbows, where they are in fact closing. It’s an optical illusion.
…but it was so close that if I didn’t get out of the way he’d crash right through me. That’s what it felt like.
So I’m trying this step and pivot over and over again and Pon is kind of giving me this, “yes, okay,” kind of approval, but I can tell it’s not right. The most obvious problem was that the tip of my elbow was “landing” six inches in front of his face, not on his face. I explained this to him and he told me to “goom,” which is like hunching your shoulders and head forward… “ducking in,” kind of. So I do this and all of a sudden my elbow grazes his chin. Pon looks at me, eyes wide and at a safe distance away, and says, “yes.” That was it. And here’s the thing: I could feel that the difference between what Pon was doing when he demonstrated on me and what I was doing when I attempted on him was this very, almost imperceptible, difference in proximity. When Pon stepped toward me, I instinctively leaned away. He was coming at me with total control and he never would hurt me, but it was so close that if I didn’t get out of the way he’d crash right through me. That’s what it felt like. And when he grabs you for a knee with his hand on your head to pull you down, it’s fucking relentless, like he’s climbing on you. It feels like there’s no space at all, no way out, no let up. Kevin says he couldn’t see this emotional component from the outside, standing only a few feet away with the camera, which means it’s an effect of how it feels when he comes at you. That, to me, is more important than how it looks (though aesthetics are important in Muay Thai). It’s a little secret between your opponent and you; that’s how you get people to hope they never fight you again; you get in their head and their heart. That’s less about how it looks…that’s about proximity. When I was trying to do this long elbow I was landing too far away. And by “too far away” I mean inches, or even centimeters from where Pon wanted me to be. So, so tiny a difference but it was coming from my lack of confidence in the strike. I was leaning away the same way I leaned away when Pon came toward me. All I had to do was lean in and collapse that tiny, tiny space. If you look very closely, I think you can see a difference in our postures in the photo at the top, and this one below as well. I am locked, and somewhat neutral/resisting, not a bad or incorrect stance; he is advancing, or swallowing even though this is just instruction and we are both “relaxed”. He has immense experience, and it shows.
The Fear Bubble in Technique
If fear is a membrane around each fighter, he collapses the space so strongly that that layer of fear goes into you and you quit on your own.
So why was I leaning out slightly? Fear. I doubted my strike. Pon comes at you like he’s going to go through you… and that’s exactly why he’s so scary. You start trying to take space for yourself and suddenly you’re “retreating” without even moving. Fear is in inches. Fear puts this little bubble of space between you and your target and it makes you miss. I could see it when I tried to imitate Pon’s knees as well. I have good knees; I even hurt him through the bellypad once or twice, but it didn’t matter because once I landed the knee he was set free. I fell off, so to speak. I had fear and it put inches between us, which is enough distance to have an out, an escape. Pon didn’t knee me hard at all, not once, but by sucking up all the space that might allow me to see a glimmer of hope, some kind of escape, he only had to throw two knees and I felt like I was going to collapse. If fear is a membrane around each fighter, he collapses the space so strongly that that layer of fear goes into you and you quit on your own. And if I let that fear exist as a laminate around me, it means I can’t collapse the space when I’m coming after my opponent. It remains like a buffer and I slide off. From the outside, you’d never see it. Pon didn’t even see it when I was missing his face over and over again with my elbow. It seemed “good enough,” even though it wasn’t how he does it. Maybe he didn’t even know – I mean, how often has he experienced a student not being able to do what he does… probably all the time. But when I committed to it, leaning into the strike instead of hesitating out of it, visually it probably didn’t look all that different. But Pon’s response let me know it was worlds apart. He felt it.
This is the thing about fear and training. Some of the things we fear in the beginning, after we have trained for a long time simply go away. We stop fearing them. Our heart rates don’t go up. We don’t instinctively react or recoil. But in training sometimes fear becomes embedded. We stop feeling the fear, it isn’t a “thing”, but it can become a part of our technique, our posture, something we repeat over and over as we train, robbing us of precious inches. It becomes a membrane in some techniques. The first step perhaps is becoming aware of the membrane of fear.
This is related: No Such Thing as Tough: Psycho-Phyiscal Plateaus in Fight Stress
I’ll be writing about the session with an extended clip, and the full session will be up on Nak Muay Nation for members there. I’ll be focusing on all the technical aspects, things that are so fine tuned only a top fighter could know them from experience. But this post is really about something I experienced. It’s a life lesson, a lesson that also expresses itself in fighting. It shows how fighting is an art, and ultimately is about spirit and soul, much more than it is about body, and that fear can mean the inches that make all the difference.
You can find all my Nak Muay Nation feature posts here. I’m producing about one a month.