There’s a new little girl at the Petchrungruang Gym. She’s been there for maybe 2 months now, only in the afternoons, but she’s serious. For a long time I didn’t know her name – I found out it is Mai – but she’s 11 years old and Kru Nu informed me that she already wants to fight. She’s probably 40 kg. I always smile at her when I see her, mostly because I’m legitimately excited to have another female in the gym at all (who is training), but also because I want to make sure she feels a connection. It can be weirdly ostracizing to be the only girl, no matter how nice everyone is.
One evening recently, Kru Nu had me clinch with her for 5 minutes. She didn’t know anything at all but I walked her through where to put her hands and how to use her legs to turn, then had her turn me over and over again. She was brilliant at it and very strong. Any time I told her to knee me, she’d do so very lightly and then apologize. I’m older than she is, so decorum states that she be very deferant; I tried to make it clear that she wasn’t hurting me and that I wanted her to go through the moves appropriately. My Thai is enough that I could explain things to her, not great enough that there aren’t gaps in communication.
After that day we didn’t have much contact. I would see her and smile but we didn’t work together. The little boys hold pads for her, these tiny little bodies acting out the roles of men as they imitate their own trainers, yelling “oi!” off of kicks and sometimes taking advantage of an opening they’ve already set up for in advance. But this is part of Muay Thai pedagogy – the kids hold for other kids starting at a very young age.
Yesterday this girl was clinching with a boy much smaller than herself. I was hitting a heavy bag and watching them between strikes. A tall, lanky Thai with a long poneytail was watching them, too and offering some pointers here and there, although I couldn’t really tell which one he was helping. But the boy, although smaller, was more aggressive with his neck-yanks and he got her head down low enough that she kept trying to back out and then she’d be put on the ground. She’d stand up and roll her head around, demonstrating that it was hurting her neck, but she’d go right back at it. She was actually great at keeping her head back at times, which forced her hips in, but once he got her head even a little bit down she’d always default into trying to back out. They went like this for maybe 10 minutes and then stopped.
I was called into the ring for sparring, but after that I put my gloves away and went over to this girl, who was sitting alone drinking a soda next to the kids’ ring. Nong, I began (“little sister”) and she smiled at me, really big. I told her that in the clinch she can’t goom (“bend forward”) and showed her that she has to keep her hips in. I had her grab my head and then I stuck my butt back the way she does and explained that I knew she wanted to get out, but that you can’t get out backwards. Mai toy (“don’t back up”) or else she’d dai laeow (“die already”) and I had her throw some knees into my chest while I was in this trying-to-escape-backwards position. She barely touched me in the chest with a knee but felt exactly how vulnerable a position that was and she immediately yelped and apologized for kneeing me. I laughed and said this was a perfect example of why you don’t ever try to back out of the clinch. So I showed her how to push her head forward, then use her hips to swoop back up and get out. She nodded enthusiastically, then rubbed her neck and said it was too painful to do that. I laughed; I know exactly how that feels. I had her grab my neck again and this time I lifted her off the ground by standing up and leaning back, showing how strong the neck can become. She made an oooooh! sound and I pointed to myself and said poo-ying (“woman”), letting her know that strength isn’t gendered, then took her over to the ring to teach her the neck exercises I do every day.
We laid on our backs, heads dipped off the back of the ring and our bellies grazing the bottom rope. I showed her how to dip the head back down over the side of the ring and then bring it back up to touch your chin to your chest, counting out 10 repetitions. She kept up with me. Then we did side-to-side. And then we flipped over on our bellies and did the same, 10 reps of each. I told her that’s enough for today but that she must do this every day, and next week it will be 15 repetitions. She smiled at me so big and then wai-ed to me and said, “thank you.” I told her no problem and went back to my training. For the next 20 minutes or so she trailed after me everywhere I went, just a few feet behind me. She didn’t do anything, she was just kind of watching. It was so sweet and I made sure to acknowledge her and invite her to join me in situps or whatever I was doing. She did a few of the exercises, but even when I was putting things away she was a few steps behind me, like a shadow. I might be more excited about having a little female fighter in the works than she is… maybe; she’s pretty excited herself.
Even though they are in the land of great technique Thai girls actually can have a very hard time learning to clinch as there are social boundaries against a male placing the face on the neck, it can be very intimate, as well male and female bodies generally being so close. This is not to mention the very male space of most Thai clinch practice. Thai girls that excel in clinch have usually been taught by family members like Phetjee Jaa has. The boy Mai was clinching with I’m guessing was her brother.