March 4, 2016 – Terng Chiang Rai (Northern Title at 105 lbs)
There’s nothing on this road. It’s just darkness, everywhere, with the occasional break in the trees to an open field that somehow catches the light of the moon and appears almost luminous… but really it’s just “less black.” We drove this road this morning, to weigh in, so I know we’re in the right place, but I don’t remember it being this long from the last turn to get to the field where the ring was being built this morning. And then, suddenly, out of nothing there is this eye-stabbing bright triangle of fluorescence that is often used for police stops. But today it’s indicating where we can park. I roll down the window so I can talk to the parking attendant and through the loudspeakers I can hear my name being announced, along with my opponent (Faa Chiangrai) and that we’re fighting for a title. It doesn’t sound like we’re being announced to fight next or anything, more like a highlight of the night.
So we have this elaborate parking experience, which is mostly due to me and Kevin having been to a few fights before so we know that the chances of getting boxed in are high. So we try to find a spot where this is less likely to happen, but we can’t park there because the attendants are hardcore. They’re actually doing a great job, which means we’ll likely be able to get out, but it also means parking takes 10 minutes. When we finally get to the other end of the field where the ring is set up, the promoter is waiving his arms around wildly when he sees me. He points to this Thai guy who I’d seen at the coffee shop earlier – he’s young and has dyed blond hair and a flannel shirt – and he says, “I was going to put this guy in as the ‘falang’ (westerner) if you didn’t arrive in 5 minutes,” he laughs. I guess he was feeling a bit panicked, although we’re still earlier than he’d asked me to arrive.
I don’t have a corner. This town is far enough from Chiang Mai that my usual corners, Daeng or Den from Lanna Muay Thai, where I spent my first 2 years in Thailand, weren’t able to make it. It feels a little unnerving to be in my opponents’ home town and fighting for her title in a situation where I have no immediate allies, but I can roll with it. The promoter points at an older man sitting at a folding table and drinking a beer and says, “this is your corner; he’s from Surin.” Alright then. I listen to the announcements and try to figure out when my fight is. It seems like I’ve got a little time, so I duck under some barbed-wire and walk a bit into the scary-ass dark woods to change into my shorts. My corner was a little perplexed by me – not one of them knew me, so they didn’t know whether to even try talking to me or give me directives, or just ignore me – but I’d told the older man at the table that I could wrap my own hands, I just needed the massage and someone to come to my corner. A man who was sitting at a table in front of my mat kind of turned around in his chair to watch me wrap my hands, which he thought was some kind of magic trick. He kept muttering, “geng, geng” (“good, good”) as he watched me, giving me the occasional thumbs up and huge smile. He even gave me an orange soda and then bought me a bowl of soup after the fight. He was pretty sweet.
The air was kind of cool, but not quite chilly the way it can be this time of year in the north. I felt relaxed and confident, but a little unsure of all the different elements that were far outside of my control. Like, is it even possible for me to win this fight in her hometown without a KO? This was my third time fighting Faa in 50 days, and in fact the second time in the last 3 days, and I’d won those fights… but could I KO her? Could I win three times against the champion? Of all those fights, this was the one to win, man… where the Hell does doubt come from when you’ve got a good track record? Well, it comes from nowhere. Or rather, it comes from where it always comes from, which is the little doubt pocket inside of you that has no basis in reality or reason. And I won’t say that I was really doubting myself – I did feel really good – I just had a few little inklings of “too good to be true,” at the back of my mind. But one thing was certain: the fact of this fight was a truth that was absolutely good and was also absolutely true. Everything else was icing, really.
The fight comes up quite quickly and the older man who was presented to me as my corner is actually taking a pretty distant backseat to two younger men (both also from Surin) and one much older man, who they all call “Arjan” (“professor”). He’s the one to actually carry my Mongkol and I have to tell him a couple times not to put it on me before I get into the ring because I have to go under the ropes. I don’t believe he’s ever done this honor for a woman before – or at least not a really long time – but he’s keen to go with it. I asked who he was afterward and he’s a famous fighter from the area around Terng, Chiangrai, where we’re fighting tonight. Like, a local superstar. Pretty badass to have a local doing the honor in the outsider upon outsider’s corner!
We go up to the ring and I am directed to sit on a plastic chair up on a little stage. The VIP who are sitting on that stage are mostly military, a few elderly men in suits dotted among them. Many of them smile at me and I get a thumbs up from one. I’m pretty surprised by all of this. Not that I was expecting booing and hissing or anything like that, and I’m pretty welcome at every place I’ve ever fought, even if I’m gawked at quite a bit… but I think I was expecting to be cold-shouldered a bit as the challenger. But I didn’t get that at all.
The Whole Fight With My Audio Commentary
above, you can watch the whole fight with my audio commentary
When we get in the ring the professor comes over to the neutral corner to put on my Mongkol, rather than meeting me over at the blue corner. That’s okay, it’s just odd to be standing in this spot to do part of the pre-fight ceremony that’s pretty much never varied in all of my fights. But now it has, so there’s that. I’m thinking about how I’ve beaten Faa twice in a row now and surely I can do it a third time if I just let it go and don’t overthink it. We meet in the center of the ring and touch gloves, the referee tells us not to foul and sends us back to our corners to start the fight. Here we go.
While we were circling around the ring, sealing it and doing our Ram Muay, the announcer was kind of giving a background on me. He said I’d fought and beaten Nong Benz, which is who Faa fought in order to win the Northern belt in the first place. Then there was the usual “mai tamadaa” comment about me, which just means “unusual” but it drives Emma crazy to hear it all the time because it’s so frequently used that she argues there must not be anything that is ordinary. I am unusual though. I’m older, I’m muscular, I’m covered in sak yant. As the fight started, however, his comments kind of bled into the background noise of the fight itself for me and I only caught snippets here and there of his, “ooooh,” and occasional exclamation of excitement to give color commentary to the fight. I was focused on picking up where I left off in our last fight, only three days ago. I’d stayed close to her and cut off the ring well, which I wanted to do again. I also remember teeps working for me in our previous fights, so I used them early, rather than saving them to the later rounds when I also intended to start pulling away to seal a lead. I did assume I’d have a lead.
She fought very similarly to how she’d fought me three days prior. Her style is very ingrained, just as mine is. I know that I should try to strike more at different distances, but because I’m strong in the clinch I find myself there all the time, without it being a big strategic plan, but it is where I am strongest. Her pattern is to back up into the ropes and try to fight with her back to them. She’s able to kick going backwards, so it’s a solid plan up to a point. She lands a good right kick and can launch a left one right after if she’s moving forward, but against a clincher just putting yourself onto the ropes is a terrible game. It’s why our styles favor me every time. She did score as she moved backwards and she likes to neutralize on the ropes in order to just be broken by the ref and move back to the middle, but I can score in the ropes, and if you pull her off the ropes and clinch her in the open space away from them, she’s very vulnerable to turns and knees. I didn’t pull her off the ropes very much in this fight, but she did gravitate toward this one corner at the far end of the ring from Kevin’s camera, and that’s where a lot of my scoring knees and turns took place. I felt focused and steady, like I knew what the pace of the fight was and I was on schedule for it. It all came quite naturally, without feeling like had to think about it or correct for anything. I kind of zoned out. But in the last round I felt I had the lead and I started backing up to get her to chase me, which she did. By that point I was certain I’d done enough.
The odd part was that, because this was a title fight, the scores from the judges get turned in to referee at every round. Then it all has to be tabulated and that actually takes a long time. Standing in the ring after a fight to hear who won isn’t something I’m used to, it’s usually pretty immediate. Faa knew what was up and was jumping around looking confident and trying to show how un-fatigued she was, so I followed suit. I’m just rubbish at it because I’m so unpracticed, so Kevin was yelling at me from the side, telling me to look alive and hop around and all that. Clearly something I need to think about for the next one. But the scores are already in, this is just part of the performance – in Thailand the performance is super important. They even read the scores outloud, which I could understand and react to as they came out. Faa reacted to the second judge in a row scoring it for me by looking to her corner with a “come on!” gesture, and the third judge scored it a draw even though a gambler was yelling “47! 47!” to indicate what he thought that’s what the score should be. But ultimately it was 49-48, 49-48, and a draw from the third judge that made me the Northern Champion at 105 lbs.
An official stepped into the ring and strapped the belt around me, photos were snapped. I got out of the ring with my corner and we walked back to the area where our mat lay, and I stood under a tent that had good light and tried to snap a photo of the belt for Pi Nu to put on the wall but there was this unending stream of Thai audience members and a few Muay Siam officials who kept coming up to get their own pictures (above). It was pretty awesome, actually, and a couple of the guys from my corner were trying on the belt when I finally took it off to get my gloves off. An official came up to recollect the belt (you don’t get to keep the one they strap on you, but you can have a copy made in Bangkok; this is why a lot of champions in Thailand don’t actually own any of their regional title belts) and take it away back to the box they keep it in. It’s a stand-in belt as it is. (I’ve been awarded with the Omnoi belt in the past, which is a pretty expensive belt, actually! But it obviously wasn’t an Omnoi title (women can’t fight there) and was instead just used for the festival title I had won.)
It was pretty incredible to sit on the mat after this victory, sending messages out to the various people who I wished were there with me: Master K, Pi Nu, Arjan Pi (my Sak Yant master), Daeng and Den from Lanna, and my parents. I even called Master K but couldn’t hear anything over the din of the fights. He wrote a poem for the accomplishment the next day. The man who had been watching me wrap my hands and giving me a thumbs up at being able to do this for myself bought me a bowl of soup after the fight. I think he owned the restaurant stall that was right in front of us and it was absolutely delicious soup – so spicy. And a woman came and sat next to me so that she could pet Jaidee and coo at him. She absolutely loved him and asked me a million questions about him. She pointed to a tiny kid, maybe 24 kg, who was sitting at a short table off to the side, playing with something on the table. She said that’s her son and he fights Muay Thai as well but he doesn’t like training. She laughed at that. We also talked about how she thinks Chiang Rai is boring (it’s very rural around where we were) but she’s from the neighboring province, Phayao, which is incidentally where Kevin and I were actually staying because it was the only place we could keep the dog with us. I told her every woman I’d ever met from Phayao was beautiful (which is true) and she just grabbed me and hugged me. It was kind of funny.
Post Fight Video Update
You can read about how this title was stripped from me in the following days here though I still consider myself the de facto Muay Siam 105 lb Northern Champion. I won the belt that night surrounded by officials, and beat the champion in her home town, the 3rd of what were to be 4 successive victories against her.