I’m rinsing myself off under a hose in the corner of the gym. Podee, who is the cutest kid ever and very confident, puts his hand out for me to give him a handshake and then pulls it out of the way to run it across his hair – who the hell taught him that? I feign a degree of outrage and throw a very light punch into his very soft little stomach and he giggles as he tries to punch me back – he’s like 9 or 10. As we do this, two of the bigger boys at the gym are walking out of the equipment room with shinguards and gloves. They’re going to spar. But it’s not regular sparring, it’s the “mock fight” sparring that the entire gym takes part in. That means that there’s someone manning the bell, a few of the kids work as cornermen for each fighter, and a bellypad is offered as the championship belt. Other than that, it’s exactly like regular sparring, though sometimes it can go a little hard. The main difference is that everyone else plays a part in the mock fight as well: the cornermen, Pi Nu is the referee (and often also calling out the gambling odds), and everyone else is a gambler.
As the two boys, Alex and Lom, pass by us I tap Podee on the arm and make a fist with just my pinky and thumb sticking out – like a surfer’s “hang loose” as I shake it back and forth. In Thai gambling this is asking who you want to place a bet for: red is the thumb, blue is the pinky. Podee gets this huge smile on his face and he pushes me, saying I’d better place a bet for Lom or he’ll be mad. Lom is related to him, although I’ve never fully figured out how. Maybe cousins, but they look a lot alike. There are no actual bets placed but there’s lots of pretending to do so. Pi Nu acts as the referee, over-performing the breaks when the boys are caught up against the ropes, or over-emphasizing his dives and saves when one looks like he’s going to fall. In the “dead time” when he’s not breaking them or pretending to count one out off of a good shot, he’s putting his hands up with gestures to indicate the odds. We all shout our approval or disapproval of those odds and we make louder “oi!” sounds in favor of our own fighter as a result.
At one point the padding in Alex’s glove drops out. It’s a rectangle, about the size of a large dishwashing sponge, and it just plops onto the floor. Pi Nu makes a grand gesture to pause the fight, picks up the pad and jokingly sticks it in Alex’s mouth, saying “fan yang” (“mouthpiece”) as he does so. We all laugh and the fight sparring goes on. It’s all far more exciting than an actual fight, only because we’re all performing our roles as if it’s the greatest, most important fight we’ve ever seen. Between rounds Podee is on point, rubbing Lom’s arms with water and telling him to kick more, then taking the last seconds before the next round starts to spike Lom’s wet hair into a mohawk. All of this is really important, guys. We all shout and gesture wildly for our fighters to advance or, when they have the lead, to back up and “teep, teep!” We’re responding to the fight, but we’re responding as if it’s the perfect fight. As if every single landed shot has won the fight, as if you have unlimited Monopoly money to shake at your bookie. Because gambling is just as important in watching the fight as the fake referee is; you call out the odds with as much conviction and performance as someone imitating Babe Ruth would point to where their hitting-the-ball-out-of-the-park is going to go.
Lom runs out of gas and gets tagged with three kicks in a row by Alex as the last round is winding down. Pi Nu makes eye contact with the kid in charge of the bell, who is listening for the timer on the phone, and indicates that he should strike the bell to signal the end of the round early. No reason to drag this out. Lom collapses onto the one stool that’s in the corner of the ring and Alex bounces up and down near the ropes, practicing exactly how you’re supposed to perform victory after a fight. All of it is practiced and rehearsed. Pi Nu pretends to take scorecards from three sides of the ring and then announces Alex the winner, raises his hand and we all cheer wildly, those in Lom’s corner shake their heads and pretend to chastise him, and then we all go back to training. End scene, so to speak.
Here is a video clip I took behind the gamblers at Mahasarakham Stadium in Isaan, the very energy and swings of fortune that were being practiced at Petchrungruang among the boys and trainers: