My trainer, Pi Nu, makes eye contact with me and smiles. He motions for me to get in the ring for clinching and as I hop up onto the black canvas and wai to the shrine above the far corner of the ring before slipping through the ropes, I see that my partner today is Alex. I haven’t clinched with Alex for a long while.
Alex is the 14-year-old Italian boy who lives at Petchrungruang. He’s the youngest westerner ever to fight at Lumpinee (he debuted the day before his 13th birthday, when he was still 12) and he’s been living and training at the gym for a somewhere around 2 years. When I first came to Petchrungraung Alex was small. Maybe 38 kg (84 lbs) and his limbs were all too long and too thin for his body. Like when kittens go through their gangly phase. And it was a tough time for Alex; he’s an incredibly sweet kid, funny, a little shy, very awkward but in an endearing way. He was in Thailand with his father after his mother had passed away, a bad age for a tragedy that’s horrible at any age. But when he came to Petchrungruang he kind of was absorbed into this brotherhood that is a camp full of young Thai boys. At the time, there was another younger western boy (9) named Jozef, from Slovakia, who kind of stole the spotlight because of his gregarious nature and too-cool-for-school approach to everything. Jozef is a raw talent and thinks he’s Buakaw, so his bravado cast a shadow over Alex’s shyness, even though Alex was older, and Alex was kind of the farang second fiddle to a younger, smaller, Slovakian prodigy.
In the two years that Alex has been at Petchrungruang he’s actually become a foster child to Pi Nu; he’s treated like a son, and like a brother to Pi Nu’s sons Bank and little Naht. Alex’s dad has gone back to Italy and periodically visits the gym, so Alex is legally under the care of Pi Nu as well as being practically a child of the gym. About 8 months ago Jozef left the gym and in that time Alex has grown into himself in a really beautiful way. He’s still a sweet kid, but it’s more moving towards “charming” now; he’s growing into his giant feet and long limbs. He carries himself with more confidence and holds his own against the stronger boys, whereas he used to kind of wilt under the pressure. He’s been getting pounded on in sparring by Bank for 2 years now. Bank is only a year older than Alex but he never had a gangly phase – Bank is like James Bond, Kevin and I even call him “007” at times, this handsome, confident and muscular little man – and he is crushing in the clinch. But Alex seems to be catching up. He looks good against the other boys. And when he doesn’t look good, it doesn’t seem to bother him as much. He’s going to be a big, long-limbed and strong fighter… soon.
I haven’t clinched with Alex in a long time. Part of it was that he had hurt his leg and took time off from training and then got lazy in a teenager way, milking as much time off as a teenager might. In the meantime I got frustrated with the lack of regular clinch partners at Petchrungruang, Thai gyms have peaks and valleys, and just to make sure I had a challenge every day so I started supplementing my training at Sor. Klinmee (my 3rd gym). I’ve been clinching at both gyms. I’ll do my afternoon training and clinch a short time at Petchrungruang, then run over to Sor. Klinmee which is something of a brother gym, and finish up with 40 minutes to an hour there. It’s possible that Alex has been clinching later in the day, just not with me, I’m not sure. But this was the first time in a couple months at least that we were paired together and as we locked arms it became really obvious that Alex was no longer this 38 kilo kid (there are just moments when you suddenly realize change); he’s bigger than I am now. He’s taller by an inch or so and 50 kg already. I walk around at 48 kg. Even Bank and Dtee, who were both smaller than I am when I first arrived back in February two years ago, are 56 and 53 kg now. Damn teenagers. So Alex and I lock up and I land a few knees. I have to reach higher to clear his hips now, since he’s so tall. When he tries to turn me, it works; when I try to trip him, it doesn’t. He’s just bigger now. He’s stronger than before and more confident in his abilities and just being in his own skin. Before, back when he was more a kid, I would many times have to kind of push past my own discomfort and keeping pressure on him even when he was breaking in confidence. It’s not comfortable to keep pushing on a young man who it feels is emotionally cracking, but in the interest of both of us getting better I had to make that call all the time. I had to keep pushing. But now that breaking point is much less accessible and as our clinching reaches into the 20 minute mark and my energy is starting to fade, I’m finding myself really struggling. The things that worked before don’t work now. I’m not doing well and now I have to push through my mental fragility to keep from breaking.
Part of me, the weaker and complain-y part, is babbling away inside my head about how I must have gotten worse because A or B used to work on Alex and now it doesn’t. But the more reasonable part of me also calculates out that those things worked when Alex wasn’t bigger than I am; and that he looks good against Bank sometimes in sparring now, too, which is impressive. I haven’t gotten worse, he’s gotten much, much better. Which is good, because it means that he presents new challenges for me, and that means I’ll grow more too. This is all part of Pi Nu’s Slow Cook method that Kevin wrote about.
One of the more amazing things that happened when I stumbled onto Pi Nu and Petchrungruang is that I’ve been able to train and grow beside kids, including Alex, who are themselves becoming monsters in the ring. I can’t tell you how much I’ve changed and improved in this time, immensely. On my first day I was told to clinch with Alex and Jozef, who were on another level than me even at that time in clinch, but so small – I had little understanding of clinch when I arrived. It is awesome to have grown besides these guys.
This is a cool video about a year and a half ago, when Pi Nu tied Alex’s right hand down and forced him to spar with his weakness:
Alex and me when I first arrived