Becoming Northern Champion
A slight chill in the air hits my oiled skin and drenched clothing. I shiver and the yellow garlands around my neck shed a few petals, sticking to the Vaseline on my chest and arms like celebration confetti. My husband is trying to take a photo of me for the Petchrungruang gym wall of champions – I have two representative gyms in a sense, and neither is there with me, I’m on my own. Kevin can’t get a solo snap because men keep jumping into the frame and ordering their friends to take photos with their own phones: drunk audience fans, my cornermen (who I met about 45 minutes before the fight), and even a Muay Siam official (photo below). Muay Siam is a big deal because it’s a huge national magazine for Muay Thai, although it reads a bit like a female Muay Thai doughnut – covering mostly the North and Phuket with very little coverage in the center – and my opponent is someone they cover… and it’s Muay Siam who sanctions the regional titles of Northern, Isaan, Central and Southern champions – this is their belt. Everyone wants a picture because I just won the Muay Siam Northern 105 lbs championship belt, which is figuratively strapped around my waist. Everyone wants a picture with the new champ.
The physical belt actually is a stand-in belt, which is common enough for promotions, and you don’t get to keep it, so an official comes up to collect it back. “Have you taken a photo already?” he asks. I nod to the affirmative and point my chin toward the man on the other side of my mat who is holding the belt now; the official lets this man and a few others pretend to wear it for their own photos before taking the belt and disappearing back into the crowd. That’s championship right there: get a photo wearing the belt, then it’s gone and you wait for the announcements in the magazines and newspapers.
My title was then announced in the following days (in the same words) on the Muay Siam Facebook page, and in the magazine, it’s exciting times:
I’ve written about not chasing belts and titles. It’s just not my focus and, broadly speaking, it doesn’t drive me. But this one felt important to me. This one felt like a milestone. Part of it was fighting this opponent, Faa Chiangrai, who I’d faced three times in my second year in Thailand (2013), to a 1-1-1 result. My trainer at Lanna, Den, considered Faa to be the best fighter at my weight in the North, and probably in Thailand. He’s a fan of the muay femur style, the technical and evasive style, which she’s great in. I suspect he didn’t believe I could beat her back then – I mean, it was possible, but not likely. She had been a purposeful challenge. Den compared all other opponents I faced to Faa. She was the benchmark against which everyone else was ranked in his mind. And beating her in the last of our three matches was huge for me. Plus, I’m a fan of her as a fighter, so I follow her career and watched her fight a number of high-profile opponents and get absolutely robbed in the decisions. I cheer for her even against other fighters I like. So, fighting her for her title felt like a big deal. Not only because she’s a great fighter and has a style I sometimes can have great trouble against, but also because I knew she’d fight very hard. Unless there’s money or reputation on the line, fights can easily be labeled “just for fun.” If I was going to win this belt, I would have to take it.
What’s more though, and this is really my style, it just so happened through promoters and chance that I would have to fight Faa 3 times in 50 days, culminating in this title fight. The first match up forced me to cancel another fight in order to be able to come face her, which I normally hate doing. But booking her wasn’t easy, the promoter said, so trying to reschedule might risk losing the chance to fight her at all. She’s VIP; she’s the champ. Of our 3 fights I beat her first in January, decisively, in a really big match at the new Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium with a sizeable sidebet on the line. I was up 30-1 by odds going into the 5th round – it must have been a difficult loss for her; then it was easy to book her again because she wanted revenge. I like that about her. There’s no, “well, I lost, that’s it;” but instead it’s more like, “fuck that, you got lucky… let’s go again.” It wasn’t luck, of course, but I like her confidence!
I had to beat the reigning champion three (3) times in a row in less than two months.
So, as I mentioned, I had to beat the reigning champion three (3) times in a row in less than two months. Not in order to win the belt, but kind of. Mentally it was important to win all of these fights. Politically, too. But let me backtrack, I’m getting ahead of myself, this is the way it all played out: I was cutting my teeth at the new stadium in Chiang Mai late in 2015. Even though I have fought over 70 fights in the Chiang Mai area, not all the promoters at the new stadium knew me (they have Bangkok-based promoters there as well), and how I fought, so I had to go through a proving ground with them. I beat the first girl they put me against pretty handily, then they had me face Nong Benz Sit Dobwod. This is what put me on the track for the belt. Faa Chiangrai had beaten Nong Benz for the title, so Nong Benz was considered the top challenger for the Northern belt, the 2nd best fighter at that weight. When fought her at the new stadium and knocked her out, the promoters at the stadium were really excited and immediately asked if I wanted to fight Faa Chiangrai; of course I did. Already I think there was a sense that I was possibly getting in line for the belt. They wanted to find someone who could fight Faa at her size and give her a good run. Both of us are more technically 100 lb fighters. So they arranged the first fight at the stadium against Faa, and I had a very decisive win. It was big. I think it looked to everyone that I was going through the ranks to get to the belt and, in fact, they mentioned this over the loud speakers a few times as Faa Chiangrai and I did our Wai Kru in the ring for the championship fight. I beat the 1st challenger, then I demonstratively beat the champion in a non-title fight, but with a big sidebet on the line. The next obvious fight would be for the belt itself. This made sense from Faa’s perspective too, because if she wanted to save face and reclaim superiority, it would have to be on an even bigger stage. Let’s fight for the belt… but in her hometown. As it turns out, because she was traveling with her college, she and I even met up here in Pattaya, 3 days before our championship belt fight; a fight I also won.
The WMC no longer holds world title events (I’ve been told), and the WPMF operates without regular or accurate rankings.
This sense of ranks though is important because the Muay Siam regional belts – and the Northern belt in particular – are, in my opinion, very likely the highest achievement many female fighters can reach. Because the Bangkok National Stadia are closed off to women, these titles are perhaps the highest ranking for women in Thailand. It’s only recently that Muay Siam has begun ranking female fighters in the North, maybe the last few years I believe, and because that magazine focuses on northern fighters more than any other provinces, and there are so many female fighters in the north, the northern belt is a big deal. People in the west focus on World Title belts, but for women at least they really don’t function the way many assume. The WMC no longer holds world title events (I’ve been told), and the WPMF operates without regular or accurate rankings, at least in my weight classes (I simply haven’t tried to follow the other weights closely, so I don’t know about those). While the WPMF offers prestigious titles, they are more like high level “event” titles, as even unranked fighters suddenly have found themselves fighting for their World Title belt. They do have a ranking system, but it doesn’t always seem to be relevant to how the belts are fought for. Anecdotally, I’ve beaten a great number of their ranked fighters, including the standing 100 lb World champ, and I’ve never been ranked, while fighters who have been retired for years – or who are no longer able to make those weights – remain ranked. It’s just not well organized, and their belts do not often seem to reflect fighters climbing through a ranking system. This is not to disparage the champions or near champions that fight for these belts, it’s just that as female fighters we have to make do with what we have. The regional belts of Thailand, on the other hand, do seem organized through rank. What is amazing is that, although it wasn’t my intention from the start, I did end up fighting through the ranks of the Northern Belt, so to speak, in order to get a shot at the champ – to everyone involved it seemed that way. And I am no doubt grateful to have the chance. And in the process I had to take three shots at her after all, which to me is more exciting than any other part of it. I fought and beat the champ 3x, in three different kinds of fights, in three locations.
I’ve been fighting in the North for nearly 4 years now, of my 135 fights in Thailand, 70+ of them are in the North – possibly the most of any western fighter, man or woman
I’ve won belts before. I have maybe 6 titles from various stadia or events. Because you don’t get to keep the belts, I only physically own the two that mean the most to me: one was given by Master K, a title and honorific within his own “Suriyasak Team” of students, and one I had a copy made in Bangkok for me as a keepsake because it was the first belt I ever won – a landmark. This northern title felt like a huge achievement, another landmark moment. Because I’ve been fighting in the North for nearly 4 years now, of my 135 fights in Thailand, 70+ of them are in the North – possibly more than any western fighter, man or woman – I’ve made a mark there. Gamblers, promoters, referees and the heads of various gyms up there all recognize and know me as a northern fighter. I’ve fought pretty much everyone there is to fight in the north, many multiple times, including top fighters a few weight classes above me. To have the chance to fight the top fighter at my weight for a top title is for me acknowledgment of all that time and all those fights being a process in the same vein as what the Thai women I’m fighting are doing as well. We grow together.
I still don’t place a great deal of weight in belts or titles – it’s just not how I’m wired – but I feel proud of this one. Circumstances and events around this process and this achievement makes it feel like a catalyst, rather than a climax. My path in fighting has led me to be frequently fighting without my gym, being cornered by strangers – relying on the culture of Muay everywhere I go. And this fight felt special in that sense, especially because I had wanted Daeng (from Lanna) to corner for me as a kind of calming, centering element in a super “outsider” and hometown situation. But he couldn’t come. So instead I had these very enthusiastic men from Surin, who were excited to be presenting themselves as the corner for the challenger – the outsider – with complete faith that I’d win without ever seeing me before. And when I did win, it gave them face as well. After a win, people in the audience will touch the winning fighter as we exit the ring as a way to kind of glean luck and esteem off of the fighter. It can be shared. And that’s what this belt was. It means something for everyone who touched the process, whether they were present or not.
Being Stripped of the Belt – No Foreign Fighter Can Hold It
That’s why it doesn’t matter so much that this achievement – the tangible parts of the belt and title itself – are being taken away from me. A few days after the fight it was announced by an official that I can’t be Northern Champ, even though I fought and won in exactly the way one does to become that. They say I’m ineligible because I’m not Thai, I’m a westerner, and, to add a further technicality as if it was necessary, even though I still fight in the North under the Lanna name on a regular basis, my “contracted gym” isn’t in the North. They gave two reasons, just to be sure. This second reason given is interesting in that as a western fighter I am not contracted at all, as many Thai fighters are. I technically am not contracted to any gym, so I’m not sure how they assess this. I for instance beat Faa Chiangrai in January as “Sylvie Lanna Boxing”, fighting under their banner with their trainers in my corner – I was ostensibly with Lanna Muay Thai, my northern gym. In a certain sense I fall into a legalistic gray area. Western fighters, even if we’ve been with a gym for a long time, don’t become registered and contracted in this same process, largely speaking. This point about contracted fighters really doesn’t matter in the end for the regional titles because it is stated by a top official that westerners are barred from fighting for or holding the belt, no matter what gym they are with. The funny thing is that everyone knew I was a westerner, it wasn’t a surprise at the end; it was a big part of the promotional excitement for the belt.
So, despite all the ways in which I am eligible and went through the process and won the fight – complete with officials present at the fights and even taking photos with me – turns out I have been stripped of this title on a technicality.
Below is about 3 minutes of video showing the scores being read. This was a tremendous moment. The gamblers were largely against me, this was her province, and for several years she was the most well known female star of Chiang Rai. You can see how uneasy I am. I knew I had won the fight, but would they give it to me?
I’ll say that I’m sure this rule against westerners holding the belt was already in existence, it wasn’t created to shut me out, but it is a bit like how Phetjee Jaa was fighting boys on TV for over a year before someone “remembered” the rule and decided to enforce it, barring her from doing so ever again. They didn’t really remember the rule, they just found motivation to enforce it. I won an unwinnable belt, which is really amazing. I won it on points in the hometown of my opponent, who was the defending champion; I was not Thai the whole time, it just only mattered after I’d already won. None of the things that made this title important have changed with these facts. And if she had won it would have been that she had proudly defended her title against a strong western fighter. This pride and achievement is still there for me. When I got back to Pattaya and was shadowboxing at Petchrungruang a few days after my fight, the Patriarch of the gym, my trainer’s father, walked in to the room grinning, repeating over and over again, “the champion returns… champ glap maa laew.” That kind of quiet, intimate pride can’t be stripped away by the politics. The fact that I beat the champ three times in two months doesn’t change. The announcements in the very same magazine publication that sanctions the belt and then said they had forgotten this rule… those announcements can’t be “unpublished,” they just will be corrected. The initial achievement of being the first ever westerner to win this title – even if it’s then negated – is still meaningful. And with the rules being remembered and enforced, I might be the last to win this belt as well. Which is the sad part. The only real injury in it all is that it closes a door to a precedent. To say “no” to allowing a westerner to even fight for the belt is one thing, but to say “no” and take away the belt after it’s already been fought for and won might mean having to double down on those restrictions in the future. In this small way, ironically the super-conservative Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok is less conservative than the regional female titles are, as the first westerner to hold a Lumpinee belt was Damian Alamos a few years ago.
I’m okay with the regional titles being reserved for only Thais, even if it sucks to be locked out because of that. It’s their belt, they want to celebrate Thai regional greatness among female fighters. This is not some huge injustice. I’m not one of those who complain how unfair Thais are to westerners, I understand that it’s politics, and people with more at stake in the game than me decide these things – as fighters all we can do is fight. But having been given the opportunity and experience to fight for it, to have won, to have gone through the whole process because enough people said, “yes,” even in error, feels monumental. It means that for all the years I’ve experienced this constant “outsider-ness,” there are these moments when enough people forget that otherness. The promoter, the men in my corner, the VIP’s on the stage, the referee and the Muay Siam officials present at the fight, they were all excited by the fact of what happened at this fight, the reality of the experience of seeing a belt change hands. I was very wary of this fight going into it, because there were so many ways in which I could be screwed over and kept from winning the belt at all: it was my opponent’s hometown and she’s the defending champ, so the referee or judges could have made it a situation where only a KO would get me a win. But that didn’t happen; I won on points – the scorecards were handed in after every round and tabulated at the end; they read the scores aloud on the microphone and the referee shook the scorecards at the crowd when local gamblers protested the decision (photo below); an official came and strapped the belt on me. Of all the ways I could have been prevented from winning this belt, it was an afterthought that ultimately halted it. I did everything by custom to win the belt, fighting the first contender and then the champion, according to rank. So, even if I don’t get to have my photo in the line-up of Northern champions in the magazine; even if Faa Chiangrai gets to keep the official title, I am the de facto Northern Champion at 105 lbs. And that’s pretty fucking sweet.
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