I’m starting to write again on my blog. There is a lot of amazing content on my Patreon, which I spend most of my off-training hours creating for my wonderful patron supporters, but I want to get back to writing. These posts won’t have a purpose, or maybe even a focus, just me sharing my thoughts and writing for myself, and for you too.
Dusk is falling like a cloud over the landscape around the taxi, which is chewing through the road in front of it. The glowing green fields of Isaan become dim, muted, and the glow of the dashboard lights between the two men in the front takes over the piercing effect to my eyes. I can’t remember how he came up, but I’m leaning forward between the front seats so I can hear Karuhat’s already quiet voice – made more quiet through the silencer of his medical mask – as he tells me that the man we just saw at the funeral is connected to someone else we were just discussing.
“Oh, yes, I recognize him from TV, ” I say, “he sells some kind of supplement that supports vision,” I add, helpfully. I’ve seen these kind of “Infomercials” on Muay Thai shows; the bald man is maybe in his 40s, wily, speaks in a way that I don’t always understand because it’s very fast but he’s clearly very gregarious and kind of funny in a joking manner. Karuhat laughs when I say I’ve seen him selling vitamins on TV. “Right,” he answers, then laughs again.
It’s not until a few days later, when I’ve seen this man appear on my Facebook feed several times as he appears in food-drives, hanging out with Legends of Muay Thai, and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Pudpadnoi (a Legend of the Silver Age of Muay Thai) at a night-time buddy-drinking scene in a photo that Pudpadnoi sent me on LINE that I actually learn who he is.
Somjit Jongjohor is standing in a line of people behind a table that has about 100 individual serving boxes of fried rice and a fried egg, to be handed out to the hungry. These are typical type small-scale charity for the past 1.5 years of Covid and this fellow, with his recognizable bald head and joking expression, is covering his mouth in a very dramatic way to mimic wearing a face mask – everyone else in the photo is wearing a blue or white mask and he’s using his hand so as not to stand out, although he’s maskless in another photo in the post. The caption is in Thai and gives the man’s name, but quickly says “aka Olympic Hero,” and the other shoe dropped for me. I looked him up. He won Gold in the Flyweight Boxing division in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Okay: Thais appreciate Olympic medals the way I don’t think America ever has in my lifetime. Gold medals are the stuff of heroes, for sure. And here I am, telling Karuhat I know this guy from hawking some kind of supplement on TV. Of course he laughed at me. No lie, for a long time growing up I didn’t know George Foreman was a boxer but had seen him on Infomercials selling the Foreman Grill for years… so that’s who he was to me. Even when I learned he was a former boxer, he was still the “grill guy.” Until I watched ‘When We Were Kings” and saw him fold a f***ing heavybag in half with a single punch. Sweet Jesus.
So yes, I understand why Karuhat laughed when I said, “oh yeah, I know that guy because I’ve seen him on TV.” But this is the thing, I’m sitting in a taxi, one of the greatest fighters of all time in the front passenger seat and the driver is probably close to my age, mid 30s. He maybe has heard of Karuhat… maybe. But when he picked us up in Pattaya, there’s no way he identified him for who he was, he only found out along the way, in the hours and hours in the car on the drive up to the funeral of another Legend, Namkabuan, which means he would deliver us to a location that had even more Legends just mixing in. When the taxi driver dropped us back off in Pattaya, after sharing a hotel room with Karuhat (that was a generous invitation from Karuhat and not pre-arranged), he shyly asked for a photo with the Yodfemeu. It’s a shitty photo, under the lights in the garage, wearing the fatigue and weariness of the 6 hour drive home. He could have taken one many times before that, but he didn’t dare ask… or he didn’t know and then didn’t ask.
Absolute Legends are like Superheroes from comic books in that they are able to blend in. They have a Clark Kent, Peter Parker thing in that you’re absolutely convinced this guy just sells vitamins or grills or whatever. The first time we met Karuhat, Kaensak was in Thailand to visit his parents and agreed to corner for me because my fight was in town. He brought a friend, who happened to be Karuhat. We were sitting at this small round table, too many chairs around it but unoccupied, with a few plastic bags of vegetables, grilled chicken and sticky rice to be shared. Karuhat was playing on his phone, these reading glasses on the tip of his nose. He didn’t look up as Kaensak told us he was as great fighter, “as good as me,” he said, which made Karuhat smile but again he didn’t look up. I thought, this guy? He was so small and unassuming. Now that I know him quite well, I know that that smile back then to Kaensak saying, “as good as me,” was because Karuhat beat Kaensak 2 out of their 3 fights… it was a small introduction for how great he really is.
Fast forward to when we tried to train with Karuhat for the first time for the Muay Thai Library, me sweating and swearing under my breath as I pecked out my message in Thai, then struggled to understand what he sent back, then sweat and cursed my answer again. We showed up at a in Bangkok, which is where Karuhat said to meet him. We’d rented a car, we had Jaidee tied to a table, Karuhat was terribly late, then more late. We were messaging him and he said he was coming but finally he just said he wasn’t even in Bangkok. What the f*ck? (We have since learned to expect and also to roll with and even love his occasional unreliability, he’s a free spirit.) The man who owned the gym, a quiet, round-faced and soft-expressioned man politely and modestly asked if we wanted to train with him, so as not to waste the time we spent coming into Bangkok. Kevin and I looked at each other; I mean, we might as well. That was Chatchai… f***ing Chatchai Sasakul, former WBC World Champion, his actual belt sitting in a glass case in that tiny gym. That session is in the Muay Thai Library, you can watch it; we had no idea who he was until after but it was very obvious as he was teaching that his experience and knowledge was immense.
Just picture it: some young fighter wants to film a session with Pacquiao and he doesn’t show up, so Freddie Roach modestly asks if it wouldn’t be a waste of time to do an hour with him. Un-f***ing-real. And this happens all the time. Because the heroes are among us. Clark Kent’s glasses work as a disguise. When we arrived back to Pattaya and the cab driver dropped us off, I had a few more star-struck moments – even though I’ve known Karuhat for years now – when I watched him shuffle through the shared space of our home in the slippers I’d left in his room so he could wash his face and go to sleep… in my home. Or making him coffee in the morning, all casual-like, how I’d make my brother coffee if he were visiting. But it’s Karuhat. One Legend will call me to get another Legend’s number because they changed phones and lost it, and they know I’d probably have it. My phone is like calling Information, “Sylvie, please connect me.” And yet, these are men I consider friends, who I trust and joke with; there are so few people in comics who know both Clark Kent and Superman; Peter Parker and Spiderman. It was just such a collapsing of worlds when I realized with that old footage of Foreman that George Foreman is a God of Boxing and an infomercial host… he’s both. It’s wonderful that he’s both.