The Inspiration of Sylvie Charbonneau – And What Set Me on this Fight Path

(above) Me and Sylvie Charbonneau at one of my fights, Kalare Ring in Chiang Mai (above) This is me vlogging about coming to Thailand the very first time. I...

(above) Me and Sylvie Charbonneau at one of my fights, Kalare Ring in Chiang Mai

(above) This is me vlogging about coming to Thailand the very first time. I mention that I’m going to be training with Sylvie (I also mention the inspiration of Laura Dal Fara, as a blogger who connected me to Thailand in a real way).

We all need people who push the limits of what seems impossible, so that we can define and then refine what we dream for ourselves.  Sylvie Charbonneau was just such a person for me.  I discovered her by accident. I hadn’t been doing Muay Thai for very long, a little over 6 months, but my YouTube channel was going and when my husband Googled me in order to see whether or not my channel came up, we found Sylvie in the results.  She was at Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai, Thailand – I was in Fort Montgomery, NY.  In the US, my name is very rare. To find another Sylvie has been only a few times in my life and, indeed, Sylvie Charbonneau and I shared similarities beyond our name: she is my same size, she was from North America (she’s Candanian), and she was a Muay Thai fighter.  I wasn’t even a fighter yet, but she accepted my friend request and, while she didn’t have much of an online presence, she would answer my questions quite generously the few times a week she caught up on her online business. This is an excerpt of the very first thing she wrote to me when I asked her about training and fighting in Thailand.

I was almost finished writing you this e-mail the other day and then the power went out. Argh!!!

I watched your training video. Very impressive for only 6 months of training. You have an excellent trainer. No fights yet? I say you’re ready to go though!

Yes, I am living in Thailand. Have been training and fighting up in Chiang Mai for the past 1 year and 7 months. I love it. I started training about 10 years ago and had my first fight in 2004. Like you, I fight at 45 kg’s and shortly ran out of opponents in Canada and the States. That’s when I made the decision to come to Thailand.

I now have 31 fights… I can’t say I always get to fight at my weight though. I’ve pretty much fought every girl in the Chiang Mai area regardless of weight. The biggest girl I fought was 58 kg’s. They don’t do weigh ins for small local fight. You just show up and fight who they put in front of you. I do however get to go fight in Bangkok every once in a while and there they do weigh ins but they always get me to fight at 47 for some reason. Doesn’t matter… I’ll fight whoever they give me…

Sylvie C. (August 3rd, 2008)

It amazes me to look back and read this and see how much this became my own path about 4 years later, perhaps unconsciously.

Because of her, and her generous responses to my many follow up questions, when we decided to come out to Thailand the first time, we focused on Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai.  If Sylvie could get good training and fight out there, it was likely I could too.  Just a couple weeks before we finally arrived in Thailand (January 2010), Sylvie had her 50th fight and subsequently retired.  Fifty fights seemed absolutely insane – it’s still an amazing number of fights – and after only my third fight (2nd in Thailand) I found myself unexpectedly determined to follow her example.  As I’ve told it several times, after my fight, climbing into the back of the pick up I told the camp owner Andy that I wanted to fight 50 fights.  He looked shocked – well, as much as Andy ever looks shocked; he paused, that’s his shock – and then he smiled and in true Andy fashion said, “Alright then.” That’s what a number means. It can just be like a star above the horizon that captures your eye, and you head for it.

My whole time at Lanna felt like I was in Sylvie’s footsteps a little bit. Her photos hang on the wall, in frames among champions of the gym. She’s the only woman on the wall.  Even when I passed the initial 50 fight goal and set the next landmark at another impossible target, I was still charging through with Sylvie’s ghost.  In my 2 years at Lanna (2012 – 2014) I would want so badly to ask her advice about the obstacles I came up against, to know whether or not she experienced the same difficulties and how she dealt with them. To just be able to ask, “Did you experience this too?” I would need a reality check several times, something only she or someone like her could have given me.  She had been very kind to me when I arrived at the gym that first time, holding pads for me and giving me a huge hug; but largely we’re both the put-your-head-down-and-work types.  We are similar in temperament, not unfriendly, but not socially inclined. We like to exist in our own space and work. With her not at the camp I really started experiencing things that I wanted to ask her about, that I needed help in even understanding in the context of being in an alien culture and male environment. And because I had nobody to turn to, I turned to my writing.  It moves me now when I hear from people that this has helped to serve as a road map for them – either how to do things, what to expect, or even just as simple as, “I can do it, too.”  But it really came down to not having someone to talk about it with, someone who’d literally been where I was and done what I was trying to do.  And Sylvie didn’t either; I can’t imagine how brave she was because she didn’t have anyone. She just did it. The internet just wasn’t that kind of place yet, only a Google search and the coincidence of our names had connected us.

And I have to say that even though I didn’t have Sylvie to talk to or ask questions, I benefited immensely from stepping into a gym where a western woman my same size had just spent 5 years training hard and fighting a lot. Because Sylvie had been so devoted, so serious, when I trained hard, or when I told Den “No, I really want to fight a lot”, or “I’ll fight anyone you put in front of me”, they already knew what that was. They had seen it before from a woman. They believed it. She’d carved out a space for herself, and in so doing for me and for women like me, a space that I could feel constrict every time the flirty, spandex-clad group of tourist day trippers came through.  In issues of gender, precedence is huge.  For those of us here, now, the very minimum responsibility we have is to hold the door open for the women after us.

Sylvie and Clinch

I knew that Sylvie was a clinch fighter.  She told me that all of her KO’s were from the clinch and that almost all her wins were as well.  But I didn’t know what “good clinch” looked like, really.  And I wasn’t learning it at the camp.  About a year into my training at Lanna, Sylvie came for a visit.  She promised to help me learn after I told her I never got any clinch training.  I’d clinched with her once before on my first trip and she took it very easy on me (video below). Now that I’d been training in Thailand for a year and had indeed been clinching in fights, I assumed the “rematch” would show my improvement.  We got into the ring together and the moment she put her hands on me I thought, quite literally, “fuck!”  Her clinch was so strong, you could feel it in just the way she locked on.  And she turned me and threw me and kicked my ass all over.  I asked her how she had learned because I’d gotten so little chance to work in the clinch at all at the camp – at Lanna mostly all the clinch training took place in the Men’s Ring, where I am literally forbidden to enter – and in the few times I had been given the chance to clinch with some of the boys near my size it had been unfruitful.

This is how clinch is “taught,” you just go and get your ass kicked on a regular basis until you get better simply by having kept at it, but because it was so infrequent I didn’t really learn or get better. And twice my main, but rare clinching partner broke my nose in moves meant to intimidate me into quitting. Sylvie, to her good fortune, was at the gym at a very different time.  The boys who were in their late-teens and early-20’s with me had been younger then, just early teens.  They were smaller and still learning.  What she had is much like what I have at Petchrungruang Gym now, in Pattaya.  Sylvie had one particular clinch partner in a young teen boy.  He was willing to train with her as much as she wanted, and as I understand it, they kind of came up together in the progression of learning clinch for several years.  That kind of opportunity made Sylvie an absolute monster in the clinch; an advantage that many of the Thai women we fight don’t have due to the same cultural limitations that I was stymied by in my experience at the gym.  In a very, very sad turn of events Sylvie’s training partner and friend took his own life not too long before her retirement.  It was a devastating loss for Sylvie, for the camp; for everyone.  This is an untold story of Lanna camp, the sadness of this loss (of which I only know a little). Sylvie then retired, the other boys grew older, and by the time I arrived again in 2012 to train and fight for the next two years it was a very different place from the camp Sylvie had been a part of. In my time at the camp there were no new kids coming to train.  We had a couple new arrivals but they didn’t last very long, maybe a few months each.  In one case with Chopper, he was a friend to me and I had the short opportunity to clinch and spar with him as much as I liked.  He was young (16) and new (to the gym; he was from Isaan and highly skilled and experienced), so his status at the gym made him the “grunt” who had to train with the girl and the fact that he was my friend made him willing to do so in a productive manner.  But he only stayed about 3 months and then moved with his sister down to Bangkok with dreams of living in the big city.  From this very short opportunity with Chopper I could see what my growth might have been like with a friend, ally, and willing training partner at the gym.  And in his absence I felt what I was missing. Because Sylvie had become so adroit in clinch, which I knew by having actually felt her grab me, I knew that learning clinch was possible.

This was part of the catalyst for us to leave Lanna and move from Chiang Mai down to Pattaya.  On our short visit training and fighting down there in February of 2014 I’d gotten a chance to train with the young boys at Petchrungruang and only as yet seen the incredible clinch of Phetjee Jaa… but I knew this is where I could learn. I needed to have daily clinching.  Once again, Sylvie had opened my eyes to what is possible, and indeed had done so simply by illustrating the difference in our experiences. I was becoming the clinch fighter following her unique path in my own way. Sylvie Charbonneau, I cannot thank you enough for being who you are and doing what you have done.

 clinching with Sylvie back in 2010

My Interview with Sylvie Charbonneau Just as She Retired

This is my interview with Sylvie in 2010, during my first visit to Thailand.

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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