the televised broadcast feed of my Kard Chuek fight, June 16 2017 – if you cannot see, link here
What Kard Chuek Was Like
I feel simultaneously like I have so much to say about my experience fighting Kard Chuek, and yet not much at all to really express other than how much I loved it. There is an additional freedom to the minimalism of ropes instead of gloves, the way taking headgear and shinguards off just frees you up – the same reason runners wear the lightest, tiniest shorts and air-light shoes. And then there’s the part of it that’s not impersonal to me, but is beyond me in that I am, to my knowledge, only the second western woman to ever fight Kard Chuek in Thailand. The first was Rachel Jones in 2005 (video below).
Everything about this experience was pretty awesome. When the promoter called me and asked if I would fight, this was the first time one of his cards/dates worked in a long while, so I said yes immediately. He was a bit taken aback and clarified, “wait, you’ll fight Kard Chuek though?” (previous offers had been straight Muay Thai) I laughed and made clear that I’d understood, explaining that I have never done it before but would like to give it a go. He was very excited and checked back with me a few times before the date; then I had to double check with him the night before because I didn’t really believe it, either. I’d never seen women fight Kard Chuek, so I had my doubts. I’m so, so happy it was true, even though the opponent wasn’t who he’d told me I was fighting. But that’s kind of one of those “expect the unexpected” things. But it was a typical fight for me in that I drove out with Kevin and Jaidee, no corner, and just tried to organize as much as I could within a very chaotic situation. The only thing that really made this stressful was that it was on TV, so the time constraints are very real (at most fights you can rearrange fight order or take a minute to get into the ring if you need, but not on TV – that’s a tight ship), and because it was ropes instead of gloves, I had no idea how to put them on. My opponent didn’t either, her teammate/girlfriend just did the best she could, but there was a Thai guy there who recognized me from a fight I’d had in Bangkok over 2 years ago. He remembered me, was really complimentary and jumped up to go find someone to do the ropes for me, which was really nice. This guy appeared (someone on my FB page said his name is Yud) and wrapped me up really quickly, doing a beautiful job on what ended up being a really simple process. I kind of love how the ropes feel. It’s enough pressure to feel like you’re contained, like when you make a fist and that feels good, but they’re not constricting at all. You can see what that wrap process was like here. If I had been left to do it myself it would have been quite a bit messier:
Lots of people have asked me about the actual feeling of fighting with the Kard Chuek ropes instead of gloves. I’ve been doing bare-fisted training for over a year now, so I do all my bag work with no gloves on most days and often when I’m doing impromptu messing around and sparring with my trainer (Kru Nu) or the boys at the gym, it’s without any gloves. I always feel very loose and free doing that because it’s playful. I think that the bare hand muscle memory or body mapping I’ve created by that play in the gym grafted really nicely onto getting into the ring with just the ropes on, because I felt that freedom kind of automatically. One does have to be cautious, as gloves do offer a great deal more protection when holding up your guard than does no gloves. The very first kick my opponent, Phetyodying, threw at me was to my head and I blocked it, but her foot reached around the back a little bit to clip me behind my ear, because I didn’t have the padding of gloves to off-set the kick. I just took note of that and kept on, knowing that the “11 guard” that often works in boxing and can be shit for Muay Thai would be even worse with no gloves on. The “Dracula Guard” or “4 Block” is needed, for sure. I’ve been working on this variation for a while, so it was a good time to put it into practice.
Getting hit by ropes definitely has a bit more sting to it than do gloves. But I didn’t get hit a lot, so I’m not sure how much of a description I can offer. It feels like getting hit by a rope over a fist. I’ve seen guys come out of the ring with little scratches all over their faces from the ropes of Kard Chuek fights, but neither me nor my opponent experienced that. I do have some scratches on my right arm, which I can only assume came from the clinch and the ropes being involved in the snaking of arms or something. But hitting someone with the rope wraps feels awesome, mostly because it feels so much like a bare fist. In a glove, the impact gets spread throughout the padding and then kind of into your hand and arm, so it feels like a general impact. In ropes it feels really accurate. Like touching your foot through a shoe versus touching your foot through just the sock. It’s more defined. I will also add that I understand why MMA fighters get eye-poked. I don’t punch the bag with an open hand when I’m training bare-fisted, but for whatever reason in the fight I kept finding my fingers grazing my opponent’s face, meaning my hand was open and I don’t know why. She stuck her fingers in my mouth once, clearly by accident, so it went both ways.
But it just feels so good to fight in these ropes. It feels right. Someone commented on the fight video, “why don’t you box like that in your regular fights?!” because I threw so many more punches in this one. Answer: the fucking gloves. I didn’t know it, of course, but like I said above, there’s something in the freedom I feel training without gloves in the gym that grafted onto the feeling of the ropes. I felt more free to punch than I do in gloves. Something to work on, now that I recognize the difference.
I got cut in the second round by an elbow – the same elbow I have been cut by in 3 fights out of the last 10 or so. It’s the same problem with my guard, the same being smaller/shorter than my opponent that makes me more susceptible to it, but after that cut I blocked every single one of her million elbows that she threw at me, so clearly you can have a good guard with Kard Chuek rope wraps. The doctors in the corner really wanted to stop the fight, but I was very insistent that I wanted to continue. Usually I can just show that I want to keep going and tell the doctor that I’m ready to fight, but these guys were a bit of a different story. I basically made it like, “let’s not be ridiculous about this, the blood isn’t even in my eyes,” rather than making it about my desire to keep fighting. That part was clear; the audience was really excited, one of the promoters was in my corner and he was reallัy excited. I basically was acting like a lawyer referencing the rules of the game rather than asking permission from the doctors. After round 3 they were talking among themselves, right in front of me, saying they’d give me only 1 more round. So I went into round 4 thinking it was my last round because the bleeding wasn’t going to stop.
For me there was some confusion over the decision at the time. I didn’t know going into this fight that it was Old School Kard Chuek rules, which means you can only win or lose by KO. Anything that goes the distance is ruled a draw. The doctors maybe were leaning toward stoppage for the sake of Kard Chuek being designed for KO’s, but the excitement of the fight was convincing enough for them to let it go. At the end of round 5 the referee grabbed both me and my opponent without even looking at the judges for their scores, which makes sense given the rules, but I didn’t know it and it seemed very strange. I thought maybe it was a show fight, like an exhibition, which are usually ruled as a draw as well. Before the fight, when the referee came to my corner to check my whatever-they-check, he said to me “sanook, sanook“, which means fun. When I thought back to him saying that to me, I considered that maybe it meant he was clueing me into the fact that it was only an exhibition. I wonder if I would have fought differently if I had known the rules, perhaps not, I fought very hard. My opponent was throwing a lot of elbows which makes perfect sense. A doctor stoppage is a pretty good path to a TKO. What the referee meant by telling me sanook, sanook, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was the sense that women shouldn’t be doing this kind of “brutal” style of fighting, take it easy, but this was the most fun I’ve ever had in a fight, so maybe he just knew.
post fight, bloody ropes and all (above)
above, for those interested this was my live stream hangout on Facebook, just chatting about the experience.
Kard Chuek and Women
I was really excited to try Kard Chuek, which is a little funny because I don’t watch it. I’m not romanced by the Kard Chuek fights you can find on TV, like some of the bouts on Thai Fight or wherever else. What was exciting to me about being offered this Kard Chuek fight was that I’d never seen women do it; Muay Thai is an incredibly masculine practice and art form – Kard Chuek is even more this way, heavily masculine. With rules like “KO or draw,” you want fighters to engage and you want ruthlessness, fearlessness – aspects which are loved in Muay but can be dampened by fighters with tons of experience who kind of coast through a fight. Max Muay Thai, a major promotion which bills itself as “extreme entertainment Muay Thai,” gives cash bonuses and rules which favor forward pressure and aggression above all else, including technique and skill. Max, desiring this forward and aggressive style, only ever hosted a handful of female bouts, several years ago, and since the televised show has taken off to great success and built their own stadium do not now allow female fights in their stadium at all – I and my opponent Muangsingjiew were the only females ever to fight at Max Stadium in Pattaya, more than 2 years ago. I suspect that part of the reason for this “no women” rule is a doubling-down on tradition (“no women” is conservative tradition in so many places) is as a way to save face against their very non-traditional Muay Thai scoring and performances, but it’s also likely because women by and large do not fight in the style they’re looking for. Most Thai women fight in a backwards, sniping, point scoring style – not all, obviously, but a huge majority. The men, too, to a lessor degree, but there are so many more men fighting that you can get the clashing you want out of them. So it’s possible that with similar reasoning the omission of women from Kard Chuek fights is an anticipation of this same combination: 1) it’s a reference to a Old School tradition which is starkly masculine in how it is commonly presented in media; and 2) it expects a style and brutality which isn’t typical of women, whether assumed rightly or not, and isn’t seen as suitable for women, as well.
Kard Chuek is codified as brutal. And brutal is not feminine.
Above, Tony Jaa getting ready for a showdown
Kard Chuek also invokes the old fashion masculinity of Thailand’s Ayutthaya period, perhaps how in America we think of the Cowboy as a brand of rugged masculinity woven into the birth and spread of the American values, something harkened back to. Below, from cinema, are the kinds of faces and style associated with Boran, Kard Chuek fighting.
My Sak Yant covered body makes an interesting mixed message, as Thai women do not carry Sak Yant in the way that I do. Many of these are very masculine Yant and placements.
So, having the opportunity to play drag in this hyper-male style was interesting to me. After I’d fought a number of western women contacted me, saying they’d like to fight in this way as well, many of them saying it’s something they’ve always wanted to do. The desire is there, the opportunities just haven’t been. It’s not for women. The promotion I fought on announced this event and my bout as a special thing in that they’d never had women fight Kard Chuek before. I’d fought for them once, but a regular Muay Thai fight with gloves. As far as I can tell our fight was a success, in terms of entertainment and show, as well as a wonderful experience for me, so it looks like the opportunity may come again, and hopefully for other women as well. I think perhaps the reason this opportunity fell to me was because of just how non-traditional I am as a western fighter. In thinking about how this fight opportunity happened to come about: I book my own fights, and promoters know that they do not have to go through complex negotiations with a big name gym or a power broker. There are fighter advantages to those kinds of big gym situations, for instance it is much easier to be booked for world title belt fights on large shows through those connections, you are actively promoted by your gym for benchmark achievements and you have someone with weight behind you to keep from shiftiness that isn’t in your best interest, but an opportunity like this is perhaps a benefit that comes to me, as more of a rogue fighter. Also promoters know they can book me with a 4-5 kilo weight disadvantage which I can handle, which helps with finding match-ups, both because the pool from which to find an opponent for me is deeper but also it can look exciting to the audience. This is why gamblers like me as well. Importantly, I also am willing to fight for a low kadtua (fight pay), which means a promotion can take a chance with me without much risk. I just want to fight and cover my expenses, which I’m able to do because of my amazing sponsors, which allow me to say yes to these kinds of opportunities. At least for the first fight of its kind for a promotion, these were likely factors. I have direct connections with promoters all over Thailand, and they regularly contact me looking for western fighters of every kind. I’m promoter friendly, so to speak, and just being at this show I got a few new numbers and connections. I do also suspect my original opponent was replaced because she decided against fighting Kard Chuek, so finding Thai women in the future who want to do this might be a difficulty – it is still transgressive. But the fact that the promoters are already looking to repeat the event is really promising, and as our fight was televised as well it means they put their weight weight and name behind the experiment rather than just tucking it away in the undercard as a novelty. That’s really good. Because of my situation I got lucky, but maybe we all got lucky.
I’m not the first western woman to fight Kard Chuek in Thailand; according to record I’m the second. After my fight Emma Thomas of Under the Ropes posted that the first western woman was Rachel Jones, a student of Master A, brother of Master Toddy, who fought in 2005; that’s 12 years ago, which means this isn’t – or hasn’t been – a common occurrence at all. It reminds me a bit of when Gina Carano fought Julie Kedzie in what was called the “fight of the night” (my opponent and I both got “most exciting fight” trophies during the broadcast for our bout) in what was the first televised female fight on Showtime in 2007. (Carano was also connected to Toddy’s gym; he’s done a lot for the promotion of women’s combat sports in many ways.) This didn’t change the world for women’s MMA overnight, but it certainly paved some road. The fact that my Kard Chuek fight was aired on Thai Rath TV (a major channel in Thailand), during the main show, and that the promoters want to repeat it again, is also laying down some pavement. It’s not monumental (yet), but it may be if this pattern continues, it could produce changes in the opportunities for all female fighters, Thai and non-Thai, as much of the disparity in pay and fight cards is tied to many of the preconceptions about female fighting that kept women out of Kard Chuek in the first place. It’s been 12 years since Rachel Jones, it’s looking like it may be only a month or so before another female bout this time. Conditions are perhaps more favorable this time. As always, we bring the female fighters before us, with us.
Above, the first westerner vs Thai female Kard Cheuk fight in Thailand, 2005
It means something for women’s inclusion in all kinds of shows where we’ve previously been excluded. I mean, eventually. Kru Nat Fuz of Chok Sabai Gym in NYC, a pioneering female fighter, once said to me of her own experiences in the west that promoters aren’t going to let women fight out of the goodness of their hearts, it’s a business issue. If you can sell tickets, if it’s going to make money, then there’s a better chance for change. If these shows see success off of the experiment of including women, even if it’s a spectacle at the start, then it can lead to more. It means a lot to me that so many people at this event were excited by my fight, that my opponent and I both put on a good show and thrilled the audience, and of course it feels good in a purely individual experience to have positive feedback from the people running the show and people watching the show; but it’s very exciting that this positive experience might be propping open the door for women’s Muay Thai in Thailand, however slightly, for more opportunities for more women to do more of what they love. Once there’s an “us,” there’s more power. Simply the fact of Phetyodying and me stepping into the ring for a Kard Chuek fight, even 12 years after the fact, draws a line straight back to Rachel Jones and her Thai opponent (whose name was recorded as Yokkao), and that makes the four of “us.” Every single time women are allowed to do something for the first time, like Thai Fight, like Max, like Kard Chuek, makes these connections. The idea is to keep connecting the dots.
The Kard Chuek step in representing female fighters, as fighters, in seemingly brutal contexts, is closely related to my own project of collecting photos of bloodied female Muay Thai fighter faces. Women have to be seen in these kinds of contexts so we can imagine ourselves forward, charting our course. If women are never showed bloody, or showed fighting with bound fists, then our imaginations become limited.