My chest already feels like it’s being squeezed by a fist from taking a nearly full-power, flying knee to the sternum as I was up against the ropes yesterday from my partner in clinch training. He’s maybe 16 years old, 2 kilos (5 lb) bigger than me, and can get very aggressive. Every time my ribs are touched is pretty painful. But he’s is turning up his power with every exchange, again, and now I just got slammed by a full power, straight knee into the chest and I bounce back into the ropes and lose my breath for a second. I give him a look that says, “okay, you want to go hard, we’ll go hard,” and he grabs me again for another knee but I quickly lock his arms and pull him into me, purposely landing a sharp left knee into his side. He collapses to the floor. I stand there and give him a moment and let the intensity simmer.
He didn’t get up. I knocked my clinching partner out with a body shot. That’s the first (and hopefully last) time that’s ever happened, but it’s a development for me. I’m not one to go too hard in training and, indeed, in an effort to grow I’ve set it as a personal goal to make one of my trainers tell me to “lighten up,” but that’s never happened. I set the goal for just once to err on the side of aggression, something boys do all the time. As it goes though, I never go too hard and as most of my training partners are bigger than I am I’m often left in a position of the one trying to keep it cool. This guy I knocked out – I call him Mini Mini Neung – has been told for weeks to take his power down against me. “Clinch strong, knee lighter,” they keep telling him. He’ll lighten up on the knees when they’re looking, then he’ll go back to trying to get me to quit or punish me with hard knees when they look away. He’s not a bad person, really – he’s just frustrated by me – I’m physically very strong and have more developed technique – and he just doesn’t know how to handle that. We actually often have a lot of fun together and our relationship as training partners has gotten pretty good. We laugh a lot. He was excited to tell me about his fight this Sunday – but at times he just doesn’t control himself. I’ve had my nose broken by a 16 year old who gave me a knee to the face in clinch, because he didn’t want to clinch with “the girl” – this can be dangerous territory.
He’s not technically part of my gym, Petchrungruang. He trains at the gym but has a separate coach and is managed by a guy I call “Gabe East” because he looks like my brother Gabe. (His actual name is Win.) But Mini Mini Neung is my current clinching partner because we’re close in size – as I said he outweighs me by a couple kilos – and most of the boys I was clinching up until this point have grown to outweigh me by 5-10 kg. So me and Mini Mini Neung are improving together; but being bettered by “the girl,” regardless of how skilled I am, is always something that my partners get made fun of for – it’s a public humiliation. For the past week or so, though, things have been changing for me due to concerted work I’ve done on myself – I’m finding a new place to come from. My fight energy has been at an all time high. It’s like my baseline has come up a level and I don’t dip below this intensity, even if I’m tired. What’s cool about it, for me, is that I feel relaxed now even when I’m having a hard time. Relaxed and aggressive. Mini Mini Neung doesn’t have that yet, so he gets jai rohn, or “hot headed.” So in the past week or more that my energy and focus has been so good, Pi Nu and a coach of Mini Mini Neung (“Mark’s Dad” or Pi Watt) have stopped telling him to go lighter. Not because he’s not going too hard – he still is – but because they can see I’m handling it. They have been letting it ride. Pi Nu watches very closely even when it seems like he’s not looking, and I know he’s seeing the expression on my face when MMN knees me too hard and I just get more focused and come back at him. He can see me growing.
So MMN is fighting at Max this Sunday, his second fight since joining Pi Win’s gym. He had a really good debut fight and so he’s gotten a lot of attention and encouragement in his training. His confidence has been on the upswing. Yesterday I was giving him a lot of pressure in clinch and he did this jumping knee into my solar plexus. It’s one of those moves you can only “pull” the power on if you’re really skilled and he’s not at that level yet, so he hit me with pretty close to full weight and power and he’s bigger than I am. My chest still hurts from it, my breathing is a little strained, and this morning when Pi Nu hit me with a pretty light knee in the ribs it sent a cramp through my chest all the way to my back. I winced and he freaked out a little because I never show pain; I’ve trained that response out of myself for the most part. I wasn’t going to tell him about the flying knee because I didn’t want him to feel he had to intercede, because he doesn’t. I just told him I’d taken a knee but was fine. He seemed okay with that, but the point is he knows about it. Yesterday had been pretty fun for me with MMN despite the uncool flying knee finisher. I emotionally deflected when he landed some really sharp knees that were just too hard, laughing them off – this can be a good tactic in controlling the energy – and he laughed when I threw him to the ground. Keep it light. The week before he’d seceded his “loss” to me when he ran out of energy and just took his power down to nothing and basically stayed away from me for the last 5 minutes of training. We have a whole history together.
But today, maybe because he’s nervous about his fight on Sunday and it’s his last day of training (Friday) for that fight, MMN was quite serious. He didn’t laugh when I got a good throw on him and he got pretty pissed and vengeful when I low-clinched him and got him on the ground, landing on top of him (a very dominant move). We had been clinching for 20 minutes and had 10 minutes left on the clock when he just took the power up to 100%, which isn’t right. As I said above, he landed a sharp knee in my chest when I was against the ropes, taking my breath a bit ,and I grabbed his arms and pulled him toward me as I landed a kind of hooked knee, the way Yodkhunpon (the “Elbow Hunter”) had shown me in our private the day before. Not 100% power on my part, more a warning shot, but definitely meant to hurt. Mini Mini Neung collapsed to the canvas, holding his side. I walked around like a prowling animal – I was ready for him to stand up and decide whether he was going to tone it down or whether he wanted another one. But he stayed down. “Arai wa?” Pi Nu said, “what the fuck?” I looked at him, still pacing a little bit, and answered Pi Nu’s question in Thai so that MMN understood, “he went hard so I went hard, too.” Pi Nu nodded and laughed, then said, “oh-kaay.” MMN started taking off his shinpads and I realized he was quitting with 10 minutes left on the clock. I wai-ed to him to signal a truce, despite our age differences, and patted him on the shoulder, then walked over to a different area of the ring and leaned against the ropes while MMN got out of the ring and disappeared into the weight room. I was pretty agitated but not angry… just finishing what he started, really.
A little while later, when I was helping Angie with clinch for her fight next week, she said in a kind of whisper something about how Mini Mini Neung was fighting in 3 days so there was some talk about how he was upset I’d put him down. Mark’s Dad didn’t say anything to me and Pi Nu honestly looked downright proud of me, so I know they knew what that was about. I’m not a fucking punching bag. I’d tolerated MMN going too hard for weeks and I’d taken his dick move from the day before without complaining. But if he’s worried about his fight in 3 days he should be controlling himself. My eyebrows pinched together: “Fuck him,” I told Angie, “he’s bigger than I am.” She looked confused by the first part – Thais don’t know the full variety of usages for the word fuck, so I translated for her, jutting my chin toward the doorway to the weight room. Hia, I said, a quality translation that caused Angie to laugh and then nod her head in understanding.
I wouldn’t say I’m proud of knocking my training partner out as I don’t think it’s something one should aim for. But I am proud of myself for not taking that shit and making him stop by giving it back. All he had to do was control himself, and honestly it would have been fine if he’d stood back up and continued on with some control. You can go hard, absolutely, but in energy. He increases the power in his knees as a way to punish me, to try to get me to quit or to hurt me because he’s emotional about the pressure I give him. I’m an endurance fighter, “Diesel,” as Pi Nu calls it, meaning that my engine runs at a steady idle and goes forever. I understand that when MMN gets tired he doesn’t know what to do other than try to hurt me to keep me off of him, but he’s got to learn how to control himself. I’ve been beat on for years in this gym; I’ve been overwhelmed so many times, but I don’t quit. That’s how you learn. So the fact that he gave up off of me giving him a warning shot, of answering his power by saying “I can do that too, do you want this level?” just means that he needs to assess what he’s asking for when he decides that increasing power is his best option. If he’s worried about his fight on Sunday and not having any sore spots, then he should set that level for himself. And I’m taking this incident as a sign of growth on my own part because it means my level has shifted. For years I’ve been elbowed in fights and never answer back with my own elbows. That’s mental more than anything, but it’s also a kind of submission, and it’s linked to my sense of endurance which makes it complicated. But in this moment in training was an answer, finally; a sign that I will respond in kind. A sign I will put a stop to it. Pi Nu and Pi Watt can tell MMN to go lighter a hundred times, but this knee from me got the message through.
Many years ago when Phetjee Jaa was training with the boys at Petchrungruang – the same way Mini Mini Neung does, not as a teammate of the gym but as a training partner – she apparently KO’d Barbecue with a knee. Pi Nu still talks about it, probably 4 years after the fact. I have a feeling he’s going to remember this moment as well. I could see in the way Pi Nu responded right after that he was proud of me and I’ve seen him beam with pride when I dominate any of my training partners, even if he’s making fun of them for it. And that means a lot to me because Pi Nu has been patient with me; he believed in me and let me be this odd thing before he even understood what I was. He didn’t agree with my desire to fight so much, but he gave his blessing for me to look for my own fights and now he brags about me all the time. To newcomers to the gym he refers to me as, “my champion,” as he points to a photo of me with my belt on the wall. He’s seen me go through days and weeks of being utterly frustrated and worn down. He’s only seen me cry once, but I know that he knows I cry all the time even though he doesn’t see it. And he lets that happen because he knows I’m okay…and that I’m growing. When I fought on Wan Wai Nai Khanomtom day in Ayutthaya, I got split open by an elbow and was bleeding a lot. The ring doctor looked like he wanted to call it but I told him I wanted to keep fighting, that I could win. He let me continue and I did win, which gave him face for having made a good call. The doctor took a picture with me afterward; he was proud. That’s what’s happening with Pi Nu’s pride as well. He has faith in me even when his instincts to be protective are strong. He believes in me now because he’s seen me stand up so many times, come to training with stitches in my face so many times; but he believed in me before he had any proof, which I’m grateful for. I’ve had many trainers and all of them mean a lot to me and have given a lot to me. But Pi Nu has had the biggest impact on what I am now as a fighter. The pride in his face when I take care of myself is a mirror of the pride I’m starting to feel in myself.
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