An enormous vinyl poster of the moment in the ring when PTT won the Omnoi Isuzu tournament – a giant faux key in his hand to represent the truck he won and a cardboard sign reading 1,000,000 Baht for his prize money – hangs on the far side of our training ring. The poster is so big that it has blocked off most of the breeze that occasionally makes its way into the gym and also holds in the light from the bare bulbs just under the rafters of the ring. It is weighed down at the bottom corners, kept from flapping by pairs of boxing gloves. PTT is the superstar of the gym, the handsome, young, success story that is literally larger-than-life as a backdrop to all the young boys in their own “come up” within those ropes. With the sun setting, the white border of the vinyl poster seems to glow.
Inside the ring the smaller boys grapple and throw one another onto the ground in what amounts to clinch training for little kids. Podee is 11 years old and the most experienced of the bunch, probably 100 fights all told, but he’s still small and pudgy so he’s lazily grappling with a beginner near his size. Two more boys, probably each about 8 years old, are clashing their thin limbs into each other with twice as much glee as there is skill to what they’re attempting. But this is how you learn. The real focus of the action in the ring is Sun. He’s probably about 13 years old, tall and lanky with a kind of grasshopper frame. Sun has fought a handful of times at the bar, which are only 3 round fights but it’s where lots of the younger kids get their experience before venturing into festival or stadium fights. Sun has good focus. He obediently follows direction and commits himself to the endless counts of pushups and pull-ups when the trainer no longer offers attention. A lot of boys will cheat on the conditioning because trainers don’t watch. Not Sun though; if there’s debate over whether the count was at 98 or 100, he’ll do a couple extra just to be sure.
The head of the gym and my own trainer, Kru Nu, is fiddling with his phone to set the timer, then sets it in a plastic bottle that’s been cut into a holder for the phone and hangs high on a pillar above the ring. Kru Nu turns around and slips the Thai pads over his forearms, making a “ah-ha-haaaw,” sound to indicate the start of the round. It’s a goofy sound. He thinks it’s hilarious. This is kind of a magical moment to itself because Sun is a beginner. Most of the time the other kids will hold pads for him because he’s just trying to get his coordination down. Kru Nu offers instruction and correction when the other kids are holding, but to have Kru Nu actually holding the pads is a treat for Sun. It’s also a nightmare, I can attest from my own experience, because Kru Nu is absolutely the best and hardest padman I’ve ever met. Immediately, Sun realizes he’s in for something he wasn’t expecting. Kru Nu is whacking his sides with the flat front of the pad when he holds his arms out for a block. He also whacks him with the pads when his guard is solid, but the impact knocks Sun off-balance for a moment. It’s intense. It makes you feel like there’s no chance to breathe and a 4 minute round can feel like eternity.
I’ve been here, many times. The impact from the pads doesn’t cause any damage, but it stings a bit – mostly it’s shocking to your brain and it gets you in a state of panic; you stop breathing. You get angry. As you fatigue from not breathing, your anger might start to bring you to tears. That’s what’s happening to Sun now. He’s actually crying, you can hear it more than you can see it because he’s still moving. He’s responding and every now and then the anger expresses itself in a particularly powerful kick. Kru Nu is 70 kilos, Sun is maybe 35 kg, so when Sun tries to teep the trainer off of him – which is a great move, actually – he just ends up launching himself backwards. He’s frustrated, but he keeps coming back and trying to move forward. And Kru Nu is laughing, not mockingly but really trying to contrast what Sun must be feeling as he is overwhelmed. From Sun’s experience, this feels like a real fight; watching from the outside you can see the control Kru Nu has over everything he’s choosing to challenge Sun with. I’ve felt like I was being pummeled and then watched video and seen how slow and controlled what Kru Nu is actually doing is. The young boys in the ring have all stopped and are staring at Sun, because everyone knows he’s crying (photo above). A few of the men around the ring mutter about how it’s such a shame, but I think he’s brave. I think this because to keep moving when your already sobbing is pretty awesome. It takes a lot of heart to keep going when you’re breaking, to keep it in the present instead of just being broken.
It goes on like this for a full 4 rounds and at the end of that last round the bell sounds and Kru Nu, in his style, ignores the timer and yells for Sun to do 20 kicks on each side. He’s totally exhausted. Sun’s kicks are miserable and slow but Kru Nu yells out the count so everyone can hear. One side goes by. The next side has a hiccup in it, somewhere around 9, Sun takes too long with his kicks and the count starts over at 1. He’s so furious by this that his kicks speed up and he powers through the last 20 with fury. He gets no pat on the back, no word of acknowledgement, certainly no “good job.” Kru Nu just walks away and puts his pads on the floor of the ring. That’s how it goes – you’re expected to get through, you don’t get praised for it. Not to your face, anyway. Sun drops his gloves to his sides and walks over to his father, who has leapt up onto the ring and is pouring water from a bottle into his son’s mouth, his head tipped back and mouth open to catch the water like a baby bird. Sun steps away from his father, he is alone for a second. Podee, the 11-year-old with the most experience, hurries over to Sun and puts one hand on his back and one on his stomach, which he kind of half-presses. This is what a corner would do in a fight, rub the stomach to get rid of any cramping and get the breathing steady. But Podee is mostly just touching Sun, giving him contact in the context of a cornerman. It’s comforting, but it looks like how you tend to a fighter. The other boys stop their clinching and follow suit, running over to Sun so that they can join in on minding the fighter between rounds. They rub water on his legs, this little collection of kids around a much taller kid, and they’re all playing their parts. Sun even acts a bit like a fighter would, somewhat ignoring all the hands on him and vaguely ordering Podee around when his legs are being stretched. As a 13 year old, Sun technically has some status over the 11 year old Podee and 8 year old gromits all around him. His tears are being sucked back as he catches his breath and calms down.
Here’s why I was so taken by this moment. What Kru Nu was doing with Sun is how you make a fighter. You force them to push and push, even when they’re breaking, even when they’re about to collapse. You test their minds and hearts through trials of the body. At the end of the grueling session, when put to it the answer to why Sun was crying is that he was overwhelmed, but the reason is just that he was tired. You can recover from being tired; you can ignore being tired the way you can ignore tears. It was embarrassing for him to cry, but he kept going anyway. And at the same moment that you’re building a fighter you are also building all the support he has around him, the way Podee leapt to his role as a cornerman, as support, was absolutely beautiful. And the way the little kids who don’t have any experience in the corner yet ran over to help and follow Podee’s lead is awesome – truly awesome – because they are learning how to tend to their teammates. It’s part of training but at the same time it’s real. This moment stood out from hundreds of thousands of other moments I’ve witnessed at the gym, it even stood out despite the fact that it’s something I’ve experienced for myself countless times. It stands out even though what Podee and Sun’s father did at the end of the rounds to recover the fighter is absolutely mundane in the world of Muay Thai. But it seemed to illustrate for me a deeper understanding of this whole process. This, right here, is the reason I can show up to a festival fight in the middle of nowhere, where I know absolutely nobody and still get someone to work the corner for me. Because little kids know how to tend to a fighter; because all I need is for someone, anyone, to dump cold water on me between rounds but what you get along with that is little men who connect to the spirit of Muay Thai, of community and support. This whole display of Sun in the ring with Kru Nu and the little kids all around, the enormous poster of PTT on the far side as an example of someone who succeeded through the exact same process… this is the making of men, in the ring, in the dimming light, in the countless hours.