Pain and Laughter
Scene 1: a pain shoots through my right leg, right down the nerve that runs from the outside of my hip to my knee, and without any drama on my own part my leg simply gives out and I collapse to the floor. It hurts a lot and I honestly have to take a second, rolling on my belly to try to get back up and limp toward my adversary for revenge. But first I have to catch my breath because I’m laughing; and I have to figure out my revenge quickly because my foe is already aiming to kick me again. It’s morning training and my trainer, Pi Nu, gets a look on his face when he’s going to try something cheeky in padwork. Or when he stands too close to me when I’m idle between rounds, I know he’s going to throw some impromptu sparring into the mix. Just messing around, playing. I know that look; I know that proximity. Mostly the answer is to just throw whatever I can back at him, try to hurt him a little. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. He’ll tell me if I lose – he’s really consistent at pointing that out. But it’s funny. The pain is real and the dominance and power struggle in our exchanges is real – but the outcome doesn’t matter. I lose, doesn’t matter; I win, doesn’t matter. Both are funny and I like reminiscing and telling a good story about why it hurts to go down the stairs to walk my dog.
Sometimes it’s the trainer who initiates it, sometimes it’s me, but the response on either side is generally the same: a smile, a laugh, and firing something back. It breaks the ice. Now you can kick each other or be thrown on the floor.
Scene 2: I’m hitting pads with a man named Kru Lek, who I don’t know. I met him 10 minutes ago, at Sang Morakot Gym in Bangkok, and he’s the trainer of some really famous fighters in Thailand and I’ve just watched them smashing the pads with him; guys with twice my experience and nearly twice my size. There’s a degree of awkwardness as we both figure out each other’s ranges, pace, habits and angles. It’s like a new dance partner or small talk with someone you just met. Except, instead of throwing in a little verbal jab to have a laugh and test out boundaries, I throw an actual jab – or an unexpected teep. Sometimes it’s the trainer who initiates it, sometimes it’s me, but the response on either side is generally the same: a smile, a laugh, and firing something back. It breaks the ice. Now you can kick each other or be thrown on the floor. Now we’re both laughing and I might get a feinted elbow to let me know that I’d be sliced open in a real fight by now, but we both make the “ooooiii” sound in acknowledgement of it and I immediately cut him back – imaginary style. Now the onlookers outside the ring are pretending to make bets. It’s a game and we’re all pantomiming after the real thing, but with great joy and easiness. After we leave this gym a woman from the film crew – we were filming for an American Travel Channel show with Andrew Zimmern – asks me, “so how long have you been training at this gym?” When I tell her that was my first time there and I’ve never met any of those people before she’s astounded. She thought from watching our work that we trained every day together for years. But you might assume that kind of thing if you saw two people laughing together and exchanging jokes in any context – it’s a sign of comfort and that’s a sign of familiarity. But you can do this anywhere, and you can invite this kind of rapport with anybody; or you can learn to, anyway.
I’ve very recently had the opportunity to train at a number of different gyms, for a variety of different reasons: filming for a US television program at the Sang Morakot gym in Bangkok; filming 1-1 private lessons with great teachers in Thailand for my sponsors, Nak Muay Nation; and supplementing my training at a local gym. Contrary to what some people who see my website think, I am not frequently traveling around to different gyms in Thailand and trying out all their different training methods. I’ve only trained at a small number of gyms and for extended periods of time, but when my training falters in one area, I do have to branch out and try to supplement my training by whatever means I can. Recently, I’ve needed to supplement my clinch training and so I’ve had three days’ worth of experience at the Sor. Klinmee gym in Pattaya.
There are natural tides in the training at any given gym in Thailand and at times the ebb and flow can mean that I’m not getting all the work in that I need. It doesn’t mean my gym isn’t good, it just means I need more. So I asked Pi Nu’s blessing to go get some clinch training at a local gym that happens to be headed by a friend of Pi Nu’s – they grew up together and trained together as kids. There’s a little bit of tension involved, but he gave his permission and the owner at Sor. Klinmee (while we’d never met before) knows who I am. So when I asked if I could come by and just do some clinching with a few of his boys he said that was fine. So, in the logistical realm of setting this up, it went pretty smoothly.
The Passport to Experience in Muay Thai
But getting Pi Nu’s blessing and then being allowed into Sor. Klinmee is not what really makes this kind of thing possible. In the three days that I’ve been clinching at Sor. Klinmee, I’ve been thrown into the ring with one boy who is much taller and heavier, one boy who is actually very near my size but very strong, skilled and a show-off, and one boy who is smaller but strong and tricky. That’s a good sampling. Most of my work is with the tall one, Nin, who has a great attitude and we have a lot of fun. I laugh a lot; I make jokes with him, yelling out “Super Bonus!” when he tries a flying knee (a joke that stems from the new bonuses awarded at Max Muay Thai on TV) and one time when he accidentally kneed me in the face (with the fleshy part of his thigh, so no damage), I laughed it off – he apologized and we kept going. And I laugh when I get something good in, too. It’s all fun. It’s all play, whether I’m getting my ass kicked or getting a move in edge-wise. And same with the other two boys; whether I’m winning or losing, I’m laughing.
This wasn’t possible for me even 6 months ago. It’s not even universally possible for me now, but I will say that I have to strain to remember a time in the last few months when I wasn’t laughing and playing with Pi Nu in padwork; when I wasn’t having fun and laughing and joking around in sparring or clinch. Like, you can remember that one dude who takes Beer Pong way too seriously, because he stands out. That’s how experiences of not having fun stand out for me in the past months of training. I even do it in unfamiliar situations, like going over to Sor. Klinmee; like when I filmed with the Travel Channel at Sang Morakot gym – I played with Kru Lek, who I’d never met before in my life prior to that. We didn’t know each other. And I feel like we both got more out of it as a result.
He would tell me to smile, because he wanted me to relax. I was too tense. But I couldn’t do it. I’d actually tell him that I couldn’t smile because I didn’t feel like smiling, because someone is trying to punch me in the face. That wasn’t funny at the time. But it’s funny now.
And there’s a reason this is really recent for me. I can remember back to when I first landed in Thailand and was training in Chiang Mai at Lanna Muay Thai, and Andy was holding pads for me. Andy is amazing. He’s this Muay Thai, life coach, guru and he knows his shit. He would tell me to smile, because he wanted me to relax. I was too tense. But I couldn’t do it. I’d actually tell him that I couldn’t smile because I didn’t feel like smiling, because someone is trying to punch me in the face. That wasn’t funny at the time. But it’s funny now. When someone successfully punches me in the face, it’s funny. So what changed? Well, everything. But mostly it’s that I’ve become more comfortable with contact, with pressure, with aggression – both mine and that being directed at me. I haven’t quite brought it into the ring yet – I mean, I smile sometimes, but I’m not cackling and calling out “Super Bonus!” to my opponents in fights. There are limits, obviously. But there’s a looseness and a relaxation – exactly what Andy was aiming for when he told me to smile, almost 4 years ago – this is new. And it’s liberating. I learned this from Pi Nu. He never sat me down and instructed me in it, but he pushed me and molded me in that direction. He never sat me down and taught me to teep, either, but he integrated it into our padwork over the last year and lo and behold, I’m teeping like a mother-fucker in my fights now. It’s that kind of development. I didn’t try – I mean, I consciously tried to be less of an asshole and not so tense all the time, so there was some mental training of aiming toward “play” – mostly it was just actually playing with Pi Nu every morning in padwork and having him interject in my clinching in the afternoons, playing with me when I would get thrown down to the ground so that I would then get up and play with my partner, instead of feeling like I’d just “messed up.” Essentially, Pi Nu has given me a Passport to be able to train anywhere. But it’s the genuine impulse to laugh when I’m caught with something. I’ve even done it in a few fights recently: once when I turned my whole body like an asshole on a punch that went nowhere (that’s funny, it must have looked ridiculous), and just in my last fight with Faa Chiang Rai when she teeped me hard into the ropes and I went back, like, 4 feet. “Good shot,” that laugh says, “but it doesn’t matter. Now it’s my turn.” I actually laughed, out loud, in the ring – spontaneously, because I felt joy in it. Before I’d be beating myself up for having made a mistake. But you know, it’s a contact sport… contact isn’t a mistake.
Master K gave me my heart in Muay Thai; through him I learned to really, truly love Muay enough to dedicate myself entirely to it. He allowed me to love it so much it became an obsession.
To Love…And To Be Loved
This difference of not only being able to smile – as Andy had wanted me to – but actually feeling the impulse of joy and genuinely laughing in the midst of contact and pressure is immense. I feel it in every part of my Muay Thai. It makes me more free, it allows me to try things even if they look wrong; to take credit for the things that do work instead of only being critical of myself for the things that don’t. It’s like how you can be yourself around those who love you. And that’s the greatest feeling in the world. John Lee Hooker sings in a song, “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn/ is just to love and be loved in return.” Those things clearly go together with great joy, but the separation of the two is quite painful and difficult. You need both. Master K gave me my heart in Muay Thai; through him I learned to really, truly love Muay enough to dedicate myself entirely to it. He allowed me to love it so much it became an obsession. But in learning how to play, in guiding me down this path in a slow and consistent process, it’s Pi Nu who has taught me how to be loved by Muay Thai, in return. By having both sides, I’m finally free to do and be anything – whether I succeed or make a mistake, it doesn’t matter – it’s all love. The math, no matter how you add it up or subtract it out, the sum is only love.