The Piano and the Drum
Karuhat glances behind his shoulder to check how close the nearest ear is, then leans in toward me and lowers his voice to say something along the lines of, “I could totally take him; he’s not fit, just look at how tubby he is.” There’s an earnestness in Karuhat’s voice that’s a little surprising, as the man he’s talking about is a friend of his and they’ve been talking shit to each other across the ropes, while Karuhat trains me in the ring, for the last 15 minutes or so. The man he’s referring to is another Golden Age legend, Samson Isaan (Saenmuangnoi Lukchaopormahesak), who was awarded Fighter of the Year in 1991. And he probably outweighs Karuhat by 30 lbs or more right now.
At the start of March, I trained with Karuhat for 3 days straight. On the first day, he was tired, as he doesn’t normally train people so this kind of activity is here and there. But by the third day, he was feeling really good and his energy was up, he was feeling fit; the fighter who trained for years in the gym and got hardened by hours of work woke up. Karuhat is nearly 50 years old, but you would never guess it to look at him or watch him move. He has a strut, a kind of young man’s confidence that emanates off of him all the time, occasionally bursting like Solar Flares when he gets into the ring and starts to move. Now, when I came back to Bangkok to train with him for a full month (which ended up being 6 weeks) – you see and study our one of a kind series of sessions together, more than 24 hours of video, On Demand here – in the first few days Kevin and I suggested to him that by the end of the month he’d feel so good and fit that he could rematch Hippy Singmanee, probably the best nemesis of Karuhat’s very decorated career. Karuhat firmly and immediately opposed this idea, saying that Hippy doesn’t drink anymore (Karuhat does) and weighs about 60 kg now (Karuhat is “heavy” at 54 kg). However, by the second week Karuhat was feeling really good. He had me take a photo of him with his shirt off to post online, showing off his 6 pack and muscled arms. This was probably only the second time Karuhat had even taken his shirt off in my presence at all, which is partly due to him being polite (leaving the shirt on, I mean). But he’s got this pride about him; actually, that pride is one of my favorite things about him, as it’s performed in his fights and the way he even just walks around in space with his chest leading the way, shoulders swaying in a very personal swagger. Karuhat Swagger. So, whereas his pride had made him keep his shirt on before, because he didn’t look like the 25-year-old fighter he has as a self-image in his mind, now he’s taking off his shirt and asking me to take a picture to post for him online because of that same pride: because he does look like that fighter. It’s that pride and physicality that is making Karuhat lean in and whisper to me about fighting Samson Isaan; he’s not joking, he’s actually considering it.
Samson is sitting on a high stool, like a bar stool, and peering through his reading glasses into his phone. Karuhat makes a big deal about it when he sees the glasses for the first time, just glancing over after throwing me on the canvas in one of his insanely slick trips. He lets out a shout of surprise and starts calling Samson “old,” then shoots a look over at me that communicates I’d better keep my mouth shut about the fact that Karuhat can’t read anything without his own glasses. I keep my mouth shut, because I know what’s good for me. Samson just looks at us over the top rims of his glasses and smiles. He says he can see for kilometers with his glasses (like a superhero).
About 45 minutes later I’m standing in front of Samson. He’s changed into Muay Thai shorts that he borrowed from the gym, as he just showed up in jeans, “as is,” taking a break from his full-time job as a metered taxi driver in Bangkok. But he’s a legend of Muay Thai. Karuhat called him to organize a session for the Muay Thai Library and Samson just rolled up in his taxi, like, “sure, just throw on a pair of shorts and do some Muay Thai.” (One of the important goals of the Muay Thai Library is to document the muay of great fighters who no longer are part of gyms, and passing their knowledge on, preserving it.) These guys have put in countless hours of training and fighting, so this kind of thing is like a soccer player seeing any round object at all and being able to just become a superstar the moment he touches it. Both Karuhat and Samson are incredible to see move, but Karuhat has been a teacher for many years and Samson pretty much never, not at all. So when I tell Samson I just want him to show me his style, he puts his guard up and just Juggernaut marches through me, like I’m some pesky brick wall that’s in the way of where he’s going. I let out some kind of sound of panic as I flurry backwards and then geek out over the element of that pressure that is technical. Samson looks up with an expression of total glee. Like he’s never been told his style is “cool” or “beautiful” before. His smile is as wide as his face and it seems to take up most of his head when he’s genuinely entertained. Happily, that’s pretty often while Karuhat keeps lobbing insults over the ropes of the ring, where he’s working with another student now. Samson doesn’t respond to Karuhat, but instead looks right at me and, just like Karuhat lowering his voice to tell me he could totally take Samson in a fight right now, Samson silently repositions his entire stance and starts dancing around like a prancing fool, pushing his chin up to point at the general direction of Karuhat. He’s imitating him, doing a completely ridiculous mockery of a Femeu style to indicate how not badass it is. Kevin and I start laughing hysterically and the sound of that alerts Karuhat, who looks over with an expression of curiosity and catches Samson’s performance just before it ends. He laughs, throwing his head back a bit as he does when he’s kind of caught off guard by something, but he keeps his shoulders back and his chest forward in exactly the way he does when he’s going to “get the point back” in the ring. I’ve never seen a Yodmuay imitate another Yodmuay to make fun of him like this. My Thai trainers have done these exaggerated imitations of me and other students, which are always ruthless, as a way to show what we’re doing wrong, but to see these legends imitating each other is no less brutal – but definitely way funnier. You can see the entire session I filmed with him, with some of these antics, on Patreon, there is a 6 minute excerpt of the session below:
One of the things that draws me so strongly to Karuhat is the way in which his style just feels good to me. I can’t do a ton of the things he tries to teach me, and he very patiently just keeps working with me on them because he knows that they will find shape in me eventually. But it’s like picking up an axe and it just feels so good in your hand. Maybe you can’t swing it so well at first, but you just keep chopping at things because it feels so good in your hand. Samson has elements in his style that are like this for me, too. They’re not visually similar, but they’re similar in ethic, so to speak. The way Samson just pushes forward, pulsing, pressing until he breaks through whatever stands in his way – that’s not what Karuhat’s movements look like, but there’s a similar feeling that I gravitate to. A piano and a drum don’t look or sound similar, but they’re both percussion instruments. It’s kind of like that. And the piano thinks the drum is a low-class hillbilly and the drum thinks the piano is for little girls. It’s very funny. But it’s also beautiful because the way they make fun of one another is a fact of their friendship, but the banter is about styles of Muay Thai. I’m partly to blame for the western misundertanding and over-use of the categorical tags of Muay Femeu and Muay Khao, but Muay Buk, Muay Mat, Muay Dtae, Muay Hoht… it’s all Muay Thai. All of it. The distinction is far less in the techniques and far more in what’s being expressed. You have a band like Tool, where the instrumentals are doing all the heavy lifting and the lyrics can be obscure and barely matter, versus a guy like Bob Dylan, where the music is good, he can’t sing, but the lyrics are basically everything. Or Bjork, where the lyrics don’t matter for shit but her ability to use her voice as an instrument is unreal. It’s all music. It’s all good. And Bob Dylan imitating Bjork would be hilarious; Led Zeppelin playing a Johnny Cash tune would be bizarre. But how fucking awesome would it be to watch that happen, backstage or on an empty recording studio somewhere. That’s what this was.
You can watch a entire Library of legends and ex-fighters teach their style by becoming a supporter of the Patreon Muay Thai Library (suggested pledge $5).
And you can dive in deep on Karuhat’s incredible Muay Femeu style, in this On Demand subscription containing now over 27 hours of commentary footage: Karuhat Intensive On Demand (subscription $29.99)
Below you can see Samson telling me that he was named “Samson” as the strongman (Facebook video here), by the Petchyindee promoter, and that he’s from L.A., apparently what they call the little Isaan town of Roi Et, in humor.