A few evenings ago after training I watched the four Thai boys climb one by one into the taller men’s ring that sits behind the women’s ring at the gym. They’ve been giddy for a few days now, often throwing feinted punches or elbows at each other and me as they walk by during shadowboxing – or in Big’s case actually punching me in the stomach during my padwork with Andy earlier in the week. Off sprayed me and a girl I was working with on sparring with a water cup from halfway across the gym in a teasing manner. I don’t know what’s gotten into them but I suspect it has to do with the scheduling of fights. Training breeds camaraderie.
Now it was growing dark throughout the gym, the edges of the space disappearing and the rods of fluorescent fixtures attached to beams casting strange and unnatural light between objects rather than over them. Big crawled into the ring first and remained on his hands and knees for a while, kind of scooting along the side of the ring before settling with his back against the ropes on the far side. Big isn’t big – at 19 years old he’s skinny and muscular with powerful strikes that conflict with his physical structure and completely agree with his confidence. Big doesn’t walk, he struts. He has high cheekbones that always aim toward the sky with his upturned chin and side-glancing eyes. His smile is as wide as his face and as wild as his laughter, which erupts from inside jokes that may or may not be shared with those around him. On his back are four sak yant, protective and traditional tattoos – three in a line down his spine and one, circular and rayed like a sun diagram, on his right shoulder blade. Big is my hero.
Next I see Boy hop into the ring. He stands strangely erect all the time so that his head is almost behind his hips and his chin tips downward. He’s built more solid than the other boys and looks at once older and younger than his 16 years. He has a chock of black hair that sits in a quasi-bowl cut around his head which is quite different from the spiky styles that seem to sprout from the crowns of many Thai men. He has eyes softer than what he’d probably wish to inadvertently express and his mouth is full of crowded teeth, which make him appear like a little kid whose baby teeth and adult teeth are at war with one another. His broad shoulders are permanently back, bringing his chest forward in a show of confidence and, though he often does not begin fights with that bravado, he does frequently finish them that way.
Off and Tor jump in next. Off is the smallest and youngest of the boys by status. He’s Boy’s same age but his body is much smaller. Three years ago when we first came to Lanna I saw Off fight and thought he was about 9 years old; he was 13 at the time. His structure is very thin and lanky and he has a small face that has matured significantly over the last three years, but once I got used to those new jaw angles he returned to looking very young in my eyes. As the smallest, Off has probably always been the lowest on the pecking order and you can see it in his gait, in the way he composes his cockiness and lashes out in both fights and in play. Tor is the oldest of the boys and the biggest. He’s a good 10 kilos heavier than Boy, the next largest and is six feet tall, which is a full head above most Thais at the gym. His confidence is strong but contained and his demeanor is very quiet and sweet. He wears his hair in a pseudo mohawk, like how soccer players do, and he grows what almost amounts to a mustache – probably simply because he can. He’s long and strong and wears shorts that are probably the same size as those I wear. They appear impossibly small on him, as if he’s outgrown them, and yet they fit his frame. When I see the billowing shorts on the thin bodies of Off and Big I can see why Tor chooses to wear such a small size – anything larger would make him look skinny whereas the tiny shorts emphasize his solid composition. Tor is the most mature of the boys but at 19 he is still unmistakeably a teenager.
The four of them stand up and have a discussion amongst themselves. Big’s way of speaking makes him appear and sound like a cartoon – he’s amazingly funny given I can’t understand a single thing he ever says – and Boy leans against the corner while Big slips on a pair of gloves. Ah, I think to myself, it’s time for conditioning. The boys are not diligent in their training and often skip major sections of a given day’s routine, but when conditioning involves hitting each other they are all game. So Boy leans against the corner and Big commences a rapid and hard, but not full strength, punching of his stomach. This goes on for almost no time at all before they switch out and Tor is standing in the corner. Big starts punching, goes faster and harder until he must have broken some agreement and Tor pushes out of the corner and grabs Big on both shoulders to deliver a sharp, high knee right into his solar plexus. Big falls on the ground and is both giggling maniacally and holding his chest while the other boys laugh and Tor looks like a babysitter who has caught the children out of bed when they’ve already been put to sleep. He shakes his head and goes back to the corner, positions himself and puts his arms back to receive the punches that it looks like Off will be delivering now. They start out steady and then again there’s some kind of transgression and now Tor is chasing Off across the ring – while the other two boys howl with laughter – and Off is caught in the corner and kneed down to the ground. There’s more laughter and Tor says something in Thai before they all scurry out of the ring, Big clapping a Thai pad against his stomach in preparation for the next drill they’ll play with on the incline sit-up benches.
As they come out of the ring they move in different directions before heading over to the benches. For a minute Big is between the two rings and he catches me with a huge smile on my face just as my own laughter has seized and he grins. “I love when the boys do conditioning,” I say to Kevin. “It’s exactly like when the lion cubs are playing,” I add. Brothers in training.