January 8th, 2016 – Rajabat University, Mahasarakham
I’m seated on our mat just outside the stadium. There’s a metal sheet creating a 10 foot wall behind us and I’ve managed to manipulate a little wire hook, which holds the sheets of metal together, so that I can hang my mongkol. It’s dark all around us, a few young kids getting ready for their fights on either side, but there’s this bright glow from inside the stadium and a buzz of sound from the crowd, not unlike a swarm of bees heard through the paper walls of their hive.
This was my first fight for Khem Pretty, who is a female promoter I met in Udon and has become my “Isaan Manager,” in a way. She’s unusual in that she’s a promoter (there are women promoters, but it’s rare) and Muay Thai is just a side passion-project for her. She just loves Muay Thai. But she puts on great shows and this stadium, which is on university grounds and attracts people from all over the neighboring provinces.
It’s a long drive into Mahasarakham (8+ hours), which is just past Khorat and outside of Khon Kaen, both of which I’ve fought in before. We found a nice, cheap hotel where we could stay with Jai dee, and it was actually really cool when we first pulled up because a couple of dogs that live at the “resort” (in Thailand that just means each room is a separate bungalow; they’re not fancy as the word “resort” connotes in the west) came to greet us. We’re probably the first western couple to ever stay at that place and the owners were very nice and accommodating, but certainly curious about what the hell we were doing there. The places we’ve been able to have Jai Dee with us tend to be these “Love Hotels,” which are basically where you can take your mistress and you pay either by the hour or for a single overnight. So when we said we wanted the room for two nights, the woman actually didn’t believe me and brought me change that was just paying for one night. Kinda funny.
This fight had a weigh in and Khem had reiterated to me a million times that the other camp would not fight me unless I was 48 kg. I think she (and they) didn’t realize that I walk around at or under 48 kg all the time. They must have thought I’d be cutting weight, maybe even to the point that the opponent’s team thought they had some kind of advantage, but I basically just avoided salt for a couple days to make sure I hit the number instead of the few ounces I may be over that after a sodium-laden dinner or something. So we woke up very early and drove out to Mahasarakham City as the sun was rising over the rice fields on our way. We knew the fight was at the university, but not where at the university. So we ended up in the wrong place at first, with a very nice security guard showing us a Muay Thai ring at the back of the “sport school” part of the university. That wasn’t where it was though. So he talked to Khem on the phone and pointed us over to the next soccer field, which we didn’t quite find but with a lot of back and forth finally had Khem find us and bring us over to the right place. I was pretty amazed that a single school had two Muay Thai rings.
And then my opponent didn’t show up for another hour or so. Being late to weigh in is not super unusual, but because it was only us weighing in, it was a little bit annoying. This time of year is actually quite cold up in Isaan and I was shivering in my long track pants and a fleece button-down. I checked my weight on the scale wearing this extra clothing and was at 47.5 kg (104.7 lbs), so then I just had to wait for Chompu. Khem told me that Chompu is very well known up in these parts, she’s very popular in the Muay Thai scene around the neighboring provinces, and she’s a student at that university. So, super hometown situation. But Chompu had never fought a westerner before and was apparently very nervous about it. That’s understandable. I’ve met a few westerners who come through the gym and don’t want to fight a Thai because they’re afraid of the “unknown.” I think part of it is that you don’t know what to expect – you don’t know how the other fights – but certainly there is a particular fear with me because of how I look… assuming Chompu had seen a picture of me or anything like that. She finally rolled up and stepped on the scale for the official weigh in. I didn’t remove my extra clothing for the official weight check, which Kevin said was a mistake, but because we were both under the 48 kg mark I didn’t think it mattered. He said it was important for how information gets spread to demonstrate how small I really am, which may be true because recently Khem told me to “try to weigh in at 50 kg” for a fight and I could hold a full bottle of water and not weigh that. Anyway, the official numbers with Chompu in shorts and a sport shirt was 46.9 kg and I was in my thick track pants at 47.5 kg. Done deal, 1 lb difference on the record.
We drove the 30 minutes back to our room, getting some spicy papaya salad and grilled chicken for breakfast on the way home. The family that sold me the chicken and somdum from a roadside stand in town were totally unsure of how to handle me when I first walked up, but when I spoke Thai they immediately started asking me a million questions and all wished me luck for the fight, which was very nice. I’ve worked in the service industry. In America if some dude who I suspected couldn’t speak English rolled up I’d probably brace myself for a difficult interaction, too.
Finally, at night we headed back down to the venue and set up our mat outside. We purposefully arrived an hour late because I was the 13th fight on the card (that’s such a long wait) and it turned out the fights had only just started anyway. Sigh. So much for our plan. Khem came out and found us (I’d called to let her know we were there) and introduced me to a young guy who she said would be my corner. But then I never saw him again, even when I frantically needed to start getting ready. The second fight on the card was these young women at my weight. It was a good fight and the gamblers got way into it; so much so that I couldn’t see the fight at all anymore and just read what was going on in the ring by the sound of the crowd. That was kind of amazing (the video of energetic gambler watching here):
Then a tiny girl who was warming up next to me went in for a fight – I met her after I’d fought, her name is Earn, and her grandmother was squeezing my arm like she was picking fruit or something. Definitely made an impression. At the start of the 5th fight of the night the guy who acts as equipment manager strolled up to me and casually let me know that I was up in two fights. So, from 13th fight to the 8th fight – not as much time as I’d thought. So I scrambled to find Khem to figure out who was wrapping my hands and giving my massage. I got my massage from these two kids (a teenager and a 10-year-old), which was a bizarre experience because I was laid out to the side of the bleachers and I could feel the entire row of gamblers eyeing me as I got my massage. I kind of hate that, but I’m used to it by now in that it doesn’t get in my head. I just notice it. Then I wrapped my own hands and as I did so the equipment manager came back over to chastise me for not having my gloves on yet. Yeah, dude, I’m trying!
Finally, I got my gloves on and there was no time for a warmup. I had no idea who would actually be in my corner and this older guy (maybe in his 40’s) came over and tried to put my mongkol on. I told him that he had to wait until I was in the ring, which is pretty good indication he’s never cornered for a woman… or not for a long time, anyway. There was this whole hurry to get into the ring and then there was a long wait actually inside the ring while they did this big presentation of all the promoters and VIP’s of the event. That took probably 10-15 minutes. I’ve seen these before, but I’ve only been in the ring when it happens maybe once before. But it was nice to get some photos with Khem during that, as I was kind of “her fighter” that she’d brought in. A head honcho gave me and my opponent each 500 Baht as a pre-fight tip, which lots of fighters hold in their mouths since gloves are not great for dexterity, but I always try to pinch with the glove anyway because the thought of money in my mouth grosses me out. Everyone exits the ring and there’s a bit more of a wait before the Wai Kru music starts. My corner is telling me to take it easy in the first 2 rounds and stay away from Chompu, to only really go forward in the 3rd so I don’t get tired. I don’t fight like that, so I tell him that I’m a knee fighter, muay khao. He shakes his head and says, “no, she’s muay khao, stay away from her for 2 rounds.” I laugh because this dude has no idea and I decide to just fight my fight. He’ll see. He only knows one fighter in this equation and he’s giving advice based on that, but he’ll know soon enough.
Full Fight Video with Audio Commentary
So the fight starts and I feel totally focused. Chompu is tall and rangy, but she’s got no upper body strength at all. She is, indeed, a knee fighter but like the two women I watched in the second fight, she can’t really clinch. There’s a difference between kneeing and clinching. They go together, obviously, but there are a few fighters who just get this basic hold and throw straight knees out of it, and because their opponents don’t know any clinch, this lock works. That’s a knee fighter who can’t clinch. If you know enough clinch to get out of that lock, or to avoid getting into it, and how to work inside the clinch for better positions, turns, angles and all the things that make clinch so complicated to learn, you take everything away from knee fighters. That’s what happened in this fight. Chompu is very dominant against her opponents who don’t know how to get out of her basic clinch hold, so she looks great. And she has very good technique – you’ll see her pushing her hips in all the time in the clinch with me, which is so good and something that folks who don’t know any clinch can’t do, so they get KO’d fast. Chompu knows her shit. She just doesn’t know enough and had no idea how to get to the next position with me. That’s the secret of training clinch in Thailand: it’s just this endless transition from move to move, position to position, hold to hold. And when you can do that in a fight, you can dominate and stay two steps ahead.
For the first three rounds Chompu threw a number of teeps into my face, which is a great “Fuck You” move. But she didn’t have much going that could score. She was very tough and kept fighting even when I could feel her draining in energy; my corner was super excited every time I went to the stool between rounds, and I was moderately aware of the crowd. But it wasn’t until after the fight that I really realized what an impact this win had for me. I feel empathy for Chompu losing on her home turf in front of an audience that loves her – that sucks; I’ve been there. Her coach wanted her to fight me because she wants to be on the Thai National Team this year, which will involve fighting westerners, albeit in pads. But it’s also amazing for me because this stadium is an important gateway in Isaan that opens up opportunities for me in the surrounding areas. Gamblers come from all over, so the reach is pretty wide, and to beat their local superstar in a very dominant fashion on my debut opens up a “quick track” to really good fighters from all those surrounding areas. After the fight one of the gamblers was explaining the fight to another guy who’d just arrived, pantomiming this lock and knee before shaking his head in disbelief. And I left with another fight booked, a rematch against a very good opponent from Khorat I’d previously beaten months ago. She’d wanted a rematch immediately and I’m very happy to fight her again because she’s a difficult opponent. I do, of course, want to smash her though.
Post Fight Video Update