Listen to the Muay Thai Guys Realities of Being a Sponsored Fighter podcast here
The recent Muay Thai Guys podcast covers the realities of being a sponsored fighter at a small sample of gyms in Thailand. Sean and Paul have both been sponsored at Khongsittha in Bangkok, where the “Muay Thai Training Camp” retreats are hosted, and Paul recently had a few months at the brand new Namsaknoi gym on Koh Phan-Ngan. I don’t know how illustrative it is of sponsored fighters – I’ve never been a sponsored fighter, per se – but Paul’s experiences illustrate a lot about the differences between what “Thai mindset” training can be like, vs the romantic vision some have of it.
So details and logistics of how sponsorships work isn’t something I can go into, there are numerous resources out there you can find (Muay Thai Scholar has some articles on this). What I found interesting about Paul’s experience as a sponsored fighter at Namsaknoi’s camp was not the logistical part of it, but rather the experiential and emotional elements. I’ve been saying for years that there is a disconnect between the western fantasy of coming to Thailand and training and fighting “like a Thai” with a bare-bones and tough-love approach and the reality of how hard a lot of westerners are actually willing to work when the comforts are stripped away. This post is about the things I found resonance in as a sat listening to their podcast.
It was interesting to listen to Paul’s account, which was far more complete than the few times I talked to him while he was still in the midst of it – he really did just shut down into radio-silence for stretches and when we did speak it was kind of him just trying to wrap his mind around the physical toll he was taking on his body and the mental fog and fatigue that comes with that. When you devote yourself to someone else’s methods, as Paul did to Namsaknoi’s training regimen, there’s a vague recognition that you might lose some of yourself in that process but it’s not enough recognition to prepare you for it. Paul, and many men like him who come from the west and have successful ways of dealing with themselves, understanding their own bodies and what works for them, are put into a situation where the submission to someone else’s will is difficult on countless levels. You’re not in charge of your own process, so you’re pretty much submissive to the results of that process, whether they’re experienced as positive or negative. But the real mind-fuck is that you have a choice. Kind of. Paul doesn’t have to train like this for a living. He could, potentially, check out, break his contract and move on to something that feels better. The worst of it will be that he broke off a relationship. To many westerners, that’s not a terrible cost. But in Thailand, to Thais, to the kids who are brought up by gyms, that is the worst it could be. And every time Namsaknoi says the favorite Thai-man phrase, “up to you,” he’s giving Paul this out. But the glorious trick of the “up to you” answer is that you’re asking for someone to give you permission to stop, permission to retreat and back down; if the decision is put to you, if you have to pick whether you nut up or not, very few of us will choose to stop. And Paul chose not to stop. He endured what he now recounts, looking back as a cool experience for four months, in which every second of it was difficult; it wasn’t fun. Now do it for 5 years. If you’re Buakaw at the end of his life at Por. Pramuk, make that 10 years or more. It’s not romantic; it’s closer to a Dickens novel.
But as much as the western mind aches for praise, for a pat on the back or at least a nod of recognition for pushing through, we don’t get it. It was a long time before I adjusted to this cultural fact, and even now it can be difficult at times. Paul does a great job of expressing how exasperating and futile this could feel. It took me years to learn Thai, and this did give me some additional perspective. When I first started to understand those speaking around me, there were two surprises: 1) Thais are incredibly funny and talk a lot of shit; and 2) they talk a lot of shit about you, right in front of you whether you understand it or not. I thought at first the brazen, open criticism was because they thought I didn’t understand – Thais do this around westerners – but I’ve seen them speak in exactly the same way about young fighters, right in front of them… Thai kids who definitely understand every word. That was hard. I still hear it now. But as my Thai got better and when I moved to Petchrungruang, I found another unexpected Thai practice. While they’ll talk shit right to your face and be ruthless in mocking you to others right in front of you, they’ll defend you and sing your praises behind your back. What?
One of my favorite things that Paul brought up was the unbelievable fatigue you feel, when you’ve had a Sunday to rest up a bit – no way you got to go out and explore and get shit done or “reboot,” you just sleep as much as possible – and when you come back you’re still just trying to get your head around the notion that you have to do this again tomorrow… and it’s only Tuesday. You’re this tired and it’s only fucking Tuesday. This has been my life for 5 years. This is why when people tell me maybe I should take a day off and rest I just laugh – because a day won’t do shit. And if you take longer than that, it’s hard to come back. Like, hey, you’re trying to bike up this incredible incline and your body is begging you to just stop for a second. Know what the worst idea in the world is? Stopping for a second, because trying to get momentum back on the middle of a hill is a nightmare. Not happening. So you know what you see instead? Two kinds: you see people who are training as hard as what Paul is describing, all the time, or you see guys who are taking days off here and there all the time. All the time. And so, like Paul says, you start wishing for a fight just because you’ll get a day off on either side of it. A fight is 10-15 minutes at the end of a day, not 7 hours split from before the break of dawn and into the setting of the sun.
Sean brought up a great point about the difference between people who look forward to the gym as an outlet at the end of their work day, versus the full-time fighter for whom the gym is work, 6-7 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. Yes, we love it – of course we do – but it is the grind, rather than being an outlet from the grind. When people ask me for advice about coming to train in Thailand for the first time, the first thing I always say is that you’ll need a lot of sleep. Between sessions for the first few weeks, you’ll just be sleeping all the time. If you’re training full-bore, there’s no day trips between sessions. You see the street you live on and the street the gym is on; you’ll probably forget what the place you get food from looks like, because you’re trying not to fall asleep in it. Your body adjusts, but five years in, I’m still sleeping in the middle of the day, I have to have that sleep. It’s the same as how you have to find ways to rest in training, rather than taking breaks throughout. I wrote about this in a blog post “How to Train Like a Thai – Why Many Get It Wrong,” in how you don’t sit down and make a full stop in your training, you instead have to find ways to rest in motion, just like in a fight. You don’t get to call a time out.
This might be one of the reasons you see Thai fighters training through injury and sickness. If you have a hurt hand, you just don’t punch on that side but you still kick. If you hurt your knee, you still punch. And no matter what, at my gym, you run (we don’t have western sponsored fighters, so I’m speaking of the Thai boys and those of us who willingly hold themselves to that standard). Boys who are on antibiotics or have infections or small injuries, they can stay away from the more rigorous training and won’t clinch in order to keep from getting other people sick, but they still run. It might be slow, it might be shorter distance, but you keep moving. This feels like Hell when you’re sick, but it’s how things are done. If you don’t have a fight for a long time, you still have to keep running in order to be close enough to fight shape that you can take a fight on short notice; it keeps your weight down. Some of the older boys who aren’t under the direct control of my trainer will just disappear from the gym for weeks at a time and when they come back it makes their weight cuts really horrible. Pi Nu shakes his head and says, “if he’d just kept running, no problem.” Running is this huge backbone to Muay Thai that westerners seem to view as supplementary, rather than primary. Here, it’s the opposite. I was just talking to Angie, who is going to take 2 weeks off for Songkran (Thai New Year), “but I will still run,” she added, “because if I stop for 10 days I will have no power when I come back.” For Thais, running is the very minimum; for westerners, if you’re tired, running is the first thing to go from your training. So when I heard Paul lament about how much running he had to do at Namsaknoi’s gym – that the mileage is actually written into the contract and if you don’t cover those miles your contract is voided – it wasn’t at all surprising to me.
In the west, there’s a growing love affair with “hacks” and finding shortcuts or better ways to do things. We call it “sport science,” and it can seem simultaneously proved and disproved by fairly equal numbers of studies. The science that Thais subscribe to, by and large, is however how they were brought up. It’s the science of tried and true tradition. When you meet these hard-ass trainers, you can feel how they came up. Training through sickness and injury and fatigue isn’t just because these guys are sadists, it’s because it makes you hard. You watch some of these fights at Lumpinee, Rajadamnern, or even out in the fields at festival fights and just marvel at how tough these guys are. That’s from training through everything. And the way Paul describes Namsaknoi, he is an illustrative example of a hardened Thai mentality and, in my view, Paul got lucky finding him. Not every gym is going to have a guy like Namsaknoi in charge. At a lot of gyms that are tourist- or western-oriented, you don’t have guys like this and you just work as hard as you want to or, in the worst cases, you default to how others are working around you and that can be not very hard at all. When you find a trainer, that has this Thai mentality illustrated by Namsaknoi’s relentlessness, who pushes you past your breaking points, you will find weaknesses you didn’t know you had. You’ll face them and, if you have the passion, you’ll work to cut them out or wear them down. This mentality isn’t at every gym, you might not encounter it at all. When you do, it’s not easy – you have to consciously work to be grateful for it because it’s so fucking hard.
Paul made a beautiful point that, in the west, the trainers are there for the students. This expectation can cause serious misunderstanding and disappointments in Thailand, where, as Paul put it, the student is there to prove himself to the teacher. I don’t think it’s as black and white as that, and in the west there certainly are trainers who demand their students practically worship them and there are students, perhaps especially women, who take it upon themselves to constantly seek approval from their trainers. But the general layout of expectations and power between student and teachers is quite different between Thailand and the west. I was nodding my head along with Paul as he described the frustration of having to continually prove yourself; you’ve never “made it,” so that now you’ve got your trainer’s respect and you can hang back. As the sponsored fighter, you are the example and you represent the gym, so you have to constantly hold up the ethics of that gym on your shoulders, he says. Additionally I’ve felt that as a woman I have to constantly prove myself, over and over again, because the attitudes toward women’s capacities always fall back to a default “lower ceiling” expectation, and I have to re-prove an alternative to those assumptions so they don’t start kicking in. But it’s not just gendered, it is to some degree all of us. Like the often quoted Aristotle, “you are what you repeatedly do, therefore greatness is a habit,” you don’t get to be tough for a day or a week or a month and live off that moment for the rest of your career, having established yourself as badass. You have to keep doing it. You have to get up every day and do it again and again, and again. Even if you’re not sponsored; even if you don’t have a trainer like Namsaknoi. You do it for yourself.
For me, this is where I have come from. I do it for myself, to myself. In the beginning I put my head down and “trained like a Thai” because I just assumed that it was going to be brutal, and I had made peace with that. At my original gym, Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai, anyone can really train at the intensity set for one’s self. They will push you if you buy into it, but you can also slack off and that’s allowed, too. It’s not respected, but it’s common enough. For me, I set my intensity level at 11, just wanting to do it right. I didn’t know how long I would be here and just wanted every drop of the experience. Paul talks about getting to the place where you just don’t care anymore, how nothing really phases him, even months after this torture all ended – which is a place you definitely get to when you’ve been ground down. You just don’t have it in you to be bothered by small things. He talks about being in the shower after training and just wondering, “what am I doing? What is all this for?” I laughed when I heard him say that. Man, post-fight and post-training showers can be some dark times.
When I was in Chiang Mai, I was the only one training the way I did. That was a bit weird because there was this old, faded poster board above the mirrors that listed the daily training regimen and that’s what I followed, plus a few things I’d taken from Master K or adapted myself. But nobody followed that regimen anymore, it was from the “old days,” the golden age of Lanna when training was very, very hard. My trainers thought I was crazy, but a couple years into it I caught wind that they also really marveled at it. The promoters up here call me the “iron lady.” When I got to Pattaya everything changed. I found myself training at multiple gyms just so I could get enough work in (I wanted padwork 2x a day, and lots of clinch), which means that no one gym saw the whole of it. I just had to push myself as hard as I could at every place, everyone just working with me on that one part and never seeing the whole plan. That’s about as opposite from the experience of a sponsored fighter as you can get, as a contracted fighter you are under the thumb of whatever trainer is put in charge of you at the gym and you don’t do anything he doesn’t know about. So it’s different for me, because my Thai task-master is internalized. I demand it of myself and if I find myself trying to pull back and slack off, I have to answer to that inner voice that’s pretty damn similar to the loaded, “up to you,” that Namsaknoi offered to Paul. At first this was because I had to be fresh and focused at every gym, because if I was tired at one they would blame the other. I remember doing the full workout that Phetjee Jaa and Mawin were doing in the evenings at O. Meekhun, but I was doing it after having already just done a full session at Petchrungruang, which had followed a morning session as well. I’d be spent and their father, Sangwean, would tsk at me and say I had no power, that maybe I wasn’t running or ask what was wrong with me. So I had to fake like I had power, even when I didn’t, like nothing was wrong. Give it your all and then give it your all again – more than what you actually have. And they don’t see what you’ve just done or what you’re going to do after, so you don’t get credit for it. You only get chastised if you’re not 100%. And that’s true for all the kids, even just being at one gym. If you don’t have power nobody cares that you go to school or have a job or are sick; none of that matters. You just have to learn to fake it. And that’s something that jumped out to me from what Paul said, that if you show your fatigue they’ll go harder because they have to beat that response out of you. You don’t have to stop being tired, you just have to learn to hide it.
This is the amazing result of all this shit that sounds so terrible. It’s that eventually all the hiding kind of makes those things really disappear. When you first start, every little thing stands out. A bruise, a bashed shin, sore muscles, blisters on your feet, something your trainer said that wasn’t nice, having a shitty session. You start to hide the affect of these things and, gradually, you stop noticing them for real. The nasty things said at the gym roll off your back, you don’t remember not being sore, your shins are always knotted and your feet are hideous anyway. When you’re broken down and emotionally volatile, you cry over anything, even things that are meaningless. And then you kind of come to truly regard it as meaningless and it doesn’t hurt anymore. It’s like you have armor over your heart and all these things which sound so awful and cruel, they just don’t touch you. And when you’re less afraid of feeling the affects of all these pains and discomforts, you can be more free. But this freedom is complex and happens in stages. As you start hiding things from others, they also become hidden from you. Which means you can be really surprised at sudden pain or fatigue, you thought you were impervious: wow, that kick hurt today, what’s up with that, what’s wrong?! Things then get to a different point. The less you hide from others the less that is hidden from from you. Yes I am hurt, yes I’m tired, but it doesn’t matter. It becomes: That’s just the way it is. Your armored heart becomes a heart of armor. Everything is laid out on the table, and you just go.
Listen to the Muay Thai Guys Realities of Being a Sponsored Fighter podcast here