I’ve noted over time that there are drastic differences between how a fight looks in the ring as a fighter or referee, beside the ring as a judge at the feet of the action, and then there’s ringside, various places in the audience and beyond that watching a fight on TV. You can watch a single bout from all these different positions and see almost entirely different fights. A punch that looked strong at the edge of the ring loses its impact on a screen, or a move that makes the whole crowd go crazy is obviously just a little shy of impact when you’re standing with the fighters.
Tonight Kevin and I went down to Kalare Stadium to watch Chopper, Ben and Kristie’s fights. Last time we got to be spectators at Kalare Chopper’s mom asked Kevin to film the fight for her on her phone because she was too nervous. Tonight she handed over her phone again without saying anything and Kevin managed to put the responsibility on me. So I jetted over to a neutral corner, kicked off my sandals and hopped up on the corner of the ring. At first I didn’t even stand up, feeling totally out of place, like I shouldn’t be there despite having seen photographers and videographers in these corners at pretty much every fight I’ve had out here. And despite having stepped on every inch of this ring as a fighter.
Once the fighters had sealed the ring and began their Ram Muay I hit the record button and stood up, stationing my hand over the padding in the corner to get a shot of center ring. I’ve watched many fight videos in which the cameraman gets caught up in the action and forgets to follow the fighters as they charge out of the frame, so I promised myself I’d watch the fight closely to keep everything in view.
From the starting bell I was already locked on to the fight in front of me and only able to glance at the screen on the phone every few seconds, like checking side-view and rear-view mirrors when driving. It is unbelievable how different a fight looks and feels when you’re standing in the corner on the mat at the level of the fighters, just outside the ropes. It’s the difference between seeing a caged lion across a moat at the zoo and having one breathe on you while it paces around at a distance of a few feet. You can feel the bodies moving in the ring, you can hear the skin slapping against skin with each strike, complete with sweat spray. And the way Chopper fights is with his energy – not “high energy” and speed and power, but with the actual energy of his person – calm, cool, jai-yen with flurries of movement that erupt in bursts, cause damage and then settles. I’d never seen him fight from this close and, while I love watching him fight no matter where I’m standing, I could feel that Kevin had seen a different thing when he filmed the last fight from this position and, indeed, by contrast of experience it felt like the first time I’d really seen him fight.
In the third or fourth round Chopper teeped his opponent right into my corner and then crashed into him as they both kneed and turned to gain position. Luckily, I’d already wrapped my free hand around the steel pegs that hold the ropes taught, allowing me to not get flung from the side of the ring like an ant being flicked off a picnic plate.
Maybe between the second and third round the referee made his stops at each corner and then came to lean against the neutral corner where I was to wait out the break. As he approached he didn’t look at me, but he said, “Sylvie, Sylvie” as he reached the corner and tucked his back into the white padding, stretching his arms out across the top ropes in a long “v”. Thais love to say my name in doubles. It’s actually kind of cool to hear my name so much – not only in this context which is awesome because I’m recognized (and acknowledged) by the conductors of the thing I love so much – because in my life I have not notably been called by my name. My family and friends have used a great number of nicknames to address and refer to me and new acquaintances get my name wrong more often than not. Even more strange is that Thais pronounce my name in different ways, usually “see-vee” or “see-vee-ah”, but it registers as correct in my brain, whereas an American calling me Sylvia drives me nuts.
In the middle of the fourth round a large square appeared across the width of the phone’s screen and I was able to figure that it was telling me the battery was running out. I wasn’t sure which of the buttons to hit in order to make the notice disappear, as the Thai words for “continue” or “accept” or whatever there might be are not in my vocabulary. So I opted for the button that was already highlighted and the notice disappeared, allowing me to focus back on the fight in my live viewing. But now I felt a little paranoid, thinking the battery might run out before the end of the fight and up to this point Chopper was definitely not winning. He looked great – he was calm, smirking when his opponent got a good strike in, sniffing and nodding when he got up from being tripped down to the mat. I wear glasses for distance, so I’ve never been able to clearly see fighters’ expressions in a live fight, even though I’ve seen some choice expressions on TV. I started to hope that Chopper would knock this kid out so that the battery wouldn’t run out before the fight ended. I didn’t even think of it as winning, just finishing the fight for the sake of the battery!
Before the final round the Thai trainers in Chopper’s corner did a little swapping of vests (only corners wearing the official vest are allowed to enter the ring with fighters, but you can swap them out like passing a baton) and Taywin jumped in and started an animated explanation of how Chopper needed to clinch and knee this kid. Chopper paid attention, nodding his head, then the bell rang to call the fighters back to center ring and Chopper took a second to fluff his hair and both fighters did the back-cracking against the ropes move before taking to the center of the ring for a glove-tap and hug. There’s no rush for male Muay Thai fighters and the performance never stops between rounds.
The fifth round bell rang and Chopper exploded out with repeated right kicks, driving his opponent into the far corner. I may have said, “Holy Shit!” but I probably only thought it, because my mouth fell open too much for real words to be formed. Then he did it again. He burned through what must have been 20-30 kicks and then they both just stood there, staring at each other with that fighter sway that threatens explosion of movement at a moment’s notice. The kid in the blue corner didn’t want to come in and Chopper was pretty content to let that ride. It was incredible. I was sure Chopper had lost this fight with the third or fourth round going to his opponent’s favor, but all of a sudden here in front of me he was out-cooling his opponent to a dramatic degree. And he was convincing the opponent that he was out-cooled as well, a kid who by my reckoning had just beaten Chopper on points but now was basically resigned to “saying uncle” with body language. There was no question, the fight was over and Chopper had clearly owned it… in one-and-a-half, maybe two rounds.
The battery warning popped back up over the screen of the phone right as the decision was read out. The ref cupped the little red notecards in his left hand, pressed them against his chest and held his right hand up, thumb pressed against his palm, in the direction of our corner, then took Chopper’s wrist and raised his red-bulb fist up for a victory lap. Both fighters crossed the top ropes out of the ring and like that it was empty, like a bowl of water from which fighting fish have been plucked after a frenzy, the waving tension of the surface the only evidence of what was just contained within.
I shut off the recording and crouched down before hopping off the edge of the ring, feeling a shift in altitude as I landed back on the ground of the stadium. With the skirt of the ring brushing my right arm as I crept past the rows of knees poking out of board-shorts in the front row I knew that none had seen what I’d seen. There is no seat that feels the footfalls of the dance.