about 900 km from Chiang Mai – an hour and 20 minute flight, just South of Bangkok
Sakmongkol, Pattaya and Clinch
In a shoot-from-the-hip decision, considered over the past few weeks and really decided over the past couple days, my husband and I have decided we’re going to head down to Pattaya for a few weeks to train with Sakmongkol. I met the champion in my home state of Colorado and got to train with him for a few days, one-on-one to learn the clinch, before our initial move out to Thailand in April of 2012. Even though the training was only a several hours in total, the overall impression left by Sakmongkol has been immense. Not only because his style and technique are outstanding, but because his person is generous, open and charming. He is, in some ways, the paragon of what I find most captivating about Thai fighters: intensity and power held together by calm and delight; a lifetime of experience shrouded in an eternal boyishness.
I’d hoped to train with Sakmongkol in Colorado when the inevitable eventuality of returning to the US came about. (We will return to Colorado when we first move back, whenever that may be, as we no longer have a residence in New York and our dog is being cared for at my parents’ house in Boulder.) Shortly after we moved to Thailand, however, we discovered that Sakmongkol had also moved back to Thailand to be with his wife and kids (the distance was too much; he was missing them terribly when I met him in Colorado) and is now teaching out of a not-so-usual gym in Pattaya (World Kumite Organization (WKO).
After a few weeks of soul-searching and hours of deliberation over how to find my way away from the wall I’m facing in my training right now, and only a few days of actually planning, Kevin and I decided to fly down to Pattaya to train with Sakmongkol for three weeks. There are many unknowns at the moment – it’s a hastily drawn plan – but there are more possibilities than there are limitations at this point. I know he can teach me and I know I will value our time together. Best and worst case scenario: I come back a better fighter.
Working on the Clinch
I’ve always had difficulty getting clinch instruction. Western fighters in general don’t have nearly the exposure to or depth of experience in clinch that the majority of Thai fighters have, and women even less so, whether Thai or otherwise. Some women who have trained in Thailand see my difficulty with learning clinch and getting instruction and tell me that at their gyms it was never any problem, they work on it daily with willing trainers, etc. And that is great for these women and I hope it becomes more the norm in gyms everywhere. At the moment, however, it’s a privilege.
I’ve written about why it’s difficult for women to get good clinch training in Thai gyms, and it’s difficult in the West because the depth of knowledge and skill in the clinch in western gyms is limited. In the case of my gym here in Thailand, I have struggled for a long time to get clinch experience, just being able to practice it at all because there are rarely other women at the gym and almost never anybody close to my size, both of which make clinch training more likely and more beneficial for me. When I do get to practice, usually with the Thai boys due to body size, my trainers don’t offer much in the way of instruction. It’s just a brute force method of learning of trial and error: being thrown around and gradually gaining better balance and strength or simply getting used to being thrown around so that I can work through it It does lead to improvement and in many ways the learn-by-simply-doing method is profoundly good.
In other ways, however, it’s not good. The non-instructive method of learning works best when one has years and years to develop through the trial and error, repetition and mental fortitude. For Thai kids who have a 10-20 year career of Muay Thai ahead of them, there is absolutely time to work everything out and let the constant flow of water carve away the edges. For someone like me, however, who has no background in martial arts or anything even similar and I don’t have many years behind me or as many years ahead of me in which to learn all of these things – at least not in the immersion environment of a Thai camp in Thailand – I need something stronger than the rush of water to carve away my excesses. It’s going to take a chisel and sander to help form someone like me. It’s like language. Little kids learn language over a period of many years. Think about toddlers’ speech, Kindergarteners learning to write, then a few years learning how to spell with small emphasis on grammar, vocabulary, etc. It’s literally years to just learn your own native language. And you’re functional in it during that time – very young children can communicate basic desires with a 10 word vocabulary – and it’s the same with learning Muay Thai. You can fight with a 10 word vocabulary, so to speak. But I’m learning a second language; I’m not a baby learning language through the process of regular development, so learning to pronounce, understand, write, read, and express myself in a second language requires instruction, explanation and effort in a condensed program of concerted learning.
When I first found Sakmongkol at his gym in Boulder, Colorado (Cat Zingano’s gym with her husband) and told him that I wanted to take a private lesson with him, I hesitated before specifying that I wanted to learn clinch, making sure that I was clear in communication as well as expecting negotiations. “No problem,” Sakmongkol said, his voice is deep and raspy. “Easy,” he smiled, hands out and open, almost like a shrug.
What was amazing is that it actually was no problem. It wasn’t easy, except maybe “easy” in the sense of what Thais mean when they say sabai, sabai, meaning more “take it easy.” Sakmongkol is a big guy – he’s broad and strong and significantly taller than I am – but he was able to show me principles of technique that I could digest and then he brought in another student of his, Cassie, as a partner my same size to practice with. (Cassie is awesome; I’d wish her as a teammate for anyone.)
Sakmongkol watching Cassie and me as we clinch. The look he gets when he’s “inspecting” is awesome; Cassie claims that’s a look of approval as he’s watching our footwork. She would know.
I’ve been told “no problem” before. On our first trip out to Thailand a few years ago we’d split the 10 weeks between Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai and Sasiprapa Gym in Bangkapi, Bangkok. When we’d spoken with Thakoon, owner and manager of Sasiprapa, about my need for clinch training, he’d said, “no problem.” He added that he had a 14 year old boy at the gym who would be my clinch partner. When we got there, however, this kid didn’t want to clinch with me. He’s a kid and it’s Thailand, so he didn’t have a choice, but there also wasn’t much focus toward instruction when we were clinching, nor much dedication toward making sure that clinch happened more than just a couple times. I met a wonderful Australian woman who had been training at Sasiprapa for years (not full-time) and had taught herself some really impressive clinch technique and strong throws and control simply by herself, on a bag. That’s not, however, “no problem.”
So there’s something to Sakmongkol’s expression of, and delivery on, “no problem,” that means a lot to me. I’m still a little apprehensive because my experience with him was in the US, where clinching is culturally and socially less of a problem. And it’s unlikely there are other women or other students my same size at Sakmongkol’s gym (which isn’t a “Thai camp”), so there is an open question as to whether someone can be brought in to help me in the actual practice work I’ll need for everything he teaches me – something we will have to ask about when we get there. But in any case, the instruction is much needed. It’s about meeting opportunities with one hand – when am I able to do this other than while I’m an hour’s flight away from this legend? – and making opportunities with the other.
Breaking With Routine
I was a little nervous about telling Den that we were heading down to Pattaya later this week. Because the decision came about so quickly, there wasn’t really any time for me to give him more advanced warning. I fought on Saturday, winning my fight after a long, difficult losing streak, and this morning (Monday) was my first session back at the gym. Just upon returning from my run and kicking off my shoes to begin shadowboxing I told him, “Den, this Thursday I go down to Pattaya for a couple weeks. You know Sakmongkol? ” He nodded, “I go train with him, learn clinch. I come back a better fighter.” Den nodded his head emphatically, just once, down and back up, “Good,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder as he does, “learn something new.”
Well, that was easy. Immediately, Den walked over to between the two rings and spoke with Daeng, who was standing in the men’s ring with his Thai pads resting against the ropes, waiting for the timer to ring. They spoke in Thai for a minute, Daeng looking over at me and smiling, nodding at Den periodically. After training Daeng came up to me and asked, “You go see Sakmongkol?” I nodded, adding, “yes, Thursday.” Daeng told me that eleven years ago he met Sakmongkol in Macau when they were each coaches of fighters in an event on the island. “I don’t know if he remember me,” Daeng said and then put his hands on his hips. “I’ll ask,” I smiled.
I’ve been a little on the fence about breaking from my schedule, mostly because my life is incredibly routine. I’d like to have a fight or a few fights down in Pattaya while I’m there but I have no idea how that might work. Sakmongkol’s gym isn’t a regular Muay Thai gym, instead it seems like a western-style gym or “fitness center” with various martial art disciplines and a weight room divided by floors (World Kumite Organization (WKO) . I don’t even have a clear picture of how it works, what the organization is, etc. Muay Thai is once per day and only 1.5 hours in the afternoon. I’m not sure whether the gym is open and I can go train on the bags by myself in the mornings or if I’ll have to train at another Muay Thai gym part-time. Because it’s not a regular Thai “kai Muay” (camp) I don’t know if they generally have fighters on promotions or whether I can be an exception through Sakmongkol’s connections or whether I could even be fighting under the banner of a second camp, should that option prove the best. If Sakmongkol isn’t available for morning sessions I’ll probably train mornings at another gym in Pattaya – I have no idea which – so much is to be decided when we get down there. I’ve never been to Pattaya and pretty much never, ever imagined myself going there for any reason whatsoever. It’s not really my “scene” as I’m a homebody and not much of a party gal, beach bum, or westerner-on-holiday enthusiast.
Like I said, a lot of unknowns. But that’s kind of exciting. So long as the one firm piece of information I have is valuable, that Sakmongkol is there and will work with me, all the unknown variables are just clutter in the background.
Sakmongkol in Las Vegas after Lion Fight 3 fight against Cosmo Alexander. Sakmongkol’s arm was broken early in the fight, his orbital bone a few rounds later, but as viewers we were all none the wiser – he didn’t show it at all. Look at that smile getting his cast! (He won that fight by decision.)
Sakmongkol training a student at his current gym in Pattaya, WKO.
Quest for Technique
I wrote about the question of fighting style in this post The Art of Choosing Your Muay Thai Fighting Style, and talk a little about Sakmongkol in it. Without meaning to sound pitiful at all, it’s a simple truth that I’ve never really had significant training that was directed toward my strengths. I believe that what I learned from Sakmongkol in Colorado, as well as his style, with it’s “forward only” ethic, will be significant training toward my strengths and natural tendencies.
I have not been getting technique instruction over the past year and a half, and that’s partly my fault since I don’t ask for it enough. I’ve also not been getting clinch practice, or enough sparring – that’s also partly on me because I don’t demand it hard enough, but it’s also my trainers failing me and that feels terrible. I know, intellectually, that I should just be 100% strong and self-directed in everything and force my way through doors and walls and barriers as best I can in order to be an advocate for myself in a culture and system that views and treats me as an outsider – but emotionally I still take it personally. Being locked out simply feels bad and sometimes it can feel like my trainers don’t want to train me and the Thai boys don’t want to train with me. I’m certain that my attitude when I’m overly frustrated with myself can come off to my trainers that I don’t want to train these things that are frustrating me – getting your ass kicked and feeling impotent but showing that you know it’s good for you is no easy task – so I know it works both ways. I have to be careful of that.
But when I was in Colorado those few days training with Sakmongkol were really rewarding. And it seemed to go both ways. After only one private session, which lasted longer than the hour we’d paid for, I told Sakmongkol that I really wanted to learn from him but that we probably could only afford one more lesson. He told me not to pay for any more lessons at all and to come back the next morning. His generosity was incredible, having only just met me, but I also have seen over and over again how hungry Thai fighters-turned-trainers are for eager students. It’s a symbiosis of sorts. At the end of the few days of training, while we were talking excitedly about his glory days as a young fighter, we made it clear that when we eventually returned from our move to Thailand (which we at that time estimated would be only one year) that I really wanted to train with him again. Sakmongkol nodded emphatically and, to my husband, he said, “I want to train her.” He pointed at me with his long arm extended; his way of speaking is abrupt and strong, and that what his statement felt like, too. It’s not unusual for Thai men to speak to my husband instead of me, kind of about me in the third person even when I’m standing right there. It’s a respect thing, although seriously old-fashioned and chauvinist in modern western context. But it didn’t feel dismissive of me. It felt, maybe not inclusive, but accepting and perhaps even embracing in that it was expressing his desire to pass his knowledge on to me. It’s very different from a “yeah, you can come along,” type of statement. And that’s part of what’s so exciting about this trip down to Pattaya to train, once again, with Sakmongkol. It’s that when he says, “no problem,” he means no problem. And it’s that I love what he has to teach, as well as how he teaches it. Knowing someone wants to train you is as rewarding and motivating as you can imagine any teacher finding a student who wants to learn. It’s a field of open possibilities.
The “what are you gonna do now, Punk?” block. Impenetrable.
From My Sessions with Sakmongkol in Colorado
You can find Sakmongkol on Facebook here. His written English has its limits, but he’s the nicest guy you’ll meet, for sure.
Stay tuned, as I hope to be blogging daily (or close to it) during this experience.