The kids at Petchrungruang train before school, so they’re running at 5:30 AM and out the door for school by 7:00. Morning training for me is at 9:00 AM, after Kru Nu has gone back to sleep for a little while. But I’m usually the only one there in the mornings. There have been some stretches where there’s one more westerner – there was a Ukranian guy, then a Frenchman, and some UK fellows, followed by an Italian – but those have been the minority for sure. The mornings are mine. Many times at Lanna Muay Thai I was the only one training in the mornings, although there are more trainers at Lanna so there was some milling around by those of them who didn’t hold pads for me. A kind of unexpected morning off from work during the low season in the summer. Often times Den, my main trainer at Lanna, would chat with me about any number of things, usually having to do with his son or promoters. Then he’d hold pads for me and we’d continue the conversation or joke about something that had happened at the gym the day before or something. Our causal talking was a big part of my experience of those AM Lanna sessions, a kind of lazy cocoon around very hard, killing work.
At Petchrungruang there’s only Kru Nu who holds pads in the mornings. Because I’m usually the only person training in the time slot after the boys have gone to school, it’s basically a 0ne-on-one, private lesson every day. I come in through the gate to the gym that’s under a little garage area attached to the family house. There are mama cats and tons of kittens hiding under and behind the various vehicles and objects in the garage. On the far left is a restaurant that’s no bigger than the back of a van, run by a lady who lives in one of the 6 or so rooms that line the edge of the gym. She’s got a couple little kids who terrorize the area – they don’t train Muay Thai in earnest but they fit in with the little kids who do. It’s all playing at that age anyway – just put some gloves on it and it counts as training. Just through the gate, which is chain-link and has a sliding door that says in Thai “please keep the gate closed” with three different signs, is a small ring with a really cushy canvas. That’s the kids’ ring with very loose ropes. It’s soft when they fall and it’s like running in sand if you shadowbox in there. Once you pass the kids’ ring the floor quickly slopes up about a foot and there are tires for jumping, then the over-sized and elevated main ring. It’s huge to allow many people to train in it at once and it’s the center of everything. All the various bags are hung around it and the roof above it is like a barn roof, with rafters and gaps between a few different levels of tin roofs where light comes in. The light in the morning is absolutely incredible. It’s like an art movie.
Sometimes I greet Kru Nu in the weight room, which is behind yet another gate past the main ring and a completely enclosed space. On the far end of the weight room is a series of windows that look out over a chicken coop where a single rooster hangs out. His red cock’s comb is very notable on his silhouette as he clucks around the windows. Some mornings Kru Nu is doing a weight routine, listening to music through the stereo speakers that are plugged into his phone. I love his music. He says it’s “old style” but it’s not that old. The Thai music I listen to is old, his tastes are probably just called “old” by his son. If he’s not in the weight room he’s in the house, which is attached to the gym through a sliding glass door that says “welcome” in Thai and has a request to take your shoes off, also in Thai, which doesn’t help much because Thais already know to remove their shoes and westerners can’t read the sign. There’s a washing machine that’s always running in the mornings on the gym side of that glass door, so Kru Nu’s wife or mother is always appearing and disappearing in short intervals throughout the morning. Sometimes his father comes in to adjust the water tank under the ring, or just to sit and watch me train with a really sweet smile on his face. I love him. About a month and a half ago Kru Nu’s wife gave birth to their first baby together (Bank has a different mom but was raised by Kru Nu), so the sound of Nadt is about as common as the sound of the chicken farm in the back. And sometimes Kru Nu comes out with his shinpads and gets his equipment ready to get in the ring and then has to hurry back inside to help his wife with the baby. I’m literally training in someone’s home and the wall between the two is sliding glass.
Quality Time from Quiet Time
Solo time in the AM at Petchrungruang has given me some of the best instruction I’ve ever had. Kru Nu is a born teacher. A Lumpinee fighter for a long time, he now concentrates on the life’s blood of the gym, raising Thai kids to be Lumpinee and Rajadamnern champions. His continual work with kids gives him both an open-ended patience, and an incredible eye for detail and technique. And he just KNOWS how to add one element onto another. The way he holds pads is like no other. It is simultaneously exhausting (the most tiring of any pad holder I’ve had), but also free and flowing. He leads you through combinations that are incredibly fight-real. What some westerners may not realize is that lot of times in Thailand pad holding (for fighters) is really just conditioning, the building of power or what Kaensak called “charging the battery”; trainers are building, but also weighing the available power of a fighter before a fight, it often is not instructional at all. But with Kru Nu it is both conditioning and pedagogy, perhaps because he works so much with pre-teens: you can feel the intelligence in the patterns of what he calls, and in how and when he attacks back. He is drawing the Muay Thai out of you, leading you through higher levels. And I’ve been really lucky because as the only person in the morning he has come to really extend our work, like variations on a poem, sometimes running 10 minute rounds, just working and working the Muay Thai, as if he is polishing something under slow pressure.
But aside from this very good work, there’s something really lovely about being in a quiet gym. Just like with Den, Kru Nu and I do most of our talking in the morning. The afternoon’s are just too busy and he doesn’t hold pads for me at night, so our interactions in the evening are mostly when he’s scolding or cheering me in clinch practice with the boys. But in the mornings we talk about a lot of things, although him asking me why falang like something or do something a particular way is pretty common. Yesterday morning was a really nice example of what these one-on-one conversations can provide, as far as a glimpse into the changing world of Muay Thai goes. On Saturday Kru Nu brought three young fighters to Lumpinee: Bank, Lomchoi, and Alex. I asked how that went and he said Alex hadn’t fought at all because the show ran out of time; Lomchoi had won; and Bank had lost. Bank (his fighter name is Tongchai) is Kru Nu’s son, so he started telling me about that fight. Kru Nu didn’t think the decision was right. He said Bank had dominated rounds 1-3, putting this kid on the floor almost every time the opponent kicked, then in round 4 Bank tried to turn the kid to the floor from a waist-grab position in the clinch and the referee had caught them before they hit the canvas. This is Bank’s specialty. He can get me turned onto the ground any time he grabs around my waist – every damn time; he’s so strong. But it’s also what Kru Nu seemed to see as the defining point by which Bank lost the fight. By not allowing the boys to actually land on the canvas, it seemed that either the point was never credited to Bank or it was indicative to Kru Nu that the referee was disfavoring Bank’s skills.
He complained that the gamblers were betting on the other boy, that the eye for what is wanted was not in his favor either. He also explained that at big stadia like Lumpinee, sometimes “they believe the big gym,” meaning they favor well-known or powerful gyms. Petchrungruang is a recognized gym and has a top-level fighter named P.T.T., but I reckon it’s still small potatoes compared to gyms that have the A-list fighters and title holders at those stadia. He said Bank’s opponent came from a very big gym in the south. With all that said, however, Kru Nu was very accepting of the favor not going his way. It’s like he acknowledged that it’s never fair and sometimes it tips toward him and sometimes it tips away. His final statement was, “I think I have to change Bank’s style.” I watch Bank train all the time. He’s a very strong kid. He weighs maybe 46 kg and fights at 42 or 43 kg, so he’s smaller than I am by a little bit, but he’s just so fucking strong. He’s not very active and definitely not evasive, but he’s very persistent and doesn’t go backwards. Bank’s clinch is really strong, but he doesn’t throw a lot of knees so he doesn’t really score in clinch so much as that he wears his opponent down or takes their spirit by throwing them around. I said as much to Kru Nu, that Bank has incredibly strong knees in training on the pads but he doesn’t throw them even when clinching with me, so likely he doesn’t do it in fights either. He’s kind of lazy about knees, like he’d rather just tie up and crush you with death grip. Kru Nu squinted his eyes and then wrinkled his nose, saying, “no, he knee a lot.” Okay, I haven’t seen Bank fight, so I can’t say whether he does or doesn’t; but if 90% of the time he’s not kneeing in training I think it’s safe to say he doesn’t overwhelm his opponents with knees when he gets to fights. That’s not the point. The point is that Kru Nu was acknowledging that what he likes is not winning fights, so he has to make adjustments toward the demand of the stadium, or the gamblers, or the contemporary “eye” for Muay Thai.
He started to complain to me that Muay Thai was more complete before. He said that 20 years ago (when he stopped fighting) fighters had many techniques that they used in fights and they all scored in different ways. Now, he said, gamblers only want to see a few techniques – the same techniques – and don’t care about anything else. He mimicked pushing the face back in clinch and then pulled his elbows in to show controlling the arms in the clinch. “Only like this,” he said and shook his head. This is the first time I’ve ever heard Kru Nu wax poetic about the way Muay Thai was before. In fact, he’s actually previously told me that he thinks contemporary fighters are better than the fighters from his day. He said that before fighters took too much damage, just walking through kicks and punches (my favorite fights, actually) and now they’re more clever, fight less, take less damage. That’s definitely something he tries to manage in his own fighters and coaches them to be forward moving but only to really go hard in the scoring rounds, 3 and 4. Kru Nu, as it were, changed his own style back when he was a fighter. He was very defensive but a promoter told him he was boring – “nobody gets excited to watch you back up,” he’d said – so Kru Nu decided he’d become a forward moving fighter and that’s what he teaches his students now. He made adjustments for aesthetics. Talking about the scoring of Bank’s fight, he said to me, “I only know Muay Thai, all my life; but I don’t understand.” He really has done Muay Thai all his life and it’s his family’s way of life and livelihood for two generations now. But he’s acknowledging that these changes in Muay Thai, whether he likes them or not and whether or not they’re any good, have to be adjusted to or you will simply lose. He is, yet again, adjusting to the game.
The Big Thing About Small Talk
Mornings like this are precious because they play a big part in developing my relationships at these gyms. Not only because I enjoy the time spent with Kru Nu or with Den but also because the “social game,” to steal a term from Survivor, is an important element in who I am at the gym. Both Nu and Den chat with me in the morning and exclude me from their mental catalog of fighters for the same reason: because I’m not a guy. Den wasn’t interested in improving me as a fighter, but he was very supportive of my fighting. Kru Nu is the opposite – he’s concerned with making me better but he’s not really interested in me fighting. Both of those are not entirely, but largely, to do with the fact that I’m a woman (and that I’m not young in Muay Thai standards). But also because I’m a woman these men will talk to me about their families and probably dissect elements of Muay Thai as a “culture” in a way that might not be as open to discussion between men. They’re able to invest in me through a connection that has nothing to do with my merit as a Muay Thai fighter – the thing I always want credit for – but rather as a friend on the periphery of the “real” Muay Thai at the heart of a gym, which is all male and generally young and Thai. My value as a person to my trainers comes at the expense of not being what they consider to be real Muay Thai, but it is value; and it’s a currency I’m gradually learning to appreciate.
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