Team, a Thai boy who is my more or less regular clinch partner these days, is a good 3 inches shorter than I am, but he’s all muscle. When we clinch, I can use my reach to snuff him in the face and kind of spoil his entry, which is a rare treat because I’m not longer than anybody else who I train with or fight. He uses the same clinch entry all the time, which is reaching wide with his right arm, like a hook, and purposefully over-turning when he grabs so that he can wrench his arm back and turn you out of position at the same time. So I really just have to guard my left side. Seems pretty straightforward. Sometimes it works better than other times and a lot of times Team’s persistence wins out.
On this particular day, I can feel that my left side guard isn’t cutting it. I’m slightly aware of the reason being that my forearm is landing too far back on his arm – not in his shoulder, which would stop him from getting a grip, but also not near enough to the inside of his elbow to be able to throw his arm off. It’s frustrating, not because I can figure it out but because I know what it is and I can’t adjust to make it stop happening. I just keep falling into the same trap over and over again. The rare times I do lock him back he just flips me over my own left leg (an emotionally-charged move for me to fall victim to, due to losing to Loma so many times with this exact issue) or puts me in a vice grip that is crushing my neck. My frustration starts to show. I’m getting up off the canvas more slowly; my face must be locked in an expression that betrays my difficulty as well. My trainer, Kru Nu, interrupts the instruction he’s offering to two other pairs of women in the ring and watches me for a moment; then, instead of offering any kind of guidance, just yells at Team to go harder, to lock my neck more often or more mercilessly… something along those lines.
In the past, this would have really upset me. Pi Nu giving instruction to the other women, but more commonly – because there aren’t really other women at the gym very often – giving instruction to my clinching partner – and no help to me. It would upset me because it made me feel like nobody was rooting for me. It’s an immature thing to desire, but we’re not all Stoics all the time. But today it doesn’t bother me. I kind of understand in a profound and at-peace way that I’m not getting any help because I’m not a beginner. In Thailand, in more or less “real” Thai camps, most of the instruction that’s ever offered is offered to kids, to the young boys who are new to the gym and need guidance to start developing their skills. It’s not kind instruction either – not usually. As someone who is much older and has been fighting for a while now, instruction coming my way isn’t something I should expect much at all. The occasional “that’s not beautiful” chide comes from Pi Nu, when he tells me to change how I’m blocking or something, but there is very little in the way of guiding technique. Once you have the basics down, the idea is to just repeat them until your own style emerges and over years it will be honed. So, Kru Nu is offering instruction to the pairs of women because they’re all beginners. He’s not offering instruction to Team, he’s commanding him to be more ruthless with me – for me; it’s for my benefit that this is being demanded at all.
And there was something kind of Zen for me in that realization. That it’s up to me to figure it out. I mean, I recognized that I was doing the same wrong thing over and over again, I just hadn’t figured out how to do the right thing yet, even though I pretty much understood what a few possible “right things” might be. For example, when Team would get me in that headlock, I knew there was no way out. The only solution is to not get into the vice grip in the first place, which is what this whole left side defense and where my forearm lands is about. But even if I don’t solve it today, that doesn’t mean I can’t figure it out over time. Some days Team’s lock works great for him, other days I snuff him out the whole time. There’s a back-and-forth that causes you to realize that you never fully solve anything, you just give yourself more options and through repeating them – drilling them – you get to those options more quickly under pressure. And this is a problem with the western approach to learning Muay Thai. We want “moves.” As a westerner, when Team has me in that vice grip and I can’t get out, my inclination is to go to the trainer and ask what to do to get out of it. In Thailand, you’ll get the answer I came up with myself: you can’t, so just don’t get into that position in the first place. We want a “move” to counter the “move” we’re falling victim to. But that’s not how actual fighting works. It’s not Move A is countered by Move B and you just learn those two and be done with it. Move A is a fragment of an entire system, in which Move B is sometimes a solution and sometimes a sink hole deeper into the problem. It’s taken me a long time to get away from that western expectation for how to learn, and I don’t believe it was a conscious change. I’ve just moved away from it as my understanding and perspective within learning this art has developed. For a long time I’ve compared fighting arts to language and this is a great example. When teaching someone a language, when one person asks “how was your day?” you cannot get very far with only one answer, the Move B to that question. Because it’s not always the same. Because you can’t always do the same thing.
When our clinching session was over, Team hopped out of the ring to go rinse off and I leaned against the ropes to crack my back and collect myself. Pi Nu crossed the ring and started chiding me about my crappy performance, to which I responded that I can’t get out of Team’s lock. Pi Nu showed me this cross-face escape that he loves, that Sangtiennoi loves – both of them much taller fighters than I am – and I shook my head, saying Team is too strong. I tried it. I can’t pry him off. Pi Nu accepted this, saying that Team is stronger than I am because he’s a man. That pissed me off. It’s probably true, but I hate how he banks on that as an answer to so many things. “No,” I shook my head, “Team is 43 kg, I’m 47 kg. I should be able to move him.” Pi Nu frowned and pulled his chin back into his neck, to show his surprise and disapproval. “Nooo,” he said, “Team 47 kg already. He hasn’t been 43 kg for 2 months already.”
Well shit, I thought. I moved to Pattaya to train at Petchrungruang because of the young boys, because they were the right size to be clinching partners and I could finally learn the clinch. My initial partners had already outgrown me: Bank, who was 45 kg when we started is now 61 kg and Alex, who was 37 kg, is 56 kg and towering over me now. Team had been too small for me to clinch last year and now, in the last 2 months, he’s already caught up to me and God knows he’ll surpass me in size in the next few months. This is the problem with young men: they grow, I don’t. The reason this is important is that I hadn’t considered it at all. So, a month ago my left side guard was solid because Team was smaller. But now he’s my size and stronger and he can force his way to his grip despite my defense. So I have to develop my defense. It’s not that I’m doing it wrong, it’s not that I don’t know technique, it’s not that I suck… it’s just that you have to keep adapting. That’s another reason why Move A and Move B are horseshit – because what worked before might not work now, might not work with this person, might not work when you’re tired. Team growing bigger doesn’t mean my technique sucks. It means I have to keep figuring it out; there’s no “well, I’ve solved that forever,” kind of landing spot. You just keep climbing, and get your mind right.