Fight #269 – The plastic I sat cross-legged on crinkled as I changed position, the hard blades of grass that sat outside its limits bit at my thighs with every shifted pose. A group of high schoolers sang and danced on the stage in a “mini concert,” they called it, before the fights started. Only a minimal audience was allowed at the live show, so maybe a dozen people were spattered throughout the plastic chairs around the ring and the distance between those of us getting ready and them felt alien. I pulled the tape around my wrist and over my thumb, pulled my face mask down so I could bite the tape and tear its end. I’m used to wrapping my own hands for fights, I have for the past 8+ years; people stare. They watch from afar or sometimes mosey on up and stand over me to watch my process, often the men will nod approvingly at my methods. I’m never fully sure if the oddity is that I’m western, a woman, confident, or all of them together.
Noting all the eyes on me, I turned my head to speak to Kevin, “I must be so fucking scary,” I say, pulling the first layer of rope over and through itself to create the figure 4 knots along the outside of my forearm. “What do you mean?” he asks. “I remember watching the few opponents I had who would wrap their own hands before fights (I was nervous because they seemed so experienced not needing a coach or kru, fighting all the time),” I laugh, remembering that these were always cloth wraps, like what you wear in training, and at that time I still had my corner, comprised of young boys and a trainer from my gym, fawning over me with brand new gauze wraps, tape, oil, etc as a student of the gym. So, watching me prepare myself now, I reckon I must instill even a little of that on my opponents, even though their understanding for this kind of self-preparation was probably quite different from what mine was back then; I didn’t know it was out of necessity, while my opponents probably do. Kard Chuek wraps are different though, more complicated – a combination of gauze, tape and ropes, and sometimes a poor-fitting, thin padded MMA shaped glove (not this time). Everyone does it differently, and sometimes it feels like opponent corners are just making it up, looking around at what others are doing. I’ve seen some pretty poor wraps on this promotion, and some fancy ones. I do a good job of it myself now.
For years I’ve found my corner at the fights, sometimes total strangers who I see have a fighter very early in the card and so they can finish their duties and come help me while they’d be waiting to be paid at the end of the night from the promoter anyway. I just get an oil massage and have someone help me on the ring; it’s easy work. This night, I’d usually have a corner from the group that Pi Song brought down, but it happens that my opponent is part of his group. I’ve even had a teammate of my opponent help me before; it’s not insane, but it’s not comfortable for anyone. I get it. But as it stands I have no idea who my corner is and the fights are starting. Kevin keeps telling me how I just need to figure out who it is, just know what he looks like, so I know there is someone and we can be sure. This stresses me out more than the idea that I won’t have any corner at all. Seriously, I’m so introverted that the task of going and repeatedly asking, “who? Where?” to the man who says he has a corner for me secured, but hasn’t told me who, is much more stressful than just preparing myself to go stand in the corner alone between rounds and, because it’s Kard Chuek and I’m not wearing gloves, I can put Vaseline on my own face if I need it. I tell Kevin I’m 100% ready for this possibility to be without a corner for this fight, and he nods hearing in my voice that I’m steady in this possibility.
There’s a very large man who has been circling past me for the past 20 minutes or so. He’s a security staff member, dressed in his police uniform with some tactical vest gear and looking just very GI Joe-like. He’s not part of the krus, fighters and coaches on the mats. He doesn’t say anything. He comes and watches me wrap my hands, I notice him in my periphery, then he disappears and reappears a while later. I’m rewrapping my right hand, having already finished both wraps but it’s too tight and there’s enough time before my fight starts that this kind of disruption to the circulation in my hand can be a serious problem. Kevin reassures me that there’s lots of time, just rewrap it. The issue, really, is that there’s a limit on how much tape I have. As I’m unwrapping the ropes, the large man is standing over me, at a polite distance, watching. I look at him and smile, although I’m not sure he can read it as my mask is up, and I tell him, “nen gern,” meaning it’s too tight. Maybe it’s that I spoke directly to him, maybe it’s that I spoke Thai, but he takes this as an invitation and he squats down next to me and starts investigating my wrapping technique. As I unravel each line of rope, you can see its imprint on my skin. He uses his pinky finger to indicate a distance along my forearm, but stops just short of actually touching my skin. “You should wrap the gauze all the way up to here,” he says, all the way up to where the rope ends. I nod and make some, oooh, good idea sounds. He stays squatted and watches me start the ropes again and after a long pause starts telling me more of how he used to wrap with ropes… he has fought Kard Chuek, but also wrapped the same with cloth wraps for fights. He watches me do the figure 4 knots and asks me who taught me to wrap like this. I take a beat to remember the man’s name, “Kru Yut,” I say, “he’s from the south also, he taught me at my first few Kard Chuek fights.” The man nods a little, almost as if deciding something, then he just fully commits and actually touches the length of rope in my left hand. I let go of it, as an invitation, and he accepts.
Now it’s on. He’s unwrapping the whole thing, including the gauze underneath, so he can stretch the tail of it all the way up my forearm like he’d mentioned before. He explains how you criss-cross the wrap as you go, as this allows for better blood flow and you won’t make the “lines” (this means like nerves, but also a bit like lines of chi) in your arm tired. As he criss crosses, with each emphatic pull of the gauze around my arm, he’s chanting a kata. Kata are not words, they’re syllables that represent words in Pali. Monks chant like this, and kata are short versions of prayers or incantations for protection or power, usually. He’s chanting them as he wraps, meaning he’s binding the blessing/prayer/protection/power into the wrap itself… like putting on armor. When you get a Sak Yant from a monk or arjan, they chant into the ink before they start and during the inscriptions. Without this part, it’s just a tattoo. He explains you do this for the ropes as well and I ask where he learned the kata. He gives me a name and I don’t know it, but I nod. “my Arjan learned directly from [a name I didn’t recognize], who taught Khun Phan ,” he says. My eyes widen and I audibly gasp, my response to recognizing that the Arjan who taught Khun Phan, basically the magic-wielding gun-slinger legend of the South… think Billy the Kid or Wyatt Erp, is likely one of the greatest magical figures of all time (read about the legendary magical policeman Khun Phan here). To be connected to the lineage of Khun Phan is like magical royalty in the South. The man seems to inflate at my response of recognition, like a swelling of presence. He pulls more rope around my arm, chanting; it’s different from how I wrap for sure, but not wildly so. He finishes with lots of rope around my fist, going through my fingers, and the kata he chants there sounds different. I thank him emphatically, ask his name, it’s George, and he just stands up and kind of wanders off to watch the fights and, you know, be a security guard. Thailand is like this. People around you who might not seem special or important can be filled with knowledge.
My right hand feels like a baseball bat. It’s the same length of rope as my left hand, but it’s balanced differently. Normally I don’t put rope between my fingers because I’m so small and too much of anything in my hand keeps me from being able to make a fist, but this just feels like the whole thing is a club, regardless of whether I can close the hand or not.
I end up getting a corner literally just as I’m about to walk over to sit in the chair by the stage that’s “on deck” for the next fight. The whole group seems confused, surely one had agreed to Pi Song’s request, but they don’t appear sure of helping me. I hand my Mongkol to the one who was pointed out to me by Pi Song, “there’s only one thing special about helping me, you have to wait until I’ve entered the ring already to put my Mongkol on,” I say. One of the guys in the back of the group says aloud that women go under the ropes and a few of the others have an “oh, uh huh” reaction. It doesn’t matter that it’s so chaotic. The experience I had with George helping with my right hand, just listening to his explanations and his passion for reliving his lessons, applying his knowledge, that allowed me 20 minutes or so of focus on that experience and connection that saved me from whatever doubt the feeling of being an island might create. Without me speaking Thai, knowing what he was talking about with regard to these wicha (subjects of knowledge), George wouldn’t be able to have that experience of sharing and applying his knowledge; even with a Thai fighter, as they might not be as genuinely interested as I am. If I hadn’t simply looked at him and told him in Thai that I was rewrapping my hand because it was too tight, he would have just been a satellite, walking by and observing my strangeness. I’m not friendly. I don’t invite people to come interact with me the way he did; this is my penalty for being so shy. My shyness costs me a great deal in terms of experiences like this and it was only the accident of my response to his watching and his response to me speaking that created this possibility. It’s cosmic, in a way. It’s the wicha‘s way of preserving itself, beyond George, beyond me.