The more I watch Muay Thai, the more I fall in love with the stillness of it. The explosion of movement and the collision of limbs and trunks and bodies is exciting in contrast to that stillness. More and more I seek to bring cohesion between what my body does in the ring and what those bodies I so admire are doing – and more now than ever it’s in trying to adopt that stillness, rather than to imitate the powerful, smooth, slick strikes.
Take Karuhat for example. I go absolutely nuts watching Karuhat’s old fights, kind of like how the first time anyone ever saw The Matrix it was this mind-blowing, styleized thrill-ride of action and slow-motion. That’s what Karuhat’s fights look like, like the first time but every time. Moments from those fights stick in my mind and play on the insides of my eyelids as highlights and, honestly, most of the moments that stick in my mind like this are when he gets caught with a kick and catches himself as he’s off-balance – totally slow-motion as he gathers himself – then he comes back in super-speed with these utterly calm but aggressive steps forward.
It’s the moments before the next strike that are just heart-poundingly good. When I was in Kindergarten there was an assembly at school where every student had to gather in the cafeteria. Usually we’d all sit cross-legged on the floor and stare up at the principal giving some kind of announcement. Today was a lesson on Mountain Lion safety (we had seasonal run-ins with Mountain Lions where I grew up, so this was very practical knowledge) and so we all had to sit in folding chairs because a room full of kids on the floor looked like food to a Cougar, apparently. They brought in a real Mountain Lion and he was lying down on a table, just immense and heavy and muscled. He was panting, his tongue pumping in and out between his teeth, but he was pretty relaxed on that table. “Never, ever look him in the eyes,” we were instructed. My brother Shane and I, of course, looked that cat right in his big yellow eyes and he met my gaze, then stood up on the table. I grabbed Shane’s hand and we both, without speaking, knew we’d just precipitated the deaths of our entire assembly. The cat was on a chain and did not, ultimately, get to move toward us. The handler held the chain and did whatever training noises were appropriate and the Mountain Lion paced back and forth on the table a few times before lying back down. In that moment when Shane and I held hands and accepted that we were going to die, the Mountain Lion barely moved. It didn’t charge us. It just stood up and let us know we were the center of his attention. That is what I see in Muay Thai now, the transition from stillness to motion. It’s not the explosion, although that’s exciting… it’s the way these fighters stand up and focus.
Figuring out how to develop this for myself has been a trying process. Watching the breakdown of a given strike and then learning how to execute it is micro-adjustment of physical positions: where the foot lands, how far the knee bends, turning the hip, etc. The breakdown of a “style” is quite different. It’s far more of a possession, taking on the persona of a fighter rather than a particular move. For example, you don’t have to get Axl Rose’s “snake dance” exactly technically right so much as you have to get the kind of ridiculous sleaziness of it down to really sell it. Same with the relaxation of fighters. Saenchai is called the “King of Muay Thai” because his style is so slick and pretty much unmatched by anyone else. But if you really break it down, all he’s doing is what everyone else does: he kicks, he punches, he moves. His opponents also kick, also punch also move. What sets him apart and makes it look like nobody is on the same level as he is, is his relaxation, his moments of stillness (while still in motion in his case, but it’s a kind of idling, I guess) that make anything he actually does exciting. I haven’t cared about a Saenchai fight for a long time, because they’re just terrible matchups, but in one of his recent Thai Fight matches the guy he faced also relaxed. It was amazing. Suddenly there were two players at the board, rather than watching Saenchai look bored while hitting a scared man as if he’s a sentient heavy bag.
Kevin watches basketball. He’s a Lakers fan. He often tells me that what makes a great player is a shift in speed, “slow, slow, slow, fast,” he says. You can see it when a player breaks away after some static dribbling. I can see this in fighters, too. A fighter who is all one speed is boring, it’s messy, the way a lot of western fighters just barrel forward with one level of aggression; one speed. Westerners find the first couple rounds of a typical Thai fighter similarly boring, because it’s all one speed of slow, low-power testing grounds. But the reason I hate 3 round fights is because it doesn’t allow the story to fully develop. It’s like watching these opening-scene car chases or action sequences in the last few years of movies, which look like they were shot Baywatch style of shaking the camera around and then edited using a blender. And because the movie opens on this scene, you don’t fucking care who any of these people are as the cars flip over or tear around corners or some guy gets thrown off a roof. Yeah, it’s a lot of action, but I can’t watch it. It sucks. A 5 round fight, even if the first two rounds are boring, allow you to get to know the fighters a bit. It gives them time to make a few promises to cash in at the later rounds, or it allows for the story line to switch up because one of them was sandbagging – like when The Man in Black tosses the sword into his other hand midway through the sword fight and says, “I am not left handed!” This happens in fights when there are shifts in speed, from stillness to explosion, from calm and taunting to forward and menacing. Learning how to have that change in speed, in energy, is unbelievably hard to learn. But I believe it comes out of impersonation. Anyone can pantomime a rockstar, it’s a kind of energy. That’s what these fighters are doing, except it’s who they are. Mick Jagger is, ultimately, impersonating Mick Jagger but it’s his invention. Karuhat plays Karuhat, Namkabuan plays Namkabuan. It’s very metta. But it’s inspiring and building your own version of that larger-than-life, swagger ball in the ring is something I think we all owe to ourselves. And it’s so much more exciting to watch than a string of off-balance chain of strikes. At this point, I’m borrowing imitating Namkabuan, Dieselnoi, Karuhat and Yodwicha because I haven’t fully formed the Sylvie persona yet. I’m borrowing their skin until I have my own. But it’s getting there.
The last time I was training with Karuhat, I waited for his teep and then parried it, stepped to the side of him and tried to sweep him over my leg. I knocked him off balance but didn’t bring him down. He was utterly surprised by the move, despite him being the one who taught it to me earlier. “Technique Karuhat,” I said, imitating his cocky body position as I reset myself. I threw a leg kick, which he checked and then used his foot to hook the block and pull me off balance to the point that I fell to the ground with the kind of whoop, foot-in-the-air comedy of slipping on a banana peel. “Technique Karuhat,” he said quietly, humorously back, doing the actual swagger walk-around that I like to imitate. Mine was a gesture toward an icon, his was the real thing. The trip wasn’t even the impressive part, it’s the posturing on either side of it, the “oh, did you fall down?” attitude that really sells it. On a caught kick sweep, it’s the walk-away that makes you reel with excitement, not the trip itself really.
My husband wrote about a similar subject, from an different angle