above: Gwangtong, me and Phetlilaa
When I have a few days in Chiang Mai, I like to head up to the Pettonpung Gym in Mae Rim for a little clinching with their fighters. It’s an all-female gym and home to the best female clincher in the North (Phetlilaa), so I have an affinity for the fact of it (all-female is so cool), as well as wanting to work with their fighters as a way to allow all of us to get better together. It is the case that many Thai female fighters are not exposed to a variety of techniques in clinch, and I’d had the advantage of a lot of exposure, so I’m playing a part in passing some of this along.
I’ve been to the gym a few times now and each time the owner, Khun Yai, has been very happy to have me work with Phetlilaa, but she herself has never been thrilled by the idea. She’s only just turned 14 years old, but quite a few kilos bigger than I am, with a very serious game face, wiping out the competition at 54 kg and larger, both western and Thai. She’s the Northern 54 kg champion. I’m not sure if it’s just her age, not wanting to be bothered by some western chick coming by wanting to clinch with her, or whether she’d considered me a potential opponent, but in our first few clinch sessions together she has been very guarded around my presence, which is cool and understandable. Her mother on the other hand loves me every time I come, she knows this is good for her daughter. At fight nights when I’ve run into the Pettonpung group – they fight constantly and all support one another as cornermen and a cheering squad – they’ve all be really encouraging to me. “Sylvie, su su!” they’ll say as I get into the ring, meaning “fight fight!” Phetlilaa has helped take off my gloves several times after fights, including when I was gushing blood from an elbow to my forehead. At a recent fight I was wearing my Miss Gangster Knee shirt and she recognized me in the photo on the front; she pointed to it and asked who the opponent was, then repeated the nickname sao nakleng khao several times, clearly liking it. And I go with them to the corner to cheer when their fighters get in the ring. It’s very friendly. All in all, I feel very connected to these female fighters, and to Phetlilaa in particular (above photo, right). There is something about her seriousness that I am drawn to. I trained with another young Thai phenom for a year, Phetjee Jaa, who though is very, very skilled and blessed had something of a “protected” quality about her – her father would jump in and call timeouts when I’d get an advantage back then – Phetlilaa has got an impossible toughness in her, and a focus at such a young age. I want her to become the best she can possibly be. I want her to become World Champion, maybe the best female fighter in Thailand. This is a big part of why I go and train there when I can.
When we pulled up to the gym a few days ago it was empty. Everyone was just coming back from the run and I clocked new faces with the familiar fighters as they all slowly arrived at the gym and started skipping rope. Those who know me wai-ed and smiled. It was a little bit awkward because I’d previously been scheduled to fight their fighter Gwangtong (19, she is pictured with me in the photo at top, to photo left) the following night, though I had pressed the promoter to change the match up which he said he would. I’d fought her two times before but I’ve told promoters for more than a month that I don’t want to fight Pettonpung anymore because I’d rather foster this relationship where we can all work together, and so far they’ve kept us apart on cards. This time though we had been preliminarily been matched again, though at this point the fight was promised to be changed. I think Pettonpung would still let me come to the gym as an opponent – it’s just business – but the relationship with the girls would be altered, for sure. And this time, climbing into the ring to clinch with Phetlilaa, she seemed into it, for the first time. She was ready to go and even threw some moves in that when I laughed and made noises of how effective they were, she pointed to me and said, “you taught me that.” How cool is that?! She’d worked on stuff I had showed her months ago and now she’s using it comfortably. So I built on it a little bit with stuff I’d learned from Rambaa Somdet M16 recently, and more detail I hadn’t shown before. It was fun, it was competitive but it was also more fluid and emotionally relaxed than before. I think she was having a bit of fun, and a few of the other fighters lined up along the ring to watch.
I live streamed the clinch session with Pettonpung here
After about 15-20 minutes Phetlilaa got out and Gwangtong, my former opponent, got in. I’ve never clinched with her in these types of sessions, so it was cool to feel a training scenario, rather than the live world of fighting in a ring as opponents. She seemed very thirsty for instruction and had great instincts for everything I suggested to her. Then, my favorite thing of the day: she asked me how to get out of a position I kept putting her in. Not only did she trust that I would help her, but this is a move that negates one of my advantages in any future fights between us… should that happen again. As I said, I’ve definitely told promoters I no longer fight Pettonpung, but in Thailand you never know. They tell you one thing and do another all the time. That move I showed her led directly into a long-clinch position that Gwangtong picked up like King Arthur removing Excalibur, like the move was made for her. It was awesome. She made this “aaaahhh,” sound of understanding and then just fucking bulldozed me across the ring with it. We were both laughing and the girls lined up along the ropes to watch started heckling; Phetlilaa was actually cheering for me.
after our clinching the older fighters paired up to hold for the younger fighters
I’ll admit I wasn’t in the best mood when I arrived, I had just fought the night before and I was a little tired, but this experience put me in an immensely good mood. It was fun. I could feel my neck would be sore for my fight the next night, but it’s so worth it. After our clinch the girls all paired off to do padwork in the ring, holding for each other, and I went to chat with Phetlilaa’s mom, who was sitting on a motorbike watching us. I remembered that Phetlilaa was turning 14 in April and asked what day that was; “today,” her mom answered. Well, damn. Happy Birthday! I know that sounds young to western ears, and it is very rare for such a young fighter to face westerners, but she fights way beyond her years. I’ve watched her smash big western girls with her Muay Khao style when only 13. She has the size and seriousness to be very special. I talked to her mom for a bit, telling her I had no doubts that Phetlilaa will be world champion. Her mom looked at me in disbelief. I think maybe there’s this element of Thai Buddhist mindset which is kind of, “if she has luck,” rather than believing huge things will come to be. But I think she could hear how strongly I believe it. I went to ask Phetlilaa if she’d ever fought the girl I had beat the night before and she said she hadn’t, that the gym (Leangprasert) didn’t want to fight her (Phetlilaa) because the opponent (Nongmorakaot) doesn’t like knees. Sure enough, I’d knocked her out with knees. Phetlilaa looked totally impressed by this and told me this opponent is 57 kg, which is bigger than I’d thought, nearly 10 kg more than me. Gwangtong, who I was due to fight the next night before requesting a change in opponents, kind of leaned in toward me and said she was happy we weren’t fighting tomorrow, that she didn’t want to fight me. Then Phetlilaa and Gwangtong launched into an interrogation about all the scars on my forehead from my many cuts. Phetlilaa has only been cut once, on her lip, and they both look at me with total fascination – then Gwangtong asks me if I think my forehead splits more easily if my hair is pulled back tight. Both girls have short hair and only put a rubberband to hold back the very front, so maybe this is a concern. Interestingly, it’s something Kevin has considered as a possible component as well. Maybe, I say, but I fight a lot. My first real cuts were 80 fights in. They nod, eyes wide, then start harassing and teasing each other again.
Addendum to the above, written two days later:
I got to the venue the next night and see that Gwangtong is still listed as my opponent. This was frustrating. They knew that I have repeatedly reminded them I don’t fight Pettonpung, but maybe they’d made the program already and didn’t change it, so I go ask the promoter. I’m still fighting Gwangtong; he couldn’t find a replacement at all. I see her across the room, dressed in a Leprachaun-green shirt, and she’s alone, just her and an ice-bucket. She’s sitting on a plastic chair at the end of a row of them, a guy who looks to be a Chinese tourist is maybe 5 seats away and he’s watching us as we chat. She asks me where my corner is and I say they’re not here yet, that they’re taking care of a fighter at a different stadium and will come by after. This is part of being a “rogue fighter,” being totally fine with your corner arriving 5 minutes before the fight or possibly not in time at all. I ask where her team is and it’s the same – they’re taking care of a fighter at Thapae and then running over here to take care of her. I laugh and tell her we’re in the same boat, thinking that she must know we’re fighting each other and it’s kind of nice that we both are facing this independence before the support of our teams show up. I’m not happy about fighting Gwangtong, but with this promoter I knew in the back of my mind the chances of him really changing out the opponent were probably about 50/50. A few minutes after I’d spoken with her, when I’d already gone back to my seat by Kevin on the other side of the ring, Gwangtong came over with the program and asked me where I was on it. It’s mostly in English, so maybe she didn’t know which fight I was. I point to it and her eyes bugged out, “we’re fighting each other?!” I nod, explaining the promoter couldn’t find a replacement (assuming he tried at all). She stares at me in disbelief. We’d both come to the venue knowing we had a fight, but not knowing that we were (still) fighting each other. In order for the promoter to have booked the fight in the first place, her coach must have agreed to the idea of fighting me, so this was not an “out of the blue” situation. But we’d both assumed when we were training together last night that we were no longer fighting each other, because that’s what the promoter had told me. I mean, who goes over to their opponent’s gym the night before their fight to teach them how to get out of their clinch lock?
“It’s okay,” I told her. “For fun.” She made a gesture toward the long clinch she’d done so well with yesterday and I laughed and gave her a huge grin, “yes!” I’d also shown her how to knee someone’s face when you get their head bent down in a particular position move… so I guess I should watch out for that as well. There seemed to be more confusion when her gym actually did show up and two of the girls came over to ask if I needed a massage. Like, they were going to help corner/prep for me also because Gwangtong knew my cornermen were late. I have, incidentally, been cornered by the teammate of my opponent once before, in Lopburi; it was weird and amazing. But these were girls I knew. Later, when Daeng was putting on my gloves and I told him, laughing, that I’d clinched with my opponent last night he shook his head in disbelief. He also had tried to get the promoter to change opponents for me, but what can you do? Sometimes you have to fight your friends (this is very rare for westerners in Thailand, of course) and I’m more or less okay with that, but when it’s socially difficult like this… I just don’t like it. It’s more valuable to me to be on solid terms with the gym as an ally rather than on complicated terms as an occasional opponent. So we get in and we start fighting and both of us are kind of at 30% in the early rounds, which is Thai style. I’m teeping her legs and she’s pulling her leg kicks a bit, which she’s absolutely ripped through me with before. But as the fight goes on it becomes more real. I don’t pull my knees when I clinch and I’m using a few of the tricks I actually showed her the day before. It’s hard to learn something overnight, so she’s still caught in my lock the few times I put it on her, and she gets nailed with straight knees out of a low-clinch break we’d worked on. At one point I push my forehead into her jaw, which I’d also shown her last night, and when the ref breaks us we share a smile and a nod, like “oh right, I remember learning that.” She throws some awesome superman punches at me and I smile and nod to her to acknowledge how cool they were, kind of something you might do in sparring. The fight is fun, but it’s shitty that someone has to feel bad about the loss afterwards, because it’s real also.
I win. It’s more or less a blowout except that I spend most of rounds 4 and 5 staying away from her to hold the lead and in round 5 she pounds on me a few times when she catches me. She’s hitting very hard at this point trying to steal the fight. But from the early rounds Pi Daeng had been telling me to use this fight to test stuff out. “You fight many times,” he says, “sometimes you have to try, learn something.” So much of the time I relaxed and tried a lot of things that I might be able to do in sparring but am generally too tense to do in fights, under pressure. Pi Daeng ends up loving this fight because at least he can see that I’m capable of this kind of relaxed movement, that my range of capacities are greater than what I show when I’m just trying to win. I definitely was trying to win this fight, it was a full, real fight for me, but I took a different route to it. Afterwards I quickly pulled off my gloves and took some photos with people who’d come to support me, then hurried through the maze of chairs and benches that face the ring from the various bars set up around the periphery at Loi Kroh. I’m ducking down when I see people trying to record the next fight with their cameras, flashing smiles and thanks at folks who are shouting congratulations to me as I run past. I’m trying to find the Pettonpung gym who are usually grouped together at the far end of the venue. I see them all standing at the back of the white plastic chairs near the entrance. Gwangtong is standing a little bit outside the group, her hair wet and sticking up in all different directions. I immediately grab her arms and apologize, reiterating how I’d tried to avoid fighting her or her gym. She was fine – fighters fight with people they know all the time, but she was a bit down because it sucks to lose. Gwangtong has this really sweet, broad smile that stretches all the way across the width of her face and exposes her slightly crooked teeth. It’s an incredibly charming smile, but the one she offers me right now isn’t that one. I feel a bit down as well because I don’t like having her feel whatever it is we feel when we lose, even if it doesn’t “matter.” Khun Yai didn’t seem to care one bit about us fighting each other, to him it’s fine to fight anybody or everybody because it’s just business. I told the promoter that this was the last time I fight Pettonpung and he was like, “okay, okay.” It’s not a huge deal. It’s not even guaranteed that I’ll never fight them again. By the next time I’m up here the air will have cleared and I’ll be very happy to clinch with Gwangtong as a training partner; and show her again how to get out of my lock.
I live streamed our fight together here.
All my articles about the Pettonpung Gym
An overview of the Chiang Mai female Muay Thai Fight Scene