“I Want to fight here like I want to breathe”
Below is a screen shot of a message I sent my husband after I filmed a bit of the incredible action from Rajadamnern, my very first visit to the stadium despite having lived in Thailand for nearly 3 years. It’s my husband’s way to prod me to share more of what I’m experiencing, so I do forget. This message pretty much sums up how incredible an experience it was for me.
I cannot fight here, nor at Lumpinee, nor Channel 7 studios and neither can any other female fighter; but that isn’t the point of this post. What I felt at that moment was not the disappointment of my exclusion. Instead it was an overwhelmingly positive feeling of inspiration, of being possessed by the very soul of this venue, it’s history, these fighters and the spirit of Muay Thai.
Those who follow me know that I’ve fought a great deal in Thailand, it is my life. I did have the fortune of having watched fights at the old Lumpinee before it was closed and demolished, and that experience is one I’ll never forget. But for some reason this first visit to Rajadamnern, with my friend and fighter Robyn on her last night in Bangkok, really struck me in a way I did not anticipate. I’m writing about that wave of realizations.
A bit of background for those just coming to the subject, Rajadamnern is Bangkok’s oldest stadium, by far. It was in fact established (1945) well before the better known (to the west) Lumpinee (1956). Rajadamnern’s concrete roof was added in 1951. You can read a little of the timeline of the modernization of Muay Thai here. Now that Lumpinee has been moved and super-modernized, Rajadamnern is the living landmark of Bangkok Muay Thai. It is the unmoved place where the blood has been spilled, champions have been tested and gamblers have raged for what is coming upon 70 years.
When my husband and I took in a night of fights at the old Lumpinee stadium years ago, we were very affected by the “Thai-ness” of the whole scene – this was before I had fought much at all (3 fights). We sat away from the ring, up in the middle section and opposite from where most of the gamblers were all congregated. In our semi-empty area of the stadium we sat on damp wooden stadium benches and watched stray dogs and cats meander through the walkways, looking for scraps of food. They occupied the space with comfort, like they were always there. From where we sat the crowd of gamblers were visible as an entity, like how a swarm of buzzing bees appears to be a single being. It was incredible and it infused the space with a breath of excitement and volatility. From what I’ve seen, albeit only through the lens of TV or photographs, which filter out a lot, the New Lumpinee does not seem to share the humble, gritty charm of what I witnessed at the old one.
The investment of the audience is one of the reasons I’ve always loved festival fights best. Rings are erected out in a field or on temple grounds and there’s generally no admission fee, so the crowds can be fairly large and they come right up to the edge of the ring. In fact, you might have a few gamblers right in your corner, actually touching you through the ropes and giving you instructions on how they want you to fight. Sometimes it’s good advice! But the investment in the fights brings life to the audience. The swell of cheers betrays who is betting on whom and the favored fighter can change. At Rajadamnern with Robyn you could hear who the gamblers were betting on with the raging “oi! oi!” on the strikes of one fighter over the other. Between rounds I could turn and look up into the stands at the fast-moving hands of the bookies looking for wagers; I could “read” some of the signs to get an idea of the odds for the upcoming round. Occasionally the gamblers in the front of the stands would bang their hands against the billboard wall that separates them from the “VIP” seated area around the ring to get the attention of the cornermen in the ring. The seconds would look over and the gamblers would very theatrically pantomime what they wanted the fighter to do – kick or clinch or punch – and the cornermen would nod and relay the message to the fighter. I could feel the stakes that the audience had in the fight, contrasted incredibly with the quiet, somewhat baffled stillness of the disinterested ticket-holders sitting ringside. Rajadamnern was one vast festival fight.
I got a little teary-eyed in the third fight of the night. It wasn’t necessarily the particular styles of the fighters but I was filled with motivation to just go get to work in training to imitate the kind of “fuck you, I don’t go backwards” attitude of the fighter I was pulling for. It was a distinct feeling of I want to be like that, which I haven’t felt in a long time – not since my early days of first beginning Muay Thai, I think. And it made me realize how important and informative it is for these young kids, the boys from my gym, going to these stadia for years as teammates of fighters and watching these shows live. They experience it all, from helping to oil the fighters backstage or unwrap their hands (grunt work; the kids work) to watching dozens of fights per month and feeling this space. The boys learn to imitate it, the way I’m feeling right now in my seat how I want to be like this. It’s such an advantage in molding fighters into the aesthetic and attitude of Thai fighters. It’s something I felt I’d been missing and something I find value in, even though I won’t ever be the one on this stage; but those boys will be – and they are my fight family, the boys I go against. They watch and learn and imitate, and then one day it’s them and they’ve already been here, done the background work for years before actually getting into the ring in a big card themselves. That’s what makes this a way of life. I’ve watched hundreds of fights in my time here, but mostly festival shows outside the big stadia. It’s different there, so much more. The intensity of the fights, the enclosure of all the voices; and very different than the stadia in Chiang Mai, where most of the audience is westerners who bought tickets with only maybe a few dozen gamblers behind a fence… it changes the feel, just as watching the fights on TV (which I did, in my hotel room when we got home from the stadium) is so different from seeing it live and hearing the gamblers, feeling the whole breathing animal that is an engaged audience. I sense I would be a better fighter if I was exposed to this more.
There was another kind of amazing experience in the stadium for me, as I was walking through the venue (to our seats, to the restroom, to take a picture with the main event winner, to the shop, etc). I was recognized as a fighter by a great number of people, mostly gamblers. It was my chest tattoo that gave me away, I reckon; only the peak of Pra Rahu’s headpiece is visible through the one open button at the collar of my shirt, but the yant is a clear signifier for all those who were seeing it in this context. Tattoo seemed to trump my being a woman; there was no “well, maybe,” consideration in putting the fact of my being a woman together with the signal of the tattoo. It was tattoo > gender math. And it actually felt really good to be recognized because anyone who actually mentioned it verbally was very excited by it, but even those who didn’t say anything, it was clear in their general countenance that they were interested in seeing this female fighter walking around in a venue that was built for fighters. I wasn’t made to feel that I didn’t belong; I felt oddly included by how exceptional I seemed to be, (there were so few women there, maybe 20 in the whole building that night). I may be forbidden from entering the ring, but as a fighter I absolutely felt like I was part of, and accepted as being consistent with, what was taking place within it and permeating out into the theater itself. Despite all the ways I am an outsider, I felt included in the statement that “this space is ours.”
in the video above you can see how unbelievably excited I am ringside
(above) the next day I vlogged a little about the impact of watching these fights
Women are not allowed to fight in the stadium – but it should be noted that western men with very little experience have fought in the ring. I know of more than one account of a westerner fighting their first fight at Rajadamnern recently.
If you enjoyed this post you may like this post on the prohibition of women from fighting in the main stadia of Bangkok