I am, in many ways, a satellite to my gym in Thailand. This is necessary for me to do almost everything that I do, but it’s also a point of difficulty. I don’t fight through my gym (if I did, I’d have had maybe 10 fights over the past 5 years, rather than over 150 in that same time) and so they’re not with me when I do fight and I’m often not with them when they go fight in Bangkok. On the rare occasions when I do get to go with my gym, not as a fighter but as a teammate, I witness incredible things. For example, while sitting in the back of Kru Nu’s car on the way back from a fight in Pattaya last year, a Doreamon pillow on the backseat between me and my clinching partner Carabao, who had just won his fight by KO in round 1, I watched Kru Nu’s eyes in his rearview mirror as he said that the reason Carabao had won his fight like that is because of clinching with me. He was actually giving credit to me for the success of a young, male fighter being strong and winning at Lumpinee Stadium. He would never have said anything like that at the gym. And if he’d said it in the car without me there, I’d never have known about it at all.
Read my Patreon Magazine post: Lumpinee Stadium and One Day Fighting There – A Story
The other night we had 5 fighters on the card at Lumpinee, including Carabao and another clinching/sparring partner for me, The Champ. These are my teammates. We sharpen one another in our training, making each other stronger, better, calmer; we support one another in both good and bad moments. We’re teammates in the most traditional and honorable sense of that word.
Conversations That Matter
But on the way home from Bangkok, in the dark of the Petchrungruang van, I experience a whole different element of what is valuable about having a “team” in Thailand, what it means for Thai boys growing up in gyms to become stadium fighters. Before getting into the van, on the grass and clots of dirt on the military grounds where we park next to the stadium, I stood in front of the locked sliding doors. Bank, who had just lost a very tough fight and had a cut on his face – the first real cut he’s ever received in 13 years of fighting – stood in front of me and let out a deep sigh, shaking his head. Mai dong kit mak, I said, “you don’t have to think so much.” I told him he’d fought really well. Something washed over Bank’s face and I could feel it in my own. It was a wrestling of two wills: the will to cry being fought back under the will to be unemotional. He’ll be 19 years old next month and what was playing out on his face in that moment was the child in him losing to the man. I’d watched his fight from the corner and I’d seen him make the exact same mistakes I’ve made in my fights. Things Kevin has talked to me about many, many times and I understand him, intellectually, but I didn’t really know it until seeing Bank do it in the ring, with me there outside of it, watching. Subtle things: The difference in the way he came forward in round 4, which was really dominant, versus how he did it in round 5, which looked more like a chase. I’ve done that. And, I saw Bank look to his corner in round 5, asking for permission to start taking distance as a claim to his lead. Both times they’d told him to go forward and he followed their instructions. But the second time, the fact that he looked and had been denied completely changed the narrative to one where he couldn’t claim a dominant win. I’ve done this so many times. Kevin tells me not to even look, to just trust myself and start dancing off. If I’m wrong, that’s on me. But if I look and have to go because my corner tells me to, even having looked comes off as defeat. Witnessing this in Bank’s fight finally made me understand; because it’s not me.
“Nobody wants to win all the time,” I told Bank, in Thai. He pushed his chin forward, shaking his head. “You know One Punch Man?” I asked. (I once wrote about One Punch Man here.) The struggle against tears vanished from Bank’s face and instead he looked puzzled. “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. I altered my pronunciation slightly and looked at Sun, who had won his fight by first round KO, and is younger than Bank by a few years and is both his closest friend and greatest admirer. Sun idolizes Bank, hard. Sun’s face bursts into a smile, “yeah, yeah!” he said excitedly, “he’s so bored because nobody can fight him, he always wins with just one punch.” Sun and I laughed; I was stoked he got my reference. Bank smiled but it was half-hearted. I’ve been there.
In the van, driving through slow Bangkok traffic with the red tail-lights setting the inside of the cabin aglow, I listened to Kru Nu and Kru Den, who was sitting on the other side of a giant cooler, talk about all the ways in which this loss wasn’t Bank’s fault. The opponent was too big. The opponent was too tall. But that doesn’t mean Bank couldn’t fight him, it’s just these unfair obstacles. I hear the sound of a few ice cubes clacking around in the bucket as Kru Den fishes around for a bottle of water. Jesus, I think to myself, if the loss is because of height or post-weigh in weight difference of a couple kilos, what must my constantly huge size disadvantages look like? When they’re talking about me, to me, there is a lot of pressure and criticism for fighting bigger opponents. When talking to me, it’s a lecture; when talking about me to others, it’s somewhere between bragging and decrying the unfairness of it all. Then, from the size of the opponent, the conversation switches to what each of our 5 fighters got paid. This discussion is amazingly long, maybe because Kru Den keeps forgetting the numbers and has to circle back around to ask again until he’s heard to number for each fighter, two or three times. He tsks at the low pay for a few of the fighters, only one of whom got paid less than I do for the majority of my fights. To be fair, Kru Den used to ask me what I got paid for my fights every time I returned to the gym, which I found rude because I’m American and talking about money in my upbringing is bad manners. But listening to this conversation in the car on the way home, I’m keying into how important this is. It’s a mark of a fighter’s value, maybe in the way we follow the salary of Hollywood actors to connote how “in demand” they are. And again, it’s because they’re not talking about me that I can actually get something out of this conversation, look into the structure of Muay Thai.
The conversation lulls a few times and I’m on my phone, texting with Kevin and searching various Thai media sources for photos, videos, and writeups of the fights that I can post to Petchrungruang’s social media channels. I find a few photos of Bank that discuss the controversy over the referee failing to give his opponent an 8 count after a knockdown in round 4, a moment that had significant impact on the result of the fight. I read the comments, many of which are saying there should have been a count and a few of which are dissecting Bank’s failures in round 5. Because these comments aren’t about me, I’m able to see them as constructive criticism – if they were about me or my fight, I’d just be angry and hurt and not want to read them at all. (Sometimes comments are just plain nasty and mean and unhelpful, as well as ignorant.) Because Bank isn’t me, I can learn from these comments. Because he’s my teammate and my brother, I care. Seeing how Dieselnoi broke down the fight in the locker room after the fight; what the gamblers who came back there said; watching Bank’s disappointment and my other teammate’s excitement over their victories; what Kru Nu blamed the loss on versus what he normally says to me; listening to the talk about money and the discussion of which of our fighters (both of whom are within a few kilos of each other) Kru Nu will send for a title fight at another stadium next month – the size being a huge factor even though it’s such a small difference, but as a gym you have fighters like a deck of cards and have to strategically play them, for their success and yours – all of these things are part of a Team that I miss out on, all the time.
Kevin and I got to interview Sirimongkol just a few months before he died, unexpectedly, at 71 years old (you can see part of the interview above, all of it on Patreon). He was Fighter of the Year in 1972, only 6 years after staring Muay Thai at all. His third fight, ever, was at Rajadamnern after he’d tragically had an opponent die in the ring after being knocked out by Sirimongkol… in his second fight, ever, in a festival fight. He told me how he lost his first fight at Rajadamern and everyone thought he had thrown it, but it was because he didn’t know how to fight at all. 6 years later he was the best fighter in Thailand. How did he become Fighter of the Year in such a short span? He didn’t even have formal training at the start of his career, and even once in Bangkok nobody explicitly took him under their wing and taught him, in the way one might imagine a kru shaping a student. He answered that he listened to everything in this kaimuay (camp). He’d stand at the corner and listen to what the coaches told each fighter. How he should fight a puncher, how he should solve the kicks, what he was doing right or wrong. Sirimongkol learned from watching and listening to the advice given to fighters who weren’t him; he absorbed information from their mistakes and their successes, almost obsessively. He learned from the team. And that’s what I was witnessing in this trip to watch my teammates in Bangkok. I’d wanted to go because I wanted to support them. To be present and watch in person and feel the energy; to cheer with my actual body and voice instead of typing before or after the event. But my support, my sympathetic joy or sympathetic compassion from their win or loss is much less than what I actually felt in that trip. It’s soaking in all those words, all the unspoken body language, the things left unsaid, the topics returned to or left out entirely on the drive back. It’s being there, that allows me to profit so entirely from what it means to be part of a team. It’s not cheering – although that part happens in the gym, too. It’s co-experiencing. That is the true meaning of a team.