Two sides of the tiered stadium seating at Omnoi Stadium are packed full of people who love Muay Thai. To the right side are hundreds of gamblers, frantically giving hand-signals to wage bets, standing on steps and using each other’s shoulders to balance as they turn around to face all different sides of the audience. In my section, to my right are all college students and people from my gym – every one of us wearing the same black T-Shirt with our champion, PTT, screen printed on the front. To my immediate left is the rival’s cheering squad, all of them a solid generation older than the average in our group, all wearing identical blue T-Shirts with Diesellek’s name and a police insignia on the back. They’ve got an electric guitar and drummers; we’ve got a Chinese Lion with costumed puppeteers, drums, and very loud cymbals. Between rounds the guitar sings out an incredibly recognizable rhythmic melody – we all sway and dance – and then the Chinese Lion shakes as the drums pound out a nearly panicked pace. We’re warring, our two champions in the ring, my shoulder brushing against the man cheering for our rival with every clap. The cheers, the shouts, the drums and the guitar fill our bodies with the same metric; even though we are at odds, it feels like one enormous, pulsing beast.
In the final moments of the fourth round, PTT crumples Diesellek into the corner and stands over him. I leap to my feet, screaming and clapping with mind-numbing excitement; I’m actually light-headed in how fanatic I am. My voice is cracking as I scream out “teep! teep!” and watch PTT dance backwards through the final round. At the last few moments, just before the bell rings, you can see the exact moment when it dawns on PTT that he has won – not just the fight, but all that entails: a tournament that lasted 6 months, four consecutive fights, the finale, a million Baht, and a brand new Isuzu truck… all of it. The moment that it hits PTT is almost as though he was struck, his body actually jolts but relaxes at the same moment. It’s incredible. He has already thrown his arms in the air to show victory, but he did so out of habit – out of showmanship that is so much a part of Muay Thai. But when the realization actually runs through him, he almost collapses under it, and then he starts to kind of shimmy. I am so fucking happy for PTT in this moment, watching him freak out and hop with excitement. The cornermen and head honchos from our gym leap into the ring with him and they start celebrating together. And I’m actually crying, just overwhelmed by this emotion of joy in seeing PTT execute this perfect fucking fight. Every moment of it, climbing steadily and with focus out of early difficulty to claim it all.
When my trainer talks about 18-year-old PTT, who has been with Petchrungruang for over 10 years now, he largely talks about how he wasn’t very good. For a full year he didn’t win a single fight; he was pum-pui (“chubby”) and gamblers hated him. But Pi Nu just kept training him, kept putting him in for fights because PTT wanted to fight. And he just got better.
the fight for 1,000,000 baht, above
When my trainer talks about 18-year-old PTT, who has been with Petchrungruang for over 10 years now, he largely talks about how he wasn’t very good. For a full year he didn’t win a single fight; he was pum-pui (“chubby”) and gamblers hated him. But Pi Nu just kept training him, kept putting him in for fights because PTT wanted to fight. And he just got better. Now he looks like he’s carved out of marble and, while his style is unusual – he actually looks like he’s fighting in slow motion, but he’s just grinding his opponent down – he is widely loved now. The phone calls from big gyms wanting to buy PTT come every week. Pi Nu just shakes his head when he tells me this, “what for? For years nobody want him, now everybody want him.” I can guarantee you that those calls will be steady after this fight, but I’m standing there clapping and sobbing as I see Pi Nu climb up into the ring and calmly take photos for the national sport media. Pi Nu hates being in the limelight like this and part of my emotional surge now is witnessing this moment of glory for PTT as a result of the Petchrungruang gym believing in him. In the stands are his college classmates – all women – cheering wildly for him. He’s still just a young guy who will go to class on Monday morning, but having achieved this incredible thing over the weekend. And that’s part of what I love about Muay Thai here – the glory is in all those years of work and we just get to witness these expressions of that.
I’ve been at Petchrungruang for a year and eight months, give or take. In that time I’ve been transformed, many times over. And in that time I’ve failed… many times over. But Pi Nu believes in me. Not because he has to, not because there’s some promise of a peak glory like this… simply because it is in his heart to believe. In rich soil like that, things grow. There’s been some bad luck at the gym this past year, with two of the gym’s top young fighters leaving under dramatic, painful circumstances. I am biased, I own that, but even objectively what happened is a betrayal of Pi Nu’s years of generosity to these boys. Muay Thai is business and I get that; part of Pi Nu’s failing is that he doesn’t care enough about the business part, which might hinder fighters with great potential as much as it can blossom fighters who seem to have none. So as much as this moment of greatness for PTT is simply a chance of recognition for all the years of hard work he’s put in, it’s also a moment of gratitude for Pi Nu and the gym in the face of these two painful departures from the gym. Those aren’t simple business disagreements – it’s very much like breaking up family. Pi Nu doesn’t talk about it much – he doesn’t like to dwell – but I can see it hurts him when we do talk about it. He doesn’t take credit for PTT’s success, all he did was “let him” keep going; and he doesn’t take blame for the boys leaving, all he did was let them go. But it hurts enough that he’s thinking about not contracting any more Thai boys under his name. For many gyms, having one champion is immense. I mean the kind that you raised at the gym, not those big gyms that buy champions just before, or right when they make it. But Pi Nu seems to see this moment as an honor for his name, but not in a way that will “grow” his name and gym. We’ll all just go back home after this and put another framed photo on the wall of PTT. I suspect the heartache of the business side of arguing over the buying or selling of boys who grew up at his gym is just too much for Pi Nu, so he’s ruminating on checking out of that business side all together, and do what so many other gyms do. Which to me is heartbreaking because it would be the end of a way of life, of a kind of traditional space. He claims it won’t change, that kids will still train with him, but they won’t fight under his name. Petchrungruang is one of only two gyms in Pattaya registered with the national sports authorities as being “fighter gyms,” rather than some kind of hyphenated tourist gym. They have tourists, to be sure (both gyms do), but their fighters have to be registered with the Bangkok authorities and the gyms must be inspected for codes. The gyms which are mainly business tourist gyms don’t have to abide by those codes. And by not signing more boys, Pi Nu would be snuffing out one of the last real fighter gyms in Pattaya. This could the death of a kind of Muay Thai – I hope that is not the case.
While PTT is something of a first champion of the gym – he’s the oldest of all the boys and the biggest name in the sport world of Thailand. And at this moment in Petchrungruang’s history, he may also be among the last. I watched this incredible fight with the gym’s future in the balance, Pi Nu probably still not decided which way he is going to go, and I cried. I also cried because there are parts of me that are like PTT. My style is growing toward his, not out of intention, but maybe because he’s a precedent. The gym has seen what he is, how he grew, how all these “flaws” can repeat enough to become a rhythm and a style: slow, simple, relentless. Watching this finale with Diesellek and PTT, I saw a more complete version of my style – a better version of me. Like a little kid who has been told she’s ugly watching a superhero in beautiful glory, looking like her… it means something. It does something. PTT went through his “ugly duckling” phase without a PTT to look up to; so I’m incredibly grateful to have a PTT to watch, train alongside, and aspire to. And a trainer who is practiced in believing I can do it, too. It’s enough to make me cry.