You can read more about my trip to Isaan to fight in my post: Fighting in Isaan, a Trip to the Heart of Muay Thai
First a few photos of events leading up to the fight. You can visit the post linked above for a little more context, but these events are part of the record of this great experience so I put them here as well. The fight, this wonderful experience, was much more than what happened in the ring.
The Weigh In
The time for weigh in changed from the morning of the fight to the morning the day before the fight. I’d made weight the night before and nibbled on some dinner – which disturbed Neung greatly. First off, Thais love food and eating is a great joy, so knowing that I had already reached my weight and could eat and then repeat the process again the next morning in order to enjoy dinner now was how Neung saw the method, whereas I wanted to just sit at the weight and not have to drop back down the next day. I was at 45 kg on the scale I’d purchased for this trip the next morning and when we went to weigh in my opponent and I stood face to face for the first time. We had been told she was very tall and given a number in centimeters, but I don’t understand those measurements quite so well and when I finally saw her she didn’t seem nearly as tall as she truly was.
This video was after lots of pictures being taken with my opponent and I around the local government official who was presiding over the fight event. After some milling around we got organized and a digital bathroom scale was brought out and we all gathered around it. Some men stepped on and off the scale to test it – as if these large government folk and promoters know what they normally weigh – and then the fighters were directed onto it. Nong Mai weighed in first and the digits moved around a bit before blinking and settling at 45.5 kg. There was a hush when the number was announced and I was ordered onto the scale after allowing the numbers to settle back at zero. I stepped on and watched the numbers blip around before settling again at 45.5 kg. The number was called out and everyone applauded. Then we weighed in again to double check the number and when we were each again exactly 45.5 kg the applause once again erupted, presumably because neither of us would have to go through the effort or losing face of having to skip or run that extra half kilo off while our opponent looked on.
The Pre-Fight Promo Parade
I knew there was going to a parade, but that word means a lot of different things in my mind. When I’d heard we were weighing in prior to the event I was quite happy because the thought of standing on a float in the heat while making weight sounded awful. I had not expected – although perhaps I should have – that the parade would be only my opponent and myself atop a truck that slowly crept through the main streets of the town with a recorded announcement of the fight blaring through the speakers. When the music that acted as a bridge between the repeated announcements played the whole metal floor beneath our bare feet vibrated and shook. Just prior to the truck taking off on route through town Nong Mai and I had been taken to a bridal store and beauty salon where we got our hair done (her’s in a traditional Thai knot on top of her head and mine in a kind of Prom appropriate half-up ‘do) and a full face of makeup.
It felt quite strange because I don’t perform or experience my femininity this way and I definitely don’t couple this kind of appearance with how I think of myself doing Muay Thai, but the experience had an exotic distance to it that was actually quite enjoyable.
Pre-Fight Photos – The Embrace
Thai Grandma Told Me I’m Beautiful
Two Thai Girls
Before the fights started I was guided over to an area under some scaffolding on the side of a large stage on which we would make our official entrances. Neung stayed close to me and told me when to shadowbox or when to sit down, keeping an eye on everything that was going on and performing a very professional coach role. There were people everywhere around me – children climbing and dangling from the scaffolding, gamblers eying me from a short distance and little children standing literally a foot away from me, staring like I was a movie screen. When I stopped shadowboxing people would approach me one or two at a time to take photos with me. I happily obliged everyone who came up, from folks working the event to gamblers, to policemen in uniform and little children and grandmas. One gambler looked me up and down and then handed me 100 Baht – before the fight.
Just a few minutes before lining up under the stage to make my entrance Andy told me that my opponent was going to use elbows, judging from the way her corner was talking to her. (He understands much more Thai than he ever lets on.) I knew she was going to try to kick my head given her length and height advantage, so keeping my hands up was already the main thought in my mind, but getting in and doing damage on the inside was the main obstacle no matter what her approach.
Our entrance was quite a show. We climbed up a latter to appear center-stage at the back of a large platform, side-by-side with a little boy wearing Thai shorts, vest, gloves and mongkon. We were to go to one X, pause, move to the next one and shadowbox, then move to the last one and bow to each other (the child and the fighter) and then the fighter would move to the ring while the kid threw punches and knees into a camera that followed them off the stage. I had to walk halfway around the ring to get to my corner and the gravel made my walk somewhat cumbersome under my bare feet as I tried to hurry over.
I’d been told to do my Wai Khru “quick quick” by the guy with the sunglasses and walkie-talkie under the stage, so after my opponent and I received jasmine garlands from the local government official at the center of the stage and got our gloves checked by the ref we began a very fast sealing of the ring. I’d been told to take the first round “easy” by my trainers and one of the TV program directors (but to press the rest of the fight), but if I had to do it over I would have used the rushed feeling from getting into the ring and doing the Ram Muay to start the fight off in the same energy. I loved being able to perform Master K’s Ram Muay even if it didn’t get broadcast on TV in Thailand though and the crowd really liked when I did the hunter’s stalking at the end of it.
The fight was scheduled to begin at 2:00 PM, although we ended up actually getting into the ring closer to 3:00. It’s much hotter in Isaan than it is up north in Chiang Mai and I was grateful to see a high canopy over the ring, offering some shade. But truly, I didn’t feel the heat in an unpleasant way at all and fighting in the daytime felt quite different from fighting at night as I normally do. I train in the daytime every day, usually beginning my afternoon sessions right at around 3:00, so my body felt quite comfortable up in the shade, the bright sunlight all around, lighting up the countless faces that surrounded the ring. I could also feel the crowd in a way that I often don’t in fights in Chiang Mai – maybe because they were so much more enthusiastic and attuned to what was happening in the fight, but also because they weren’t drunken 20-year-old western boys, but rather local Thais who were out in the sun to see an event, cheer on their local girl and maybe take a chance on the farang. There are very few farang fighters out in these parts, so I was quite a spectacle as a woman and a westerner. This TV program doesn’t feature female fights very often and the excitement of our otherness was felt, strongly, by all.
The crowd behind Nong Mai’s corner cheered her every move and her straight knees when we locked up in the clinch were beautiful, even if not strong or, on my end, effective. I could feel myself not doing anything I wanted to do and I could hear my corner yelling for me to do all the things I should do, but despite the frustration I felt surprisingly at ease. Really unhappy that I wasn’t performing as I’d like to or how I believe I can, but definitely riding the thrill of being in that fight.
This fight was frustrating and almost entirely from my end. It’s not easy for me to watch and the experience this kind of struggle to just do something, but that’s my struggle right now – to just let go and let my training flow through me rather than clamping down and wanting to carve out a clean, pretty fight. But it taught me some good things in exactly that vein, that I will be a happier and better fighter by allowing my performance to be ugly, allowing my mistakes to be punished and my efforts to be efforts even if not effective. And I hesitate to write these things because they’re the failing parts of what I’m trying to become and I don’t like highlighting them or opening the door for everyone else’s opinion on them, but I am absolutely adamant in sharing every part of learning Muay Thai, not just the easy parts or the successes or the wins. After the fight I apologized to Neung and he responded with complete sincerity and warmth mai bpen rai – “it is nothing.” It’s a common phrase and it was genuinely meant, but what I learned from his (and all my Thai trainers) truly casual attitude about this loss is that it’s not the frustrations and the disappointments and the desire to improve these things that is nothing – all that is real and it drives me forward – but feeling bad about it afterwards is literally nothing. You step out of the ring and you work to improve the things you can improve and everything else.
The Warm Reception by Thai Girls After the Fight
Some Video of the Girls after it Slowed Down
When I stepped out of the ring I was greeted very warmly by Khun Jaru, who is a head honcho over at channel 11 Muay Dee Wi Tee Thai, the program that promoted and aired this event. He gave me a hug and when I told him I was sorry I didn’t do better he told me I was very good and not to worry. A few men came up to me and gave me thumbs up, one of them taking a picture with me in front of the big red carpet leading up to the high ranking officials with the royal seats under a separate stage. Nong Mai and I walked up the long red carpet and bowed to the feet of the officials (you can see it at the end of the 5th round video we shot below). I followed her lead on a couple of movements but generally felt very comfortable and sure of the process as we progressed in bows toward the men. One of them was her father and she crawled over to him and he put his hand on her head in a loving and very proud way as I bowed again and walked back down the deck to gather my shoes.
We walked back over under the scaffolding on the side of the stage and put our things down. Neung and Andy removed my gloves and a group of girls gathered across the table behind which I was standing and I posed for a few cell phone snapshots with my hands up while Neung pulled at some of the layers of tape over my wraps. After a few moments of that though he pulled me away from the table and over to an empty area a few feet away and basically took a few steps back to allow the swarm of girls to gather around me and start rotating in and out – all around me – to take pictures of each other. I kept my hands up in a fight pose and smiled bit, my left hand quaking now and then from the glove being tied a bit tight on that side during the fight, and tried to move my eyes between all the cameras and find the right one when a new girl would take position right beside me. I’ve had girls come up to me after fights in Chiang Mai to take pictures but never like this – never like I was the damn Beatles or something. It was really amazing, just an absolutely bizarre and beautiful embrace to fall into after a frustrating performance. It basically threw me into cold water to shock me out of feeling sorry for or angry at myself because this was what everyone else felt about what just happened. I swear it was all and all more than 100 young women and little girls, grandmas and a few teen boys and even some older men swarming around me, everyone wanting a photo.
One young teen – maybe 14 years old – took endless pictures on her cell phone as friends moved in and out from beside me and she kept trying to trade out to get her picture taken with me too but then another girl would tell her to stay so that she could snap a picture of the other. Finally I waved her over, forcing the exchange and asked her in Thai which camera to look at and she pointed to her phone, which had been handed over to a girl on the other side of the crowd. We both looked over, me with my hands up in a fight pose and her with a peace sign touching her face. I wish I had that photo. The reception and excitement from young women – from girls – about this female fight and me as a female fighter and foreigner was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, anywhere. If Wolverine’s adamantium-filled bones were a real thing, this would be my injection of it.
It must have been 10-15 minutes of non-stop buzzing of girls around me before it slowed down and we could get my wraps off. Even as they came off in sections some people would emerge for a photo and we’d stop for a moment, take the snap and then resume removing the wraps. One older man came up to me, wearing a bright pink Hawaiian button down, and asked me about my black eye. I told him I’d had it before, from training and he nodded approvingly. Then he started telling me I should use elbows and I nodded strongly, demonstrating a few in the air which pleased him greatly and then I said, in Thai, “next time.” He gave me a big smile and patted my shoulder, making a surprised face and looking around as he squeezed my bicep and then repeated my words, krang naa.
The Whole Fight
The broadcast version of the fight (above)
A held-held HD ringside version of the fight with after footage (below)
Click “More” above and then “Zoom” or Go to my Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu – Muay Thai Map to view in a larger map