October 4th, 2014 – Yang Sisurat, Isaan
This fight is dedicated to my GoFundMe sponsor and long-time supporter/ fellow female fighter Pixi Pickthall (and her husband Josh). Thank you!
(Full Video Above)
This was my second fight up in the Buriram province of Isaan with the Giatbundit Gym. This time around we arrived the afternoon of the day before the fight and just settled into the space without much ado at all. When I first arrived Boom said very calmly, to Frances as she and were talking, that I was to weigh in the next morning at 46 kg. I just laughed because nobody said anything to me about checking weight. I can make 46 kg without difficulty, but not really overnight. That would require running laps around the lake with a garbage bag under my shirt for quite a long time. I just said, “Well, I’m not at 46,” and Frances just smiled and said she’d talk to Pi Dit, the owner of the gym who sets up my fights.
So I had this weird thing looming over my head, even though I knew that I didn’t actually have to make weight and that I could weigh in at literally anything and there would be no problem. But I just felt suddenly unprepared, even though the better assessment is un-informed. These are exactly the kinds of things that pop up when fighting in Thailand, anything can change, and they are the kind of things that I’ve become very experienced in, but this one tugged on me more than it should have. I hate not being what is promised (if my camp says I’m “x” I want to be “x”), especially when others are promising on my behalf. I avoided salt and sugar that night and was ready to wake up and run around the lake a bit if I needed to weigh in. When I stopped by Giatbundit Gym that same evening just to say hello to everyone the very first thing Pi Dit did was have me get on the scale. 48 kg. It became a little topic of conversation, not something I entirely followed in Thai. But my opponent wasn’t 46 kg either and it seemed that with no weight cut at all she’d still probably be a kilo or more bigger than I am. As with many of these things in Thailand, as quickly as problems come they also disappear. It turns out the next morning Pi Dit got home late from the fights of the previous night and just cancelled the weigh-in all together, as it was part of a booking misunderstanding. I had already weighed in at 48 kg publicly on my last visit. I was known as a walk-around 48 kg fighter now, no need to check weight.
Actually getting to the fights was a pretty awesome experience. It’s not uncommon to only have a general idea of where a fight is and asking folks on the street is how you get a more exact idea. We knew that fights were at “the high school” in a district called Yang Sisurat – where Saenchai is from, Frances tells us, and also of Wung my former trainer at Lanna – which is about a 45 minute drive from our apartment or the gym. Happily we got The Fight Doctor, and gym Matriarch Tanyarat to ride with Kevin, Frances and me in our rental car, so we at least had someone who knew in general where we were going. The roads were long, dark and mostly empty, full of bends but not a lot of turns. Frances and The Doctor chatted in Thai in the backseat and occasionally I’d hear the Doctor repeating hak noi, to Frances or into the phone to Pi Dit. That’s me: I’m hak noi, my fight name (Dahaknoi) which means “Little Hulk” and in Isaan dialect “Little Love” or “cute,” kinda. Apparently this name has stuck with me at the gym and that’s how they refer to me. I love this. It hasn’t quite stuck as my fight name yet, but it will – I have faith.
We first mistakenly pulled into a school that was having some kind of event that at first seemed very much like a Muay Thai fight. There was music, people milling about in the dark over the grass, heading towards a lit center, but it turned out to be the elementary school and some kind of dance, and we had to go back out and ask someone for the location of the high school. As we were exiting the elementary school we saw a few trucks with kids in the beds looking like fighters – it seems many were fooled like we were. Frances and I thought we should follow them. We didn’t, but when we did ask for directions a few minutes later it turned out we should have. The epi-centers of these fights in small towns are amazing. The towns at night can be incredibly silent, like ghost towns, almost completely devoid of people except near convenience stores or late food carts. When you find your way to a Muay Thai fight they are like a sudden oasis of lights and colors, like fires burning in silence. The school’s athletic fields worked as a parking lot and the food stalls and music on the far side from where we parked indicated where the fights were being held. We crossed the 200 meters or so and met up with Pi Dit and the truck load of boys he’d hauled out. There were a few other boys from the Giatbundit gym on the card. The venue itself was the Hall of the school, like an auditorium for plays and meetings and stuff like that, perhaps. It was mostly empty when we first arrived, just the ring in the back and a few mats laid out on the floor with fighters and their entourages hanging around. The acoustics were amazing as the live music blared through the speakers and bounced off the endless concrete surfaces and the tin roof like a drum. The sides of the hall were all sliding sheet metal doors, like for garages and shops, and they were all pulled closed since admission was being charged at the door. It was so hot in there. I grabbed a program and saw that I was the 9th fight, so I had a few hours before I started.
My opponent’s name had been handwritten in before the program was copied, different from the rest of the type-faced Thai, so I guessed that there had been a last-minute change. I went back to the mats and settled in. The boys were all already spread out on the Giatbundit mats, so we placed our bags to the side and tried to find a high hook or edge on which to hang my Mongkol, but there wasn’t any. I saw that one Monkol was hanging on a door handle, but I’ve never seen two Mongkol hung together so I didn’t think I could put mine there also. I asked Pi Dam for help – he’s the man who cornered for me at my last fight in Buriram and he’s Frances’ trainer; he’s awesome and reminds me a lot of Wung from Lanna – a kind of endless joker, “drunken master” and a living embodiment of country Muay Thai. I really like Pi Dam and was happy to have him in my corner again. He walked around with my Mongkol for a while before finally re-emerging with a plastic string that he used to tie the Mongkol up on a curtain. Clever.
A lot of times being the only westerner (falang) at a fight means a lot of uninvited attention. I got looked at and pointed at a bit when we first arrived, but neither me, nor Kevin, Frances or Seamus (from Giatbundit Gym) were really gawked at at all. It was nice. I would catch a guy standing on a step-ladder taking photos of me at a distance with his phone when I got my arms oiled up, but that would be about it in terms of the gamblers sizing me up or the crowd paying me any mind, really.
About maybe 30 minutes before my fight I came back from the restroom and Kevin indicated that someone had been looking for me. Pi Dam grabbed me and pulled me over to this young woman who was quite a bit taller than I am, a tom in appearance and smiling very nicely at me – toms are tomboy in look, fairly common as female Muay Thai fighters, a masculine lesbian who pairs with a “dee” (femme) in identification. Her hands were already wrapped. She was my opponent. Pi Dam gave me the ao mai question, which is basically “do you want?” in reference to whether or not you agree to a fight. “No problem,” I told him. I liked her haircut as it had this kind of fashionable rat-tail length in the back but was otherwise a short cut. It looked cool. Her smile was genuine and ran wide, as did her very square teeth. She leaned on things and carried herself with a lot of confidence and level of cool masculinity that was appealing. Her height, however, threw me a bit. Those tall, gangly types can get real elbow-happy. I had another fight in two days. Elbow cuts would derail my fight rate and I hate sitting out. Hate it.
Turned out she was a last-minute replacement. I reckoned later on that they maybe had asked for a weigh-in out of nowhere as a way to get us to meet before the fight and agree to it. According to Frances nobody at Giatbundit knew that this woman was replacing the opponent that had been agreed upon prior. There’s no way she would have made 46 kg. though – she’s just too big to drop that low – so I’m not sure when the switch happened. She seemed familiar with Pi Dit, but I was a little spooked by the whole thing because Frances told me the gym was pissed about the switch (probably for gambling purposes and not being given the respect of a heads-up by the promoter), but it somehow got into my head that she was a ringer. I knew in my heart that it didn’t matter – I can and do fight anyone at pretty much any size and I need to do much the same things against any opponent. Though, when things like this happen in Thailand there is an odd moment of not knowing where your support is, or even where motivations are. I kept getting this feeling in Chiang Mai as my opponents continued growing in size, sometimes at the last minute, until I finally fought a 60 kg girl without either me or my corner knowing about it until she was in the ring with me. It just feels like nobody is looking out for you. If my corner had said, “Sylvie, you’re fighting a giant but we believe you can beat her,” that’s one thing – there’s intention in it. But the “we’re just as surprised as you are and can’t lose face by walking out,” I got back then is a different feeling. The truth is that even if you have a great relationship with your camp, your own camp can be working or be caught up in a complicated angle involving ties you have no clue about, and the sudden appearance of this girl felt similar to things I’ve experienced in the past. It’s when your alerts all need to go up. It created an additional mental challenge to the fight. Along with this healthy sense of paranoia one simply has to have in Thailand, this was also a fight that I really wanted to win in a definitive way. It was the second time Pi Dit will have seen me fight, and bet on me. It was important to convince him of my value as a money earning asset – this is what will get me fights in Isaan – and a lot was probably going to be judged from this fight. I’m really not an easy fighter to read. In the gym I look like a rockstar on the pads, really popping eyes, but in fights I look different than people anticipate from expectations grown in the gym. They expect a fixed combination femur-like fighter, kind of a strong kickboxer, but instead they get a tiny clinch-fighting powerhouse who is unpolished at distance, but destroys opponents with knees (over 30 KOs at this point). It can take several fights before even experienced Thais figure out just what they have in me. Aside from the desire to demonstrate my value to Pit Dit, and the change in my opponent, an additional element of concern was that if I indeed got cut with an elbow from that very confident and tall opponent it would mean having to miss fights this month while it healed, something I can’t afford in terms of time. I don’t mind elbows at all when they are flying, but 10 days minimum out of my training and fighting schedule is a real pain, especially when I’m fighting in Chonburi in two days time. Ultimately, I think that’s what I ended up being most on about, making this assumption about elbows because of her height, and it got into my head. This is definitely something I need to work on because it affected the way I fought. I’ve made huge strides in my mental game, but every fight presents new things to deal with.
Pi Dam wrapped my hands and gave me a top-notch pre-fight massage. He is meticulous in both his wrapping and in his massage, which is different from any other pre-fight massage I’ve ever had because he actually finds lines in my muscles and follows them, making the whole limb light up with warmth and kind of a weird electric feeling. He takes very good care of me – he’s a great corner. And he respects how I fight, so he’s telling me to get in there and throw knees from the opening bell. No “take it easy” in the early rounds to work on the odds or be aesthetic. Just go in and do damage. He’s awesome. And it certainly feeds my confidence to have my corner calmly telling me to get closer and do what I’m good at, rather than freaking out about why I’m not doing something that I simply never do.
When my opponent and I were both in the ring they had us stand in the middle and greet the head honchos, who get into the ring and put garlands around each fighter and then take some photos. My opponent leaned over and said something to me that I didn’t understand but was pretty much, “and then there’s all this nonsense” in tone. It was funny; I liked her. And the live band played some kickass Muay Thai music. I wish I could have recorded it in high quality (I got a clip of it) but the announcer would have been talking about the specific fights over it. One of the head honchos said to me as I was bowing my head to have the garland placed over it, “are you falang or Thai?” in Thai. He was joking, of course, but it was in reference to the fact that I wore a Mongkol and knew the ceremonies. I think he was surprised that I wasn’t completely lost in the whole ordeal. Not my first rodeo, as they say, but maybe one of only a very few times he’s gone through this with a falang woman fighter.
I was terrible in the first rounds. I haven’t watched the fight video yet, but my actual experience and memory of it was that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I pushed my opponent and it worked well, but I didn’t follow up with any strikes. I stayed too far away and she landed a couple body strikes that knocked the wind out of me, which caused me to stay back rather than going in closer, which is actually a safer option – closer is safer than just hanging out in her striking range. She was southpaw, too. I registered this immediately but didn’t really adjust anything accordingly. I circled in the wrong direction and didn’t block for shit on my right side. That might have unconsciously been because my right shin is already dinged from my fight a few days ago, but that’s no excuse. I should have blocked better. So I was frustrated with myself for hanging on the fence and getting tagged, which made me hang back more. Uuuurrrrrrggggh, Sylvie!
Pi Dam emphatically told me to just block and go knee between rounds. So I bit down and worked toward that. I started controlling her in the second round in the clinch and it felt good. I got her head bent down and kneed her face once, which freaked her out a bit and she came out with the teeps more. I blocked with my arms and shriveled like a jackass but finally started draining her, quite quickly, in round 3. Once I got the double neck and started yanking on her, I landed some good sharp knees into her stomach and chest and she went down. I didn’t see it but Kevin said a head honcho guy near the ring went nuts – he must have had money on me and no doubt the shifting odds were pretty steep given our size discrepancy and how shitty I looked in the first rounds. The audience was super excited, cheering and giving me lots of high-fives and smiles when I got out of the ring. My corner was very happy, too. Man, I must have had them scared with my first round! (Update: I watched the video since writing this and it’s not as bad as it felt. But definitely need to work on all the things that felt bad, because I don’t want to feel like that in a fight again.)
The show was going to continue for quite some time after my fight. The main event had already fought but there are little kids fights late into the night, where I imagine gamblers can stay on and try to win their money back if they’re behind after the big fights finish. Gamblers love kids fights. I think it’s an “anything can happen” kind of deal. But we had a long drive ahead of us the next day so Kevin and I made sure that Frances and Tanyarat had a way home and then headed back to the apartment after my fight. I loved walking out and seeing more fighters getting ready, the bare-bulb lighted food stalls anticipating the cravings of the audience as the stadium slowly emptied as the fights went on. (At this point the garage doors on the sides of the hall had been opened and a nice cool breath of air was sucked into the room like one giant lung.) The fights get farther away from you, the noise dimming, as you walk into the dark yard of cars, just hoping you’re not totally hemmed in. I’m amazed at the fact that Muay Thai is so much a part of Thai nationalism and culture – there are fights everywhere in the country on pretty much every day of the year – and yet most fight events are a close to a “fight club” as you can imagine. “Where are the fights tonight?” At a high school assembly hall; in a field; outside the town hall; in a parking lot near the night market. It’s word of mouth and it’s posters on the sides of trucks that cruise around town. Fucking amazing.
On our way out we passed by a table just on the outermost ring of vendors. My opponent was sitting across from a guy who I reckon cornered for her, each of them sipping on a Singha can of beer. We smiled at each other and she asked me if I was going home. I nodded and told her chok dee na (“good luck”) and she smiled that broad smile again and in a raspy voice bid me a safe trip back home. Kevin swears he heard her make a kissing sound to me – he was walking ahead and actually thought someone had kissed me – but I didn’t hear it. In either case we walked into the darkness of the lot and I thought about how I’d fought so well a few days ago and lost, then so poorly today and won. There’s a lesson in there. But the only way is forward. I have another fight in two days and that’s where my mind already was – after the fight is before the fight. Onward.