This night of fights was held in benefit of Khem, a former Lanna champion who a year ago suffered waist-down paralysis in a motorcycle accident. We are all trying to help Khem and his family recover financially and Thapae Stadium with Muay Siam magazine set up this night as a charity event for them. You can read more about Khem and our efforts to help him here: Help Khem Recover from Paralysis, and here in my original introduction on him: Khem Lanna Muay Thai. Through generosity from people around the world who have met Khem or are part of the Lanna family at large we have reached our goal of raising 100,000 Baht. However, because Khem’s medical and physiotherapy bills far exceed this goal and are in the realm of 450,000 Baht, we will continue to raise as much as we can until the sum is presented to Khem and his family at the end of next month. If you’d like to be a part of it, no matter how small a donation is appreciated and makes a difference.
Khem touching gloves with me after I came out of the ring.
My opponent Cherry Gor. Towin Gym is a champion at 49 kg
The truck was surprisingly less packed-full than I’d anticipated on the way down to Thapae. It was full, to be sure, but we rode comfortably and piled out at the corner inside the moat, on the sidewalk wordlessly organizing the bags and mats and various accessories we always have with us for the corner and the warm-up area. We stood outside for a short while, kind of globbed together and waiting for Daeng to park the truck, but soon enough Tor took the lead and we filed down the long and narrow corridor to the entrance of the stadium. Once inside I could see immediately that the whole venue was choked with people – in a wonderful way. It was loud and bustling, dark around the rim which is lined with bars, and brightly lit in the middle where the ring stands, elevated above everything. As we snaked slowly through the crowd which was both standing and seated at tables and benches, it got hotter and more tightly packed with bodies. A few Thai men here and there would give me strong once-over as I passed, always letting their eyes run the length of me before arriving back at my face and giving me a big smile and thumbs-up. Apparently I’m super recognizable from the giant poster out front.
Just before reaching the back we passed by Khem. He looked very handsome, dressed all in white and his smile covering the width of his face. Maybe 20 feet beyond and around a sharp corner we set the mats down. I was, once again, warming up right next to my opponent. She looked good. Experienced and calm and good.
There wasn’t much walking around to be done, nor really anywhere to walk with it so crowded. I found a program and saw that I was fight number 7, Big was number 8. So I sat down and got comfortable, watching the first fight of the night through the gaps between shoulders of standing Thais. A line of men and women sat like birds on a wire along the benches that line the warm-up area, looking at the ring and then at me, then letting their gaze run over the whole audience and then back to the ring again.
Daeng wanted to wrap my hands straight away, despite my fight being some time off. This seemed to me to suggest that there was an uncertainty about time. There is a kind of tempo that happens before fights that is unpredictable; things can suddenly get very rushed after lots of waiting around if there are knockouts or if the production is moving very fast, or they can slowly just evolve at an even pace. All you can do is try to get a sense of it and time yourself. But I noted they were not rushing to get Big ready at all and since his fight was directly after mine I knew it was likely more a matter of covering bases rather than actual time constraint. It was an easy pace. Daeng wrapped my right hand while little Neung wrapped my left. Having different people wrap each hand is common for me, but it produces different fists, so to speak. When your hand wraps are done early you have to really keep an eye on it. Something that was only just a little bit tight when completed can start to really constrict 45 minutes later. I peeled away a few under-layers of tape from my thumb when I discovered it was too tight and my appendage was already hinting at turning strange colors. It was easily solved. My oil massage also felt “early” too but not rushed. After my massage I was ready. I mostly sat, but sometimes I would stand with the others. A stream of women flowed through my periphery and many of them I recognized from the gym – some Thai who train after regular morning session and some westerners who were at my last training session – all of whom enthusiastically cheered me on before the fight. The whole venue was just full of this energy, all packed in like a flock or herd moving together as one. Our mats were laid out at the very back of the stadium right outside a restaurant nook that was furiously cooking orders, many of which included peppers which would burn on the hot oil and an acrid smoke would choke the air, combining delicious aromas with unbreathable air… it was so Thailand.
A large group of extended Lanna family circled and buzzed around the warm-up area. Khem had come over with his mother and all these young Thai men who had once been “Lanna Boys” flitted around, joking with each other and grinning at Khem, wai-ing to the various trainers and Pom, as well as Andy when he appeared for a short time.
Finally I had to wade through the crowd to the opposite side of the stadium to have my gloves put on. There’s a separate little booth for this, just to the side of the live musicians providing the rhythms for the fighters in the ring and just in front of the announcer with his narrow podium and microphone. The booth is about chest-high for folks of average height (to my chin) and two sides of it are lined with wide white-boards that display a grid of upcoming fighters. It feels like a bookie’s corner and it’s amazing. Super Jack (who used to fight for Lanna but now just comes by to spar or hold pads when he feels like it) and little Neung fitted my gloves, tied the laces with white-knuckle tension and then taped over the knots with packing tape. The announcer handed Super Jack the document that must be filled out with my name and last three opponents. Little Neung happily told Super Jack that I could fill it out myself, he is very proud of my ability to read and write Thai, but I had to protest by showing him my bulbous red fists, totally unable to work a pen. Super Jack nodded and grabbed a program to figure out how to spell my name – I reckon sticking with the same crazy spelling each time is as good an option as just winging it.
Back at our mat I began shadowboxing and stretching out my very sore hip. I’d damaged it a few days prior to the fight and wasn’t sure how well it would hold out in the ring. I’d been able to kick pads with it but it would lock up in the middle of each round (which, fair enough, in training is twice as long as an actual fight round, so I might make it through). So I asked Den to have whoever was in my corner stretch my hip out by pressing my knee into my chest. Den knew about the issue and showed little Neung how to do it. Then, over the next 20 minutes before entering the ring my cornermen changed about a half-dozen times. Apparently in more “professional” events the corner cannot be wearing short pants, which most of the boys were. Eventually it landed to Tor and Taywin to jump in the ring with me. Tor remembered to stretch my hip in maybe the fourth round, but it wasn’t necessary. The body does amazing things in times of pressure.
above, my reaction to the fight just minutes after coming out of the ring.
Climbing into the ring I felt pretty confident. The room was jittery with energies from the western and Thai crowd, the gamblers pressing forward even though the table-seated westerners were up front. Looking across the ring at my opponent the first thing I noticed was how she looked bigger than I’d expected, even though I’d stood next to her for a photo not 20 minutes prior to this. I also noted how pretty she is. Her face was soft and beautiful, a placid expression drawing out all the smoothness in it. Her Ram Muay was well-practiced and against the occasional shouts in English that I heard throughout the room (brilliant critique like, “USA! USA!”) I was very aware of our proximity to each other as I kneeled down to begin my Wai Khru and she continued circling. There’s a waiting game involved in performing the Ram Muay. If it’s a pissing contest you wait for your opponent to kneel first – she did this, which is a sign of her confidence, experience and aggression. She also timed her circles so that my head would be down on the mat in my deep wai position right as her feet passed my head, circling so close to me she might have touched my gloves. What a jerk, I thought – a clever, performance aware jerk.
In the first round I remember being backed into the ropes and seeing/feeling Cherry follow me quickly, using her jab hand to find distance and get ready to start punching with her right. What a great f*cking fighter! I recall thinking in that moment. She was so deliberate in it, so practiced and calm. Against a different fighter she might have gotten a beautiful knock out from that, but for whatever reason she didn’t get correctly cued up and, while I do believe she punched a few times – maybe including a body punch as the final right – she didn’t ultimately execute what she’d set up. Still, that was a beautiful moment early on that allowed me to realize what I was up against, in a moment of admiration no less. But it also gave me confidence because I know I can handle this; I’ve trained under pressure more and more and I know I’ll just get stronger against it.
In round 2 she came in stronger than I did, but I felt like I started to pick up as the round went on. She kneed me more than I’ve probably been kneed before but lacked the kind of angles and power that would be necessary to match what my trainers do to me on a fairly regular basis. It definitely had an impact in terms of taking energy, but my resources are pretty well stocked in that area. I never felt drained, just somewhat reduced and that probably had a lot to do with my own breathing as well. Not that you can’t dictate an opponent’s breathing by what you’re doing, I’m just saying it’s something I will focus more on and grow from. Her corner was very slippery – like a slip ‘n’ slide in a 3×3 square – so when she would press me over there I didn’t have the gumption to keep thrashing around with knees and clinch whereas she somehow managed to maintain very good secure footing atop the slick canvas. Kudos to her. But I started landing knees over hers and when she tried to block with her shins – something I’ve been working on for a long time but is really starting to come around naturally, without thinking about it. That definitely helped me pull farther up in this round. When the ref pulls us apart from the clinch he doesn’t face me and a few time she has to physically turn her by the shoulders – that’s not good. I think that demonstrated to the judges that she was more affected than she wanted to let on. You gotta watch that stuff; it’s habitual – you train it when you don’t mean to.
Round 3 we start out in the corner closest to the camera and you can see that I’m locking my hands and she isn’t, which was allowing me more control even though she’s bigger. I wasn’t using that control as best I could (I really need to learn how to turn), but it was actively preventing her from capitalizing on otherwise good positions. When I do turn her and get her down on the mat (after being put down a few times myself earlier) the crowd went nuts. The first round was definitely hers, the second was closer but she was still very strong in it and by the third round I’m still the underdog. Taywin told me afterwards I was the 4:1 underdog, meaning if you bet 100 Baht on me and I won you’d get 400 Baht on that investment. An older Thai man who had done exactly that came up afterwards and thanked Pom, thrilled by his little fold of bills. But round 3 was going back and forth. She got some strings of knees in and then I dropped her for an 8 count, which gave me the round and probably the fight. Wish I’d run and done a flying something right after that – just enough time before the round ended. Next time.
At the start of round 4 she conveniently takes forever and a half to come out of her corner while her trainers pat around their pockets for her mouthpiece. It happens, I’m just unconvinced it was accidental on this particular occasion – I’ve seen experienced Thai coaches take every single advantage they can. It doesn’t matter though. You don’t gain that much by 5-10 extra seconds during a fight, you gain a lot by pushing 5-10 extra seconds all the time in training. That stuff adds up. I tried to punch her body because she was gassing, but I failed to step forward enough on any of the punches. I do land a pretty nice right to her face early on though. The next step is following up on those. She has a really nice walk-to-kick pattern on her right leg that I’m going to steal. It’s so relaxed and covers distance nicely. She didn’t get to throw it a lot because I was aiming to be inside at all times, since that’s the fight for me, but when she gets to do it it’s really beautiful. At about 2:10 I get her head down in the clinch and land a knee to her face right in front of one of the judges. I was happy he got a close-up of that shot because you can’t see it from the camera’s side. But you can see her reaction when we’re broken. She is pissed. When we were clinching in front of another judge and kind of strangling each other without many knees going, I looked down and saw the judge looking right at my face, like he was judging whether or not I was affected by anything going on. I love how the judges watch that kind of thing.
By round 5 she had an uphill climb to win this fight because of the 8 count and the now-black mark on her face from my knee. I wasn’t positive that I’d win by just hanging back and dancing through the 5th, as sometimes one can do, so I knew I also had to fight through this last round to secure the win. Den and Daeng’s advice and urgency in the corner corroborated my feelings in that vein. My opponent was tired – I had felt my knees catching up to her in the round prior, where she would not return with her own knees while just holding on because she didn’t have the gas to throw back. I felt it too. At the start of rounds 4 and 5 my arms felt incredibly heavy and my mind was tricking me into thinking I was tired even though my body would still go – it’s why I was only throwing one or two knees at a time rather than flooring it and overwhelming her. This fight could have ended sooner if I just believed in a 30 second rush to throw all I had with knees, the way I do against Daeng in practice. But, again, that’s something you have to train yourself to be able to do when it feels impossible. Otherwise you mistake the feeling of impossible for reality, which it’s not.
She went for broke. At about 0:56 she throws this beautiful lead elbow. I remember thinking to myself in the fight, “I can do that. I can do that better.” But then I just stand there instead of throwing it – the set up that never goes. Work on that. She started throwing lots of elbows, some landing, one breaking my nose. (You can see it come up from inside my clinch, a perfect upward and to-the-side left elbow across my face at about 1:04.) And she almost takes the fight – she just keeps going with strikes, elbows, knees, almost setting up for punches and then not going for it, maybe due to fatigue. I’m stuck because I’m slipping on that damn canvas but she foolishly lets me out and loses her window because we get broken when we go back to that corner. Once we’re out, I take her back. At 2:17 she puts her glove out for me to tap it – if I accept it means we just dance out the rest of the round because the fight is finished on the score cards. I’ve never seen the losing fighter offer this, so I assume she’s trying to get me to concede, which I don’t think is an appropriate assessment of the fight. So I don’t accept. Maybe I’m wrong and a fighter can initiate the glove-tap contract of concession from the losing position – I don’t know – but you can see from her body language as she crosses the ring after the fight that she is certain of her loss. She even gets on all fours and waits by the bottom rope to exit before the decision is even read. I wasn’t 100% certain I’d won but I put my hands up because I believed in my efforts, believed I could have won and had done enough. Maybe the greatest indicator is how each of us felt after the fight – I could have gone a few more rounds.
After the Fight
Upon climbing out of the ring and wading through the crowd back to the warm-up area, I was encountered by dozens of fist-bumps and thumbs-up from Thai men with huge smiles. A few Thai women in impressively comfortable English gave me applause and “good job, Sylvie!” (or something close to my name) – some of these women are part of the crew that come and take over the gym in late morning after our regular training. There are maybe 10 of them all together and they invade the space with such confidence and composure, even though I’ve only really seen them stretching and maybe once or twice getting in the ring for padwork with Den and Daeng, but I adore them. Women just overtaking that space is amazing.
When I got back to the warm-up area Khem’s mother gave me a huge smile and thumbs up and told me I had great heart. I waied to her and to Khem, who also pounded his fist against his own heart and told me, in English, “good heart!” A few more Thais told me this, then a few westerners said the same, each individually but each very emphatically and with great enthusiasm and something akin to admiration. I smiled and felt sincerely flattered by each excited compliment. One fellow from our gym who sees me every 6 months or so, beginning from my first months at Lanna, very encouragingly told me that it’s so great to see my progress, that my training is really showing in the ring. It takes a long time for me, but it’s happening. What’s really amazing to me, though, is that three years ago after my first three fights in Thailand I was told by the Thai crowd after each one that I am jai dee, or “good heart.” And I heard this for a little bit back in the US as well – from Thais who happened to be in the audience. It’s a Thai concept, something very close to what you’d call a “warrior” in English. When I started my losing streak back in the US, which lasted 7 fights (if you include my one boxing match, which I do) and about a year, I still heard that I had a good heart but I didn’t appreciate the compliment because I didn’t understand it fully in the Thai sense. I felt it was the only nice thing to say about me – like, “she’s a terrible fighter but at least she’s got heart.” This was borne of insecurity and my disappointment in myself to interpret one of the highest Thai compliments this way; I was a jerk. Thais talk about the heart a lot and it’s integrated into descriptions the way in English we use, “cool headed,” “level headed,” “hot headed,” etc. For positive qualities the word for heart is a prefix; for negative qualities the word for shit becomes the prefix. Go figure. But the heart of a fighter is a strong indicator of what potential that fighter has – so long as he’s jai dee (good heart) you don’t worry about him being pitted against someone bigger, better, more experienced, stronger, etc. The heart will prevail, in a sense. There is an opposite to this and that’s the “minnow heart,” which is easily excitable but ultimately small and weak. You can look like The Rock when you step into the ring but if you have minnow heart you can be beaten by Pee-Wee Herman. Perhaps most meaningful of all is that you cannot teach heart, per se. A fighter either has a big heart or a strong one, a light one or a black one (cruel), a strong heart or a minnow heart. He can change his heart, but nobody can change it for him.
For a long time I didn’t hear anything about jai dee. I was told I’m strong and have amazing “cardio,” which also has to do with the heart but in a very different way. Had I lost something? Was my heart not showing anymore? It could be. I became very tight and you could see that stiffness and self-criticism in the ring. It was painful in a way. Now, after this fight, which I entered more calm and confident than maybe ever before – although still heart-pounding and excited – I relished hearing jai dee and “good heart” over and over again. I know what it means now, not abstractly but in a way that is embracing – to truly understand and know rather than just comprehend. It’s a beautiful thing and I’m happy to have an element of pure expression be a primary one in the performative art of Muay Thai. I’m happy to have it show. In fact, before this fight as I looked out over the audience and considered to myself what I wanted out of this fight, what I wanted most was to just show my love for Muay Thai. Win or lose, I want this audience to feel how much I love this.
Me, my trainer Daeng and Big
Daeng worked with me a lot prior to this fight on blocking drills and helped me with my clinch (you can see video of one of the first sessions of this here). He would strap on the belly pad and clinch with me, allowing me to throw full-power, straight knees into the pad while grappling. That’s good training! I also got to clinch with Not, who is bigger than I am but not by much and not yet so skilled that I’m constantly struggling to keep my balance rather than being able to try things out, which is the case with all the other Thai boys. The combination of Daeng and Not has really brought up my clinching. This picture (above) is my favorite from the night because of Daeng’s smile. As he was unwrapping my hands he just silently smiled for a minute, nodding to himself. Then he told me I did really well and then, almost trying to suppress the smile but with a small question in his tone he said, “I think I help you” (?). I grinned and emphatically said that yes, “without you, I not win that fight.” He let his smile rip as I said this and it didn’t budge from his face for a long time. I love him taking credit where it’s due. I love that he took a chance in changing me as a fighter, taking me on in training as a project, and he’s feeling rewards. That’s a wonderful feeling for me.
Me and Big who won the Northern Thailand Belt
Directly after my fight was Big’s championship title fight for the 108 lbs Northern Thailand belt. He won; he won definitively. But I still was so nervous I could barely sit still while I watched him in the ring. I yelled every time I threw a knee and Pook, who is perhaps more restrained or more discriminating, let loose a little yelp whenever he landed a powerful knee. Big Neung’s wife, however, was standing right behind us loosing her mind. It was hilarious. She would scream, “Big! Biiiiiig!!” at every single twitch of Big’s limbs, whether he threw the strike, landed it, simply thought about it. Before the fifth round, when I was already convinced that he’d won, she leaned over and asked me, almost out of breath, whether or not I think Big might win. I told her in stunted Thai that it would take a serious incident for Big not to win. Watch the fight, there is lots to look for in very subtle techniques, specially clinch transitions:
Big’s fight, above
Me and Khem
Me and Khem’s mom
Khem with Lanna family around him, and money raised.