I saw my photo on a big fight poster outside the venue, a close up
The Set Up: My fight on the Queen’s Birthday (51st fight, August 12th) was initially intended to be a face-off with Nong Ying but ended up being against Yod Ying, with whom I’ve fought a number of times. The match against Nong Ying was rescheduled to the 23rd and then early in the week of that fight it got pushed to the 30th. There was a lot of rescheduling going on, the erasing and rewriting of dates evidenced by colored chalk dust all over the fight board. I immediately complained to Den, asking if I could fight that weekend anyway – maybe at another stadium – instead of waiting two weeks again for the fight on the 30th. He seemed surprised, which is unusual for Den because the request is not at all unusual for me, but he acknowledged it and said he’d look into it. I also knew I had to start kicking on my shins again, even though they were till a bit lumpy and sore from my last fight, because the implication of not kicking to help them heal is that I need time to heal. I was happy to see a date appear for a fight on Friday within a few days. Check mate.
When I asked Den if he knew who I would be fighting he told me Faa Chiang Rai, who I have fought twice now and was scheduled to fight maybe two months ago and it didn’t happen. She’s a great fighter, one of the top northern fighters in terms of skill and experience, so I was excited to face her again.
Faa Chiang Rai is a cool name, it means “the sky of Chiang Rai.” (Chiang Rai is another large province in the north and was formerly the northern capital, before Chiang Mai.) My first fight with Faa was a festival fight and actually the fight that was in part filmed for the short documentary on me, ending in a draw:
My second fight with Faa three fights later was also a festival fight. My parents were visiting and, while they’ve seen me fight live before, this was their first experience of a real Thai fight and indeed at my favorite type of venue. Festival fights feel special to me, partially because they can be totally unpredictable but also because the audience is generally 100% Thai and the energy is expressive of a portion of Thai culture. My parents loved it; they kept commenting on how cool it was to watch the crowd, the gamblers, the fights, the side-stage performances, etc. It was a long night and I worried that it might be too draining for my parents but they just loved it. They even started commenting on techniques and questioning the referee’s calls. I lost that fight in the fifth round (maybe part of the 4th as well) and my parents were still proud but I wanted to correct that result.
reading the fight card in a quiet moment, Faa Chiang Rai on the mat next to me
When we got to the venue for my 52nd fight I dropped my gym bag on the mat and as I headed back out to use the restroom at the night market I spotted Faa Chiang Rai at the back of the stadium, having her photo taken by a very small Thai boy who I suspect is her brother. She posed with her back to the ring, her head cocked to one side and her hands forming a heart shape in front of her upper chest and a sweet smile on her face. It’s an incredibly Thai pose and one that I found in that moment to be very unlike a fighter and also very typical of Thai female fighters, who in general are very unfighter-like outside the ring. You gotta watch for that though; the really sweet ones will try to take your head off in the ring.
When I got back from the restrooms I saw that my opponent was set up on the mat right next to ours. Actually, she was probably there first and we set up next to her. It’s not atypical to be right next to your opponent in these situations – even sharing a single mat or supplies like massage oil, tape or a towel is pretty normal. It can be a bit strange when it first happens as it feels very oppositional to western mentalities regarding “game face,” but that fades quickly. My opponent for next week’s fight showed up at the gym while I was training and hung out with one of my trainers for about 15 minutes just last week. It’s just not a secretive, gotta hate/fear your opponent game out here. I probably wouldn’t have even been surprised if Den made me clinch with my opponent when she showed up that day. But he didn’t; she had a fight that night.
Someone from Faa Chiang Rai’s camp, maybe even her father, kept looking at me but not in a scoping-out kind of way. I met his eyes and smiled, which made him smile in turn and he asked me in Thai if he could take a photo of me and Faa together. So I nodded, stood and went over to pose next to her. She smiled and was a little shy but confident in herself. She looked bigger than the last time we’d fought, although I’m still the slightly larger of the two. The man thanked me and I sat back down, but not much time passed before he appeared again with a very young boy, maybe 3 years old, and plopped him down next to me for another picture. I posed with my hands up but the boy just kept staring at me with his mouth open. I spoke to him in Thai and told him to get his hands up and look at Dad but he just kept staring, then fled over to his mom, who was sitting next to the cameraman. I smiled and got up to go kneel down next to the mom so he could still get the photo and the kid could have some backup. I think he actually did look at the camera at some point. Then there was one more picture to be taken with the kid who had been photographing Faa Chiang Rai when I first arrived. I’m in the family album, man!
great shot from the fight by Micheal White of Muay Thai Photography
It’s been maybe 3-4 months since our last fight together, so while I knew in a pretty general way what I was up against in Faa Chiang Rai, I could only make a game plan in a general sense of what had worked last time. I’d won the fight up until the last round, so I knew I had to avoid letting her steal it again at the final sprint, but there’s a whole fight before that. I knew low kicks had given her problems before because she loves to go backwards and I remembered she likes to kick on both sides, one right after the other. In the first round my low kicks weren’t reaching. She was just flying backwards and I wasn’t closing distance fast or hard enough. My boxing was working though; she doesn’t have a good guard nor does she punch much, so that was definitely my advantage. In the clinch I remembered that she could turn well despite being smaller, but I also remembered that nothing she does hurts so I didn’t have to worry about leaving something open to grab a better angle.
I think she remembered me overpowering her in the clinch because she went straight for the “Wall of China” block in the clinch, which has historically worked well against me. But Den’s been chewing my ear off about not getting stuck in that move for probably 6 months now, so I just tried to go over it instead of mentally getting frustrated and, sure enough, it started working. Between rounds Daeng was telling me to relax and Den was telling me to return strikes after dodging or blocking. He kept telling me that until the final bell, actually. I couldn’t feel it but I know that I kind of “fall back” or take a tiny step backwards when coming off of blocks instead of driving in – that’s the best time to eat up space and return with kicks or hard punches or knees – but I couldn’t quite get it going. I did finally land a nice counter after a step-back dodge on a kick in the fourth round, landing a solid kick to her leg as she came down. The crowd swelled in unison at that one.
I also landed my first clean left elbow, at the end of a pretty nice combination of moves at that. It started with a block, then I caught her kick and kneed, we turned and as she came for a counter knee I elbowed over her extended arm and landed pretty clean on her brow – just not enough force or elbow-tip. She was already cut on that side from a mutual head-bang earlier, so in the future when I get more comfortable I’ll be able to aim for that kind of thing:
elbow, fourth round
Also in the fourth round I almost took her back but successfully pinned her arm and turned her for a solid knee to the body. The ref broke that up right quick. It’s exciting for me because Den tells me to turn in the clinch all the time but because my training partners are so much bigger than I am I don’t get a great deal of opportunity to practice it, so it doesn’t come very easily in fights. I’m honestly trying to do so many more basic things at the same time that the idea of also turning seems profound, even though it’s not. It’s as easy as keeping your guard up, you just have to make a habit of it. But this pin and turn is pretty sweet as a starter.
lock, turn & knee, fourth round
In the fifth round Faa Chiang Rai was running and kicking. She’s very clever, a very crafty fighter and she can totally score and run to protect the point. She does this thing, only in the fifth round, where she holds on too long when the clinch is broken to eat up time and then runs to the center of the ring to start again, making it look like she’s just so keen to fight and why is her opponent dragging ass to get back to it? It’s brilliant. Makes her look like she has far more energy than she does and like her opponent (me) is fading even when she’s not. I knew to watch for this. Sure enough she scored some clean kicks on me and backed up before I could return blows. But I watched her scurry back to the center of the ring and went all T-1000 after her, which I saw on her face was unexpected. By the last minute I saw Daeng in my corner giving me the signal that I’d already won, to just play out the final minute by blocking if she kicked and only striking as a return. I put my glove out for Faa to tap it, which is an agreement between the fighters that it’s over and you can just ride it out but she refused the offer. I like that; I respect that.
I didn’t realize it until long after the fight but I really love that the story arc of our fights together went from a draw (1st fight) to a loss by her stealing the fight in the last rounds (2nd fight), which is totally legit, to a win that was definitive that the “dance off” at the end of round 5 was an option. Even though I didn’t feel like I fought incredibly well, I do note the areas where I accomplished things I would not have accomplished even a month ago and my performance was at least an obvious growth in the context of the three fights I’ve shared with Faa Chiang Rai. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so good to rematch the same fighters throughout my career. When we fight again, we will both be bringing new things to the table and I have no doubt that she will always challenge me. We are none of us defined by any one fight; we are refined by each of them.
Female Fan Club
I have the best local fan-base in the world. Pook owns the cafe where Kevin and I eat breakfast every morning (and a whole bunch of other people from the gym and around the neighborhood) and she started coming to my fights a few months ago. She’s so supportive and has really gotten into it. She comes with her cousin usually, Peachy (new name), who is very sweet. A friend of Pook’s and a lovely woman who bought me breakfast as consolation for one of my fights being stopped unjustly, without having yet met me – Paweena, who brought her sister, mother and step-father to this fight. It was Paweena’s first viewing of live Muay Thai ever and her step-dad was a boxer in high school, so he was very excited and gave me lots of thumbs up and congratulations after my fight. Her sister talked to Pom about maybe coming to train at the gym to lose weight and just for fun. I’m all for it – more women at the gym!
That introduces who these women are, but it does not express how unique it is to have women be really excited about Muay Thai and the “event” of a show. I’ve had strangers approach me after fights and I can just feel how excited they are. One of these incidents was a woman from Australia, probably a year ago, who came to talk to me after my fight and asked if she could come spar with me at the gym. I said, “of course” and gave her directions but ultimately she didn’t make it up to the gym before going home. She’s at the gym now – a year later – and she’s still so excited (her girlfriend is also just a meteor of energy at these fights and at the gym) and I’m trying hard to convince her to try a fight before she goes back to Australia again (you can see Meghan and Hanna stop me for a photo in the post-fight footage of the 5th round). I love that there are women who are inspired by something that I clearly have a lot of love for – and they can be inspired within their own path of Muay Thai or even on adjacent paths to Muay Thai. I love that Thai women who have always known about Muay Thai as part of their culture but have never witnessed it before suddenly feel brazen enough to go see it, to experience it and own it as their own in a way. I think Pook will be shaking down the judges in a couple more months! And I love that in groups, when the two becomes three and four and so on, they start to have their own power that is independent within the space – they carve out an area against the contrast of western audience who are just there for the experience and the gamblers who are hard-core fans in their own rite – but that space is respected. It’s a claim that these women have staked out and it has its own energy. It’s the kind of thing I want to feed.