The Long Road to Mae Wang
The ride out to this festival fight was long and at various times uncertain. We had two trucks – Den driving Andy’s and Daeng driving his own – as well as a four door operated by Brian from Texas and a group of westerners filling that car as well. A few times we pulled over and from the back of the truck I could see various faces illuminated by smart phones as GPS trackers were compared and shared against the good-for-naught system installed in Andy’s truck. It was hot and dark and as we neared fields a cool air would spit through the open windows onto us, and after maybe an hour we did arrive.
We found the ring and were told to exit the trucks while Den and Daeng went to park them. I stood close to the Thai boys – Big and Neung were fighting also and Off and Boy would act as corners, so any one of them was a good bet – and I saw my opponent standing in the bed of a truck just across the road from where we stood. She wore blue shorts and a red top, so I assumed I’d be red corner. She looked smaller than I’d imagined, even though I knew she’d be my size whereas my opponents have been bigger for quite some time now. The promoter came over and had the two of us stand next to each other, a few men gave thumbs up and Faa disappeared again to her truck while the promoter told me he was betting on me.
We worked our way over to behind the ring where there was a small incline, like a sand bank. We navigated between other mats and blankets already laid out and actually kicked some little kids out of their spot in order to lay our mats down at the back of all of this. There was grass on either side and soft, deep sand in between.
Little Neung told me that he was the third fight, Big was the fourth and I was the seventh. He sat down to have his hands wrapped and I looked on the program to see which corner I was in. Red. In addition, in small print just above the listing for my opponent and me was an announcement of a 10,000 Baht bet between whoever places those bets. Welcome to the next layer of Muay Thai, Sylvie.
I grabbed my bag off the mat and asked Kevin if he wanted to come with me to find the restroom. (Because we were at the outlying edge of the fair grounds, like most festival fights the area where we were camped also served as the “back wall” urinal for folks enjoying the festivities. As such, there was a constant coming and going of inebriated men and it was not an appropriate place for me to step a few feet into the darkness and change my clothes. A restroom was required.) As we moved through the crowd we happened upon Big Neung’s wife and she asked what I was doing. I said I was going to find the bathroom and she hooked her soft little hand around my left elbow and started pulling me through the crowd as my escort.
Female Friendship and Northern Identity
I adore Neung’s wife. She’s tiny and looks much younger than her 30 years. About 6 months ago she asked me how old I am and when I answered 29 she performed an exaggerated sigh of relief, grabbed my hands and told me she was 30. I know that for many Thai women 30 is the “old maid” cut-off age and I think she was relieved to have a comrade at this pivotal life moment, but it’s also quite funny because nobody in the west would guess she was older than maybe 25. She doesn’t speak any English at all but as my Thai has gotten better and my time at the gym has established a relationship between us, she has become more and more generous with her friendship toward me. Now as we meandered through the crowd, stopping here and there for her to ask a lady for directions to the bathroom and always thanking her with the northern-dialect polite particle “jaao” at the end of the thanks rather than the central “ka,” which was quite notable to me for some reason. Each time we started moving again she would grasp her fingers gently around the inside of my arm and hold me close to her, almost protectively. I remember holding hands with my girlfriends when I was little and have maybe done so once or twice with my oldest friend since then, but there is a remarkable solace and intimacy that I believe is missing from my friendships that is illustrated by this small gesture of female-to-female protection and contact in a public setting.
I changed my clothes in the bathroom, which was clean but had water all over the floor so it was difficult to orchestrate the numerous pant-leg maneuvers required to put my shorts on under the warmup pants I was currently wearing. When it was finished and I stepped back out into the darkness of the area behind the temple (festival events are often on temple grounds) I saw a group of maybe a half-dozen men working together to lift the bed of a truck in order to move it a few feet over to make room for other vehicles to enter the parking area. I stood there with my mouth open for a moment while Neung’s wife giggled and took my arm again. I said to her in Thai, “Thai people are strong!” and she responded with a head nod and a sober explanation that “it is because they eat sticky rice.”
A note on sticky rice. It is strongly associated with Isaan, the northeast of Thailand and the largest area of agricultural land and work and ethnically under-appreciated people. It is also widely eaten in the north, although from my understanding the strongest association is with Isaan. You can eat sticky rice anywhere in Thailand although it is generally served with food that is classified as “Isaan”, but the eating of sticky rice as an action or a practice is strongly tied to the identity of northern and northeastern people. When Neung’s wife tells me that these Thai men are strong because they eat sticky rice it is not tongue-in-cheek. It might be like people in the American south claiming the grits or collard greens are what make the men strong – it’s a link to an identity. Before my fight in Isaan my opponent had a TV spot in which she, among other things, ate a few bites of sticky rice and a spicy dip. This was meant to intimidate me, to show me that she’s eating sticky rice and cannot be knocked out, is strong – is Isaan.
We navigated our way back to the mats where Little Neung was having his hands wrapped, lighted by cellphone screens. He slapped mosquitoes as they bit his legs and his hand-wrapper slapped him every time he moved his hand. Neung spoke nervously in English, saying he hadn’t fought in a year and he just didn’t want to get cut because tomorrow is Songkran and he wants to go play with water. (With stitches he would not be allowed to get wet.) I told him that Thais never forget Muay Thai and he’d be fine. He stood up and danced around a bit, saying he used to have a belt, he was strong before, but when he went away for a year he didn’t train and he got fat – “fat” indicated he lost his 6-pack abs, not an actual “fat” as understood by regular people. Then he told me to come with him to see the doctor.
We got over to the doctor right as the first fight was starting, two tiny little boys no more than 30 kg. Neung sat down to have his heart-rate and blood-pressure checked first. I watched these two do their Ram Muay and then meet in the center of the ring. The ref bent down low, holding both of their arms in a touch-gloves position while giving them instructions. They both nodded, went to their corners and received blessings and had the Mongkol removed and by the time the bell rang they were fighting hard. I knew my heart rate was up as the doctor took my reading because I was excited for the little kids in the ring, but the doctor seemed satisfied with my reading and then told Neung to sit down again to take a second reading after the doctor changed the batteries in the electronic heart monitor. Apparently Neung’s heart rate was going up and up during the reading and the doctor suspected the device might be at fault. I knew how nervous Neung was, but I reckon new batteries are as good a solution as any.
Kevin and I stepped over to a vendor to purchase a soda for Kevin and the man and woman running the stand could barely take my order for a coke before asking me several questions regarding whether or not I was fighting, where I’m from and saying “chok dee” a few times. They were really quite excited. I was the only westerner on the whole card and at festival fights I can sometimes be the only Farang fighter the locals will see in a long time – add to that that I’m a woman and generally “Thai size” and you’ve got yourself a spectacle. But they’re always very supportive – very enthusiastic.
We went up to ringside for both Neung’s and Big’s fights, having to switch corners from red to blue between. Both fights were fantastic and both won by KO. We arrived after the rest of the gym to Big’s corner and the gamblers who saw me approach pushed each other aside to make way for me to get up close to the ring, an acknowledgment that I found quite moving. Big is one of my favorite fighters to watch and I was sweating like crazy watching his fight. A guy right behind me was betting on Big’s opponent and each time he got a knee in on Big – whether it landed with any force or not – this guy made a Chief Wiggum sound of “heahhh! heahhh!” that made me giggle. When Big finally knocked his opponent out with an elbow I made sure to turn my head slightly to deliver my “oi!” with that man specially in mind.
Gambling Under the Skin of Muay Thai
Back at the mats Den pulled me aside and told me that the promoter gave him 10,000 Baht to bet on me. I told him I didn’t want to hear about it. I know gambling is a huge part of Muay Thai and on some level I do appreciate that I’m entering a deeper layer of Muay Thai culture by becoming aware of it – or privy to it – in my last few fights, but I’m not mentally able to deal with it yet. Den actually put the 10,000 Baht in my hand, then took it back and handed it to his girlfriend to have her count it again – she declared it 10,000. Den smiled at me and then, as if trying to clarify his intention, said, “because he believe in you!” I should take comfort in that – I know I should – and to some extent I do. But more so I just don’t want to think about it.
Den wrapped my hands and Off oiled me up and then I stood up and had some of the most busted gloves I’ve ever seen laced onto me. They were lumpy and had zero padding left anywhere other than over the back of the hands. I worked my knuckles toward the front of them as best I could once they were laced, trying to get my “hand teeth” right to the edge of the shoddy padding. Then I shadowed a bit and moved around, trying to stay warm. It had been incredibly hot this whole time but now that I was only in my shorts and fight top it felt very cold over by the outer reaches of the festival lights.
Neung’s wife came up and smiled at me. I told her in Thai that I was excited and she frowned a bit, her young face looking even younger as she did so. She nodded and put her hands on my right arm, lightly squeezing and massaging my bicep. She asked in Thai if I’d been “excited” (same word I used) at my fight in Isaan because of being on TV and being away from Chiang Mai. I affirmed the question and she started massaging my shoulders and back, very lightly, like calming a cat that’s just been terrorized by a dog or something. I felt calmer, still excited for the fight but more steady, relaxed and alert.
The fight before mine ended in a KO – the winner was the twin brother of the fighter Big had just knocked out – and I slipped into my sandals and plodded through the deep sand and down the bank to the ring. I knelt down at the ladder up to the canvas and Daeng knelt next to me. I touched my glove to the ground and rubbed the dust it picked up into my hair before climbing awkwardly up the metal ladder and ducking under the bottom rope.
I haven’t watched the fight yet, so here are my impressions through the haze of recollection. My Ram Muay finished before Faa’s did, so I stood facing my own corner and Den called me down to speak with him for a moment before the fight started. He told me that “they’ve seen how you fight” – implying that my opponents have now found my website or YouTube channel, a safe assumption as it was broadcast on Thai TV previously – and that my opponent is expecting me to come straight in and will use push-kick a lot. “So go side to side,” he said, “not straight in.” But then he emphasized not staying on the outside, to “go in” and knee.
When the fight started I was immediately aware of having seen Faa fight maybe 8 months ago and that she kicks on both sides, one after the other. I knew to watch out for it, but didn’t really think what I intended to do about it. I’d been training low kicks and wanted to execute those, as well as use my jab which has become more effective in fights and much stronger in my work with Neung. My jab worked well and my low kicks landed, but I didn’t pay enough attention to the impact they were having on Faa and ended up abandoning them as soon as she started dodging. (She was dodging because they were hurting her; if I’d noted that I would have kept at it, closing in for them and with them.)
Basically she was landing kicks and scoring and I was landing more knees and harder knees in the clinch and scoring. In later rounds I started blocking her kick on the left side (my right) but started catching her right kick and not executing anything off of it that was of any use to me. This is a habit, one that can be avoided by just paying attention to it, but I wasn’t. Den kept telling me to get my arms inside on the clinch and turn her and I was only able to do this a few times. When I did, I hurt her. But it was inconsistent. By the fourth round Den told me to stop kicking and just go in and knee, knee, knee. She was blocking my knees with the Wall of China and a few times I was able to jump my knee over it, but in general she was tying up and neutralizing really well. Something I was thwarted by many times last year when I first started and something that girls my size have consistently done. Bigger fighters have not been able to do this on me and it has been to my advantage – now I have to focus again on using my strength against someone my own size and just turning her off of me and digging my knees in. I landed a nice right hand to the stomach on one counter to a kick and then dug my knees in on some proper clinching and I could feel it affecting her.
The fifth round she started running and my corner kept yelling for me to go after her. So I cut her off and came in, got my arms in the wrong position for the clinch but managed to land better knees. The bell sounded and Faa and I hugged, exchanged salutations to each other’s corners and then stood with our own teams as the ref collected the judge’s cards. Den yelled for me to keep my hands in the air, victorious, and I saw Faa’s face fall when the ref raised both his hands, declaring the fight a draw.
I’m disappointed that I fell into the same traps that I was falling into a year ago. I could have done much more and many things differently in this fight – not given different circumstances, not if I’d trained differently – simply by paying more attention and focusing on what needed to be done to avoid what was happening. Faa is a good fighter but I allowed her to look better than she was in that fight by allowing her to neutralize the clinch like that instead of getting my elbows in and just crushing her with knees. Her power was negligible – it was a strong fighter (me) against a tricky fighter (her) – so I would have done better to just block her kicks and punish as I came in rather than eating them or catching them. And the things I was doing at the start which were working should have been brought into later rounds, even if they stopped being effective later – change when you have to, not when you lose focus.
I’m sure we’ll fight again. I feel badly about this draw because my performance feels like a loss. But even so every single fight is part of a larger process of becoming closer to the fighter I want to be and this kind of lateral movement is sometimes part of that. Don’t look backwards unless you plan on going that way. On to the next.