I was told just prior to my 47th fight that I would be fighting on the 12th, a rematch against Faa Chiang Rai, with whom I’ve fought twice now. The first was a draw, the second she won the decision with a later rounds takeover. I was prepared to fight her again and had expended some efforts in training things specifically for facing her, but I also knew – as I always do – in the back of my mind to expect anything in Thailand; I could be fighting anyone.
Sure enough when we got to the venue I was sized up against a girl I’d never seen before and I didn’t know her camp either. She was notably shorter than I am, but sturdy and stern-faced. The man who sized us up – I assume her trainer or someone obviously associated with her camp – shook my hand and kind of gave me the impression he was analyzing me based on my handshake, which is always firm, but in retrospect I reckon that the Thai man’s inclination toward shaking a westerner’s hand is not generally well-practiced. Thais don’t really shake hands, certainly not the kind of Thais who don’t deal with Falang very much, but it’s considered to be the western version of a wai (which is loosely comparable) so Thai men will often happily go for a hand-shake with any westerner who comes around as a way of demonstrating knowledge of western culture. Probably this is why this guy kept holding my hand for much longer than was appropriate for a normal hand-shake, rather than my assessment that he was judging me on my grip.
Noting that this was not, in fact, Faa Chiang Rai, I stepped out of the stadium to go find Den and tell him what had just happened. He was utterly unsurprised at the opponent being changed, which leads me to suspect he knew already and just didn’t mention it to me. No problem. We were just waiting for the program to be printed to know what fight number I was but there seemed to be some logistical issues, requiring the card to be changed a bit, rearranged or whatever.
When the fights finally started it was my understanding that I was the 4th fight on a 6 fight card. So I relaxed on the mat and watched the first fight. Prior to every movie in a theater and many sporting events (depends on the stadium) the Royal Anthem is played over the speakers and everyone stands. It’s a unique moment for me as an outsider experiencing Thailand for a number of reasons: first, we stopped standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when I was in maybe second grade, so I had the experience of the routine and then the continued experience of its absence. So I kind of recognize the bored, routine, invisibility of it from the Thais who do it automatically, but I also feel a kind of anticipation toward it when I know it’s coming – I’m usually one of the first standing in the theater (and there’s a video that plays along with it that always, always causes me to tear up) and I feel compelled to learn the words to the song. I can hum it. And maybe it’s because I was not raised with structured and vocalized patriotism, but the ceremony of dedication to the King – which my country does not have and which Thailand greatly, openly and obviously loves – is both exotic and inviting to me. Here’s a Vine of that ceremony before the opening bell (Vines are 6 second video loops by Twitter, you can mute and stop by clicking):
The Royal Anthem
My opponent was on the mat right next to ours for the duration of the lead up to the fight. This isn’t unusual for Thailand at all, but it’s still notable. I saw her camp watching me as I began to warm up and in the third round of the fight right before ours her trainers pulled her closer to me and started instructing her on how to shadow in a very obvious display meant for me, as a show of her abilities. I kinda liked it and smiled at them. I could tell when I was warming myself up before that her trainers took notice of my new elbow tattoo. It is not an unrecognizable symbol and its significance is noticeably understood by every Thai who I’ve noticed taking note of it.
Not because of her warming up routine, but just from spending time out of the ring for longer than I’m used to and general pre-fight nerves, I began to feel surges of adrenaline coursing through my body, no doubt increased by my racing heart. It’s a fun feeling, it’s how you know you’re about to do something extraordinary, but it also rides the line between helping or hurting the fight depending on how you choose to interpret and direct those nerves. I focused on directing them toward the positive.
The fight just before ours was a Spaniard against a Thai guy. The Thai had almost knocked the Spaniard out in the third round and then there was a reversal and the Spanish guy won quite clearly. The crowd went crazy, cheering and chanting for Spain, which allowed for my entrance into the ring to be amid a bubbling energy all around. The ref clarified for us in the center of the ring that there was no kicking or kneeing if the opponent “sit down” and I nodded, then returned to my corner.
I was quite happy that in the first round I successfully kicked out the leg of my opponent on a caught-kick – something I can never seem to do against Daeng or Den because their legs are so long and they don’t want to be dumped and therefor employ a legion of skills to avoid it, so it’s hard to practice. In the second round I was trying to move forward with an attack more, rather than standing at striking distance and stalling, which is a terrible habit of mine that I’m working to amend right now. I had some success with it, but more important was that I was able to experiment a little more than I could against a more aggressive or evasive opponent. I did lock my hands in the clinch, which is a huge improvement.
In the final round I started landing straight knees into her torso in the clinch and it wore her down quickly. In a really great example of how film can lie, you don’t see my knee hitting my opponent’s face at all in the video, although if you watch for it the second knee makes her head snap back sharply, but it doesn’t look like that knee is anywhere near her head. But I hit her in the mouth on the second knee, which left a smear of her blood on my left thigh – I felt it and the contact left that little kiss of blood, so there’s no doubt at all that I hit where I thought I hit, but you seriously would never know from watching the video. It looks like I’m hitting her chest.
After the fight we saw each other over by our mats and had a pleasant exchange. I like her energy a lot. She’s very calm, very tough and expressive despite her stillness outside the ring. And she’s confident.
As I was washing my hands after changing in the restroom the promoter called to me through the open door. I left my bag on the counter and walked over to him, where I discovered Den was sitting next to him on a parked motorbike (not his). The promoter smiled and asked if anything hurt, to which I answered “no” and he immediately asked if I could fight on Tuesday. I laughed and told him that I could and Den shook his head. Den doesn’t like to give affirmations to these kinds of questions; I think there are chess moves involved in dealing with promoters that I happily don’t have to deal with at all and having this exchange between the promoter and me with a conversation that certainly already took place between Den and the promoter was probably far more complicated than what I saw. I laughed and told the promoter that I was happy to fight on Tuesday and indeed would like to, but it was ultimately up to Den. Then I told Den that if I didn’t fight on Tuesday I would like to fight on Friday. He was equally silent to both suggestions.
As we climbed in the truck and headed back to the gym to drop everyone off I was reminded – after a long hiatus from fighting at Kalare – how much I love this process. You train, show up, fight whoever they put you up against, and then you go home. There’s no grand build up, very little posturing, and the aftermath is whatever you carry with you or discard. And if you’re like me, you leave the venue with another fight lined up.