December 30, 2014 – Surin, Thailand (full video above)
This fight is dedicated to my buddy and long-time supporter in heart and soul, Robyn Klenk. Robyn donated to my Gofundme, which allows me to travel for fights. I think Robyn is with me in the ring in every fight, but I certainly channeled a lot of what she’s taught me about aggression in this one. Miss you, Buddy! And thank you!
It’s 6:30 in the morning and the sun is rising through a gray mist that covers everything. Kevin, Jai Dee and I are huddled under a pile of blankets and laid out over a bamboo “day bed” in the driveway of the Mayor’s house, where we are guests. Jai Dee isn’t allowed in the house and he’s never had to stay outside alone before, so we declined the bedroom of the Mayor’s teenaged daughter, which she very dutifully and generously vacated for us, and said we were going to sleep outside. This was met with serious disbelief by our hosts. It might be like saying we wanted to sleep on the curb so the rats wouldn’t be lonely. Earlier in the morning a PA system kicked on and played maybe three songs of what’s called mor lam music, the “country music” of Thailand. I’m a fan. But I’m not used to being awakened at 5:oo AM by this music being blasted over a seemingly city-wide audio system. What followed was a long announcement that I didn’t understand; I was both awake and not awake as it went on, which is basically how the whole night went. Kevin likened the wake up call to a unifying totalitarian government experience, but he enjoyed it as well. It felt like a dream to me and later I found out it was an announcement of the death of a member of the community, an old man who had passed in the night. The music must have been for him, although it wasn’t funeral music, which I’ve heard before.
So it’s 6:30 AM and I’m too cold to get out of bed, but it feels weird to stay under the covers while people are coming out of the house to start the morning. I slip on my shoes and take Jai Dee for a walk down to the lake, which is covered in a mist and when I let him off leash Jai Dee starts tearing back and forth in laps, expending all the tension from being tethered in an 8 hour car ride in the back of a truck all the way to Surin, Isaan, then being tethered to the “day bed,” then being locked in my grip all night while he tried to defend us from other dogs prowling the yard. He had a rough 24 hours, for sure. While I’m at the lake, Mawin, his cousin IQ (who we love), and this kid called Ouan (“fat”) are emerging from the house and seeing their breath in the cold air. Maybe for the first time. They seem delighted by this and they all breathe heavily into the air to see the little puffs of vapor. Kevin shows them how to fog up the glass of a window and write in it. Mawin does this and the other two kids are too short to reach the glass, so they turn their backs and keep puffing into the air.
After breakfast, which is a delicious combination of larp moo, som dam, moo yang and white rice, Sangwean told me to go take a nap with Phetjee Jaa in the room inside the house. I was already lying in the bed outside and told him I’d just fall asleep there, which allowed me to have a really awesome 3 hour nap.
Isaan food is the best:
Larb moo: minced pork with chilis, onion, mint; soooo spicy.
Som dam: “papaya salad” with lime and vinegar; also spicy
Moo yang: grilled pork, dry and salty and fatty… drooool
There was so much waiting around for this fight. The day of a fight is supposed to be super restful, so naps are pretty much prescribed and other than that the kids were rolling around on the floor inside, playing with coins on the ground in whatever game they invented, watching TV, then the adults getting sick of cartoons and turning them off… all this on repeat. It’s a lot of hours to be “relaxing.” I’m used to having chilled out days prior to a fight, but usually I’m online. Kevin didn’t bring the phone charger and there was not a good internet connection in Surin, so I listened to my iPod – mostly podcasts – all day. I will say, it was very relaxed.
The fights were supposed to begin at 7:00 PM. I was listed as the first fight on the card, so I figured we’d head over by 6:30. However, there was absolutely no rush about any of this. I spotted a revised program late in the day that had pre-start fights listed. Sometimes fight cards are like this, so there are little kid fights that kind of “warm up” a fight card and only the hardcore gamblers get into those. Then the main card starts and that’s usually 10+ fights with a main event, or “ku aek.” Then there might be more fights after the main show that are, again, maybe kids for the gamblers to stay on and try to win more money or win back some of what they lost on the main card. So, with 4 fights on the revised card prior to me, we had time.
In the early evening a dessert truck jingle-jangled down the street and the little pack of Jee Jaa, Ouan, IQ and Mawin came running out with folding money clutched in their hands. They stood in front of the glass case picking out their favorite desserts for a few minutes while I walked Jai Dee up and down the street. He’d already chewed almost all the way through his leash by this point, a feat he’d managed in record time when he was tied to the bench alone while we ate dinner the night before. What a jerk. I kind of tied the leash back together and was precariously organizing it back around the bench when Jee Jaa came up to me and handed me a bag of dessert. A whole bag. The kids had gotten one bag of selected treats to share between the four of them and they organized themselves in a little circle on the front porch to start devouring the sweets. I took one piece of what was probably honey and sweet pumpkin, then a square of a coconut jello (which is just so good) and brought the rest over to the kids. I thanked Jee Jaa and said I couldn’t eat so much sweet, which they seemed to accept as they dug into the second bag. I sat with them there on the porch while they poked the long wooden skewers into the different treats and popped the into their mouths, chatting as they did so. I can’t understand a lot of what they say when they talk amongst themselves, although when they address me it’s usually pretty clear. Maybe they talk in slang a lot? Not sure.
We finally headed to the venue at about 8:00, after all the men had taken turns showering and eating (alone, one at a time) in sequence at the table. All the kids and I had eaten an hour ago. The ring was just down the road in a schoolyard, so close in fact that we could hear the fights continue on into the night when we got back in the wee hours. I recognized the school from our way in. We’d met a truck on the highway the day before that kind of guided us through the smaller roads to the place where we were staying. Kevin and I were in the bed of the truck with Jai Dee, “Grandpa,” and a guy I call “the Uncle,” although I have no idea if he’s actually related to the kid I think he’s the uncle of. But he was our connection to Surin, the Uncle. When we pulled in then we stopped outside the school for a moment, which has a convenience store/restaurant across the street. This incredible old lady who the Uncle called May toddled out from behind the kitchen area. She was bent over, nearly in half, and wearing traditional Thai clothing of maybe 4o years ago: a sarong skirt and a kind of blousy, linen tank-top. Her hair was white and whispy, held up by a crocodile clip, and she spit a huge blurp of red onto the ground and then grinned through stained teeth and lips at us. She was chewing Betel Nut, something that is about as quintessential “Old Isaan Aunty” as can be. I’ve never seen it first-hand, but it would be like pulling up to a wooden porch in Texas and having an old man in a rocking chair spit his chew into a spittoon. Amazing.
Inside the Metal Fence
Fights often are held in rings that are set up in the middle of fields; often these are “festival fights” and there’s no admission. This ring was in the middle of the school’s athletic fields and separated from the rest of the festivities (like bouncy castles and games) by a metal fence that encircled the whole area. That’s the only part where admission was charged, only the fights. And it was only 100 Baht to get in. We were ushered through the little entry-way as a group and spent a few minutes eyeing the entire circumference before deciding on a spot for the mats, over by the VIP stage and speakers. We lined up the mats and sat down, immediately tucking ourselves under blankets we’d brought from the car.
A few minutes later I’m standing up and finding my shoes so that I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my opponent. I’d thought prior the event that I’d fought this opponent before, since she has the same fight name (though different gym name, which is not unusual for fighters to do when they travel) as someone I fought before. But I didn’t recognize her when I looked into her face. She was apparently bigger than expected (I had no expectations, but “the Uncle” looked surprised) and I was asked if I wanted the fight. I didn’t even pause and said mai bpen rai (“no problem”), which caused “the Uncle” to rise his eyebrows in surprise. I’m not sure if that’s because you’re supposed to haggle, or he hasn’t seen that I almost always fight opponents 3-5 kg bigger than I am, or what. But I certainly didn’t drive 8 hours in the bed of a pickup to then not fight. A little while later it was Jee Jaa’s turn to go stand next to her opponent, who was supposed to be near my size (a first for her). She was even bigger, probably 50 kg and a few inches taller than I am also. They still took the fight, despite the weight that was promised being surpassed by a couple kilos and ultimately it was a 12-13 kg difference between Jee Jaa and her opponent. There was a 50,000 Baht side bet on this fight, which became 100,000 Baht in the time between the whole gambling audience looking at the two shoulder-to-shoulder and the actual fight, a few hours later.
At events like this there will be nobody around, then a few people milling about, and then suddenly, without you realizing it, it’s packed. That’s what happened this night. Suddenly everyone was there and the fights were starting. Whatever this pre-fight card thing was either got cancelled or had taken place before anybody got there because once they were ready to start, I was the first fight. Sangwean and Mawin wrapped my hands in their usual assembly-line manner (which I love), I shivered through my oil massage and then we headed to the ring. I come from Colorado; I know what the real feeling and actual temperatures of “cold” are. While it was certainly nowhere near freezing, it absolutely felt freezing. When my corner dumped water on my legs between rounds I hated them. The stage lights helped a little, but not enough. It was damn cold in Surin.
We stood in our corners for the Royal Anthem and then the referee gave this long announcement that I didn’t understand. I was so cold standing there that when it was time to touch gloves and go, I was ready to go. I was happy that she turned out to be southpaw, which is what I was thinking about when I thought it was the same one I fought before. She was keen on touching gloves with our front hands, which makes me so happy because it’s something I’ve been working on in training, to stay close, but a lot of the opponents I face don’t like to stand in. So this was kind of a good test of skills I’ve been working on in training that don’t necessarily transfer to fights because my opponents aren’t, you know, holding pads for me.
In the first round she lands this nice teep that pushes me back and when I clinch her in the middle of the ring I tried this move that Petchrungruang taught me recently and it never works in training because the boys are awesome. But she wasn’t expecting it and I’m proud of myself for even trying it in fight context. It looked extra fancy because of our size difference, but landing a nice knee off of it is why it scored highly.
When I came back from my corner for round 2 the referee looked at me and asked, more confirming than a question, “you speak Thai?” (In Thai.) He must have heard my corner talking to me and me responding. When I affirmed that I do speak Thai he gave me a huge smile and said how great that was. It was pretty sweet. At the start of round 2 my opponent realized that this glove-touching thing we both do is to gauge distance and she’s longer, so she should be kicking me with her reach. And that’s what she did. The crowd was cheering for her but I was able to stand in and shut down her reach enough that the points the crowd was cheering for didn’t affect me much. I was able to put her down a few times, but wasn’t scoring knees until late in the round. However, I’ve been yelled at by Sangwean so many times for not pulling my hips back enough for knees, reducing their power. I was pulling them back in this fight though, and man, she was feeling them. I was feeling her feeling them, which was awesome. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that in one of my fights; usually I can feel my opponents’ energy draining from knees, but not individual knees hurting as much. These knees hurt, and they hurt because of improved technique.
Round 3 my opponent brought the elbows out, but they were too wide and I didn’t feel in much danger from them. Thai boys screaming in the corner where Kevin is filming were yelling for my opponent before, but when I start dragging her backwards and kneeing in what ultimately finishes the fight, they cheer for my knees. I had no idea what any of that was during the fight; I wasn’t keyed into the audience much. I felt very focused in this fight and watching it afterwards that focus looks a bit more “single minded” than what I felt during the fight itself, but it worked. I was able to do things that I’ve wanted to do so that worked out for me, ultimately.
On my way out of the ring a guy in the audience said, in Thai, “is that a man or a woman?” I hear this with annoying frequency and it generally pisses me off, but in this case, stepping out of the ring against a female opponent whose personal style (“Tom”) often is the butt of this joke, I felt as though it wasn’t an insult so much as a comment – and perhaps a compliment – about my fighting style or strength or whatever had just happened in the ring, rather than how I look. There were a few fellows in the audience who recognized me from my fights in other places – one from even Chiang Mai and one Buriram. In fact, there was a guy there from the gym that gets me fights in Buriram, Giatbundit Gym. His son was on the card. But it was exciting to have these guys recognize me from my past fights. Even better, a guy in the crowd started asking Sangwean whether I would fight this woman Loma, who I really want to fight.
Someone who seemed to be a co-promoter or at least in charge of the event in some way patiently waited for me to get my wraps off and then guided me out of the fenced-off area, across the street to the little shop where the day before the Betel Nut chewing old lady had been, and let me take a shower in the back of what I assume is his home. I’ve never been able to shower right after a fight. (Not a fancy hot shower; literally a bucket and soap.) It was amazing. I got back to the venue just as Jee Jaa was starting to get ready to go in. I’ll have to write about her fight separately because it’s just too important of a fight, but for the time-being I got back under the blanket and Jai Dee immediately curled up like a little pod in my lap to keep warm. Every fight is a fight, but they’re all such different experiences. It didn’t end up being a great night for Jee Jaa and Mawin, who both lost their fights and the family lost a lot of money in the process. It was a quiet ride back up the street to the house, where everyone disappeared inside and Kevin, Jai Dee, and I laid back out under the countless stars (no streetlights!) and fell asleep under their cold light.