Finding the Fight
I arrived at training on Monday morning after my last fight and noticed my name on the fighters’ schedule already had a new date next to it: 3/8/2013. That would be exactly one week since my last fight and I hadn’t even bothered Den about it, which made me really happy because it demonstrates his recognition of my wanting to (and being able to) fight frequently. I was pretty stoked.
That afternoon the promoter showed up and took photos of a German guy who was slated to fight, Aryeh from China and JR – who were both on the card for Friday, and me. (It was a great feeling when, on Monday morning, I asked JR when he was going to fight and he looked for a moment at the fight board, then said, “I think Friday, same you.”) The promoter asked me how much I weigh, which seemed a strange question because I always weigh the same and haven’t been asked in probably 6 months, other than while making weight. Daeng was standing there and asked me again, specifying “sabai, sabai,” meaning he wanted to know what we call in America one’s “walking around” weight. I repeated the number I’d already given and he looked contemplative. I think that he thinks I’m bigger than I actually am.
The next day at training Den asked how many fights I have. I told him 37 and he asked how many in Thailand, so I said it was 25 since arriving last year (28 if you count the three from my first trip to Thailand). He nodded and said that Daeng had pointed out that I fight sometimes three or four times in a month, as if he hadn’t considered this himself. Then he said something I loved, “you’re like me,” he said, meaning when he was a young fighter he fought all the time. Den has over 300 fights. I realized by this second set of strange questioning that I maybe didn’t yet have an opponent and my weight and fight number were required to thin out (or broaden) the search. Den confirmed this. No matter, I thought, in the words of Wanderlei Silva: “They change [her] name, they change [her] size…” Fight anyone, anywhere, anytime.
On Wednesday I cornered JR and asked him to spar with me. He agreed and took the opportunity to beat the hell out of me for 5 rounds. He was keeping right up on me, not running or dancing away the way the girls I fight or many of my trainers do… just all pressure, all the time. As he was uppercutting me, blinding me with the water and sting in my eyes, then digging into my body and finishing with leg kicks, he said to me, “Sylvie, no fear!” I held my breath (don’t do that) and fired back as I could, sometimes landing something with pretty good power but mostly just trying to hang on and deliver any amount of return fire as I could. When the other trainers called time JR walked a few feet away and I stood there panting. “You have to spar like this,” JR said, “then the fight is easy.”
Sylvie v. and Sylvie C.
On Friday afternoon I headed over to camp for my oil massage and shadowboxing. I got the usual, “you’re so crazy” comments from the peanut gallery regarding my fight that night because I’d fought the previous week, but I was feeling really good. The timing felt good.
As I was lying on my back with my fists resting in my eye-sockets while the boys rubbed oil on me, I heard a voice near me say, “Hello Sylvie,” but when I looked up I was only half sure of who I was looking at. I said hello and smiled, thinking maybe that was Gareth, the boyfriend of “original Sylvie,” and even thought how strange it was that he’d be here without Sylvie and never considered that she was here too. Until, of course, in the middle of my shadowboxing I saw Sylvie run up.
Sylvie is amazing. She’s “original Sylvie” and to be more accurate she’s the original “Si-veeya Lanna Muay Thai.” She is my same size, Canadian, and fought out of Lanna for 3 years and reached 50 fights, an accomplishment that inspired not only my travel to Chiang Mai for training and a few fights three years ago, but also gave me the audacity to dream of reaching 50 fights myself. (A dream I will soon surpass.) Sylvie climbed Everest first, so to speak.
When I came out three years ago Sylvie had just retired and we trained together just a few times. She held pads for me and we box-sparred once, as well as one clinching session in which she just threw me to the ground about a million times. She’s amazing. Seeing her now at the gym was a wonderful surprise and also a great gift because I’ve wanted her advice on so many things over this past year and she’s just too much of a wild roamer to be reached online. She can teach me so many things!
Sylvie told me that she’d talked to Den and that I was fighting a girl she’d fought years ago, named Nong Ying. Sylvie said she’d lost once and won once, but couldn’t remember how she’d won. She added that Nong Ying had good hands, so keep my hands up and that she was bigger than we are. I was pretty excited to face the same girl Sylvie had fought, although she probably wouldn’t be much the same given the time that had passed. Who ever is?
At the Stadium
When we got to the venue I picked up the program and scanned it to see when everyone was fighting. Aryeh was scheduled first, I was 4th, JR was 5th and the German fellow was last, at number 7. My eyes moved over to where they list the weight for each fight because I knew Nong Ying was bigger than I am, so I wanted to see by how much. Normally my fights are listed at 50 kg and the girls I fight are near there while I’m generally a few kilos below it. The number staring back at me on this program was 65 kgs. My eyes bugged out in a cartoon-like exclamation and I showed the program to Den. “What?!” he said and then took my program and started looking around, maybe for the promoter. I’d noticed a second female fight listed, two fights after mine, and that one said 53 kg, so I assumed maybe they’d switched the order and forgot to correct the weights. Probably those girls were 65 kg and Nong Ying was 53 kg. Probably.
We laid down our mats and everyone crowded onto them. The energy was high but unfocused. I love the energy of the Thai boys but none of them were fighting tonight so they directed their excitement toward JR, who as a former fighter at Lanna (he still uses the gym’s name as his fight name, even in China where he lives now) who became a trainer, he stands in high regard as both an idol and a familiar, like a big brother. The boys hummed around him. At the same time they had to get Aryeh ready as he was the first fight of the night. The Thai boys wrapped his hands and told him to change before having him lay out to be rubbed down with oil. He’s around their general ages and he has been adopted into the group quite readily, but not without a share of hazing. Given the lack of common language between the Thai boys and Aryeh (who, I think, speaks Cantonese), he’s a really good sport about it.
I was also happy to have Pom (Andy’s wife and gym owner) sitting next to me on the mat, instructing a Frenchman on how to properly eat and enjoy the Thai food she’d just bought with him. I love when Pom is around; I always fight better when she’s present. She’s also a great energy at the fights. The matriarch of the gym, she sits on or near the mats and the boys just hover around her, draping an arm around her shoulder when she’s seated or wrapping themselves around her in a toddler-like embrace if she’s standing. Her cackle cuts through everything and she often sends the boys here and there to deliver things to her (like beer or food or finding persons) and they do so with a kind of comfortable determination, like little minions. I love her.
Aryeh hopped into the ring and faced his corner, waiting while his Thai opponent performed his Ram Muay. As JR’s student, it surprises me a little that Aryeh doesn’t perform one also. The announcer told the audience that this was a rematch and said the last fight was a close match a couple weeks ago. It was, in fact, a blowout exactly one week ago. Aryeh had faded quickly in his fight, being outworked and overcome by a good fighter whose aggression mounted as Aryeh began to demonstrate how defeated he felt by the pressure. The Thai boy had gotten his arms over the back of Aryeh’s neck and proceeded to throw endless knees – most of which didn’t even hit the body but were intercepted by Aryeh’s arms, which were wrapped around his torso in defense. They weren’t hurting Aryeh, but they sucked his energy and it looked terrible.
This fight started much better. Aryeh was throwing combinations at times and seemed to have a better presence in the ring. He wasn’t controlling the space, but he moved through it better. After the first two rounds, however, the Thai boy sprang to life and completely dominated Aryeh in the third round, driving him backwards after having spent the first two rounds backpedaling himself. Aryeh moved straight backwards instead of cutting angles and basically became this kid’s punching bag. Near the end of the third round it was clear Aryeh didn’t want any more of the fight and his face fell. Early in the fourth round he was knocked down and got a standing eight count. By now the Thai boy had his arms locked behind Aryeh’s neck and was again driving knees up into Aryeh’s crossed arms as if he were doing jumping knees on a bag. I don’t think they hurt Aryeh, but that it was the exact same thing that had defeated him last time – the embarrassment of it – did him in. The referee pulled the Thai boy away from Aryeh and then waved his arms in the air to call the fight. I felt badly for Aryeh, not for his loss but because I was envisioning the kind of training he would have to endure in the coming week in order to correct this giving up. Off had been sparring with Aryeh all week and had basically beat the crap out of him and Aryeh, with no other choice since JR stood in the ring with a switch in hand and whipped either boy for backing down or backing off, had withstood far more from Off than what had just happened in the ring. While I empathized with Aryeh’s certain torture in training as a result of this fight, I didn’t pity him. It’s better to learn how to deal with this kind of pressure from your own team for hours in practice than 10 minutes at a time, in public, from a stranger in the ring.
With none of the boys fighting and JR drawing so much excitement and attention the energy was unfocused. I knew I’d have to ask for my hands to be wrapped and for my oil rub based on my own attention to timing, making sure I was prepared with enough time to allow any of the fights before me to be shortened by a KO. My nervousness was increasing. I didn’t know what to expect from my opponent and everything felt disorganized. On top of that Sylvie was in attendance and even though she is a very kind person who would not judge me harshly, I wanted very much to perform well in front of her. Nervousness is not by itself a bad thing but what you do with that energy can be either helpful or a hindrance to the fight. I concentrated on keeping that energy flowing out in order to lead toward action rather than inward where it could lead to fear and recession.
As Off and Boy laced up my gloves Den stood a step away from me and looked me up and down. He was reading me, but I have no idea what he was reading off of me. He told me that Nong Ying was bigger than I am and that she has good punches and good kicks, so keep my hands up but don’t stay on the outside. He told me she didn’t have energy, so to go in and burn her out. “No more than 3 rounds,” he said. “And she hate knees,” he said and then repeated it, emphasizing the word hate.
I put my arms down by my sides and began shaking them out. Den smiled and asked if I needed help tying on my cup. He wasn’t joking. In my last two fights I got kicked and then kneed very hard in my groin and it hurts, a lot. The pain is immediate and can even impair movement a little bit (without the nauseating effect men experience) and results in a painful lump that can last a full week. On the advice of Natasha Sky from Sinbi Muay Thai down in Phuket, who said she’d seen her female opponents tying on cups before fights, I decided to buy one and train in it for a week or so to get used to it before fighting with one. When I asked Den to let me into the shop to purchase a cup he was beside himself, even though he’d asked me several times if women in the US wear cups and breast protection and had teased me by asking if I had a cup on more than one occasion before a fight. I told him now that I’d only trained in it once and wasn’t used to it yet, so no need to help me put it on right now. He excitedly explained the conversation to Pom who had just appeared next to him and she didn’t respond with any surprise at all. She knows. Then Den rummaged around in the equipment bag for a moment to find an unopened bottle of Vaseline and began rubbing it on my face, giving me instructions on what he expected in the fight as he did so.
Walking over to the ring, my stomach hummed like an agitated beehive. I crawled under the ropes and took my bows at the center of the ring, then came over to my corner and turned around so the referee could check my gloves. He held both wrists in his hands and inspected the yellow tape that covers the ties on the laces, then glanced down at my feet and checked my ears for earrings and whatever else referees look for. Then, without thinking at all, he let go of my hands and reached one hand down to tap where a cup would be to make sure the fighter is wearing one. (I believe this was an innocent “auto-pilot” mistake. Neung did the same thing a few months ago when finishing the Vaseline on my face but caught himself before touching me and burst into nervous laughter.) Feeling no cup the referee immediately realized his mistake and issued a quick apology to my stunned expression and then went to the other corner to check my opponent. I turned to face Andy to put the Mongkol on and, having witnessed the referee’s mistake, we shared a laugh. “Well,” he offered, “it’s a good story!” It looks like it’s time to start wearing my cup.
With my Mongkol on I turned now to face Nong Ying in the opposite corner before beginning the Wai Kru and thought to myself immediately that she was the biggest opponent I’ve ever faced. The difference in our weight is about 13 lbs and I could hear westerners in the audience commenting on the size disparity, one of whom was keen enough to note that it was the first time he’d seen a fight where the Thai was bigger than the Farang.
We sealed off the ring and as I leaned into Nong Ying’s corner I noticed a fresh, dark pearl of blood on the left side of the blue padding from the previous fight. I was careful not to disturb it and considered it an omen. Nong Ying’s Ram Muay was very elaborate and long, so I spent much time facing my corner as she performed (I look forward to the video so I can actually see it) and thought about what Den told me. I knew she’d be strong, she had good hands and good kicks – she was more experienced, bigger and probably a better fighter than I am – so I had to get inside and capitalize on my one advantage, which was that my gas tank could eat her gas tank for breakfast. I’d worked on low kicks a little bit during the week, so I figured I’d use that technique to keep my distance close, rather than falling to the outside.
“Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson
I didn’t get punched in the mouth, but one of the first strikes of the fight was a head kick by Nong Ying. I blocked it, but her foot curled around my block slightly and tagged my face just under my temple. It didn’t hurt, but it let me know where she was coming from. She punched hard and I noticed she dropped her hands when she did, an observation I was unable to take advantage of at the time. I maybe kicked her leg first – I landed a combination I’d been practicing that week of a low right kick followed by a left kick to the body and I landed both, which thrilled me and Nong Ying gave me a little nod of acknowledgement for the point before firing back – and maybe that’s what opened up the leg kicks because she went to town with them, landing many.
My corner was yelling for me to “step hard,” which means to close distance with a single, long step across to land a hard kick, which I wasn’t able to do. Nong Ying’s corner was yelling for her, in Thai, to knock me out, which she also wasn’t able to do but she was giving it a good try. Between rounds Andy told me sternly to “get in” or else I was going to continue being beaten up and Den told me to get in and knee her body. “One round only two minutes!” Den scolded and held up two fingers in emphasis. Quit waiting, he meant.
The second round was more of the first with Nong Ying landing hard strikes and pressuring me into the corner where she knocked me around while I did my best to cover and try to strike back. Unfortunately, I was only firing off one thing at a time, which was not enough to hurt her or even back her off most of the time. At one point I did land a stiff jab, which snapped her head back, but didn’t follow it up so it was lost. When I finally got in and we locked up in the clinch, my arms were in like T-Rex and I landed long knees. She did, too, but the difference was that I didn’t care. I could feel her starting to drain a bit. She flurried me in the corner again and the crowd responded to the sounds of her strikes and my corner screamed at me to “lock” and on the far side of the ring between my corner and a neutral corner we locked up again. I had my hands perfectly positioned, spread her elbows out and drove a right knee into her body. It connected and she collapsed. The ref gestured for me to get to the neutral corner while he counted and I hurried over, but by the time I turned around he was calling the fight.
My arms shot up in the air without my permission. I was so excited. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was getting my ass handed to me in that fight and I was excited to not only have powered through it, but to have finished it with the exact move that Den has been asking for (and finally working with me on). That as the real victory. (And I landed my first non-lame elbow.)
I walked back to the mats and received some very happy looks from my teammates and corner. I suspect that with the obvious size disparity and the ass kicking I withstood in the first two rounds, that the odds were against me and my trainers who placed bets made a good bundle that night. A perfect reward for believing in me.
After the last fight as we were all picking up our things from the mats to load into the truck I slipped past some of the boys to find JR. He was rubbing his hair with a soggy red towel, the oil, Vaseline, sweat and icy water from his fight causing his quasi-mohawk to stand straight up. He looked at me and put his fist out for me to bump it in the typical manner of teammates but I wai-ed to him instead. This is a complicated gesture between us. I think of JR as a trainer (I never knew him as a fighter for the gym) and hold him in my mind with authority and admiration, but he’s also younger than I am, so it’s not entirely fitting with social standings for me to wai him first. He looked startled for a moment (I do this all the time, so he wasn’t shocked but probably just didn’t know now what I wanted) but then I said, “thank you for sparring with me this week,” and he laughed before wai-ing back and saying, “thank you for sparring with me,” and then bumped my fist.
I turned around and bumped into Aryeh. He wore his disappointment like a fighter wears his sweaty, oil-soaked shorts after a fight: tolerating it because he has nothing yet to change into. The difference between Aryeh’s fight and mine was great only by the outcome. The true difference between our fights was actually very small and that difference was how we responded to the overwhelming pressure and better fighting ability of our opponents. Aryeh was pressed into the chaos and chose to allow his fear to be expressed as fear: he wore it on his face and the referee answered to it. I experienced the same pressure, the same dizzying chaos and yet I refused to let that fear come inward where it can become defeat. That breathless fear has to go outward and be transformed and expressed as energy moving back against your opponent. This is what JR was teaching me when he beat me up. If you let it in, if you give in to it – if you allow fear to become nothing other than fear – then it ceases to be a fair fight, as you are facing too many opponents in the ring.
The Whole Fight
my complete fight record
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