At the Gym Before the Fight
I was meant to fight on Monday, February 25th but that turned out to be a holiday and there weren’t any fights in Chiang Mai that day. So when I arrived at the gym on Sunday night for some day-before-fight ringwork with Kevin I discovered that my fight had been moved to Tuesday. That would have been no problem at all except I had only a few hours ago purchased bus tickets to the border in order to complete my last border run on my first year’s visa. Bah! Through a few phone calls to Daeng and Den it was finally sorted out that I’d fight on Friday, so I suddenly had three more days of training.
On Wednesday, the last full day of training before Friday, Den walked past me at the gym and said, “you know you fight the same girl as before,” and when I confirmed he meant Yod Ying he nodded, but didn’t smile. He was still super pissed about my last fight with Yod Ying two weeks ago., which he felt I’d won and the judges determined I’d lost. Den doesn’t really stay upset about things, so I was surprised to see that he was still bothered. He showed me in pantomime how he wanted me to keep my elbows in tight to keep her from closing her arms around my body in the clinch and then to pry myself back and knee straight. This became the one mission Den had for this fight – just this one thing.
There were four of us scheduled to fight on Friday but when I arrived at the gym a few hours before the fight for my oil massage and shadowboxing I saw two more names added to the fight board. It was now: 1) Tor vs. Australia; 2) Boy; 3) Off; 4) Sylvie; 5) Cedric; 6) Aryeh – all versus Thailand. Tor and Aryeh were the additions and I was excited to see Aryeh’s name because it meant that JR, a former fighter turned trainer who then moved to China to be a fighter and head trainer, was back at Lanna. I saw him over by the ring and wai-ed to him in greeting before he came over and sat next to me for a few minutes. I really like JR. I’m devising ways to take full advantage of his being around for the next 2 months.
Sometime in the process of all of us getting our oil massages and shadowboxing I went over to the rings and watched some of the sparring. Everyone who saw me kept asking, “aren’t you fighting tonight? Why are you training?!” And I had to keep explaining that I was just shadowboxing like all the other fighters, but I guess it didn’t come off that way… or everyone knows me by now and it’s totally conceivable that I would be training right before a fight. Who knows? So I’m sitting on the ring and Den hops up to the corner where there’s always an iced bucket of water and he dips his cup in for a drink and then flings the water about 15 feet out to the picnic table on the lot where Aryeh is sitting with his head down on his forearms like a drunk dude at the bar. The water splashes over him and he doesn’t even move. Aryeh is from China and doesn’t speak English or Thai – he’s JR’s student and he comes over when JR has to come back for his visa, has a few fights and trains up with the boys because in China he’s the only kid at his gym, otherwise full of old men – so because none of us speak Chinese and JR isn’t around at the moment none of us can ask whether Aryeh is sick or just tired. He starts kind of flopping around and his dad is with him at the table but I’m reading his father’s energy as somewhere between the vastly different states of concern and tolerance. Somewhere in there.
Den shakes his head and everyone goes on with their business but I keep watching Aryeh who stands up for a minute and kind of walks slowly over to where I am between the rings, grabs at his sides and winces, then walks back to his dad and basically collapses into his lap. What the hell is going on? I’m not sure whether Aryeh needs a doctor or is being a teenager with what my Thai language teacher calls “political sickness,” the illnesses that come on conveniently when it’s time for school or so you don’t have to go fight. I’m sure he’ll be taken care of but I’m curious whether he’ll fight tonight. JR is pretty old school and I suspect he might be pushed to fight regardless of being tired or sick or whatever because in Thailand fighting is your job and you just do it. Hours later when we got to the venue Aryeh seemed fine. I asked Den whether Aryeh was sick earlier and he explained that his whole theatrical display was about the massage oil feeling very hot on his body. “He 18 years old,” Den explained.
Wayne and Me at Kalare Stadium
I meet some cool people through my online social media and Wayne Lam is someone I’ve been talking to through my facebook page for almost a year now. He had plans to come to Chiang Mai for training and now that he’s arrived he was kind enough to show up to the stadium to say hello to me, even though he was too tired to stay out for the fights. I was very happy to meet him face to face and I also appreciate that he’s training right if he’s too tired to stay out. He’s training over at Team Quest, who we see on the same cards as us all the time, so I’m really excited to see Wayne fight when his time comes around.
With six of us fighting our camp had one fighter in every single bout on the card. That’s pretty awesome. But it also means that we had to assembly line our hand wrapping and oil massages. Neung wrapped my hands right away while the first two boys got oiled and put their gloves on. We felt like a reckoning, all of us packed together on the mats in fight mode, relaxed and wired at the same time, like when a tree is filled with a flock of birds.
I make many trips to the bathroom before a fight. If I got as excited about weigh-in as I do before fights and peed this much I would make weight in an hour. It’s ridiculous. But I kind of like moving back and forth across the parking lot because it’s like those homemade “wave machines” where you put colored water and oil in a bottle and watch them swish back and forth, forming little rolling waves. When I move from the stadium to the bathrooms, which are technically part of the shops across the way, I pass from people who know me by name and are looking at me to see whether they’ll bet on me to people who are unaware that there’s are fights going on tonight and they watch me walk with my hands wrapped or in my shorts and they stop to stare or ask me, “are you a boxer?” with true intrigue. “Yes,” I say, “you should come over and watch,” and sometimes they do.
Every time I walked out the front gate Den would look at me and then pantomime the inside elbow defense and knees he wanted. He told me that he did not speak to my opponent’s trainer tonight because he doesn’t want it to be like last time. He was still so pissed. (Turns out he didn’t even lose money in that last fight, which I’d assumed was a large portion of why he was upset. He hadn’t bet a single Baht, he was just upset because he truly believed I’d won. He did bet on me last night and told me that if the judges went wrong again he’d refuse to pay, “they can come find me,” he threatened.) I would nod and say I understood and inside I was thinking to myself that the only thing I have to have in my head for this whole fight is to do this one thing Den is asking. Everything else is free – I could move backwards the whole time, run in circles or only punch with my left hand so long as I do what he’s asking regarding the elbows and knees.
When we were standing in the middle of the ring with the ref giving us instructions I noticed that Yod Ying wasn’t looking at me and she looked displeased. I’ve seen this version of her many times – this was, in fact, the seventh time we’ve fought (facing the same opponent many times forces improvement in many ways) – but usually she looks upset after a couple of rounds and in the last couple fights she’s been the victor so she was more willing to smile from across the ring or whatever. Not today. That’s okay. In the first round I wanted to try something different. We know each other as fighters pretty well by now and I know that she expects me to come in and go after her. So I didn’t. I kept where I was and waited to force her to make a move and for the most part she didn’t. Even the ref looked confused.
The second round Yod Ying started using her right hand to kind of jab loosely in the air – it’s not a jab and isn’t meant to be – but generally she does three things: left kick to left punch, hold tight in the clinch and knee. So all I had to worry about was dealing with her left kick and maybe having it followed by a left punch that doesn’t usually land with much power. (She did break my nose in our second fight with a left punch, but it was a singularly good shot and I am grateful for the experience because it finally got me to keep my damn hands up.) In our last fight I blocked the kick and crashed in with my right a few times, which worked really well, even if it’s not a high scoring option. I had this in mind here, but didn’t quite return to it. I remembered to jab in this round and pushed her into the ropes with it, followed up with clinching and exactly the knees Den doesn’t want me to throw, but I was getting there. My elbows were creeping in with every clash and I started getting her head down. And I threw some double kicks, which makes me really happy. At the end of this round when the ref breaks our clinch Yod Ying walks straight to the middle of the ring and the ref taps her shoulder to make her turn to face me. Facing each other in Muay Thai is huge in Thailand (it’s why Den gets so mad when I get myself sideways in the clinch – it looks weak) and I was pretty amazed to see this interaction.
Between the second and third rounds Den told me to just go in and Andy said pretty much the same. I know not to fight on the outside but I really didn’t want to crash in with my head forward and get knotted up with no purpose and for whatever reason I only remembered to jab for a few seconds in the second round, so my boxing was pretty much offline. That said, I came out in the third round with much more intention. I didn’t feel it so much in the fight but I can see it watching it now. I was throwing combinations, kicking on two sides and followed a superman with a kick. All of this is an improvement and all of it will continue to improve from here. Little seeds. At about 1:25 I finally – finally – get my elbows on the inside at the start of the clinch and start throwing straighter knees like Den wants. I could feel Yod Ying being hurt by them, I could feel her struggling to get loose and fading at the same time and I knew I only had to throw a few more and she’d be done but she turned sideways and walled me with her thigh – I pulled back and threw some more knees and tried to turn and then we got stuck and the ref broke us up. My corner was going nuts.
At the end of the round we get tied up in her corner and she’s turning sideways again. From here I can push her head down and it’s not quite far enough for my first knee but the next knee is higher and I think she was trying to bow out at the same time and I get her straight in the nose as the ref jumps in and uses his knee to block my third knee, which never goes and then the bell rings. I felt that I hit her in the face – it feels different on impact than hitting firmer parts of the skull – and I also know what it feels like to be kneed in the face because Off did it to me in clinching a few months ago and broke (re-broke) my nose. When I got over to the corner Den was emphatically telling me to do what I’d done for a few seconds in that last round, to get those knees going and keep my elbows in to keep from being gripped too tight. He wants me to destroy Yod Ying in this fight. I sit down on the plastic stool and I’m looking across the ring at Yod Ying in her corner and she doesn’t look in it anymore. The ref is standing in front of her and she’s not looking at him, he shrugs his shoulders and then comes over to my corner and holds up 4 fingers to indicate the start of the 4th round. I guess she’s game and I’m thinking to myself she’ll either have her hands up and I have free access to kicking her body or she’ll not have her hands up and I have to jab the hell out of her face. (When she broke my nose in our second fight she would push her glove into my face every time the ref broke the clinch, trying to make it bleed more for a doctor stoppage or to make it so I couldn’t breathe, I reckon.)
The bell sounds and I stand up, kicking some ice shards to the corner of the ring. The ref is over at Yod Ying’s corner and she’s not getting up. He turns and motions for me to get to the neutral corner, which I do, and he’s counting her out. She refused to get up, so technically the KO was from not coming out of her corner at the start of the 4th round. The crowd was cheering, my corner was yelling and I just kind of felt like I had a lot of intention with nowhere to put it. I met the ref in the center of the ring and did the little circle with my hand up, then went to Yod Ying’s corner to say thank you and sorry – she didn’t acknowledge me at all and her left eye was already black and puffy underneath, maybe from the first knee – and then ducked out of the ring. Some people in the audience were enthusiastically congratulating me and I made eye contact with a few that I knew, acknowledging them as I passed, and when I got back to the mats a few of the trainers appeared from the gambler’s pit because everyone else was over at the blue corner now for Tor’s fight. Neung and Nook talked to each other mostly as they untaped my gloves and Neung’s wife blotted my face and hair with an orange hand-towel I’d lent to Neung earlier after he’d put Vaseline on my face. There is a sweetness and comfort to this kind of “tending” that is unlike anything else.
The first fight of the night had been Off and he lost the decision. He came back to a mat full of people waiting to fight and no trainers or cornermen since they were now up at the ring for Boy’s fight. Neung had untaped the gloves and started unwrapping Off’s hands but once the initial layer of tape was removed Off excused himself and went to take the rest of it off by himself on the far side of the fence where we were stationed. He didn’t want the tending and I could feel there was nothing to say. In a way that’s what the real reward of winning a fight is, the way it affects all the actions that take place afterward – because they occur either way – but the difference between peeling sweaty, melted tape off your own hands or letting someone else bother is perhaps a bigger difference than it might seem from the outside.
The Whole Fight