I told Den that I wanted to fight again right when I got back from the fight in Isaan. He just nodded in the way that Den nods, quietly and thoughtfully with a wry smile just barely touching his lips. I have no idea what he’s thinking when he does this, but I do know that he knows me well enough by now that he was utterly unsurprised by the request.
This fight was only 6 days after the fight in Isaan, so it was also short notice for whomever I would be facing, which led me to believe that it would be someone I’ve fought before and more than likely would be Yod Ying again, who is totally game for last minute scheduling. She’s a cool chick.
Custom Shorts First
We got to the venue and checked out the card. I was fighting fourth and my gym-mate was fighting fifth, so we had some time before anything resembling preparation would commence. So I checked in with Den and then headed over to a store front at the Kalare Night Bazaar that sells Twins gear and designs custom shorts. As we approached the vendor from the back end of the line of stores I saw a man standing in prayer to a shrine in the top left corner of the store. I’d never been in this store before – I got the address from a Canadian fellow at the gym who’d had some custom shorts made during his visit – and I walked quietly behind the man as he finished his ceremony and began scanning the wall of shorts. To my surprise, when he turned and approached me he addressed me by name and then told me I’m “very popular.” His store is a 2 minute walk from the stadium, so it’s not inconceivable that he’d seen me fight many times before, or saw my fight on Thai tv, but it was still amazing to me.
So we started designing these shorts together and Boyd (the store owner) turns out to be a very nice fellow. When I go to pick up my shorts next week I’m going to make a video and blog post about how to go about designing and purchasing custom shorts from him, so keep an eye out for that. These shorts are being designed as a top contributor reward for Jairo David Avila from my Kickstarter campaign which was used to make this website a possibility – thank you Jairo.
We walked back to the stadium and it was already filled up to a degree that seemed unusual, even for a busy Friday night. So I popped over to the area where our mat was laid down (which happened to be touching edges with my opponent’s team) and grabbed my gym-mate to go see the doctor. On our way over he was stopped by a Thai fellow who spoke very good English and introduced himself as if he were the opponent for the night, but I think he was just from the gym. There was a short discussion about switching corners because the opponent didn’t have the correct color shorts and since my gym-mate didn’t have the correct color for either corner he was happy to make the change. In fact, my gym-mate had been a little concerned about not having blue or red trunks because he’d heard from somewhere that the stadium was becoming more strict about the color of shorts for each corner. And while his shorts being black was somewhat more conducive to the blue corner than the red and this change-over probably felt very convenient for him, I doubt that the opponent was asking to switch to the red corner merely for the purpose stated. The red corner is the “home” corner and often the previous victor’s corner on rematches, so when big fights are set up or high money is being staked on bets an argument about who gets the red corner is expected.
Once all that was settled we did make it over to the doctor. Luc (my gym-mate) was unaware that a visit to the doctor is part of fights in Thailand and I quietly explained that it appears to have no bearing on whether or not the fight will go on and the medical is incredibly minimal – basically just taking a reading of blood pressure. We wai-ed to the doctor and Luc sat down first. As the doctor was taking his reading he signaled to me to take a photograph using a digital camera that he had on the table. I took a step back and focused on the two of them, the doctor continuing to go about the reading with his eyes down – obviously wanting a candid “at work” photo – and Luc gave a big smile. When we switched and I sat down in the chair the doctor had Luc take a picture of the two of us. I wondered if this was for him to show his friends or if he was using the images to document that fighters were indeed coming to get their blood pressure taken or what? I assume it was the former.
Once the fights began the progression to my turn to take the ring was very quick. As the fourth fight I reckoned they’d want to wrap my hands during the second bout, but the first fight was quite obviously not going to go the distance. The kid in the blue corner was gassing out hard in the first round. I didn’t see if he’d taken a bunch of knees or what, but he was pretty much saved by the bell in the first round, otherwise I wouldn’t have even expected a second. So I hurried over to the mats and sat myself down. When Big and Off saw that the fight was already being called they quickly both set about wrapping my hands, one working on each. Next to me was Luc, having his hands wrapped by Tor in a slow and careful fashion. But when the next fight ended in a quick knockout (again the second round, I think) Daeng jumped in to finish wrapping Luc’s hands and the boys hurriedly began my oil massage.
The third fight was between older fighters, perhaps trainers at some of the gyms in Chiang Mai. Their match up was pretty good and it seemed this one would go the distance. So I moved around, warming up slowly and starting to throw fast, hard combinations at the end of looser movements. I could feel my energy building up, feeling focused and charged in a very pleasant way. Den came over to me and after some deliberation between him and Daeng (who stated that he had Thai oil on his hands so he couldn’t rub Vaseline on my face), Den began covering my eyebrows, cheeks and nose in Vaseline. As he rubbed the petroleum jelly into my cheeks he spoke quietly, softly telling me what he wanted me to do in the ring. It wasn’t anything new, but the coolness and steady tone of his voice gave it the effect of an internal mantra – as if I were chanting these instructions to myself.
Going Over the Rope!
Just as Den was rubbing the Vaseline from his hands the third fight ended in a stoppage and it was time to go. I kind of love surprise starts like this and we walked quickly and with great purpose over to the red corner. I kicked off my shoes as the announcer gave my name and introduction, knelt down at the bottom stair and bowed my head, collecting myself as I always do before entering the ring, and then started up the stairs. I don’t know if Den wasn’t paying attention and was just on auto-pilot or if he was reading my energy, or if he was being transgressive (which seems unlikely, as that’s not so much Den’s style), but he was pushing the top rope down rather than pulling the bottom rope up for my entrance.
A note: due to superstition men enter over the very top rope into the ring, wearing a mongkol and prajaet, in order to not have any rope pass over their heads or the amulets and protective pieces that fighters wear into the ring. The position of the head and not going under things is a big deal in Thailand. You’ll see men walk all the way around a long wire or clothesline in order to not go under it. Women, due to this same superstition, are to enter the ring under the bottom rope so that our heads do not go over any amulet or charm that might be protecting a person or the ring itself. Because our heads going over the amulets negates them. It’s meaningful to go over the top rope and a direct objection to women that we must go under the bottom rope.
So here I am, looking at Den pushing the top rope down as if I’m a man entering the ring. I have a second, maybe two, to decide whether I point out his action as being unorthodox and basically ask to go under the bottom rope to preserve a custom I abhor and simultaneously risk causing Den to lose face for overlooking my gender; or I hop over the top rope because that’s what his action is indicating for me to do and act like it’s normal while simultaneously risking a strong displeasure from traditionalists and probably offending all the Thai men who overlook this disparity until it’s not followed. So I sprung over the top rope, as if I’d done it a million times (I don’t believe I’ve done it ever like this, although I did enter rings over the top rope in the US) and took my bows in the center of the ring. I have no idea whether Den realized what had just happened, but there was an uncomfortable adjusting of position in seats by the Thai officials around the ring as I wai-ed to and made eye-contact with each of them. Perhaps my foreignness offered a small buffer for the possibility of misunderstanding, but they knew and I knew and despite the torrent of conflicting feelings in my mind of what that action just meant, I thought it was awesome.
This fight I started out stronger than I have in probably the past 10 fights. I’ve been kind of wooed into the Thai style of taking the first round to feel everything out, which is not antithetical to anything about how I hope to fight, but because I’m a “slow starter” it ends up tipping me off into a direction of passivity that results in me either winning or losing a fight in the last two rounds. But I’ve got 5 rounds, even if 3 and 4 are the main scoring rounds you should use all of ’em. You can tire an opponent out early, set the tone, get them concerned about one particular weapon, or even just set up a pace that’s a good for you and not so much for the opponent.
I went into this fight wanting to try some things, to be more free in my performance and concern myself far less with outcome than with experimenting and just being athletic rather than demonstrating technique. I was absolutely more free in this fight than probably any other. I tried out my jab in the first round and it worked great – I was landing hands in combinations and my first low kick connected well enough to turn her leg red (which I noted from the corner between rounds) but I started hanging back too much in trying to connect with it again in later rounds. So it goes. Den was yelling for me to step in and kick, so I focused on just stepping in to kick. Yod Ying really only throws her left leg and left punch, so I started experimenting with blocking that first left kick and coming in with my right and it worked, every time.
The clinch was still difficult. The first fight between me and Yod Ying I lost because she just laid on me in the clinch and she outweighs me and I couldn’t muscle her. The next maybe 4 fights I won in the clinch with a string of knee KO’s and a victory on points. When we met two weeks ago she’d been working on throwing knees in the clinch to rack up points and she was strong in doing so – she solved me and losing that fight forced me to work harder on improving my clinch, which is great. This fight I was better at not getting myself turned sideways in the clinch but I’m still listening to the same instructions from Den on how to create distance for straight knees, so that’s a work in progress. If I lost this fight – and I don’t think I did, really – it was in the clinch. But it really doesn’t matter. I’m so happy with all the things I was able to try and the freedom with which I fought. Despite not liking to lose and yeah, winning would have been great, to be honest the list of things I wanted out of that fight did not specify an outcome, so ultimately I got what I wanted out of it either way.
When the ref gestured to the blue corner to indicate the winner I was surprised. Not mouth agape, “Oh my GOD! I was robbed!” type of surprise, but I had expected the decision to go my way. I felt I’d done enough and that she hadn’t, but it’s hard to tell from the inside. Watching the fight on video afterward confirms how I felt, but ultimately it’s the judges who make the decision and that’s where it ends. No big deal. When I got back to the mat and met Neung he told me I’d won and he was adamant about it. I smiled and listened to him as he interrupted the process of pulling tape off my gloves to give me thumbs up and then offered him a consolation, kruang naa, meaning “next time.” He shook his head and pointed down emphatically as he said, kruang nee, meaning “no! THIS time!” which made me laugh. I was happy to see him so convinced though because I was able to land my hands in this fight and that’s Neung’s territory – I was able to honor a little piece of all the work he’s done with me.
When we got back to the gym I hopped out of the truck and played with some of the dogs that trotted out of the shadows, all groggy with sleep and loving with excitement. I thanked Daeng for driving and Den for being in my corner as we started moving toward the driveway to go home. Den looked at me through his glasses, his eyes focused and his face serious and yet open, “You not lose that fight,” he said. “Maybe they were mad that I went over the top rope,” I joked and he looked steadily at me. “No,” he said firmly and then told me we needed to work on my clinch. He showed me how he wants me to keep my arms in close, like how boxers block body digs, keeping the arms from grasping around my body and controlling from the elbows. There was no mention that I’d stopped turning sideways, the thorn in Den’s side for the last 4 fights, only the emphatic aim to resolve this new issue. I love that. The consolation prize for training away a bad habit isn’t recognition of the change but rather it’s resignation to the backstory of whatever it is you’re working on now. Now is the reward for hard work and change is the measure for the accomplishments met.