It’s Saturday afternoon and my last day of training at Jitty Gym; Monday morning I head to the WMC gym on Koh Samui. The session today is lightly attended. I’ve done my five rounds of pads and now I’m on a heavy bag, doing intermittent sets of push kicks but really just trying to look busy. Between rounds I get out my camera and take quick portraits of the trainers. I’m spent, from the pads and the morning session and the whole ordeal behind me. I have a giddy, valedictory feeling about leaving. In the past two weeks, my body’s gotten fit, and I‘m stronger; I can throw ten kicks on either side in quick succession, head height, on command, and the tenth kick will be pretty good. And I’ve escaped any serious injury, which was a prospect I’d dwelled on every morning, in the minutes between waking and getting up to train. I’m about to duck out early but then someone tells me I’m sparring with Doni.
Doni is my favorite trainer. He is small and older than the other trainers, somewhere in his forties, with smooth, feline features that look more Japanese than Thai. He has a smile that suggests secrets, largely happy ones, and that literally never wavers; his smile is persistent as my nose. It lends him a magical air, like that of a man who’s also a cat and so is party to a lot of special info. He hugs you after every round.
We suit up and get started. I’m fighting very sloppy; my affection for Doni maybe blunts the nerves I usually get when I’m sparring, and I’m exhausted in any case. His corrections are gentle at first and then less so. My kicks get harder as I tire, because it’s too much effort to modulate them. Doni follows suit. First he winds me badly with a cross to the stomach. He asks beatifically if we’re to go on and I say we are, for whatever reason. A few moments later I throw a body kick that bounces harmless against his forearm, and he throws one into my ribs so hard that it pulls my knees to my chest and my feet off the ground. The gym erupts in laughter. I’m back up a second later but there’s no question of going on. Another trainer tries to get my arms over my head, to help bring my wind back, which I am perfectly capable of doing myself except I’m too winded to tell him so.
A few minutes before, the trainers were clowning for my camera and slapping my back, but none of them will meet my eyes as I leave the ring. Their laughter was not with me, I realize. I don’t feel hurt or humiliated, though, only irritated. I’d been kicked in the ribs by a master boxer, and I fell down, which seems eminently reasonable to me. What did they expect, I ask myself. And then that night I find out, or begin to.
After dinner, they pile about ten of us into the back of a pickup, and we drive a harrowing fifty minutes to a temple fight on the edge of Bangkok. Excepting the temples and the Muay Thai at its center, a temple fight looks a lot like the carnivals that roll through town on Independence Day, though with different fried snacks and rides that are shoddier by an order of magnitude, if you can imagine. But the midways are more or less identical; Farmer, a darts champion back home, wins bear after bear for his girlfriend and then one for Jitti’s wife, Sarah.
The fights take place in a grove behind the carnival area: an elevated ring surrounded by huge old trees with thin strips of white-glowing neon hanging from their boughs. It’s an all-ages crowd, relatively subdued because no alcohol is served on temple grounds. Two old jokers in Hawaiian shirts provide commentary from a table by the ring; their voices are so amplified that certain syllables vibrate inside my head like a length of wire.
The first fight is between two ten-year old girls. The second is between two boys who are considerably younger, seven or eight at the most. One of them is about a head shorter than the other, and he exhibits all the sang-froid you would expect from a tiny boy who is kickboxing before a large crowd. But he—like his opponent, like the two girls before them—is practicing what is recognizably full-on, if clumsy Muay Thai: kicks to the head and to the solar plexus, knee strikes and elbows (the principal aim of an elbow strike, if you do not know, is to open a cut in your opponent’s face bloody enough to make the referee stop the fight.) They fight as Thais always do, in tiny six-ounce gloves and without shin guards or head protection.
There is some confusion between the second and third fight. Earlier in the day, Jitti had been joking to Dylan and Farmer that they would have to fight tonight; now he is suggesting it in earnest. The opponent in question is a young Thai lingering behind us by the loud speakers. It’s hard to say just how old he is. He’s small, but we all know that doesn’t mean anything. He looks back at us without interest.
Dylan ran about five miles this morning, and he trained all afternoon, and now he’s more exhausted than I am. Meanwhile Farmer has barely trained at all since his fight last week, choosing instead to swan about with his new rich girlfriend—five seats down from me at present with a Prada clutch in her lap—who buys him fancy dinners and lets him drive her car. Neither’s in any position to fight if he wanted to, but Jitti keeps at them regardless. He goes cajoling from one to the other, and his mood darkens progressively. He says that they are letting down the gym. He calls them chickens and cowards. He tells them they should get up in the ring and apologize to everybody for not fighting, a suggestion that baffles us all.
Affable sociopath that he is, Farmer is not much bothered by any of this. He sits with his girlfriend and chews gum and half watches the fights. Dylan is a more sensitive soul, however, and he prizes Jitti’s good opinion of him and so is hurt by Jitti’s scorn. He goes over and over his reasons for not fighting, with me and with everyone else; I don’t think he needs a reason not to fight at some Bangkok county fair on a moment’s notice, and I tell him so, but he’s still upset.
Eventually Sarah comes over and talks with him. She’s Australian. She’s been married to Jitti about ten years, though as far as I can tell they don’t see much of one another. I eavesdrop on her conversation with Dylan, but we’re close to the speakers and a lot of what she says is lost to me amongst droning Thai and feedback.
She tells Dylan something about the Thai’s word for ‘fighter’ being derived from their word for ‘animal,’ and how the concepts are linked in the culture. Fighters are expected to be animals, she says; they have to be, or else they‘ll be taken advantage of. It’s inconceivable for a fighter not to fight because he doesn‘t feel like it, she says, that’s just something they wouldn’t understand.
I’d be pretty stupid not to have picked up on this somewhat already, but I’ve never heard it all laid out explicitly. It explains a lot, as does the sight of a seven-year old boy kneeing another one hard in the chest, before a cheering crowd.
By the time I started fighting my personality was pretty well formed already, and what attracted me was its contrast to who I was and the life I was leading. Since then I’ve become a competent boxer and I hope to be good at Thai boxing as well, but I’m not a fighter and I never wholly will be. I roll my eyes at the backpackers in Kho Sahn but I’m tourist here myself, obviously. When I crumple from a kick to the ribs, or decline to spar a loutish Brit with thirty pounds on me, or decline an order to kick harder when my partner’s not blocking quick enough, it’s as a tourist, who’s come to study Muay Thai. And I think these are reasonable things for a tourist to do.
But now I’m starting to understand how alien that stance must seem to a Thai fighter, and why the trainers at the gym seem so bemused and often hostile towards me. To them, Muay Thai isn’t one interest among many, but an identity; and so in their eyes my actions are perverse, a repudiation of the self. Probably it would be easier for them to understand if I was fat, or an absolute beginner, if I dropped in now and then for an hour. But I’m there every morning and every afternoon, and I know the sport, and if you stand me up in shorts next to a real fighter like Farmer, there’s not much in our builds to tell between us. Except there’s an essential softness to me that’s evident soon enough, and that I don’t think I could ever be totally rid of, or would want to be. I think that makes me something of a distasteful hybrid to them, and though I’m sure they’ve seen plenty just like me that doesn’t lessen the strangeness of it.
As the fights go on, it’s easy for me to feel the blows as they land because it’s evident by now that my ribs are bruised, though I’m not sure how badly. I’ve had bruised ribs before and they tend to linger for awhile, like a bad stomach cramp on one side that lasts a week or so; I meditate gloomily on this. Up in the ring, one fighter throws a head kick that seems to fall short, grazing the other’s face with a bit of foot; this second fighter takes a step forward, then cocks his head to an odd angle and half-pirouettes on his way down.
After the fifth fight, we see to our amazement that Doni’s hands are wrapped, and Jitti is rubbing his limbs with liniment. Like I said, he’s in his forties, which in terms of Thai boxing is positively Methuselan. It isn’t clear if his fighting has anything to do with Dylan and Farmer not fighting; it seems likely to me that there’s some connection, but I don’t speculate out loud.
As Doni climbs up, Jitti ushers us out of our chairs to ringside. The bell rings, and the music starts up: deep, insistent drumming, unsyncopated, and a whining oboe line that twists after itself, ourobouro-like. The first round of a Muay Thai fight is subdued, a series of discrete engagements where the boxers sniff each other out. The other fighter—younger by more than a decade, easy—snaps out a couple of head kicks and Doni parries them nattily, as if wagging a finger at him. I start to suspect I’ll be witnessing some sort of feel-good miracle. The first round ends; back in our corner, the trainers massage Doni’s legs and give him water, and for good measure Jitti gives him a slug from a can of Heineken, and we all laugh.
By the third round, though, the other fighter is starting to dominate, getting the better of Doni in most of the clinches. The trainers exhort us to bellow every time Doni throws a knee, and we do, but most of the knees aren’t landing. Doni’s smile is gone now, replaced with something grim that looks all wrong on his face. In the forth, he gets thrown hard to the mat, tries to rise, then collapses flat on his stomach. And that’s it. He looks like an old man as the trainers help him down out of the ring.
The last match of the night is Sak’s, another trainer at the gym. Sak—which is Thai for “tattoo“—is twenty seven, a year younger than me. Most of his two-hundred-odd fights are behind him. He’s lean and handsome—one of the girls at the gym told me she won’t train with him because she finds him too attractive—with lively eyes that go flat as a chalkboard when he fights. He can be charmingly insecure about things, though, and is always solicitous of our opinions on his hair and outfits.
His opponent is a fucking giant, maybe not much taller but a whole world thicker, around the legs in particular. His face is a horror show: a hair lip above a mouth where half the teeth are absent, and above that’s a nose so flattened it spans the whole distance between his cheekbones. It soon becomes evident how he got a face like that. He moves only forward, never back and apparently never down; in the second round, Sak spins him round with a right cross to the face, but he stays up, for that punch and any number of others to come.
At first a knockout seems inevitable, but by the fourth the giant has absorbed so much without comment that we have to reexamine our assumptions; Sak is miles ahead in points, but the giant seems to throw harder as the fight goes on, clumsy for the most part but coming very close at times; he’s stronger in the clinches, too, though he doesn’t seem to know how to press his advantage there. We holler along to every blow; I’ve never wished harm on a stranger so intently.
The fight ends wit a standstill in the fifth and final, maybe fifteen seconds from the bell; the giant lets his arms drop to his sides, silently conceding. They stand side by side as some official gets up into the ring to present Sak with first a very large trophy and then a small one, which is a separate prize for Fight of the Night. Sak seems as blasé about the win as he was about the fight itself beforehand. Later on that night I hold the big trophy and find it disconcertingly light, because it’s made of hollow plastic.
As we leave the fairground Dylan is remarking on how Sak had only two days preparation for the fight, on account of a split shin he’d picked up in a match last month. Sarah says that Sak’s been at it long enough to know what he has to do, that he’ll fight regardless of injuries or training. Ethan asks, rhetorically as always, if it doesn’t make you dead hungry to get in the ring, watching a fight like that. I honestly can’t say if it does or not, but he wasn’t talking to me in anyway.