En route to the Tiger gym in Phuket, I feel like maybe I’ve made a big mistake. Outside the truck it’s even hotter than it was this morning back in Koh Samui, and it’s overcast, something I haven’t seen since Bangkok. It’s about a forty-five minute drive to the gym from the airport, most of it on a four-lane highway with palm trees and the street lights alternating down the median, and timber poles strung with slack power lines and busy clusters of convertersion apparatus. There’s all manner of enterprise alongside the road, or seems to be; nearly all the signage is in Thai. And the buildings are mostly roofed pagoda-style, overlapping clay titles or sheets of corrugated metal made to look like tiles, but still it’s a familiar kind of sprawl; excepting the occasional temple and the jungles in the distance, this could pass for Southern California, and if you took out the palm trees too, it’s almost Delaware. I start to understand how big an island Phuket is, relative to Koh Samui, and that I might not be living a hundred yards from the beach this time.
The driver is adept at a fluttering double-honk, to draw the attention of any vehicle on the verge of drifting into us. He uses it a lot, always with cause. The radio is tuned to an English-language station that plays American music, which is a genre unto itself in Thailand. Taylor Swift. Radio Gaga, by Queen. Lil Jon. Aerosmith, Aerosmith.
A sign coming up reads “Tiger Muay Thai,” alongside a picture of a tiger, and we turn off. It’s quieter, suddenly, and shadier. The gym lies about halfway between two big roads, far enough from either one that you feel more isolated than you are. Forest grows right up to the road, palms and other frond-y sorts on one side and mostly birches on the other. It’s thick enough that you can’t see in past a hundred feet or so; the trees seem to run all the way back to the forested hills on the horizon, but that might be an illusion. Here and there are houses and little businesses; caged songbirds hang on porches where you might expect to see wind chimes, though there are some wind chimes as well. There’s a second Muay Thai gym, much smaller than Tiger, and a tin shed that sells cell phones and gasoline, and another with a pool table. Side roads lead down to little groves of bungalows for rent, occupied mostly by people training at the Muay Thai gyms.
Tiger gym is huge, five or six big open pavilions, each with its own ring and heavy bags. One of them houses UFC-style fighting cage. The pavilions roofs are supported by thick bamboo poles set into concrete bases. There are long skinny tin-roofed buildings where the students sleep, running through the middle and around the edges; the walls of these are made of concrete and bamboo as well, and the roofs are thatched, or probably faux-thatched, actually. The paths are lined with carved stones shaped like cresting waves. The lawns are well maintained. It’s all very picturesque, in the mannered fashion of a Disney village. I don’t mean that in a bad way.
The boxing facilities are all clean and relatively new; the mats sit flush and the canvas on the rings is taut and the bags are smooth leather lozenges. Back in Bangkok I was sort of charmed by the idea of a run-down gym, but by the time I left Koh Samui I was over it, thoroughly; the ship-shape state of things here is a relief. The periphery is all palm trees; there are potted fronds throughout, and hedges and wooden planters housing flowering bushes, red and white. There’s a well-appointed weight room, full of gigantic men. There’s a bar where you can order protein shakes and breakfast, and an air-conditioned office where you sit down at a desk across from a polite lady and matriculate, paying by credit if you want to. It feels like a college campus, brisk and orderly.
Tiger divides their Muay Thai program into beginner, intermediate and advanced classes; I figure I’ll be comfortable somewhere. My first afternoon I head over to the beginner pavilion, about a half hour before the start of class. It’s the biggest pavilion, with a full-sized ring on either side. I meet the instructor, Kai; he’s a small, older guy with small, hard eyes and a bandanna wrapped around his skull. He asks me where I’m from and I say New York; when he doesn’t say anything back I clarify that I’m from the States. He scowls at this and tells me that he knows where New York is, that’s he’s from Hawaii, and I apologize.
He asks me how long I’ve been training, and I tell him. I ask him whether he thinks I belong here in the beginner class or with the intermediates, and he says that we’ll see. He has skip rope in the meanwhile. They don’t have the thin nylon ropes I like to use, just the thick hollow hose kind; they’re too heavy for me to skip with for more than a minute or two at a time, but I cover this up by stopping frequently to stretch.
The rest of the students start drifting in. It’s a big class, close to thirty people, and a much more diverse group than I‘m used to; some of the students look to be in their forties, and some of them are pretty fat—one of them is really fat—and if others are quite fit then most are just normal, healthy people without tattoos, which aren’t the kind of people I‘ve been seeing lately. We line up to shadowbox before a wall-length mirror, and I stand out; I’m not all that muscular, but everything that’s not muscle has melted off by this point, leaving me lined all over by veins and ridges, like a comic book drawing. Also my skin is shiny with boxing liniment, and my chin is tucked down to my Adam’s apple, as has been drilled into me, and this gives me a pissy, feral look. The other students keep glancing over, and I’m vaguely embarrassed, like I’m trying too hard. I feel like I’m one of those douchebags in spandex who tear over the Brooklyn bridge on a triathlon bike.
Most of the class is new to Muay Thai; for a few of them it’s literally their first session ever. Many aren’t wearing proper boxing shorts, and one guy is actually wearing a baseball hat, which I think is bad form. I run drills with a middle-aged Swede; he introduces himself with a corny, grandpa-style joke; he’s glacially slow.
By now I’m thinking that I don’t belong here, but I keep quiet. Kai seems like a hard ass—he walks around with a reed cane, and apparently he’ll use it if you slack off—and I don’t doubt that he’ll keep me here out of spite if I start bugging him. And I haven’t seen the intermediate class, after all, and at least three or four of the younger guys seem at least as fit as I am; one in particular is definitely faster. The class is long and plenty rigorous in any case: a few rounds of technique, then three rounds of bag work, then three rounds of pads and then sparring, with every round punctuated by push-ups. In the end, though, things takes care of themselves. After my first round of padwork, the trainer with the pads tells me I’m in the wrong class. It’s gratifying; it may in fact be my first piece of positive reinforcement since getting here.
I don’t feel good for long, as per usual. Kai takes me over to the intermediate class the next day. It’s back to hard abs and sleeve tattoos, which maybe I hadn’t been missing after all. Everybody is a lot bigger; guys who look short from across the floor still have three or four inches on me; my body in the mirror looks too thin. I can’t imagine sparring with anybody here, but I don’t have to yet; sparring’s only on alternate days, with Tuesdays and Thursdays focused on clinching and grappling. Clinching with someone who’s stronger can be frustrating, but you won’t get hurt, unless they’re being a real dick about it.
I’m partnered with a chubby British guy; he’s been taking the beginner classes but it’s his last day so they’ve let him come up to the intermediates. We clinch about twelve minutes straight. He outweighs me by about forty pounds but doesn’t know what he’s doing; I’m mostly in control even before he gets exhausted, maybe three minutes in. After it’s over l tell him that he’s quite strong, which is true, and he thanks me and says I have better technique, and I think to myself no shit. But I’m really just worried about tomorrow.
I’ve been afraid off and on since I got to Thailand, always in the same way. It’s a mix of things. It’s a fear of being injured—distinct from a fear of pain, though I’m afraid of that too sometimes, especially when I’m still hurting from something else—and so sidelined, for a day or a week or indefinitely. My identity by this point is so bound up with training that missing just a single morning leaves me dejected, like I’ve let somebody down. Not being able to train at all would seem to require a reconsideration of myself daunting as growing a new face. Overdramatic, but that‘s how it is right now.
It’s also a fear of being seen as a fraud. Because I do think I’m a fraud like when I’m scared, that everybody else belongs, and I’ve slipped in amongst them somehow, against my own best interests; I feel like I’m in a burning building, wearing a fireman costume. I’m going to get hurt, and it’ll be my own fault, and those injuries will be proof of what I really am.
Luckily I’m afforded two opportunities every day of confront and overcome these fears, and the subsequent absence of fear—a thing people tend to take for granted—makes the runup feel almost worthwhile. On Wednesday afternoon I show up for class and everything is fine, as it tends to be. I’m up first against Magnus, a Swede about my own size. We’re a pretty good match for one another. The other guys in the ring are much bigger than us, and I figure we’ll be partnered up for all five rounds, but we‘re not. In the second round I‘m put with a far larger Swede. But that ends up fine too; he knocks me around some as I try to find a way inside, but I keep my chin tucked and most of his punches bounce off my forearms or my forehead, harmless. He‘s not quite quick enough to get in any uppercuts, which is what he needed to do. I keep my kicks low; I can tell he‘ll grab my leg the second it goes above his waist. Three minutes isn‘t long enough for me to figure much out beyond that—though I’m not sure I would even if I had fifteen—but he’s at least a half foot taller than me, so it feels like enough to keep it together.
It goes on like this. They’ve done a good job here cultivating an atmosphere that feels calm and safe. Some of the people here are quite new, and some have already had fights, both amateur and professional, but everybody tends to reign themselves in as appropriate. It helps that the sparring is preceded by some ninety minutes of technique and padwork, which will blunt anyone’s aggression; it helps as well—or at least it helps me—that a lot of the better fighters are newly arrived in Thailand, and thus crippled by jetlag. Most of the time, the sparring is just as it should be: we regard each other less as opponents than as problems to solve; you land things just hard enough to make a point, to indicate a vulnerability. Maybe a little harder. I’m learning a lot from these classes.
More to come soon.
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