Fighting in Thailand
The Wild, Wild East
There’s five of us packed into a small hatchback on our way to Chiang Mai boxing stadium. Me, my pad holder Datsun, Kru’s Tomi and Mart, and Veeranoot. The radio is playing Thai rock music and Datsun and the other three are talking loudly about something. I can’t understand a word of it given that my Thai is virtually non-existent, and at this point, the nerves are starting to hit me, so I just try to think about fighting hard and giving a performance that I can be proud of. All my trainers have always told me to just have “Jai Dee” or good heart because that’s what matters most. Datsun is in the front seat smoking a cigarette to help with his nerves while he wraps his own hands, and he does a better job of it himself in the front seat of a car going down the highway than most of the coaches I’ve seen wrapping their fighters hands back home. He and I are both fighting tonight. He’s definitely one of the most eccentric people I’ve ever met but right now he seems so calm.
We get to the stadium and manage to sneak our teammates past the doorman, so they don’t have to pay the 400-baht fee. There’s no weigh-in process at these fights. Until you get to the level of being a Bangkok stadium fighter you kind of just give them your word. But even still they may match you up with somebody way smaller and with more experience, or bigger than you with less experience or they may just put you with a giant who has 15 kilos on you because they needed an extra fight to complete the card. You got to be ready for everything because you don’t ever know anything. It’s about 8:50 now and the fights start at 9 so Mart wraps my hands in a hurry, and because I forgot to go to the pharmacy, we have to use tape with training wraps. Afterward, I change and get my massage. The Thai oil from the massage is burning my eyes and nostrils. I keep buying bigger bottles so i’ll have some left for my next fight, but no matter how big the bottle my trainers always use the entire thing. If I brought them a gallon jug, they would dump the whole thing on me.
Kru Tomi and Mart are going to be our cornermen tonight and Tomi looks sober this time which is good because the last time I fought at Anasarn market all the trainers started drinking hours before we left. Afterward, I just sit and watch the fight ahead of me because there’s nowhere to warm up at Chiang Mai boxing stadium. Just a closet-size room with two tables for Thai oil massage that stinks up the whole stadium. Thapea had a warm-up area although I expect nobody uses it much. It’s just one heavy bag hanging up next to the ashtray where all the spectators are smoking. Back home I was used to shadow boxing and hitting mitts to warm up before a fight, but here you usually just stretch a bit, because you don’t want to give anything away to your opponent who’s looking and there’s usually no room anyway.
As I watch the fight I’m looking around for my opponent. I see him over by the blue corner massage room and I can pick him out not because I saw his picture on the flyer, he looked nothing like it, but because he’s the biggest Thai over there. I wonder if he knows I’m his opponent because they had a picture of some random white guy on the flyer next to my name which they spelled “A-Lex.” The promoters usually screw something like this up on every flyer. Last time my friend Tia from Germany fought they wrote her name “te-a” and said she was from Sweden. My friend Audrey from France had her name spelled “Alday.” I told her that should be her ring name.
I was the third fight on the card tonight, after a couple of kids fights. I guessed them to be about ten or twelve years old. It’s hard for me to watch honestly. Everyone finds it super cute when they see 8 years old’s training but when you see them up there landing blows on developing brains while the locals and tourists flash hand signals at the bookie to place their bets it’s not so cute anymore. I’m wondering who runs the gambling as I watch and wait. At Chiang Mai boxing stadium there’s always a lot of bikers. I’ve even seen Hells Angels a handful of times. I guess they have chapters or clubs in Thailand now; go figure.
After I sealed the ring I almost tripped over the corner pan. I don’t think anybody saw but Tomi thank god. These things are great by the way I don’t know why nobody else uses them. When you go to your corner before the fight and between rounds they put the giant metal pan down in the corner and set the stool on top of it so that it catches all the water and you don’t have as many fighters slipping when they throw kicks.
Our fight goes three hard rounds, but I manage to get the finish with a short right hook from southpaw. I never train southpaw, but I always switch in my fights and I don’t know why that is, but it paid off tonight. I have a lot of power in my right hand and left kick, so it just feels good to have that power hand up front and make that power kick just a bit quicker. Datsuns fight was after mine and man was it a war. Datsun comes from Laos actually and he’s a Muay Matt fighter meaning he specializes with his boxing and doesn’t particularly like to kick or clinch too much. The guy sitting next to me tells me that none of Datsuns fights ever go to decision. He either knocks them out or they knock him out. A pure fighter, but unfortunately Datsun was the one who went down in the fourth from a left head kick.
We all take pictures in front of the wall and grab our pay and head out. The promoter only gave me 2,850 baht tonight, but I don’t know how to argue for my 3,000 or feel like trying. He probably figures I’m American I don’t need the money. As we’re walking out several people stop me and congratulate me. The Thais do their best to say congratulations in a respectful way with their limited English. One man kept saying “God bless you, you good fight, God bless you.” Somebody must have told him that’s how you congratulate an American. I love this though; people wanting to take pictures with me, little kids give me high fives, it is unreal. As we’re walking out the door I ask Tomi and Mart if they want beer or 7-eleven. It’s customary to tip out your trainers with your fight earnings if the gym is supplying you with room and board, but for me and most westerners who are paying for our training and accommodations, you usually just buy them some food or a few drinks. As we get close to the car, I’m hoping the ladyboys aren’t out working. It’s amusing the first few times you get propositioned, but man does it get annoying quick.
I still love it though as part of the atmosphere. It ties in nicely the sideshow craziness of fighting out here that I love so much. Fighting in Thailand is steeped in tradition and culture, but it’s grimy too. There’s such a beautiful juxtaposition to it. Everything is always just a bit off, but never an ounce of respect lost like back home. There’s always something wrong when I fought back home too. Somebody misses weight, or the doctor didn’t show up, or something, but out here for some reason these things don’t bother me, it’s part of the experience. Maybe not an experience everyone would love as I do though. Fighting in Thailand is for those of you who would rather hang out in Queens than Manhattan. For those of us who like the hole in the wall, and the roach coach food trucks. For those of us who love the dirty, broke and free. For those of us who embrace a deeper brand of stoicism than the typical fighter back home. We don’t care if they are bigger or more experienced, we’re not going to ask for their record upfront, were not going to study the footage and game plan. Fighting in Thailand isn’t for glory, or money, it’s for love.