JUST ANOTHER SATURDAY night shindig. You know the scene; popular club, sweaty dance floor, groovin’ with girls who were either uninterested or spoken for (the story of my life is largely one platonic mishap after the next). Some rempit douches who’d won enough street races to pay for the cover charge decided to hop off their bar stools and grind their Jakim-repressed crotches into my friends. I just gawped at them, flaccid as f*ck, hoping against hope they’d tire soon enough. The only testes I could summon would’ve opened with an apology. “Sorry gentlemen, but these girls actually have boyfriends. I’m just a friend of theirs of course, but surely you can understand and give us some space.” God Almighty… was I a blue-waffled pussy. One of the hotter girls, clearly used to ‘overt’ sexual advances, shoved the bandleader off her hips, jabbed a finger in his face and screamed, “No!”

Thankfully those mean boys slinked off sniggering, triumphant in their shutout. Phew… She saved me too! If they had looked to me for a retaliatory response, I might have cried. Apart from that, I had an awesome youth. But that sort of emasculation never really leaves you. Quite
the contrary. I’ve used it many-a-time to fire-up the old pecker if a willing partner asks for a little something-something to help her sleep. 

“Yeah, daddy’s gonna give you what you want! Cos daddy’s a man who takes charge. He takes control of numerous situations that require any
form of machismo whether real or imagined. Oh yeah, daddy knows what his baby girl needs…”

“Ummm yeah, please don’t steep it too long. I hate it when you burn my tea.”

Combat sports then, felt like an appropriate option to discover the masculine chutzpah I’d never known. As if the world needs more examples of men grossly over-compensating. Short-ish Napoleon was all chippy and aggressive, Saddam Hussein had thousands of portraits, statues and murals erected in his honour, Benito Mussolini often portrayed himself as a valiant sportsman and a skilled musician, and Vladimir Putin currently enjoys topless horse-riding, hosting public judo sessions and hunting with machine guns.

I started Muay Thai several years back, always playing the jolly fat f*ck, training hard enough to be out of breath but always ready with witty quip. There’s the classroom comedian, and then there’s the gym bozo. A year back I changed jobs and started writing for you guys and found a new gym nearby. This one had real Thai fighters as coaches. Guys who stripped old cinema banners to make canvas hand-wraps. Folks who ran 10km for the AM warm-up and another 4-6km for the PM session. Basically people who exchanged stitches and welts for a warm meal and a skinny mattress at the end of the day. Ironic that the most vicious form of unarmed stand-up fighting comes from the land of smiles and Buddhist zen.

One sunny afternoon, my coach calls me over by my fearsome fight name, “Doremon, you want fight or not?” and without missing a beat, “Ok, you fight.” I was scared to say I was scared. So it happened. And training began for the first time with real meaning. I wasn’t kicking bags because I was told to, I wasn’t punching mitts because it was part of our routine. Nothing sharpens your focus like the foreknowledge that in a few weeks, someone will try and take your head off. I trained six days a week, morning and evening. Thai trainers have a saying, “you don’t run, you don’t fight.” Running—or labored jogging in my case—is as important to fight training as Rocky Balboa showed us on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

It is absolutely vital for basic conditioning. If you’re out of breath after kicking the pads, your trainer will ask why you’ve been sauntering down the road and wolf-whistling lady boys. Of course he doesn’t say ‘sauntering’. He shouts so the whole gym can hear, “You lie me! You got running or not? You walking I know… look for lady boy for boom-boom.” I’m like, “This is Hartamas dude, not Pattaya. LOL.” My coach can be so hysterically funny. And then he stamps his foot into my gut and doubles me over. BOOM!

To say training gets ramped-up is sorta under-selling the experience. With the stratospheric popularity of MMA, there are tons of promising ditties like “10 Exercises To Get You In Fighting Shape” or “High-Intensity Boxing For Endurance and Strength”. I’m not being a prick, but that’s the stuff little boys do. Not that you should feel ashamed for punching air in Body Combat; that shit looks properly menacing. Fight gyms that produce champion warriors have a simpler approach to training. They start with a couple of basic techniques, reminding you move your feet before moving anything else. Then you stand in front of a mirror, forward step-punch-backward step-repeat, until it looks natural enough. This is called shadow boxing. Then it’s hitting the bags with your knuckles, shins, elbows and knees. Each bag round lasts 3 minutes and we do a total of six to eight rounds. Finally I’ll hit the pads with my congenial trainer.

The problem is Malcolm Gladwell. The often misquoted, counter-intuitive, writing wunderkind(five of his five books made the New York Times best sellers list) says, “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” Wanna be awesome? So insanely awesome you might join the ranks of Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt, Michaels’ Phelps and Jordan? You might once you hit that 10k. That’s ten thousand hours of  concentrated shadow boxing, bagwork, sparring and conditioning. That’s forward step-punch-backward step until the boredom breaks you down. It’s like running on a treadmill with a wall three feet from your face for hours on end. Repetition ad infinitum is the name of the game. Like Bruce Lee concurs, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 different kicks, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

You commit to this not only for slick skills or a hardened body. You pledge to this because more than anything else, you’re building the resolve that when D-Day comes and you have to storm the beach, you’ve manned-up to all the reasons that almost made you throw in the towel; fear of defeat, fear of pain, fear of rejection, fear of disappointment, fear of humiliation. 

Luckily, just before I scream “I quit”, the coach says to put on a mouth-guard and jump in the ring. Since I’m training for a fight, I don’t get to spar with the girls. Instead I get a guy I can’t even touch. I throw one punch, he ducks and throws three more before I realise he’s moved two feet to my left. I turn and adjust by which time he’s landed a shin on my temple. After five rounds, I’m spent, dejected, and pissed off because everyone said I looked really sharp just a half hour before, beating up a inanimate bag.

“Tomorrow, more running,” coach says.

Slowly I get whipped into slightly better shape. Weigh-in day arrives and all the fighters turn-up to ensure they’re competing at the pre-agreed weight limits. This is paramount, because any weight difference gives the heavier guy an advantage. His strikes are heftier, it’s harder to yank him off balance in the clinch, and you’ll tire much faster. A two-kilogram weight difference is all it takes. Ask a road cyclist why every gram matters and he’ll tell it like it is. 

When I meet my opponent for the first time, he looks nervous. He’s looks more muscly so I’m not sure why. Why does he look more muscly? Too late to ruminate. We shake hands and head off for dinner. It’s nothing like what you see on TV. All that gnashing of teeth Conor McGregor does is to hype up the pay-per-view. Even the seasoned professionals fighting after our amateur bouts are eating at the same table. Everyone knows showboating means jackshit when you’re swallowing your own teeth. See, Muay Thai gloves are well padded but fighters’ knuckles are taped and bound so compact they could punch through concrete. Then there are the elbows they love to throw. Most aim just above the eyebrow so that when a cut opens up, blood gushes into the eye, obscuring vision and ending the fight early. Other nasty surprises are knees to the liver, kicks to the thigh (everyone, and I mean everyone, breaks down after several well placed strikes) and those dreaded shin-on-shin blocks. The logic is sound though; if an opponent wants to rattle your rib-cage, you should meet his kick with your own shin to remind him that if you get hurt, he gets hurt too.

The next day all the amateurs turn up for one final body screen before we’re cleared to compete. That means we find a nice comfortable spot somewhere in the stadium, roll open a straw mat and it’s siesta time. Since I’m fight number nine, it’s going to be a while. After a troubled snooze, in which I dreamed those rempit nitwits turned up and started dry-humping me instead, my coach gently rouses me. Two days ago he was still slapping my head with the punching mitts. Today he’s tender. Not soft, but tender.

He oils me up with Thai boxing liniment which I suspect is mildly caustic for the way it burns. Then I shadow box and get fitted with shin-guards and elbow-pads. Nobody wants to carry out an unconscious 100 kg dead weight so organizers make sure the amateurs don’t kill each other. I’m remember buzzing with nervousness, but I’m a very good salesman, so I hide it and walk towards the ring as the picture of confidence. Just before I hop inside the ropes, my corner man reminds me cheerfully not to trip and embarrass the gym – not an uncommon occurrence. Timely advice. He’s the guy who’s going to look out for me, watching out for tendencies I can exploit in my opponent. For the most part, he screams for me to keep my hands up to avoid eating too many punches.

Ding! Round One!

My buff half and I cautiously eye each other. Or maybe the right word is gingerly. We creep out and jiggle a bit. The whiny trumpet of the traditional Wai Khru music blares in the background and already I hear people shouting instructions. Some are saying to move forward and strike first. Another is saying to control distance. I wonder which one belongs to my corner man. Or if he’s making any noise at all. I’m so screwed.

Then the music stops.“Do you guys want to fight or not? If you don’t I can cancel the fight right now. You’re wasting everyone’s time here,” the head judge yells at us. Oh f*ck you. I mean, “Yes sir, sorry about that, we’ll get on with it.”

So we stop prancing around like prissy ponies and fight. The punches and kicks start landing with badder intentions. We knock each other around for a bit, and then I grab him behind the neck and throw two or three knees to the solar plexus. With the body drunk on adrenaline, one half of my brain was organizing my feet and the other was genuinely astonished at how tiring several seconds of activity felt. That’s one thing Albert Einstein and Michael Bay got right. Time passes differently for different observers, and kinda slows down when you’re in the middle of an action scene.  

My rival doesn’t back down of course. He takes everything I dish out with gritted teeth and smiles ominously as he keeps moving forward to attack. What a monster. His gloves connect repeatedly with my face, snapping my head backwards and from side to side. But here’s the thing about self-fulfilling prophecies. If you’re afraid of pain, you’ll get more pain. Mike Tyson’s boxing trainer Cus D’Amato said, “A man who’s thinking or worried about getting hit is not gonna have a good sense of anticipation. He will in fact get hit.” Cowering behind your gloves only emboldens your aggressor. So you have step back into the fray and face the punches head on because that’s where you can reach him too.

Another bell signals the end of round one. I sit on my stool and ask my corner man what’s the revised game plan. “Keep your hands up you f*ck. That’s your f*cking game plan,” he says quickly, rubbing my arms and legs. Oh right, good plan. In round two my guy comes back with a vengeance, laying down a series of combos. Jab-cross-kick, uppercut-cross-kick, and he sweeps me off my feet. The kind that breaks your back after you land with a dull thud. He comes back again with the same ideas but I’m ready. He leans in to put his weight into a left-hook and I walk my left elbow into his cheekbone. It’s padded like I said, so while it doesn’t break any skin, it stops him in his tracks. If you’re wondering, elbows don’t impact the same way punches do. A jab feels like a stiff knock on the face. An elbow is just bone and a thin layer of skin. It feels like shockwaves all the way to the back of your skull, as if it went right through your head.

I sit there too tired to even sip water after the second round, my lungs about to burst. I wonder how I’m going to stand for another 3 minutes and trade with this guy. He doesn’t look like he’s let up at all. His face is still angry and he still wants my heart on a platter. We go again even though I’m sure he’s as tired as I am and he gives every ounce. I kept engaging him in the clinch, wrapping up his arms and trying to land a few more ineffectual knees. What is a clinch? It’s me hugging him tight and holding on for dear life. Was it working? Sort of. Was it homoerotic?Totally. At this point, I didn’t care who won. I just want it to be over. 

My sigh of relief reverberated around the stadium when I heard the final bell. The ref collected the points tally, held both our hands, and by the slimmest margins, raised mine. I’d made it through and won a little plastic medal. Then they shuffled us off-stage to make way for the next fight. My opponent and I thanked each other profusely later. He was really cool and told me he had had fun. In the words of Muay Thai legend Namsaknoi the Emperor, “There is no hate or enemies in martial arts. Only respect between comrades. Sometimes people get too on the physical aspect of the sport and only see the brutality of it. The physical trauma is not personal, it is just a part of the sport. Once you accept the terms, a Muay Thai fight is like a game of chess. You plan your moves, you bait your opponent, you sacrifice some shots in order to set up for the most effective attacks. There is no emotion required in this process. In fact, the one who loses control of his emotions loses the fight. A fighter who has put in the hard work should only display tenacity and grit regardless of what happens. You can’t fake it. You have to train it to own it. It is the hours of sweat and tears that people don’t see. It is getting humble pie shoved in your face, day in and day out until your heart grows so big that it envelops the suffering with gratitude and courage. In the ring my opponent in not only fighting me. He is fighting the entire capacity of my heart.”

He’s called the Emperor because of his 285 victories out of 300 fights, and holds the longest undefeated reign at Muay Thai’s greatest arena, Lumpini Stadium. Over the next few days everyone at the gym congratulated me. My coach only shakes his head, “Doremon, you don’t lie me. Tomorrow you running more. Everyday I want you running. Why you still so fat?” 

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