I arrived in Bangkok around 11pm. After clearing customs, I met Rob Cox at Starbucks and we got in his little blue compact sedan and left Suvarnabhumi for Kiatphontip Gym. The trip took about an hour, and we chatted off and on about Thai Boxing while I tried to catch a glimpse of Amazing Thailand through the passenger window. Bangkok’s massive, brightly lit buildings got less and less frequent and then disappeared altogether, the night got darker and quieter, we pulled onto a gravel road lined with wild vegetation and suddenly a giant ring appeared. I was greeted by musky air, chirping crickets and mosquitos, Rob showed me to my room and headed off, I set my bags down as quietly as possible so as not to disturb my new roommate, I think I ended up getting to sleep by around 2am.
I was woken up by an Indian fellow from the UK coming to our screen door and yelling, “Running!” This isn’t normal, but apparently he had been out drinking the night before and his punishment was to teach the morning session. Not knowing any differently, I tore through my duffel bag and dug out my running shoes. My roommate got up a little slower, but eventually walked me down the dirt road, across the bridge and onto the paved road that runs along a canal where the morning and afternoon runs take place. It must have rained that week because parts of the road were flooded and lined with sand bags. Following my roommate’s lead, I completed the 8KM run at a moderate pace, jogging on sand bags when necessary. I got back to the gym and began what would become a familiar routine; wrap hands, shadow for 10 minutes, 5 5-minute rounds on the bag with intervals for the last 30 seconds and 10 pushups in between, 1 round of continuous knees, 1 round of continuous punches, 1 round of continuous kicks, 3 sets of 50 sit-ups, 3 sets of 20 push-ups. Sometimes we would do less bag work and replace it with sparring, or clinching, or pads, or weights, there was a lot of variation and I didn’t mind it as it kept things fresh, but I was almost always exhausted by the end.
After a few sessions at Kiatphontip the trainers started talking to me. Samingprai was very helpful with bag techniques, showing me his signature jab/teep, jab/fake teep/elbow routine. He also taught me to do the knee drills properly, kick, shadow box, and anything else I asked about, always with a big smile and attentive feedback. Mr. Omnoi was not so nice. His impression of me shadow boxing looked kind of like a blind man falling down a flight of stairs. He would show me the proper way to throw a punch and then exasperatingly say, “AND YOU!” before putting on this little show. Mr. Omnoi is also the one who gave me the nickname that would stick with me until the end of my trip; S-LOW MAN. Mr. Omnoi is also the one who trained Yasuhito Shirasu for a month before his fight with Yodsanklai Fairtex in which he scored two 8-counts in the first round and won on points. Mr. Omnoi is an excellent trainer. Fortunate enough to have caught his eye, I worked with him for about two weeks just on my basics, which I had thought were fine when I arrived in Thailand, but apparently I’d been looking like a disabled person for the last three years. Omnoi wanted me to fight before he took off for a 6-month job at Keddle Gym in the UK, I was scared shitless and looking for any excuse to get out of it, fortunately I skinned my knee bad enough to require stitches when I decided to see if motorbikes could drive on mud and my first Thailand fight was put off for about a month.
I continued training hard, running every morning, clinching every night, and one day coming back from the afternoon run Canada’s Dave Zuniga tells me, “You’re fighting Friday.” I believe it was a Wednesday. I got one really hard session of pads and decided to skip the clinching to stay fresh, took Thursday off and made the trip to Hua Hin’s Grand Sports Arena the next day. Hua Hin is kind of like Phuket for families. Big, beautiful beach and lots of good food, but all the bars close early and I suppose one of the only things to do is watch Thais get beat up by foreigners. Dave tells me most of the fighters in Hua Hin don’t train, maybe they used to be fighters but are in the military now, maybe they’re just locals trying to make a quick thousand baht. He tells me even if the guys are good they usually don’t get past round 3 because they’re out of shape, once all he had to do was kick a guy’s leg a couple times and he gave up. When my opponent took his shirt off I couldn’t even tell if he’d ever exercised. He had a trainer, and some shorts, but he sure as hell didn’t look like a fighter. I was bigger than him too. The Thais start arguing and Phil McAlpine leans over and tells me to relax so I look smaller, it actually works. Round 1 starts and I think what Dave said had gotten stuck in my head, because all I did was kick the guys leg a couple times and he didn’t come out for round 2. I felt an immense amount of relief as I left the ring, “that wasn’t so hard,” but it was followed by a bit of shame at having such an easy opponent, especially when I saw him with a thousand baht bill in his mouth asking for tips from the spectators. Dave also won his fight easily, we headed back to the gym that night and I took a few days off, the trainers were happy but said the next one wouldn’t be as easy.
A few weeks later I was coming back from the afternoon run, Dave tells me, “You’re fighting Friday.” Pretty sure it was a Wednesday. We’re back in Hua Hin but this time my opponent is some kind of former world champion with a couple hundred fights. I catch him coming out of the bathroom looking bloated and hocking up something awful but I’m still pretty scared. He completely dominates me the first two rounds, kicking me at will and doing the Michael Jackson dance the one time I manage to kick him back. All the other times he blocks everything I throw and I’m pretty sure he even landed a spinning elbow on me. My corner is getting into it, they tell me to come out in round 3 and knee, I do so and I even sweep him once, he gives me this look like, “What are you trying to embarrass me?!?!” Round 4 I keep moving forward, land a few solid punches while he’s on the ropes and the ref stops it. I’m kind of happy about this one. The trainers want me to fight again the next weekend, but my shins are pretty banged up and I’m kind of looking forward to some time off. Fortunately, fate saves me again and I catch pink eye which puts me out of regular training for about two weeks. One of the trainers teases me by saying “No friend!” when he sees me but then he catches it and has to hold pads for his fighters wearing a motorbike helmet.
I was only going to stay at Kiatphontip Gym for two weeks. Two weeks turned into a month and one month turned into five. I was supposed to take a TEFL class in Bangkok in December but had it pushed back to April because I was addicted to training. By this time I’d had three fights in Thailand, the last one against a Thai from Sor Klinmee Gym in Pattaya. This fight was my most challenging one yet, the opponent was in decent shape and put me on the canvas more times than I care to count. As in my second fight, I came out moving forward in round 3 and landed a one-two while he was on the ropes that dazed him. I followed with some leg kicks and knees and the ref stopped it shortly afterward. I spent the next few weeks sleeping in and training when I wanted, I was burnt out and Bangkok couldn’t come soon enough. By April I was living on Silom Road and completing my TEFL, then in May I traveled Isaan looking for potential places to work. But instead of following through with my plan to teach English in a rural province of Thailand and train part-time, I opted to take on an even more unique opportunity; teaching English to the Thai boys back at Kiatphontip Gym in exchange for accommodation and training.
Before leaving the states, one of my best friends and I had the following conversation:
“I could travel the world.”
“You could get your graduate degree overseas.”
“I could teach English in a temple.”
“You could teach English in a gym!”
“Haha wouldn’t that be crazy?!”
About 6 months later, this far-fetched, barely imaginable fantasy had somehow become reality. I arrived back at the gym in June to start my new job. The temperature was in the 90’s and training was miserable. I was tired all the time and lacked motivation, I was barely getting through the sessions. I’d been back about two weeks when they asked if I wanted to fight at MBK. I remember telling someone that the biggest reason I took the fight was to be able to justify a week off afterward. My attitude was very lackadaisical, even up to the point of sealing the ring. The crazy Brazilian started the fight with a big teep to the face, followed by a barrage of punches and elbows that knocked me to the floor. I quickly got back up only to be put down again and given an 8 count. I survived the rest of the round, did OK in round 2, won round 3 with some kicks and knees and was winning round 4 until he started kicking my leg. In the corner my trainer yelled that I would not win the fight with body kicks because he kept catching them and sweeping me, he told me to come out with punches in round 5, I nodded my head but I remember thinking that I just wanted to get through the next three minutes and be done with it. When I asked for a drink they put an ice cube in my mouth, they’d used all the water on the massage. Round 5 started and I landed a couple of jabs, he kicked my leg again and I was visibly shaken, the ref stopped the fight and I was glad.
The pain I felt immediately afterward was like nothing I’d experienced before. I couldn’t calm my heart rate down, everything hurt, it hurt to lie down, it hurt to sit up. The loss stayed in my head for a long time. I saw the Brazilian fight at MBK again a month or so later. I asked the promoter what weight the fight was at and he told me 85 kilos (187 pounds.) I fight at 70 kilos (155 pounds) but was probably around 72 kilos (160 pounds) that day. I’d noticed the size difference before I agreed to the fight but I wasn’t aware of its enormity as there was no weigh-in. I think my trainers noticed it too, but I believe that they had enough confidence in me to disregard it. In fact, I know they did because they lost money betting on me. I felt better about the loss after that. I started to enjoy training again and get a little bit of my fire back. There was an opportunity to fight at Rajadamnern but at that point my priorities had changed. I was looking forward to coming home, drinking good coffee, eating pizza, riding motorcycles, teaching what I’d learned after training in Thailand for 10 months. I took a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, visited Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City amongst other things. Bangkok is amazing but Thailand is so much bigger than it’s capitol and there’s a a whole lot of Southeast Asia to see outside of the Land of Smiles.
I spent my last few weeks in Thailand training, teaching English, enjoying food and the company of my friends. As the resident English teacher I’d developed a unique relationship with the young fighters, and after living at the gym for the better part of a year I’d come to think of Rob and his wife Tar, as well as the trainers and even a couple of the foreigners as family. I went to Lumpinee and Rajadamnern probably a dozen times, and saw great fights at Omnoi, Channel 7 and a handful of smaller events including one comprised of a ring in the middle of an expressway. I ate dinner outside with the Thais almost every night, willing to be eaten alive by mosquitoes because the food was so delicious. I learned more about Muay Thai than I even knew existed when I left the states. The trainers at Kiatphontip don’t just show you a couple cool tricks, they teach you how to win fights and they dedicate an unbelievable amount of energy to making sure that you do. My first week at the gym Samingprai brutalized me in the clinch for about a half hour bringing me to the brink of tears. After I’d showered he walked past me and said, “Tomorrow, I kill you again.” I thought I’d done something wrong, and it wasn’t until a few months later that I got the explanation. He told me that if a fighter doesn’t have heart there is no reason to teach them. Many foreigners come to Thailand and learn technique, but in my opinion, we’re still not as good as the Thais because the real essence of the sport is not something that can be taught as easily, if at all. The most meaningful thing I took from my 10 months at Kiatphontip Gym is a deeper understanding of Thai culture, and subsequently Thai Boxing, and even though I know I’ll never be as good as my heroes, it’s nice to know where they’re coming from.