The scars are light. Small lines that cross her face. Not bright like the dotted white of highways but almost imperceptible, like the edges of a door. The original cuts were opened in moments of conflict; now though, they open in moments of conversation….
Melissa Ray, is tall, quiet, and English. In keeping with her national heritage we met at a tea shop in eastern Bangkok, walking distance from the skytrain, but far out enough from the center of the South Eastern Capital that the area feels suburban. It is home to the everyday folk of Krungthep.
She was silently sipping her tea when I walked in. We greeted each other and with a soft voice she told me how she first got into Muay Thai, “I had no intention to start fighting. I was studying for my PhD in Neuroscience and wanted to lose weight as I had been drinking a lot during my bachelor’s degree and gained several pounds. I hadn’t liked any other sports before Muay Thai and it was strange how I took to it.”
Ray started at King’s Cobra in northeast England and after finishing her doctoral degree she went to Dean White’s gym in West Yorkshire. She fought 8 amateur fights and a handful of pro fights, around Europe. Then went to Thailand.
“I thought I’d only stay for a few months. It’s been nearly a decade since I came out here in May 2006,” Ray said as she took a sip of tea. She set down the cup letting the hot water cool. “I liked the training, the lifestyle, I liked getting lots of fights… so I stayed.”
…The first of her scars is a “Harry Potter” scar. It runs like a bolt above her left eye to her forehead. It is faded, the visual memory of a lightning striking. The 9 stitches that made the mark were given by Joanne Calderwood fighting out of Sasiprapra gym during the 2010 Queen’s birthday bouts and for the 126 lb WPMF belt. Calderwood came up in weight but was skilled and tough. Ray edged the split decision win, mainly due to her knees. The memory of the bout and the winning of the belt forever struck on her head…
In Thailand, she started at Muay Thai Plaza in Bangkok’s Suan Lum Night Bazaar—scarless though. The gym was suggested by Dean White, who was friends with the manager. After 6 months she moved on to Chiang Mai. “I fancied a change of scenery and a move up north. I enjoyed training in Chiang Mai, you can fight a lot up there. I found it frustrating living there though. You have to negotiate with the tuk tuk drivers to get anywhere. Of course things have changed a lot up there since then. There are new malls and more infrastructure. After 10 months, I made the decision to return to Bangkok and a friend of Soren Mongkongtong, who now helps run NTG (Nugget’s Thaiboxing Gym) in Australia, suggested I try Eminent Air. I decided to give it a chance.”
The steam of the tea rose towards the face of the multi belt champion. While originally starting to fight at 54kg Ray had moved up to 57kg when she’d made the move from Chiang Mai to Eminent Air in Bangkok. It was at this gym that she won all of her belts, twice achieving the WPMF 126 lb belt (winning it then losing it, then a year later recapturing it), along with the S-1 126 lb belt and the WMA 57kg belt. Before her retirement due to injury, she had achieved a record of 41 fights, with 27 wins, 1 draw, and 13 losses.
Having stayed at Eminent Air for more than 8 years, Ray has seen the cycle of fighters coming and going. “Over the years some of the fighters have retired, such as Tapaothong, Rungubon and Neungthep. Others have gone off to the army or returned to their home provinces. There are still big names like Jomhod, Satanfaa, Rungkiat and Chok at the gym, but also some new young guns,” Ray explained.
“You can see some fighters towards the end of their careers get bored and tired of putting their bodies through so much punishment. As they get older, they get injured more easily and those injuries last longer. Also the weight gets harder to cut. I think in the end it’s the loss of passion that retires them. You train and train and fight for 20 years or more. It gets repetitive,” she said with finality.
….Her second scar is faint. Almost unnoticeable under her right eyebrow but it’s there if you look close. She got it in China. Ray fought the Italian Sindy Huyer for the WMA 57kg belt in 2010. After winning the bout on points Ray was whisked away to a hospital to attend to the bleeding cut. “It was quite chaotic inside. I can remember seeing a few people smoking. The doctor did a good job on the cut though; you can hardly see it now…”
She’s seen not just the career cycles of fighters but also the life cycle of one trainer. “I trained with Pet for 5 years at Eminent Air. It was just another day of training when he collapsed a few minutes after holding pads. One of the guys had a car so rushed him to a hospital. He went straight into the ICU. Turned out he had had a stroke at the age of 39. People at the hospital were very straight-talking, “He have blood clot in brain. Maybe he not have operation he die. Maybe he have operation he die. Same.”
“The following day he was operated on but he never regained consciousness. After 5 days in the ICU, the doctors said just the oxygen was keeping him alive. Everyone from the gym was with him when the oxygen was removed and seconds later he died. We sat with him most of that night. The next day was the first day of the funeral. It was my first experience of a Thai funeral; I found it all really overwhelming.”
Despite the passing of her trainer Ray stayed on at Eminent Air. “I miss Pet but wouldn’t want to leave the gym. I still love training and am there almost every day. I have some great friends there. Also, I like the structure of the sessions in that we do clinching or sparring before pads. I feel that helps warm me up for the pad work.” Now that she’s retired though, her status at the gym has changed. “I’m no longer a customer having been there for so long. There are foreigners there for short stays, who should get the best experience. I can get taken on pads at the end, it doesn’t matter,” Ray said.
Her Muay Khao style was never very stylish according to Ray but, “I’m still learning. My current trainer Fahlaep tries to make me a bit more rounded. I know he doesn’t criticize me as much as he would if I was fighting. He still corrects me and tells me what I should be doing though.”
There is little that has separated Ray from the other fighters at the gym. At Eminent Air the women train in the same ring, and with the same equipment. “I mainly trained with men when I was competing,” Ray explained. “Now there are more women at the gym. Women fighters and women coming for exercise.”
“It’s good to train with men as they are stronger. Especially Thais as they are so skilled, but it’s also beneficial to train with women fighters because it’s more real. If guys don’t know you sometimes they can be too gentle in sparring. When you get hit for the first time in the ring it’s not like sparring at all.”
“When I had my first fight it wasn’t anything like I’d seen in fights on videos. It wasn’t stylish—it was a bit of a scrap. I don’t think it’s good preparation to watch too many high-level Thai fights when you are a novice as the reality is nothing like that. An old trainer once said you shouldn’t take too much notice of your first ten fights or so, and I would agree with that. It takes a while before you can learn how to relax in there,” Ray said with battle won wisdom.
…The cut below her left eye was her first ever. Jomyutying Kiat Nor Wor, the smallest of the fighters in the 8-woman S-1 54kg 2006 Queen’s birthday tournament gave it to her. Kiat Nor Wor was the favorite with the crowd’s support. “I didn’t even feel the elbow that cut me—it was so accurate. The referee stopped the fight in the third. Jomyutying did the same to her next opponent. The Thais thought it would be hilarious to have a photo of us with matching bandages over our left eyes. Another scar for the Trophy Case…”