“My first fight was a flash of leather. It ended in the first round, by knock out, winning me the bout. It was fast and a brawl. I promised myself that I would take my second fight slower. My next bout was in Pattaya and we went the distance. It was with a falang. I lost on points,” Derek said. He spoke easily as we jogged down the dirt road.
We’d walked a few hundred meters down a path behind the gym then crossed a wobbly bridge. The bridge shook as the dozen boxers moved across it. Below the wood was a khlong. The khlongs criss cross Bangkok making the city “The Venice of the East.” They serve as both transportation and sewage. The water below the bridge was covered with green plants. It made the canal look like a watery field. The rows of plants would shift, moving like an earthquake with the ebb and flow of the water.
We continued our run down the dirt road by the khlong for a few kilometers. Derek Boyd, a young Canadian, told me more about himself and why he’d decided to come to Kiatphontip. As we ran the younger fighters engaged in horseplay pushing each other lightly or trying to give each other piggyback rides. The run took about 40 minutes and we returned to the gym.
The gym is located on the outer edges of Bangkok. It always surprises me when I leave the city how rural everything becomes. The gym is only twenty minutes outside of the capital yet has the countryside feel, that feeling was augmented when we had to cross the railway tracks and drive down a dirt road to get to the gym. While rural, the gym is located near a university and a handful of restaurants.
We all took a drought of water from the cooler and then were told to start skipping rope. As I whirled the heavy Thai rope around I began to rain on the blue mat underneath my feet. I looked over at the Thai boys that were skipping, not a drop of sweat was running off of them. Despite my constant training over the last few years my rate of perspiration hasn’t declined. Sweat ran down my body as if I was in a tropical rain storm creating a big slippery puddle beneath my feet.
The gym is large with the majority of the gym made of a matted area where the boxers skip, do pad work, spar and work the bags. There are a half dozen, or more, heavy bags of various styles lined up towards the entrance of the compound. On the west side are a series of bird cages. They hang above a small ditch. The birds in them sing softly, sometimes cooing over the noise of the boxers but often being subsumed by the boxers own songs of motion. The birds vary in price and are the prize pets of the trainers. Some of these expensive pets will compete in singing contests. Near the caged avians is the large raised ring. The ring is standard size and has all the marks of use, sweat is stained into its canvass. Attached to the workout area is a large building which houses the fighters, and the workers. The foreign fighters live on the lower levels in standard rooms that have modern conveniences, such as WiFi Internet. The Thais live upstairs in shared rooms. The large central building has a sizable kitchen where food is made at regular feeding hours by a talented cook.
Kiatphontip is more than 14 years old. The original gym is in southern Thailand, an hour north of the Malaysian border. The new site at which I trained is about a year old and is managed and co-owned by Rob Cox. The dashing Englishmen takes care of the foreign side of the gym when not snapping photos for various Muay Thai magazines. The gym is a healthy mix of falang and Thai with the majority of the population made of Thais. The Falang come in for a few months, or a few weeks at a time, train, sometimes fight and help pay with the cost of taking care of the gym.
We skipped ropes for two rounds. The rounds are five minutes long with a one minute break. The authentic Muay Thai clock sat by the water cooler announcing the passing minutes with a yell. “Laew, laew laew, quick, quick, quick,” the young boy would yell as the round came to a close.
After the skipping I wrapped my hands and went with a trainer. The trainer was young man, named Racharit. He was a few years older than me and had a similar affect and style as Add Carabao. Carabao is a staple of Thai music and culture with his long flowing locks, mustache and bull logo apparel. Carabao is an iconic figure of rebellion and “Thainess.” Racharit spoke surprisingly fluid English telling me to elbow, kick and punch. We did three long five minute rounds that went by smoothly. He primarily had me focus on three techniques/combinations.
The first was to bounce my front leg rhythmically in order to time an opponent’s kick. By rocking on my front leg I was able to spring into a teep hitting him in the belly pad when he would throw a kick. This counterattack needs to be timed perfectly in order to throw the opponent off balance. If the front push kick is too slow the opponent lands his kick. He augmented the simple but difficult to time technique by having me round kick then teep. One of the bread and butter basic techniques of Muay Thai is to kick back after having been kicked. Its one of the first and most basic counterattacks. By kicking into the shoulder area and then teeping the opponent I was pre-empting a strike back. Muay Thai is a fast paced game in which being just one move ahead of one’s opponent can be what wins the bout.
The second item he focused on was having me turn my body into my kicks. The power of the Muay Thai kick comes primarily from the hips. The leg stays relaxed while the hip swings over. The damage of the kick is determined by the ability to rotate one’s core. Racharit would remind me while I was kicking to turn my hip over.
The last combination he had me work on amidst a series of “simplistic” jabs, crosses, and knees was a left hook, right leg kick, left kick combination. The three attack combination required me to shift my weight correctly and change the position of my feet. With the left hook he told me to come forward into the punch so that the distance for the short hook would be made up by forward movement. Racharit told me to move to the side with my leg kick thus avoiding a potential cross to the skull. The last movement was a kick into my opponent’s shoulder.
As I shifted my weight from my left leg onto my right I was reminded of Tyrone Spong. I saw a video of him fighting at one point he shifted his attacks from the right side to the left. This shifting of weight requires a lot of balance and coordination. The pay off is in the angles, an attack coming straight in on a target is always easier to block than an attack that comes in from a slightly off direction.
After the long rounds I worked the bag, keeping my eye on the crowd of other Nak Muay. While smacking the bag around I noticed a young boy of about 8 years old. He smiled widely as he did his pad work with his trainer. I was later informed by Rob Cox, that the boy was the 19 kilo champion of central Thailand. Before coming to Thailand I wondered to myself if young children could be really be accomplished boxers with coordination and finesse, near to me 19 kilos of Thai talent screamed yes.
the central Thailand champ of muay thai at 19 kilos
With bag work done the fighters began to spar and knee spar. I hopped in the ring and knee sparred with a boy of about sixteen. A few inches shorter, a decade younger, and a good five kilos lighter, I was still unnerved by his strength. His neck seemed made of oak, the result of doing regular neck exercises. His arms were sinewy and taut making my attempts to out muscle the more technically sound boy fruitless. We knee sparred for about a twenty or thirty minutes and then did basic calisthenics.
With training over the Falang and I had dinner together. Over rice and various Thai dishes we discussed our recent fights. Quietly telling each other the stories of our experiences in the ring, the rings that had drawn us to Thailand.