Everyone loves a good rematch. Nowhere more so than in Thailand, where Muay Thai promoters will pitch the same fighters against each other again and again—juggling the weights to even the bouts and maintain the gamblers’ interest. The press conference for the upcoming Wanmitchai promotion at Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium on 4th October revealed a number of exciting rematches, including Saenchai PK Saenchai Muay Thai vs. Singdam Kiatmoo 9, Nong O Gaiyanghaadao vs. Petchboonchu FA Group, Petchpanomrung Wor Sangprapai vs. Pokaew Fonjangchonburi, and Thong Puideenaidee vs. Tingtong Chor Kowyuhaisuzu. Having been involved in rematches of my own, the line-up prompted me to consider the psychological aspects of a rematch and the possible effects they can have on a boxer’s performance.
photo by Rob Cox
In any fight, a boxer’s “mental toughness” can mean the difference between winning and losing. Training for a fight has been described as 90% physical and 10% mental, with this balance shifting to 90% mental and 10% physical upon entering the ring. At peak fitness and even weights, you will not see great differences in the physical conditions of the top Muay Thai fighters—it tends to be state of mind and the will to succeed that separates the winner from the loser.
However, the prospect of a rematch can leave any athlete prone to psychological weaknesses, even at an elite level. Sports psychologists have described that these foibles might cause the athlete to focus unduly on factors outside of their control (such as the emotional pain of defeat, the crowd’s reaction, or media attention), leading to feelings of anxiety. They emphasized that to avoid being affected by nerves the athlete should disregard the previous competition, focus on the present, and try not to consider the outcome.
Mind coach and Muay Thai/K1 commentator Vinny Shoreman agreed a boxer preparing for a rematch should avoid dwelling on the past, and instead recommended a technique called “future pacing”. He said: “Imagine yourself 15 minutes after you have won—what you see, hear, feel, smell etc. This fools the mind into thinking the task has been completed and takes out the nerves.” He likened the process to, “thinking about how nice your hotel is on holiday, without the packing and travelling to get there.”
I have experience of being both the winner and loser of a rematch and my emotions were quite different preceding these bouts. In my winning rematch, I had been judged the loser of the first meeting, and in my losing rematch, I had won the previous encounter—a reversal of outcome on both occasions. Before the winning rematch, I could not have felt more motivated. On fight day I was relaxed and confident, and felt under no pressure. I was determined to avenge my previous loss—and I did—eventually winning by TKO.
Before the losing rematch, however, anxiety affected me. I felt psychologically more stressed than I had for the previous competition. I did not fear my opponent—I had beaten her once before. My fear was of not fighting to my best ability and—like a self-fulfilling prophecy—it was perhaps this fear that caused me to underperform on fight day. In the ring I was sluggish and self-conscious. I did not get hurt—just never stepped up to the required pace—and the fight was judged unanimously in my opponent’s favour.
With their triple-figure fight records, it is hard to imagine the top Thai fighters suffering a similar crisis of confidence. However, any fighter can have their off day, which keeps the sport unpredictable. Rematches usually tend to make the most exciting fights because of the emotional involvement and potential for grudge matches. Although the common conception is that the victor of the previous fight will have the psychological advantage over their opponent (especially if they won convincingly on points or by KO), there is nothing like a loss to give a fighter that extra motivation and—more often than not—it tends to be the loser of the previous bout who goes on to win the consecutive fight.
On 4th October, it remains to be seen if Saenchai, Petchboonchu, Petchpanomrung and Tingtong can overcome their previous losses to Singdam, Nong O, Pokaew and Thong, respectively. As the action unfolds, it will be interesting to see which boxers’ minds are stronger on fight day. My predictions for the night are wins for Saenchai, Petchboonchu, Pokaew and Thong. What do you think?