It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Just hours ago he had been hanging out in the back alley of the gym, swigging whiskey from a glass half-filled with ice. Now he was warming up to step into the ring at one of Bangkok’s most premiere stadiums. At one time he was one of the best. A legend they say. On past visits I watched as he tooled the younger fighters during sparring at the gym. Despite his aging body and ailing reflexes his timing was still impeccable. But tonight his eyes are glassy. Across from him a younger fighter sits on the bench patiently, stoically. In a few moments they will fight. The young, hungry up-and-comer versus the veteran, a man who now lives on both sides of the Thai pads.
It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. The owner of the gym approached me and asked me remove the mongkon from his fighter. A feeling of excitement rushed over my body and touched the ends of my nerves. My palms began to sweat. Moments after, however, the feeling of happiness turned to heartache. I looked over at the fighter and no longer did I see a legend. Instead, I saw a man on the brink of destruction. He was in survival mode. He hadn’t planned on fighting tonight. But I am guessing the motivation to make money overshadowed the buzz that the special blend had given him. We exchanged smiles, the kind of forced smiles that people emit to each other when the sincerity is not there. His was a smile hiding the pain; mine was a smile hiding the sorrow.
It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. I waited ringside while he finished his wai kru. As he made his way back to our corner I carefully walked up the stairs to meet him on top of the canvas. He put his hands up to his head and I followed suit. I tried to recall a short prayer to recite before taking off the mongkon. My lips began moving but no words came out of my mouth. Instead, with my head down, my eyeballs rolled up to take in the crowd, and I witnessed a mob mostly made up of gamblers who had just begun to buzz about the upcoming fight. Just thirty minutes ago I was honored to be given the chance to remove the mongkon from this fighter’s head, but now my mind hadn’t been with my body. I took off the mongkon and phuang malai, the floral arrangements that dangled around his neck, and I placed them on one of the steel poles on the corner of the ring.
It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. Muaythai is close to my heart. It’s pure. I always thought it was a spiritual process, a process of growth and finding your place in life. At that moment it seemed to me, however, that it was just a job like any other 9-5, save this fighter’s skills were punching other humans instead punching in and out of the clock. That night, I couldn’t enjoy the fight. I couldn’t shake from my head the idea that the gamblers hadn’t cared much about the aging fighter in the ring. They hadn’t witnessed the way he trained, pouring all aspects of himself into pad work, battling the demons which accompany the life of a fighter, the long bouts of time away from his daughter, the short lived victories, and the quiet defeats celebrated by pain and alcohol.
Then it hit me. Muaythai is a spiritual process. And like any journey that one takes up in life there are shortcomings and setbacks. These fighters are heroes. From early on in life they answer the calling, it may be a quest to help their families, the struggle to get themselves out of poverty, or it may be for the basic love of the fight. The journey is personal to each and every fighter. Some may not make it to the top, but each fighter makes it to the top of their own mountain. I could only hope that this fighter, a man who I have come to know and respect over the past three years, will continue his journey to the top of his own mountain. He may not be the fighter he once was, but his legacy will forever be cemented in the walls of the greatest pastime Thailand has ever known.
It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. But it did. And for this experience I am forever grateful. In the west we have this romantic idea, because of the wai kru and the sacred garb, that muaythai is always about the good. This is the paradox of muaythai, however. That in such a fascinating culture which houses some of the most compassionate souls, there is still an underlying cycle of self-destruction. Fighters may battle each other inside the ring, but on the outside of the ring they war within themselves.