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  • Writer's pictureRogue Chemist

Confessions of a first-time fighter

The sights, sounds, and smells of a Muay Thai gym are unmistakablethe satisfying smack of fists, shins, elbows, knees, and the soles of feet hitting the pads; the distinctive smell of menthol from muscle rub hanging in the air; and long, heavy bags lined up in rows.


I begin to wrap my hands, something I do automatically but with concentration, first folding the fabric into a thick layer on my knuckles and then weaving it between each finger with just the right amount of tension. Finally, I wind it a few times around my wrists and fasten the Velcro.


I then start shadowboxing on the mats until my name is shouted out, snapping me out of my trance and beckoning me into the ring for pad work.


***


Long after my first visit in 2014, I returned to Chiang Mai with a very specific goal in mind: to step into the boxing ring. Back then, I had been practicing Muay Thai in Canada for a few years and had gone to Thailand to do some soul-searching while training and travelling around the country a bitI had no real intention to fight and had sparred very little at that point. For over two months I trained consistently yet casually, once a day with a break every few days. I returned to Thailand in 2017 to train for several weeks, but once again, not to fight. On both occasions, I pushed myself to an extent, but it was nothing compared to what I would find myself doing nine years later, at age 36.


How did the tables turn after all this time?


In February 2022, after taking a two-year break from Muay Thai to travel, work remotely, and focus on climbing (another hobby of mine), I realized just how much I missed the sport and the community that came along with it. Muay Thai had been central to my life, including my mental and physical well-being, for such a long time.


So I walked into Iron Tiger, a Muay Thai gym in Cape Town, South Africa. I didn’t know exactly what to expect of myself after taking such a long break, but I was pleased to find that my muscles remembered exactly what to do. The initial bruising on my shins subsided quickly, and I became re-addicted.


As the months passed, I started to fantasize about fighting in the ring at an organized event, something I had done once before, but under amateur kickboxing rules (i.e., three rounds and no elbows or clinching) and with full-body protection. The conditions more so mimicked a hard sparring match than a real fight. I wanted to do it the Thai wayfive rounds, 6 oz. gloves, elbows and clinch allowed, and no protection.


I even put together a playlist of potential songs to walk out to in case the opportunity arose. That lingering fantasy in the back of my mind evolved into a conviction, and I realized I needed to do something about it, so why not go big? I wasn’t going home anytime soon.


Returning to Thailand to fight in Chiang Mai, a place that had transformed me so long ago, seemed appropriate. Having followed women’s Muay Thai for a number of years, I had known about the Swedish fighter Teresa Wintermyr and through social media discovered that she had recently established her own gym in Chiang Mai with her husband, Sedthee Erawan. I knew that training under the expertise of a nak muay ying (female fighter) who had been living, fighting, and coaching in Thailand for fourteen years was the right fit.


I also knew what to expect in terms of the rigorous training regimen: twice per day, six days a week. Everything included, each day amounted to around five hours of training, basically becoming a full-time job. Since I wasn’t starting from scratch, I figured that five weeks of this grind would be enough to get me in fighting shape.


But training to fight is very different from training for fun. The minor discomforts of training a handful of times per week are magnifiedthe sweat dripping off your hands as you struggle to grip the thick wooden handle of the heavy Thai skipping rope in the humid gym, accidentally whipping your toes every so often (if you know, you know); the slight carpet burn on the bottom of your foot as you pivot into a roundhouse kick on the rough canvas of the boxing ring, which happens hundreds of times during a session.


Eventually, other issues arose. My right knee swelled to twice its size from repeatedly bludgeoning it on the pads and bone-on-bone contact in sparring, and the chronic insomnia I was experiencing since I arrived was wearing me down. I realized that I couldn’t train effectively on only a few hours’ sleep and sought out a doctor, who prescribed me a few weeks’ worth of Ativan (lorazapam) to solve my sleep issue until my fight was over. Not ideal, but I deemed it necessary to meet my goal.


My moods were up and down. The dopamine high I’d normally experience training at a hobby level was non-existent with this training schedule. I felt a deeper sense of satisfaction in my improvements, but no real pleasure. I was mainly going about the motions, and most of the time I felt like I was trapped in limbo. It was convenient that I was staying at the hotel the gym was located in, but I barely saw the light of day.


A chunk of in-between time was devoted to handwashing my sweat-soaked clothes and trying to resist the urge to faceplant in bed in order to work my normal day jobthis wasn't a vacation. Luckily, I’m a freelancer with full control over when and how much I work. I wouldn’t have been able to manage this volume of training otherwise.


Cramming enough calories into my body so that I didn’t waste away was also its own job, which was tough as a vegan with a slim build to begin with. I inevitably lost a few kilos, especially after running five kilometers on the treadmill before each afternoon training session for a few weeks up until the match, but it wasn’t a drastic difference.


One week before the match I faced the toughest hurdle, which wasn’t physical, but mental. I had been feeling strong and confident after resolving my sleep issue, but suddenly felt very depressed. I suspected overtraining (or under-recovery, however you look at it) was the trigger, or maybe it was the isolation and redundancy of my daily routine that finally got to me.


Whatever the cause, I suddenly hated every second of training.


I put on a poker face as best I could but felt like Wednesday Addams was quickly becoming my new alter ego. How the hell did my excitement turn so quickly into dread? Why was I even doing this? Did it even make sense if I wasn’t enjoying it anymore? This new line of very untimely thinking scared me because it had never been my mindset towards training in the past. It wasn't me.


I was worried about fighting in this state and started to have second thoughts. Should I postpone the match? Teresa assured me the self-doubt was entirely normal, and with pep talks from a few wonderful friends, I snapped out of my pessimistic mood with time to spare. I actually had my strongest training sessions and sparring rounds the days leading up to the match, once I fully accepted my fate, whatever the outcome. I knew I’d feel relieved when it was over.


I don’t think I would have seriously entertained the idea of cancelling the fight––the one thing I came here to do––but it was tempting for those few moments I spent hovering over rock bottom, crying in the shower after those few sessions I felt especially miserable.


On the morning of fight day, I immersed myself in a cold-water bath and was feeling prepared, both mentally and physically. Afterwards, Teresa braided my hair into cornrows, and Sedthee gave me the first of two pre-fight massages.

Pre-fight braids courtesy of Teresa


In the afternoon, I went to the empty gym on my own to practice the wai khru ram muay Teresa had shown me, a traditional dance performed in the ring by fighters before a match. This dance is the first impression the spectators and judges have of the fighter, and I think I was more nervous about screwing up the steps than for the actual match.


A few hours before the fight, Teresa texted me to let me know that I’d have a different opponent than the one who appeared on the event poster released a few days before. That slightly hilarious poster had me front and center as the lone farang (foreigner) on the fight card against a Thai fighter, PhetLeeLa. The Thai vs. farang theme is popular and presumably attracts more tourists.

Mortal Kombat vibes?


My new opponent was familiarI had watched her fight Delia, a tough Romanian fighter training out of our gym back in January. I knew PhetDaoNuea was experienced, but no idea just how experienced, not to mention if we were actually in the same weight class. Delia, who'd had some previous kickboxing fights, won that match after five rounds, but it didn’t look easy.


I later learned that PhetDaoNuea had at least sixty fights to her name, which I’m relieved I didn’t know about beforehand. I also noticed that PhetLeeLa was still on the fight card, but also had a different opponent. She was estimated as 65 kg ("estimated" because there were no weigh-ins)––around 10 kilos heavier than me. I honestly don't know if I would've stepped in the ring with her given both the weight and experience difference.


I rode to Loi Kroh stadium from my hotel alone, feeling relatively calm and cheerful. I made small talk with my Grab driver, telling him I was about to have my first Muay Thai match. He was surprised and slightly amused, wishing me luck as we pulled up to the stadium.


“Stadium” maybe isn’t the most accurate description of Loi Kroh. The vibe is more seedy than sports-likescantily clad Thai women gesture lone white men into the loud bars surrounding the ring, and the spectators are almost entirely farangs, many of whom I suspected had never seen live Muay Thai and were here to check if off their vacation to-do list. I walked up to the booth selling tickets and pointed to my face on the poster. I would be fight number five out of seven, the international fight of the evening.


The back room where most of the fighters were preparing looked like a larger version of an old storage closet, a pile of odds and ends crammed into the corner. A few fighters had already arrived, sitting on chairs in their civilian clothes and wrapping their own hands, looking very calm and accustomed to the experience, unlike me.

Just business as usual for these guys


Teresa and Sedthee arrived soon after, laying out a blanket on the floor near the red corner of the ring (the corner I’d be in) in favor of the fighter’s closet. Ming, Dimitri, and Soda, three other fighters training with me, soon joined us. I was grateful they had come out to stand in my corner. Sedthee proceeded to mummify my hands in layers of thin white wraps, sticking a spongy yet hard block across my knuckles first. He secured the wraps with strips of tape.


The pre-fight oil massage was next, which was in no way relaxing. Muay Thai liniment oil, every Thai boxer’s best friend, contains methyl salicylate. It’s the secret yellow sauce– the result of massaging it roughly into your skin is an intense burning sensation that makes muscles less sensitive to pain.


Sedthee placed on my arm a beautiful green and pink Pra Jiad––an armband traditionally worn for good luck. Donning Teresa’s old red tank top, the one she had worn to successfully defend her second title belt, I felt like I had enough good luck to at least get me through the first round.

Sedthee fixing the Pra Jiad with Dimitri in the background


As I shadowboxed and paced around my corner, an English-speaking Thai man approached me with a piece of paper in hand. On it was neatly written a list of my opponent’s perceived weaknesses: eyes, eyebrows, chin, jaw, waist, ribs, and abdomen. Teresa told he was a regular at the stadium and had probably seen PhetDaoNuea fight many times. I thanked him for the cheat sheet.


Fight four got underway, and it was time for the finishing touch: the gloves. After I crammed my hands into them, the smallest gloves I’d ever worn, Sedthee taped them securely to my wrists. All dressed up and nowhere to go but the ring.


Finally, “Eye of the Tiger” started to play over the loudspeaker, one of the stadium’s default walkout songs. The announcer introduced me in a cinematic fashion, and I entered the ring, feeling a surge of surrealness. Another element for good luck was placed on my head––the Mongkhon––and I started my wai khru ram muay. It was all going fine until I realized the ring was smaller than the one I had practiced in and had a few missteps. I didn’t take it too seriously and made my way back into my corner, bowing to my opponent. Another surge––this time a pang of nervousness––passed over me.


The ref motioned me and PhetDaoNuea to the center, and the bell sounded. In Thailand, first rounds are normally intended for feeling out and perhaps intimidating the opponent, which is the approach I used. I relied entirely on automation and didn’t think about what I was doing for those two minutes (a round lasts two minutes for women and three for men).


Round two was a different story. After a more heated exchange at the beginning of the round followed by me struggling with her cling-wrap grip around my waist in the clinch, I was starting to feel drained. Despite pounding the pads for four-minute rounds and sparring for three-minute rounds (five of each per session), two minutes of a fight can feel like an hour of cardio. I think this effect is especially pronounced for newbies, and I wasn’t spared. My opponent was more bold and aggressive in the second round, landing the odd hard punch to the face and zapping my energy in the clinch. I was losing my ability to fend her off.


After she landed a dizzying punch flurry to my head at the end of the second round, including a hammer of a right cross to my face, the ref tentatively called it. If I had indicated that I wanted to keep fighting, I think he would have let me, but I did a quick check-in with myself, weighing the consequences. Did I really want to keep fighting and sustain more damage? I honestly didn’t think it was worth it. I wasn’t winning at this point and didn’t believe I could turn the match around.


After I exited the ring, the Thai guy who had advised me earlier on my opponent came over to me, again equipped with sage advice.


“Stamina is your gun, and the ring is the Wild West,” he said, implying that my gun was not fully loaded in the match. It was a good analogy, but I already knew what I was lacking.


Heart. Passion. The burning desire to win.


I didn’t have these things in the end, which maybe shouldn’t have come as a surprise given my wavering attitude during training. To be honest, this realization made me feel more like an imposter, not a true fighter. Despite this disappointment, I did commit myself to the hard training in preparation for the fight and did step into the ring and perform, which I know is something to be proud of. To use the old cliché, it’s the journey, not the destination, right? My goal was never to win the match, but simply to have the experience of having a fight in Thailand and to show good Muay Thai technique, which I believe I did a decent job of during the brief period I was in the ring.


Perhaps a small consolation, I did get paid for being TKOed (2000 baht, or over 50 euros). To my knowledge, at least at Loi Kroh, nak muay ying receive the same amount as men, and the winner and loser are also paid equally.


Although the idea briefly crossed my mind, I don’t plan to try to redeem myself in a second fight. Logically, I know that my time and energy would be better spent on other goals I want to achieve. So I’m back to training for fun, fitness, and the love of the art of Muay Thai.


But then again, never say never.





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