The Real Men of Muay Thai – Worn Like Stones by Water
Guest Post by Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu
There is a very touching piece written by Lindsey Newhall for Fightland: Life of a Pad-Man: A Muay Thai Trainer’s Remorse. The pinnacle of the story is where Dam, a long time pad-man for champions and by most reports a devoted drunk, talks about how he threw the biggest fight of his life and career, because he was told to and you do what you are told…and, because the gym children “needed to eat”:
He looked sad, almost defeated. “Okay,” I said to him, “I want you to tell me a story: I want to hear about your biggest regret.”
His hand loosened around the coconut and he held the machete still. “My biggest regret?” he said. He paused, took a deep breath. Tears began to well in his eyes. I looked to Frances, mouthed, “Is he okay?” She pushed him for the story.
“I was 18,” he said, “supposed to fight twice in one day. In the morning I fought and won on Channel 4 in Khon Kaen, then we drove to the other venue at night.
“My opponent was an Isaan champion. I felt so lucky to fight him. I wanted a title shot, and I’d already beaten him once before. I knew beating him a second time would give me a shot at the title.
“Everyone thought I was going to win. I remember the odds were five to two, in my favor. They called the fight a ‘dream match-up’ because my opponent was a famous local champion who had a lot of big-name gamblers in his corner, and I was an unknown, but the local gamblers knew I’d already beaten him and they thought I could beat him again. Even my family was there, and they put their money on me too.”
Dam paused. He stopped and rubbed his eyes, trying to hold back tears. His aunt pushed him and told him to start helping with dinner. Dam ignored her, too engrossed in his story. “I don’t want to remember,” he said.
“I was gearing up to face the champion. And then… they told me I had to throw the fight.
It’s an extraordinary moment, and one that really makes the article what it is, but there is something about the story that misses the man for me – as someone who has spent a little time around Dam (he cornered a few fights for Sylvie when she fought out of Giatbundit Gym), and this is about that small, important missing part. It’s one of the most beautiful things in Muay Thai. And it is something to do about about masculinity itself. Hopefully this acts as an addendum to, an enrichment of, Lindsey’s very nice piece. It’s because Lindsey’s writing reminded me of how incredibly beautiful a man Dam is, and that there are many of these such men in Muay Thai that I wanted to add this.
A Beautiful Man
In our time around Muay Thai, both in the west and here in Thailand, we’ve met many wonderful men, men who carry Muay Thai with them in unique and powerful ways. Of course there is Master K who inspired Sylvie to fall in love with the art and in the end devote her life to it, simply through his own love of it. I can still imagine him at 74 thudding the bag, perfecting his technique in his basement alone in New Jersey well into the wee AM hours, doing what no man his age on the planet is doing. We’ve gotten to know the very proud and dignified Sakmongkol, who is made of unyielding iron in so many ways. There are people like Den at Lanna with hundreds and hundreds of fights, and trainers whose lives have come to be defined by the westerners they have trained instead of their decade of fighting. There is the quiet grace of a padholder like Putao at Saisprapa who is so extraordinary on the pads we still think of him regularly despite having only trained there for a few weeks years ago. And there are even falang like the deep-voiced Andy Thomson in Chiang Mai who has loved Muay Thai in Thailand for more than 20 years, and is constantly attempting to put more of it into his body and the body of others. And there is Kru Nu, who humbly works his family gym (Petchrungruang) molding young boys into beautiful Lumpinee fighters, in a very gentle fashion. All of these men are wonderful. Unforgettable. No doubt if you have spent time in Thailand you too have your list of memorable, special men. But these men are not like Dam. Dam is a very particular kind of Muay Thai man, and Sylvie and I recognized what he was the instant we saw him.
People who know Dam treat him like a drunk. Even Frances – a western fighter who is married into an Isaan fighter family, lives in Isaan and is about as woven into that community as one can be – treats him like a drunk. She loves him, and will tell anyone who will listen that he is the best trainer she has ever had, how he almost magically appears in her life like a Leprechaun, at the most unexpected moments, but she treats him as a drunk – playfully, and sometimes not-so-playfully chiding him like a child for his constant misbehaviors, trying to reign him in into some form of manageable and dependable accountability. It is an endless battle. You look into Dam’s eyes and you instantly see the twinkle of myrth, mischievousness…but you also see the fire that is behind that. You instantly know: You have to keep this light, playful…like with a Tiger who is playing with the lamb, you don’t want to trigger the deeper predator/prey instincts. What is a joke now, suddenly isn’t a joke. So Frances, and no doubt community others, are constantly walking this line with Dam, as he drinks throughout the day or week in various degrees of sobriety, reigning him in, letting him orbit out, pulling him back in, scolding, punishing, joking, ostracizing. The biggest Dam story going around Giatbundit Gym when we were up there was how he lost his temper and knocked the teeth out of another man at the gym. Dam is a “Bad man”, Frances will tell you, a phrase perhaps meaning something between a “bad boy” and a “broken man”.
Dam’s name Dam mean black. He is black. Jai dam in Thai means “not good”, literally “black hearted”. But both Sylvie and I looked into his eyes the moment we met him, after being prepared for what he is like by an ever-warning Frances introducing us like to a dog that bites, and we saw something incredibly different. What defines Dam more than any inebriated, tear-filled story about throwing a fight that destroyed his life…is his dignity. Despite the fact that he is looked on as low by those around him, and those that have heard about him, despite the fact that he is just another drunk in many circumstances, despite the fact that he has trained champions to almost no recognition or building of a career, despite the fact that even people who dearly love him (like Frances) can’t even keep him employed at their gym or any gyms of a friend, his eyes burn with dignity…if you bother to look into them, and show him respect. He so seldom sees respect, from anyone, but if you look at him with respect what shines out is possibly the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. A man whose dignity holds him together, quietly, beneath it all, despite whatever undignified situations he finds himself in, and it is incredible.
Like Stones Worn By Water
Before I had met Dam I thought Nook was the most beautiful Muay Thai man I had ever met (above with Sylvie). He is probably the glue of the gym Lanna Muay Thai where Sylvie lived and trained for her first two years. Sylvie wrote about him a little here. He is a trainer of low standing. He talks in very simple words and phrases, even in Thai, often repeating the same word over and over, as if he is turning it in his hand like a pebble. The other trainers regularly make fun of him, sarcastically refer to him as “Chief” (he has only customary standing as the oldest), imitate his padholding, jokingly use his fight name “Iron Dynamite” in parodies, but he is a man of amazing silent dignity, and who has Muay Thai soaked through to his soul as much as anyone I have met. When he isn’t literally holding the gym together – welding some piece of metal to some other, hammering something to something else, fashioning a folding gate made out of scrap metal – he’s on the edge of the ring constantly and absently massaging his painful knee which shows an enormous scar, seriously messed up by a motorcycle accident, something that ruined his fight career he says. In the gym he holds pads for all the low end customers, kids, (some) women, but also the most huge and inappropriately aggressive western males, the ones that the other padholders don’t want to hold for. He is low man on the totem pole, but man he is amazing. And his padholding is bizarre. Almost nobody gets what he is trying to do. He is teaching you something if you pay attention. He teaches everyone as if they are a child – watching Nook train kids is a joy – very important things about balance and defense. Mostly westerns are just aggravated and miss the lesson. But there is another side of Nook in pads. I seldom do padwork, but I learned early on, there is a switch in Nook’s eyes. Everything is going great until you get something on him. And then his eyes turn black. They go coal. And you have a very serious and extremely strong man in front of you. A “grown man” as they like to say. These are what people like Dam and Nook are, they are grown men. I learned it was pretty easy to avoid turning Nook into a fighting monster with pads in his hands. No matter how hard you go back at him, don’t look him in the eye. Keep your head down, keep it down and all is good. Look him in the eye and you are touching something you better be ready to deal with. You are touching his dignity. This is something I immediately felt when I looked Dam in the eye.
Nook is the sweetest of guys generally, an expert at healing injuries with painful bone on bone massages, you can see him massing out a knot on Sylvie in the video below.
I think what fashions these kinds of men – and the perpetually drunk Wung is possibly another – seems to be that Muay Thai has washed over them. It did not just sweep them along like a fallen tree limb down a river. They are stones, they are not washed away. They are rocks that have been ground down upon by Muay Thai with incredible force. They have been made smooth by the forces of Muay Thai. Not just the training, not just the fighting, but the entire culture of village, town, gym, promotions, bets placed, bosses, family, money, injury, egos, crushing down upon them with enormous and fast-moving weight. And they are fighters. No matter what indignity they suffer, or heartache, they are first and foremost men with an ember that cannot be dulled. It is burning in there. You just have to look to see it. Man it is bright.
The Man of Muay Thai
Part of how I knew what Dam was goes beyond the look in his eye when I met him. It was also how he responded to Sylvie, as a fighter. There has always been an adventure in understanding Sylvie in Thailand. Very experienced men, intelligent trainers, have had a hard time “reading” Sylvie from the get go. They saw how hard she trained. They saw that she was smart as a whip and could pick up a technique in practice very quickly. But when she fought they had no idea what they were looking at. They were mystified. Sylvie, why didn’t you do this!? Why didn’t you do that?! Trainer after trainer scratched their head. I watched as for over a year the very smart trainer Daeng tried to tap Sylvie’s potential in Chiang Mai. And all of it was good work. It was good struggle for Sylvie. Even someone like Sakmongkol, who is an incredible trainer, didn’t quite know what to make of her. He had something there, but what was it? Notably: Sifu Mcinness, Sakmongkol’s boss, on the other hand knew exactly what was there.
For a rare few it was a very simple equation, and perhaps nobody saw what Sylvie was as a fighter more instantaneously than Dam did. It took Mot Ek, an old fighter who has been around the fight game a long time, a little while. He had seen Sylvie train in the Petchrungruang gym, but it wasn’t until he cornered for her at the Queen’s Birthday fight (2014) that it all became simple. I like the way you fight he told Sylvie. Jai Dee. Jai Dee is a compliment that Sylvie received early on in Thailand, during her first fights back in 2010, and she hated it. It means “Good heart”. When people told her this in 2010 all she heard was “no technique”, and it deflated her. Something like “nice try”. Little did she realize that it is the highest compliment of a fighter. It means they don’t quit. They fight. The worst thing you can say of a fighter is Jai lek, small heart. Jai dee is its opposite. But it is more than just not quitting, it’s not about fighting hard. It’s something else, something more. It’s about dignity. It is having the burning drive to be victorious in what you are. Kru Nu, Sylvie’s current main trainer, also was mystified by Sylvie in the beginning, about what kind of fighter she is or could be. Early experiences of her left him looking down the wrong road, thinking about this technique or that technique. He did not realize (yet) that she is JUST a fighter. He did not look at her with his “fighter eyes” instead of his trainer eyes. As he watched her train day after day, and leave to drive to Isaan for one fight after another he realized: She needs to fight and fight and fight and fight, and train and train and train and train to become the fighter she is destined to be. The skills and techniques just need to be assembled around that energy – and remarkably this is something that is finally happening in the last 6 months in Pattaya. Kru Nu started looking at Sylvie with his fighter eyes.
But there was something about Dam that seemed to get this, what everyone missed or took so long to see, and got it instantly. It’s because he looks with fighter eyes, because he lives in the fight. It’s not that he isn’t a wonderful trainer (Sylvie’s never trained with him, and Frances says he’s the best), its that he first and foremost is a fighter, a pure and essential fight man. All the excess, all the femur technique bullshit, everything that aficionados love to love, melts away with these kind of men. We could feel it the instant he took control of Sylvie’s corner in that first fight, wrapping her hands. Down to basics. His was like a mother wing that curved over Sylvie in so many ways, and when she fought he knew exactly what she was. Something very simple: “block, lock, block, lock, block, lock” with joy.
I wanted to write this about Dam (and some unrecognized Muay Thai men) because I didn’t want Dam to just be known as a “sad man”, or a “broken man”, or “a bad man”. All those things are also true, in their own way. But he first and foremost is a man. One of the most beautiful men I have ever met. My experiences of him as he very simply embraced Sylvie as a fighter, were extremely memorable. As her husband watching Sylvie continually position herself in a male culture, it’s one of the rare times that gender really does fall away in a highly stratified and gendered society, when a fighter simply sees another fighter as a fighter. This is almost incalculable to me. Jai Dee.