The Fight Board – Belonging and Meaning in Acceptance
Mornings at Petchrungruang are usually just me and Pi Nu. The gym is off the back of his house and when he was a kid it was a farm, then it became a gym when he was 10 years old but he still had to do all his farm chores in addition to training and school. When I arrive there are roosters crowing, kittens scampering around the staircase to a room above the ring that houses Chicken Man and his family – Chicken Man owns the chicken farm out back – and the whole gym is empty. Pi Nu will come out from the door that leads to his house, usually dressed in his casual track pants and a T-shirt, and he’ll chat with me while I wrap my hands and then he goes and changes into shorts while I warm up.
On this morning, Pi Nu came through the line of hanging bags to where I was sitting on the plastic bench at the far end of the gym. To my right is the sauna room (a makeshift caged off area) and the ring, to my left is a wall of variously framed photos of the kids (and me) standing in the ring after winning belts. Above my head on this same wall is the Fight Board. It’s a dry-erase board with all the fighters from the gym ranked from 1-14. The top fighter is PTT, who recently won the Isuzu Tournament at Omnoi (taking a truck and 1 million Baht), then his brother Buam, then Bank, Dtee, Alex and then a bunch of the smaller kids. The ranking is supposed to make the kids a little bit competitive, but I don’t know that it works that way. Their names don’t ever seem to move much. Pi Nu looks at me for a minute without speaking and then goes over to the ring to pull out a marker that he keeps stashed under the canvas of the ring.
“I want to put your name on here,” he said, pointing to the fight board. I just stared at him, mostly because I was in disbelief at the moment. I’ve never been on the fight board, despite fighting a lot (now about 70 fights since moving to the gym two years ago). In fact, there have only ever been two westerners on the board at all and those were both young boys who lived at the gym for a number of years, treated exactly like Thai boys. One has since left the gym, but Alex remains as the only non-Thai to be listed on the board. I’ve always wanted to be on it, for what seem like obvious reasons to me, but I guess it’s worth saying that there’s a very concrete proof of belonging to be on that board. And that’s one reason I never asked about it: because I’m something of a rogue fighter and I feared that it’s possible that belonging could be a problem for me. But, with that said, there are names on the board of fighters who are pretty peripheral to the gym.
When I was up at Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai, during my two and a half years there, my name was always on the fight board. Not in a “it’s pretty much always on there because I fight so much,” but literally always on the board. They just wouldn’t erase my name; instead, they’d just erase the date and write the new one. I was a constant presence, the permanent occupant; I owned that shit. In fact, in some Thailand Muay Thai gyms there are actually two parallel gyms, the “Thai” gym, and the “Farang” gym. What many people who have trained at Lanna do not realize is that the western gym, Lanna Muay Thai, has a different name than the “Thai” gym, which is called Kiat Busaba. The Thai gym is all the boys that are raised through a gym, often are contracted to that gym, and fight for it – they are part of the gym’s family, its reputation and economy. All the Thai boys had fight names that end “Kiat Busaba” not “Lanna Muay Thai”. The western dimension of the gym, on the other hand, is the part of the gym that makes money through western tourism, whereas the Thai gym makes very long-term investments in kids who will grow into fighters and the gym takes a much bigger cut of their fight earnings. Two gyms in one space. The Lanna fight board represented the two gyms together, because whoever was fighting went on the board. The Petchrungruang gym fight board does not bring together the two gyms, in fact it has a very strong, unspoken divide between gyms. As much as it is open to western students and fighters, the real focus of the gym is its Thai boys, raising them to become stadium fighters – attracting more westerners, getting them high profile fights, charging a high rate really isn’t very important to the Petchrungruang family. Instead westerners kind of exist peaceably side by side with the real gym, the gym of the boys. This isn’t to say that Pi Nu won’t train the hell out of you if he likes you, he will. It just isn’t the point of the gym. So I came down to Pattaya and for two years, 2 years, I’ve never been on the Petchrungruang fight board. Now Pi Nu is staring at me because I’m staring at him and he adds, “I want to put your name, but I have to ask you first.” Now I was even more amazed; he wanted my permission to put my name up there. What the actual fuck? Yes! Put my name there!
above, my vlog update showing the fight board
“Your Contract Here”
A couple months ago I won the Northern Muay Siam Belt in Chiang Mai and a reporter for the magazine asked me to fill out a profile for myself. There was one question I didn’t understand, as I was translating everything from Thai in order to understand the question and then back into Thai in order to answer. I thought they were asking for the owner of my camp, but really the question was “who is your owner?” Like, your manager, but it’s the person you’re contracted to, which may not be the same as the gym you train at. When I asked Pi Nu what I should answer, thinking it was owner of the gym (and therefore not sure if it’s his name or his father’s name) he told me to leave it blank. He said I’m not a contracted fighter, so that didn’t apply to me. He tapped his chest with his finger, pointing to his heart, “your contract here,” he said. I cried about that while retelling the story to Kevin later that same day. It was a beautiful moment. Now, Pi Nu writing my name on the fight board after 2 years, it felt like an extension of that conversation. Having my name on the board is meaningful to me, in a very big way, simply because it’s recognition of my inclusion to the gym. But in the context of that other conversation; in the context of having lived 4+ years in Thailand now and constantly running up against the fact that acceptance and approval here is not a meritocracy, that there is a sudden (or perhaps more accurately a gradual but sincere) recognition that I belong with the group of boys on that board… I just sat there on the bench, watching Pi Nu erase the board and start to rewrite it with my name on it, feeling very choked up. I even have a pretty high ranking (it’s in the middle, but it’s right there with the most valued boys).
Later that day I was hitting the heavy bag over in that corner. It’s the space I most often occupy in that gym, in that same corner on the hardest bag. Between rounds when the timer would sound and I stop to take a sip of water, I’d turn around and just look at my name on the board. Just staring in awe at it. It’s not really that big of a deal, the fight board doesn’t really mean a lot. There are inactive fighters on it and there are fights scheduled that don’t get written down because Pi Nu is lazy sometimes. But because I was left off of it for so long, it means a lot to me to now be included. And maybe I was left off due to it having never crossed Pi Nu’s mind, rather than that he purposefully kept me separate. But the point is, in either case, it crossed his mind now. Kevin suspects it might have been sparked by a talk Pi Nu and I had the day prior. It wasn’t easy for me. In fact, I’d spent the better part of a week building up the courage to say something to him about my frustration and I was very near on the breaking point, blurting it out when I finally decided to say something. And that, too, wasn’t such a huge deal; but it was a big deal to me. All of us are getting ready for a pretty big fight card and all the boys were clinching together as a group – the same partners I usually train with – and suddenly I wasn’t clinching with the group. I was separated out, either by being given different partners all together or by waiting until the group was finished and then one or two of the boys would come back into the ring to clinch with me. I agonized over it. It felt like I was being kept away from them and I suspected it might be because of some underlying beliefs about men having contact with a woman before a fight. So I finally asked Pi Nu, “why don’t I clinch with the boys anymore?” He explained that I’m just too small. That the boys are getting ready for fights so they have to go 100% and he doesn’t want them getting out of control with me. So he has them go with me after everything else so that they’re tired and their 100% won’t hurt me, or he has me clinch with two boys who are not 4-10 kg heavier than I am, like the boys I normally clinch with are. It was a huge relief to hear this explanation, even though it worried me because the boys will keep getting bigger and I won’t. I might lose them all together.
above, my vlog update, talking to Pi Nu
But that conversation with Pi Nu about being separated from the boys must have illustrated to him how much it hurt me to be separated out. I was pretty near bursting out in tears when I asked him – I kept that shit under control but Pi Nu is very observant and has spent time with me nearly every single day for the past 2 years. These relationships in gyms are strong – it’s a lot of time together. So maybe that’s what made the thought cross his mind. It’s true, I do a lot of things that are unconventional in how I choose to fight (a lot), and train (a lot, at more than one gym each day), things that push against custom. But I also make a great deal of effort to make sure I don’t offend, that I pay proper respect, and even though I’m shy I fight against my nature and sometimes ask about things that bother me. I’m very, very fortunate to have found the people in my life that support my commitment to Muay Thai, and Pi Nu is an incredible one. He blew my mind with this. Incidentally, he’s been looking for fights for me more than he used to as well. That’s not from this same conversation, but it’s a definite indication in his understanding of my motives, my drives, and his belief in me. In practice, nothing has changed by putting my name on the board. It doesn’t affect training or treatment in the gym; but it also changes everything, because how fucking great is this?!