Building Tough – The Making of Men at Petchrungruang
My bag swings away from me and in the pendulum peak away from me I glimpse inside the ring, where a 13-year-old boy is sparring with a man three or four times his size. The bag starts to swing back toward me and eclipses their figures, then there’s the thud of my kick and the process starts over again as I push the bag away from me once again. When the bell sounds I step in front of the bag and put two hands on the side of the ring, watching the work between the boy and man over the right angles of Pi Nu’s legs, as he sits on this plastic stool in the corner of the ring. The boy covers his face with bent arms, the 12 oz white gloves giving a Mickey Mouse hands effect to the stick figure length of his limbs, and the man hits at the guard, then down to some areas exposed around the boys ribs and belly. The man hits hard. Not as hard as he would a man his size, but hard enough that I know it can take the boy’s breath away. The boy weathers a few of these punches, then comes furiously after the man with these long, loping combinations. The man backs up into the ropes, his thin legs out of proportion with his barrel chest, which is emphasized by his choice to wear a boxer’s groin guard over his shorts. It kind of gives it the look of an action figure’s pelvis on kids’ toys. He’s also wearing a headguard, which sometimes the boy does as well but not today, and as he backs into the ropes and leans into them he’s shouting in French for – I assume – the boy to keep hitting. But his voice comes out muffled and booming at the same time. Like an old gramophone through hi-fi speakers. This man is farang, the boy is half-Thai.
The reedy boy slams his gloves over and over again into the face and body of the man, who is kind of halfway rope-a-doping against the ring, which is too slack for his size. Each of the punches has a kind of leap on it, a propulsion that must be borne of pure emotion but has the general aesthetic of how a chicken’s head pecks forward as it walks. There are sounds coming from the boy as well, which express his frustration and desire to cause actual damage to punish back the seeds of emotion sewn in him by the punches the man lands on his little body. I feel this; watching him is like looking at an emotional fingerprint of my own hand. The bell they’re working off of sounds and the boy walks with his arms slack at his sides over to the opposite corner, where his enormous, Algerian-French father unscrews the lid of a plastic water bottle, filled with the pale yellow of electrolyte powder and tips it into the boy’s mouth. He speaks calmly but assertively about – I assume – what he wants the boy to do. The boy is crying but both he and his father totally ignore that fact, like you ignore the fact that you’re sweating. It’s expected; it’s part of the exertion.
Pi Nu and I watch this in silence. Pi Nu has this uncanny ability to watch without looking, which he does at all times as he monitors all the young fighters under his care. It can be frustrating, like, “Dad, you’re not even looking!” when you do something spectacular that you want credit for, but it can also be wonderful in the non-response to when you fall on your face and are glad he’s not staring at you while you do it. But he sees everything. He knows everything. And most of the time he says nothing. Right now he’s looking into his phone, one long-fingered hand cradling the back of it and the other poised over the screen with the index finger slightly extended, ready to dip down and scroll at measured intervals. He has a slight frown on his face, which is more his struggle against deteriorating vision than it is concentration or an emotional expression. The way in which he’s not looking at this moment, while on its surface seeming to indicate his disinterest, is actually very telling of how closely he is paying attention. This boy is not “his fighter” in the sense of the other Thai boys at the gym. Pi Nu allows this, as long as the fathers are respectful of his position at the head of the gym. Fathers bring their sons long-term to train and fight. In my view this is pretty generous of Pi Nu, as he’s a traditional Thai, and Petchrungruang is a traditional gym – hierarchy matters, and westerners don’t always understand this. This boy is somewhat perpendicular to Petchrungruang – he doesn’t fight without the gym, the way I do, but his father keeps close control over his training and closely tends the matching to opponents. This training right here that I’m watching and Pi Nu is “not watching,” is exactly the kind of thing that keeps him somewhat separated from the gym. It’s not Pi Nu’s method, but in other ways it’s exactly his method.
Bank is Pi Nu’s older son. He’s 17 years old and fights fairly regularly at Lumpinee, but he started training and fighting when he was only 5 years old. That’s on the young side, even in Thailand. Sometimes Pi Nu tells me stories of how hard he was on Bank when he was little, toughening him up. At his first fight, Bank was crying in the ring because he was overwhelmed by having a kid coming at him with intention, but Pi Nu told him to get in there and fight. Bank did. When he was a little older, maybe 10 years old, he got emotional during sparring and tried in earnest to hurt his partner – something I see westerners do all the time in sparring – and Pi Nu points to the chicken farm in the back of the gym as he tells me this story, saying he took him back there and hit him with a switch on the back to punish him for letting his emotions override him. Masculinity in Thailand emphasizes this even-keel, jai yen or “cool heart,” so in many ways I’m sure Pi Nu sees what he was teaching Bank at those moments to be not only how to be a fighter, but how to be a man. One time, he was shaking his head about how another farang father (Italian) in the gym let his son get on the back of the motorcycle during runs all the time, any time he was tired. There’s always a motorbike riding alongside the runners, mostly to protect from dogs and as a chaperone, but sometimes if a Thai boy is sick or injured or just too young to be able to keep up with the group, they’ll jump on the back of the bike periodically. Pi Nu said he never let Bank get on the bike. He looked me in the eye at this point, holding both hands against his chest in a gesture of earnestness, “because I love my son,” he said, emphatically and in English. He was hard on him because he loves him. He made him tough so that he could stand on his own, because being soft produces soft.
And that’s what we’re watching in the ring right now. This boy’s father brings his enormous friend in to help toughen his son. They ignore the tears because he’s allowed to cry, he’s just not allowed to be controlled by the tears. And Pi Nu sits in the corner and watches, not saying anything, because he loves the boy, too. He’s a very good kid. And the boy, well I’ll be damned if he isn’t tough. He does this kind of training frequently and he cries almost every time, but he never complains and he never stops. When I see him between rounds or in metronome flashes as my bag swings away and back to me, I see myself as well. I’ve been there. I’ve cried and been hit harder than I think I should be; I’ve let the emotions be too much and been broken down by the process. But, like the bag, like the kid, I always come back and do it again. And maybe that’s how I know that I love myself, enough to be hard.