The Impossible: 450 Fights, Lumpinee Belt, Olympic Gold
At some point around 130 fights, when I became the westerner with the most fights ever in Thailand, my new goal of 200 fights was met by some of my followers with a kind of, “awesome, and after that?” Like, the 200 was inevitable, rather than insane, which is what that number had felt like prior to breaking the 100 mark. It was insane, if you think about it. Only one western fighter I knew of had even fought a 100 times in Thailand. Then, having cruised past 100 the idea of doubling it to 200 didn’t even feel impossible to some of those following and supporting me. Minds – not only mine, but lots of minds in the collective consciousness of what is and isn’t possible – had shifted to be able to accept that number, to hold it – and really any number – as part of a longer, or greater, plan.
I’ve now reached and, within a few days, immediately surpassed the 200 fights “in Thailand,” goal. So, it’s time to look at what’s next. I’ve of course been thinking about this for some time. I’m not actually a huge “goal setter,” as dumb as that sounds – I do not meditate and spend a lot of reflecting about my goals as things separate from me. My entire Muay Thai life in a day-to-day and minute-by-minute breakdown is more like when I’m running in the mornings: I’m tired and I keep telling myself that I can slow down once I reach some landmark in the visible distance. “I’ll slow down when I reach that tree,” I say, but by the time I reach the tree I’m not feeling that walking or slowing would be a relief, so I pick another landmark, “I’ll slow down when I reach that fence.” And so on, but I never actually slow down. It’s not about getting to the tree or the fence, it’s about moving, and moving on. It’s about pushing in a way that reshapes not only myself but what seems possible, what is possible, and the way people think about their own paths. The kind of thing where fighting multiple times per month, against consistently bigger opponents, and at very high numbers is a “yeah, of course, and?” for both myself and now my supporters who cheer me on. – thank you to my patrons, and my official sponsors Nak Muay Nation and Onyx MMA.
This being said, enormous goals are serious things. They are things that change the world, and they change you.
My first goal of 50 fights was because it made me excited. The number seemed downright impossible, but I knew it was possible because Sylvie Charbonneau had done it over the course of maybe 5 years of living and fighting in Thailand. I had a precedent. When 50 got close and we moved the goal to 100, I didn’t know whether it was possible or not. I mean, the Thais I was meeting and watching showed me that it was possible, but they’d been fighting since they were kids and for years, often more than a decade to get those numbers. So, if I had time 100 seemed possible, if I just never stopped. After that, to be honest 200 seemed crazy… but not impossible, like when you’ve run a marathon and you realize that you are actually in an ultra. In achieving these unprecedented numbers (for a westerner, man or woman), I’ve come to see that I’ve actually accomplished something much bigger, which is changing how people are thinking about and actually practicing their Muay Thai. Far more folks are coming out to Thailand with the aim of fighting now, whereas when I first arrived many more were perhaps worried to fight with only a month or two of training in Thai camps. Further, it became for some “how many fights can I get in that time?” rather than saving a single fight – if it happened at all – to the very end of the trip. People are thinking more in twos or threes instead of single fight experiences. And importantly, women are coming to Chiang Mai because the female fight scene here is the best in the world. Fighters are numbering their fights much more often, with the sense that keeping track is with intention toward higher numbers, that higher numbers mean something, experiences mean something. This is very exciting. So, with my “what’s next after 200?” goals I’ve really tried to consider what these goals can mean on a much bigger scale. 50 fights, 100 fights, 200 fights – those are numbers. But with these next goals, I’m really taking aim at changing Muay Thai in big and powerful ways. For women, but not only women, for men too. Whether I hit them or not (and I believe I will) it’s the process of taking serious aim at them and striving for them that will accomplish any real change.
- To be honest, it seemed natural to set this goal at 400. This just an immensely powerful and important number, and not even a number very high fighting Thais ever reach. It’s a number that is just beyond. But despite it’s size it did not feel unreachable to me, almost at all. It seemed reasonable, even if absurd. 450 feels impossible. It feels like how 50 felt, and 100 felt, and pretty much how 200 felt. If I respect the feeling of what a goal has to be, this number has to be 450.
- 200 fights on Thai soil took me 6 years. I arrived in Chiang Mai on April 6, 2012 and fought my 200th fight in Thailand on March 16th, 2018. The next 250 may take me 10 years, if only due to an increasing difficulty in finding opponents. I’ve been able to fight so much in part because I’ve been willing to consistently take on larger and larger opponents (averaging 3+ kgs more than me in the last year). The challenge I face will be to continue to stand up to increasingly larger fighters, if only to have the deepest opponent pool possible. I’m blessed that Thailand is the birthplace and hotbed of Muay Thai, and that it has the best female fighters on the planet, and the strongest pool of talent in the world, but to fight 250 more times I would probably have to fight literally everyone.
- 200 fights has already made an impact on western fighting (on the Thai fight community as well) and I have no doubt that 450 will transform the landscape for men and women even further, in ways we might not even be able to imagine. A small example already: a serious up and coming 15 year old American female fighter (Samontha, from California) has fought in Chiang Mai a few times over the past two years and her father tells me she intends to attend Chiang Mai University after graduating from high school (to be close to Chiang Mai fighting) in order to pursue her own 200 fights. And she’ll do it. Already there is a trajectory that will launch a fighter and her dreams far into the future, on her own path, this must be multiplied differently by 100s or even 1000s we don’t know of. Suddenly an impossible number becomes a real North Star.
- the fight rate required to reach 200 fights in just under 6 years has been brutal and it’s a steep and slow learning curve. There are advantages to fighting often, but there are disadvantages as well – call them “trade-offs”. There are many fighters in Thailand who fight multiple fights within a few days or many fights in a single month, but generally speaking that’s in bursts and then there are breaks or slowing periods in between. What’s unusual about me is that I’ve continued this rate for 6 years straight, taking no breaks, fighting on average once every 11 days; And I’ve not been slowing down, in fact, this last year was my highest rate of fighting yet. It won’t be easy, physically, mentally or logistically to keep up this fight rate for another 8+ years (or 10, factoring difficulty of matchmaking), but I’ve enjoyed it and it’s meant a lot to a community beyond myself. So, I aim to keep going, hard.
- of all of these goals, this one is the most difficult. Attaining a Lumpinee belt is a huge accomplishment for any nakmuay, but it is currently impossible for a woman – for any woman – as we are not permitted to fight (or even touch the ring) at that stadium at all. Even getting into the Lumpinee ring is a huge aim; to imagine a belt is even more insane.
- but this is why I make it winning a belt, and not just fighting a single one-off fight. The degree of change that would be required to win a belt that would mean that all of female fighting in Thailand, and especially the fighting of female Thai fighters, will have dramatically changed. We’ll be in a different world. Thai Muay Thai culture from the highest and most conservative powers that be will have to grow toward inclusion. I firmly believe – as much as I respect and even cherish aspects of the highly gendered traditions of Muay Thai – the future of the sport as it seeks to expand its appeal to new Thai generations and demographics, and international respect – will depend on the rise of female Thai fighters, in the honor of the country. I believe that the fate and health of Muay Thai depends on this. Just like how women in the UFC seemed like the farthest thing from being even remotely possible, to becoming not only possible, but even the cornerstones of promotions – sudden positive change can reverse long standing beliefs, especially in the role of women. My work as a fighter and a journalist as well will be towards ushering at least a division of female fighters into Lumpinee, and properly a division largely of Thai female fighters.
- The importance of this to Thai female fighters is immense. Currently barred from national stadia, their careers (and development) are short circuited right at the age when Thai males start to really take off as stadium fighters (14-16 years old). Promising talent loses the depth of its pool of opposition to better themselves in, and starts to train less frequently, fight less frequently, relegated to rare big money side bets or the occasional international fight. With the opening of the national stadia, as strong as Thai female fighting is already, it would ascend to a much higher level and give aim to thousands of girls around the country. As trite as it may sound my personal goal for a Lumpinee belt is ultimately for the benefit of Muay Thai itself – that’s how I frame it – and for my Thai sisters of the ring. We rise together.
- To no small degree it would also involve a powerful change in my skill level. I’m already at the level where in my clinch game I can beat standing world champions, even those of weight classes above me, but my Muay Thai is nowhere near what I call “stadium level” Muay Thai – the Muay Thai that is fought by 16 year old boys in those rings. It’s not just in terms of effectiveness, but also style, technique and explosion. And the truth is, neither is this the case for most of the fighting styles of Thai female fighters. All of us need to raise our level if we are going to be able to get across that barrier. And I believe it is happening. In the last few years I’ve seen Thai female fighters really become much more effective clinch fighters, with real developments in techniques that many Thai female fighters ignored, and western female fighters seem to have a much more rounded game themselves. For me, already this concept of “stadium level” Muay Thai has become a mantra for me in learning techniques or training for fights. Yes, I could win fights with a certain approach, but that’s not what I want. I need to get to stadium level Muay Thai if we are going to cross that threshold. I have a long way to go, but in many respects this is what “Lumpinee belt” means to me, pushing myself to a very different place, a place that feels “impossible”. There are presently (male) westerners fighting at Lumpinee and Rajadamnern who don’t fit the historic prestige of those stages (very young boys and even adult westerners fighting their first fights). The interest from spectators in watching Thai vs. Falang fights has granted entrance to that stadium to a class of fighters who never would have found themselves there in the Golden Age of Muay Thai, when Dekkers, Skarbowsky and Danny Bill were making waves as western giants in a heavily guarded Thai National stage. For women to enter into that space, it will also have to be interest from spectators. It’s money that pushes change first. The first women at Lumpinee are going to be bearing a lot of weight on our shoulders to break through those barriers and pull other women with us. It can’t just be a side show, it has to be high caliber fighters and I’ll be brutally honest in stating that I do not yet fit this criteria. I’m not there yet. But I can get there and every single fight brings me one step closer; every day with Pi Nu, every session with Karuhat, every lecture from Dieselnoi… it’s all one foot in front of the other on this path. I have to become a much more well-rounded fighter, my technique needs to be more beautiful and efficient, and more than all else what I express through my Muay needs to be more articulate. I’m reaching for Yodmuay; it’s ambitious.
- All female western fighters in Thailand you can help with this goal. At present, stadium Muay Thai in Bangkok is an elite strata, largely reserved for Thailand’s best and rising stars. That doesn’t mean that’s who is actually climbing over those ropes every night, but that’s the ethic of the way Thais think about the National Stadia: Lumpinee and Rajadamnern. It’s going to require convincing these higher powers that women are part of Thailand’s pride in Muay Thai. It’s flipping the switch from prestige being the omission of women, to prestige being the inclusion of women as part of Thailand’s identity with and celebration of heritage of Muay Thai. In the service of this I urge you as a fighter if you face a Thai opponent in Thailand please, please try to identify your opponent by name when you talk about your fight to others (and for yourself). Believe it or not, this grows the sport and in sum total will increase the pride Thais have for their own fighters, as they become embraced by westerners – it increases the sense of female fighting community. Try to never just fight “a Thai”. I do understand that Thai names can be intimidatingly long, or in some instances not even easy to find, but you can always just ask your trainer. It’s this importance of the respect for a Thai opponent that drove me to keep a record of each and every opponent I could have. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s not. It’s how we change the mindset, including our own. If we can get to the point where women are fighting at Lumpinee it will be because we are lifting each other up, both Thais and westerners. This happens one fight at a time, one social media post at a time.
- this one is also a big mountain, as Muay Thai must first be accepted for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The IFMA and WMC has been working for around 20 years to make this happen and it will be a while yet before we know whether Muay Thai will be included – for the first time ever – in the Olympic Games. But I believe that opportunity will present itself to fighters all over the world. And if it doesn’t, I may still find another way.
- to make the Untied States Olympic team I will have to be a much better fighter than I currently am. From the conversations I’ve had with the head of the IFMA who is spearheading the Olympic push, Mr. Stephan Fox, it is quite unlikely my weight class (45 kg) will be included in either the Olympics or the qualifying games that lead up to it. Likely, the lowest weight class will be 51 kg, which is significantly heavier than my walking around weight. Therefore, in order to even qualify, let alone move through the Olympic tournament itself, I must get good enough to beat the best 51 kg fighters in the world, regularly and dominantly. Happily I think I’m made just for this. I’ve been fighting up in weight throughout my entire 200 career, more than any female fighter ever, and 51-52 kg happens to be the most common weight I’ve faced in the past few years. Beating world champions at that weight is something I’ve already shown myself capable of doing. But still, my muay would have to grow to the point where a top (walk around) 54-55 kg fighter is someone I could handle without too much toil. I think that’s what would be required to make the US team at 51 kg, despite being 47 kg, and to win Gold for America.
- by the time of the Olympics in 2024, I should have around 350 fights, by projection. It goes without saying that it is a tremendous honor to have the opportunity to represent Muay Thai on the largest international stage it’s ever had, and to do so for my country amid all the world’s sports. But it’s additionally important to me that someone who is not Thai, has not grown up in the homeland or grown up in the way of life that is Muay Thai in Thailand, but who has nonetheless dedicated herself to this process, can represent this Muay Thai on the Olympic stage. This will be the chance to inspire and influence a generation or two of young fighters, and propel Muay Thai in the US to new plateaus, and in a certain regard to bring home everything I’ve experienced in Thailand in what then would be more than a decade of knowledge and passion. I do believe that I can also bring something important to the United States Olympic Muay Thai dream through my writing and reach, building awareness and excitement for the sport in the years that lead up to 2024.
- even though Olympic Gold is still more than 6 years away I’m already refining my muay so that it can be successful under international rules and scoring, and even more effective against larger weights. I’m training, for instance, intensively with World Champion boxer and coach Chatchai next month, and with legend Karuhat as well, with an eye towards better hands and a more insightful Muay Thai style. I’m also working towards more dynamic, quicker scoring clinch techniques, all with an ambition towards Olympic Gold for the US. I am already, in reality, training for the Olympics, and the effects will be profound.
Many fighters dream of becoming world title holders – and I understand that and celebrate the dreams of all fighters – but I really have never walked the path of the majority of fighters. I honestly do not care if I ever fight for a world title for the rest of my career. If there is a belt or something glittering in this list, it is only because the world as it is now would have to change for me to win it. And by setting after it, I’m setting after changing the world. I pick my goals because they utterly transform me, and as I’ve grown, because they transform others. Any goal for me MUST feel not only unlikely, but impossible. But impossible is just a feeling, not much different from nervousness, it’s not something you reason out. I put these 3 goals here like flags in the ground, like I have in the past. I don’t know which one is more terrifying or more unlikely, but all I know is that I’ve fought more than 200 times in Thailand now, a mind-numbing number that when I came to Thailand 6 years ago literally zero people – including myself – would have giving me a chance of accomplishing. Even people I look up to and who have helped me along this path told me it wasn’t possible; some even advised against it. But even their hearts and minds have changed, simply by watching it unfold and become fact. That impossible task serves as a precedent now for all impossible tasks, and I do believe with all my heart that each and every one of these goals can become real through putting in the work. It’s through making opportunities for ourselves, and then meeting them so that they can stand for others, that we change the world. Change your mind, change your world. It really is that simple, even if the process is anything but.
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If reading this is the first time encountering me you can check out this beautiful short documentary to see some of what I’m about: