In Praise of the “Tuk-Tuk Driver”
I was sitting on the blue mats in the weight room of my gym, creating a pool of sweat around myself as I dripped from training. My thumbs slipped and smeared droplets of sweat on the surface of my phone as I tried to type notes from my conversation with Pi Nu, who was sitting with his back to the mirrored wall, facing me, taking the opportunity to stop his own workout in order to chat with me. I was trying to get the biography of one of his first trainers, a man I see everyday at the gym – Kru Den. Pi Nu happily told me about him and then very naturally side-barred into a story about this guy he knew since childhood who is now a Tuk-Tuk driver. “He pum pui,” Pi Nu said, the Thai phrase for “chubby” or some other cute and somewhat affectionate term for being overweight, “but he still come to the gym and hold pads, train the boys. He very good, when he hold pads he femur (very skilled, technical),” Pi Nu added. He kept talking about this guy for another 5 minutes and I listened, my fingers paused over the keyboard on my phone because we weren’t talking about my subject (Kru Den) anymore. Pi Nu is not generous with compliments. He’s a kind man, he gives everyone second and third chances and tries to see the best in people, but he doesn’t offer a label of capability unless he really respects one’s abilities. So when he said this friend was a good fighter and a great trainer, he’s not blowing smoke… ever. And this guy is literally a Tuk-Tuk driver, as his life didn’t develop into one where he remained in Muay Thai. Pi Nu almost went down that road himself, running a Snooker club for a number of years from age 16 until a little while after he retired as a fighter in his early 20’s. He never saw himself becoming a trainer but then when his life developed that way he embraced it and now he’s one of the best trainers there is. Muay Thai is his life. And for some guys, like this friend of his who is a Tuk-Tuk driver, Muay Thai becomes a smaller part of their lives, a part of their past. Sometimes guys like this come into the gym and will hold pads for the kids, but more often they just watch and sometimes will saddle up to a bag and start kicking it, absolutely ripping through it with ferocity as they remember their fighting days. You know an ex-fighter when they come to kick a bag. It’s fucking incredible. Then they get tired (after a few kicks) and stroll back off to watch the fighters training in the ring, ruminating on their own youth with a kind of nostalgic glimmer in their eyes.
The short-hand expression for a bullshit fight between a western male and an overweight, out of shape Thai guy is “fighting a Tuk-Tuk driver.” Basically, often westerners who come to train in Thailand and are in the 70+ kilo range, when fighting a Thai are faced with two pretty bad options: fight an opponent obviously much smaller than you are but still in good shape and probably with much more experience; or fight an opponent who is obviously out of shape and likely taking the fight for the money, often losing by TKO in the first 3 rounds because his cardio won’t take him past that.
These fights are commonplace in Phuket (reportedly) and in Chiang Mai, pretty much any area that has gyms with a lot of westerners. In some cases when the fighter lays down and pretends to be knocked out, it’s not the kind of performance that would convince anybody with eyes that it was a real “cannot continue” situation. It’s not just at these podunk stadia, you’ll see it on TV at Max Muay Thai as well. It’s embarrassing. But, but, while the fight is ridiculous and the visual difference between the westerner who has been training very hard for weeks or months leading up to this fight, versus the out-of-shape and usually older Thai guy who may look like he’s been drinking for weeks leading up to this fight, that doesn’t mean that the “Tuk-Tuk driver” is just some random dude pulled out of his cab to get in the ring.
I wrote about the 80% fight, which is the fact that because Thais fight a lot more often and a lot more fights than westerners do, there are times when a fight is less competitive. If there’s money on a side bet, or reputation due to a title or the fight being on TV or a holiday, you know you’ll see an all-out effort. But if there’s no money at stake and your opponent is fighting again in a few days anyway, winning or losing the fight doesn’t have a huge impact on that fighter. As westerners, we as a group don’t fight as many times so each fight is really important; and we’re often not clued in to the gambling aspects of fighting in Thailand, so whether there’s money on it or not doesn’t impact the “fight for my honor” approach. This disparity in how much effort is going into each fight just becomes physically expressed in the different bodies of the out-of-shape “Tuk-Tuk driver” and the huge, muscled and sincere western fighter.
But here’s the thing: I know some Tuk-Tuk drivers, guys who work in bars, women who are in school, and old, out-of-shape trainers with a championship belt in drinking who are really skilled. A lot of them are ex-fighters; it’s not like grabbing a cabbie in NYC for a boxing match, these guys used to train and fight with dedication, so maybe it’s like grabbing a cabbie out of his car in Brazil for a pickup game of soccer. That dude probably played a lot as a kid. When I was at Lanna we had this trainer named Wung. He was amazing. He was surly and salty, perpetually some level of drunk, and his pre-fight warmup was 5 beers. He’d gas out, his arms draped over the ropes as he panted between rounds, but for the first 3 rounds or so he was a fucking nightmare. Just full-power kicks, punches and dozens of elbows. He’d try to knock his opponent out, sincerely, in those first rounds in order to make the fight quick. But if you could drag it out to the later rounds, Wung was done. I never saw Wung fight a westerner, only other kinda old-but-still-fighting-for-beer-money Thais who were mostly trainers at other gyms. But if a westerner got in the ring with Wung, I’d consider him a brave man for giving it a go. And if he makes it to the later rounds and just runs over Wung when he’s gassed, you have to earn it and that’s worth a win.
from years ago: a round of Wung fighting (red). He wasn’t a Tuk-Tuk driver, he was a wonderful drunk trainer, but if he had cycled out of the gym he could have been.
These are absolutely not high level fights. Often times these matches with the “Tuk-Tuk driver” are an attempt to meet the size of a westerner that exceeds the top weights of active fighter Thais. If you get a Thai who is 80 kg, he’s not in shape. But these ex-fighter, current-drinker Thai opponents are also matched against relatively inexperienced western fighters, who shouldn’t be thrown in with Lumpinee fighters anyway. It’s just an incredibly difficult thing to try to match a huge western body that has the fight experience of a 14-year-old Thai boy. And I’m not saying these are great matchups – they’re largely non-competitive on a Thai scale in that there’s no money, no risk, and therefore very little incentive to put your all into a fight in which winning or losing really doesn’t matter, as well as gyms wanting their western clients to win in order to make them happy and perhaps create repeat business… all of that is part of these shows as well. But the point of this post is that while the fight is kinda bullshit in some ways, the phrase used to describe them is disparaging to the wrong part of the equation. The “Tuk-Tuk driver” isn’t bullshit. He’s likely an ex-fighter and has both experience and skill. If he were younger, sober, and in better shape cardio-wise, he could take a lot of these guys to school. If you want to mock the fight, mock the fight because it’s a show. But don’t be sneering at the Tuk-Tuk drivers categorically. If you offered to buy them a round of beers after the fight if they won, they’d likely kick your ass.
One of the things that is so beautiful about Thailand is how permeated the country is with the art. How many boys have trained and fought in it, and how many of these become men that are beyond the sport. Yes, it can be frustrating for a visitor to face a “Tuk-Tuk driver” when what they really want is an all-out war to test their manhood and their technique; but think to yourself about the other man (and for women, the other woman), about what they represent. What they are part of. Match ups in Thailand can be tricky, especially if you have not put in your dues enough to become known and connected to promoters. You may have very little control over who you will face, and opponents can be switched, sometimes disappointingly, at the last minute. The quality of your gym and how much they look out may be the important factor. But Thailand does not owe you a war. You are stepping into a very wide sea, an ocean of Muay Thai, and each fighter is part of it in their own way. You’ll see these fights between two old Thai men, or one very fat man and a very thin man, or in one case a man’s wife versus his mistress (who had a good 25 kg weight difference between them) – these are all “show fights” in the sense of being a spectacle, but there are huge side bets on them sometimes. These aren’t bullshit people, they’re still part of the very multi-faceted world of Muay Thai. Consider the difference between a game of poker where there is no money involved, versus a game of poker where the stakes are high. The difference between the two is money, but it’s a big difference. If there’s no money at stake, you might be more willing to bluff or more willing to fold and just get to the next deal. But if you’ve anted up and have something riding on whether you win or lose, it changes how you play the game. It doesn’t change you or your ability to play.