The Purity of Muay Thai – “Tyson in the Catkills” | Guest Post
Guest Post – A Husband’s Point of View
Let it be said: a husband’s job is to praise his wife. And as Sylvie’s husband writing these guest posts on her voluminous blog, a blog that attempts to cover every crevice of her experience for transport over to others, across seas and skies and satellite ether, I am going to offer high praise (if you aren’t big on the Sylvie bandwagon, feel free to jump down a few paragraphs). What Sylvie is doing – whatever you make of it – is just startling. We are coming up on our 5 year anniversary of full time training and fighting in Thailand (April 5th), and it is simply head-shaking what has transpired. So far as we can tell no westerner, man or woman, has fought like Sylvie has for even a single year (more than 30 times) in Thailand. That is a single year. Sylvie will have done it 5 years running. That is 5 unbelievable, never-been-done-before years of just throwing yourself in the ring over and over and over again. 5 years of committing your body to everything Muay Thai can possibly mean, and simply fighting. We’ll leave aside all the other unprecedented accomplishments: nobody has trained like this in Thaland, documented like this, written like this, filmed like this…even for a single year, let alone five…but what she has done in the 5 years, simply by fighting, is breathtaking. It takes my breath away. And she is just hitting her stride. When we really step back to take a look at this it would seem that fighting like this is beyond even what Thais reach. Yes, rare female Thai fighters have had over 200 fights (Loma Lookboonmee does for instance), but they have been doing it for years. Loma started when she was 8. She’s 21 now. Some Thai boys fight like this, over 30, possibly over 40 fights in the provinces, honing their skills in endless festival fights, but very seldom do they do so for 5 years running. It should be said that Sylvie is fighting close to how nobody has ever fought before, in any country, in any culture, at any time. This isn’t only female fighting history being made, this is edging towards fighting history period. if you’d like to support her chase toward history, you can do so here
She and I used to call what she was attempting to do – before she had even attempted it – “Tyson in the Catskills”, referring to when Mike Tyson as a youth was training under Cus D’Amato in Upstate NY, when he fought an intense amount of fights. I don’t know how many there were, but probably close to 30 in a year. Years later when asked about what a young fighter should do Tyson answered: “Fight a lot.” Because he knew. This is just fighting and fighting and fighting to learn. To do. While on a normal scale all of this would be an achievement, this is only a precursor. It’s as if all this time Sylvie has been learning a language, and now the interesting question is: What are you going to say? This period has been “Tyson in the Catskills”.
Why am I going on about this, circling back to the long road up a steep mountain that Sylvie is still climbing? Because I want to talk about the purity of Muay Thai as found in festival fights in the countryside of Thailand. I want to emphasize the perspective where we come from – while it is not complete, it is comparatively vast. She has fought 167 times in Thailand, no western woman or man has come close to this. And I have been ringside for each of them. I want to talk about the last fight Sylvie had and I just didn’t know how to do it without pulling the camera way, way back, until it towered high above the land so you could see everything. Because it feels like we have seen everything. And then I want to zoom it back down, way back down into the fight a week ago [I wrote this a few weeks ago, so she’s fought a few times since], focusing in on what that was. Because the two are intimate to each other. The distant and the near.
We had just come off a big production fight the week before, the kind of televised fight that one would imagine that any fighter would be eager for. Fighting a former world champion, giving up huge weight (5+ kg on weigh-in), luminary ex-fighters all over the place in the crowd, very kind people in support. Instagramming it, Live Streaming it on Facebook, a broadcast out to Thai TV. It was the kind of fight that Sylvie would only have dreamed of in her first few years. But, as is the case sometimes, everything was in her opponent’s favor. Rounds were shorted by format. Her opponent’s bestie was the referee, the weigh-in weight was raised after initial agreement. Hey, no big deal, this was playing against a stacked deck, but that’s a deck we like sometimes. It’s a bold and beautiful opportunity to fight against all odds. At the time it was just a very satisfying fight for me to watch. Sylvie just threw herself at it, but did not prevail. Then the opponent’s gym got a little unpleasant, embarrassingly trolling Sylvie’s page, “laughing” that Sylvie got cut, posting elsewhere falsehoods about the weigh-in (claiming it was much closer than it was). The entire fight had a tremendous artifice about it. Not to say that it wasn’t real, or noble, or fair. It just was highly produced, in nearly every sense of the word. Thailand enjoys spectacle, and the fight game in media is just that: spectacle. Fighters ultimately are gladiators in Rome. Bread and circus. None of this is a complaint, but it is about our growing reluctance to embrace big productions. It’s not that they are not fair, they just are not fun or enriching as you imagine they should be. They don’t seem to lead to the growth that just fighting does. In these televised shows rounds are shortened. There is often a disengaged crowd, there is a kind of staging. And often the opponent is not as challenging in many other kinds of fights. Or at least challenging in the best way.
So this is where I talk about the Purity of Muay Thai, a simple festival fight a week after the big show. These kinds of fights are just stupendous moments in fighting. How do you describe an Amazon forest of fluorescent tubes rising out of the darkness of a highway, leading the way in neon color, stanchions of light trailing to a Buddhist temple grounds that are covered with local people, the smoke of foods rising like a scented fog, and music tonally beating out across the air? How do you describe the ropes of an improvisational ring almost levitant above the heads of a pressed together crowd, ring lights catching the heavy ropes, and bouncing off the canvas, all of it like an huge altar people will be soon be yelling into like a great empty urn for ashes? How do you describe the fluttering of insects, creating enormous halos of soundless wings, beating against themselves around bulbs burning with electricity draped in through lengthy extension cords and makeshift wiring? How do you describe the ovals of faces, pressed into casual rows like eggs in a cartoon, staring into the light of the ring, musicians flipping over the tones of the musical fighting art creating an enveloped tension, as if mother was all around. How do you describe children running with youth-intoxicated smiles, stumbling and laughing, while old men turn themselves into the tarp that walls off the whole event, peeing away the last 5 beers? How do you describe the absolute confusion, and the absolute belief that the confusion doesn’t matter one bit?
Sylvie has a cut from the big promo fight. It is large enough that it probably could have used a few stitches, adding to her total of over 100 that she’s had, but Sylvie refused stitches. She’d be fighting in a few days and you just can’t fight with stitches. It was an old cut that had reopened and these don’t bleed much, and close pretty quickly. Best to just tape it, it would be loosely closed by fight time. The issue of the cut is this. You hide the cut from your opponent, you hide it from the gamblers and promoters, but having open skin is a big deficit in the fight itself. A simple headbutt will open it up, and once cut you really have to dominate to pull out a decision win. The win itself is secondary to the relationships that helped book the fight. People who put it together and called you up into Isaan, into this tiny little corner surrounded by blackened fields in the middle of the night, these people are betting on you. You are here because they’ve seen you fight. Having this small piece of open flesh puts something on you. You better protect yourself up high. And if you are cut again you better go on and win. Right there is fighting at its simplest. It’s embracing in a very real way the disadvantages you have, and orienting yourself to the path of victory, all the while affirming the real relationships and responsibilities that make fighting itself possible. This is pure communal combat. You have to be part of the community, you have to embolden yourself to the values of the community, and express those values through fighting itself. This has been done in organized fighting among tribes and partisans from the beginning of time. It’s not common that outsiders find themselves in the pleasure of this position, especially relatively un-represented and un-escorted. Sylvie fights amphibiously in these fights, both inside the event and outside of it, and the only reason she is included at all is that local people have seen her fight before.
Sylvie has no corner. This is basically the way Sylvie fights in these kinds of shows. It came about because increasingly she was the one who was booking her fights, basically accepting any fight a promoter offered her, knowing that her reputation as a strong fighter meant that it would be a good gambling match, and because arranging for a corner from her gym became just too complicated and undependable. It became simpler to just find a corner at the venue. At fights such as these everyone is in the fight game. Not only are there gyms on the mats, all massaging their fighters for the ring, and gamblers and promoters all consider themselves experts on fighting, and in any crowd there are very likely great ex-fighters mixed in. It’s like having your car break down at an auto mechanic’s convention. I’m not sure Sylvie is as sold on it as I am, but I’d actually rather her have an unknown corner for a fight, almost without exception (Karuhat and Dieselnoi is an exception). The simplicity of a corner that just barely has met you is like sailing in a small sail boat of your own, one you built yourself. Everything is your own rigging. So Sylvie is wrapping her own hands – it still amazes me that she does this as if she’s just warming up to hit the bag – and we are tucked behind a vendor stall which is a leaning tent, a few card tables, laying everything out on the mat. Sylvie’s looked at the card and knows she’s the 5th fight, but the opponent is not the one she was promised to fight. It was going to be a rematch. It’s not. A completely unknown fighter. The fights are already underway, she’s finished wrapping her hands, and she still doesn’t have a corner. She hunts into the crowd for the promoter, asking him to help her find a corner. I can’t tell you how beautiful this is to me. We are about to be paired up with some family, or an old man, or someone, and Sylvie will be relying on them between rounds. It’s the momentary synergy crossing cultures, made possible in the Form of Life called Muay Thai. Sylvie speaks Thai, and she has to have that ability to even make any of this possible, but from this point forward no Thai is needed. Everyone knows their role. It’s wordless, embattled ballet, and the gamblers will all be screaming.
Turns out a gambler who made money on a fight Sylvie fought a few months ago in Isaan is close to the promoter and he’s going to be her pee-lian (corner). He’s betting big on this fight, so he’s excited. But the more he interacts with us I just get the feeling that he hasn’t cornered fighters much. We inform him that Sylvie needs a her pre-fight massage, and he looks surprised. As an adult male it isn’t right for him to do this, especially not publicly. He disappears into the thick crowd for maybe 5 or 10 minutes and comes back with a Thai boy, who knows what mat he came from. Another boy is picked up moments before the fight, and this trio will be her corner. Two boys about 10 or 12, and the older gambler who will kind of preside over the corner, shouting instructions now and again.
It’s the fights though that really set this kind of experience apart. Maybe it is like barnstorming as a baseball player in the 1950s in America, but fighting festival fights like this produces a certain tenor of fighting. First of all, you are facing someone who is skilled, and likely bigger than you. These aren’t National champion fighters, they are local champions, the fighter who was trained by their family, given the secrets of good technique by a parent or an uncle. They are not from big gyms, but are the jewels of a family. And they know what they are doing. Family instruction produces the best female fighters, gyms do not. They are eager to face the farang who comes with something of a reputation. And because there are sidebets usually, they fight hard for both pride and money. Sylvie spoke about how the ref in her last Isaan fight did something subtle, but that she hadn’t really seen before. Usually the ref makes the customary “break” hand chop, signaling the start of the round at the permission of the referee’s control. This ref just backed up, as if he was getting out of the way of two clashing forces. No formality, just get out of the way. That’s what these fights feel like. And, because this is just plain country fighting they really let the clinch go. Isaan girls know how to clinch. They understand that clinch takes time to develop. In big televised fights, even in some bigger city stadia, the clinch is broken fast. But here it’s given it’s due. It would be like standing up MMA fights a few seconds after they went to the ground. No. You let it play out. You let the art develop.
And geez, for someone we had not heard of this girl was good. In the first round she already was turning, circling in the clinch and kneeing to the open side. So many city Thais don’t have that. She understood arm control, a big important feature often not taught. She knew how to drag, again, advanced technique. The kind of fighting that is allowed in these rings is just one long beautiful conversation. And the crowd is electric, beneath those low-hung, bare bulbs. Most of the crowd has probably bet against Sylvie. She’s smaller, and a farang, but a few of the gamblers know who she is. This fight she does end up winning, Muay Khao fighter vs Muay Khao fighter, but ultimately it doesn’t matter, other than that it promises another fight. It’s the chance to just fight in the way that 1000s have fought, all across Thailand – a hands-off ref, a flowing clinch game, an unknown but skilled opponent, and voices rising like flour on the cutting board when the dough is thrown down.
I cherish these fights. Yes, the fights in Chiang Mai, at regular stadia, against polished circuit fighters, fighters with belts, on televised productions, they alone would be beautiful experiences, but I can’t help but feel that when we fight in Isaan in these kinds of oases, we slip into a deeper experience of Muay Thai, a timeless spectacle of luck and power… a purity of Muay Thai.