The Importance of Violence in Muay Thai
I’ve written before about how Muay Thai and fighting, to me, isn’t “violence.” My argument was that I have experienced real violence, the above is the story of my rape as a child, and that the consent and preparation involved in fighting isn’t the same. There is, however, a flavor of violence in Muay Thai – it is, as my old boxing coach Ray Valez would say, “the hurt business” and ultimately any fighter pushing for the highest form of the art of Muay Thai has to embrace this.
Yesterday there was a young woman at my gym, Petchrungruang, who caused a bit of excitement because she’s an actress from a Thai lakorn (soap opera) on Channel 7. She hit pads with Kru Nu and then he put her in the ring with Podee for clinch. This woman is probably 50+ kg and Podee is maybe 40 kg… a pudgy 40 kg. He’s tiny, just a little butterball of an 11-year-old, and he had to get on his toes to even graze her neck with his hands – not a lot of chance for locking. This was kind of the point, to give her a partner who wouldn’t overwhelm her with size and was young enough for it to not be inappropriate. (The male/female clinch issue is a big one, that I won’t go into here but I have written about before.) Pi Nu looked at the two of them struggling to get any kind of movement going and then just told me to get in the ring with her. I have stitches in my face, so I’m out from clinching until those come out of my face, but because she’s a beginner there wasn’t any real risk of injury, as it would mostly be slow and instructive.
So I’m just showing her the ropes a bit, how to position her hands and how to step for turns and pulls and knees. She was getting the movements, but she had this complete limp-noodle way of dealing with me. Albeit, I’m smaller than she is, but you can’t barely touch someone when trying to do contact sports. Surely it was partly cultural as well, as the kind of woman she is subscribes to this femininity that’s really delicate, soft, non-intrusive… limp. I coached her to put a little bit of violence into it, just enough so that a pull was a jerk – explosions of movement rather than a slow stirring. “I’m afraid I will hurt you,” she said. I guaranteed her that wasn’t going to happen, even if she tried, but she just wouldn’t give up the softness. Sometimes when I’m showing two people how to do a drill I use the example of Baseball: if you throw the ball too softly, it’s impossible to hit it with the bat. So if you’re kicking your partner with so much control that it alters the trajectory of the kick, then you learn nothing and the ball ultimately never reaches the target. You have to put a little power in for the exchange to have any meaning. Finally, a bit frustrated by the situation, I turned to Pi Nu and said to him, “hey, she thinks she can hurt me.” Pi Nu looked at me blankly for a moment, maybe trying to extrapolate the context, then he got this smile in his eyes as he put down his pads and strided over to me. He grabbed me in a clinch and started kneeing me repeatedly, my much smaller body kind of bending and being knocked around as he locked my neck – it looked violent, I’m sure, but his power was controlled. Certainly he expected me to just kind of handle this stoically as an example for this woman that I’m tough, but I latched his arms and waited for a knee, turned him and tripped him to the ground, adding a dramatic knee to the air over his body as he caught himself on the canvas and subsequently got up. I looked at the woman and her eyes were bugging out of her head. “Cannot,” Pi Nu said, “Sylvie is Terminator. She not die.” (Bullshit; I’m Sarah Conner.)
After this, the woman didn’t put any more explosive movements into her efforts, but she did grip a little harder and asked questions about “how do you do it when fighting someone?” that implied she wanted me to give it back a bit. So I turned it up just a little, no more power but just a whiff of violence, and the energy went way up. Now, this woman as a beginner with no context for what she was practicing is an extreme example of this softness. But I get it from people who have been training in Muay Thai for years, even people with fights, who kind of try to handle me like I’m a baby squirrel in their hands or something. It doesn’t work. A less extreme example, but one equally important, is myself. In the last year or so of training with these Muay Thai Legends of the Golden Age, I’ve come to see the immense difference that millimeters make in proximity. Yodkhunpon, “the Elbow Hunter of 100 Stitches”, barely grazes my face with his elbows and it’s fucking horrifying. The movement is utterly controlled, but how comfortable can you really be with a gun pointed to your temple, even if you trust the person holding it? When he turns on his sparring exchanges, there’s a controlled and powerless violence that feels absolutely real. Because it is real. It’s the same with Karuhat. In a moment when he was showing me how to turn in the clinch, he pulls my head down and just gestures toward this knee that he doesn’t even throw… but you see it, man. And I felt it. I knew I was done, even though he didn’t even take his foot all the way off the floor. That’s the violence I’m talking about. It’s the cat on its back, kicking your goddamn entrails out with its back feet but with the claws retracted because he’s just playing. Playing and warning should rhyme, they’re that close.
Yodkhunpon playfully showing the brutality of Muay Thai dominance
You can pull your power down, but that dominance has to be there. In the gym, in sparring, you hear westerners gush about how controlled and “light” Thai sparring is. Sure, when compared to the western version it’s super light (not always). But the dominance is absolutely real, like in the clip above with Yodkhunpon. I see this hesitance in my fights. My movements aren’t mushy like the woman who is afraid of hurting me, but they’re not that different in terms of not wanting to overstep somehow. And my emphasis is on the wrong syllable, so to speak. The speed and intention is at the front of the strike, rather than at the end of it. Imagine swinging a baseball bat and then slowing it down at the last few inches before hitting the ball. For what?! Yodkhunpon, Dieselnoi, Chatchai, Karuhat – when these guys even shadow something in front of you, not even touching you, you can feel the possibility of that strike. It’s too close, or you didn’t see it coming, or you did see it but there’s fuck-all you can do about it to avoid getting hit. That’s the violence. You’ve trained and you are prepared and you trust your trainer not to hurt you, but all of that doesn’t fully desensitize you to the threat promised in these movements.
When Pi Nu is joking that I’m the Terminator and you can’t hurt me, he doesn’t mean that my body is incapable of suffering harm. The Terminator gets pretty jacked in almost every movie, having to peel off his skin or pop out his eye or getting his limbs crushed off. He’s not invincible, nor am I or any other fighter. What he means, and what I mean, when I say, “you can’t hurt me,” is that the affect of that pain or damage isn’t going to stop me, because I won’t suffer it and I’m prepared for it. I’ve hardened myself, as fighters do. And when I wrote that piece on how Muay Thai and fighting isn’t “violence,” my argument is that you go into this thing together; you prepare for it and accept it and grow from it. But then there’s this incomparable feeling; for me it’s like a quiet panic that is “fight, flight or freeze” all in one. That’s what violence feels like. You can gird yourself against it, like how you recognize a car crash an instant before impact and tense your body, but the experience of the crash stays the same. When Yodkhunpon or Karuhat move through you and stand just a hair too close, it sucks the breath out of you. It puts fear into these little slivers of openings in your armor that you didn’t know you had. It’s the banging on the other side of the locked door, or the sawdust around the hinges falling to the ground – something is going to get through. That’s the fear side of violence. There’s also a power side. The fear side is all the air being sucked from your lungs, like a tiny drowning. But the power side is like filling your lungs so full they might rip apart. It doesn’t, to me, feel “good” anymore than the fear side does. But here’s the interesting bit to me: it takes effort for me to accept both sides of that coin. “You can’t hurt me,” feels good. But “I can hurt you” has to feel good, too. It has to.
There’s this connection I run into over and over again between Thai language and Muay Thai. The better my Thai gets, the better my Muay gets and vice versa. An interesting correlation is that most polysyllabic words in English, the emphasis is on the first syllable. In Thai, quite often and certainly on loan-words from English, it’s on the final syllable. Emphasis on the start of the strike versus emphasis on the end of the strike, right? When I’m speaking to Thais, if I say a word with the normal English pronunciation, the person I’m speaking to literally cannot figure out the word. There’s no internal “let me rearrange the possible pronunciations to see if that’s a word I know,” it’s just not a word. So I try again with the emphasis on the last syllable and blamo, recognition. Even words they’ve never heard before, like my name. “Sylvie,” just gets nothing, but if I try with “Sylvee” there’s a sudden, ooooh. My name isn’t a word, so it’s not like they’re looking for its meaning; it’s like they can’t even hear it the other way around. But here’s the point: a kick isn’t a kick if it starts off fast and slows down at the end. It’s nothing. The acceleration, the power, the violence goes on the end of the strike, period. Obviously you can reverse that and it might, in some arguments akin to language, be “correct.” But the point of speaking is to be understood, and in my attempts to be understood I’m learning that I have to embrace the discomfort of familiar words sounding foreign, of putting the emphasis on the last inch, and accepting that I can – and want to – hurt somebody.
How can this be? How can I still be coming to grips with the idea that I want to hurt someone after 185 fights, with 122 stitches and more than 60 stoppages? That this willingness and, indeed desire to hurt, is a necessary step in the evolution to the Art, and art of violence? No doubt, the beauty of Muay Thai that attracted me to it was that it was grace and violence, or grace amid violence. But this, the devotion to the art of it, is a long metamorphosis for me, and really for any of us. How do we tap into some of the most powerful, destructive energies within us without becoming base? How do we draw on darkness, without being eclipsed ourselves? For me violence is a catalyst for transformation, a process along a continuum rather than an end point. Destruction, for example, is a kind of “un-building” but it isn’t necessarily final. The building was destroyed but then it is rebuilt, and it’s this other thing. Violence is this barely-controlled monster that can be wielded for purposes of great meaning and value. I remember one time trying to explain to Sakmongkol what the Phoenix was. There’s a word for it in Thai, so he kept repeating that until we realized we were talking about the same thing. But there was this one point in the definition that he just kept getting stuck on. Kevin was saying that the bird dies and then is resurrected, out of death. But Sakmongkol kept looking utterly confused and repeating, “no, not die,” because obviously if it rises again it didn’t die. One is escaping a finality (his version), the other is experiencing finality and then continuing through it (my version). It’s not a minor difference, it’s a huge difference. I think in this process of understanding violence, of embracing it as part of my transformation and, indeed, a large part of what I’m striving toward, I have to come to grips with the difference between escaping destruction and continuing through destruction. If I’m to honor Pi Nu’s insistence that I do not die, I have to untangle that difference.
But more than that, the Terminator isn’t named for his inability to be killed – he’s the terminator, the one doing, the destroyer. My brother named his son after the title character in Orson Scott Card’s book, “Ender’s Game.” Ender saves the universe due to a value in his disposition that I first spotted in Muay Thai: that every move is designed to end the fight; Ender obliterates his opponent so harshly that there are no future battles. There’s a poetic twist there, that his ultra-violence ensures extended peace. I’m certainly not talking about killing my opponents – I’m involved in a sport – but the ethic remains the same. If you look at JiuJitsu, the most dominant finish to a match is submission – submission. That’s an acceptance of defeat, which in the west people love to say, “there’s no tapping in Muay Thai”, meaning that you see it through to the end and there’s no escape, but you can absolutely take your opponent’s will. And that’s where the respect and honor and whatever else people love to wax poetic about comes from. It’s not taking a step back from your opponent when they’re ready to quit, or leaving that millimeter of distance that I have such trouble closing between me and my trainers. I struggle to take up that breath of distance out of deference to my trainers and nothing else; deference and respect aren’t the same thing. When I closed that distance once or twice with Yodkhunpon and he ducked away from me, expressing the discomfort and fear intended in those moves he was teaching me and applauding me for the correct execution, he wasn’t disrespected by that. It’s the opposite. It’s honoring the art, embracing the lesson in full from the teacher. In the end, it’s not my business whether my opponent rises out of the ashes or not. It’s not in my control or any of my concern whether or not she recognizes the difference between finality and resurrection. It’s only my business to honor the power of Muay to put someone into that fire, and if I’m willing to be in those flames and call it strength that I can withstand it, then I have to learn the harder task of embracing the strength it takes to put someone else there, with intention.