The Jade Dragon Set – At the Very Start of Muay Thai
In the dimming light of evening training, when the fluorescent bulbs above the ring become more severe, the Jade Dragon Set comes running through the gate and leap onto the tires that line the far side of the ring. They bounce up and down on the tires, yelling for Kru Nu’s attention. He looks over and nods to them, sometimes talks to them for a moment while still holding his pads up for whomever is smashing them in the ring. The four little boys are all the same age, more or less. I thought they were maybe 5 years old because they’re so tiny and I don’t understand children, but recently I overheard one tell one of the boys at the gym that he’s seven. They’re all the same size, they all are variations off of the same face (their father’s face), and they’re all missing almost the same teeth. But they wear different colored boxing shorts – all of them several sizes too large for their tiny, skinny little bodies – and while they are all brothers, they aren’t twins. They all look like their father, but he has several wives and I’m not sure how all the boys shake out in terms of sharing the same mothers, but they absolutely stomp around like a single unit of brothers. A little gang. Kru Nu calls them chut mangon yok, or the Jade Dragon Set.
Their father is the one who trains them. He organizes them around a bag and has them punch and kick, the gloves on their hands so enormous in comparison to their tiny bodies that the wrists come all the way up to their elbows. The boys are diligent. When they all line up against the side of the ring to teep the cement side, they hold on to their ears as they teep, teaching them to keep their hands up. Some do it on kicks as well, although about half of them forget during kicks. Sometimes he puts them in the kids’ ring and has them spar, which ends in tears almost before it even begins. But that’s how training goes at that age and they’re up and bouncing around, running through the weight room and chasing each other through the empty spaces of the late-evening gym in no time at all. The one that wears the green shorts seems to pair off pretty often with the one in the yellow shorts. The green shorts provokes the yellow shorts and when yellow shorts gives chase, green shorts will flop to the floor immediately and start giggling. When they’re all finished with their punching and teeping drills, or bouncing on the tires, they’re allowed to run through the weight room with a little bit of “free form” conditioning, but more often than not you can find them all lined up in a row, staring through the glass wall at the far end of the weight room that looks into the air-conditioned “TV room” of Pi Nu’s house. His 3-year-old son Nat is almost always watching Toy Story or an educational video and the Jade Dragon Set are like moths to that flame, watching silently through the glass wall the pictures on the screen. It’s endearing. Their dad never complains.
The other day I was sitting at the edge of the ring, just inside the ropes, sweating and chugging water and feeling more or less like I was going to fall asleep right there. I’d just finished pads with Kru Nu and it was my first full day back at training after a week of suffering pretty severely from a bout of Dengue Fever. About 10 fighters filed into the ring through the ropes and found their spots, spread out to fill up the ring. Everyone was sitting down, waiting for Kru Nu to stop fiddling with the timer on his phone so they could start the conditioning drill. I’d done it this morning with Kru Nu, so I was exempt from the group effort, which I was grateful for because the idea of pushups at that moment was making me feel a bit panicked. Kru Nu hit start on his phone and stood to place it into this cut out plastic bottle, converted into a holder, at the horizontal beam that runs the length of the ring. At the sound of the bell everyone started doing situps and I started chugging my water again. Kru Nu slipped through the ropes and disappeared into his kitchen for a few minutes before reappearing with a snack in his hand. Angie was doing a plank right next to me and she looked at Kru Nu, then looked at me and commented that Kru Nu never eats during training. But there he was, snacking away at this clear plastic container in his hand. He got back into the ring and sat down on the white plastic chair next to me, pulling this white fruit leather-looking strip out of the box and offering it to me. I looked at it suspiciously and Kru Nu looked at me offended, “eat it,” he said simply. I looked at him, took the piece of whatever it was and sniffed it. Kru Nu frowned at me, totally offended that I was questioning this delicious snack he just gave me. For context, the day before Kru Nu had made me come into his kitchen and watch him make me a chicken shake to drink. That’s blended meat, people. To drink. Watch that hilarity here. It was disgusting, so my misgivings about the food he’s offering me is not only warranted but wise. I reminded him of the chicken shake and he frowned again, “noooooo,” he said, “this is coconut. Eat it.”
I looked at the piece of food in my hand. It’s white… coconut is white. It had black flecks on it that I think were black sesame, but it was dry and a little leathery and sticky, very light in weight. I took a small bite and chewed carefully. Yeah, it was delicious. So I popped the rest in my mouth and chewed it up, wincing for a moment as I swallowed it. I think I’m allergic to one of the medicines they gave me for my Dengue, so my throat has had this really painful lump in it for a few days and it hurts to eat. “You can’t have any more,” Kru Nu said teasingly, “you took too long to eat that one and I ate all the rest.” He’s in a surprisingly chipper mood for the end of training. The group of fighters were finishing up their conditioning as the bell sounded and the Jade Dragon Set was already giggling and pushing each other off balance from where they were arranged for their planks around the ring. There are two more boys, a little older, who I think are second cousins of Kru Nu. They come almost every evening and have pads held by Bank or Alex, part of the process of being a young fighter in a Thai gym is holding pads for the younger kids. It’s grunt work, but it’s cool that kids learn how to hold pads for each other at such a young age. I think it makes you better as a fighter, learning how to catch strikes and hold for patterns and all that. The boys are kind of dutiful about it. But today, in his good mood, Pi Nu announces to me that he’s going to change things up and hold pads for the kids. “It’s fun,” he adds.
The fighters clear out of the ring and head into the weight room to pretend like they’re finishing up training but really just to sit and gossip, sharing videos and photos on their phones. Kru Nu gathers the Jade Dragon Set and the two other little boys and lines them up against the ropes on one side of the ring. He patiently helps each of the 6 boys find his balance on one leg while the other leg is balanced in “kicking pose” atop one of the ropes. Some of the boys remember to hold their ears, but they all just have to balance like this. One of the boys who I think is a second cousin of Kru Nu puts his leg on a rope higher than the other boys. He’s showing off, but he has to keep his balance like that so he kind of made his own bed and now has to lie in it. Kru Nu resets his timer and tells the boys to hold their kicking pose, then takes them off the line one by one to hit the pads with him while everyone else holds their pose. The boys wobble and some look bored while they hold this pose, but even though Kru Nu is focused on one boy at a time, sitting on that white plastic stool to hold the pads for kicks and punches, he has a completely even attention between correcting the boy who is hitting pads with him and calling over reminders to the boys on the ropes to keep their balance and focus. They all keep rebalancing themselves. They all self-correct to get up on their toes and then get tired and go flat-footed again as the timer sounds and the boy on the pads goes back to the line and another boy is plucked from the ropes to take his turn. It’s the boy in the green shorts’ turn. He holds his ears and kicks the pads, then looks into Pi Nu’s face for approval. Kru Nu occasionally puts his pad under the boy’s elbow to bring his guard higher. He’s so patient and calm when dealing with kids. He’s done this a million times, taking a kid from absolutely nothing to the rings of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern over a decade or more of this kind of patience and slow progression. It’s incredible.
Green shorts is grinning, his missing teeth a prime feature of his expressive face. His dad is standing next to me, watching his sons hold their kick pose and take their turns with Kru Nu. The dad is really serious, the boys aren’t. I’ve actually never seen him look this serious when his boys are training, but I also realize I’ve never seen Kru Nu hold for them before. They’ve been coming for a few months now and this is the first time – that I’ve seen – that Kru Nu paid them any attention with instruction. Maybe the dad is super serious because he wants his boys to be respectful and pay attention to the fact that they’re receiving the privilege of Kru Nu’s focus. It’s not just the dad of the Jade Dragon Set. On the other side of the corner of the ring is a row of three men: Pi Gok, who lives in a room at the corner of the ring with his daughter Bai, who he trains at the gym, and two other men who have sons at the gym. The three men are lined up in front of the row of babies, balancing on the ropes. They’ve all watched their kids at the gym for years. They’re watching this event, same as I am, but to them it means something else. Everyone there is a father, they’re all watching this group of young boys with eyes that have seen countless sets like this come through before. Above Kru Nu, standing on the top ropes and gripping the pullup bar at the top of the ring is Younis, the youngest active fighter at the gym. He’s maybe 10 years old and is a “real fighter,” which means he trains with the fighters during regular evening training. Kru Nu holds pads for him and I’ve even seen him clinch with Chicken Man – a grown man clinching with a 10 year old who probably doesn’t even weigh 60 lbs. It’s incredible. Younis isn’t much older than these boys, but he’s in a stratosphere way beyond them in terms of the privilege of Kru Nu’s attention and the responsibility of his own training. The father of the Jade Dragons, he’s watching his sons closely because, eventually, they’ll be climbing out of the kiddie pool and have to wade into the deeper waters of real training. Kru Nu likes holding for the babies because “it’s fun,” because there’s no pressure on them before they become “real fighters.” They get to love Muay Thai in a really pure way, in the sense that it’s only a fun thing to do. I think he relishes that, as it’s something he never had. When he started Muay Thai, he hated it. He had to do endless drills that were boring to him, it was work after he’d already done his work on the farm to help his family; even when he wanted to hit pads because it looked like fun, he was just a baby and nobody was willing to give him attention until he’d developed enough to be worthy of the pads, and by then the pads were work, too. But Kru Nu has made Muay Thai his entire life. He didn’t aim to become a trainer, it’s just what happened and he has found a love for Muay that as a little boy, marching back and forth on the dirt floor of the gym before they even had a ring, that kid couldn’t ever have imagined this love for Muay he has now. So I think he likes sharing that with the little kids, giving them this moment in their process of becoming fighters where it can just be fun.
The boys cycle through so that each of them has two rounds on the pads with Kru Nu, standing with their legs up on the ropes in between sets. When everyone has had a turn they scatter to different sides of the ring and have to count out 100 knees before they’re done, but they’re allowed to count for themselves. Kru Nu stands up and smiles, sighing in this kind of “that’s a job well done” satisfaction. It’s late, after 6:00 and he’s been holding pads since 2:30 in the afternoon. The weight room is empty, all the other fighters have already gone home, and I start putting things into my gym bag to head home myself. The young boys arrived during the regular evening training and had to wait for the real fighters to finish their training before they were even allowed to climb into the ring. They run around and burn up their energy, not knowing whether they’ll get instruction or not. When they do get attention, they have to display discipline, patience and balance in order to honor that attention. Those three are the pillars of all fighters; I realize they’re the same characteristics I’m expected to display in my own training. They’re the three things Kru Nu demands of me, while demanding very little else at all. The Jade Dragon Set has scattered and I can hear them giggling and shrieking from various different areas of the gym. They’ll be back tomorrow, although likely they’ll just have to do their own work on the bag and teeping the side of the ring. Today was a special treat. I promise myself to remember the lessons from this event, that I get attention and focus every day, even if it’s not the kind I want or anticipate. I watch Kru Nu collect his phone from the rafter and he smiles at me, reminding me to shower before I eat dinner – an inside joke between the two of us that has become a stand-in for saying “goodbye” and “see you tomorrow.” He clicks off the overhead lights and I walk around the outside of the ring, stepping over and around stray sandals and shoes from the kids who live at the gym and seem to have simply walked out of their shoes into thin air.
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