Training with Kaensak and Karuhat – The Light of Mentors
Kaensak was one of my first connections to “real” Muay Thai in the sense of the Stadium Muay Thai of Thailand. I trained with him for about a year before moving to Thailand and I knew that he was 2x Fighter of the Year, which I also knew was a huge honor, but not really. I mean, you know that winning the World Series is a big deal even if you’re not a fan of baseball but you don’t really know what that means unless you actually follow the sport and watch the games every season. When I became more familiar with Muay Thai in Thailand, even being able to see it, and then slowly learning more about the time that Kaensak comes from (the “Golden Age”)… legend is the word; it’s also the feeling.
When I trained with Kaensak in America, I’d drive 1.5 hours one way to get an hour of work with him. He had a small house at the end of the parking lot to this gym that was basically a garage, outfitted with wall-to-wall matted floors for BJJ and, like, two hanging bags for Muay Thai. The whole front side was chain-linked fence that these garage doors would roll down to cover so you could lock it up at night, but it meant the gym was incredibly hot when it was hot out and incredibly cold when it was cold out. Like Thailand, incidentally. This is the AMA gym in New Jersey and the location where I trained with Kaensak, where he had this little apartment house at the end of the parking lot, was kind of the annex location. All the fighters – mostly MMA folks and some Bellator and UFC fighters (Joe Miller, Amanda Nunes) – trained at the other location, so I never saw them. But I could just sense that they didn’t know who Kaensak was. Or what Kaensak was. That made me sad, like if Muhammad Ali moved to Japan and was the boxing coach, among other boxing coaches, to MMA fighters who knew he was kind of a big deal in America but didn’t really know what that meant. And I count myself as one of them; I thought I knew who he was and what he was, but I had no f***ing idea. I’d run in circles around those mats with Kaensak’s weird, Trance and House music blaring over the speakers, this little caged warmup before he would help me stretch, the bizarre American workout version of the Thai 10K run and 20 minutes of skipping rope or bouncing on a tire that he knew when he was coming up.
me with Kaensak when I used to drive to train regularly with him in 2011
I loved every second of training with him, even when it was so hard. He would spar with me for more than half of our 1 hour sessions, usually, and that was precious because I had no sparring anywhere. I didn’t belong to a gym so I’d have to drive 1-3 hours for 15-30 minutes of sparring at any gym or having made a date to do so with Nicole Ruiz (Brooklyn) or Michelle Duff (Kingston), who are women I can never thank enough. Kaensak’s rules were simple: laugh, have fun, and figure out how to relax. He was the first person to ever emphasize the importance of relaxation for sparring. I was terrible, couldn’t do anything to touch him that he didn’t allow in his small, generous ways, but I did laugh. A lot. And it was a version of relaxed. And then, long after I had left for Thailand, 4 years later Kaensak would come corner for me in Hua Hin, the area of Thailand where his mom lives and where he stays when he visits home once per year. It was there, at this fight, where he introduced me to Karuhat – another absolute legend who I had no idea, no concept of. He was this tiny, unassuming fellow with glasses at the end of his nose and a slight smile on his face as he peered into the luminous screen of his phone. “He better than me,” Kaensak said, pointing to Karuhat. “He beat me 3 times.” Kaensak was the first to teach me the importance of relaxing, to give me the gift of relaxed sparring. Karuhat, once I looked him up, became my favorite fighter of all time and he has given me hours of instruction and generous time in sparring. Coaxing relaxation, cultivating it and gently growing it through the sheer joy of playing in the ring. These two men mean a great deal to me and they’re linked together through their friendship, their history of fighting each other in the Golden Age of Muay Thai, through their status as legends in the annals of modern Muay Thai.
Kaensak vs Karuhat in one of their fights, video above
While I saw Kaensak for that one night that he and Karuhat cornered for me, which was very short indeed as I finished that fight by KO in the first round, I hadn’t trained with Kaensak at all in over 5 years, since I moved to Thailand. But this month he’s back in Thailand for his yearly visit and I asked him as often and as gently as I could if there was any time I could come train with him to record his technique for my Muay Thai Library. It took a few “let me get back to yous” as he’s on vacation and spending time with family, so I definitely don’t want to interrupt or impose, but when Kaensak finally told me a time he would be free to meet him in Hua Hin, Kevin and I rented the car and just went, knowing that we just had to meet the opportunity as best we could at a moment’s notice, even if it fell through. Kaensak is a very generous man; he calls me “sister,” which is to some degree an extension of Thai familiarity in language, but it still means a lot to me. And the fact that he did make time to see me is a seal of sincerity on that title. The real precious gem in the whole situation, however, was that he has watched my fights, my progress, my weaknesses and he came to the lesson with those in mind. “You have to learn this,” he told me. “Now, you good,” he said, “but to be a great fighter you need this.” What was so unbelievably valuable and profound about this gesture, this gift, is that he was recognizing a potential in my path that, quite honestly, isn’t offered by a great deal of minds in Thailand. A woman can only go so far, we only have so many opportunities and paths in this sport as it is now. While acknowledging how sexist this is, it’s also true that the level of competition that women face is not on par at all with the top-levels of male fighters – and competition makes greatness. We’re just not there yet. We haven’t had the same chances. But Kaensak propelling me toward National Stadium Level Muay Thai, despite the fact that I cannot currently, with the state of Muay Thai as it is, fight in those settings, is an incredible gift. It’s a compassionate eye focused on my same vision.
above, training with Kaensak in Hua Hin this week
When we were training together in New Jersey so many years ago, I would sometimes have bad days. I’d be tired from working at the bar until 6 AM and definitely didn’t have a proper running schedule. Kaensak would adjust for me. He’d keep it challenging, but he’d cut me a little slack when I was burning out. In Hua Hin I was really struggling. I didn’t know it yet, but I was suffering from a serious immune issue and now that I’m aware and recovering, I’m quite proud of myself for making it through such an intense physical trial as Kaensak put me through. But he didn’t coddle me, as he did a bit back in America. He told me when my face fell, he chided me for exhibiting fatigue in the last round (the last round), and when I took too long to get up after one of his throws he sternly told me, “get up.” He was treating me as a fighter, speaking to me from the part of him that grew up in Thai gyms, extending to me the vernacular of this Thai experience because it’s a language he believes I am now fluent in. That’s an incredible gesture and I value it a great deal. It’s acknowledgement from a man I admire, a fighter I respect, a friend, and is in fact something I desire intensely but have trouble giving myself permission to acknowledge for myself. So this is encouraging – in Thai the phrase is กำลังใจ (gam lang jai), to enforce or give strength to the heart. This hour with him was exactly that and, as I was leaving the gym, Kaensak said to me several times, “practice, okay?” He knows it probably won’t appear in my next fight because you need time to actually absorb new skills, but by repeatedly telling me to work on the things he showed me, he was letting me know that it was a real investment. He truly thinks I can improve and he’s given me the tools – should I use them – to do that. This is an incredible gift.
Straight from training at the Grand Boxing Stadium ring in Hua Hin – the ring incidentally where Kaensak had cornered for me and I met Karuhat a few years ago – we drove up the coast to Bangkok and met with Karuhat himself for another hour of training. I would be training with both men in a single day. I’ve been working with Karuhat once every month or two for about a year now and his efforts toward transforming my fighting and my Muay is, to me, mind bending. I cannot, cannot, believe how fortunate I am to have his effort and attention toward improving me. Something in Karuhat speaks to me, something about him encourages the quieted parts of me that – if strengthened – could be quite extraordinary. Usually in our sessions, as I’m warming up by shadowboxing in front of the giant wall of mirrors (there’s one of these in every gym), he’ll come and watch me. Quietly, just observing with that slight smile that seems ever present. For the first few months his main comment and instruction during this part of training was to relax. He’d show me how he wanted me to move, his crazy liquid, sand-like smoothness. He knows I can’t move like that, but he keeps pulling me toward it, gently. For the past three sessions, he hasn’t told me to relax. I see this as an enormous breakthrough in my progress. Today, however, Karuhat moseyed over and asked me about my next fight and as Kevin pulled up a video of my opponent so Karuhat could watch a short clip and get an idea, Karuhat looked at me in the mirror and laughed. “You’re like me,” he said (in Thai), “small, but always fighting bigger.” This is true and Karuhat is massively loved by his fans for having fought “up” so much, and winning those fights. Maybe there’s something in that similarity that is part of what speaks to me about him as a fighter. But to hear your idol verbally state, “you are like me,” is something indescribable. I could have cried. I could have rejoiced. My heart could have burst. In a way I did all these things and in a way I did none of them, because what Kaensak had just done for me by believing that the path toward National Stadium Level Muay Thai is real for me; it’s possible. My response to Karuhat was in context of that belief in my path. I say quite often, in writing, to myself and to the Ether, that I want to be Karuhat – he’s my idol and his Muay just fills me with joy. Obviously I can’t be him, because he’s him and I’m me, but what Karuhat said to me was taking my dream and doing one better: you are like me. Present tense.
above, training with Karuhat, almost two hours of len, sparring.
For the next 2 hours Karuhat just played with me. He gives the most gentle corrections, still in Thai style where he imitates my error and it’s hilariously obvious in the pantomime what’s wrong with what I’m doing, but he does it without the mocking that is usually accompanying the performance. In this particular session we just sparred endlessly, which is how he works with me now (no pads, no drills), which is what Kaensak did for me with a baby spoon when I was back in the US and could barely handle my own feet in space. In our work together I could feel all the areas I’ve failed to develop throughout this process Karuhat has put me in, where he’s switching me to a Southpaw fighter. I felt the holes in my practice and knew immediately what I need to be working on. Same as Kaensak’s words as I walked out the door, “practice, okay?” There’s a quote by Goethe that “one must either be the hammer or the anvil,” that I love. But I’m both; Karuhat and Kaensak and all my numerous teachers are also both, but I’m the metal that is being forged between the contrasting tasks of those two roles. Sparring with Karuhat is the closest I get to being Karuhat, and this day we were both hammer, both anvil, and as the teacher Karuhat just hit all the areas of my metal to expose to me where the weaknesses are. Nobody was this generous with either Karuhat or Kaensak as they were coming up in their gyms, I guarantee it. But, for whatever reason, both are willing to give a piece of themselves to me, not only planting a seed from the fruit of their greatness, but nurturing it as well. Maybe the greatest realization of this incredible day is that you don’t deserve your blessings before receiving them. There is no order to these things, there is no time because they are endless. You earn your blessings by receiving them with gratitude, and you deserve them when you pass them on. Your hand must be open to receive a gift, but it must remain open to give one as well.
Both these sessions will be published in my growing Muay Thai Library, a documentation project preserving the great techniques and fighting spirits of Thailand.