Traveling with PhetJee Jaa – the Girl Finally Fights the Boy – Real and Not Real
if you’d like to follow the PhetJee Jaa Documentary project click here.
I’m standing next to the ladder, painted blue to match the corner, that leads up into the Muay Thai ring at a military university in Bangkok. The crowd is in every direction, sitting and standing close to me and there’s a buzz – not quite noise, not quite the heat, not quite the hum of body movement, but all of it. To the far right, behind the ring, sit a few rows of military VIP’s, all dressed in camouflage and boots with their heads turned to my left as I face them, watching as the two fighters about to enter the ring are announced. I’m not one of them; and I’m so excited and nervous.
I’ve just spent 4 hours on the road, sitting behind the father of my favorite fighter as he drives a small pack of us up from Pattaya to Bangkok. In the front seat is the mother, Tawan, driving is the father, Sangwan; in the back we have a guy I call “Grandpa,” who is always at the gym and lives just down a dirt road from the family – his 10-year-old grandson (I presume) has just been taken up as a fighter at the O. Meekhun gym – next to him is a little kid called “I.Q.”, who is about as sweet and blissfully detached from everything as can be, and then stuck between his tiny body and me is my hero: Phetjee Jaa O. Meekhun. She’s 12 years old, has over 160 fights and most of those are against boys. In November of last year she was banned on public TV, in the ring and about to fight, from fighting boys anymore. It was an old rule, apparently, but the clamp-down applies most harshly to the only girl who was fighting boys on TV and for big purses – and beating them almost all the time. This match today, incidentally, is against the same boy she was meant to be fighting the day the ban was announced – the fight that didn’t happen. Now the fighters are being announced to enter the ring, the voice on the microphone punching the syllables in each name with fervor and excitement and demonstrating the weight that each name carries: Phetjee Jaa because she’s the famous little girl who beats the boys and is considered “number one in Thailand” by anyone around here you ask, and her opponent because of his gym name, as he’s the student of one of Thailand’s most famous fighters ever: Samart Payakaroon. Walk into any Muay Thai gym or stadium where there are fans (or talk to your taxi driver) and mention Samart’s name just to see what happens – grown men practically swoon at the mention of his name, talking about how great he is – the quadruple threat: Muay Thai champion, WBC title holder in western boxing, musician and actor (and therefore super handsome). Her male opponent is from his gym.
Both fighters bow to a huge portrait of the King of Thailand, then move across the stage to a catwalk that leads out to the ring. For Inseedam, the boy, they bend the top rope down to let him hop over. This is how all male fighters enter a ring. Phetjee Jaa, however, waits a beat until the assistant at ringside can lean down and pull up the bottom rope, allowing her to slip under it. This is how women have to enter the ring. Much to my surprise, simply because I’ve never seen it before, Phetjee Jaa wears her Mongkol on her head as she goes under the ropes. This is noteworthy because: a ring is protected by magic, female “power” that comes from menstrual taboos – even if she’s not menstruating, and I don’t know if Phetjee Jaa has reached that point yet – so she must enter the ring under the bottom rope because it is believed that allowing her (female) head to cross over the amulets that are protecting the ring would negate their magical protections; men, on the other hand, go over the top rope with the amulets in the Mongkol on their heads (so to be straight: there are ring amulets, and mongkol amulets) so that nothing, like the ropes, passes over those protective charms. So, every woman I’ve ever seen enters the ring first, under the bottom rope, and then puts the Mongkol on after, so that the amulets don’t go under the ropes with the woman’s head, because that would theoretically negate those amulets to be so low. There’s often a big fumble involved in my own experience of getting into the ring with a corner that isn’t used to this – remembering to put the Mongkol on after, or to pull up the bottom rope rather than push the top one. Watching Phetjee Jaa slip under the rope with her own Mongkol on, it was a bit of a mystery. I could note that she doesn’t share it with her brother (even though they share a mouthpiece!), so clearly whatever protections and ceremony has been put into the piece appear to be specific to her, to her situation, to this practice of how she enters the ring.
She’s dressed in all camo with blue gloves and anklets to indicate her corner. The shorts say her name in Thai on the front, in English on the back, and have a big diamond on the waistband. (“Phet” in her name means diamond and is a relatively common prefix of sorts for fighter’s names.) I had these shorts custom made for her in Chiang Mai at the Twins shop at the Night Bazaar, and brought them down with me when I moved to Pattaya a few months ago, to give them as a gift. She is so stone-faced at times I did not even know if she liked them, until I saw them on her today. Her mom had gone and bought her a camo top to match and she just looks awesome. So long and strong, and as the military officials come up to ringside to place the yellow flower garlands as a blessing around each fighter you can see this triad of camouflage with real soldiers and a real fighter. So perfect.
Sangwan had asked me to help corner for Phetjee Jaa. I know how to do this, it’s not that difficult. You jump in between rounds and rub ice and water over the limbs, stretch them out a bit, smear Vaseline here or there or wipe it off with a towel. It’s the kids’ job in camps. I was geeking out over being in her corner but focused enough to be able to do it, the problem was two fold: 1) I needed to film the fight on my camera, so I had to stop the recording and stuff the camera in my vest pocket before hopping up into the ring; and 2) I have to go under the ropes, which is way not fast in terms of getting in and out of a ring. Mostly though, my fellow cornerman was Grandpa, who didn’t put the ice in the middle and just dumped a cup on the leg that was my responsibility and all I could do was rub that around without having access to the bucket or whatever else. I looked inept, for sure. I’m sure Sangwan wanted me in there so that he didn’t have to actually get in the ring, which looks more “official” in terms of his status as the owner/trainer of the O. Meekhun family gym. Simply by having people under you to do this grunt work, you look more like a head-honcho. I felt a bit badly that I didn’t do a good enough job to let him have this performance of status, but he was also too excited about actually coaching her – which, quite frankly, is much easier to do when you are in the ring and facing your fighter between rounds – so we switched after the first round.
Jee Jaa started out totally focused in the fight. She looked taller than her opponent, but she also fights tall so the size disparity looked greater as the fight went on. The weight was announced at 33 kilos, which is roughly what she walks around at and there was no weigh in. I don’t think there was a big difference in size, but it appeared like a big difference as the fight went on and their styles began to dictate who was dominant. I’d seen her fight on TV before ever meeting her and we’ve uploaded a few of her fights from her mom’s memory card from a year or more ago, so I’ve seen her fight on screen a lot. Never in person (though I’m training with her everyday now). Being able to watch a fighter’s face from ringside is an unbelievably different experience. In the beginning he had a somewhat cocky expression, ready to counter whatever this kid threw but kind of taunting him to try. Her kicks were quick, her guard was really relaxed and ready at the same time. The crowd loved her from the start. In round two Inseedam must have received some commands from his corner because he came after Jee Jaa more than he had in the first. He landed a good teep on her that knocked her back against the ropes and a combination that didn’t look very powerful but definitely clean and scoring points. Jee Jaa’s face totally changed. Totally. I’ve seen this in training with her but only in small pieces. Her brother is her main training partner, Mawin. He’s 13, so one year older, and outweighs her by a couple kilos but he’s shorter. She gets a lot in on Mawin in training – it’s a back and forth, for sure, but she wins a lot of exchanges. Mawin laughs. He genuinely thinks it’s funny when she throws him and we all make “oooiiii!” sounds or cheer for her. When Mawin gets Jee Jaa on the canvas or lands a good knee or kick that isn’t immediately returned, she doesn’t think it’s funny. Not even a little bit. That’s what happened in this fight with her expression. She wasn’t actually holding her breath, but that’s what it felt like when watching her. Like she sucked in all the air in the ring and was waiting to blow the whole thing up. Her whole body flexed – not tense, but maybe “coiled” – ready to attack. Even in training, she’s so competitive as an athlete that no point goes unanswered – it’s what makes her the incredible fighter she is, even at this age. And that’s what I was watching now, her response to this kid turning it up on her. She sucked in all the air, turned the entire space into a vacuum and got ready to light it up. You even think about scoring a point on her, you’d better be ready to pay for it. She came after him and threw him in the corner with such force that his leg came out of the ropes and kicked the camera out of my hand. By the time I’d righted it to continue filming, it was already a different fight. Inseedam didn’t want to turn it up anymore; he looked afraid of her. Round 2.
He did come back and fight hard in later rounds but he couldn’t catch up. He got put on the canvas from throws in the clinch and she bashed him with some good kicks and knees after some really beautiful turns. The crowd went crazy for her, the announcer putting into his tones all the excitement we felt. Inseedam’s head trainer stopped calling out instructions, just stood there stone-faced and wiping his mouth with the towel around his shoulder. Sometimes his face was obscured by the rope as I looked at him from across the ring, the red of it going across his eyes like a “censor” bar… but I could feel his expression. He wasn’t happy. The fight was so definitive that the music sped up after only 40 seconds of the final round (usually indicating the impending end of a round) and the final bell sounded after only 1 minute, half the time of the regular rounds. Phetjee Jaa dropped down and did a set of pushups to show she still had more. It’s a move I’ve seen male fighters do on TV, but usually after fights that are close. She does it whether the fight is close or not. Afterwards her father shook his head and told me Jee Jaa was tired, that her pushups were poor form was his proof of this. She didn’t look tired in the fight, I’ll say that. But his criticism shows how everything in Muay Thai is an aesthetic performance.
This was called a “show” fight in order to get around the ban on male/female fights. And while that’s a word that’s used to mean demonstration only, or that it’s not real in that most show fights don’t have a winner announced and there’s a degree of effort toward not hurting each other, like just sparring – this show wasn’t a “show” fight in that sense. It was called “show” so that it could happen, but what’s so ironic about it being called that and yet being real is that it was a perfect demonstration for how all of Muay Thai is about the show. Jee Jaa destroys this kid and then also does pushups, but her pushups weren’t as perfect form as they ought to be for what they’re meant to show. It’s all in the details – the face, the balance, the performed power and relaxation.
Jee Jaa spent most of the ride out asleep, her tiny body leaning into my left side when the car shifted, all the hours of training and work lying dormant in her resting muscles. When she was awake, she looked miserable. Like a kid on a family vacation at that awkward teen age kind of miserable – focused, but on something you can’t discern from outside. She changed her clothes and sat down to get her hands wrapped when we finally arrived. I tried to film it but she’s very uncomfortable around cameras – she hates them. It’s understandable; she grew up in this kind of spotlight of being a prodigy and a kid who is performing, both in the real sense of fighting and in the fake sense of local celebrity and of doing demonstrations at bars in Pattaya with her brother for a small income between fights. Spend 10 minutes around the western dudes who haunt bars in Thailand – anywhere in Thailand, but the sex-driven Pattaya especially – and you’ll get sympathetic heeby-jeebies at the discomfort that it must have been to have your photo taken with them as part of a night’s work. Being a performer as a kid means being looked at – a lot – and not ever really seen. I understand her resistance to the camera but I also want to document her in an effort to preserve something about her story and her character. Before the fight her dad had sent me to find ice for her bucket, so I put down the camera and headed out with I.Q. in tow. By the time we got back the officials were telling us her fight was moved and she was up in 5 minutes. In the rush of getting oil on her limbs and changing into her fight top she remained totally calm, but there was still an expression of something that I can’t quite label. It’s not quite worry; it’s not unhappiness or sadness… it’s just very internal. Her dad put her hands in the gloves while her mom flitted around her, combing the back of her hair (the front was in braids) and then putting some powder foundation on Jee Jaa’s cheeks and nose for beauty. This she resisted firmly, complaining with groans and “mai ow!” (don’t want!) while her mom cooed with “nit noi,” (just a little) – I could feel this represented an ongoing disagreement that in this context is silly but in the grand scheme of mother and daughter is about as globally normal as can be. I remember watching my 16 year old opponent in Isaan snap at her mother backstage before our fight because her mom was dabbing at her face with a tissue like the perfectionist makeup artist character in movies. After Jee Jaa’s fight everybody wanted a picture with her. She obliged, pausing for the snaps and ignoring the arms that wrapped around her for the picture; she would wai in thanks to the folks handing her 100 Baht bills as “tip” money from their gambling winnings, but all the while her expression never changes. She doesn’t smile for pictures, she doesn’t celebrate wins, and she doesn’t like me asking her if anything hurts or telling her that she was incredible. She’s just inside her fortress – the mysteries of being on the outside of a near-teenaged girl’s world.
When we got back in the truck to head home, a few hours after the fight (we’d watched more fights and had some ice-cream and lunch at the festival), Jee Jaa kicked her shoes off and stretched her feet out on the median between her parents in the front seat. She was fidgety, the four of us pressed together in the backseat as we’d been on the way up, and without a word she just crawled up onto her mother’s lap in the front seat. She listened quietly to some music on the family cell phone and sang along to some of the words while her parents and Grandpa gossiped about the last fight we’d watched. Then she fell asleep, leaning into her mom’s arms and after 20 minutes everyone in the car except me and Sangwan, who was driving, were silent in slumber. When they all woke up an hour later it was just a happy family road trip. Jee Jaa laughed and joked as we all talked about Mawin’s fight tomorrow – she asked if I was coming to that also – and she did this absolutely hilarious impression of a woman asking her a stupid question about fight money. It must have been someone at her school, but Jee Jaa imitating this woman’s voice killed me. There’s a Thai version of the ideal female voice, something like a blend between Marilyn Monroe sexy voice and old Hollywood actress voice that’s semi-British in pronunciation – there’s a softness and lightness with this very distinct rolling of the “r” in articulation… I embarrassed myself laughing so hard at her perfect imitation of this kind of voice. But for the women who talk like this – mostly newscasters and the ideal female character in Ayutthaya period movie epics – are performing it also. It’s like a female female impersonator. Which is maybe why Jee Jaa is so hard to read in her introversion leading up to and directly following a fight, in contrast to her very sweet and quite funny personality in more comfortable settings. She’s getting into character, she’s becoming the fighter that shows what it is to be a fighter in a very pure form. And it’s not an “act” in that it’s inauthentic, it truly is who and what she is, in part. But it’s an understanding of performance that is seamless. Her opponents let something seep through – the uncertainty in themselves or the disclosure of fear that exposes them as being a kid. She never shows that. When she seals the ring there is only this incredible fighter within those ropes.
the full film of the fight (above)
PhetJee Jaa stoically watching a past male opponent fight, later in the day