“This Is Business” | The Imitation Game, Playing to the Gamblers
Alex and Note are standing on opposite corners of the ring, wearing shinguards and gloves, hanging out like they’re about to do anything other than sparring. They’re totally relaxed, laughing, joking. Kru Nu is pacing around and there’s a buzz around the circumference of the ring while the remainder of the boys all takes their positions along the ropes as spectators and Goh – one of the padmen for the kids – is hollering for Chicken Man. Kru Nu squats down with his hands on the top rope, peering under the staircase and out into the chicken farm, the most likely place where Chicken Man would be. Sometimes he comes to referee, but all the commotion and the reason they need him before they start is because he is the “bookie” who will tell everyone what the starting odds are. Chicken Man appears; “5:4” he says, laying out the odds. Alex is favored.
Read about Petchrungruang Mock Fights here
Everyone has a role to play in these sparring sessions. They’re mock fights, more or less, and it’s about as close to 100% as you can get without the participants aiming to knock one another out. And they have shinguards; so there’s that. The bell sounds and Kru Nu chops his hand between the fighters to indicate the start of the round, “chok!” Note is left handed and immediately kicks Alex with a strong left kick, but Alex blocks it like he’s swatting a fly. They’re really evenly matched in terms of size, but Alex has been beaten up by the other boys for probably 3 years now and his relaxation is off the charts. He checks almost every single kick and, to my annoyance, keeps throwing punches in return. Those aren’t even trades, but because Note isn’t landing his kicks it’s okay. When Alex kicks, however, his shin slams directly into Note’s ribs every single time. Smack, smack, smack. Alex even tips Note over several times, adding a gesture toward a knee for good measure (you do this in fights, too, although you don’t actually connect with a downed opponent). Alex utterly dominates the first round and the gambling odds are called out when the bell sounds. Note has a steep hill to climb.
But he comes out blazing and Alex’s tactic to punch a kicker stops evening out. He’s falling behind a little bit and gets put on the ground twice. The whole gym is yelling and cheering and laughing, the other kids pretend to place bets, the adults pretend to be bookies, and as I sit on the side of the ring, just outside the ropes. Round 2 is close, but without the throws it’s still Alex’s, just too many points scored. The throws happened though, so it’s probably even. Going into round 3, the final round, Note’s manager is animatedly giving him instructions from just outside the ropes. I really like him, Pi Win, as he’s very even-keel and his eyes always seem to be smiling. Alex is being told to kick, Note is being told the same. They’re not technically from the same team – Alex is Petchrungruang and Note is a different gym, but they train with us and we support each other, but there’s some healthy competition due to the fact that these are kind of “step brothers” in a gym, not directly the fraternity of the Petchrungruang boys against each other. That’s more of a direct sibling rivalry, a pecking order. So both fighters come out strong and it’s a good scrap but ultimately Alex dominates this round too. He’s just too good. When the final bell rings the boys return to their corners and Kru Nu makes a stop at three of the ropes to pantomime collecting the scorecards. He mimes taking the slip of paper out of my hand and pretends to look at it between his hands, opening like a book, the way referees do to make it like nobody can see their cards. Then he raises his arm toward Note’s corner – there’s a sound of ooooohhhhh and a few laughs, but mostly just clapping. Everyone is smiling, except Alex, but he’s not really upset he’s just red and sweaty from the effort. Note is dragged to the center of the ring by his wrist and a bellypad is put on him as a title belt. Then they pretend to stand in a pose for a news photographer, but this French guy actually snaps a picture with his cell phone and we all laugh.
Two minutes later the ring is cleared out. The boys have finished training and have vanished to the weight room where they socialize and do some conditioning between teenage jokes. I’m hitting the bag for about 20 minutes before the boys re-emerge to clear the equipment off of the ring and put it away. Alex is in good spirits. He’s got his breath back. It’s no big deal. Pi Nu climbs into the ring to hold pads for some late-comers and he’s leaning against the ropes watching me on the bag while he waits for the guy to wrap his hands. “You know,” he says to me (this conversation is in Thai), “Alex and Note fight like this three times already. First two times, Alex won, so this time we have to give it to Note. This is business,” he says. He doesn’t mean because Note’s manager was present. He means it like how a promoter would want another fight to sell tickets, like having Diaz lose to McGregor is good for business. If the fight is close enough that it isn’t a total blowout, you angle for what will sell tickets – or in Thailand, what will get the gamblers salivating. I watched a fight between Namphon Nongkipahuyut and Ramon Dekkers in Amsterdam, in February of 1990, the first such fight of its kind. Dekkers got absolutely smashed, just destroyed, by Namphon’s clinch and knees… but after 5 rounds the decision went to Dekkers, along with an IMF World Light Welterweight title. It was the kind of decision that makes your jaw drop, like “what the fuck?” Later that same year the two men rematched in Bangkok to an enormous crowd at Lumpinee stadium and Namphon got his due. A few months ago I asked Namphon’s manager and trainer, Ajarn Pramod, if he had been surprised by that decision in Holland. “Very surprised,” he said, almost under his breath and looking at an unfocused distance as he recalled the memory from so long ago. It was pretty clear in the presence of that response that he was not surprised at all, that the promoter of the events OneSongchai, knew exactly what he was doing with that first decision and the subsequent rematch. He was doing business.
This is why I’m writing about this: in these mock fights, everything is practiced. There’s noise from the crowd, boys who don’t have 10 Baht to their names are calling out thousand-baht bets, they get to read the odds, they get to practice being cornermen, being cornered, the intensity of a fight without the injuries, there’s a referee and judges and a news camera – there’s even a fake belt. But that’s not enough. When Pi Nu jokes that he had to play to the interest of the gamblers in the decision of the fight, it’s a joke and it’s poking fun, but it’s only funny because it’s something that every single person involved in that game knows is real. It’s part of the imitation game. And even though it’s “just sparring” and “just practice” and all of these things that make it pretty much a good time entertainment show for everyone involved, Alex gets to practice not feeling shitty about a shitty decision.