October 11, 2014 by Melissa Ray
This article was my first ever piece of personal writing, published in Escape from America Magazine (now Escape Artist) in February 2009. I noticed the link for the page seems to have expired so thought I would repost the piece, which captures some of my early experiences in Muay Thai in Thailand.
I was inspired to write the article after attending a personal writing workshop by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski at the Neilson Hays Library, Bangkok in late 2008. Paul is an American writer, writing coach, conservationist and communications consultant, who has published several personal travel, fiction and non-fiction books, as well as countless articles in publications such as the New York Times, Bangkok Post, Reader’s Digest, International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal and others.
In his workshop, Paul covered topics such as the concept of the lead in, finding your voice, and “hot” and “cold” writing, which I found particularly relevant, having really only ever written in more of a “cold” academic style.
I learned a lot that afternoon and remain in contact with Paul, who travels extensively, giving lectures and running workshops, and has a new series of books in production, occasionally meeting for coffee when he’s in Bangkok.
Bear in mind that this piece was written relatively early into my Thailand experience, before I had won any titles, and when I was still relatively wide-eyed and unwise to ways things are done in Muay Thai in Thailand. Hope you enjoy.
Blood, Sweat and Fears
Her elbow cut me like a knife and I suddenly became aware of a stream of blood projecting from my left eyebrow. I was the “farang” (foreign) underdog and the crowd at Sanam Luang roared enthusiastically with every punch, kick, knee or elbow thrown by Jomyutying, the Thai champion. Our shins clashed—bone on bone. To protect my head from further injury, I clinched her neck and threw a series of knees towards her midriff.
During the fight there was no time for reflection but later, as my trainer stripped the tape and bandages from my hands, I considered how much I had changed. My nonathletic, socially inhibited former self would never have imagined that I would be exchanging blows in front of a live audience of thousands and countless others on Thai national television.
In my early and mid-teens I was shy and studious, attending an all girls’ school near my home town in Yorkshire, UK. I enjoyed artistic pursuits, such as drawing and painting, but had very little interest in school sports, spending compulsory hockey lessons shuffling around at the back of the pitch assiduously trying to avoid the ball. This disinterest in sports continued during my late teens and undergraduate studies, when I instead developed a voracious appetite for vodka and late night binges on chips and pizza. But, at the start of my PhD in Neuroscience at Newcastle University, I resolved to lose weight, and was drawn by chance to a Muay Thai class at a local community centre.
I was hooked from day one, experiencing—for the first time—the rewarding surge of exercise-induced endorphins. I was intrigued by the cultural aspects of the sport such as the wearing of a “mongkon” on the head for protection in the ring and performing of a “wai kru” dance to pay respect to one’s teachers. At that early stage, I never envisaged I would compete in a ring, let alone come to be living the life of a professional Muay Thai fighter.
My opponent was lighter than me at the weigh-in and shorter in stature, but considerably more experienced in the Thai boxing ring, with at least 50 more bouts to her record. She dived for my waist, trying to dump me on the canvas. I managed to maintain my balance then continued to throw knees, my most effective weapon.
My PhD involved researching forms of dementia including Parkinson’s Disease, the disorder that afflicts boxing hero Mohammed Ali. I have detailed knowledge of various neurological disorders and dysfunctions, yet am willing to expose myself to potential risk of brain trauma in the boxing ring. But cases of severe head injury in Muay Thai are rare and, statistically, I would be at greater risk of experiencing serious head trauma if I participated in activities such as cycling, football and horse-riding, for example.
Over the next 4 years, my enthusiasm for Muay Thai flourished and I began to make plans to venture to Thailand to experience authentic Muay Thai training. In May 2006, my PhD complete and with my life savings in hand, I landed in Bangkok.
The bell rang for the break after the second round. My trainer pressed a towel to my wound, saturating it with blood, and thickly applied Vaseline. Ice-cold water was poured into my mouth and hurriedly rubbed into my limbs. The referee signalled that the end of the break was imminent. I was hoisted off my stool, my gum shield was thrust back in my mouth and all too soon the bell resounded for the start of round 3.
My first experience of a Thai Muay Thai gym left me exhilarated and bewildered; my senses bombarded with input. My olfactory sensors were immediately activated by the overpowering decongesting aroma of liniment. Visual stimuli included multicoloured shorts emblazoned with illustrative Thai script, muscular torsos, glistening in the sunlight with sweat, and framed photographs and newspaper cuttings, scattering the gym walls. I was the sole female—a curiosity—and the boxers’ eyes fixed on me as I began to shadow box, assessing my capabilities. As the training session progressed, my pain receptors were increasingly stimulated by abrasive floor surfaces and the impact of my unconditioned limbs on hard bags and pads. My auditory system was startled by a cacophony of sounds. Thai boxers are uninhibited at releasing noise when they train because it aids exhalation and increases striking force. My new colleagues emanated a range of sounds, reminiscent of snarling tigers, growling dogs, revving engine motors or deranged laughter.
I rapidly became accustomed to these initially strange practices and, accordingly, the other boxers became familiar with my presence in the gym. I immersed myself in the culture with aims to prepare for fighting.
The mid-afternoon heat was stifling and my mouth felt parched. A sharp right cross from Jomyutying rocked my head backwards. Blood began to seep from my Vaseline-smeared cut. The, mainly male, crowd were thrilled by the action and cheered gleefully. We ended up once again in the clinch.
Fight training in Thailand involves many hours of exertion. At my current gym in Bangkok (Eminent Air Boxing Gym), morning training sessions commence with a 10 kilometre run. This distance is completed running back and forth the length of a soi, strategically trying to avoid the heaps of excrement from the many stray dogs that inhabit the area. Running is followed by 20 to 30 minutes of sparring or clinching, during which boxers practice close contact knee and grappling techniques. For most foreigners, clinch practice is an exercise in staying upright. The Thais find great amusement in seeing our cumbersome bodies hit the ring canvas and even the smallest of boys can sweep me off my feet with one deft movement.
After sparring/clinching, 5-minute rounds on the pads with a trainer ensue, practising kick, punch, knee and elbow techniques with full power. This is the most physically demanding part of the session, leaving me drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. Further time is spent striking solid leather bags and lifting weights. The regime is repeated to higher intensities in the afternoons, and the routine is completed 6 days a week, with Sundays as rest days.
And so, 3 months into my Thailand experience and on the Queen’s Birthday (August 12th), 2006 came my high-profile appearance at the S-1 Championship: an 8-woman tournament at a contracted weight of 54kg. The venue—the royal grounds Sanam Luang, Bangkok. My opponent—Jomyutying Kiat Nor Vor, widely regarded as the number one female Muay Thai fighter in Thailand.
We were locked in the clinch but both of us had ceased to attack. “Yut!”—the referee broke us apart—a momentary respite. Then, all too quickly, he shouted “Chok!”—the instruction to resume fighting.
I’m often asked why, as a woman, I subject myself to the daily rigours of training and the pressure of competition. Bruises, blisters, swellings and strained muscles are standard training injuries and I am rarely without some degree of pain. I experience nerves every time I compete but have no fear of pain or injury. My fear is of failure; of underperforming on the occasion and disappointing those that have invested time and effort in my progress.
My rewards are not financial. Although female Muay Thai (or “Muay Ying”) is gaining credibility, women’s fight purses remain a fraction of men’s. In Thailand there is a further double standard in that women are forbidden to touch certain rings (including those at Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums) as it is deemed unlucky. Those we are allowed to compete in must be entered under the bottom rope, never climbing over the ropes. Although I disagree with this rule in principle, I am a guest in Thailand and must therefore accept and respect its traditions.
It is difficult to define what really drives me. I thrive on the daily challenges of training and pushing my body to its physical limits. There is no greater thrill than competing in front of a crowd and winning. But such is the level of commitment required for fighting that certain sacrifices must be made—a social life, working career, family time and relationships can all end up neglected.
My desire to train and fight is tested only by judging decisions I consider to have been incorrect or unfair. Due to the subjective nature of Muay Thai judging, most fighters will, at some point in their careers, experience an unjust decision. It happened to me most recently during the 2008 King’s birthday fights at Sanam Luang, when I lost on points to my Thai opponent Praewa Sor Penprapa. The gambling spectators, convinced I was the winner, jeered loudly at the judges’ decision, throwing water bottles, beer cans and other objects into the ring.
In Thailand, more so than in western countries, gambling is integral to Muay Thai, adding a further dimension of excitement. Individual bets are placed ringside and at some major events the competing gyms gamble equal stakes on their fighters. My recent fight at Sanam Luang was a 200,000 baht gambling bout, with my gym boss Mr. Somboon risking 100,000 baht on the outcome of the fight. When I started in the sport I would never have foreseen me fighting, let alone envisaged that the gain or loss of such a large sum of money would be hinged on my performance in a ring!
It was midway through round 3. Aware I was behind on points, I tried to throw more knees. Jomyutying landed another strike to my left eye and, within seconds, my rich red blood was spurting across the pristine ring canvas. The referee gestured for the bout to end. I disappointedly left the ring and the doctor sewed 5 stitches into my eyebrow. To this day the markings of the wound are still evident—just another scar for the trophy case.