Playing Hooky with the Fight Team

Yodwandee and I stood in the cool morning mist, waiting. I held up seven questioning fingers to the Thai Channel Seven Champion. He smiled and flashed ten fingers in response. The Thai fighters usually ran seven kilometers in the morning and four at night, but Yod had a fight coming up and was upping the morning run to ten.

A few of the other guys had grabbed shoes from the pile strewn outside the gym and were lacing up. Minutes later, the rest of the squad rolled into the parking lot, two up on scooters. The early birds stood around chatting while the latecomers finished rubbing pain killing Namman Muay oil on their shins. The sky grew brighter as the pack of fighters strolled out of the gym.

We walked a couple hundred meters down the road. A few doors down from the gym was a house with an open courtyard. The owner, a cherubic grandmother, made Pad Thai to order most afternoons. Her garden was still and the boys peered into her courtyard.

A girl scootered past and the boys hollered. The brief moment of excitement woke the squad up. Laughing, they started running, and I followed. The Thais run on the balls of their feet, heels kissing the ground. Beer, a tall tattooed fighter who liked to pop pimples in the gym mirror, loped in front. Yodwandee was in the middle of the pack. His calves swelled out of his socks like hot air balloons. I wondered if they slowed him down.

Approaching the next town, we picked up steam. Along the road stood wooden houses and rice paddies bathed in grey light. The road from the gym dead ended at the town market. We usually crossed a bigger main road, then cut through an alleyway to reach the 10K route.

But at the crossing all of fighters stopped. Confused, I followed suit. Yodwandee peeled away towards the market. Beer and New Thailand ambled towards the main highway and the 4k running route. Elderly Thai ladies sat at folding tables along the road, peddling snacks, and Beer and New Thailand fingered their wares. New Thailand, the 122lb Lumpinee Champion, looked back at me and smiled. “Sabai, Sabai” he said — relax. He could tell I was worried about missing the run.

We walked along the gently curving road towards the main highway. New Thailand skipped ahead, putting a flower in his hair. Minutes later, Yodwandee caught up to us, holding sticks of grilled pork and a bag full of sticky rice. He offered me some, and I accepted. I tried to always do what the champ did.

The road looked different at a walking pace. There was more time to look around when our vision wasn’t tunneling towards the tarmac ahead. We passed well-built brick houses with bay windows and new cars in the driveway. Other houses were ramshackle, built of wood and corrugated tin. In one front yard, two halves of a couch lay under a tin roofed overhang. Greenery crowded stone walls and rusted iron fences.

I walked next to New Thailand. One of the Santai Trainers was named Thailand and New Thailand was named after him. He was an elite fighter, quick, with vicious elbows. But he had a relaxed, almost lackadaisical approach to training. On the heavy bag, he’d throw a couple combinations, look around the room, then throw a few more. He saved his energy for pad-work, when he let loose barrages of kicks, ten, twenty, sometimes one hundred at a time.

That morning was the first time I’d hung out with New Thailand outside of training. He skipped along the curb, stopping to throw kicks at low hanging branches. He picked flowers and festooned his hair with them. Suddenly he scampered across the road and cupped his hands on a leaf. He returned with a six-inch grey-green lizard and an ear to ear grin. He carefully displayed his prize to the rest of our party before depositing it back in the underbrush.

Arriving at the two-lane highway marking the midpoint of the route, we started jogging again. Passing cars threw up dust, and the sweep of the highway was monotonous. After 2K, a road branched off the highway towards the gym. As soon as we got back to the side streets, we resumed our stroll. A pack of stray dogs started following us, always keeping a safe distance. New Thailand sprinted at the pack, waving his arms overhead and yelling. The dogs scattered.

As we got close to the gym, Nan, one of the trainers, zipped by on his scooter. He didn’t seem to care about our pace, and a few minutes later we were back at the gym for another hour or two of sparring, clinching, pad and bag work.

As I geared up for the mornings training, I wondered about the boys’ antics. Training in Thailand is brutal, but if you’re cut out for the sport you grow to love the unrelenting physical intensity. What’s tough is the cumulative stress of training twice a day, every day, with Sundays to laze around and get ready for the week ahead. It’s like being in-season, all the time.

Foreigners have the luxury of light at the end of the tunnel. We’re there for weeks, or months, or even years, but always with the knowledge that we have another country and a different life to retreat to. For Thais, it’s a job. The fighters at Santai all had contracts with the gym that included a living stipend as well as a cut of their fight purses. That meant they had to do exactly what the trainers told them — no unscheduled rest days. That morning had been a small opportunity to get some rest from the brutal demands of training.

But that lazy morning was more than a physical break. Muay Thai, and fight sports in general, can seem all about the individual. But the Thais at Santai were a team. Once I started training with the Thais instead of other foreigners, training became physically tougher, but mentally easier. Though I couldn’t speak the language, sharing a grimace with Beer as we banged out hundreds of jump knees got me through the sessions. Playing hooky on the run wwas about the team, a shared transgression that felt like a small victory.

As we walked into the gym that morning, Beer held his finger to his lips. While I took off my shoes, Ten, my trainer, asked “How many kilo?” I deliberated for a moment: “Seven.” He gave me a hard look, perhaps noticing my sweat-free T-shirt. “Wrap hands” he said and we got to work.