Fighting costs all of us dearly, too dearly, in physicality and mentality. It’s unfortunate that dedication has such an innate sacrificial element to it.
Bryce, Tizoc, and Jordan get to sleep in that day because they all fight that night, but the rest of us stagger into the lobby unmotivated and groggy (Note: Jordan and Tizoc were moved to fight earlier than expected). The apathy built up from the week before to a sudden punishing daily routine hit us hard. And it was only day two, really. The van drives us through Elm Street, we train for three hours, and we take a lunch break.
A small restaurant juts out from the back of the gym into an unkempt field. Our van driver waits for us at a table, where he pre-ordered a local meal for meal consisting of fish and vegetables. Despite the somewhat rough and unappetizing appearance, the fish crumbles in my mouth, meaty and tender. After eating a culture’s food in the native land, it always surprises me how unhealthy American counterparts are. But as much as I enjoyed the food, my teammates prefer to stop by a more American joint on the way back to the gym. Bryce, Tizoc, and Jordan stroll in for afternoon training, and practice some last minute moves. If I learned anything from competition though, it’s that 60% of technique leaves once you enter the ring.
For the rest of the day, we meander through Bangkok’s sights to calm our nerve before the fight. Large super-malls filled with counterfeit luxury items tower over the impoverished streets, and inside, I buy a Gucci belt for my dad and a few graphic shirts. Bryce buys a fake Tiffany’s bracelet for his girlfriend Amber. He talks about other girls a lot, but its obvious he loves her.
Our van driver picks us up from the lobby around six, and we hastily chow down on a light meal before heading to the stadium. “I was once the champion of this stadium,” our driver tells us in broken English. It’s the first words he spoken this whole trip.
Inside, strangely enough, the ratio of foreigners to natives is around 1 to 1, which makes one wonder about the popularity of the national sport. The foreigners generally have some sort of escort with them (female or transvestite), while in the back, old Thai men exchange some form of gambling sheet. There’s a familiar smell of menthol in the atmosphere seeping out of the back room. Attached to this familiarity is another change of plans – Bryce’s fight is rescheduled to next week in a bigger stadium.
We prepare Jordan and Tizoc in the back, but are immediately interrupted when a greasy announcer and his cameraman rushes into the back room, blinding us with their lights. They want interviews for some obscure, most likely illegitimate blog. Tizoc, as expected, declines the offer, but Jordan and his natural love of the spotlight accept wholeheartedly. I decide to ignore them and work with Tizoc instead, who stands in the corner, blankly staring through the wall.
Tizoc rushes in very much like a bull, lost in the rush of adrenaline and the fear of the fight. The poise he exhibited in training disappears. Tizoc throws a few overhands that catch his opponent, a stocky Thai fighter with a bulged forehead, but his opponent jabs, snapping Tizoc’s head back. He comes to his senses a bit, stepping back, and assesses the situation. Jake, Mike, and I quietly sit ringside while Bryce and sensei shout from the corner. Jordan is somewhere, preparing for his fight.
Then suddenly, within the unsettling tension, Tizoc connects, and again, and again. The opponent’s arms limp to the side, wobbling, held up by the tension of the red ropes behind him, and the referee steps in. I’m up, screaming from the back of my throat without realizing it. Under the confusion, Tizoc violently jumps onto the ring ropes, which helplessly snaps under his weight. It takes nearly twenty minutes to repair.
Tizoc strides out of the ring, silently strutting to where the rest of the team invites his dignity. Foreigners and their girlfriends snap photos faking kisses and molding bodies into extravagant fighting poses. He’s an instant hero. As the energy depletes, Tizoc settles in with a sigh, wishing Jordan good luck.
Jordan enters the ring, naturally, poised, but possessed with the confidence from the interview. His opponent (as generally the case) has a significantly smaller build, but the Neanderthal visage displays raised scars from his battles. It’s always terrifying looking into the ring at Jordan. While he never affects me much in training, there’s always a sociopathic fearlessness in his eyes. The human center of the brain suddenly turns off, it seems, and in the moment all ability to understand emotion disappears. It’s almost too natural for him.
What’s more, it almost always ends the same way. Jordan’s fists aimlessly attack every vulnerable point in the opponent’s body until they break down into a motionless bag of bones. Perhaps I expended my excitement on Tizoc, but I can’t rouse myself up as much after Jordan’s dominant performance. I walk to ringside where the wooden eyes of the beaten opponent glares back at me. The foreigners rush to take photographs with the winner, posing with fists up. All these photographs are carbon copies of each other. The Thai gets taken out on a stretcher, but no one else notices.
That night, Bryce and Jordan manage to sneak alcohol into the rooms. We all quietly make our way to the roof, where we look over Thailand’s naturalism. Eventually the familiar feeling of alcohol kicks in, and the city below blends together with the night sky until everything becomes another memory, an experience, a story.
Alas, Bangkok! The night characterizes the city well. Bilious neon lights sparkle in broken English, and like the other places, vendors crowd the streets, pushing bizarre foods. Delirium sets in following the cramped seating situation, sleeplessness, and hunger, making it difficult to discern anything. Experimenting with new food sounds enticing, but we take a safer route and approach a pizza shop to reduce the chances of food poisoning before our fight; however, a flayed pig’s face glaring back from the display case changes our mind. We instead eat at a conventional Chinese restaurant in the lobby of our hotel before retreating to our rooms in the two-person capacity elevator. A porn advertisement sits bedside, but sleep appeals to me a bit more.
The Payakaroon gym takes about twenty minutes to get to, but we skip morning training to take a detour through Bangkok to Rajadamnern Stadium. The chaos and madness of the driving still terrifies me, but I take comfort in the fortification of the taxicab as compared to the crude build of a tuk-tuk. Nearly every corner commemorates the King in some fashion, which I failed to notice before, but in retrospect, some form of the Royal family inhabited every establishment. It’s weird to think a symbol, with no political power, is so loved…but perhaps it is because he doesn’t indulge in government affairs.
Samart (charming as he is in person as on TV) meets us at Rajadamnern Stadium, inside Sensei’s Twins shop. Upon entry, a sudden flock of people forms around him. As is a natural daily routine, he gracefully maneuvers his way around them and guide us through the gate to ringside seats. We enjoy an entire afternoon lineup. For such a violent sport, there’s a surprisingly low amount of knockouts. Perhaps it’s an age thing.
By two, we’re back at the hotel preparing for the long anticipated training session. Mentally, scenes from Bloodsport run through my mind, pumping adrenaline into my system; however, our van drives us through what appears to be an opening scene of a horror movie instead. In fact, the remoteness of the locations are almost surreal. A few children chase chickens in patches of grass in an otherwise empty world. Considering the busy streets from a few hours ago, I’m struck by the remarkable difference between the rural and urban. Finally, the gym magically peaks over the horizon like a promising oasis.
On the exterior, it’s as real as those 70’s fighting flick with Jean-Claude Van Damme bloodying his shins by kicking down banana trees. Yet, this promise quickly dissipates once we reach inside. We are nearly twice as old as the oldest fighter there. We stumble into the gym, awkwardly struggling to fit in.
We follow their routine: Jump ten minutes of truck tires, hit bags for ten minutes, hold pads, then work clinch. Despite being thousands of miles away from home, the routine immediately feels cyclical. As a child, I remember wasting my days drifting in and out between various adventures. These kids survive on gruel and fight money. Unable to purchase proper equipment, they bounce on discarded tires and kick padded posts, sacrificing themselves for a national sport. Day in and day out. I admire them for accepting a changelessness that I could never achieve. We close off with a stretches then laugh with the kids over broken English. Afterwards, the gym owner Sidyodtong cordially invites us to one of his Muay Thai events. We all humbly accept.
The event is lighted by three industrial lights that overexposes everything. Several rudimentary tents sell malformed alien fruits, and swarms of insects dart through the air, attracted to the severe illumination; however, the people disregard them. In fact, almost mockingly, one tent sells an assortment of deep fried bugs.
We meet Sidyodtong on a raised platform above the ring. Up here, we are treated like royalty. Three attractive ladies constantly cater to our needs, supplying us with an endless supply of fresh fruit. Being seated next to Sidyodtong, members of the audience greet us with respect. Inside the ring, two fighters, around fifteen, exchange vicious blows, but no one seems to be doing much damage. Locusts constantly fly in and out of the ring, joining in on the combat. After fifteen or so fights, the night closes with Samart entering the ring, where the crowd adorns him with flowers.
We arrive back home past midnight, which promises us less than six hours of sleep before we wake up to train again.
This is the part of my adventure that begins looking more like a nature documentary than a diary. Outside the window of our sixteen-hour train ride, Planet Earth seems to be on a constant loop - in all my travels, I had never seen anything more organically splendid than that view. The immense landscape reaches out into the viridian mounds as a seamless gradient, melodically rising in and out of the earth. Within this wilderness, our train interrupts the inherent serenity as it cuts through the forests.
Inside is a bit of a different story. The train shifts and jumps at such violent and displaced timing that none of us can fall asleep. To pass the time, Bryce and Jordan begin telling the rest of the team about their short stint in jail, the fights they’ve been in, and the women they’ve fucked. Strangely enough, the stories engross me. It’s fascinating how boredom can reveal so much more about a person.
Well, storytelling can take up so much time but certainly not sixteen hours. Outside, a behemoth, translucent Buddha meditates on a mountainside. Small shacks occasionally pop their heads out of the shrubbery, and I intensively keep an eye out for monkeys or arboreal wildlife swinging in the woods. Thoughts of my fight wander around in my head.
As the sun begins to slowly set, an uncanny dark cloud floats through the air, expanding out from the horizon. It’s a swarm of bats, splendidly backlit by the sun rays. From the other side of our train, a gang of hawks dives into the blackness, blindly picking off their dinner. We all crowd onto one side of the train, watching this marvel with mouths agape. No story by Bryce and Jordan could compare to what we were witnessing. A few short minutes after the spectacle, we plunge into darkness. The train lights flicker on but emit barely enough light to be able to see anything. We arrive in Bangkok three hours later, four days off-schedule.