Read A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting Online

Authors: Sam Sheridan

Tags: #Martial Artists, #Boxing, #Martial Arts & Self-Defense, #Sports & Recreation, #General, #United States, #Sheridan; Sam, #Biography & Autobiography, #Sports, #Martial Artists - United States, #Biography

A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting (2 page)

I found my way out of the camp through leafy bowers over cracking concrete and scurrying geckos. At the end of the driveway, at a loss for which way to go, I turned right and walked up onto a curving concrete bridge. It was warm and light already, although nobody else seemed to be up yet. The sun was low in the eastern sky, nearly obscured by the muggy clouds of gray and pearl. The river was still and black and silver, and a low mist hung on it, getting thicker farther upstream. Rickety wooden houses and piers stood in the white shrouds of fog; a lone Thai woman with a broad straw hat poled her boat through the murk. I finally felt the full strangeness of where I was, this movie set of the Far East, the mystic Orient.

That first day I didn’t train, on the say-so of the camp manager, an American-born Chinese named Anthony, the guy I’d been e-mailing. He told me to let my body adjust after the long journey, so I sat and watched.

One of the first things one notices about muay Thai is the youth of the fighters: The boys are often six or seven when they climb into the ring for their first fights, and they’re generally considered to peak at about seventeen. Muay Thai, like many of the ring fighting arts, is a way out for the very poor. The prize money can support families who can’t afford to send their children to school. It is an extremely grueling sport, not only the fights themselves, but the training. Most Thais are surprised that anyone would pay to come to train in muay Thai, because it is such a horrible, painful way to live.

I sat next to the far ring, which was reserved for the Lumpini fighters—Lumpini is the premier fighting stadium in Thailand, where the best muay Thai fighters in the world compete—and watched them train. They were working the pad rounds, which I learned are the heart of training. A trainer with shin guards, a thick belly pad, and pads on his forearms takes the fighter through rounds of kicking, punching, elbows, and knees. The noise was tremendous: The fighters yelled with every kick and every punch. In other martial arts, you execute moves at 70 percent of full speed and power; in muay Thai, everything is 100 percent all the time. The din of twenty men and boys all yelling and hitting is a strange, desperate noise. That noise was my introduction to the urgency of a real fight.

The trainers were older, heavier Thais with battered faces and scarred brows. They would drill their fighters relentlessly, switching through positions smoothly, and the fighters would follow, kicking and punching and kneeing, screaming something like “
Aish,
” while the noise of their legs hitting the pads crackled like gunshots. The fighters resembled oiled, tireless machines, functioning beautifully. Competence displayed is always fun to watch, but this kind of speed and power and skill was mesmerizing.

The next morning, I had my first training session, with a trainer named Kum. He asked me to put on my wraps, the binding fighters “wrap” around their fists and wrists for padding and protection. I rushed through it, doing it the old Harvard boxing way, with short wraps not going between the fingers, instead of asking him to show me the way they do it. He let me go on because, I sensed, he couldn’t care less. There was such frequent turnover of foreigners who couldn’t speak Thai and who stayed for only a few days that I could understand why trainers didn’t take new people seriously, at least until they showed something. Kum was arguably the best trainer for the foreigners, or
farang,
as they are called in Thai. The larger, and therefore slower,
farang
were unsuited to the Lumpini fighters’ style of kicking, which is very quick and precise. Kum’s style, with its emphasis on power and heavier, more deliberate kicks—every blow devastating—was much more effective for the bigger
farang.

That first day, I managed only a few super-slow, barely moving rounds with a tall, thin trainer named Pepsi (a junior man), who cared even less about me than Kum did. My punches had no snap, my kicks landed poorly and hurt my own shins, and I was sweating like a horse—I was chubby compared to anyone else at the camp, even the other
farang.
I stumbled around, huffing and grimacing, trying to maintain an air of seriousness, as if I were a real fighter, too. I soon met the other
farang,
who were mostly hard-muscled, flinty-eyed Aussies who had done muay Thai back home and were here to gear up for fights. Everyone was tattooed, including me.

The camp operated as a big family, with Philip, the owner, and Anthony, the manager, the father figures. There were between thirty and forty Thais living there: fighters, trainers, and their wives and families; older fighters and their wives and children; and the workers who made training gear. They all lived in a row of dormitories at the camp, along with their fighting cocks and dogs. At Fairtex, everything fights—the roosters, the dogs, the men.

 

 

After a few days, I was in shape enough to train every day, twice a day; it became all consuming, the backdrop to all thought and action. It began in the early morning, with the youngest fighters waking us up, calling, “Jogging, jogging” in soft voices. I’d clamber out of bed and down the stairs in my shorts and running shirt. The fighters would congregate; we’d sit in the dawn glow on the edge of the ring and put our socks and running shoes on. We’d all walk in a line, usually a dozen or so, sometimes two abreast, with the Lumpini fighters in front, then the second-tier fighters, followed by the up-and-comers, and the
farang
would bring up the rear. After maybe a quarter-mile walk, we’d break into a jog. We’d run on paved empty roads through the rice fields, past temples and apartment complexes with birdcages raised high on poles for decoration; down red-dirt roads, past rice farmers and squatters’ huts; past shrines gilded and glittering with glass and stones, and shrines where garlands of flowers hung from tree branches and candles moldered in the damp. It was always hot and still, and as the sun rose, it got hotter. Depending on your level of fitness, you’d run anywhere from three to nine miles; the last quarter mile we would walk back into camp, where the trainers would be getting ready for us. The other fighters would silently put on their wraps. The human hand is a terrible club, full of moving parts and delicate bones and tendons that have to be protected. It’s far safer to hit someone with an elbow. The glove provides the bulk of the padding, while the wrapping pads keep the bones and tendons from spreading apart—especially after you’ve been punching for years and have learned to punch hard.

Apidej (AP-ee-day) Sit-Hirun, one of the trainers, would be eager to get going and we’d be out shadowboxing before anyone else. Apidej is a living legend, the greatest muay Thai fighter of the century, so proclaimed by the king of Thailand. He won a record seven titles, kicking harder than anyone ever had. None of his students—including his son—has ever been able to replicate his power. He wore a golden “dollar-sign” ring on his right hand, his “money” hand. There are statues of him ready to be erected in Bangkok once he dies. He was sixty when I trained with him, and his style of muay Thai was out of favor, much like the style of Western boxing from the thirties and forties is out of favor today. Apidej still trained fighters for Philip at Fairtex, although at that point he primarily taught
farang.
Somehow he picked me as a student during that first month, mostly because I’d been persistent.

In muay Thai, the better the fighter, the more humble and good the person; and you could feel goodness, humbleness, and happiness radiating off Apidej. He had an infectious laugh, a deep sense of glee, and the gentle manner of a lifelong Buddhist. He had a trick that gave him great pleasure: He would beckon me over with something hidden in his hands, motion for me to put out my hands, and then he would gently, quietly deposit a tiny frog into my palm and chuckle.

And yet there was the other side, the fighting side. Apidej would show me how to move, sliding around the ring like a leopard, his eyes dark and serious, his motion effortless, his aura menacing. His eyes would go flat and cold, the naked enmity toward another man in the ring just under the surface.

The fighters warmed up by shadowboxing. The other fighters generally took it easy at first, shadowboxing lightly, going through the motions without focus, but Apidej wanted me to actually work, to move crisply, to throw fakes. He was always serious in the ring.

In muay Thai, whoever is in better shape wins. The primary tool to get you there is the pad rounds, which work like actual fighting rounds: You kick and punch and knee continuously for five or six minutes with thirty-second breaks between rounds. I would, at my best, do five or six rounds of straight pads with Apidej, followed by two or three rounds of just punching the smaller “focus pads” that were used to improve my accuracy. The strenuousness of the workout, the “maxing out” of your system, is why so many fighters get sick, why little cuts take weeks to heal and often get infected. The training is so hard that the immune system can bottom out, the fighter’s body pushed past the edge of its abilities.

After the pad rounds, you went straight to the heavy bags and did about five or six rounds on them. This was still pretty hard, but you could relax, as often your trainer would be distracted doing the pads with someone else. If you had a fight coming up, the trainer would come and stand behind you and say, “
Lao lao,
” which means hurry up, and generally make your life miserable. Then you would take your wraps off and either spar or clinch. Because the Thais fight every month, they essentially learn to fight in the ring, in real fights, from a young age. This makes their sparring very laid back, the priority being not to get hurt while refining their timing and trying things out. This lack of intensity was bad for us, the
farang
with no fights under our belts, but it was the way they did things.

The clinch was different. The clinch is an essential part of muay Thai, and it is often neglected by
farang.
It’s where most of the points in a bout are scored, and where many of the knockouts happen. To practice the clinch, two fighters without gloves or wraps, of more or less equal size and strength, come together and work for position, trying to get their arms around the other man’s neck and inside his arms, taking control of his head and body. It’s a little like wrestling, but with both feet on the ground. When a fighter achieves position in the clinch, he then throws a knee into his opponent’s stomach or side. A fighter also tries to pull his opponent’s head down, which can lead to a knee in the face, and then it’s lights out.

After the sparring or clinching, the session was over. On my own I would do three sets of pull-ups and sit-ups, as would the other fighters. Toward the end of my training, I would do five hundred sit-ups of various types a session—more than a thousand a day—but I never got a six-pack. Then we’d head to the big shower room, where, out of either respect for one another or modesty, the Thai fighters all wore their underwear, so we
farang
did too. Then Apidej would fill a large, square concrete bath with the hottest water you could stand. It was better than a massage, he’d say, and cheaper, too. The tub room was cavernous, like a grotto, despite the thick beams overhead and the dirty, slatted windows that let chinks of light in. Sometimes I would get the tub to myself, and I could submerge my whole body in it, as if returning to the womb. I would hear my pulse, a feathery thudding in my ears.

Afterward, shaky from the heat and exhaustion, I’d shower again and eat breakfast. The food was good, but never enough: soup and rice and chicken and noodles and some sliced pineapple or lychees. And always a lot of water, twelve pints a day. I’d rest a little, wander over to the office to check e-mail and chat with Anthony, who would be dealing with business. After e-mailing, it was time for the one-hour afternoon nap through the hottest part of the day. Exhausted and feverishly hot, I would burrow into bed, my body aching. I dreamt strange dreams and punched in my sleep. I would sweat into my mattress, and when I got up, it looked like an invisible man was still sleeping in my bed.

Sometimes I would take the afternoon nap in the hammocks that hung by the fence right next to the rings, cooler with a breath of air off the swamp. The swamp out back was full of high grass, stretching out to infinity, and there were often elephants and handlers hanging out there, sometimes right against our chain-link fence, the elephants methodically tearing the grass and eating it, and the handlers sleeping beneath them or nearby. I would lie diagonally in the small Thai hammock and maybe three feet away an elephant would be grazing peacefully, and his handler resting, and all of us dozing in the steady thrush of the elephant’s trunk curling and ripping long bunches of grass.

At three-thirty we’d start again—jogging (a far shorter distance, just a couple of miles), then another full training session, during which the pad rounds and sparring and clinching might go on longer and the sparring would be a bit more aggressive. We’d finish with a few rounds of shadowboxing—the Lumpini fighters would do it while holding five-pound dumbbells—and then sit-ups and push-ups and all the rest: shower–hot tub–shower, and the grueling cycle was finally done for the day by five-thirty. At night, the goal was to do as little as possible, just to get some rest and stay hydrated for the next morning’s run.

The days crawled by. At first, each day felt endless, and then they began to flow together. After three weeks, I could stumble through four rounds of pad work with Apidej, and my kicks were finally acquiring some snap. I now had massive, horny calluses instead of bloody blisters on the balls of my feet. The tender feet of the
farang
were often a problem; because of the two training sessions and rough canvas and stone floors, the foreigners often tore their feet up, got them infected, and had to go to the hospital. Actually, I was the only
farang
I knew who stayed for long at Fairtex and never went to the hospital once.

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