Frankie’s first fight in Thailand was nothing like he’d imagined. Behind a gas station in Ubon Ratchathani, so far east into Thailand’s poverty stricken countryside that he was nearly in Cambodia. Far from the lights of Bangkok’s Lumpinee or Rajadumdren Stadiums. It was still mid-day, the summer heat pounding and suffocating. A crowd of Thai farmers had begun to gather, drinking Lion beer out of cans and shielding their eyes from the sun as they watched the ring being built.
Frankie sat cross-legged on a reed mat underneath a blue tarp, trying desperately to feel a sense of calm as he waited for his name to be called. At least he was in the shade: that was something to be grateful for. His trainer, a tiny Thai man with a complexion like polished mahogany, was named Lai. Lai stooped down in front of Frankie and began to wrap Frankie’s hands.
At first, Frankie felt himself be reassured by the familiar ritual of it; Lai wrapped his hands before every training session, and the feeling of Lai winding the wraps around his fists, pulling them tight around his palm and between his fingers was calming. But then, the little Thai man pulled out a roll of coins and began to place them deftly along Frankie’s knuckles
“What the fuck are you doing?” Frankie asked, appalled at the obvious cheating.
The little Thai man looked at him wryly.
“You idiot?” he asked. “This not stadium fight. You behind gas station. Guy you fight have sixty-six fights. You have no fight. You no think he have coin in wraps?” He shook his head and went back to wrapping Frankie’s hands. Roosters scuttled around in the dust by their feet as he sat with his butt on the curb. Soon the referee would call his name, and he would get up into the ring and fight for the Thai farmers who had come out to gamble on the matches.
Frankie told me this story on one of our morning runs. I was huffing and puffing through our morning circuit through the Thai suburb our training camp was located in, he was running a few paces ahead.
A recovered meth addict from Oakland with tattoos of demons eating samurai on his arms, a coiled viper across his stomach, and an impressive scar across his brow- Frankie was my best friend in Thailand. Even though he was nearly 10 years older than me, we were both coastal white guys from the United States, and we could talk hip hop and partying and Tupac, and waxed nostalgic for American food.
We were both white middle class fuckups, allegedly smart guys who had dropped out of college to go smash faces in Thailand. During the months that I lived at KC Muay Thai training camp, I looked forward to my morning runs with Frankie.
I’d usually wake up around four in the morning. The street dogs that lived in the alleyway outside of my apartment in the suburbs of Chiang Mai would be making a racket as someone rumbled by on a moped. I’d run my fingers through the hand-wraps that hung from the curtain rods above the window, making sure they would be dry enough for my 7 a.m. training session, and then doze off back to sleep.
A couple hours later, I’d be up and stretching, gathering my gloves, shorts and mouth-guard. Stepping outside my apartment into the blue light of morning I would shake out my sneakers to make sure no scorpions or massive spiders has taken up residence in the night, and climb on my own Soviet-era moped for the short ride to KC Muay Thai Gym.
By the time I arrived, the light would have gone from gray to blue. I’d step off my moped and toss my bag in a corner of the gym, clasping my hands in a respectful wai as I passed Kru Chon, my coach, and fist bumping the tattooed Nak Muay as we tightened up the laces on our sneakers and set out on our morning run.
We’d spread out along the three mile trail. A stocky hill-tribesman everyone called Mike (either for his sparkplug build and fierce uppercuts, or for a Chicago Bulls Letterman jacket he liked to wear, no one was quite sure) led at the front, with six year old O at his heels. O fought every weekend, sometimes twice a day, for the equivalent of $30 dollars a bout, to provide for him and his parents.
The rest of us followed. Thai kids as young as four and five years old, tattooed westerners like Frankie or Sneaky Pete: a Scot who spent his time alternating between working as an underwater welder on an oil rig in the North Sea, and taking in the sun and bar girls in Thailand. A Some ran in clusters and groups and chatted, others ran alone.
They were the radical opposite of the soft festie kids and aspiring social activists I’d left behind at my liberal arts college. I felt like I had more in common with these men, with their scars and pitch-black humor, than with my old classmates. Here is where I belonged, sweating in front of the punching bag or gasping for breath in the ring, desperately trying to land a punch.
Of course, my dirty secret was that I wasn’t actually one of these tough guys. I was a nerd, who liked medieval history and fantasy novels. My parents weren’t steel mill workers or rice farmers, they were upper-class literati. I wasn’t fighting to put food my plate, or to stave off drug addition, I was doing it because when your parents are writers, being a fighter seems like the most punk-rock thing you can do. I didn’t belong there, not really.
Hard upbringings make hard people. Anyone whose spent time in a boxing gym or in a wrestling room will know what I’m talking about: We all know that guy; he works as a hospital janitor or in construction. He might have been in the military. He’s from what you call a rough background, and in sparring, he has has no quit in him. You can punch him in the face with all your might and smother him and drive your shoulder through his cheekbone through the mat and he will still fight like a ferret in a barrel, because this is all he has.
I knew, deep down, that I didn’t have that, because I always would have somewhere to run to. A soft life of desk-sitting and meetings and evenings spent on the couch watching Netflix and drinking IPAs, it was just a tap-out away. All I would have to do to end the suffering was say no mas, and in the deepest moments of sparring, I often did. These real tough guys, raised in suffering, have nowhere to retreat to. I could never be one of them. The gloves and the hand wraps were just a rich kid playing dress-up.
About half a mile into the run, before the turn that would take us down through the jungle towards the main highway, I’d pass a big house with a tall, gated fence, and like clockwork every time a little Thai girl of maybe six years old would run out to greet me, chanting falang! falang! (a sort of cheerful Thai derogative for a foreigner). Falang! I’d agree, waving back as I trotted past.
As the sun was just beginning to rise, we would complete the run and end up back under the tin roof of the open-air gym. We’d wrap our hands, and start shadow-boxing, practicing our punches and kicks in the air, serenaded by either Thai pop music, or 90’s gangsta rap if one of my fellow falang had been able to hijack the aux cord that morning.
Soon enough, we’d be called up into the ring to hit pads held by Kru Chon, or a hugely fat Thai man named Bebe, and then after that we’d be called into the ring for padwork or sparring. We’d retire by midday, eating lunch next to the gym where an old Thai woman cooked out of a hollowed-out stump underneath a tarp strung between two trees for one or two dollars a plate.
Over the course of my months training in Chiang Mai, her “restaurant” would grow, adding tablecloths, tent poles, gravel instead of packed dirt floor, and finally one glorious day: laminated menus, the uplifting properties of capitalism in motion.
We’d go back to our separate homes for a midday nap. The Thai fighters would sleep shoulder to shoulder in a big pile in a cinder-block building behind the gym. The foreign fighters would go to their rooms across the street, and I’d get on my motorbike and head back to my own apartment to write.
I’d been fascinated with Muay Thai since I first walked into a fight gym at sixteen years old. To the uninitiated, it looks like mindless brutality with dissonant, panic-attack music playing in the background. To the trained eye though, it’s a delicate ballet of balance and misdirection, deeply entrenched in a particularly Thai breed of Buddhist mysticism. Many working-class Thais are animists, which means they believe that everything, rocks, trees, dogs, and mopeds, has an animating spirit. A ghost, as they say.
Before a match, whether it takes place in the stadiums of Bangkok for a Lumpinee Championship or behind a gas station in Ubon Ratchathani, the fighters slather themselves in liniment oil. Bedecked in Buddhist charms, they offer prayers to the spirits of the trees that were made into the ring. They both perform a dance, each seeking to be possessed by the “ghost” of the ring, which they believe can imbue them with supernatural abilities in the fight to come.
The Thais who participate in the sport are extremely superstitious. Good luck and spiritual intervention are taken as seriously by fighters here as western athletes take nutrition or conditioning. Thai fighters, and the western visitors who seek to emulate them will often get Buddhist charms called Sak Yant as tattoos.
It’s thought that a Sak Yant on your elbow will make that elbow “powerful”, and your Thai training partners will give that particular limb a wide berth, believing that it is more likely to cause brain damage than an un-embellished part of your body. Such is the power of the Sak Yant that some Thais will get the tattoos done in sesame oil, which is clear and leaves no visible trace, believing that the presence of the invisible symbol under their skin will offer them protection or power.
Despite the spiritual trappings, Muay Thai is considered a blue collar pursuit in Thailand. The upper class Bangkok literati would rather put their kids in western-style Tae Kwon Do classes than have them turn to the path of physical immolation that is Muay Thai.
It’s perplexing to the Thais that westerners subject themselves to training that they consider brutalizing, demeaning, and deeply tied to human trafficking and the countries’ seedy underworld.
That morning Frankie told me about his fight, he explained how on his first trip to Thailand, he had been training at a camp in one of Thailand’s most rural provinces: Ubon Ratchathani. A real Thai camp, he said, in all its rough and gritty glory. Not one of the glorified day-spas popping up in the countries’ tourist districts. He’d been training there a few months when his coaches had offered him a fight, which he had accepted.
So that’s how Frankie had found himself sitting in the dust behind the gas station where the ring has been set up for a quickly growing audience of gambling farmers. After some disagreement, he’d let Lai finish wrapping his hands with the Thai coins hidden along the knuckles. Eventually, they called out his name and he had been led out to the ring, where his Thai opponent had immediately opened up a massive gash on his forehead with a vicious elbow strike, before making quick work of him. A rough start to a fighting career.
Yet here Frankie was, on his third trip to Thailand. He’d picked up some wins now, and a few more losses, in legitimate stadiums like Thapae and Loi Kroh. Back home, he was a 32-year-old with no career and a crystal meth problem. But here, win or lose, he was a warrior who fought to put food on his plate and Chang beer in his hand. He’d found that thing in himself, that inner ferret-in-a-barrel, that can be compelled to surrender, but can never be defeated. I was jealous.