The final of Joup’s three part coverage of grass roots Muay Thai. I have traveled a long road through Thailand to the small town of Pai (80km NW of Chiang Mai) to find the origin and heart of Muay Thai – beyond the glitz and glamor of the UFC and Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok. Of course both Lumpinee and the UFC are huge in modern fighting (and betting and prize purses), but the essence of the successful UFC fighter flows from training in Muay Thai. Joup has reviewed a basic history and development of Muay Thai in Part 1 and observed the Pai Training Gym named Charn Chai with head trainer Bee in Part 2. Now we conclude by following Englishman Liam Kirkham (1-0) and two other fighters who train at Charn Chai to their matches during the Loy Krathong festival in Pai.
The smell burns my nose. I can smell it meters away: the distinct scent of the oil Muay thai fighters use to loosen their muscles before matches. It’s a pungent menthol smell not unlike that of Tiger Balm. However, the oil and the balm have one big difference: consistency. Muay Thai fighters use the oil not only to loosen up before and stay loose during a match, but they cover themselves in it becoming as slippery as an eel (with hopes of the sting as well).
The smell along with the whistling Pungi blaring over the loud speakers set the mood of gradually cooling Pai valley night. A string of four lights is strong across a standard four-corner three-roped raised Muay Thai ring. In opposite corners face a blue post and a red post, station for opposing fighters. The other two post are standard white. A stage and colored lights are set up to the back of the ring, but not used this evening. It is usually reserved for featuring fighters coming from Chiang Mai or perhaps all the way from Bangkok.
I spot Englishman Liam Kirkham. He’s lost some weight from when I first met him in the Philippines as a result of his training for the past five months. He has developed a Muay Thai fighter build: lean and solid with sharp knees and sharper elbows. I’ve been following him for over a week now in Pai between training sessions at Charn Chai and watching video of his first Muay Thai fight. He fights tonight along with Ling (Thailand) and Mathieu (France) in separate bouts pitting them against fighters from other regional gyms of equal age, weight and experience (or so I thought in the last criteria). Kirkham tells me that his opponent has changed. My first thought which I verbalized was “Can they do that?”
“Yeah, yeah they can. It happens all the time,” he responded in his faint Manc accent, “But that’s not going to change anything. I’m still going to fight.”
The crowd has now assembled and a younger age bracket fight has already completed. Yes, they start at an early age in Muay Thai. I liken the age of the two boys fighting the first bout to be 10 at most. And yes, they went at it. At first warming up to each other then full out punches and kicks. The match was decided by the three judges (including the MC calling the fight) according to points awarded for punches, kicks and takedowns/knockdowns. None of the young fighters represented Charn Chai.
The MC announces the next two opponents, one is Ling from Charn Chai. He is late teens (maybe 20 at most) and a thin…well…muscle. Just muscle. Not huge but solid and a good reach for his age and height. He enters the ring, prays and circles the ring opposite of his opponent in Muay Thai tradition. It is a solemn moment that happens before every fight. Next is a very modest Wai Khru Ram Muay from both fighters as they are both young with some but not much experience in fighting. Both seem more eager and anxious to just fight. And they do believe me. Ling has an array of moves, from kicks, to punches, to takedowns it’s all on display.
The first two rounds go back and forth with each fighter taking the other down at least once. The crowd starts to rally as the Pungi continues its chant through the loudspeakers and the fight gets more intense as it progresses, not a common occurrence in an lower-tiered fight showing its interest amongst the onlookers. Ling finally lands a square right kick to the head of his opponent. I mean right on the money and in a later (fourth) round. It’s at this point the fight changes and Ling has the real advantage. He knocks his opponent down yet again, but the referee lets the fight continue. In the fifth and final round yet more blows are exchanged but clearly Ling still comes out ahead and after the final bell the judges do indeed declare him victorious by points. He takes his prize money in his mouth as per tradition and hands it to his trainer Bee. Charn Chai fighter 1-0 on the night.
After a bout between two intermediate fighters from other gyms, Frenchman Mathieu is announced, enters the ring and starts his first pre-fight ritual. He is the first “farang” fighter of the night and being his first bout ever, is matched against a Thai whom obviously has more fight experience. They circle the ring and his opponent begins his Wai Khru Ram Muay while Mathieu looks on. It is now very clear who has more experience as typically seen through this dance. One of the trainers from Charn Chai has been working with Mathieu so he is behind him in his corner. The fight opens and Mathieu looks timid, as one would in their first fight. But he is solid, and taller then his opponent with longer reach and lands some quality punches, and takes his share of licks.The early rounds of Mathieu’s bout lack in the aggression of the previous fight of Ling…that quickly changes though with some solid hits, kicks and even a knockdown by Mathieu. Of course he is knocked back against the ropes as well. His opponent seems to start stalling in the later rounds. Often backing into a corner and holding up his leg to keep Mathieu at bay. I’m of the opinion this fight is close and Mathieu’s trainer encourages him as such telling him to “Go for it!” and “Attack him!” Mathieu is just not as aggressive as he could have been, again though, this is his first fight. Like any fighter at any time, there are a number of things going through this man’s head. He hangs and really makes it as interesting as he can in the last round. I felt the match could go either way, but Mathieu is on the short end of the stick by the judge’s decision. It could not have been by much, and that in itself is a huge victory for the rookie farang. But Charn Chai is now 1-1 on the night.
It’s been nearly two and half hours since the beginning of the fight night in Pai and there is one more match before Kirkham fights his second bout. A long wait, much longer then he expected I found out later on. He preferred to just go back to his apartment in Pai and relax and get himself ready for the match in select company. Now the time is at hand though and his massages and rubdowns are complete. His is one of the featured matches of this Thursday evening.Kirkham enters the ring with the gym’s headband on (as Ling and Mathieu did) and loosens himself up further. More waiting and finally his opponent appears. It was one of the men in the corner of some of the earlier fighters of the night. Now generally that happens, fellow fighters are in the corner of gym mates, but not giving advice. This is something I would think is obviously reserved for trainers. So my suspicion arises, but I still feel pretty confident that Kirkham will hold his own. The fighters circle the ring and his opponent starts his Wai Khru Ram Muay. As in Mathieu’s match and even more so, his opponent’s ritual is MUCH more elaborate, now I really start to wonder.
“I realized what I was in for once he started his Wai Khru. But I can’t back down, I mean really.” said Kirham in hindsight.
Second fight, you’re a farang and you gotta know that the odds are stacked against you. Tough fight – Do it. That is what the spirit of Muay Thai, and hell, life is about.
The opening bell sounds and the fighters touch gloves. There some light punches back and forth but Kirkham cannot seem to make a solid move in the first minute. He does land a couple of punches but the momentum is not his. He holds his ground trying to get a feel for his opponent that he’s never seen before…that is until a flying right leg kick that lays him out. To my surprise as to the rest of the large crowd he almost immediately recovers and rises to his feet. My jaw dropped, he just took a flying leg kick to the head and got up. Immediately. “F@CK. He’s fine. Took that hit, let him get back at it after getting the cobwebs cleared,” my thoughts scrolled.
This decision belonged to the referee and after examining him waved the fight off and announced the winner by TKO. Most of the crowd were shocked at kick and the quick recovery by Kirkham.
Here is the point I let my emotion out. I have been covering Liam and Charn Chai for nearly two weeks at this point as objectively as possible. Of course I want a happy ending for the story with a victory for him and his gym Charn Chai. More importantly I wanted to see a good fight win or lose. I was shocked and frankly pissed the referee didn’t let him continue. The man was knocked down but had gotten back up and appeared ready to get back with three seconds. I’m no doctor nor ref, but really? I’ve seen knockdowns WAY more brutal then that and the fights continued. I shouted out to “Let them go.” and others probably did in Thai but to no avail.
Kirkham exited the ring and I was able to look into his eyes as he walked into the back changing area. Shaken? yes. Coherent? Completely. I let him gather himself for the next 30 minutes to an hour as there was one final remaining match.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I got knocked out.” Kirkham answered flatly then laughed.
“Yeah I know, but why didn’t they let you continue?” I further questioned.
“I don’t know. The ref saw something in my eyes I guess. I just shook it off. I was surprised it was over that quick.” he further answered.
You weren’t the only one.
What I later found out is that fights like these are common in the lower rungs of the Muay Thai circuit. Often times last minute replacement fighters show up and take a bout. Talk about not knowing what you are getting yourself into. But Kirkham went on further to explain when talking to him at lunch the next day.
“It’s part of the process of developing as a Muay Thai fighter. Bee [his main trainer] says to really forget the first ten matches you fight for the wins and loses. Of course you don’t want to lose, right? But they are more important in getting your rhythm and timing and endurance down…so I take this is a positive learning experience. I know better for next time. I’ll be ready.”
That is the life of this art. And this is the art of this sport. It’s grueling, tedious, often repetitive in preparation and sometimes disappointing in results for Thais and farang alike. I am not first to say it and will not be the last but…
“You live to fight another day.”
Joe Grzesik (JGrez) is an artist developer focusing online on front end development and keeping up with new techonolgies. Photography has been his most recent and strongest passion. He’s shot thousands of photos throughout the years only recently display a larger portion of his library here on Joup.