Note: This is a work of fiction based on the author’s experiences training muay thai in Thailand.
I don’t hear from Gong until the next morning. He calls right after morning training.
“Called you last night,” I say. “Why didn’t you answer?”
“I was already asleep. You train this morning?”
“Yeah, it was good. They all know you here.”
Morning training had been productive, a focus on clinching. The trainers at this Phuket gym talk to me between rounds. A couple of them flirt halfheartedly, mostly harmless. I smile without engagement. The ones who know Gong from their Bangkok fighting days talk to me in Thai, like they’ve accepted me into their circle after just a few days.
“Samsamut Kiatchongkao,” one trainer said this morning, using Gong’s fight name. “He’s your faen, huh? How is Gong now? What’s he up to?”
“Trainer in Bangkok, still fighting.”
“You gonna marry him? Take him to America?”
I laughed, told the group of trainers yes, told them no, told them the truth: “I have no idea.”
One day at a time, that’s how Gong and I date each other. One day at a time, while I apply for jobs in the U.S. and he watches Thai soaps on TV, muttering vague plans for a future together during commercial breaks.
“What are you doing today?” I ask Gong over the phone. I can hear his roommates yelling in Thai in the background. He lives in a room that houses an average of four nak muay at any given time. I don’t know how he does it, being an introvert living in a small gym with little privacy. No wonder he takes his motorbike out every night and drives around alone before coming to my room to hang out.
“Training again,” he says, “then tonight maybe go to Bangkok.” The drive from the gym’s rural dirt-road driveway to the city center is at least 20 minutes. Gong loves the drive. It’s yet another escape from the constant company of the gym.
“Why you going to Bangkok?”
“My aunt. I might need to help my aunt.”
“I thought she was in Nakhon Si Thammarat with your parents.”
“She came back to Bangkok.”
“What are you helping her with?”
“I don’t know how to say it in English.”
“Say it in Thai.”
He does. No idea what he’s talking about.
Most of our conversations go like this. We can meet each other halfway with my crappy Thai and his subpar English, but when discussing anything that requires nuance, tact, or more vocabulary than you’d learn in your first few months of language class, forget it. We leave things unsaid. We don’t push because we know we can’t. We give up and practice acceptance.
“Okay,” I say. “Have fun.”
“Not fun. Work. I’m working with my aunt.”
He says something in Thai about t-shirts, clothes. That’s all I can pick up.
At night I drag myself out to the fights with some other foreign and Thai fighters from the Phuket gym. We pile into a truck and weasel our way through Phuket traffic to the local stadium for a fight night. We sit in a clump off to the side, fighters from our gym, both Thai and foreign, backstage wrapping and shadowboxing.
First fight kicks off between two Thais, probably teenagers. Second fight, same demographic. No foreigners, just Thais. Third fight, a Thai against a foreigner. Fourth fight, two foreigners.
“You know, the fights at this stadium are real,” says the Western nak muay sitting next to me. Will’s been training muay thai for a few years now, back in Sydney as well as in Phuket and Bangkok. “Okay well I don’t mean this stadium, but this promotion we’re at tonight is real. The other fight nights, all they do is just put foreigners up against Thais who aren’t training anymore or were never fighters to begin with. These places hand out belts every night.”
Another nak muay, Crazy Chris from Canada, nods his crayola-colored hair and lets loose a subversive grin. “Empty titles!” he laughs. “Like it means anything when you beat a guy who doesn’t even care if he wins the fight!”
“Yeah,” Will says, “and some of the Thais these foreigners fight, they’re just local taxi drivers doing it for extra money or to support a drug habit or whatever. It’s a bad scene.”
I shrug. “All the fights I’ve seen lately have been in Bangkok.”
“Oh, Bangkok’s for real,” Crazy Chris says. “Not like half the shit on this island.”
“You see those kinds of fights a lot?” I ask.
“Yeah, all the time,” Will says.
“And you can tell they’re fake as shit. These Thai ‘fighters,’ some of them go hard but some barely throw a real punch. Sometimes when the foreigner hits them, it’ll barely make contact but they’ll just take a dive.”
“Yeah they just get in the ring, fight a round or two, take a dive and then get the money,” Chris says. “Works great for them. Who gives a fuck?”
“My first fight here was like that,” Will says. “A long time ago when I first came here I wanted to fight so they put me up against a Thai opponent and I barely touched the guy. I mean, I wasn’t a very good fighter, even I knew that, but the guy went down in the first round from a punch or whatever that I wasn’t even sure connected. He barely fought back before he took the fall. I was really disappointed, like, ‘You mean I trained hard just for this?’
“That was a while ago and I don’t go to the same gym anymore. Since then I’ve fought a couple Thai guys who were supposedly ex-champions from Bangkok.”
“Ex-champions, huh?” I say.
“Yeah, everyone said the guys I fought were ex-champs. I’m sure I couldn’t touch them in their prime, but now that they’re a little older and not always training full-time, we’re on a more even playing field.”
“How’d you do in those fights against the ex-champs?”
“Eh, I won once. Lost the rest. But at least they were good fights.”
Will could have fought someone like Gong, an ex-champion now taking the occasional fight in Hua Hin or on the islands to supplement his meager salary as a Bangkok trainer. He fights both foreigners and Thais, usually wins but not always. Last time he fought, just a few weeks ago in Koh Samui, his opponent, another Thai ex-champion, knocked him out with an elbow in the second round. He came back to my apartment the next day with nine stitches on his brow.
“You see this?” he pointed at his cut. “It’s from an elbow! Yeah!” He swung his elbow, mimed being hit in the head, fell back onto my bed laughing. “I went to sleep in the ring! A couple minutes! Woke up and wondered where I was!”
I grimaced. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Yeah, but… No, it’s okay.”
“Do you have to keep fighting?”
“Yeah, for a while.”
“Why? You like fighting?”
“I like money.”
“What if I start fighting?” I smiled. “That’ll earn us some money!”
“No!” he laughed. “We’ve talked about this so much! I don’t want you to fight!”
“Because you’re worried?”
“Listen. That’s how I feel about you. I’m worried too. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“I don’t get hurt. I’m fine!”
“Gong, you just got knocked out! You have how many stitches? And you have another fight next month!”
“Don’t worry, I’ve only been knocked out maybe twice in my life.”
“Yeah, Jomthong Chuwatthana knocked me out when I was 19 or 20, we were fighting at Raja. Then this guy yesterday in Samui, champion too.”
I shook my head and laughed in minor disbelief. Two K.O.s in nearly 20 years of competition? I knew Gong was good, a Rajadamnern and Thailand champion, but I didn’t think he was that good. Or that lucky, maybe.
“So how many people have you knocked out?”
“Oh I don’t know, not many. Maybe 10, 15.” That’s less than one per year since Gong started fighting professionally. His style is known as fimeu — an elegant, technical fighter, not a brawler. Knees are his specialty. He’s tall for a Thai, around 5’10” or 5’11”, lithe and long, walks around at 67 kilos, just under 150 pounds. The way he moves in the gym, his graceful form and his perfect execution, you can tell he’s a natural athlete. He would have excelled at any sport. I like to think he could’ve been the next Baryshnikov.
A natural at muay thai. I’ve seen that kind of inborn talent in only a handful of other fighters, foreign or Thai. I never saw it in myself. Nothing even close.
I asked him how long he’ll keep fighting. “Three more years?” he speculated. That would put him at 29 when he finally retires. And then what? He spent a couple years at university studying sport science, never graduated. Even just a year or two of college education sets him apart from the majority of nak muay, though. Many of them don’t even finish high school.
“What about after you stop fighting? What will you do?”
“I’ll be a trainer,” he said, told me his plans to open a gym in southern Thailand near his family. The gym would raise fighters. Thai fighters, not foreigners.
“What would you do for work if you weren’t a trainer or fighter?” I asked.
“A coach,” he said.
“Of what sport?”
“Any. I like teaching.”
After an hour of grab-bag fights, I leave Crazy Chris and Will to their analysis of the matches and wander backstage to take some photos of our gym’s fighters. A few more bouts to go but I don’t care if I miss them. After a while, most matches look the same, though the wildcard nature of Phuket fights makes them always at least somewhat entertaining.
It’s 11pm by the time I go outside to call Gong. He picks up this time. I don’t hear the TV in the background, or his nak muay roommates.
“Where are you?”
“Out,” he says. “…In Bangkok.”
My stomach drops for a split second. “What are you doing?”
“Staying at my aunt’s house tonight.”
“Oh.” His aunt’s house? Why? “Really, Gong? Your aunt’s house?”
“Okay, because…” I falter. How do I say this? How do I say what, exactly? How do I tell him I don’t believe him because I saw other muay thai men cheating? How do I explain that my friends are making me paranoid? That I’m afraid of the pain of betrayal from a man I barely see a future with anyway? It started as casual, temporary. I’m going back to the U.S. soon, maybe within the next month or two. Just keep it casual like how it began. So why worry about cheating when it’s already not meant to last?
But I persist.
“Are you really at your aunt’s house?”
Okay, just say okay and STFU already. I can’t stand myself. Since when did I get so suspicious? Insecure?
So I say nothing more than, “Okay.”
Silence, a pause, then he says, “I’m tired, Linsee. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
He hangs up and I walk back into the stadium for the last fight. A guy gets knocked out, knees to the ribs, but I don’t notice until it’s over and they replay it on the big screen.
Lindsey Newhall first left her home state of California when she was 20, and has since called China, Thailand, and Alaska her home. You can check out more of Lindsey’s writing on Fightland.