“Mali, where are you?”
“I’m at work.” As I am every day, Monday to Friday 8am to 4pm.
“Do you have any fighters yet?”
“Yes! They are really new the gym just opened last…”
“Yeah, I know, I know. Come see me at the temple. Write their names on a list with their weights. I’ll meet you at the fight ring.”
Names? Our gym had only been open for two weeks, we didn’t even have a training mat, let alone fight names! I quickly wrote down a few localized names with some weights attached and jumped on a bike to head over to the temple.
The temple tradesman who had made the call had already left, but sitting there was co-promoter Mr. Dit. He read over the names with a big smile as he ate his fermented fish salad with sticky rice.
“The tradesman is matching up these kids, he’ll be back and I’ll give him the list. Are you working today?”
“Yep.” As I am every day, Monday to Friday 8am to 4pm.
“Come at 7pm to match the kids up. They’ll be up first.”
There are two other local Muay Thai camps in the area, and I know both of them. The tradesman said the fighters were local, assuring me that they too would be very new fighters.
Later that night, we all piled in the back of the mayor’s pick up truck; his support is needed for us to survive as a new gym. The kids had spent the day in the district capital playing football (soccer). Their team had won the championships. And now, after a full day of physical activity in Thailand’s humid climate, they were on their way to their first ever Muay Thai fights.
Once we arrived at the fights, the tradesman came over with fives kids. We shuffled them around, back and forth, until three match ups were made; weight gauged visually. I bought the kids proper gauze and tape, massage oil, Vaseline, and had custom shorts made locally. It wasn’t expected, or asked for. This was of course only their first fight, but in starting this gym Boom and I made a promise with each other to never cut corners with our fighters. What we in the West view as a necessity, these kids see as a luxury.
Trainer Dam finished wrapping their hands quickly. They began comparing each others freshly taped hands, punching the air like newly minted ninjas.
The King’s anthem began, and ended. Fighters were called to the ring and I hear Wor. Watthana vs Kiatpetch?! Dam looks at me. We have been training and fighting together for nearly ten years.
His look said it all. We had been set up.
Kiatchpetch is one of the most powerful promoters in Thailand, they also source fighters and have regional scouts throughout Thailand. In Isaan Ya is the man. From Giatbundit alone he picked up two fighters that later became Channel 7 champions. He had recently just opened up a gym in his home town in Buriram, and here we were about to face his fighters.
These kids had been training in a proper facility, with a ring to clinch in and bodies to spar. Our kids, didn’t even know what getting in a ring felt like.
First fight up was nothing eventful. We got outclassed, but our cardio was good and we fought. Nut came out of the ring smiling.
“Did it hurt?” I asked.
“No,” he answered in the local dialect.
“Do you want to do it again?”
Done, okay, on to the next fight. I’d only known these boys for a little over two weeks, and here they were getting into the ring and fighting for my gym. The process was very emotional for me. This was real, this was happening.
Mo was up next. First round was all Mo, smothering his opponent with his aggression. I heard Kiatpetch instruct their fighter to move to the right, away from Mo’s power kick. They figured out he was a south paw before I did! The fight continues much of the same. Mo winning on sheer grit. He was paraded out of the ring, riding on trainer Dam’s shoulders. Our first win.
The ring announcer, who occasionally acts as my manager, chimes in:
“Hey Ya, what do you think of being beat by Mali?”
My Thai nickname, meaning jasmine flower, is how I am known throughout the Muay Thai community here.
He calls me over to the side of the ring where he is sitting,
“This is my girl Mali. Everyone take notice, this gym is going to be big.”
I had to suppress my tears. The ring announcer is a prominent school teacher but also a promoter and a big legs gambler. His endorsement was an extremely high honour to our grassroots gym.
There was no time to process any of this. The last of our fighters was up but he didn’t have any blue corner shorts. Mo’s, sopping wet, were whipped off of him and put on Ong. In the second round, the fight was stopped; his opponent had too much experience.
One win, and two losses. This was our first fight night as a gym.
After receiving a muay thai scholarship to train at a prominent gym in Northern Thailand, Watthanaya packed her bags at 19 leaving home with a one way ticket. She ended up however at a Bangkok street gym affiliated with Sor. Thanikul and married one of the fighters. They took off for Khorat and Watthanaya fought her way through Issan. Now, with a degree in tote, a four year old daughter, and a passion to fight again, she is back. Connect with Frances Watthanaya on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook .