Having recently competed in a national tournament in Korea, and with grading sessions for our gym looming, being on the fight card for a major event in Malaysia was the last thing on Okbae’s mind. However, when Muay Thai promoter Z1 International contacted us and asked for Okbae’s participation in their Z1 8th Royal Cup Muay Thai Championship in Kuala Lumpur, we knew it was an excellent opportunity for Okbae to get some international exposure and experience before he stopped fighting altogether to focus on running his gym.
This recommendation came by way of Dr Lynne Miller, owner of Sumalee Boxing Gym in Phuket, whose fighters have appeared consistently on various editions of the Z1 show. Okbae is a former recipient of the Sumalee Scholarship, and with Lynne’s help, the process to get Okbae a spot on the Z1 fight card was greatly expedited.
Okbae would be competing in the 57kg 4-man tournament, and Lynne told us that her fighter, the talented and charismatic Jordan “Deachkalek” Coe, could be a potential opponent. Although Lynne assured us about the fight etiquette, should such a match happen, Okbae accepted the fight with some reluctance because of his gratitude to the Sumalee team.
Okbae had originally wanted his Korean coach to come along as his cornerman, but was told that there could potentially be logistical and cost problems. As such, we enlisted the help of Derrick Ng, a Singaporean fighter whom Okbae had befriended while training in Thailand five years earlier. Despite their language and geographical barriers, both Derrick and Okbae have forged a firm friendship, and Derrick would prove to be a pillar of support for us in Kuala Lumpur.
It was a short and pleasant flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. We were a little unnerved because of the political unrest that had plagued the Malaysian capital a few months prior, and were thankful that the promoter had made provisions for a driver to pick us up from the airport. We arrived at our hotel safely and were impressed by the preparations and rehearsals for the event, given the logistical and administrative challenges that would have been posed by the star-studded fight card.
Most of the Z1 staff, bloggers, entourage and fighters were put up at the same hotel. The stadium was a stone’s throw away, and the hotel was well equipped. Thus, there was no need to venture far out of the area. As a result, a feeling of camaraderie and closeness was quickly fostered in the hotel. Opposing fighters took photographs with one another over meals in the hotel restaurant, and the superstar fighters exchanged warm greetings with everyone they passed by along the hotel corridors.
When we arrived at the stadium, a couple of hours before the show started, there was already a considerable crowd milling around outside. Food stands and Muay Thai apparel stalls added to the charged atmosphere. There was a predominant sense of nationalistic pride and hopeful expectation from the local spectators towards their homegrown heroes.
Many of them waved Malaysian flags enthusiastically while loudly chanting the names of their favourite Malaysian fighters. Fans of popular local hero and defending champion Ali Yaakub turned up in droves wearing T-shirts with his picture on it, and said T-shirts were on sale at the stadium entrance. I think many of us had clearly underestimated the home advantage the Malaysian fighters enjoyed!
As we headed backstage to prepare, we were delighted to see many familiar and dear faces from various gyms around the world. Hugs were exchanged and supplies were liberally shared among the fighters. Despite having never met prior to this event, Jordan and Okbae bantered light-heartedly while oiling up with the same bottles of Namman Muay. Both Asanee Sitmonchai and Seanchai took the liberty to borrow Okbae’s groin guard and Vaseline reserves for their own fights. The Sumalee team also graciously loaned their mongkon to other fighters without theirs. I had some time to people-watch as Okbae got ready, and I found the interactions between trainers and fighters to be profoundly and ineffably beautiful.
Okbae had trained at Sitmonchai Gym for a month to prepare for the Z1 fight.
Sitmonchai Gym had given him solid training, care and concern, and a familial spirit and support that transcended geographical boundaries.
The gym manager and foreign liaison, Abigail McCullough, sent warm messages of encouragement, and gym boss Pee A had given Okbae gauze wrappings and padding with his blessings.
Despite having to fight in the main event a mere couple of hours later, Asanee Sitmonchai took time and effort to tape Okbae’s hands and glove him meticulously. Moke, the Sitmonchai boy who had come along with Asanee, helped greatly in the pre-fight preparations as well. The famed Sitmonchai family spirit was clearly evident in the way a foreign fighter in a foreign land was kindly treated.
During Okbae’s bout, we were greatly heartened and encouraged as both Sitmonchai fighters helped in our corner. Moke was energetically massaging Okbae’s legs together with Derrick, while Asanee advised him to “punch hard, and then low kick” in true Sitmonchai fashion. Team Sumalee’s resident photographer, Mike Davis, generously took photographs for us. The favour was later returned when Derrick went to help in both Jordan’s and Asanee’s corners. Needless to say, both Asanee and Seanchai were in each other’s corners in a show of Thai solidarity.
Although it was disappointing, I think it was a blessing in disguise when Okbae lost his fight in the semi-finals and did not have to compete with Jordan for the tournament title. A similar sentiment was echoed by Jordan, who later said that he was “relieved and happy that he did not have to fight his friend”.
Overall, this Z1 event was about something more than winning or losing. It was about friendships and bonds forged with fellow nak muay all over the world.
It was about humanity and the human spirit, things that are often overlooked in a combat sport known for its brutal nature. The event had given us something to look forward to, and is a memory we will treasure and cherish for a long time. Truly, we could not have done it without one another.
Rachel Lee first came to South Korea in 2011, intending only to visit a Korean fighter she had met at a Muay Thai gym in Thailand earlier that year. With her month-long visit sprawling into a four-year sojourn, she has since gotten engaged to the Korean fighter, and is currently running a Muay Thai gym with him in Seoul. A traveler and explorer at heart, she frequently finds herself treading precariously between ambition and reality.