Learning to Fight ‘Thai Style’

by Victor Alvarez ’19

Adrenaline rushed through my veins. My opponent, still unconscious, was being transported out of the ring in a gurney. The small crowd cheered, as my Thai coach held my gloved hand in the air while he swung a towel around violently. We stepped out of the ring, and he told me “Dee Mak, Victor!” which translates to “Very good, Victor!” He then said, in his broken English, “Can fight Friday, no?”

My eyes widened. After only a month at the Muay Thai camp, located on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, 8,000 miles from my hometown of Los Angeles, I had learned that a sentence that ended with a “no?” wasn’t a question. It was a “polite” statement. He wanted me to fight again in 6 days. Still buzzing with the excitement of having just won my Thailand debut, I simply nodded with a smile and said, “Can.”

Let me take a few steps back before continuing. If you’ve never heard of Muay Thai – and most people haven’t – it is a combat sport and martial art from Thailand. Believed to have originated in 15th century Thailand (then known as Siam) as a method of self-defense against neighboring invading nations, the art quickly became a popular competitive sport due to its effectiveness, versatility, and use of the entire body for offensive techniques. Legend has it that during a Burmese invasion of Siam, a great Muay Thai fighter was captured, imprisoned, and offered his freedom only if he could defeat the Burmese king’s men in battle. It is said that this fighter, Nai Khanom Tom, performed the “Wai Kru”, a dance-like ritual performed to show respect to teachers of the art, mesmerizing the king and his men to the point of rendering them helpless in combat. This myth is said to be the beginning of Muay Thai as a competitive, combat sport, which would over centuries adopt rules, timed rounds, the use of a boxing ring, and protective gear during fights.

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Photo by Victor Alvarez

In its current form, professional Thai boxers are permitted to punch, kick, knee and elbow each other in all parts of the body except the back of the head, the spine, and the groin. Fights consist of five 3-minute rounds. Fighters still perform the “Wai Kru” to pay respect to their home “camps”, where they train, eat and sleep. The dance rituals are also meant to show spectators, and especially gamblers, a preview of the fighter’s balance and control, which influences the outcome of the bout.

The sport has a strong cultural and ritualistic aspect. Despite being a violent and sometimes bloody sport, it holds much beauty in the eye of the Thai people. It is considered an art, in which the scoring is based not only on who lands the most blows, but who lands them with proper, aesthetically pleasing technique. Pre-fight rituals include blessings from Buddhist monks and prayers are spoken as fighters are adorned with enchanted armbands and headbands, which are meant to protect them from evil spirits and guide them to victory.

Although it is culturally charged, the sport is still primarily a means of financial survival. Young boys, some as young as 5 years old, begin training in order to make money for their families. Gambling is incredibly popular in Thailand and is, for better or worse, the driving force for the sport. This creates a demand for trainers and camp owners, who take in young fighters, raise them, and cash in on half of their earnings.

In other words, the sport is practically a job for Thai fighters. Lower level fighters, who simply need a quick buck, fight often – sometimes multiple times a day – disregarding whether they win or lose, and disregarding their physical well-being. Even the highest-level fighters, who are worth the most amount of money, sometimes fight every 3 weeks. In this regard, the Thai attitude towards the sport is vastly different from the Western attitude – and this was something I had known, but hadn’t truly understood until my stint at the Muay Thai camp.

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Photo by Victor Alvarez

I was baffled when my coach “asked” me to fight again in 6 days because back home, the shortest gap I had had between two fights was a month and even that happened only once. Most fights were several months apart. In four years of competition, I had only fought 9 times.

In the States, every fight is important. There’s a long build up. Training for 6-8 weeks in advance. Studying your opponent, when possible. Reaching the proper weight. Advertising the fight for family and friends to go watch. You fight so infrequently that the result, particularly a loss, will linger for months until the next one.

But that’s just not how things are run in Thailand. From the Thai perspective, a fight is just that: a fight. It’s a job, and if you’re a foreigner looking to fight as the Thai do (like I was), you’ll be treated like an employee. If you’re not significantly injured, then you can fight – because you’ll earn experience. Experience will make you a better fighter, which means more victories. More victories mean more money. It is only when you reach the pinnacle of Muay Thai, a feat that very few Thai boxers and even fewer foreigners achieve, that winning becomes crucial.

Going to Thailand, I anticipated being treated more like an employee, a member of the “stable”, but my Western attitude towards fighting clashed with the nonchalant, business-like view of the Thai. My rigorous days at the camp began to drill this mentality into me.

I spent practically my entire time in Thailand at this camp. When you’re a foreign fighter trying to live the life of a Thai boxer, you experience Thailand in a much different way than most people. You’re not living on the clear blue beaches of Thailand that most tourists experience. I lived in a camp owned by a legendary fighter from the 90s. He hosts several top-level fighters in all of Thailand, as well as numerous up-and-comers. Very little English is spoken in the camp. Only one other foreigner lived in the camp with me.

Training is gruelling. At 6:00 am, you wake up to run six miles, hit a heavy bag, work with a trainer hitting pads, and then clinch or “wrestle” with the Thai boys who, at half your size, can throw you around like a rag doll. The whole session lasts for four hours. You shower, have breakfast and then crawl to your room to sleep. You wake up at 3:00 pm and do it all over again (with a three mile run this time).

Physically, your body is unable to keep up and repair the damaged muscles quickly enough to allow you to perform a 100% in training. Even so, the Thai way of training involves consistently training both times a day in order to improve. If you’re not training “with power”, you’re told you’re not training hard enough. If you’re sore, you’re told to forget it, and keep working. The Thai boys sometimes watch you fall apart as you train and just laugh, because they think foreigners are weak and “soft”. So you push harder and harder, reaching your physical and mental limits. For the Thai, there is no day off. Some fighters keep this lifestyle up for twenty years or more before allowed to retire into a life of teaching; a common fate when Muay Thai is all you’ve known your entire life.

Photo by Victor Alvarez

Photo by Victor Alvarez

Despite the difficulties I faced while living in a Thai camp as a fighter, the amount I learned not only about myself, but also about Thai fighting culture makes the hardships all worth it. I lived in a very humble environment with farm animals and little access to urban commodities, like convenience stores or pharmacies. Meals were eaten together, as a “family” of sorts, and only the real necessities were offered in terms of accommodation (a bed and a fridge). The life I lead was simply based around one thing: training. There was nothing to worry about except eating, sleeping, and training; a real change from the busy, hustle and bustle of my daily life back home. The Thai boys lived their entire lives in a camp like this, which made me grateful for the life I get to lead at home and for the opportunity to be able to participate in the sport I love just because I want to, not because I have to.

I was introduced to this sport five and a half years ago. After an unfortunate car accident at twelve years old, I was left nearly disabled. After a year of recovering and searching, I found my passion in the most demanding physical activity I could find. I found Muay Thai. It would teach me discipline, introduce me to the lives of an entire other people I knew nothing about and show me humility. I learned that it’s okay to lose. I learned that it’s okay to not be as good as the fighter next to me, as long as I strive to improve. At the camp, boys half my size would outclass me completely. I learned to laugh it off, instead of feeling inadequate. I learned what it takes to walk into a ring, try and hurt another human being you know nothing about and, win or lose, embrace them with respect after the final bell.

I ended up fighting six days after that Friday night. I hated every minute of the five days of training before it; however, the young guys at the camp encouraged me and forced me to push, and I ended up fighting, for the first time in my life, without a single worry or concern . I learnt that the fight was nothing more than a stepping stone. A lesson to be learned. Another piece of experience. I knew I had nothing to lose and, after all the work I had put in, I had no reason not to fight.

I won.