By Kaitlin Young
One of the unwritten truths about training at a gym that does not speak your language is that language no longer gets in the way. You see people only for who they are, what they do, and not what they’d like us to believe about them. The same is true of how others will see us. What we’d like to present can no longer be presented, and we are only what is visible. As much as we try to observe the world on mute, we are nearly always subject to hearing people’s reasons for doing or not doing, or we share our own reasons for doing or not doing. With no explanation, there is only the done and the not done. We are only what we do. We are all, in a sense, naked.
I first visited Dejrat Gym in 2016, and have been back a few times since. In 2016 I went alone, and was somewhat blindsided by the difference in culture. Dejrat is a very Thai gym. It is known for being one of the hardest gyms in Bangkok, not only because of the training, but due to harsh critique and high expectations. Hard training was not new to me, but the culture was, despite already having a taste of it from training with Kronphet Phetrachapat in the States. In the US, we gain approval from coaches and bosses by going “above and beyond”. It’s a habit that buys us more attention and preferential treatment. In Thailand, doing something different, more or less than you are told, is still disobeying. The trainer needs to have control. This is because they don’t just seek to push you past your limits, but, when necessary, try to protect you from your own heart. In order to drive a car well, we have control of both the gas and the brake. The same goes for training fighters.
During my last visit, there was a handful of young Thai men training, and a couple of visitors from a nearby east Asian country. Two of them stood out as extremes. For anonymities sake, they’ll only go by Big Heart and Small Heart. The point of telling this story is not to embarrass Small Heart. He can’t help what he is, so I’ll keep his name to myself. I suspect you’ll all know Big Heart’s name soon enough.
Big Heart is a boy from southern Thailand. When I say boy, I only mean that he is younger than me. He’s 21, and seemingly both older and younger than that at the same time. From what I can gather, he’s on the come up. When I met him, had just won a fight at Rajadamnern (and has won another since), and I believe it was one of his first in the more prestigious stadia. He’s a Muay Khao – a knee fighter, of course. It isn’t as though he can’t kick or box; he certainly can. His clinch game is absolutely suffocating, as is his death grip lock. Big Heart was on rooster duty, meaning he had to care for and bathe the fighting roosters in the camp after practice. The roosters were noticeably more comfortable with him than the other boys. He appeared more careful with them, and concerned about being gentle. It’s hard to imagine a content rooster relaxing into a sponge bath until you see it, but that’s the best way to describe it. In addition to his fighting skill, he emanated empathy.
Small Heart was very outgoing. He presented himself as a coach visiting from abroad, immediately showing his bruised rib and bruised shin as evidence of his last fight. He spoke a word or two of English, and would spout “Hello, hello, hello” until he received a response. His phone was always available, and he’d use Google Translate to ask questions. He asked every woman that walked through the gym for her phone number, and would push and push, even if it was clear that he was making her uncomfortable, until one of the trainers stepped in and told him to stop.
The first day I arrived, he ran with all of us, keeping a good pace. He then disappeared for the 20 minutes of jump rope, only to reappear when it was time to hit pads. He did a round, and of course couldn’t kick with his bad shin and didn’t want to be fed reactions due to a supposed rib injury. Ok. He certainly didn’t hop in for clinching, or boxing sparring. The next session, he was nowhere to be seen, though he was living at the gym. And the next session. And the next after that.
How curious. I had overslept once while staying at the gym and been physically dragged out of bed by one of the boys, in a panic. He was trying to save me from the inevitable. Needless to say, I wasn’t late ever again. It is highly unlikely they would have tolerated skipping sessions from an active fighter.
What Happened Later
Finally, a few days later, Small Heart reappeared. He had skipped the run and hopped right into pads. Um...huh? He was working with Lek, the head trainer under Ajarn Surat. Lek is the Thai word for small, and the name, in this case, was used ironically. If you can imagine Baloo, the bear from The Jungle Book, as a pad man, you’d have Lek. Lek only knows a few phrases in English, including “baby”, which he’ll assign to you when your exhausted legs are only kicking at a fraction of their ability. He’s hilarious – and a great holder. He can make it feel like you are winning or losing a fight. He is not only holding for technique, but to bring something else out of you. He wants to get a good look at your heart.
I motioned to Small Heart, then to Lek, “No running?” I asked, as I jogged in place. Lek replied, “No” and shook his head. “Mon-ey!” and then did an impression of crying, drinking, and making it rain Benjamins. What a funny thing that financial comfort seems to be associated with these behaviors across cultures and combat sports. You’ll hear the same sentiment from American boxing trainers. A person who has been too comfortable has a very hard time enduring much. Lek knew that anyone who had spent time in fight gyms would understand the affliction he was referencing. Small Heart wasn’t necessarily looked down upon. It wasn’t his fault, even, just his circumstances.
As the rest of the camp took part in 30 minutes straight of clinching at the end of practice, sometimes being “pickle in the middle”, which entailed one guy having a fresh partner every minute or so until he was falling down with exhaustion, Small Heart was on his own glancing at his abs in the mirror. He repped out some perfect pull ups, grunting loudly with each pull. Lek generously gave him the recognition he sought, with an enthusiastic thumbs up, the way an adult might when encouraging an 8-year-old who says, “Look at me!” as they perform any random small feat.
Big Heart, of course, was in the ring. One of the other boys was having a tough day, as everyone who trains seriously will from time to time. For some unknown reason, things seemed to hurt him that wouldn’t on a normal day. He wanted, but could not ask, for his partners to mercifully lighten up. Big Heart knew what his teammate hoped for, but also refused to do it. Regardless of what he wanted, it wasn’t what he needed. Great training partners have a way of being able to remove the violence from their action without removing the pressure, and this is exactly what Big Heart did, time and time again, when his training partners would begin to falter. He’d save them from injury, yet still force them to be strong. It’s a generosity that is hard to appreciate until you’ve had someone take advantage of your exhaustion or completely let you off the hook. Neither is good.
If one of the new boys was hesitant to clinch with a woman, he’d hilariously make me flex for them, and then reassure them that I, too, needed to be pushed. And then they would. One day, I was hurting particularly bad and was slowing on a run. He said something in Thai as he passed. While I don’t know what he said, I understood what he meant. It was something to the effect of “Keep going. We’re almost there”. He had only been at Dejrat for 6 months or so, but it was already apparent that he was a leader. Big Heart would sometimes be exhausted to the point of failure, as well. However, in my time at the gym, I never witnessed a non-verbal request for relief out of him. He accepted the failure, then got up again to give whatever he had left.
The morning run before practice was 6.5 miles or so, divided into 5 laps around the markets and a small pond in the neighborhood. The afternoon was 2-3 laps, depending on what Lek directed that day, followed by 20 minutes on the jump rope. If you are close to a fight, there are no days off. Sunday might be lighter in training volume, but the mileage remains about the same. Apart from Small Heart, everyone had a fight scheduled in the next couple of weeks and were in the thick of it. After a few days rest, he decided to run with us again.
The trainers would often camp out by the bridge and keep an eye on us as we did our laps. As I rounded the final corner of the first lap, here comes Small Heart. Not only was he running fast, but he had taken a short cut that axed nearly half of the run, attempting to bypass all of us and appear to be “faster” to the trainers. In a moment of irritation and weakness, I couldn’t help but talk shit. It didn’t matter that he understood about five words of English. “Oh, so you want to pretend to be strong rather than actually being strong, huh? Must feel great to run once a week. You’re LAZY. Do you know that word? L-A-Z-Y.” My ineffectual taunting was then interrupted by Big Heart and one of the other boys absolutely smoking past both of us. Haha! I’d never been so happy to be passed on a run.
Usually, after the run was complete, we’d do some flat sprints, then a few killers. (Those of you who have played hockey or soccer are familiar with them, no doubt.) Most days, Small Heart skipped out on these, even if he had managed to complete the run. True to form, he bailed on the sprints this day as well. Everyone else’s legs were heavy with the weight of 70 mile weeks, and training to exhaustion each day, but they still completed the work. Maybe someone wouldn’t reach all the way to the ground on their shuttle run here or there, but they could hardly be blamed. It was 95 degrees, brutally humid, and the pollution was especially bad that day. Everyone was training on limited calories. Many fights in Thailand do not have a weigh in. Fights with high-stakes and a lot of gambling involved, like the ones these boys would be fighting, would certainly have a weigh in and it would be the same day as the fight. They are strict, too. It isn’t like the US where you simply fork over a bit of your purse if you miss and the fight still goes on.
Something Caught My Eye
I began to notice that Big Heart continuously went all the way to the line on every drill. He didn’t start a sprint early or late, and he didn’t fail to touch the line by an inch or two on the killers. He completed the drill fully EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. There was no trainer watching at this point. Nobody would know if he were to give himself a slight break, but he didn’t. Not once. He held strong the next day, and the next. While his body might fail, his will seemingly never did, and it made no difference who was or wasn’t present.
While Ajarn may not appear to be watching, he always is, and picks up on things he may not address at the moment he sees them. He speaks limited English, but it’s enough that we can usually understand each other about fight related topics, even if it takes some gestures and rephrasing. As he was putting on his belly pad to hold for Small Heart that same day, he said, in English, “You have a small heart.” Small Heart looked confused. “You have no heart. Weak heart,” Ajarn reiterated, and then proceeded to hold pads for him. Small Heart’s attempt to paint himself larger than he was had clearly been recognized, and Ajarn was letting me know he saw it.
Small Heart was unaware of himself. In his own mind, he’s a ripped fighter who couldn’t train well because of his banged-up shin and rib. He’s very good though, and very important. Look at all the famous fighters he trains with in Thailand. See, they are both sweaty together. It’s on Instagram. He was faster than everyone in camp, you know. He’s a perfect archetype of the poser that can exist in any gym, but really tends to enjoy a place like Thailand. When far away from home, and with no mutual friends, he has complete control of the story told via social media. I’m not actually sure if he’s ever even fought, but you can bet all his friends at home believe he has.
Big Heart, on the other hand, is all substance. Because of it, he makes everyone around him better. I’ve never heard anyone in Thailand suggest that the reason for a person taking a few losses in a row is because that person is too nice to be a fighter. Yet, that very idea gets thrown around a lot in the United States. On the contrary, intelligent empathy can make one very successful. There was a great documentary on Netflix a few years ago about a Siberian trapper. He sagely noted that in order to be a great hunter, one had to understand how the animal being hunted would think and feel. If a hunter could understand how and why an animal acted, he could better predict the best way to catch them. The same is true of fighters, and probably athletes in all head–to–head sports. A person who understands how to build up themselves and teammates will have a better idea of how to break an opponent down. These are two sides of the same coin. As much as we’d like to be unfeeling robots just spouting out moves in a fight, we aren’t, and neither are our opponents. Understanding and manipulating this is as useful a tool, or more so, than any technique.
Big Heart is the hardest working fighter I’ve seen. Period. He doesn’t have a perfect record. He’s starting to hit his stride and has been breaking opponents in one of the most stacked Muay Thai divisions in the world. This pattern is not a happy coincidence, it’s simple cause and effect. When scouting fighters as a matchmaker, they look at not just the sort of athlete a prospect is now, but also the fighter they most likely will become in the following years. Big Heart’s determination, combined with the care and investment of a top-level coach, make him an almost sure bet for a rise to the top. There is evidence that a lot of gyms in the West would’ve discouraged him from fighting early on because of his temperament. Instead, they would have given more of their time and attention to a guy who was better at playing the part, like Small Heart. I often wonder how many Big Hearts our fight scene is missing because of this misperception, and how many Small Hearts we’ve had to endure for the same reason.