The Magic of The Ropes: Fight 269
These are my photographs from Sylvie's 269th fight this week. I only very rarely even get the chance to photograph her fights in a direct way, almost always having to hold the video camera to document the fight itself. I decided to not film the fight - as it was being broadcast on television. I usually live stream all her fights with commentary to Facebook, but I wanted to just have the camera in my hand and touch the fight only in this way. My feeling in fights is often one of paralysis. The mechanism of them rolls forward and there isn't a lot one can do, but there is something magic that happens when you step between the ropes and I wanted to be there in that this time. This fight was special, her first in an absence of 9 months without a fight due to COVID shutdowns and the changing landscape of female fighting in the country. We've always felt that despite fighting more documented pro fights than any female fighter in history, regardless of sport, every single fight is precious. A moment for transformation. This was my experience of being there.
All these photos are available for purchase as prints here (100% non-profit).
above, Sylvie's opponent in the distance. The first squared meeting of everyone, under the PPE tent, fighters getting tested. The fight will occur later that night on a wide swath of field on a Golf & Hotel resort. It feels exposed, open here. The promoter is bragging to the personnel about Sylvie's record as a fighter. When we come to situations like this we are just carefully stepping. We've fought for them before, but lots of changes are being made last minute. Her opponent isn't who they told us she would be, totally unknown to us. They are changing the rounds from 5 to 3 despite promises to the contrary. And they are changing the rules from knockout-or-nothing to points decision. When things start changing like this, one thing after another its red flags, everything feels unsure, especially when fighting rogue. We are trepidacious. But it is also a time of change of Muay Thai in the country due to COVID, so we roll with it. Heads up.
We ride in the van back to the hotel and burn the hours.
above, our Kubrickian room. Muay Thai day fights play on the television. I'm extra sensitive to these squares and cubes on this trip. Everything feels very exposed. We usually rent a car and get our own hotel creating a line of independence. Here though the fight promotion feels swept up. It's just open spaces in which we have little protection, no prediction, and these squares of stability. The hotel room. The ring.
above, this is when the fight begins. After hours of just laying around and the clock emptily ticking Sylvie gets up to start doing her hair. Hair for female fighters is a big deal in fights as if it comes out it it can actually reflect on your visual composure. You can actually lose fights due to hair. I'm seriously overstating it, but presentation and composure is a big portion of Thai scoring, and having it all together is part of this. When Sylvie gets up to do her hair, it's business time. From this point forward there really is no relaxed, carefree moment until we are leaving the venue. And maybe not even then.
The second photograph above catches something that those who have watched Muay Thai in Thailand will know. This commercial and these 4 ladies have been playing during Muay Thai broadcasts for what seem like must be decades. When we see them we imagine that they are quite old now, and no longer the "hot" Elle girls they are in this commercial. This layer of female beauty plays across Thailand's Muay Thai, and there is something of a contrast of them - a commercial from a different era - and Sylvie with her foreign, masculine female beauty being put together in this room. I'm not even sure what it is, but the mirror of Thailand's Muay Thai presents a complex gaze for women, and the history of these four women are part that.
above, fighters gather. It's the walk-through of the promotion. You are called on stage and the announcers read their piece on you as big screen video plays and then you shadow down the runway toward the ring. Sylvie's opponent behind her. Sylvie in her Dieselnoi shirt. She is holding space. She's stood here, like this, many, many times. Already you create your own island of who you are. Already you are fighting the spatial, dignity battle...posture matters.
above, when night falls she'll be seated next to her opponent - on deck - here.
above, Sylvie striding. Already changing the space. This is about will, and the conditioning of the body in small things. This is the first public moment of the fight, stepping onto the practice stage, impressing yourself upon its promotion. It's not about fronting in any way. It's about owning your space, your halo of you, in a world you don't really have much control over. We are not so sure of this opponent or even how the judging of this fight will unfold. These public moments are when you create islands of stability. This really is fighting, even this.
above, record scratch. You hit, but too soon. The promotion now has an English language announcer they never had before. You don't "go" until he speaks after the Thai announcer. Keep it light. Once again.
above, masculinity and The West. One of the things you are always tarrying with is Thai masculinity, because Muay Thai in Thailand is a hypermasculine performance. In an arguable regard, western women fighting in Thailand is a trans- experience - read into the theory of this here. As a woman from another culture you are double-timing your transformation, adopting, conditioning & submitting yourself to the codes of Thai masculine performance. And, in terms of context, you are doing this beside western men who are attempting the same, adopting and adhering to the signatures of the Thai masculine, as men. On this show Western men are performing masculinity in Kard Chuek (a very traditional, manly form of Muay Thai) opposite Thais. Your own endeavors are within this double-bind.
above, Muay Thai is a performance.
above, the show is broadcasting already. These dancers stand like a superhero troop.
above, entering the square composure matters.
Nothing is inconsequential.
In the Siam court in a previous century Muay Thai and dance were very closely related. Kings would entertain and impress dignitaries with traditional female dance troops and male Muay Thai (Boran) fights. Dance would enact mythological battles between gods and demi-demons amid cosmic forces, and fights would express the same. The "reality" of a fight in Thailand lies within this history.
above, yet fighting is personal. Not just cosmic and mythic. The magic of the self is where the two come together. The transformation of one's own through the forms of accepted expression and the hard-wrought knowledge of fighting efficacy. Sylvie begins to wrap her hands in the Kard Chuek fashion, as the dancers are on stage. Read Sylvie's account of this.
We are so far out on a limb on this, it's hard to explain. Westerners come to these kinds of shows under the auspices of a usually powerful or at least weight-bearing gym that negotiates their advantage (opponents, pay, etc). They are taking care of by supplied cornermen, often someone who has trained them. They often are with a team of other fighters. They are part of a retinue. It is an aspect and expression of Thailand's adventure tourism, which then evolves into serious fighting, but always protected. Watched over. Because of who Sylvie is and just how far outside of the established path of what is possible in Thailand - fighting prolifically, and documentedly like no other in history - because she is a woman, she ventures far off the social map to reach for the impossibility of herself: (read about it in 2016 here The Romance of Being a Wandering Fighter).
In this fight, and this prep, it really was pushed further than it probably ever had been before. She not only would not have a corner assigned to her until 20 minutes for she got in the ring, she would not get the traditional oil massage, and would be wrapping her own hands (this, she usually does). Looking at these photos I cannot stress enough just how alone and isolated she is, as teams all around her are preparing their fighters, groups taking care of groups. She's just sitting on the grass, doing her own thing. This is her choice. This is walking where others don't, but it is also quite difficult, psychologically. She has immense experience in it with 260 fights in the country, and it more than helps that she's fluent in Thai so she knows what's being said and what's going on, but as she's wrapping her hands, she is alone. She's free climbing on a rock face socially. The fight has already begun. It began when she started doing her hair in the hotel room. As her husband, watching her climb along this very thin social branch, with her own dignity and way, just pulls on my heart. I almost cannot help her in these situations. She's an astronaut on a tether to a tin can of agreements. Even if you've fought in Thailand, and fought in Thailand a lot, its hard to even know how far out there this is. Thailand is a social world. You have substance in and through the people who are with you. Fighters travel in bands. This is outside the language of Muay Thai.
above, her wraps are done. But magic is about to happen. She begins to unwrap her right hand. It is too tight and her fight is still hours away. The internal tension of isolation often can produce a too-tight wrap, unconsciously, as you bind your hands for the coming ring. She begins to unwrap it, and with it unwrap herself, uncoiling. We are running low on tape. A man who has been quietly watching, a security guard with the promotion, steps forward. He knows none of the fighters there. He is not a corner. But he happens to know magic...literal magic.
above, Sylvie is actually pretty experienced in Kard Chuek rope wraps, having fought in the style more than any western fighter that we know of, 14 times now, and has been taught how to do it. She has been wrapping her own hands for years. But this man knows something more. He shows her a specific pattern that was taught to him when he used to fight Kard Chuek, and as he begins to re-wrap her hands he explains the thinking and practice behind it. It increase blood or nerve flow, and he speaks incantational spells into the ropes as he binds them. More on these kata (spells) here.
He explains that his arjan (master) was taught in the art by a holy arjan who is said to have instructed the legendary magically endowed lawman of the South, Khun Phan. We are in the South, this is a story of purported proximity to magical royalty. Read about Khun Phan here.
Make no mistake. The magic that is happening here is social. There are the beliefs, practices and experience of wicha (knowledge) which may or may not have been passed down from legendary figures in the South, but the real magic is this man coming to Sylvie. It's very hard to convey just how alone she was at this point. She's up for it, to be sure. We've traveled to fight all over Thailand, very often well off the trodden path, with few to no allies in a promotion, but after nine months of fighting hiatus and rules changing all over the place, and no corner is sight, this was quite solitary. The fighter is alone in the ring they say, but they actually enter the ring with all of those that have trained them, and supported them. The fighter pulls them in with them, and ritually the wai-kru and ram muay enacts this promulgation. But here, out before the fight, when everyone is on their mats, this is when you are honing yourself. It meant everything to have this man approach and pass his knowledge onto her, and bind her right hand.
Sylvie was fully prepared to have to stand in her corner alone between rounds during her fight. It was not likely, someone would come. But given how chaotic things felt, you had to be mentally prepared for it. Once the fight is on, whatever happens you adapt. You move and absorb. These are open spaces. You are at sea.
Fortunately, a corner was given. She would not be solitary with the spirits of her krus and the summoning of heritage. She would not be alone in the ring.
She would become a wrecking ball.
above, her opponent Phetrodtang is 19 and had a long string of wins. Had 5 kgs on Sylvie, but it was not a proper match. She was a last minute replacement for an even bigger opponent, and in fact had taken a photograph with Sylvie 4 years ago when Sylvie had fought her first Kard Chuek match, as a fan. Here, she was overwhelmed. Through the chaos of opponent change and sudden rule changes we had no idea what to expect. We've had Thai world champions, even fighting under a fake name, dropped into a fight at the last minute, more than once. You walk into fights like this exposed. But somehow the cosmos feels like it interceded with knowing, and a stranger.
below, more than this. There is a secret sisterhood. Her opponent and Sylvie exchange contacts and would be texting each other at 2 AM because they couldn't sleep that night. Commiserating about their pains and injuries from the fight, and how much they both love Muay Thai. "I love you" she would write in English. Not alone.