In the middle of the ring, I look into my Thai opponent’s eyes before the referee signals the beginning of the first round. There is in them an unpleasant mixture of violence, anger, resolve and fear. Only once before have I been looked upon with such a strange animal expression by another human being, and I fail to understand it. Much more experienced, the other fighter gives me no time to think, and push-kicks me powerfully in the stomach – off balance and out of control over my mental and physical faculties. It really hurts. I briefly recognize the state I am in as shock; then, my mind takes the back seat, and I watch, a a passive spectator, how I am being chased around the ring, kicked, punched and pushed. Any accidental resistance I am able to put up against this wave of violence and pain is but vaguely reminiscent of the beautiful Muay Thai techniques my trainers have been working so hard to teach me. I am an absolute mess.
When the first two-minute round is over, I walk to the red corner and sit down for a rest. I am not breathing. My corner team is right beside me: advising, stretching, massaging… Unfortunately, I hardly hear their advice on the fight strategy. What strategy? I have no control over my body or mind! As my fevered gaze wanders around, I catch glimpses of the eyes watching me in the audience. There are grins, smirks, yawns and expressions of curiosity and boredom. I feel like a zoo animal in a cage, being teased and poked with sticks for the pleasure of whomever has paid the entrance fee. I want to leave, to jump over the bars of that cage and to run to the summit of the world’s remotest, coldest mountain, where there would be no ‘humans’, where I could forget that I am one of them, too. As the bell calls for the start of the second round, I rise from the chair, on the brink of a breakdown, and head back to the middle of the ring. ‘Fight!’
As a confusing array of thoughts flashes across my mind, I realize that the Thai fighter and I are clinching. I am trying to ‘knee’ but ican’t really tell whether or not I am being successful. Fortunately, I become aware of the fact that my arms are a lot stronger than the other girl’s, and, oh, I have elbows, too! An elbow to the back of my opponent’s head breaks the ugly clinch, which she won’t attempt to go into again. This minor ‘success’ marks the end of the second round and the beginning of my return to the here and the now. Back in my corner, I try to breathe and to avoid looking into my trainers’ eyes. I am embarrassing myself ‘fighting’ as I am, but that is not what hurts. What does, is that they have to stand behind me as I do so. I feel terrible about disappointing them so, and wish I could find a way to pull myself out of this state of shock and to do at least something out of what I’ve been taught.
In Muay Thai fights in Thai stadiums only the last three rounds are scored. Thus, walking into the center of the ring for my third round of public humiliation, I tell myself this: ‘You have exactly two minutes to figure out why you won’t fight for yourself. Why do you hate yourself this much? Whom do you hate? Find her, deal with her, and then do what you can to stand up to that other person in the ring, your actual opponent.’
It is a dire, horrifying thing to do: to be half-naked, ugly, beaten up in the ring, in front of an audience of uncaring spectators, every thing that you abhor and fear about yourself exposed. Every weakness, every monster, every haunting memory gather in front of you like a wall separating your mind from reality, a wall which can’t be breached. The weaknesses are so pathetic, the monsters – so enormous, and the memories – so soul-crushing that seeing them all at once is paralyzing. You feel insignificant and helpless standing before them while they ridicule you. As I struggle to push through this wall, I find myself on the canvas after my opponent had caught my right kick and thrown me down. ‘You must still have another minute,’ I tell myself, jumping back to my feet as fast as I can and moving forward. ‘Why won’t you fight?‘ Behind the thinning wall of nightmares, I see why, I see her – my 15-year old self. She sits by the sea on a long, empty stretch of beach near Sousse in Tunisia. The day is grey and moody; the sand is white; the water is cool – it is low season. Something bad had just happened to her, and she, like I am now, is in shock. She can’t find the love or the compassion to rise from the sand, and so she finds something else: self-hatred. The girl at the beach never had a chance and couldn’t stand up for herself. I have, I can.
The third round is over, and the red corner is abuzz again. I hear and understand them; still, I can’t do what they ask because my body is stuck in shock mode. At least – at last – I can breathe. I believe, I will loose the fight on points, but, strangely enough, the thought is a liberating one. Now that I have probably lost the match but found my answers, I can go and ‘practice’ in a more relaxed manner. At the beginning of the fourth round I throw a low kick which clearly hurts my opponent, and later knock her down. Although she gets back up, and I am still mostly on my back foot, I keep kicking until the end of the round. Suddenly, fighting feels fine if not easy.
‘You win already,’ my corner say to me as I prepare for my final three minutes in the ring. Half-smiling at the man who tells me what I see as a very bad lie, I am tempted to ask how stupid he thinks I am. However, I say nothing and simply walk back out there to finish the messy job. My opponent starts strong, yet I manage to check all her kicks and kick back quickly; soon, she is tired. As the round ends, I land my last double body-kick with the ring of the bell. I am relieved and pleased to have survived this fight against myself without running away or getting knocked out – because it was just me I was fighting, and ‘just me’ is quite a handful! Preparing to congratulate my Thai opponent on her win, I feel that it is my hand that is being raised in victory. ‘The winner is… the fighter in the red corner, Mila from Russia…’ Excuse me?
I give my reluctant opponent a hug, salute her corner and head down to my own in flabbergasted embarrassment. ‘Why am I the winner?’ I ask my boxing trainer, bewildered. Apparently, I was able to deliver more kicks and knees, checked most of my the Thai fighter’s kicks and looked stronger than her in the last decisive rounds. ‘But it was ugly! I fought badly!’ I am pulled away to take pictures and get my hands unwrapped before my trainer can answer. ‘You did well enough to win,’ he says to me over the crowd and the noise.
I look and feel happy that I fought, but the victory feels undeserved. I am so deeply ashamed of my performance that my thank you’s and good-bye’s to the team come across as hurried and cold. I can apologize and thank them properly later, but now I must limp back to the hotel. There, still shivering in shock, I shower, eat, and try to cry it out. I sit and wait for the tears to come, icing my very tender right shin and ‘bad’ knee, but my eyes remain dry. It must be because the 15-year old girl whom I turned into in the ring is now well and truly gone. No, I didn’t suddenly fall in love with myself or my body after the fight. However, I did gain a new respect and gratitude for ‘me’: the amount of physical and emotional punishment which I have taught myself to take and get over is greater than that 15 year-old girl could ever have imagined. I wonder if she would be proud of me… or scared.
‘How does it feel, to fight someone?’ a friend asks me on Skype. I can’t sleep and enjoy hearing a voice I love.
‘It is nothing like training or sparring. At all. But I don’t actually know what it is like – I was fighting myself all along,’ I reply honestly.
‘And you won, right?’
‘I did – but just for tonight.’
‘I have Muay Thai fight tonight.’ Her fingers freeze, entangled in the long hair for a second as she reexamines my face armed with new information.
‘You? Fight?’ Here we go… I can’t help laughing when the lady asks me to flex my arm muscles. The result of the strength test of the same seems to be satisfactory, but my interlocutor is still doubtful.
‘You fight before?’ she presses on.
‘No. First time.’ And once again, her hands stop moving. Her expression is this of genuine concern while, in a lowered voice, she tells me that with a face like that – ‘it is very kind; too kind’ – one cannot fight and certainly cannot win.
‘Mai bpen rai, I cover the face when fight,’ I reply, ‘no problem!’
When her job on my hair is done and before I slide open the door into the bazaar, the salon owner wishes me good luck for the fight. ‘You very brave,’ says she.
Stepping back into the sticky afternoon heat of the rainy season, I check my watch: it’s just after 2 pm. The fights at the Kalare Stadium will not start until nine in the evening, and I am already drained by the very real anxiety of pretending to be ‘very brave’. I woke up in the morning with my stomach, neck and that proverbial face covered in the ugliest stress rash that no amount of makeup would conceal. Fortunately, there is no pain, fever, itching or other symptoms to go with the red spots, so my physical strength will not be compromised. However, my confidence certainly will be – and I don’t have any confidence to spare. As the day drags on, and more and more unwelcome, unkind thoughts make an appearance in spite of my attempts to keep them at bay, I feel both my body and mind stiffen up and grow heavy. When I open my eyes after a long meditation session, the first thing I realize is that it is impossible to fight for somebody you hate, and that means I’m loosing tonight.
At 5 pm I have my last pre-fight meal with a friend who’s just arrived from the town where we train to cheer on me. She notices immediately that I am not the same person she said good-bye to the day before. In vain she tries to help me turn back into my usual strong and stubborn self: no magic happens, but it is time to get going. On our way to the stadium we spot a car with the fight poster on the side, Muay Thai music blasting from the loudspeakers.
‘That’s you there,’ she points at my photo, ‘this is really happening!
‘It is – and it doesn’t seem real,’ I mumble back.
Mine is the last fight of the night. In a feverish, scattered mental state I get ready for it a few meters away from the brightly lit ring: my hands are wrapped; my arms and legs are massaged with vaseline and boxing oil; I stretch, shadowbox, revise the Wai Khru Ram Muay, try to watch my friend’s fights and cheer but cannot bear to be in the audience; people talk to me, touch me, take photos; my opponent comes over to shake hands: she is smaller, very pretty, and flinches at my handshake – she’s not nearly as strong as I. Soon, the 4th fight of the night is over as my gym mate from Canada delivers a low kick KO to his heavier Thai opponent. And then, my corner team come for me.
‘Are you ready?’ my boxing trainer asks.
‘Are you ready?’ he reconfirms.
I crawl into the ring and look around me. The red corner has solid support: the owner of my gym and my boxing trainer are there to advise me, three of our young Thai fighters will help between the rounds, at the foot of the ring are my two lovely Swedish friends, who believe in me so much it hurts, and in the audience – quite a few of my gym mates. To the sound of their happy and encouraging cheers I perform the wai khru boxing ‘dance’, and, returning to the red corner, have my mongkol removed by the owner of the gym. Him and my boxing trainer quickly wish me good luck, and the bell rings.