Her elbow cut me like a knife and I suddenly became aware of a stream of blood projecting from my left eyebrow. I was the ‘farang’ (or foreign) underdog and the crowd at Sanam Luang roared enthusiastically with every punch, kick, knee or elbow thrown by Jomyutying, the Thai champion.
Our shins clashed – bone on bone. To protect my head from further injury I clinched her neck and threw several knees towards her midriff.
During the fight there was no time for reflection but later, as my trainer stripped the tape and bandages from my hands I considered how much I had changed. My non-athletic, socially inhibited former self would never have imagined that I would be exchanging blows in front of a live audience of 10,000 and countless others on Thai national television.
As a teenager I was shy and studious, attending an all girls’ school near to my home town in Yorkshire. I favoured solitary pursuits such as drawing and painting but had limited interest in school sports, spending compulsory hockey lessons shuffling around at the back of the pitch assiduously trying to avoid the ball. This disinterest in sports continued during my degree course and instead I developed a voracious appetite for vodka and late night binges of chips and pizza. This contrasts sharply with my current diet of wholesome carbohydrate and lean protein sources, fresh fruit and vegetables, and in recent years alcohol has rarely passed my lips. At the start of my PhD in Neuroscience at Newcastle University I resolved to lose weight and was drawn by chance to a Muay Thai class at a local community centre. I was hooked from day one, experiencing, for the first time, the rewarding surge of endorphins induced by exercise. I was intrigued by the cultural aspects of the sport such as the wearing of the ‘mongkon’ on the head for protection in the ring and the performing of the ‘wai kru’ dance to pay respect to one’s teachers. At this early stage, I never envisaged I would compete in a ring let alone come to be living the life of a professional Thai boxer.
My opponent was two kilogrammes lighter than me at the weigh-in and shorter in stature but vastly more experienced in the Thai boxing ring with at least 50 more bouts to her record. To counteract her height deficit she dived for my waist. I managed to maintain my balance then continued to throw knees, my most effective weapon.
My PhD involved researching forms of dementia including Parkinson’s Disease, the disorder that afflicts boxing hero Mohammed Ali. I have detailed knowledge of neurological dysfunctions; of cognitive impairments, sensory and motor deficits, yet am willing to expose myself to potential brain trauma in the boxing ring. But cases of severe head injury in Thai boxing are rare and, statistically, I would be at greater risk of experiencing serious head trauma if I participated in activities such as cycling, football, horse-riding, water sports, basketball and gymnastics.
Over the next four years my enthusiasm for Thai boxing flourished and I began to make plans to venture to Thailand to experience authentic Muay Thai training. In June 2006, my PhD complete and with my life savings in hand, I landed in Bangkok.
The bell rang for the break after the second round. My trainer pressed a towel to my wound, saturating it with blood, and thickly applied Vaseline. Ice cold water was poured into my mouth and hurriedly rubbed into my limbs. The referee signalled that the end of the break was imminent. I was hoisted off my stool, my gum shield was thrust back in my mouth and all too soon the bell resounded for the start of round three.
My first experience of a Thai Muay Thai gym left me exhilarated and bewildered; my senses bombarded with input. My olfactory sensors were immediately activated by the decongesting aroma of liniment and the musty scent of old leather equipment. Visual stimuli included multi-coloured shorts emblazoned with illustrative Thai script, muscular torsos, glistening in the sunlight with sweat, and framed photographs and newspaper cuttings, scattering the gym walls. I was the sole female, a curiosity, and the boxers’ eyes fixed on me as I began to shadow box, assessing my capabilities. As the training session progressed my pain receptors were increasingly stimulated by abrasive floor surfaces and the impact of my unconditioned limbs on hard bags and pads. Furthermore, my auditory system was startled by a cacophony of sounds. Thai boxers uninhibitedly release noise during training as this aids exhalation and thus increases striking force. My new colleagues emanated a range of sounds, reminiscent of snarling tigers, growling dogs, revving engine motors or deranged laughter. I rapidly became accustomed to these initially strange practices and, accordingly, the other boxers became familiar with my presence in the gym. I immersed myself in the culture with aims to prepare for fighting.
The mid-afternoon heat was stifling and my mouth felt parched. A sharp right cross from Jomyutying rocked my head backwards. Blood began to seep from the Vaseline-smeared cut. The, mainly male, crowd of voyeurs were thrilled by the action and cheered gleefully. We ended up once again in the clinch.
Fight training in Thailand involves many hours of exertion. At my current gym in Bangkok (Eminent Air Boxing Gym) morning training sessions commence with a ten to twelve kilometre run. This distance is completed running back and forth the length of a soi, strategically trying to avoid the heaps of excrement from the many stray dogs that inhabit the area. Running is followed by twenty to thirty minutes of clinching during which boxers practice the close contact knee and grappling techniques. For most foreigners, this is an exercise in staying upright. The Thais find great amusement in seeing our cumbersome bodies hit the ring canvas and even the smallest of boys can sweep me off my feet with one deft movement. After clinching, five minute rounds on the pads with a trainer ensue, practising kick, punch, knee and elbow techniques with full power. This is the most physically demanding part of the session leaving me drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. Further time is spent striking solid leather bags, sparring and lifting weights. This regime is repeated to higher intensities in the afternoons and the routine is completed six days a week with Sundays as rest days.
And so, two months into my Thailand experience and on the Queen’s Birthday 2006 came my high profile appearance at the S-1 Championship: an 8 woman elimination tournament, contracted weight 54kg. The venue the royal grounds Sanam Luang, my opponent Jomyutying Kiat Nor Vor, widely regarded as the number one female Muay Thai fighter in Thailand.
We were locked in the clinch. Both of us were fatigued and had ceased to knee. ‘Yut!’, – the referee broke us apart, a momentary respite. Then, all too quickly, he shouted ‘Chok!’, – the instruction to resume fighting.
I’m often asked why, as a woman, I subject myself to the daily rigours of training and the pressure of competition. Bruises, blisters, swellings and strained muscles are standard training injuries and I am rarely without some degree of pain. I experience nerves every time I compete but have no fear of pain or injury. My fear is of failure; of underperforming on the occasion and disappointing those that have invested time and effort in my progress. My rewards are not financial. Although female Muay Thai (or Muay Ying) is gaining credibility women’s fight purses remain a fraction of the men’s. My purse has ranged from just £20 for a bout in Chiang Mai to around £250 for a world title fight in Australia. Some male fighters can command fees worth thousands of pounds. In Thailand there is a further double standard in that women are forbidden to touch certain rings (including those at Lumpini and Rajadamnern stadiums) as it is deemed unlucky. Those we are allowed to compete in must be entered under the bottom rope, never climbing over the ropes. Although I disagree with this in principle, I am a guest in Thailand and must therefore accept and respect its traditions.
It is difficult to define what really drives me. I thrive on the daily challenges of training and pushing my body to its physical limits. There is no greater thrill than competing in front of a crowd and nothing stimulates my brain’s reward centre more than winning a fight. But such is the level of commitment required for fighting that I make sacrifices to my social life, to a working career and to relationships. I am currently single and with so many hours spent in the gym it is not easy to find the time to meet a partner, especially someone not involved in Muay Thai. My desire to train and fight is only tested by judging decisions I believe to have been incorrect or unfair. Due to the subjective nature of Muay Thai judging most fighters, at some point in their careers, experience an unjust decision.
This happened to me most recently at the 2008 King’s birthday fights, Sanam Luang, where I lost on points to my Thai opponent Praewa Sor Penprapa. The gambling spectators, convinced I was the winner, were so incensed by the judges’ decision that they jeered loudly, throwing water bottles, beer cans and other objects into the ring. In Thailand, more so than in western countries, gambling is integral to the sport adding a further dimension of excitement. Individual bets are placed ringside and at some major events the competing gyms gamble equal stakes on their fighters. My recent fight at Sanam Luang was a 200,000 baht gambling bout, my manager risking 100,000 baht on the outcome of the fight. If my former self would not have foreseen me fighting she would never have envisaged that the gain or loss of such a large sum of money would be determined by my performance in a ring!
It was midway through round three. Aware I was behind on points I aggressively threw a series of knees. Jomyutying landed another strike to my left eye and, within seconds, my rich, red blood was spurting viciously across the pristine, white ring canvas. The referee gestured for the bout to end. I disappointedly left the ring and the doctor sewed five stitches into my eyebrow. To this day the markings of the wound are still evident, just another scar for the trophy case.