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Muay Thai, Anton Tabuena

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From Writing to Fighting: Second Round

In the last of this two-part series, BloodyElbow.com’s Anton Tabuena details his experiences fighting at the 2016 Philippine National Muay Thai Championships.

Don Tabuena

This is Part 2 of our feature ‘From Writing to Fighting’. Part 1 can be found here.

5 a.m.: The familiar siren blares and I slowly drag myself up. I turn on the lights and see that my right ankle is even more swollen. The toe on my left has turned from purple to a maroon-ish shade.

I notice that it’s not just one, but two toes that are swollen and are probably badly sprained. Just touching them is painful, and actually moving and walking is even worse.

I slowly hobble around and grab my phone to call my coach.

“I can’t really walk,” I tell him in Filipino. “I don’t think I can fight today, but I’ll obviously still go with you since you’re competing.”

Muay Thai, ice bag
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We get to the venue, and just walking up this steep hill towards the arena is a real chore. Standing up is like picking my own poison; which busted up leg will I put weight on now?

Man, how can these National Team fighters compete 3 to 4 times to get gold?

My coach lines up for medicals and weigh-ins, and I do the same. I’m already here, so I might as well complete these too.

I ever so slowly remove my clothes and limp towards the scale.

“Your parents worked so hard to give you a good education, but you still decided to fight, huh?” an official quips, seeing me struggling to get on the scale.

I laugh, but at the same time, her statement makes me think about the differences in motivation. It must be completely separate worlds having someone do this for fun, compared to those who were led in this path because it was one of the very few options to try and make a living.

“62.8 kg,” the official says. I guess I gained that .5 kilos from the celebratory buffalo wings and animal style fries last night.

muay thai, weight
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I check the brackets to see who’s matched up against me, and immediately notice my opponent had a ‘bye’ from the first round. That means he’s advanced without competing, and will be coming in to this round fresh.

I see that he comes from a respected MMA team here, so I do a quick Google search on his name. No online records on Sherdog or Tapology. That doesn’t necessarily mean he hasn’t fought, but maybe I can take solace that he at least hasn’t competed professionally with the bigger MMA orgs in the country.

None of that will matter if I can’t walk though.

My coach and I try to rest before the fights start. I’m icing my injuries, but his friend says he could probably help make it feel better. He tweaks and massages my toes and ankles in a painful process more accurately called “hilot” in Filipino.

I take a nap right after, then decide to check social media. I’ve been honest and open about being unsure about continuing, but it’s interesting to suddenly see motivational messages from respected personalities in the local MMA scene.

“Let the adrenaline kick in & your mind take over. Go get 'em!!!” a former URCC champion writes.

“Suck it up bro. Your mind controls your body,” a BJJ black belt and MMA promoter tweets, with two thumbs up emojis.

We slowly walk back to the venue to get ready for my coach’s bout.

I see my opponent from yesterday helping organize things for the event. I come over and say hi, cracking a joke about how we’re both limping now.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure this hurts more,” he says with a laugh, pointing to his bandaged thigh.

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My coach is mainly a boxer, but he has experience in Muay Thai as well. He’s gone 3-0 with all stoppages to take gold in an earlier iteration of this same tournament, so quite a few fighters here are familiar with his capabilities.

We find out that he’s facing a former National Team member who has started a switch over to MMA. They say he has been training in Phuket. I look over and see him in an AKA Thailand sweater.

My coach starts shadowboxing on the sidelines, warming up with my other cornerman from yesterday. I notice his opponent staring at him intently from the opposite side of the arena.

Muay Thai

Once their fight starts, my coach immediately eats several hard knees from the Thai plum. It becomes clear they had very distinct advantages on each other. This opponent has far better technique in the clinch and much stronger kicks, while my coach is better at controlling distance and miles better with his hands.

After losing the first round, they go back and forth on the next two. My coach has been timing kicks with quick straights and overhands, and seems to stun him multiple times. I keep trying to cheer and shout from the sidelines. I’m asking him to continue on to try and finish, but he just isn’t able to follow up after landing big. I figure those knees to the body have sapped a lot of his energy. He’s throwing fewer combinations as the fight goes on.

In the end, he loses a close decision. I think he could’ve won if it was similar to MMA scoring, but the result isn’t surprising as Muay Thai rules favor knees, kicks and elbows over punches.

He comes over and says those knees in the very start of the fight really hurt him. I tell him to keep his head up. Not many would’ve survived that, let alone come back to make things interesting.

After his fight, there are only three bouts left before I’m scheduled to enter the ring. I think adrenaline is kicking in. My feet aren’t as painful, and I am able to move again.

F—k it. I’m here. I’m doing this.

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Muay Thai Don Tabuena

I grab my cup and mouthpiece, put on the uniform, and I start stretching. Like yesterday, I leave my ID at the booth, and the blue corner fight gear is given to me. I start to warm up.

Holy shit, I can actually move.

My coach tapes my toes together and I head inside the ring.

This opponent is shorter than the guy I faced yesterday, but he’s much wider. We touch gloves, and it’s on.

Like yesterday, I feint with my left leg, and he reacts by throwing an inside leg kick at it. I counter it with a hard leg kick and I step back and reset.

That didn’t hurt my ankle. This is good.

I throw it again. The kick lands, but he catches it after and trips me to the ground.

I throw a jab and a body kick, and he catches it again. I manage to break off, and he’s pressuring as I try to reset. We trade leg kicks. He lands a punch and we end up in a clinch. He doesn’t score, but I get an idea of how he feels inside.

I throw a push kick and shortly after, he manages to clinch again. I tie him up to the ropes and the referee breaks us up.

Damn, this guy is strong.

I feint and land a hard leg kick that he tries to catch. We end up in a clinch again and all I do is turn him to the ropes and tie him up. I decide I’m not even going to try and strike, since it’s risky battling against someone that much stronger inside.

After a brief exchange, he lands a solid shot directly at my groin. I go down from the pain. The ref starts counting like it was a knockdown. I rush to stand even if it hurts like hell. I am pissed off.

Again?? Why the hell am I not getting proper time to recover from fouls?

I shake my cup a few times. I try to calm down, breathe, and not to think about it again.

I land a kick to his leg, then another one to his head. I’m not sure if it is just because my shins are busted up from yesterday, but I feel a hard thud after I hit the top of his head. He just pushes forward and lands a leg kick on me.

I felt that hard on my shin. That should’ve hurt, but he didn’t even bat an eye. Shit.

I dodge two kicks, and he continues to press forward. He lands a leg kick, I counter with two punches. He reacts and lands another leg kick.

I throw a leg kick that he catches, and instead of going for a Muay Thai trip, he basically turns it into a single leg takedown attempt. I grab a Thai plum since he has both arms on my leg, and I land a knee to the body.

I feint and throw a right kick that he briefly catches, then he follows up with two punches to my head. He catches another kick, and turns it into a trip.

I’m getting really predictable. He’s catching everything I throw on the right side. But if I throw a left kick and hit with my injured toes, the fight will be over. F—k.

I jab, and then I still decide to throw a push kick with my left leg. I feint, switch, and throw another push kick, this time to his thigh. He answers with a leg kick. He lands another one, and the bell rings.

“I think I lost that round,” I tell my coach.

“Don’t even think about that!” he responds. “Control the distance and don’t clinch with him.”

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We touch gloves and Round 2 starts. We exchange, and I score with a body kick and a right hook, but he lands a leg kick. He catches another kick, and we end up in a clinch that the referee eventually breaks up.

My legs are getting heavy.

I’m not moving properly, and I somehow just fall into another clinch. Not many strikes are landed, but he’s still trying to out muscle and wear me out inside.

He throws a leg kick without any set up. I see it coming, but it still lands. I’m pissed at myself for that.

I land a kick but he catches it, and easily throws me to the ground.

I feel like I don’t have the mobility and reactions I did yesterday. I try to move around and shake things off. I dodge a leg kick and he follows up with a head kick that’s partially blocked, but still hits my ear.

I’m fine, but I try to get it back with a head kick of my own. He dodges it and waves his arms, signaling that he saw that coming.

I check a leg kick, block a body kick, and move away from another leg kick.

I am seeing these strikes, but why can’t I react well and counter these properly? F—k.

He throws a push kick that I catch and counter with a leg kick. I try to move away and reset, but he’s already landed a harder leg kick of his own.

Shit, my legs really aren’t moving and responding how I want it.

He lands another leg kick. Another.

That one really hurt. I can’t even hide it and stop grimacing. Why can’t I move and check these properly?? F—k!

He’s pushing forward aggressively now. I finally check a leg kick. He begins to lift his leg to throw another strike and I kick back at it. I step back and then block an incoming spinning kick.

Man, he knows he’s really winning to even attempt that.

The bell rings.

I’m walking over to my corner, disappointed at that round, then I see my coach jump up on the mat and start waving his arms.

Is he really calling it off? F—k. F—k!

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“I’m stopping it. Don’t get mad at me, Anton,” he says.

I’m not.

The disappointment is starting to sink in, even if I understand he’s just out to protect me. I was down on the scorecards, and I figure he knew I wasn’t going to be able to get a knockout in the third round.

I’m sure he just didn’t want me to get hurt or to make these injuries worse, but I still don’t quite know how to react to the situation.

He removes my headgear, and I walk over to the opposing corner to congratulate them. I am upset at myself, but he really did a good job beating me and I let them know I am thankful for the opportunity.

I step out of the ring and sit next to my coach. I am so sad and frustrated at how I performed. I want to throw this water bottle.

“Don’t feel bad. You really impressed me by getting in there,” my coach tells me. “That took real courage. That made me proud.”

While I truly appreciate the heartfelt words, it doesn’t help change how I feel right now.

All the emotions are rushing in and I don’t know how to deal with it with a bunch of people around. They go on to watch their friend compete in the other ring. I stay behind.

I’m disappointed, frustrated, upset, and a myriad of other things. I want to cry. I want to scream.

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The magical effects of adrenaline are no more, and I’m slowly limping back down the hill to my car. The pain on my ankle and toes are all back and worse than ever, but it somehow still doesn’t feel as bad as the disappointment in myself.

I told my coach I would charge my phone, and they should just meet me in the car after watching the fights. Honestly, I just wanted to be alone for a bit. I text a few people about the result, and then I sit on the driver’s seat, mulling everything over for what feels like forever.

Like many times these past few weeks, I think about Josh Samman again. He was always easy to talk to, and really would’ve been the perfect person to randomly message about these situations.

I stare into nothingness and try to replay every sequence in my head.

I’m still upset about the loss, but I’m slowly starting to get a better appreciation of all the experiences I’ve had in the past two days.

Not only did I achieve my goal of fighting, I did it twice, back-to-back; and at the National Championships too. I’m beginning to treasure being able to feel both the highs and the lows in the sport, even if I only manage to be part of it for a short amount of time.

I’ve always wanted to know how the people I’ve been covering for years actually feel in these specific scenarios. Today, I’m glad I received even a small taste of it.

Perhaps more importantly, I also got to answer a lot of questions and learn more about myself.

My thoughts are interrupted when I hear a knock on my door. It’s time to drive back home.

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Three days later, and I briefly see myself in the news. While I kind of wish they showed the bout that I won instead, this did bring a smile to my face.

Apparently my opponent went on to win gold in the division as well.

muay thai, news

My shins and thighs are still bruised up, and the more serious injuries haven’t healed. Walking still isn’t a pleasant experience just yet, but I do know that I would never trade any of this for the world.

I bring myself to slowly walk up the stairs to the gym, carrying this bag that makes a clanking noise with each step. I greet the coaches and meet a few of the students who are there late. They ask how my legs feel. I just smile, shrug my shoulders and hand over the bag of bottles. I still can’t train, but I can start celebrating the holidays.

After weeks without it, I finally crack open a cold beer.

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[ From Writing to Fighting: Opening Round | Second Round ]

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