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From Writing to Fighting: Thailand, Part 2

In part two of this series, Bloody Elbow’s Managing Editor, Anton Tabuena faces off against his Thai opponent.

Sophie Reyes
This is a follow up to From Writing to Fighting: Thailand, Part 1

Music is blasting, and I hear some cheers as I make my walk through the crowd.

With my team around me, I kneel and bow down as I reach the steps of the famed Bangla Stadium ring. I’ve always wanted to fight Muay Thai in Thailand, and I’m taking a moment to really soak this all in.

I head up the stairs, and my coach, Topnoi, is already holding down the ropes for me.

I touch the top rope with both arms out wide, then bow into a prayer pose. I slide my gloves back out, then back into a prayer pose again. I do this three times—as Thai tradition typically dictates—before jumping over the top rope and finally entering the ring.

I take the center, look at the judges and officials, and slowly bow towards each of the four sides of the ring.

As my brother removes my kimono, I hear the ring announcer’s distinct voice.

In the red corner, from Bangtao Muay Thai and MMA, Anton!

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A small group of musicians start playing traditional Muay Thai music from the bleachers, signaling the start of our Wai Kru.

My opponent and I both slowly circle the ropes as we seal the edges of the ring. I take my time, bowing and tapping on each corner post before putting my fist up towards the crowd.

I walk closer to the middle of the ring, ever so slowly circling the area three times, while shaking my arms and trying to loosen up. I kneel at the very center. I’ve lost sight of my opponent, but if we’re both going to do this now, I want to take the best spot.

Random gamesmanship, I guess.

Sophie Reyes

Left hand down. Right hand down. Bow. Right hand up. Left hand up. Lean back up.

Two more times.

I want to make sure I give respect to Thailand’s traditions, so I’ve practiced this all a few days ago.

Left knee up. Lunge forward. Bounce the back leg. Lunge back down.

One more time on the other side.

I slowly stand, lifting and turning my right knee outwards—the same motion as checking a kick, but a lot slower and more deliberate. I do the same on my left leg. I repeat this with each step going closer towards my corner as the ritual nears its end.

I didn’t get to warm up, but at least I’m getting a decent stretch.

I look over to the blue corner. I’ve been so focused on doing my own thing, but it seems like my opponent ended his Wai Kru a lot earlier. He’s been waiting on me again.

Unintentional gamesmanship, I guess.

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Sophie Reyes

The referee calls us both to the center to give final instructions.

We’re face to face, up close for the first time. I calmly look into his eyes. I don’t care at all about any intimidation tactics, but I’m trying to get a read on his demeanor and use this opportunity to properly size him up.

My brother was right. We really are roughly the same height, and he seems to have a wider frame. This will probably be my first fight without a reach advantage, but it doesn’t really matter now.

I just have to be better, period.

My opponent offers to touch gloves. I oblige.

We walk back to our corners one last time.

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“Hands together and close your eyes,” Kru Beer gives a final prayer, then removes the Monkol on my head.

He gives me a sip of water, my mouthpiece, and some final advice.

“Just stay relaxed, find your timing,” he tells me.

“Get respect, then find your flow state,” Paolo says.

“Be first,” Topnoi tells me.

It’s all abbreviated reminders of what we long discussed in training. We want to find a clean shot early, which could allow me to dictate the pace and get him biting on my feints more.

I enjoy setting traps, but I won’t be able to flow and be tricky unless I get that respect.

I rotate and stretch my arms one last time.

The bell rings, and we’re off.

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I extend my arm and offer to touch gloves. He reaches out and taps it.

“Use this round to warm up,” I hear my brother say.

My opponent immediately fires a right head kick, which I dodge easily by leaning back. I smirk at him.

He aggressively throws a push kick. I parry it with my left and crack him with a right hook to the body.

That’ll make you hesitate to come in like that.

Nope. He just throws a right hand with all his weight, so I slip to the side and throw two counters.

He still doesn’t take a step back. He throws an even wilder right hand. I see it coming and try to roll with the punch, but it still lands. My back is on the ropes, and he just slings a flurry of punches!

I block most of them, but I feel a left hook connect on me clean. I pivot and crack him with a big right straight. I see sweat flying off his head.

Surely that shot will make him pause at least.

Nope. He’s right back to throwing flurries, trying to knock me out with each shot. I slip, stiff arm, and side step, exploding out of that corner with more urgency. He immediately presses forward and doesn’t let up.

Push kick, more bombs.

What the hell? I thought Thais normally start slow.

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I clinch him up to try and slow his frantic pace, but I remain defensive from here. I’m observing what he wants to do, and how good he is on the inside. I really don’t want to get cut from elbows or concede points from throws.

The referee separates us, and my legs suddenly feel heavy, like I’m walking in sand and dragging around ankle weights. It’s the same feeling as the time I fought without warming up.

It’s fine. You’ve been here before.

“Elbows from there!” I hear my corner yell. I nod, but I’m still trying to observe his clinch game.

As we reset, I immediately fake a punch and crack him with a leg kick. It lands flush, and it turns his body.

That must’ve hurt.

He lands a punch during another flurry and I clinch up again. He lands a knee to my side, but I reverse and turn him to the ropes until the referee breaks us up.

No sweep or elbow attempts again.

Sophie Reyes

I use the same setup. Fake right hand, then a hard low kick. He reacts the same way, so I pivot and slip out to dodge his right hand.

I tie him up. Before he can react, I crack him with a solid elbow that slams his head back.

He still just immediately charges forward, and I’m starting to get annoyed.

What will it take to get this guy to slow down?

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As he charges in, I counter with a body shot.

If your chin is this strong, maybe you’re more vulnerable elsewhere.

We clinch again, and we each land a knee before we’re broken up.

I know he’s going to rush forward, so I throw a front kick to the body to stop his forward motion and follow up with a low kick. He still walks forward, so I crack him again with another leg kick that turns his body.

More of the same after, fake jab, hard leg kick. He throws a body kick and I catch and counter with two shots. That right hand sends his sweat flying again.

Are you still not going to stop?!

“Topic!” I hear my brother yell. That’s code Paolo and I have for a specific sweep we like from Muay Thai star Ognjen Topic.

I land a right hand then try to kick out his lead leg just as he steps forward. The move is perfect for ultra aggressive opponents like this, but it doesn’t quite land properly.

I set up another leg kick, then land an elbow as he clinches. The bell rings to end the first round.

He never stopped moving forward. This is really pissing me off.

Sophie Reyes
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Topnoi takes my mouthpiece and gives me a sip of water the moment I get to the corner.

“You see everything he’s doing, right? So why are you inside brawling?!” Paolo says. He clearly isn’t happy, and he knows I’m fighting out of character.

Topnoi asks me to take three long deep breaths. He then blows on my right ear. He does the same on my left.

Is he making sure all my airways are clear? I don’t really feel tired, but that was completely new to me.

“Fight hard and show me heart, okay?” With his tone, it’s clear Topnoi is trying to pump me up, before proceeding with technical advice. He asks me to throw more elbows.

“Hands up, watch, and counter hard!”

Topnoi makes me do three more deep breaths, before stretching both of my legs.

“He’s just trying to brawl. You don’t need to stay in there,” Paolo says. “There’s so many openings if you just watch him!”

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The bell rings to start round two, and we meet in the center.

I start by feinting with a weak inside leg kick to draw out a reaction. As I see him start to move in, I counter with a big body shot. I put my weight on it and slam my fist on his midsection. We both land, but I know mine was far cleaner.

I see him grimace and he drops to the floor.

He quickly gets back up, and the referee motions us to continue.

Shouldn’t you count that as a knockdown?

It doesn’t matter. He’s tough, but I now know he’s human.

Sophie Reyes
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I feint again and see a brief sign of hesitation for the first time. I throw a hard leg kick that twists his body. He still isn’t in a position to defend, so I quickly double up with another leg kick. Another.

The third hard shot to his leg finally forces him to move, and he just rushes in with another flurry. One of them hits me in the face, but I smile after seeing some frustration as I circle out of danger. He’s still wildly chasing after me, so I stop and meet him with a straight right hand.

I clinch and crack him with a right elbow. I adjust my arms to get a full Thai plum, turn him to the ropes and land a knee to his side.

After what I’ve seen, I’m done being defensive in the clinch.

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I see a straight right hand coming so I dip to the side and crack him to the body.

I clinch and try to toss him down to score points, but the ropes catch him. I throw a punch to the body and an elbow to the head.

He grabs on with all his might to prevent another elbow. It’s annoying that he’s just waiting for the referee to save him. I’m not in a position to strike, so I just shove my forearm to his neck and push his head backwards over the ropes. I keep him in this uncomfortable position until the referee gives him the reset he wanted.

That was petty, but if he wants an ugly fight, I’ll give it to him.

I immediately push forward after the restart, and throw a big superman punch.

It lands flush.

Sweat flies off as it turns his head, and I hear the crowd scream.

I can normally block everything out apart from my cornermen, but it’s my first time hearing cheers this loud. I catch myself mentally “taking pictures” and enjoying my work, missing a split second chance to follow up with a combination.

Instead, I just land in a clinch and get a Thai plum. I throw a knee to his head. Another. I shrug him off balance, turn him to the corner, then elbow his face hard.

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Sophie Reyes

I land a jab, then I see him charging forward, so I kick out his lead leg before he can put weight on it. It connects and he awkwardly drops to the mat.

TOPIC!!

I’m ecstatic after finally timing that sweep perfectly.

He stands back up and fires off another body kick. Instead of catching or blocking, I just take it and throw a heavy shot at the same time. I land flush on his chin, and I finally see him grimace and react differently.

After another short shot to the chin, I turn him to the corner. I swing and connect with a hard elbow. Another. And another!

These big shots are hurting him! I need to land more.

Sophie Reyes
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I fire a front kick to the body, land in a lefty southpaw stance, then hit him with a lead right hook.

He throws a wild punch, desperately looking to answer back big, but I slip out underneath and let him barrel through the ropes.

He comes forward again, so I land another hard front kick to the body, looking to deplete his gas tank. I miss with a big right hand and we end up in a clinch. I explode on another knee to his body, and the bell rings.

The round is over, and I’m irked at how tough this guy is.

As I’m walking to my corner, my body starts feeling weary.

I’m only just realizing now how exhausting it is to keep throwing all these big shots. I remember Muay Thai judging can include fighters’ demeanors though, so I put on my best poker face, and raise my fist to play to the crowd.

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“How are you feeling? Are you tired?” Paolo asks.

“Yup,” I nod back.

I see his face change. I guess that wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear.

Coaches Piak and Topnoi both start massaging my arms and neck. They pour ice water on my head. Topnoi blows on my ears again, the same way as earlier.

Kru Beer and Paolo are giving technical instructions, but I’m still just trying to catch my breath and I’m not sure if I’ll remember them all. I’m staring blankly outside the ring and towards the crowd for a second, when I feel a light slap on my cheek.

I didn’t even realize I was starting to space out, but Topnoi got me fully focused again.

Sophie Reyes

“Deep breath!” he says firmly.

I inhale deep, exhale hard.

“Again!” Topnoi yells.

Inhale.

Exhale.

“Again!!”

“Do you have power?” he asks me.

I nod.

“Do you have power?!” he asks again, not quite satisfied with my response.

“Yes!”

Damn, that was good. I’m actually getting fired up again now.

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“Just be careful of the first thirty seconds,” Paolo gives a final warning as the referee wipes down my face and gloves. “He’ll surely come out desperate to finish.”

I nod and the bell rings to start the third round.

My opponent immediately starts with a body kick. I catch it and look to counter, but he beats me to the punch and lands clean on my face. I try to clinch and answer back with a knee, but instead he lands a short right hand.

Sophie Reyes

I throw a punch to his body hoping to slow him down, but he just tries to bully me inside. He throws a flurry of knees. One. Two. Three. They’re not very hard shots, but it’s still connecting to my side.

Four. Five. Six.

That last knee landed low. I’m furious.

Seven.

I crack him with a short shot to the chin. It lands hard, but I immediately clinch up to slow him down and take a breath.

I check a kick then land a right hand. He’s firing back with more punches, trying to force this into a slugfest. We clinch up and he’s back to throwing knees. One of them lands low again

This time the referee sees it and warns him for the low blow.

I’m fine. That metal cup held up, but f–k, this fight is getting so ugly.

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Sophie Reyes

As soon as the referee signals to fight, he immediately rushes forward again. I step back twice and fire an inside leg kick. I know he’ll just keep pressing on, so I meet him with a crushing elbow.

His forward momentum only increases the impact, and I hear a thud as my elbow slams on his temple. His demeanor completely changes.

I turn him to the ropes and throw another elbow. Another. Instead of bullishly pressing ahead, I see him turn away a little for the first time in this fight.

My eyes light up as I see him vulnerable. I throw another hard elbow.

I hear my corner banging on the apron, screaming at me to get after him. But he ties me up, holding on to get the referee to save him.

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Sophie Reyes

I walk to the center of the ring as the referee resets us. He’s still hurt! I see him gingerly walking forward, and I go for the same combo that’s been landing.

Front kick to the midsection makes him wince and drop his hands.

Right hand to the jaw lands flush.

He slowly drops to the mat.

The referee jumps down with him, trying to catch his head and brace it from impact.

Is it really over?

I slowly walk away as I see the referee waving the fight off.

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I know I just won, but I’m angry with myself.

In the second it takes to walk away from my fallen opponent, several thoughts are already flooding my head.

I could’ve done so much better.

As I’m walking away, clouded in disappointment, I feel the referee suddenly pulling me back to the center of the ring.

He raises my hand. The audience cheers.

Wait, what? Why?

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Could that have actually been an entertaining fight?

I’m still dumbfounded by the crowd’s reaction, but I raise my arms to acknowledge them and walk towards my corner.

My confusion mounts as I see my coaches, my friends and my girlfriend all beaming at me looking so proud and happy. Paolo goes up the ring and meets me with a high five and a light hug.

It’s at this moment where it all dawns on me.

You f–king idiot!

I catch myself, realizing this is just my usual emotional post-fight outburst. This has happened in each of my fights, regardless of outcome. I’m still overly critical of every single thing that went wrong. I still forget everything I did right.

Enough with your tantrum! Just appreciate what you achieved while you’re still here.

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I get out of my head and snap back to reality, realizing that my opponent is still down. I head over to check on him.

I bow to each of his coaches, thanking them for the fight. They politely acknowledge me, before immediately going back to attending to my opponent.

As he’s slowly helped back to his feet, the crowd starts clapping.

I walk back to my corner and exit the ring to hug my coaches.

So many thoughts and emotions are coursing through, but I have to try and shelve all of that for later. Alex is already up next.

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“You can’t stay ringside like that,” one of the organizers suddenly tells me.

I hate that I can’t be in Alex’s corner, but I didn’t even think about dress code or optics while I’m still shirtless and sweating all over the place.

By the time I tidy up and return, Alex is already spamming spinning backfists to the delight of the crowd. He’s clearly winning, and I guess he doesn’t need any of my help with the Bantao pit crew of violence around.

Soon enough, they announce a unanimous decision win. I’m so happy for him, knowing how hard we’ve worked for this moment.

2-0. We really pulled it off.

Topnoi Kiwram, Kru Beer, Alex Chen, Anton Tabuena and Piak Mitsatit
Sophie Reyes
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“Are those your friends?” My girlfriend asks, pointing to the top row of people watching the fights.

I look over, and they’re all waving at me.

I awkwardly wave back, before whispering, “I have no idea who they are.”

“That whole row was cheering hard and screaming your name the entire time,” she tells me. “I assumed you trained with them or something.”

They’re still waving me over, so I make my way up the bleachers to their top row. They all congratulate me and take a few photos, before one of them asks, “do you speak Filipino?”

Oo naman!” I respond back in affirmation. They laugh and offer me high fives, before revealing that they’re all from a nearby province back home.

“We didn’t plan on watching Muay Thai fights, until we saw you on the poster,” he says, explaining that the Philippine flag was the clincher. “We thought it’d be fun to root for a countryman, and I’m glad we ended up attending.”

I honestly feel honored and touched to randomly find strong Filipino support all the way in Thailand. But I don’t exactly know how to say that, so I just make awkward jokes about how they wasted money on me.

Sayang pera,” I tell them in Filipino, and laugh. “I could’ve ruined your trip.”

I thank them for coming out, and force my introverted self to socialize and continue with a little more small talk.

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I buy a few beers and sodas to celebrate with the Bangtao Muay Thai crew, as we all decide to sit in the audience and watch the remaining fights together.

“Nice walk-off KO!” Alex says as I hand him a beer.

“I was just mad at myself. I wasn’t trying to look cool,” I say with a laugh.

“I wanted to land big to get respect, then I weirdly just wanted to keep landing big to hurt him,” I tell them. “I feel like I threw technique out the window.”

“That happens,” Topnoi responds. “First 10 fights, always like that. 20, still there but lesser. 30, 40, even less.”

Damn. Spoken like a guy with over a hundred fights.

“The most important thing is you trained hard and stepped in there, you understand? This win, everything right here, this is something you won’t ever forget,” Topnoi says.

He’s right.

I raise my beer and thank Topnoi and all the coaches for the sage advice.

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“This is pretty much the best case scenario, but I can’t even walk straight,” I say with a laugh as I’m limping back to the hotel. There’s a gash on my shin, but it’s the muscles around it that feel a lot worse.

Damn, this is all just from kicking without shin guards.

I hear a motorcycle approaching, and realize it’s actually the tattooed tuk tuk guy from earlier. I didn’t think we’d run into him again, but I wave as he passes by.

It takes him a second, but as soon as he recognizes us, he slams on the brakes hard. I notice his passenger looking confused through all this.

He looks back and excitedly yells, “How was the fight??”

“He won! Knockout!” my girlfriend shouts back.

He suddenly makes a U-turn towards us, then gestures to his passenger to walk the rest of the way.

Shit. Sorry, bro.

His eyes light up as they show him short clips of the fight. Watching the actual video makes me see things more objectively as well.

It really wasn’t as bad as I thought.

“Oh my god,” he reacts to the finish. “They were worried, but I knew you could do it!!”

I’m going to miss all the nice people on this island.

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“Did you know I was secretly hoping you’d pull out of the fight?” my girlfriend reveals after seeing me wince with each step.

“What?” I blurt out and laugh.

“I was never really going to get in the way of your dream though,” she says. “At least you’re okay, and this is all done now.”

She looks me in the eyes after not hearing a response.

“Wait. This is all done now, right?”

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Previous ‘From Writing to Fighting’ editions:

[ Opening Round | Second Round ]

[ Brothers in Arms | Millennial Medals ]

[ Coaching a Colleague | Preparing for Pressure ]

[ Colleagues Competing | Bloody Debut ]

[ Thailand Part 1 | Thailand Part 2 ]


About the author: Anton Tabuena is the Managing Editor for Bloody Elbow. He’s been covering MMA and combat sports since 2009, and has also fought in MMA, Muay Thai and kickboxing. (full bio)

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