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From Writing to Fighting: Thailand, Part 1

In this two part series, Bloody Elbow’s Managing Editor, Anton Tabuena flies to Thailand to compete in Muay Thai.

Sophie Reyes

“Hey!”

We’re heading back from the gym when I see a familiar face. It’s the tattooed guy we rented tuk tuks from earlier in the week, cheerfully waving me over.

“I saw you on the posters!” he excitedly yells. “I’ll try to watch on Sunday for you!”

I thank him and marvel at how genuinely nice and supportive the people here have all been whenever they find out I’m competing in Muay Thai. I haven’t really told anyone, but it’s no use hiding anything after posters went up in Bangtao and all over Phuket this week.

“You’re fighting?? Are you sure?” Another guy overhears our conversation and gives me this look of genuine concern. “You’re Filipino? If you’re as good as Manny Pacquiao, I’d be less worried!”

I laugh but before I can respond, he’s already sizing up my skinny frame and inspecting my body.

“Have you been training hard? Okay, I guess this is okay,” he says after suddenly pressing on my abs. He then looks at my thin calves. “This, hmm. Not so much. Thais kick legs a lot!”

The first guy looks almost proud that one of his clients is fighting, while the other just looks legitimately concerned about my well-being.

“I hope you do well, but be very careful of these, okay?” he says while pointing to his elbows and knees.

I laugh and say thanks, before trying to assure them I’ll be okay.

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I’m in the back row of a van that the team rented, and we’re on the way to the stadium. It’s officially fight night, but for some reason, that conversation from a few days ago plays back into my head.

“Are you sure?”

It’s wild how even a simple and good intentioned question can push the right buttons and unleash doubts that I didn’t even know I had.

I’m three years older and rustier because of this pandemic, but I figured this impromptu trip was a good excuse to fight again before I get too old.

Is it really, though? Will I react properly after being out for so long? Was it wise to just jump into my first professional fight like this?

No shin guards, no headgear, and a Thai opponent in Thailand. Will my body hold up for that? It barely even held up in training.

Did I spar and drill enough?

Am I even good enough?

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“Are you sure?”

I catch myself and realize that if I need assurances, all I ever need to do is to just look around at the people sitting with me in this van.

I see my brother Paolo, my girlfriend, good friends, and supportive teammates like Alex, who will also be fighting tonight. It’s reassuring looking over to the front row and knowing that the three killers calmly sitting there all have my back.

Kru Beer, Topnoi Kiwram and Piak Mitsatit. These three decorated coaches from Bangtao Muay Thai & MMA are just cracking jokes without a worry in the world, and I suddenly don’t think my opponent is even worth stressing about anymore.

With championships and literally hundreds of wins between them, this trio brings a wealth of knowledge and experience that’s enough to coach even the best UFC stars, let alone some random guy like me.

Instead of worrying about what ifs in the near future, I’m just grateful I got to train with ninjas twice a day and have this all-star lineup in my corner tonight.

I recline my seat, lean back and put my earphones on to keep my head clear. I turn the volume up, and start blasting “Beach House” on repeat.

Yep. It works every time.

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Big fight! Big fight! Tonight! Tonight! Bangla Boxing Stadium! Bangla Boxing Stadium!

The speaker blares loudly, constantly repeating a slogan that’ll surely get stuck in my head again. It’s the perfect signal that we have indeed arrived at the venue.

We all exit the van, and I immediately see my face and the Philippine flag on a pair of trucks parked nearby. It’s still weird seeing myself on a fight poster, and there’s a bunch of them all around this venue. Security just waves us through as they already know Topnoi and the other Bangtao Muay Thai coaches.

I go up the flight of stairs to enter the stadium, and I immediately see the huge ring to my left. Its black canvas has “Bangla Stadium” written in white, with the Yokkao logo at the center. Bright lights and blue bleachers surround the ring, giving Phuket’s most popular arena that distinct look it’s been known for.

We go up another set of stairs to the holding area for fighters. It’s still early, but the familiar smell of liniment already fills the air.

I’m so glad we watched fights here at the start of our trip.

Having been here to support other Bangtao fighters before has helped me visualize this very moment in the days prior. It’s paying dividends tonight as well.

Now that I have a decent idea on what to expect, it suddenly doesn’t feel like I’m experiencing too many things for the first time. While that can seem trivial to some, I think that’s the trick to dealing with high stress situations better.

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Paolo Tabuena

I fill up a few forms, and look at tonight’s fight card for the first time. Half of it is in Thai, but I can at least understand that I’m fighting third.

“Antan. Philippines. Red Corner. 130 lbs.”

I chuckle at the typo on my name, and figure that there’s really no weigh-ins on these events.

I also notice that my opponent pictured on the poster is now fighting second, and he’s listed to be five pounds heavier. There’s a different name next to mine. So I guess I’m fighting a different guy now?

I don’t really care either way.

This is about me and trying to fight to the best of my ability. The game plan remains the same.

I stretch a little and wonder if I have enough time for my pre-fight power nap. There’s a bunch of metal beds here that seem perfect for it.

“Sit here, you need to get your hands wrapped now,” Kru Beer instead calls me over.

“Isn’t Alex second, and I’m third?” I ask.

“No, you’re second!” Kru Beer responds. “You’re fighting the same opponent.”

“Oh.”

No naps I guess.

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I’m marveling at how different the wraps are being done by Kru Beer now compared to my previous fights. I’m trying to keep a mental note of everything he’s doing with the tape and gauze, but I give up halfway. There’s just no way I’ll remember how to do this all by myself.

Kru Beer pounds on my right knuckles as he finishes wrapping them. He asks if it feels good. I wiggle my fingers and tap on my fists, before nodding back. He starts to work on my left hand, and I feel my heart start beating faster.

This is really happening.

Tonight! Tonight! Thai Boxing. Muay Thai. The biggest fight of the month! Tonight! Tonight!

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“I saw your opponent. He’s probably just an inch shorter than me,” my brother Paolo tells me. “I already sized him up for you.”

This entire time, we’ve been preparing to fight someone much shorter, planning to use my reach and control distance. After all, with my unusually tall and lanky frame, everyone in my weight will almost surely be wider but much shorter.

“I guess this really happens when there’s no actual weigh-ins,” I tell him. “It’s fine. I sparred with you a lot anyway.”

Paolo is roughly the same height as me but around 15 pounds heavier, so it’s nothing I haven’t really seen before. I sparred with far bigger pros in Bangtao too.

“Yup. You got this,” Paolo says. “His shadowboxing skills didn’t look that sharp either.”

I appreciate how he’s helping me know what to expect in there, but at the same time, I don’t really care much at this point. We knew there could be weight discrepancies or even opponent changes, so in my mind, I’m good to go no matter what they throw at me.

I’m actually more curious on how he got such a detailed scouting report.

“I went to the other side of the arena and literally stood right next to him like this,” Paolo says, demonstrating how he crossed his arms and stood tall, while not actually looking directly at him.

“Seriously?”

I start laughing at the image of him pretending to be some random fan that’s just standing there, casually invading his personal space.

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Big fight! Big fight! Tonight! Tonight!

Kru Beer is behind me, helping tie the strings to this metal Thai cup that goes over my underwear. It’s my first time wearing this kind of groin guard for a fight, and it’s every bit as uncomfortable as everyone warned me.

“Like a g-string, but tied tightly right up to your a–hole,” Alex quips.

I put on one more layer of compression shorts on top of it to make sure it doesn’t shift much, and I put on these bright and colorful Bangtao fight shorts over them. I try to tug on the string downwards to make it feel a little more comfortable, but it’s not really helping.

I knock on the metal cup twice. I guess it does feel safer than the normal plastic ones I’ve been used to. At least there’s that.

Yes, just focus on that, and not any possible chafing. Positive thinking, or whatever.

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Paolo Tabuena

“Remove your shirt and lie down here,” Piak motions me over, and opens a bottle of Thai liniment. I’m not sure why it dawned on me late, but I finally understand what all these metal beds are for specifically.

“Cover your face with your shirt,” Piak says as all three coaches apply liniment and start massaging my entire body. “I don’t want this to get in your eyes.”

They ask me to turn around, and they start massaging the rest of my body. Everything feels nice and warm from the liniment, but a few sensitive parts are starting to have this burning sensation.

My coaches make me stand to help stretch my legs, but at the same time, I’m lowkey trying to wipe off some of the oil that’s burning my armpits.

Ooof.

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Sarama, the traditional Muay Thai music, is playing in the arena.

I look over and Kru Beer has already picked the gloves I’ll be wearing from the set they have for everyone in the Red corner.

These clearly aren’t the pillows I’ve used in my older amateur bouts, and they’re also really soft and broken in.

“People have fought in these already,” I say the moment I put on these red Yokkao boxing gloves. “They’re small too. Nice.”

I can’t wait to hit pads and test these out better before the fight.

Kru Beer laces up my right glove, making sure the knot goes above my wrist, just over where some of the padding starts. He starts taping it when I hear the crowd go crazy.

I don’t really understand what they’re saying, but with the way the ringside announcer is screaming, it seems like the first fight just ended with a shocking knockout. One of those two women I saw earlier must have been finished very early in the first round.

That ended a lot sooner than I expected.

I’m next.

I won’t have time to warm up. I don’t even have my second glove on yet.

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Paolo Tabuena

Topnoi quickly starts lacing up my left glove. It’s the same technique, with the knot sliding down the padding up to the exact spot Kru Beer just did for my other glove. He quickly tapes it, and mere seconds later, I’m good to go.

Wraps, liniment, massage, stretching, and now gloves.

The three Bangtao Muay Thai coaches have all been working quickly and in sync with each task, like a Formula One pit crew built for violence. They’ve obviously done this countless times, and I can’t even imagine how I’d handle all these sudden changes if not for them.

I’m really not going to get to warm up, on my pro debut no less.

That thought briefly crosses my mind, but I squash it as quickly as it entered.

It’s done. I can’t waste energy dwelling on the past, when I still have a big task ahead of me.

I’m about to have a Muay Thai fight in Thailand. After these last couple of years, I didn’t even think this would be possible anymore.

I’m excited.

F–k warm ups. I’m here now. It’s time.

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Gloves. Cup. Mouthpiece. Pink ankle supports. Pink and yellow fight shorts.

I do a really quick mental check of what I’ll need as I’m about to head downstairs for this fight.

“Do you have my outfit?” I ask my girlfriend.

It isn’t just all technique and game plans, I prepared my walkout attire really early too.

She throws it over to my brother Paolo, who helps me wear this bright yellow and orange kimono, with a pattern of white triangles all over. I laugh as I see a puzzled reaction from Kru Beer, who’s seemingly wondering why I’d even want to wear such a thing.

It’s from this anime called Demon Slayer. It’s Zenitsu’s kimono, a character that’s hilarious for being scared all the time, when he can literally destroy people in his sleep without even knowing it.

I’m sure there’s a metaphor here somewhere about facing your fears or being better than you give yourself credit for, but in reality, I just thought it’d be a silly inside joke.

Fighters on big events walk out wearing boxing robes, looking all serious and intimidating. I thought it’d be funny to go out there wearing an anime kimono instead.

I’m not sure if anyone in this arena will even get the reference, but this is my moment and I’m going to have fun with this.

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Sophie Reyes

I head down the stairs and make my walk as the music plays. There’s a crowd around me, but there’s only one thing that catches my eyes. All the way through the ropes, on the other side of the ring, I see my opponent for the very first time.

It looks like he really got here much earlier than I did.

I open my arms wide and bounce around a few times as I slowly approach the red corner.

I’m going to take my time and enjoy this moment.

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Continued on Part 2.

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 ]


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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