Fighting down at the jungle gym, literally.

Doc honked his horn as he drove past my villa to perform the required three-point turnabout to exit onto the main road again. I grabbed what I thought I might need for a second day of Muay Thai training; a large bottle of water, board shorts, and a shirt. Simple enough. And, when in the gym, there's no need for shoes, so sandals it was. 

We drove a different direction than we had the previous day when he took me to the gym connected to the Aonang Krabi Stadium, and instead went into a more wooded area overshadowed by coconut trees and thick vines with deep green foliage. He was driving into a jungle. Our destination was the Emerald Muay Thai gym located off of a dirt road and backed up, nearly, to the base of massive limestone cliffs that jut their way beautifully all the way to the Andaman Sea.

View from the gym. 
"I like this gym because you get to see all this while you train." Doc pointed to the towering cliffs, pocked with holes that were being claimed by anything green and growing that could keep its grip on the face of the rock. All I could manage was a reverent "wow."

Bamboo poles supported the palm-leaf roof that covered the two rings, bags area, and concrete slab, which made up the gym. It was all that was needed to train up some of the best fighters in the area and even fighters from all over the world. The gym's French owner was out of town that day because he was at a fight in Canada with some boys competing out of his tiny gym, so an older Thai man, probably in his early sixties, led us through the training. 

After jumping rope for about twenty minutes we started going over some shadow boxing techniques. I stood clueless while Igor the Russian grunted and huffed angrily as he fought invisible opponents on the concrete slab. Other guys practiced stand-up clinching techniques with one another, and some, overzealously, took it all the way to the concrete floor, leaving darkened sweat puddles wherever their bodies rolled. I didn't know what to do. 

Doc showed me how to get into a proper fighting stance; left foot forward with my right fist cocked back over the support of my right leg. 

"Sabai, sabai," he said, which basically means to "chill out, relax, be cool."

I threw a couple punches into the air and wondered if they'd do any damage if they made contact with a human face. I had never punched anyone before. My childhood brawls were usually more of the wrestling nature. I feigned confidence and threw a few more punches and twirled as I kicked a volley-style right leg through the air. It didn't feel natural and I'm sure it didn't look natural, but I didn't have the coordination to simultaneously watch myself in the mirror as I attempted these foreign motions. Maybe it was perfect…probably not. 

The old Thai trainer approached me and held his palms out in front of his face. "Go!" he challenged, "punch punch 1 2…" I stepped forward and hit his palms with the knuckles of my index and middle finger. "Hmmph" he grunted.

"Elbow!" he yelled and threw his palm towards me, asking for the point of my elbow to land in his grip. I made a chicken-wing with my arm and flung my arm around like it wasn't a part of my body. 

Emerald Muay Thai gym.
Doc had gone over elbow strikes with me the previous day, but it hadn't gone well. He explained that these hits account for most of the blood being drawn in Muay Thai fighting because even a grazing with this sharp bone can break the skin and cause the blood to flow. Doc said that a solid elbow to the temple, jaw, or throat can easily result in a KO. Being that it's one of the most unused parts of a non-fighting person's body I -- being a non-fighting person -- lacked coordination with it. 

Old man Thai kept shadowing me and asking for punches, elbow strikes, kicks, and, eventually, knees to his gut. At half speed I followed his instructions and delivered hits, kicks, and knees as he requested them. 

These movements began to feel more comfortable to me, and it felt like I was unlocking a potential in myself that has gone unexplored my entire life. Suddenly, like a minor revelation, I realized that I have fists that can punch, legs that can kick, knees that can knock the wind out of another man's gut, elbows that can strike and make a gash in someone's forehead, and quick feet that can move out of harm's way. I have the tools to fight, but I've never learned how to use them. 

Drenched in sweat and being eaten alive by mosquitoes, old man Thai told us to break and then get ready for sparring. 

With every new thing that happened in this jungle gym full of sweaty fighters I would look to Doc and furl my brow. Asking me to spar was like asking me to speak Thai. Me no talk Thai.  

The old man got in the ring and strapped a huge pad around his waist that protected his hips, stomach and groin. Then he grabbed two pads for his hands and without hesitation picked me to jump in the ring with him. Doc wrapped my hands and put boxing gloves on them. This was the first time I'd ever worn them. My heart started beating faster with excitement and nervousness. All the other guys in the gym were standing around the ring. I could feel their eyes on me and I really didn't want to make a fool of myself. 

Just like he'd done on the concrete slab the old man yelled out orders to me and I delivered my best punches into his palms and kicks into his side. I was holding back at first because I didn't know what was appropriate. I gave him a kick with about 70% of my power behind it and he yelled, "HARDER!" With that, it was confirmed that I could punch and kick this padded man as hard as my body would allow. 

The beach where they heard my kicks.
"Kick!" he yelled. I got up on the toes of my left foot and swung my right leg as hard as I could into the pads on his left side. I imagined picking a floating cross out of the air in front of the goal box on the soccer field. The slap of my leg against the leather made such a satisfying crack sound that echoed out the open-air gym and into the coconut trees and up the limestone cliffs and probably to the ears of the sunbathers on the sandy seashore all those kilometers away. Probably. Old man Thai grinned to reveal his blackened teeth and squealed his first compliment of the session to me with a joyous, "Gooood!" 

I laughed because he reminded me of a hybrid Yoda/Mr. Miyagi and because I was having so much fun in that moment. 

We went three rounds of about two minutes sparring per round. At the end of each he'd have me kick five hard kicks on either side of his body as quickly as I could. My energy was being drained, but it felt so good. Crack, crack, crack, crack, crack! I'd try to make my last kick as strong as my first even though, at that point, it felt like a rubbery extension of my hip. 

"Gooood!" he'd squeal.

...ramble on...

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