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I got a message from Kru Nat, inviting me down to Chok Sabai for a post-Thailand experience  chat.  I jumped at the opportunity to see the space, which has been almost mythological over the past months, and was equally excited at the chance to spend a little time with Nathalie.

The address had been entered in my GPS before leaving the house, so I didn’t pay much attention to orienting myself on the streets – that’s what the device is for and my brain loves checking out whenever it comes to sense of direction – but I was happy to find myself in somewhat familiar territory near Herald Square and a few blocks from Madison Square Park.  The entrance is at the base of a terrific dark-red brick building.  Just inside one is immediately struck by the beautiful staircase and old-style New York tiled floors.  I was so taken by the stairs that I almost danced up them to the second floor, where there was a small, printed Chok Sabai sign about eye-level on a big  door.  I realized the elevator was a better bet and rather enjoyed another go on the stairs.

Pushing past the second heavy door between the elevator and the loft, I was totally enveloped by the bright, broad light of the space.  Kru Nat appeared from another room and greeted me and my husband warmly, introducing us to the couple of people working in the front room and then immediately walking us back to the main area through another doorway.  The space opened up into a stunning example of New York architecture, with giant floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the bustling streets, letting in the afternoon light and sending it bouncing through the room off the white walls and pillars that, quite honestly, look like the main stage of Olympia in the original Clash of the Titans.  (You’ll see it in the video, which might prove I’m a greater dork than poet, but the space is beautiful either way!)

Kru Nat moved confidently and enthusiastically through the space, flipping on the ceiling fans to demonstrate the efficiency of their placement and power and giving us an idea of the organization and arrangement of the room – where the ring will be; cardio and strength equipment; mats and storage.  We peeked into the newly floored Pilates room and, after Nathalie fiddled with the dimmer switch on the lighting fixtures a few times, I could see the ambiance of the room as a singular space in the loft.  We saw the beginnings of a massage room and the wonderfully odd-shaped dressing/shower rooms.

But all this will be seen.  What is most striking about this loft is how alive it is.  Standing in the foreroom one can almost hear the smacking sound of limbs against bags and pads, the heavy breathing, and the laughter.  There is a remarkable amount of space, but it doesn’t feel empty, not even with only a half-dozen of us in it.  This is because it is infused with the spirit of Nathalie, her friends and supporters, and her students and fans.  The breadth of Kru Nat’s invitation to those with sincere interest in Muay Thai is beautiful – and all those souls are already alive as promises within this space.

With boxes, boards, hammars and paint lying on half ripped up floors, the space is obviously under construction.  But nothing feels unfinished.  Once a proper floor is laid out, the space will be operational.  Kru Nat shows no hesitation in bringing people in at the very first opportunity and reckons Chok Sabai will be open and running as soon as she returns from her impending trip to Thailand.

In a way though, it seems as if this treck to Thailand is itself a kickoff for the start of Chok Sabai.  Kru Nat will be meeting with her past trainers and people who she admires in Muay Thai’s homeland, where she will no doubt revisit and charge her love for the sport and its tradition.  She aspires to bring trainers from gyms in Thailand to give seminars and training to students in New York, and plans to organize opportunities for students to travel to Thailand for training.  A bridge between New York and Thailand with active traversing back and forth across it. When asked if Nathalie was open to the idea of hosting the Female Sparring Circle at Chok Sabai she laughed and said, “well of course!” and made sure we understood that this was not a suggestion, but a goal.  Indeed, Kru Nat’s vision for her gym is one of genuine openness.  We’ll all feel what that is when Chok Sabai’s doors swing wide open in early May.


I met up with Chantal Ughi at her current gym, Keatkhamtorn, about 20 miles outside of Bangkok.  Past the threshold of shoes lining the gate, scattered as if their wearers had simply walked out of them, the bags hung heavy and still, the sound of a TV blaring through the empty space.  A man met me at the gate and smiled – the Thai version of “hello”, “can I help you?”, or practically any other phrase – and I said I was here to speak with Chantal.  He just kept smiling, not understanding, so I attempted the name with a few different tonations and eventually one caught him and he said, “ah, England?”  I assumed this meant that he acknowledged speaking English and he led me to the back of the gym.  I saw Chantal sitting at a bench-table in a kind of cafeteria, chatting with two young men in English.  She welcomed me and I sat down next to her, the man from the front gate brought me a glass of water and Chantal and I began to talk.

Chantal is very soft spoken.  Her tall frame hangs around her and kind of pulls her down into herself as she sat cross-legged, her long, willowy arms stretching out every now and again to rake her fingers through her still-damp hair.  It’s difficult to hear her over the TV and I’m amazed at how this shy woman is able to advocate for herself so effectively as she is able to (mostly through Facebook and YouTube, so far as I’ve seen) because she seems almost as if she wants to disappear.  After a little while of talking about the “slow season” of fighting in Thailand  and the difficulties of finding opponents (we’d both had fights cancelled in the past weeks), we move into the main gym in order to film the interview.

A Thai man, who Chantal seems to know, but not incredibly well, is curious to know why I’m there and if Chantal is going somewhere.  She tries to explain, in English, that I’m here to interview her.  He sees my camera and plucks it out of my hands, motioning for us to stand together for a photo.  Chantal smiles, very generously, and says to him that this is not right, that we’re doing an interview.  It goes back and forth like this for a while until a man steps out from behind a bag and offers a little translation help.  I’m not sure how much is really understood in the transaction, but the Thai man nods and goes on his way and the man from behind the bag resumes his punching.

We step into the famale ring, the mat still darkened in patches from sweat.  The light is dim, as a gym at night should be, and the mosquitos make themselves known immediately.  Chantal spritzes herself with what I assume is insect repellent out of her bag and adjusts herself in a manner that is partly professional (a model or actor preparing for the camera) and partly nervous.  She asks me what I am going to ask her.  I click open the lens of my camera and push record before answering her, “What I want to know is…”

For an interview with Chantal Ughi by Laura Dal Farra:

And for video of Chantal’s fights:

[Debroah Liao trains out of Five Points Academy and fights Muay Thai and MMA. She has been training in the sport for several years and is a member of our sparring circle]

There are so many things that you can talk about with regards to sparring and so many angles to view it from. I’ve been sparring for about 4 years now. My first introduction to sparring was when I was doing Krav Maga with the folks up at John Jay College. My first sparring partners were a 250 pound guy and a Krav Maga black belt woman, Kat. It was a humbling moment getting pummeled mercilessly. Even now, I feel more or less humbled every time I spar.

I think that learning to be humble is one of the things you learn from sparring (or I hope that people learn!). There’s always something else you could have done or could have done better or done differently. And there’s almost always someone who is better than you. There is no such thing as “perfect”. Being humble, from my point of view, is one of the things that sets you apart from people who simply do Muay Thai versus people who do Muay Thai for the love of it. I think if you love it, you can’t not eventually spar. Fighting is a different story entirely and while more people end up sparring, many do not ever step in the ring.

As for sparring itself? I find it to be the least predictable exercise ever. Some days I have good days. More often I have bad days. And almost all the time I feel frustrated by the fact that I haven’t done something or been busy enough or whatnot. Steve [Arjan Steve Miles] once said to me that ignorance is a form of bliss. Because when you’re ignorant about all your options, you just go in and hit only with the intent to hit. Because I am very analytical in my work life and personality, I tend to get tied up in the nuances and the options which can lead to me not doing nearly enough. It’s a hard mold for me to break out of.

And sparring really depends on the person I’m working with. I’m lucky because I have plenty of women to spar with at all different skill levels [at Five Points Academy]. In terms of size, however, the skill level strata are more separated. Emily, our pro WKA world champion fighter, and Rima with almost 20 fights, are my size but their experience level far surpasses mine. Whenever I work with Emily, who’s a WKA pro world champion, I still get a little bit of anxiety because I know that I will get my ass whupped. If I’m defensive I get my ass whupped. If I’m offensive, I eat punches and kicks timed with exquisite precision. It’s a good and bad experience because it makes me realize how much work I need to do and no one I fight will hit me as hard as her. It’s bad because I spar differently with her than with anyone else. With Rima, I have fun with her but her cardio is so good and she’s so busy that I’m always gassed after working with her. The other girls are all awesome to work with too albeit they are taller and bigger than me, which makes it hard, like if I block a kick, I get sent flying because of the weight difference.

As for sparring with guys, again it depends. I don’t mind sparring with guys but I find it immensely frustrating when they significantly outweigh me and have 6+ inches of reach/height on me. They can just pepper me with kicks and punches and stay out of my range. I usually end up getting frustrated and sometimes getting a little pissy/angry when I feel like someone is getting cocky/condescending with me because I know if I were the same size, I’d be able to land a lot more stuff. And I hate it when I get angry because I HATE being pissy when I spar and you should NEVER take it personally when you spar (I blame it on a bad few weeks at work). Case in point, during technical sparring tonight, a guy who outweighs me by 60 pounds or so and is probably 6-7 inches taller than me, decided to try to kick me in the head multiple times during TECHNICAL sparring (no headgear). Kicks to the head are usually not allowed during technical sparring and I felt like he was doing it just to do it. If I were taller, I would have hit him in the head more because his hands are wayyyy down at shoulder level and he stands really square. I did kick him in the head in return and hit him in the stomach a lot more. When we ended up in a clinch situation, I was able to use my experience more effectively to get the dominant position and dig my elbows into his clavicles to jack his head down into a bad position.

It’s also interesting when we have our quarterly grading [at Five Points Academy]. Not that many women grade up to blue level and not that many women grade up and show up for sparring regularly. I find that most new women are very tentative when they are introduced to sparring. For me, I was lucky to have that aggression and dirty fighting style from Krav Maga. So hitting someone wasn’t new to me. I usually find I have to encourage the newer women to be more aggressive and let them just hit me. However, the person’s intent and personality also plays a big role. For this upcoming grading, I foresee possible “trouble” with one particular woman who tends to lack control and attempts to go heavier and faster than she should at her skill level. It’s funny, though, the transition from just taking classes to sparring is HUGE. People can think they’re the shit during classes, but it’s a completely different ball game when it comes down to mano a mano. I think sparring or fighting is a great equalizer in many ways because it doesn’t matter who you are outside of that moment. You could be a doctor, a lawyer, a physicist, whatever….but when you are sparring or fighting, it’s just two people going after each other.

Which brings me to another funny thing. I don’t know how it is at other gyms, but there is definitely a pecking order amongst the women. Obviously the more experienced you are, the more fights, etc, the higher you are in the pecking order. Which is only fair because of the blood and sweat and tears and aches and pains and bruises you accumulate getting there. And I feel like people work hard to maintain their position in the pecking order (admittedly, I feel out of the pecking order since my left arm issue has been keeping me from really sparring). I admit that if a new person comes in thinking that they’re the shit, I will go harder and attempt to put them in their place versus if a new person comes in and knows they have a lot to learn. I guess it’s a respect thing.

Tonight was the first meeting of the New York Women’s Sparring Circle.  A punctual group (!), we met at Ardon Sweet Science in Brooklyn at 7:00 and began our sparring at 7:30. It was impressive how quickly and easily we could all organize ourselves into pairs and how the rotation of partners occurred without any dictation; just invitations to get in the ring and spar for a couple rounds and then break or pair back off as needed.  So much fun!

We defaulted into 3 minute rounds with a 30 second break in between, so for those feeling a little pressed by the pace, it was a heavy pace.  I think we did great.  And two pair in the ring at a time seemed comfortable and a good use of space.  I’d say that with more girls we might want to utilize the floorspace outside of the ring, but resting and watching was perfect with the numbers we had today.  A great turnout for the first session, including women who for various reasons did not spar today (Deb, Lorena), but were an awesome addition and wonderful presence in the group.  Over and above, Greg Ardon’s presence – calm and cool at the side of the ring – set the tone for serious, safe, and autonomous sparring.  It was exciting to meet those of you who I’ve only interacted with online and very exciting to spar with new people; each person challanged me in a unique way and I was inspired by seeing how everyone seemed to spar differently with each other.

I’m already amped for next week and I’m hoping we can use the rest of this week to discuss what we think was great and we want to be sure to continue, or what we think was not quite right and we want to improve on.  I’m so excited by how well we worked together and took control of the space as a group.

For all those looking into it and thinking about coming, please do. The more the better.  And for everyone there today, thank you so much for coming and I hope to see you all next Tuesday! (Same time, same place.)

We’ve had good input from many of us regarding equipment: how many ounces for gloves, use of headgear, how many girls in the ring at a time, and how we should go about timing and facilitating rotation for rounds.

We have not reached a consensus on the latter two, but I think we can firmly state that gloves used for our sparring circle should be either 14 oz or 16 oz.  Headgear and shinguards are mandatory; if anyone does not have personal equipment (be it appropriate gloves, headgear, or shinguards) please let us know now so that anyone with access to extra equipment can bring it along.  Mouthpieces are, of course, required and must be provided individually.

As for deciding about rounds and rotation, I think we should discuss this first thing when we meet tomorrow and come to a decision quickly, with the understanding that it can change.  Deb and Peelo both commented that 5 Points and Fighthouse use 3 minute rounds; I think Church Street uses 2 minute rounds, but I’m not sure.  Maybe Eliana or Heather can clarify that.  Peelo and I both advocate for keeping with one partner for at least 2 rounds in order to allow for adaptation, but we will have to take into account how many rounds will be required total in order to get as much variety in the rotation as possible.  Also, 5 Points and Fighthouse both end with a few rounds of clinching, whereas other gyms do not practice clinching during sparring.  We’ll have to decide if we want to designate clinching to a certain number of rounds, or whether it should simply be incorporated into the sparring itself.  I’m hesitant to say that there should be any kind of direction for what we should do and when, as this is not a class.  So, maybe it can be decided between each pair whether or not clinching will be involved in the rounds.  What does everyone think?

Regarding number of girls in the ring, Peelo and Deb both spar in gyms that put at least two pair in the ring at a time.  I like that this forces the couples to stay in range of one another, due to limiting the space, but I also feel that it does not train one to stay in range purposefully when the whole ring is available.  Deb points out that being in the ring is good for learning how to move your opponent where you want them, which to me is another reason to limit the number of fighters in the ring to two.  This should be discussed though, so please comment with any preference.

We’re expecting 7-8 women tomorrow, though more may come by.  I’m excited.

Times and Days

Here is an update of the general availability of those that that have expressed interest in our sparring circle (click on the image for a more readable copy).

At this very early stage Monday through Thursday evenings are the only slots that have no negations, but lets let others sign up and see where it goes, we’ve just been coming together for little more than a day. Also, we know that Church Street and Fighthouse have classes on at least Tuesdays, and The Wat on Thursdays, so when we can we should try not to cut into gym times. If people can mention when they usually go to training, we can x those out too.

Meeting Place

If anyone has an idea of where we can meet, we should be working on that too. Originally we thought that even meeting at an open public space like a park would be fine, but perhaps a gym with a ring that would want to open their space to us would be better because, among other things, its weather proof. We want to keep this informal though, under no particular gym’s direction.

Building a Schedule

The first day’s response is in and this is what its looking like:

Churchstreet: Heather; and Eliana (boxing)

Fighthouse: Lorena Lee; and Peelo, independently trained

Master K: Sylvie

This is a rough sketch of the schedules of each (updated)  – click on the image for a bigger, more readable copy:

If you can in the comments section (or email) just let us know what days/nights (times) are definite “NOs” what are tentative yeses, and which ones are the very BEST. And we’ll post an updated schedule and see what works out. If you notice an inaccuracy in the schedule for you, let us know too. 

Keep spreading the word.