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A Muay Thai Sunday In Brooklyn

Sunday was a unique experience for everyone at the sparring circle.  Kru Natalie called me a few weeks ago and asked if we could put something together on this weekend with some of her girls and I was immediately excited by the opportunity to bring new women to the group for a special meet.  Greg generously – and in Greg fashion – offered to open up the gym for us.  And I was amped to hear that Jess and Nicole from Fighthouse would be returning.

Upon parking at the end of the block we immediately met Kru Nat and Wendy and walked around the corner to find Nicole S. standing outside of the gym. The weather leaned more toward mid-November than mid-October and we all stood, bundled and huddled but excited and friendly as we waited for the doors to open.  I was happy to finally meet Wendy, who I’d seen fight at the WKA in June – back then she’d impressed me as a fighter right off the bat in the first round, but I had been mostly happy to watch her warm up (a late fight after a long day of eliminations) by dancing to music pumped out by a lonely DJ at the far end of the gymnasium.  We all happily stood there in the cold and talked a bit about fighting, opportunities and experiences: serious minds, but peppered with humor and a sincere joy for the sport. It was a happy 15 minutes in hiatus.

When Greg came and opened the doors we all marched upstairs and piled into the dressing room – all of us into the women’s side, regardless of the obvious absence of any men in the other locker room – and were joined by more members filing in.  The gym was chilled and Greg turned on a small space heater in the corner by the women’s locker room where various girls stood to warm themselves as they put on wraps or stretched.  There was a definite gravitation of those from the same gyms sitting together or warming up near one another, but everyone was open and quick to introduce themselves, or ask each other questions about their different gyms.

We spent a good 30 minutes warming up, and the room itself got a little heat going from our activity.  When we began many girls still donned sweatshirts and first rounds were light and a bit slower in order to ease into the sparring.  In the middle of my second round, I could feel the energy of the whole room and looked up to see that EVERYONE was sparring – in the ring, on the floor, and Angela was hitting the bag before finding a partner (odd number of girls at that point).  It was a wonderful image and the energy in the room was very high and focused (you can see a short vid of it up on the Facebook events page).

In my first few rounds I met up with Nicole S. and Lucy, neither of whom I’d seen in a long time.  Nicole got me all worked up, kicking my legs and smacking me pretty good as a warm up, which is great, just what I like.  Lucy was a tactical difficulty. I’d not seen her since she was recovering from jaw surgery, as she had then come only to kickspar; now she was able to use her hands – which she’s very good at.  I only got one round in with Peelo, but I especially liked watching her go against Kru Nat with long kicks and teeps.

I was eager to spar with everyone, and I managed at least one round with every girl except Wendy, who somehow I missed.  Nicole S. commented to me that I ought to spar with Wendy as she felt she had learned a lot in their round together.  She was especially excited that Wendy had nearly teeped her in the face; exactly the type of thing girls like us get excited about.  Jess and I ended up in the ring together at least 4 times, which was terrific practice as she is one of the very few girls I know who is actually my size. I felt like we both made a lot of progress in figuring out each other’s patterns and working around them (or plowing through them; Jess has a great hook!).

Deirdre from Fighthouse, Audrey from the Krav Maga Federation, and Angela from Kru Natalie’s private instruction (aka Chok Sabai) made their first visit to the group and were all a great addition with a variety of technique and energy to offer their sparring partners.  And Kaori from Sweet Science made her second visit and gave us all good practice with boxing – it makes me so happy when she’s there.  Nicole R. arrived in the last half-hour of the session and jumped right in the ring, stirring it up. When Deirdre matched up with Nicole she couldn’t get over how nice it was to finally spar with a girl her approximate size and weight. This is one of the wonderful things about the circle. Women come here and unexpectedly experience a match up they haven’t had before.

Kru Nat was constantly making rounds, hardly ceasing, full of serious joyful energy, sparring with everyone and more than once giving me a look from across the ring that invited me to jump in.  Our first rounds together were ridiculous, with Kru Nat basically dancing around and taunting me without my being able to hit her even once; but as we got in the ring together again and again I found my pace and confidence with her, ultimately feeling like I’d dropped some of my inhibitions of getting close enough to actually reach her.

In all we sparred for about an hour and a half, followed by some clinching practice with Kru Nat in the ring.  The energy remained high all the way to the end and when I removed my shin-pads just out of the ring, my legs were steaming.  Brilliant.  Some of the girls had to leave at different times during the session, but everyone seemed to have genuinely enjoyed their time there. What a way to change a rainy Sunday.  Before we all headed out Peelo had the great idea to take a group photo – lots of smiles.

ALSO: A Visit From Florina

Last Tuesday was a truly unique experience as well.  Florina Petcu came to the circle and gave quality time to the few of us who happened to be there for this unexpected visit. 

I was particularly touched by her generosity – she’s gearing up for a tournament in BJJ and had missed practice to come by – and her very earnest and kind advice to me, as a fellow small fighter, and advice to Laurel and Nicole as well.  I’d been in contact with Florina before my fight and met her at the actual event in Virginia. Her kindness and support have made her an important inspiration to me.  But this was the first time I’d actually seen Florina’s Muay Thai.  She has such beautiful technique.

 

It was really one of those nights that always surprises, they way that just a few girls generate so much good will and variety when they come together for sparring. The group was small, but the energy was very high. Laurel Holloway came for the very first time from Progressive Martial Arts in Queens and her presence was wonderful. She fights at <140  (3-0) and matched up really well with Nicole, and the sparring had a really sharp “game” energy that drew the attention of the whole room. Laurel was great with me too, giving me the pressure I need for this next fight, so the three of us rotated in and out of the ring. But then Lisa West stopped by, which is really a treat for me because she is the only girl I have ever sparred (0r fought) with that is exactly my size. As I mentioned before, she fought at the Golden Gloves last year at the 101 weight class, and she really brings it. I loved my three rounds with her (I was really pushing it in that last round; girl got me tired!), and wished we’d had more! So it was just the four of us, but it seemed just right, and I can’t wait for next week. Laurel says she’s going to be there next week and most Tuesdays if she can make it, so the new blood keeps coming in.

I felt a great spirit of support at this session, from the entire room.  Nicole is always good at giving me advice on how to keep my head up, or straighten out my punches, and she took the time after the session to show me a few exercises to practice this.  In our later rounds, Laurel stepped into the ring and asked me straight out, “What do you want to get out of this?”  I think this is the ideal question to ask a sparring partner, as it realizes that there is something to be gained from each round, a lesson to be learned; and it can be a choice.  And so we focused on her pressuring me and I did my best to avoid backing up.  Laurel and Nicole did some good clinching and got heavy in their sparring, but they helped each other up after spills and Laurel came out of one particularly energized round saying, “I needed that!”  I had the same sentiment when the final bell sounded on my rounds with Lisa.  There is something unique that occurs when one encounters a sparring partner who matches her – for me and Lisa, because she is a boxer and I train Muay Thai, this is an exact match in size, rather than training.  I was able to keep her at a distance with my jab (which is greatly difficult with larger opponents) and she landed a beatiful hook straight to the tip of my jaw that knocked me off balance for a moment.  When this kind of hit is delivered by someone my own size, I feel almost proud, like I want to shout, “Nice hook!”, whereas the same shot from someone larger makes me feel like I should have blocked it or I’m outmatched in general.  There is a built-in excuse when one spars someone bigger or more experienced, that when a nice shot gets in it’s because you were deficient; this is how I feel, anyway.  And what I needed out of my sparring with Lisa was the acknowledgement that there is a path forward – the next time we spar she might have an advantage that she has trained and developed, rather than a permanent advantage like size or reach.  And I might finally use my uppercuts.  Hopefully others have this experience when given the opportunity to train with different women at the circle.

The circle is such an interesting thing. It only exists if you donate yourself, (your time, your energy, your spirit) to it. And it keeps morphing as it goes and as our members get pulled in the many directions of their lives. But somehow the idea of it, which belongs to no one of us, keeps it going. Last night was a perfect example of how the energy just comes out of nowhere when people come together. It makes one realize that Muay Thai is not just about training skills, or even coming to fight; it’s about sharing yourself, what you’ve learned, and your heart with other people. It seems that this is what the circle is about.  Good times.

Article by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

I arrive at Five Points Academy a few minutes early for my interview with Kru Natalie Fuz.  After announcing myself at the front, I sit on a bench and have a semi-obscured view of Kru Natalie wrapping up a personal training session with an older man.  She helps him off with his gloves and wraps, wipes his face with a hand-towel, and then fans him with it, in long, vertical sweeps about a foot from his expressively fatigued face.

As I watch her in this gesture, I wonder if I would find it as charming in a male trainer.  I question my own gender biases, pondering if this kind of physical contact, though certainly not affectionate, is demonstrative of a level of care that feels intimate in a particularly female way.  

She coaches him in push-ups, which I can’t see him perform from behind a knee-high wall, so I concentrate on Kru Natalie, who is so focused on her client I am a little surprised when she looks up and acknowledges me.  I smile and wave, hoping she’ll know who I am and understand that I’m happy to see her in her element, rather than trying to rush her toward our appointment.  She understands, continues winding down her personal training session.  Her client stands and I see that he has impressive muscle definition in his arms – hard earned, I have witnessed – and a kind of confidence in his body that is not overt, but distinct: the confidence that divides trained and untrained.

Once her client has headed off to the locker rooms, Kru Natalie approaches me and gives me an enthusiastic smile and an equal handshake.  She invites me back to a studio in the rear of the gym, where she perches on a medicine ball and pulls out a tall noodle-soup, asking me where I train and for how long.  She strikes me as a very steady woman and her questions feel to me like a means – if unconscious even – of gauging me, figuring out my levels.  Levels of what, I’m not entirely sure – intelligence, honesty, experience – but it doesn’t feel like a test; more like tapping gloves.

I set up my recorder and take my turn at posing questions.  I wrote four pages of questions and only asked the first one as a direct inquiry.  All else was covered in the steady progress of discussion during our time together.  One can tell a lot about a person by how s/he answers questions; more so even than what they answer.  Kru Natalie answers with a thoughtful and casual honesty that encourages the succession of questions to be equally considerate. 

I read an interview with Kru Natalie in which she had said she’d always been interested in martial arts as a kid, but did not state whether or not she’d studied any.  When I ask her if Muay Thai was her first martial art, her answer sets our path for the rest of our conversation:

Kru Nat: Muay Thai was not my first martial art. I did karate and a little bit of Judo back in the day. When I had said that martial arts was an interest of mine since I was very little it actually really was, but my mother who is very gender-oriented didn’t think it was a girl’s sport so I was not allowed to practice.

I ask if she had to wait until she was out of her mother’s care before she was able to practice any traditionally male sports.

Kru Nat: Way past that. But my father – my parents were divorced since I was a little kid – my father was a Karate black-belt actually, a Judo brown-belt, so when I was on vacation with him the first thing I would do is put my Gi on and I would live in my Gi for the time of the vacation. And then I would practice stuff with my dad, so my dad was okay with it. My mother, no way; she just wouldn’t have it.  So I did a lot of sports as a kid, but I wasn’t allowed to do martial arts.

So when I was a teenager I tried Thai boxing actually, in France, back home. I didn’t really get into it because I was so into Karate at the time. I was obsessed with it, so I really didn’t pay attention. It was fun but nothing else. And it wasn’t until fifteen years later that I discovered Muay Thai, here, after I moved back to New York, and that’s maybe 12 years ago or 13 years ago. And, the first time I tried it here I fell in love with it. I took a general class with Steve actually, and I felt ‘I really want to do that’. I talked to Simon and said ‘I want to train private with you, one on one’ because I knew I just wanted to do it right, to get into it right away. So I didn’t even want to bother with classes. And so that’s it, I’ve been doing it since.

There’s a kind of quiet in the way Kru Nat relays these facts.  She does not sound condescending to or vindictive of her mother, or even pretend that her gender-oriented bias that kept her daughter from her interests is “old fashioned.”  She does not excuse her mother, but I don’t feel that there is any question of whether forgiveness is in order.  Maybe this is an American concept: the wounded child finding solace in adulthood by confronting and “processing” childhood trauma.  Rather, Kru Nat draws a direct line between her forbidden passion as a child and her fulfilled passion as an adult.  The question for her is not how she was stuck, but how she got out, how she made it here.  She hints at no inhibitions when she began at Five Points; instead, she was confident and focused and knew how she wanted to learn – one on one.

I find similarities in her story and mine.  My mother is not really gender-oriented, but my family is almost entirely men.  Growing up with three older brothers, I was expected to be able to keep up, but discouraged from blurring the line between me and “one of the guys.”  I was, and am, expected to be feminine, but never in a noticeable way – like, not wanting to watch football on Thanksgiving, unless it’s to help Mom in the kitchen.  When I came to Muay Thai, I began almost immediately with private sessions because that method felt right and I’m pretty sure this practice both feeds and comes out of obsession.

But Kru Nat is talking about 12-13 years ago.  We’re not living in a gender-equality paradise now, but Kru Nat was coming to this sport without ready names of female Muay Thai fighters.    It is not uncommon to be the only woman in a gym, even now, and even more unlikely that more than a few women at any gym will be very serious about the sport of Muay Thai.  But women now can look at Germaine de Randamie, Julie Kitchen, Angie Rivera Parr, Gina Carano and the other girls of Fight Girls, and Kris Cyborg.  Back in Kru Nat’s day there were (and still are) numerous women fighting in Holland and England, but they weren’t (and often still aren’t) really known in the US.  Funny thing, too: Kru Nat has fought Kitchen three times and knows Carano personally, from training with Master Toddy and was actually at Carano’s first MT fight.  Natalie Fuz is right there on the list of women of Muay Thai who have opened doors – or kicked them down, anyway.

 

When she first began Muay Thai, she just walks in to Five Points, takes a class, and then tells the trainers she wants to learn one-on-one; and when she’s there at the gym training there are very few women – and almost none who were there for the sport – and she’s just going for herself, because it wasn’t even in her mind to compete.  She says it was all guys sparring there at the time, and I get this automatic reaction in my body that feels like something between frustration and excitement.  For a while I was myself sparring only with men – always significantly larger than I – and I had to keep telling them that it’s better for me if they don’t tap me, to please just hit me harder so that I can respond and get some semblance of that pressure and rage one gets in a fight.  Without expressing any of this aloud, Kru Nat relays that she experienced the exact opposite, which she attributes to her size:

Kru Nat:  [B]eing a bigger woman… what I found is [that it’s] different when guys spar with smaller girls vs. women that are their size or closer to their size. They get very threatened.  God forbid you should have better moves or you should be in general better than them. This whole ego thing starts happening and they start hitting really hard. But with smaller girls they are much more cautious, that I notice right away. When smaller girls started coming around there was a different approach, they were careful not to hurt them, while with me they didn’t really [punching her own hand]…you know, full on. That’s the only thing, I thought ‘hmm, that’s kinda bizarre’, I said to myself ‘But I can take it, it’s good for me, it’s not going to get any worse than that’. You know, a 160 or a 180 lb guy is hitting me really hard, when I get in the ring with somebody my size, a woman, it’s not going to feel like anything.

The male vs. female sparring response is far more complex than just a size issue.  What isn’t taken into account by size alone is that the size-aesthetic of women who practice Muay Thai directly affects the hetero-male dominance factor of training Muay Thai in gyms.  Women training today have an aesthetic difficulty in that the “hot female Muay Thai” practitioner has become the dominant image for American audiences.  The female fighter is meant to be physically feminine and attractive to the hetero-male eye; her body is not judged by its ability to perform Muay Thai, but her ability to look good doing it.  The recent MMA bout between Brazilian contender Kris Cyborg and American icon Gina Carano is a lucid example of this disparity.  Both women are – simply put – big, fighting in the 140+ lbs weight class.  Cyborg came out looking incredibly built, with bulging muscles and a strong, square jaw; hair braided in corn-rows and an aesthetic that generally expressed strength.  Carano came out looking like she works out – toned rather than built – with curves and areas of softness, a heart-shaped face framed by pig-tails and an aesthetic that made me think she looked “cute.”  (That said I still wouldn’t get in the ring with her.)  Thing is, both women entered the ring wearing makeup – lipstick on Cyborg, mascara on both.  The fight was brutal and Cyborg dominated the whole thing, but I don’t know that if it had been reversed that Gina would be called a “beast” in the way that Cyborg often is.

Kru Nat does not groom herself to a heterosexual aesthetic.  She’s unmistakably strong and clearly puts work into her physique, but it’s one of usefulness – taking care of her body so it takes care of her in the ring – rather than one that is sexualized by a heterosexual male gaze.  I’m not offering that Carano does not train “right” or that she’s in any way wrong for her image; but I do suggest that if you put Cyborg, Kru Nat, and Carano in a ring with a group of guys for sparring, Carano would be hit the lightest, weather this is conscious or not.

Kru Nat is not unaware of the “hot girl” image of current female Muay Thai fighters.  She sees the difficulty in it, the unfortunate obstacle it presents, and acknowledges that she has not personally felt pressured by it.  But she’s not prepared to absolve sexualized women from all responsibility.  I asked her how she regards this problem in the story of female Muay Thai:

Kru Nat: It’s not going to be [easy] right away because it’s still a male dominated sport, and running into that whole spinning the sexy thing drives me absolutely crazy… I was really outraged the way we’re not taken seriously as athletes sometimes, and it’s still going on. I was just thinking, like, Gina is a perfect example… I know Gina personally. I saw her first fight in Vegas, when she first started I was training with her… it’s just like, you know, just so disturbing.  Or even Julie [Kitchen], I totally respect her, but you know, […] we can blame the men for doing that to us, but you also have to take responsibilities. Then they make a choice to be presented that way, you know, and there are repercussions, it’s not just about you, it’s about also all the other women around. I didn’t get that, not being put in that bag.  Because of who I am I think it’s a little easier, you know. I don’t fit the profile: young with long hair and make-up and all that. And my sexual orientation is different, I think that is a huge part of it. My approach is a bit different because, I’m just so tired of it, the fact that that comes first before a woman is a frickin’ great athlete – being a sexy girl.  There’s nothing wrong with it, but like, where are you drawing the line?

Part II here, Part III here

Yesterday, on my drive down to the sparring circle from my house up in Orange County, my car threatened to drop a wheel, break down, or otherwise leave me and my husband stranded on some stretch of the 60 miles between home and Brooklyn.  After some deliberation, we decided to turn the car around and accept the disppointment of missing the sparring circle, rather than risk the total destruction of the car, upon which we are utterly dependent.

I emailed Greg, called Nicole, and sent a Facebook message to Peelo, asking her to head the group and look out for a few women who had contacted us, saying that they were planning on checking out the circle that day. Lorena, who attended our first meeting but had been unable to spar due to an injury was making her first appearence at the circle for sparring, something which I was hoping to experience.  And  I was especially disappointed that I would not get to meet Hanna, a mutual friend of Peelo’s and my friend Sylvie Charbonneau in Chiang Mai. She has trained in Thailand and has a distinctly Thai style of fighting.

As it turned out, the sparring session went great.  Nicole brought two friends from another group taught by her boyfriend Rich, who have little experience with sparring and not a great deal of contact with other women in these martial sports.  The girls got in the ring after the sparring session and “rolled”, practicing Jiu Jitsu and Lorena jumped in with them! And Hanna was a great addition, demonstrating her powerful and effective clinch, and Peelo said that Hanna and Nicole matched up very well in the ring. 

Photo by Peelo

The women who came to visit were, by and large, very impressed and interested in returning to the group.  Kristine Finn, a triathalete (!) seemed very happy to see the group and, from what I heard from her, Peelo did a great job of heading the group and introducing the visitors the the circle.  Kristine will return in the future for sparring.

Two more visitors were Audrey and Judith, who train in Krav Maga at the Krav Maga Federation.  They watched the circle and wanted to see if their training in KM would translate to sparring with MT fighters.  Audrey tells me that Judith is excited to return and try it out, and Audrey is considering trying it out as well.

In all this was an unique and fun experience for everyone in attendance.  I’m incredibly disappointed that I missed it (and sorry, no pictures!), but very happy that it went so well and that everyone shared such a positive experience.  I’m excited at the possibility of seeing Lorena and Hanna at the circle next week and I have really missed sparring with Peelo.

This is what Nicole R. wrote. I have to say I can’t imagine a better feeling or experience. It’s what the circle is all about:

Some of the girls that train with my boyfriend in staten island on the weekends came down, i asked them to check it out; perhaps give them something to aspire for. i wanted them to see that there are more girls out there that train, and to see some girls who were at higher levels in technique. we rolled after sparring, and lorena jumped in. it was so much fun. hanna was great, she is very strong and has a great clinch, awesome set up for kicks. it was great. we might start rolling after if some girls are up for it too. this was such a fantastic idea, i look forward to tuesdays, its not about competition between girls, its like networking; we share our ideas, and trade techniques. i feel so blessed to be apart of it.

Photo by Peelo

[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.

 

There are benefits to sparring with men:  in general, men are larger than the women they spar, giving women the challenge of going against taller, heavier opponents; this also allows women to strike with a greater percentage of full force, as it will not impact a larger opponent as much as it would someone her own size and, in the same vein, men might hit back harder than a woman might expect or otherwise experience. 

But there are drawbacks as well.  Always having a larger opponent is not going to “toughen” women in a way that is necessary for success.  Muhammad Ali did not consistently spar men much larger than himself; Buakaw is not trading blows with larger opponents.  Personally, at my size, it is difficult to find someone to match me in stature and weight, but consistently being outsized can be frustrating and discouraging – always being overpowered and outreached.  There is also an unfair assumption that men are always at an advantage over women, that sparring with any man is more beneficial than a woman.  This assumes that any man knows more, is stronger, has more technique, and is tougher than any female counterpart.  I disagree.  I’ve sparred with men who have no idea whatever of what they’re doing.  Further, men will often (and maybe this is due to my size and is not universal to sparring with women) act the part of a punching bag and coach, as if all I need is to “work it out” and be encouraged to keep punching without ever hitting back, crashing through my windows, or punishing me for sloppy strikes or bad decisions.  This is more insulting than constructive.  Finally, men and women actually do not fight the same.  Training counters and strategy with a man who is not your size does little to prepare one for trading blows with someone who will not strike, think, move, or strategize in the same manner.  (After watching the fight between Carano and Cyborg, my husband and I postulated that the defeat was a matter of not having trained hard enough, or at least not right.  We considered the possibility of Gina having likely sparred with a great number of men – giving her a taste for power – but I suspect nobody charged her the way Cyborg did in the fight.  I don’t know that a man would train with Carano like this, rushing her, pummeling her.)

All this is not intended to be a “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” argument for the disparity among the sexes.  Rather, it is intended to point out that the assumption made by so many gyms that a woman must spar with men in order to be great is fallacious.  I am not advocating for the abolishment of intersex sparring.  I love sparring men and I have great admiration for my male sparring partners.   I know exactly what I learn from each of them.  What I am arguing is that sparring with women is equally important.  After all, we fight women.  When you step into the ring with a woman and look her in the eye, there is something to be said for having experienced this – many times – before.  And when you spar with men, you are often training with a built-in excuse for why you didn’t do well, or why you couldn’t overcome the various problems one inevitably encounters, with any sparring partner.  When I spar with my male partner, de Jesus, I get incredibly frustrated that I cannot defeat him.  When I spar Nicole Ruiz, who is de Jesus’ same size, I am inspired and encouraged that, though I’m getting my ass kicked, I can aspire to be like her, to be calm and fluid and strong.  I see her qualities, not her advantages.  In the 6 weeks of sparring with women at the NYFSC, I have witnessed countless examples of why a female opponent, my size or not, is an invaluable lesson in learning to fight and an under-used tool in female training.

Last night was our first small turnout, which is pretty amazing. Usually there are 7 or so girls, and different ones each time, but this time it was only Nicole and me…at least in the beginning. But as seems always to be the case, wonderful things happen when female muay thai gets together. First of all we were visited by Chelsea and Sandy, who have been out of muay thai for about a year, and got to talking. They stayed all the way until the end, and are seriously considering taking up muay thai again (they had been at Five Points), and joining the circle soon. They spoke with Greg and it seems are planning to come in for instruction from him, so there was a nice feeling that even though the group was low on numbers, it was still having a positive effect. One of the points of our circle I think is to inspire female muay thai in general, outside of the very specific gym cultures everyone is part of. It’s about making connections, at least for me.

 

And then a really special guest came, Lisa West. Personally I have to say that one of the reasons for the circle was to help me find girls my size, and I think Lisa is the very first person I’ve sparred with who is exactly my size. (For those who haven’t met me, I’m 5’2″ and about 100 lbs.) Lisa is a boxer, and she fought in the Golden Gloves last year, and will this year, and it was really exciting to have her come at me hard and relentlessly. She’s coming again not this week, but the week after. And for the other 100 or so pounders we have, you should be excited. She’s a lot of fun.

So, all in all, a very small group, but still very special things were happening. I met three new girls, and Nicole was wonderful giving me pointers on my boxing, like how to get out the corner better and not get bashed in the face every time she throws an uppercut.

Below I list an update of our Interest List. It includes everyone who has expressed interest in the group, and the majority of these women have come at least once. It’s meant to give those who have not yet come a general sense of the experience and size level of our circle, so if anyone can fill in the blanks or correct any information, that would be great. But the list is also meant as a lasting network list of women in the New York area that are genuinely interested in muay thai to the level of seriously sparring. This way you, as a circle member can keep track of others in your sport, and if you like make your own connections apart from the circle

Also, as the sparring turnout was not high and we have entered into Fall, I’d like to put up a chart of everyone’s extra-curricular availability. This way if we think to change the meeting day we might be able to find a day that is better for everyone. Or, as we have always planned, if we have an impromtu meet up at a park we’ll know who might be available. So, if you can tell us what days and times you are not committed to work, school or gym for the week that would be great.

Every week seems to bring out different women, and a different feeling for the sparring, and this week was, yet again, a great time. For those who weren’t there, Sarah from Church Street came, as did Chris, and we all seemed to be a good mix – lots of pace,  and a lot of joy ringside.  Both Laurie and Peelo are getting ready to fight, so the energy seemed up for everyone, not to mention that Greg had just returned from a week off after the birth of his baby girl (!). (He said he can’t wait for her to join the circle.) So many new things. On top of that we tried our first experiment with filming rounds, so you’ll have to get back to us, and discuss amongst yourselves how much you liked it. As you know, we are trying to respect the privacy needs of all the fighters (no one should be able to study them adversely), but still grant us the advantage of looking at what we have done and seeing what we should improve upon.

Video Footage of Rounds

As we mentioned before, we are posting the footage of the rounds on a Youtube site dedicated to our sparring circle. All the videos have been, and will be set to “private”, which means only those who are “friends” of the site can view them. Hopefully this will keep the privacy issue in check. And as we also agreed upon, after one week the footage will be taken down and replaced by the next meeting. If you have a Youtube account, the process should be pretty simple. Go to TheNYFSC, and click “add as Friend” on the main page. After receiving the “friend” notification, we can manually add you to the privacy list, and this should allow you to see all the videos we put up (and comment upon them as well). You’ll get email invites for each of them. You can either click on the link in each email, or can simply go to the main page listed above, and see them all there. They are not searchable by anyone, and we keep references names, and descriptions at a minimum. It is important that when you Friend the Youtube site, that you let us know who you are in a short message. In a small note, if you don’t see yourself much in the footage, we didn’t take equal footage of all because it’s somewhat happenstance who we captured, also because Laurie requested not to be filmed due to her upcoming fight, so anytime she was in the ring we either didn’t shoot, or shot in a very narrow frame. If ever you would like to make sure you’re filmed – perhaps you’re working on something, or plain excited about the idea –  just let us know in advance, and of course if you don’t want to be filmed at all, let us know that too. All in all, please tell us if it was a good thing for you, and if we should continue it.

If you do not have Youtube, you will have to set up an account to join and view the channel. Its easy and takes about 5 min. Just go to Youtube and click “Create an Account”. They will ask you for an email address, and when you receive their email and verify, you should be then able to go to our site – TheNYFSC – and add it as a “Friend”. If you have any trouble with this email me at sylvie@earthlink.net, and I’ll walk you through it. We are pretty much going to restrict who can join as a friend to the actual women who are involved, and perhaps some trainers. There is a limit of 25 persons who can join as Friends.

Photos and the Events Page

We’ll be posting photos from this week over at the Facebook events page found here, which can also be reached via our main Facebook page here (just look on the right sidebar under “Events”. The “create an event” feature seemed to be a pretty good to announce our times and locations, and to make people aware of who is going and who cannot come that week. Some may have not gotten the message through facebook as several who came didn’t confirm, so if there are any thoughts on how to do it better, let us know. Through the “events” page you can invite anyone you are fb friends with, so feel free to use it as everyone who participates is an “administrator” of the facebook page.

 

Greg is back, and Sarah from Church Street says she can be there, and Jessica is back in training, and Peelo’s getting ready for her Sept. 19th fight, so there should be some really nice sparring ahead this Tuesday after our one-week break. Let’s see if we can come on strong. Also there has been some discussion among most of our regulars and all seem to agree that they like the idea of filming some of the rounds for later viewing and study. So what we are thinking is that as long as everyone in the ring is into it, Kevin will film a pair and we’ll put it up on a private YouTube account so only the few of us can view it, to be taken down after a week. We’ll experiment with it just this week and see how everyone feels. At all costs this should not be obtrusive, nor should anyone feel that they have to be filmed. But it might be cool to critique youself, or even have others critique you too. The reason why we are all meeting is that we all just want to get better.

For those who haven’t come yet, the map and directions to Ardon Sweet Science can be viewed here. If you aren’t sure or can’t spar for some reason, we’d love for you to just come by and watch. It’s a pretty unique get together. I don’t know of anywhere else where women come together from different gyms like this to share community and spar for fun and growth.  It’s a very cool experience.

Here is the event page on Facebook, if you would like to RSVP.

Some notes. Let’s try to work realistic clinching into our sparring (bring kneepads if you can), which we haven’t really done yet. I took a clinching class at Five Points this week and realized that I have a lot to work on there, and maybe some of you feel the same. 

To give a sense to everyone of the scope of the circle so far, here is a list of those who have expressed interest in our circle in some way. If any of you can help fill out or correct the informational blanks that would be great for all because part of the aim here is to identify a new york female muay thai community so other women know who else is practicing and to help others network. Ultimately this is your circle, and the connections you make belong to you. So think of any others who might like to come and enjoy it. Most of those listed have already participated, but the more we grow the group the more resilient and varied it will be, the more likely it will surive lower turn out days, or prod us to do something different, etc. What is beautiful is that what can happen when people get to know each other can’t be anticipated.

Also, if you’re not on Facebook, please give us an email where we can contact you, if you’d like to hear directly about new events or cancellations.

Some of the folks from Church Street have suggested that it would be really nice if we could film some rounds with their women sparring so that they can see the action and possibly help in identifying and correcting any deep mistakes. And while this seems like a very interesting idea, there are a few pitfalls or problems to deal with in implimenting it. What we were thinking was that we (Kevin) could film specific rounds – rounds only with those who would like to be filmed – and they could be posted privately on a YouTube account just for the group. YouTube has a setting such that only “friends” can view a video. Read More »