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When the opportunity arose to attend Nathalie Fuz’s retirement fight, a significant change in the life of Nathalie who I had recently met and interviewed for an article, it seemed that the event must be captured in some way; I could not let it pass only as a spectator.  I asked, and Nathalie welcomed me to interview her again, as well as her partner Kelly – and with the hospitality of Justin Blair of Friday Night Fights the whole special event was opened for filming.   Below is the film that resulted, much of it on-camera interviews with Nathalie and Kelly.  But it can also be viewed as a personal expression of what Muay Thai is and specifically female Muay Thai.   The film focuses on how Muay Thai is so much more than “the fight”, aimed at the entire circle of lives and relationships and concepts that come together, and came together as Nathalie prepared for and then reflected upon the final fight of her career…this last contest before she opens her own gym, and concentrates fulltime on her own students.

The Entire film (45 minutes) can be seen on Megavideo here, in perhaps slightly better video quality and full screen, recommended. (When you get to the Megavideo link, just click the red play arrow, and then the green.)

Or it can be seen in these five parts on youtube which are cut with just a bit of overlap:

The way that the film developed in editing was that the first two  “parts” form a small 20 minute film on their own, and the secondary post-fight reflection a kind of commentary on all that preceded. Perhaps it is Muay Thai in its art, and then its thoughts. It stands as a whole, but then again it is two films. View it how you wish.

Getting Acquainted

Two Fridays past was the final event for Friday Night Fights for 2009. It was the first time I’d ever attended the event, which has been hosted by Church Street Boxing for the last 12 years. I had the rare opportunity to enter the venue with a press pass, which granted me access to the venue and the fighters prior to the fights. I was given access in order to shoot footage of Nathalie Fuz for a small film I’m putting together to document the retirement bout of this accomplished fighter. To add heat to the fire, Florina Petcu – a WKA champion – was fighting for the WKA Fly Weight title. As a small fighter like I am and admirer of Florina, I was eager to see her fight – something I had never even seen on video, let alone witnessed in person.

Held in the Hall at St. Paul, the venue is a surprising, and through the host’s set up and design, quite impressive space. As I entered pre-fight the ring stood in the middle of the huge room illuminated by hidden stage lights, its mat somehow emptier than all the other space around it. Folding chairs formed rows stretching back from three sides of the ring. It seemed somewhat intimate, in the way a small music venue permits one to feel close to the stage from any position in the room.

I spent my time scouting a good seat for the fights, shooting stock footage of people milling around – mostly staff, mixed with some antsy fighters, dressed in sweats and hoodies. Occasionally I passed by the doorway to the room where all the fighters gathered for medical check and weigh-in. Beyond the threshold the fighters laughed and joked with each other as they waited in line, while others already paced or rocked, heads down and deeply focused on the fight to come.

I stood against a wall filming two women who sat in chairs just outside the blue corner of the ring. One had bleach-blonde dreadlocks tied up in high pig-tails, the other sat somewhat hunched over, donning brunette corn-rows and simple wire-frame glasses, munching idly out of a bag of what looked like sunflower seeds or trail mix. I filmed the two of them like that for a few minutes, wondering if they might be officials, or family or fans. Just past their chairs I could see a woman, dimly lighted by the ring lights, waving to me from the dark middle rows of chairs. I walked over to discover it was Niramon Ross, a Thai filmmaker shooting a full-length film on Nathalie Fuz. We’d come in together and been quickly introduced at the door while there was some debate over whether another press pass could be issued for her crew or whether I might have to surrender mine, as there had been a bit of confusion as there often can be.

I had barely made it over to her before she was leading me back to the blue corner of the ring, talking as we went, advising me that she wanted me to do an interview for her, since she’d heard I ask clever questions. I innocently agreed, not sure of what exactly she had in mind until we were standing right next to the two women I had been filming and it dawned on me that the spectacled brunette was Helene Garnett, Nathalie’s opponent. Niramon introduced us and handed a clip mic to Helene, who politely gave the “one moment” hand signal while she deposited her snack in a bag underneath her chair and cleared her mouth before turning to me, indicating her readiness. Immediately I was struck by her gaze, which was indifferent and steady, confident and patient – not quite inviting, but tolerant. I began with a few questions regarding her experience with Muay Thai and her path toward fighting Nathalie Fuz. She’s been fighting since around 2003 and trains out of a big gym in the UK. It was her first time in New York and she was sure to note that she was rather enjoying the stay so far. I’d learned from Nathalie that the fight was arranged through email and Facebook, so I asked if this was a somewhat new phenomenon to her: to be able to Facebook someone and ask for a fight. She decided that, no, this was not entirely new as she’s always had a say in who she fights and, though her coach suggests that she fight this girl rather than that girl, or if she should add this one to the list, and that she has enjoyed a level of autonomy in her fighting career thus far. Then she waited, watching me reach for another question with complete stillness in her countenance – I marked her as a counter puncher. When asked why she had requested to fight Nathalie, Helene expressed the degree of notoriety of and admiration for Nathalie Fuz as a female Muay Thai fighter and it was clear that a fight between the two was meaningful, in the way that two fighters share something with one another that is a connection entirely unique to the fight itself.

When I ran out of questions I thanked her for her time and wished her a good fight. She thanked Niramon in Thai and then I added, to Helene, “Chok Dee.” Helene nodded a thank you and then paused for a moment before looking up – at nothing in particular – and saying, somewhat cheerfully, “I like that: Chok Dee.”

As we stepped away from the corner I noticed that the blonde woman in Helene’s corner was taming a tiny, flame-haired boy, probably no older than two. He plodded about in a little radius the length of his own little arm, clasped by his mother’s hand and I marveled at how I’d not noticed him at all before this point. More marvelous was the way in which these two women, sitting ring-side in an empty venue, could stand out or disappear with one glance; maternal but not domestic.

A Crowd Comes

Ten minutes until the doors opened, a paramedic duo marched in through the double doors. They exchanged no words or even glances between one another as they approached the ring and slipped a gurney underneath the platform, taking care to tuck oxygen tubes and various supplies near the edge, where they would be at the ready. I stared at the gurney’s white sheet as the paramedics slipped away, the thing lurking under the ring like some ominous prop.

As the crowd filed in, filling seats and bringing much-needed body heat to the hall, the filmmaker, the photographer and I headed over to the green room, attempting to find Nathalie in a semi-subdued area. Instead we discovered a room bustling with male fighters, energetic and loud, warming up and getting rubbed down before the imminent show. Nathalie was within the room, but she kept moving around. She greeted people left and right and moved in and out of the room (mostly out) and disappeared into the crowd. She could be tracked through the sound of exaltation and cheers as she navigated the great hall, but she only became visible when she moved in the spaces between the large groups. It dawned on me as I watched her make her rounds that I have only seldom seen Nathalie walking; in general we have met, moved to a place to sit, and then sat. Watching her now as she moved confidently from one space to another, I said out loud to myself, “that woman’s got swagger.” There can be some peacocking in the movement of a fighter on the floor of a venue, but in the case of Nathalie Fuz it’s not a show. Rather, it seems like a cat with its whiskers on high alert, or an octopus with its tentacles out, feeling out and vibing on all the energy of the room and that energy dictates the posture. It makes one straighten one’s own back.

Hands Wrapped, Fights On

As it happened, Nathalie was unable to have her hands wrapped prior to the start of the show. Her fight was the co-main event of the night so she would not be entering the ring for over an hour. The man she’d asked to wrap her hands, trainer at Church Street Jason Strout, had fighters getting in the ring at the beginning of the show so he deferred his attention to getting them ready and preparing himself to corner. He pointed to a name on the fight card and told Nathalie he’d wrap her hands after this fight. With this I slipped out into the crowd and took my seat next to my husband with a great view from behind the red corner of the ring.

The first fight was a Western boxing match between two young men with drastically disparate experience levels. The first round was anxious, with the less experienced fighter coming in and taking countless shots at his opponent. The more experienced fighter moved fluidly, dodging blows and throwing practically none, just feeling out his opponent. By the second round the more advanced fighter knew the extent of his opponent’s power and he began striking back, delivering deliberate and powerful combinations. The greener of the two held his own and fought hard all the way to the end of the third round. But the victory went to the seasoned fighter.

The DJ waited for the boxers to exit the ring and for the next fighters to reach their corners; moments later the unmistakable Muay Thai music could be heard echoing through the entire venue as the fighters climbed into the ring. The two fighters (John Lancaster & Delvon Hodges) were not evenly sized: red corner seemed to stand 4 inches taller than the blue. by the time they were fighting his legs and arms stretched with impossible length as he kicked and punched. It was thrilling to watch a Muay Thai bout just after a boxing match – the difference of movements emphasized by their succession. The blue corner fought well, kicking hard and swift, but the bout went to the tall, consistent and steady red corner.

Then came more boxers: the super-heavyweights. I’d seen one kid warming up in the “blue room”. He (Nikko Diaz) was young and excited and huge, his father coaching him backstage and amping him up for what would be his first fight. As I watched his opponent (Elvin Vargas, a last minute replacement) enter into the ring – a giant boxer with arms the size of my legs – my husband expressed concern that at this weight, regardless of skill, injury was a serious possibility. I watched the kid bounce in his corner, barely containing his excitement, his energy filling the whole ring. He was too amped up, too eager. I worried that he would gas himself in the first round and this older giant would crush him. My hands began to clasp one another as the bell rang to start the match. The kid exploded, driving into his opponent with strong, clean combinations and then, the unexpected: he didn’t let up. He just kept plowing through, backing his opponent into the ropes and clapping his head back and forth between his gloves.  The red corner held up, however, and kept ducking and weaving through the attacks.  He seemed experienced.   By the end of the first round the more experienced opponent was winded; as the bell rang for round two, the kid flew in again, pinning his opponent to the ropes and throwing hook after hook into his head. We cheered him to keep the pressure, we hollered at him to stop head hunting and work the body, to just knock all the power out of his opponent and end the match. He wanted a knock out and, even with his considerable size, he wasn’t getting it. The experienced man threw out long, aimless uppercuts, which the kid easily slipped. I couldn’t fathom his speed – like the impossibility of linebackers darting down the field, refrigerators moving like gazelles. In between the second and third round the referee stopped the fight and the red corner, winded and sweating, did not contest. The kid leapt about the ring with excitement and pride, then hurried over to the red corner to check on his opponent and thank him. The more experienced man shook the kid’s glove with genuine respect and the crowd went wild. 

The Muay Thai music played again and two men met at the center of the ring. One corner threw mostly punches (Ryan Peterson), while the other attempted the same four-set combination again and again (Carl Garcia). The boxer with a quick arm caught his oppenent’s right kick with growing predictability and repeatedly dropped his opponent to the floor with speed and power. The crowd called for a different approach, but none came. The same right kick preceded the same heavy drop to the mat. The fight lasted three rounds and finished without any turn around.

Behind the Scenes, Wrapping Hands

I realized the time and leapt from my seat, hurrying back to the dressing room to prepare filming the promised hand-wrapping. The room was quieter, the energy perhaps a little more somber. Victorious fighters waltzed in with coaches, the super-heavyweight kid disappeared behind hugs from family and supporters. And defeated fighters walked in confidently, but sat down with hunched backs and thoughtful stares down to the floor, trying to piece together the flaws they had betrayed or the strategy they’d neglected.

Nathalie sat quietly near a far wall of the room. Behind her a group of young men stand semi-circle and watch the only other female fighter in the room, Florina Petcu, as she stands still her eyes averted, while a photographer snaps pictures, her arms being rubbed down with oil before she warms up. The young men make remarks about female Muay Thai that make me turn my head and my mouth drop open slightly – they say them without lowering their voices – and I’m disappointed to see that I recognize the gym logos on their sweatshirts. Their gyms do not share their views, and yet, because these men are not exceptional, in some way the gyms do.

The kid from the first boxing match of the night came in, dressed in street clothes and his face punctuated by half-dollar sized bruises. After receiving a few congratulatory hand slaps, he informed the other guys that he was heading out to get something to eat and tacitly invited them to join. His spirit seemed good, not high, not low, but generally matching his seriousness and intensity prior to the fight; very even.

Florina began warming up, practicing speed and rotation, rather than full range motion. She paused periodically, moving chairs from her warm-up space and directing her gaze so that the fewest number of people took up her periphery. Jason from Church Street rushed in and after meeting his glance Nathalie flipped two chairs to face away from each other, back to back, so that she and Jason would face each other. With a few words of acknowledgment Jason laid out his supplies and began massaging Nathalie’s hands, her freshly painted red nails flashing bright between his own fingers as he loosened and relaxed her knuckles. And then he began wrapping, long strips of gossamer white taking on form as they looped again and again around Nathalie’s wrists and knuckles. Jason worked with the speed and care of a well-practiced hand, at once binding and protecting. There was a kind of contradiction in the action in that the tools are all medical – white sterile gauze and clean stainless-steel medical scissors and cloth tape – and yet the action is toward a decidedly un-medical end in combat. The bridge in this dichotomy was Jason’s repeated need to wipe his brow and shaved head, which were sweating profusely from both his concentration and from running from training room to corner and back, playing many roles at once, and with this sweat that he wiped from his own face he plastered down the rolls of gauze now layered over Nathalie’s fists. Like a painter licking the brush and the saliva becoming part of the art.

When the wrapping was finished Nathalie pounded her knuckles into each palm and remarked how good it felt, thanking Jason again for doing her this favor. He nodded and kept moving, the demand of the next 10 tasks already abuzz in his body. Nathalie started her shadow boxing warm-up and I slipped back out into the crowd.

The Women Bring It: Natalie’s Last Fight

After a few more bouts, one featuring a fighter with unbelievable knee strikes, the announcer took the mic with renewed vigor, introducing the title fight between two women vying for the WKA Fly Weight belt (Florina Petcu & Stephanie Stafford). The bout was very high energy with both women holding strong through the five rounds. Florina dominated the fight with her push-kicks, long jab and clinch; Stephanie fought strong and kept coming in on Florina – an attempt that seemed impossible and draining. In the end both women looked spent and Stephanie clapped for Florina before the results were even announced. The crowd in front of me went wild as Florina Petcu was named the winner and she flew to our side of the ring, pointing at the group in front of me and then at her heart. They were from her gym, Renzo Gracie.

There was another Muay Thai match between men, again with nice knees, and then I ran off to the blue corner of the ring just as Nathalie Fuz and Helene Garnett stepped in, the main event. I made my way to the side of the ring that was standing room only and wiggled my way to the front, just behind the judges’ table. My eye shifted between my camera and the ring as the two contenders began their Wai Kru /Ram Muay. Nathalie had told me that she was greatly looking forward to the two of them doing the Wai Kru simultaneously, something that is not really done regularly in the US and was clearly wanting throughout much of the night. At most only one fighter of the pair, if at all, performed the ceremonial dance prior to any of the fights before.

Now each woman moved with focused rhythm, eyes seeing into the distance beyond the ring. There’s something unique to the expression of the Wai Kru and Ram Muay when both fighters perform them simultaneously. When there are two it looks like a fight, but as if the fighters are blind to one another. One could not help but realize that these women were, in reality, dancing together, but not with each other, barely even acknowledging one another until Nathalie, in the final challenge of the Ram Muay, chased after Helene (whose back was turned, returned to her corner) and stomped right up to her. I’ve seen a number of different Wai Kru and I’ve learned that of my own master’s, so I know that this aggressive display can be an integral part of the Ram Muay. That said, I experienced a flutter of panic, a hint of suspense as Nathalie rushed Helene. I wonder if Helene felt it too.

Each fighter returned to her corner to remove the Mongkon (head charm) and put in a mouth piece. From my vantage point near the blue corner, a portion of the ring was obstructed by corner men and WKA officials stationed on the outside of the ring. As such, I did not see Helene approaching Natalie’s blue corner until she was already there – another charge of sorts – where she presented Kru Nat with an object, an offering, that I could not identify. Nathalie accepted it with a bow and it was handed to her second in the corner – her partner of over 10 years, Kelly. Then both women met the ref at the center of the ring, the sides of the mat cleared of all bodies except a few photographers in the corners, and the crowd hushed. The women nodded in agreement to whatever the ref asked them and then he stepped away. The bell rang and the women touched gloves.

The contact of their hands at the onset of the match was like two particles colliding and exploding out, rippling energy into the two opposing bodies which now bounced and hurled toward one another. I’ve witnessed Nathalie outside of the ring a number of times and had just spent a few hours observing her in wait of this event; I’d never seen anything of Helen prior to this event, but did have the opportunity to watch her and even speak with her for a few minutes before the fight. Neither woman is the same in the ring as she is outside of it, but the difference is not so great that it renders the woman unrecognizable – like Jekyl and Hyde or Clark Kent and Superman.  It is more like watching an amphibian that you previously had only seen walking on land suddenly slip into water and start swimming.  It’s the same animal with the same body, but every limb moves differently in order to be in each element.  It is a testiment to these fighters that they can contain both possibilities within themselves; the body in motion is navigated by the mind at rest, and the body in wait is postured by the potential and grace of the fighter’s mind.

Nathalie has an interesting tendency to jut her chin out, almost tauntingly, as she dances around her opponent. She keeps her body leaned far back, so her head is almost always out of range, and she locks her eyes onto the face of her opponent. She attacked with punches and beautiful kicks, and Helene seemed always ready, blocking and moving and coming in for counters. When I later looked at my footage, every snapshot of Helene blocking a kick was a poster-perfect example of what one should do. I can’t imagine how much training it must take to have such consistent and well timed reactions.

The fighters clinched repeatedly, whirling into the ropes with knees thrashing at each other. The referee grabbed the bowed ropes and yanked them in, launching the women back toward the center of the ring. At times Nathalie employed this method herself, leaning all her weight into the ropes to herself back, straight at Helene.

Between rounds I focused in on Kru Nat in her corner, as she sat semi-silhouetted and surrounded by her corners. She breathed evenly, nodded consciously as Mauricio – her first – couseled her.

By the fourth round both women had made adjustments to the other’s skills and tendencies. I knew the fight was five rounds, but had forgotten that each round was three minutes; from where I was neither woman betrayed any wear on their bodies – either through injury or fatigue. Near the end of round 4 Helene backed Nathalie into the blue corner and flew into her with high, strong kicks. Nathalie fought her way out and managed to drop Helene to the mat at the side of the ring. Nathalie stood over her as she oriented herself and got up, jumping immediately back into the fight. When Helene was struck she blocked and looked utterly unphased; when Nathalie got hit, she smiled with total joy.

Between rounds a ring girl – one blonde, one brunette – circled the ring with cards indicating the number of the upcoming round. This had occurred all night but, for whatever reason, these girls entering the ring between rounds of a female fight felt completely different than during male bouts. The role of these girls is essentially that of eye-candy and to inspire the crowd; really hot, really silent cheerleaders. But during the female matches, the girls felt different. Not out of place or even especially unnecessary, but more curious and slightly at risk. At one point I joked with my husband by play yelling to the ring girls: “Get out of the ring, it’s dangerous in there!” This was, in some sense, an effect of female-on-female violence, possibly inspired by the obvious disparity between the primped appeal of a high-heeled ring girl and the attraction of a trained and pumped-up female fighter. But the contrast between the two is also really interesting and itself a little appealing, in that the two sides of women, although dichotomized by the extremes of princess and warrior, are simultaneously represented in the ring and, even if only on a surface level, are mutually supportive. On the other hand, the purposeful eye-candy of the ring girl, coupled with the incidental sexualization of female fighters seems to collapse the two into a single image, almost forcing a heterosexual gaze to discriminate between the two.

The fifth round began with a flurry. Both women had burned into their stores of energy, but showing not the slightest indication that they’d already completed four rounds. The strikes were fast and powerful, both women dodged and blocked with accuracy and kept their feet light. The crowd cheered and held its breath; I looked across the front rows on all three sides of the ring and saw some cupping hands over their mouths, others throwing their fists up over their heads and shouting. The fighters covered every inch of the ring, keeping in range as if tethered to one another. When at last the final bell rang both women halted, smiled wide enough for it to be seen even in the back rows of the crowd, and they embraced. Helene literally lifted Nathalie up and carried her a few steps in the ring before planting her back down in celebration, both women keeping their arms around each other as they did a lap around the mat. The crowd stood, applauding and a few visibly weeping.

The After Fight

The judges scores were read and Helene was announced the definitive winner; while her hand rose as the victor, Nathalie nodded, smiled, and clapped her glove against her held hand. The MC announced that this was Nathalie’s retirement fight and first gave the microphone to Helene, who in a calm, almost soft voice she thanked the audience and Friday Night fights for the opportunity to fight. She announced that it was her first time in New York and that she was having great time, and then she expressed her gratitude and appreciation for Nathalie Fuz, how happy she was to have fought her. The mic was then handed to Nathalie, who gave her thanks and spoke words of sincere admiration and respect for Helene. She thanked Justin Blair for hosting her final fight at Friday Night Fights, where she’d began; and she thanked her partner, Kelly, her corner and training partner, Mauricio, and her trainers for more than a decade at Five Points.

The two women stood with their arms around each other’s shoulders, at times their heads bowing together as photographers snapped them and the announcer gave his final thanks to the crowd and sponsors and the lights went up.

The crowd dispersed rapidly in the next 20 minutes, while a glob of supporters gathered outside the blue corner of the ring, hugging and congratulating Nathalie. A crew of men set upon the ring, dismantling it with impressive speed and in the odd light of the house lights a number of the night’s fighters could be seen milling around.

I ran into Wendy Lao, a current student of Natalie’s, who said she’d gotten a bit choked up at the end of the fight, but looked inspired. She said that Nathalie and others would be meeting at a pub/restaurant down the block and invited me and my husband to join. I went to find my husband, ran into Florina in the women’s restroom, surrounded as she was by a flock of what seemed a dozen women all buzzing and giddy. Florina looked ecstatic and gave a hug as I congratulated her on her performance as we walked back out into the main hall. The last time I’d seen her she’d taken a small hiatus from Muay Thai training to focus on Jiu-Jitsu. She looked relaxed and revived, like someone stepping out of a hot spring after a long soak; I can only imagine what that fatigue and elation must do to the spirit.

My husband and I headed out into the cold and took a table at a diner just a few doors down from the church hall, hoping to get some food before meeting Nathalie and her friends at the pub. There was already another group from the venue – one of whom took a belt – sitting at a long row of tables across a short partition from the table where we had landed. We’d just gotten our food when Helene Garnett and her female corner with the tiny red-haired boy, and a man I hadn’t noticed before all walked in and took a table next to the other table of fighters, separated by a pillar the width of a large man.

It took a while for the group to get settled in their seats. The toddler must have been asleep in the stroller because there was no fussing with him at all. When the waiter came over to their table he asked if Helene was a fighter, pointing to the next table and stating that the guys over there won a belt. I could barely hear Helene, even though we sat only 10 feet away – she’s quite soft spoken – as she pulled out her trophy she explained to the waiter that she’d received the wrong one. Apparently she’d gotten a trophy that read “pin weight” (she’d just fought near 140 lbs) and “second place” (she’d won the main event). She didn’t seem upset about it; she seemed flatly aware of the mix up and found it either amusing enough to share it with this total stranger.

We headed back out into the night after my Greek Omelette and moved toward the pub to meet Nathalie. On our way down a dark, long Avenue block we passed the Thai filmmaker, her photographer, and a woman I’d not seen earlier in the night. We walked right by each other not registering who we were and I had to turn around and sprint up the block to catch them. We shook hands and expressed pleasure to have met each other. I stated, somewhat anecdotally, that Helene was at the diner up the block. Niramon wanted us to show her and we all walked back over together. She hurried in to get Helene to sign a legal release – we watched through the window as she approached the table; Helene looked perplexed for a few moments before smiling, wide, and putting her head down to sign the paper. Outside we chatted with the photographer and the woman I did not know, who it turned out, was his wife. She’d grown up outside of Lumpinee stadium but had never seen live Muay Thai until tonight, in America. My husband expressed surprise, which I too felt, but I commented that we live pretty near New York City and I’ve never seen the Yankees or the Mets in person. It would, however, be something if my first live baseball experience took place in Thailand with Thai players.

We said our goodbyes and parted ways, our new Thai friends heading down to their homes in Queens and we finally made it down to the pub. The intention was to go in and say thank you and quick goodnight. We had two dogs at home that’d been alone for many hours already.

Inside the pub we found a good, warm crowd, all huddled around dark-wood tables lighted by tea-light candles. Nathalie sat in the far corner, looking relaxed and joyous. There was a slightly disjointed feel to the group, likely due to the organization of seating all in a long row. When Nathalie saw me, however, she gave a huge smile and reached her hands – her lacquered nails blood-red in the candlelight – over the table and grasping mine. I thanked her for the evening, for letting me film her, offering her congratulations, explaining that we had to get back up to our dogs. She nodded and told me to call her regarding finishing the interview for the film. I said hello and goodbye to Wendy who sat directly next to Nat and then moved down the line to say goodnight to Kelly. She popped up from her seat and clasped my hand in hers as she led me through the pub to meet her two brothers, who live up by me in a town so small that one expects to know everybody in it or nobody at all; for me it’s the latter. We stayed a bit longer due to the good company chatting away before venturing one last time into the night and heading back home.

The ride is long and dark and wearily unwinding. The straight road, illuminated only by the narrow head beams and very few other cars, allows one to drift inward. I replayed images in my head from the night, recalling the echoes of excitement and the bodily aftertaste of anxiety during a fight. I felt inspired and exhausted, which seem symptoms of anticipation and compassion. I wondered how many others from the audience went home feeling like this – if it is part of the bargain in going to see an event like this, or whether it is a gift of the opportunities I’ve been so fortunate to be offered. This was the final fight for Nathalie, one of the best for both her and Helene, and the last fight of the year for Friday Night Fights. The event will resume in January, pulling together more fighters, introducing new audiences and loyal fans. In short, it goes on. With all I experienced in one night, it is one ripple on the surface of a rushing river. For the thousand people who glimpsed, it stands alone, if even for a moment.

[For more photos from the event to go Friday Night Fights Facebook page, hereAnd my album, here]

Part III [Part I here, Part  II here]       

Article by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

The studio is small and bare, with one mirrored wall directly parallel to a wall of windows, which lets in a thin, lazy light, as well as the heaving sounds of traffic and horns from the Chinatown street below.  The room’s hardwood floor and low ceiling send the noise all around the room, while Kru Natalie and I sit in the farthest corner, leaning toward each other when a particularly loud truck groans by.

It dawns on me in this little room, isolated from the busy New York crowd below, how remarkable it is just for the two of us to be here: two women, a generation apart, discussing our love for the art and challenges in the sport of  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”of “>Muay Muay “>Thai.  class=”mceItemHidden”> Kru Natalie has experience and knowledge; she’s made Muay Thai a vector point in her life and it is a large root that keeps her planted in the USA.  I have only just begun and I am each day making Muay Thai a bigger focus for myself; it is a passion that has brought great people into my life and it is a limb that reaches to take me out of the US.  She is a teacher, but she’s not my teacher; I am a student, but I’m not her student.  And yet these echo through the room as we move through topics that excite us, or issues that make us cringe.  Our voices jump and bounce off the walls, floor and ceiling, interrupting the cacophony that spews through the windows.  And I am filled with a sense of awe and gratitude that the overpowering voices in this room are women’s voices.

Kru Natalie is singular in many facets of her experience.  Not only did she begin studying and fighting Muay Thai at a time when she had very few female peers, but she became an instructor and in October of 2008 received the rank of Kru (a ceremonial and often certified title for teachers) at Five Points.  If female fighters are underrepresented in gyms, female instructors are virtually unheard of. 

I’m a big advocate of female to female sparring partners.  (I’ve often heard men claim that any woman worth her salt in the ring has sparred with men – it just makes them better fighters.  I agree that sparring with men is important, but I do question the validity of this statement.  Given the small number of women generally amassed in gyms, the number of female sparring partners a woman might have is probably between one and three.  The constant for this female to male experiment is therefore skewed and it’s not a matter of gender, but a number game: who does better, a woman who spars only with women and therefore has between 1-3 sparring partners; or a woman who spars with men and therefore has upwards of 20 sparring partners at her disposal?)  I can only wonder at the benefits of having a female instructor, whether the advantages be inspirational, aspiration, or sympathetic.  I don’t mean sympathetic in the stereotypically feminine sense of the word, but rather the notion that the instructor might have gender-specific experience that applies uniquely to women.

 

I don’t think of this at first as Kru Natalie’s advantage as a female instructor to female athletes; instead I experienced it as a woman standing at a parade and watching Natalie casually and confidently announce that the emperor has no clothes. 

Sylvie: I was reading an interview with you and I was so stunned because you are the first person I’ve heard mention menstruation for women athletes, other than that at high levels of athleticism one might lose it or something like this. I thought, my God, in a sport where making weight is so prioritized, how can it not be a topic.  And then you have women with this body hatred thing going on at the same time – I’m conflicted in my own mind whether it’s never mentioned because it is a male dominated sport and women should just know and men don’t want to hear about it, or whether it’s just that as a woman you don’t even think about. For example I know girls who won’t train while they are menstruating. I believe you should be able to make that choice for yourself and that’s great, so long as it’s a conscious choice.  But for me, as someone who’s dealt with it for 13 years, it came as an utterly unexpected obstacle when preparing and actually going to fight.  I mean, it didn’t even enter my mind as something I should consider when weighing in or having energy or anything!  It’s just never talked about.

Kru Nat: Well, that’s the other thing about male trainers vs. female trainers. Any female athlete that ever had a female trainer in any sport – I can assure you that it’s been addressed, because we all know how much it sucks. And you know, like you said the point is that in this sport you have to make weight, you can’t just show up and whatever. So, we all know biologically you put on a few pounds at a certain time of your period and because you can get weighed the day before, but then boom, you get on that scale… when you’re younger it’s two or three pounds, when you’re my age it’s five or six.

The thing about not training while you have your period, that’s really extreme; you deal with it. I do check on my cycle, I always know when it’s going to happen because I’m very regular and I need to know, especially going into a fight, because I’m going to have to adapt. If I’m in the middle, it’s fine, with the traveling and all that I might be a little off; but if it’s right to a certain day and it’s really heavy then I’m going to have to drop down, because otherwise I’m going to be in trouble. So it’s a real concern. I think, again, it’s a cultural thing. You know I hate to bring that up, but it’s true. Over the years I didn’t think that being from another country necessarily meant anything, just the fact that you are from another country, but it’s pretty amazing – the impact of culture in early formative years and what you take from it. You know I’ve been gone from France for 20 years and I have no intention of going back – I love France, but not to live or run a business, I’m very clear about that.  This is where I want to be, this is where I’m at, but culturally, those things, like any body thing –

Sylvie: Very hush hush.

Kru Nat: Yeah, here it’s very hush hush. It’s that all Puritan, repressive thing and over there people make fun all the time that we are nudists, or whatever; so there’s not that sense of being hung up on the body thing.  So for me it’s very easy to talk about it.  And, you know, my trainer is English – that’s the worst – because I would just bring it up and he would be blushing and I would just think: get over it.  It’s become a joke between us because we’re such an odd couple in that way, because of the cultural difference, but it is very important to address it. I’m sorry,  but this is a huge part of being a female athlete, you know?  You’re just not the same at certain times of your cycle. Not the weight, or even up here [motioning to her head/heart?]. At a certain time when I’m training, if it’s two days before I’ll be super focused and then the next day I’m not focused, I can’t really concentrate, or I’m not as powerful. I mean it affects you and that’s the way it is.

Another thing that I address is sexual behavior. Addictions of all kinds, drinking, drugging, all that is out the door; you cannot do that, and sex has to be addressed too. It’s one thing for a man, it’s another thing for a woman. And I talk about those things, believe me. When I start – most of my girls are from here [NY/the US] – and they’re like [looking shocked, smiling] –

Sylvie: [laughing]

Kru Nat: – oh, I’m very humorous about it, so they have a humor about it, and they are used to it by now, but I’m going to talk about it. I don’t care how you feel about it, I need to talk to you about these things, it’s part of it.

Sylvie: How do you address it with them? It terms that it needs to be a point of focus or do you actually give them this as part of the regimen?  I mean, clearly you don’t drink, clearly you don’t do this –

Kru Nat: Oh yeah, you have to. You can’t be seriously getting ready for a fight and being horny and drinking away, or worse taking drugs. You have to dry up.

Sylvie: It’s your body, and you’re using your body, so…

Kru Nat: Well, I mean you can do it, but you’re not going to be 100%, and never mind 150%. It’s just a fact of life: it’s your body and you need to get super healthy. You smoke and you’re going to fucking die; it’s intense. Again, you’re going to pay the day of the fight. You disregard that advice you’ll pay for it in the ring.

Sylvie: Speaking of sexual activity and health of a fighter, I was really stunned when I went to this gym in New Jersey. It was a couple of years ago, pretty soon after I started, so I was maybe 23 years old.  I watched the class just to see if it was something I wanted to supplement my private instruction with. And the teacher actually brought up to me that because I was so young I needed to take into account the fact that doing, I assume fighting in, Muay Thai might make me unable to have children.  I couldn’t believe that he had brought it up to me. I was actually really offended, as if my baby-making abilities were the primary concern of a young woman getting into a sport. And I couldn’t tell if it was that it was a combat sport, that it’s that you are getting hit so you are going to hurt your uterus, or if it was that of course that is supposed to be my primary focus, as opposed to me, as an athlete doing things.   Of course, I appreciate that it’s a legitimate warning for some people.  But I thought, you never say this to men; if a man gets nailed really, really hard, I’m sure they might have some kind of problem –

Kru Nat: Oh, sure.

Sylvie:  – but it’s just not addressed; ever. That was pretty shocking to me.

Kru Nat: That’s crazy.

I think it’s important for me to take a moment to explain this particular example and why it was offensive to me.  I’ve gotten to know this trainer over these years and his intentions are most certainly good, coming from a place of care and meticulous attention to health and well-being for his clients.  I’m not certain that he gives this warning to all his female clients, although he did point to one female fighter, perhaps a decade older than I am, and said she’d already made this decision for herself that children were not likely in her future and therefore it was okay for her to risk her reproductive health for the sport of Muay Thai.  There were a few younger girls in the class, none of whom trained to fight, and I reckon they likely did not receive the warning as training at this particular gym is not full-contact. 

To be fair, I do not train at this gym as a regular client and this man is not my trainer.  As such, I cannot say what other aspects of women’s health he would or would not have brought up to me over the course of training with him with the intention of fighting.  I don’t know that he wouldn’t talk to me about menstruation – keeping track of my cycle and working around energy crashes, weight gain, bloating, emotional challenges or mental fatigue – but I do doubt it.  I don’t know that any male trainer – outside of someone who trains a large number of women over many years – would be aware of or sensitive to this particularly female aspect of training fighters.  I wonder what it would do for my own training to be open about these issues – if I would be more forgiving of myself on bad days if I were more aware of the biological catalysts and my trainer knew when to work with it and when to push against it.  As it is, I’m always pushing against it and am generally unaware when it might be a hormonal change that’s making me exhausted or frustrated or totally unable to focus.  Or when it’s actually burn out.

Kru Natalie is open with her students about any issue, and she is individually able to address a number of possible challenges that conventional trainers may not have on their radar.  Her upbringing in western European culture leaves her unabashed in discussing sex and drugs and body functions, but her non-hetero orientation allows her to address sexual issues that non-hetero students might face; her gender-identity and biological gender allow her to relate to women, who are underrepresented in gyms; and her age, life- and fight experiences permit her to offer advice to students who face any number of challenges.

The sexuality of a trainer may appear to be an irrelevant factor in the quality of the trainer, but it has a direct influence on the quality of the dynamics and relationships within the gym.  With so few female trainers – or women in authoritative positions in gyms – the power dynamics within a gym setting are typically male dominated and, when sexualized, heterosexual.  In the handful of gyms I’ve visited over the years, the majority of them host a romantic relationship between trainer and student – something I’m not ruling out as a possibility for a female trainer – but it is noticeably a power structure between a male trainers and female students.  This is not a criticism of the romantic relationships themselves, but a question of how the power of that relationship affects the dynamics of a gym and – because in my experience it is uniquely women dating trainers – how it affects these women as fighters.

Sylvie:  It’s a difficult line. I train independently and I’ve noticed when I go to visit gyms it’s a stepping-in, stepping-out kind of thing, like a snapshot of each place. So it’s not an in depth understanding of any gym, but a number of places I’ve gone there have been very small groups of women – three to five, something like this – and the girls who seem to have a promising future or who have a kind of power with where their future is going are often times dating their trainers –

Kru Nat: [Nodding her head] – It’s all encouraged.

Sylvie:  I don’t want to say that there is something wrong with it, but this power is coming from romantic involvement, which is very weird.

Kru Nat: Yeah, and it goes out the door the moment the romantic involvement is terminated and then everything goes out the door, which is a shame. I think that there is –  I understand two people fall in love and all that, that happens – but there is also a total power dynamic, power-oriented dynamic, wanting to be the special one, the teacher’s pet, getting involved romantically. I just don’t believe it’s a great idea in a workplace, but especially when it’s a teacher/student kind of thing. There definitely need to be boundaries. I can see how easily – because I am a teacher, I can see the dynamic can happen between teacher/student = you come to this person with kind of admiration, an awe, you get that kind of romantic awe; but it has to stay on the Platonic level, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s where the teacher has to draw that boundary. The student makes… the power dynamic is there, but ultimately I hold the teacher responsible for drawing that boundary.  The ego is getting stroked, but then it creates a whole wrong atmosphere and kind of defies the purpose of wanting to make this sport our own as far as the woman’s side of  it is concerned, and just progressing with our own power, and being sovereign women as I like to call it. With the whole dating thing, this is totally massacred.

Sylvie: I think it’s really difficult for a lot of women because there tend to be so few us in gyms at any given time. It’ll be one or two, maybe five at the most, kind of scattered, and because they don’t have consistent participation and their attendance can be spotty for whatever reason, some of the gyms that I have gone to I’ve notice that there is either a kind of near cultish or religious type feeling where women get so involved in their group.  Or maybe people in your normal life don’t understand you (as a woman) doing Muay Thai, and you kind of compartmentalize and find solace in the people who actually “get it” –

Kru Nat: Yeah.

Sylvie:  – So I can see how that happens. But, speaking about getting it, what is your approach with your students with advising or even directing women who train with you in how to have a healthy balanced training regimen with the rest of their lives? 

Kru Nat: I’m very much about that, because as a fighter I’ve never been the type to over-train or to be fanatic about anything, dieting or my training. I’ve always been very balanced about it, and it worked for me. I’m 42 and I can still fight because I have incredible balance in my life between Muay Thai as a passion.  But also I like to live and I have my relationship, my other business, you know, a lot is going on. I had to find a balance otherwise everything would be out of whack, basically. So I’m very sensitive to that issue, and anytime I train students, whether they be men or women, it’s kind of like the “over-achieving American” mentality here, and I’m not from here – I’m from France where we’re just more laid back about stuff and I can see how the quality of life is so important to us, in France, and just having a life outside whatever it is, so maybe that’s what it is, culturally maybe I’m more inclined to that; I think it’s easier for me to incorporate that into my life.

And for women, it’s even more intense because they feel that they have to perform, it’s so important for them to perform well and do everything; it’s that over achieving thing, over-training, dieting too much. And the nutrition thing – don’t get me started on that, because I can go on with that, you know, because women are really traumatized with that because of the culture, everything they see in the frickin’ magazine – everything about training is reinforcing that garbage and lacking that understanding that the woman’s body is very different from the male’s body, and there’s something you can do with a man that doesn’t work for a woman, it’s out of control. 

With me, all these things are addressed, that’s the first thing. Anybody who wants to train with me, and especially competitively… I sit them down, and I tell them exactly what they are going to get. Are you down with the program? When I tell you that you run three times a week, don’t do it five times a week. Whatever I tell you, just get down with the program. It works.  I have been piloting it for ten years, I’ve been training other people, and it worked in general, it’s just common sense. And yes, it is a case by case basis because not everybody is the same, like no women are the same, but there is a certain regimen that the body can take and will be enhancing your performance and you’ll be totally a 100%, or even 150%.  But then there’s a whole other thing, you think ‘oh my God, I didn’t do enough’, and you think, ‘ I’m going to do a little bit more over there,’ and when you do that little bit over there you can just erase everything else you are doing, because then you are on overdrive. And then you injure yourself and that’s way it’s going to catch up with you – not before, it’s never that, it’s the day of a fight and you’re going to pay for it, in the ring. As a trainer I take this very seriously, and as a coach and as a Kru, I take this very seriously. It’s all about safety, and I’m all about the responsibility I have of looking after somebody to make sure they are completely ready to get in that ring. So I am very sensitive to that, they need balance in their life.  You know, do your thing, get out, get a life, go get together with your friends, go to a movie, because people get obsessed, people get manic, they really do. And yes, there are worse addictions, but an addiction is an addiction, and an addiction is never healthy. 

I’ve personally been advised by more than one female fighter that women are prone to over-train.  I question whether this is an aspect of female psychology, that we are more willing to ignore physical pain or fatigue, or at least to use our minds to override these stresses when our bodies are telling us to slow down.  But I wonder too if this is true of female athletes in all sports, or whether it is a feature particular to sports where women are greatly outnumbered by men and generally not surrounded by experienced female peers.  I assume it’s not only the latter.

When women of Muay Thai do get together, in gyms or across gyms, there is a prevalence of positivity and support among the group.  A few months ago I organized an all female sparring circle for women of boxing and Muay Thai in New York.  The idea was that women who either don’t have adequate sparring partners in their own gyms, or who have grown accustomed to sparring the same two or three girls in their gyms could get together to have sparring experience with more and different women, and to foster support among women across gyms.  The group came together quickly (after only a few weeks’ planning) and was met with great enthusiasm from many members, as well as the generous offer of weekly space for the group – for no fee – by a gym owner in Brooklyn.  As women have joined the group and attended the weekly sessions, I have consistently been impressed by how cool women who train Muay Thai and boxing are.  I don’t know whether it is something about the sport which attracts an independent and strong type of woman, or whether the act itself – and our getting together – brings out the best in us.  There has been some resistance from trainers to encourage their female students to attend the meetings, but many women come without ever requesting permission from their gyms.  (I respect the commitment that women have to their gyms and like very much when the circle is discussed between trainers and students, as I think there is strong community and a great deal of trust between students and their trainers.  That said, a few girls have remarked what a relief it is to spar without having their trainer over their shoulder, as it subtracts a degree of stress from sparring – the circle is not training per se, but is just independent and very informal practice.)

Kru Natalie just recently attended our female Sparring Circle for the first time, bringing with her a number of her female private clients.  I was most impressed that Kru Natalie got in the ring and enthusiastically sparred with everyone for a continuous hour and a half, while giving small pointers to her students or other girls in the group. There were twelve of us total most of whom she had not met before. She was the last one out of the ring, with a smile, and seemed to give everything of herself.  As a woman who began at her gym when there were so few woman students and who has grown with that gym over the years, which now boasts the ratio of female students to be 50%, I wonder how Natalie feels about the inter-gym organization of the Sparring Circle.

 Sylvie: Do you see a benefit of, for example the sparring circle of a bunch of girls getting together even outside of their individual gyms just as a group, and sparring each other?

Kru Nat: Awesome. I mean, I love it! I commend you for doing that. I think it’s really great. I responded right away because I was so excited when Deb told me about it –

Sylvie: [laughing]

Kru Nat: I don’t come from a separatist mind, but I really believe in women working together.  Even as a gay woman I never want separatism, and it may surprise many men but I don’t have that. I believe in working together, as a woman and as women, I think it’s great.  And then also to train all together, which is equally important for me.

I do think it is good for women to spar with men, I think it really helped me a lot, but I can see that for smaller girls it’s hard. At my weight, actually, I think I benefited a lot. Not that I didn’t spar with smaller girls, because that works on your speed and that’s good for me. Just working with different people, different sizes, different experience, it’s all good, I’m for that and you have to do it. You can’t be just one way or another, that’s stupid.  You need both. 

Kru Natalie has a vision for how she wants to train her students as she has just recently left her Muay Thai alma mater, Five Points and has charted out to start her own gym and form her own team, which she calls Chok Sabai (transl: fight happy/relaxed)

Kru Nat: I’m really looking forward from this point on to more of everything I’ve told you today, to create a space where everybody works with everybody no matter what. That’s going to be my motto, my agenda. And I offer zero tolerance for anything that’s not in line with bringing a good attitude, you have to check your ego at the door and just work with everybody; just a happy place. You don’t come from a fulltime job to be harassed or bothered, you know? It should be a happy place, a place you look forward to going to, and have fun and learn something. And I can do that. This is who I am, so I want to do it, not just for me, for everybody – a real community. And I really love creating community, this is really a good thing, and teamwork is a huge thing of mine which I haven’t completely experienced, honestly… So I’m going to do it.

What is most inspiring to me about Kru Natalie and what I feel most strongly in her presence is that she makes things happen.  She comes to a river and finding no way to cross it, she builds a bridge.  She is a woman who makes opportunities for herself and through her strength and generosity she has passed opportunity to the women who have come after.  But she is not an absent architect; she is with us as we cross these bridges and build new communities.  She is a vital part of we for women of Muay Thai.

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.

Natalie Fuz asked us if we could organize a non-Tuesday sparring circle for her and some of her girls, and it seems that this is just what many of those who haven’t been able to come regularly might be interested in. Sunday was the best day, and we asked around for places that might want to host us, and once again Greg came through and said that he would open up the gym for us for a few hours. Much thanks to him.  Natalie says she can bring 3-5 women with her and several others have said that they can come as well.

For those that don’t know Natalie – and only recently have I gotten to know her – she’s a long time female muay thai fighter, coach and Kru, and is formerly of Five Points having just left to start her own gym which is now in the works. In fact just this Summer she fought Julie Kitchen, who is probably now considered the best female muay thai fighter in the world (Germaine de Randamie has retired from muay thai), for the third time.  It will be cool to get in the ring with her, and the chance to mix with other Five Points fighters really seems to embody what the sparring circle is about: bringing the diverse New York women of muay thai together, to broaden the community and open up the opportunity to share sparring experiences and techniques beyond any particular gym.

Natalie said that her ideal times were between 10 and 2, so we were thinking of meeting up at 12:30 at Sweet Science, and maybe in the ring at 1:00. The time is not locked in just yet, so what is the most convenient for you? Feel free to bring friends, and as usual for the circle the cost is free.

Any maybe some of us can head out for a Thai food late brunch afterwards. Any suggestions? Email me at sylvie@earthlink.net or on message me on Facebook.

If you missed it, I’ve been posting parts of an interview I did with Natalie, the first of which is here.

 

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.

Part II.  [Part I here, Part III here]      Article by Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu

[Part II tells the story of how Kru Natalie came to Muay Thai.  We touch on the difficulties in becoming a female Muay Thai fighter in the US and the  differences between amateur and professional in this country.]

Kru Natalie is perched atop a silver exercise ball, stealing bites of noodle soup between paced, considered strands of thought.  At times she raises the cup to her mouth in a gesture of taking another bite, but lowers it again immediately, placing the cup on the floor, as if the object in her hand hinders her speech as much as the food in her mouth would.  A practiced gesticulator, Kru Nat doesn’t speak with her hands full.

This up and down motion comes to illustrate Kru Nat’s experience in entering the ring.  As a female competitor in New York 10 years ago the options and opportunities for female fighters on Muay Thai cards was incredibly limited.  (In fact, her first opponent was not even experienced in Muay Thai, but was a trained Western Boxer.)  Her path into fighting was marked by these spikes in excitement and preparation, followed by the ebb and disappointment of cancellations.

I ask her about her experience getting into fighting:

Kru Nat: The first fight, the girl canceled before we were supposed to fight. It was less than a year since I started my training – I started June ’98, and that was April ’99. The girl canceled at the last minute, so I did an exhibition match with Emily Bearden, who is a colleague of mine and is much smaller… she had just gotten into Muay Thai.

So that was fun, but I was kinda disappointed; definitely. We tried again in August, I was supposed to fight somebody, again canceled.  I was, like ‘okay, this is not good,’ and then finally November ’99, that was my first fight. 

In the great big city of New York, where anything seems possible, it is still challenging for female fighters to find Muay Thai bouts.  The organization, preparation and execution of sanctioned and unsanctioned fights are still marked by limited opponents and frequent cancellations.  Muay Thai cards very rarely feature more than one female bout in any given event and the odds that one fighter will cancel remains high.  For many women, offers to appear on Muay Thai cards are sometimes empty gestures at the possibility of finding an opponent, rather than a likely outcome.  Kru Natalie fought 20 amateur bouts and has, to date, fewer than a half-dozen at the professional level.  Often times for female fighters in the US, going pro means even fewer fight opportunities.

This “American Pro Freeze”, for instance, is illustrated by the bifurcated paths of two fighters: Sylvie Charbonneau and Amy Davis.  Both women fight in the lowest weight class offered in the US, which is variably listed as under 107 lbs, which may help account for the difficulty in finding fights.  (I too fight at this weight and have experienced great difficulty in finding opponents.)  But the story goes like this: both women hail from North America and they fought one another very early in their careers; both went on to fight professionally.  Charbonneau moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand and Davis is in Idaho Falls, Idaho.  Both are top-ranked fighters in the WIKBA rankings of 2009.  However, Charbonneau has had just under 50 professional fights (in 2.5 years), whereas Davis’ has had 3 professional fights (having gone pro in 2008). 

There is an obvious disparity here in that Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand and fights are held every day; furthermore, there are more female fighters at this weight in Thailand than in the US, and fighting in either country is thought of very differently: in Thailand a fighter has opportunity and is encouraged to fight several times per month, as fighting is not a huge production but a fact of doing Muay Thai; in the US opportunity is less and our attitude toward fights is that they are big productions for which one trains exclusively, causing each event to be infrequent and a treat of doing Muay Thai.  On Charbonneau’s Facebook, she comments that she loves fights because it means she gets the day off from training.  She is able to fight several times per month because she is always training for a fight; in this country one must have advance notice of a fight in order to train toward this particular fight, so one ends up going up and down in training, peaking and resting at extremes.

It’s interesting to me that the US criticizes the now-just-changing attitude held in Thailand that women must not enter the Muay Thai ring because it was considered bad luck – and it’s a valid criticism. However, for a country that holds itself as having a better attitude toward women fighting Muay Thai, there does not seem to be more or even better opportunities for women to do so here in the US.

I ask Kru Nat about her transition from amateur to professional, if she experienced any unexpected changes from one to the other, or if the only difference is that one has a purse and the other doesn’t.  She smiles and says, “yup, that’s it right there.”

Kru Natalie doesn’t see a meaningful difference between amateur and professional, at least in the US.  She advocates for the adoption of a class system, which is used in Europe, which basically orders fighters in class A, B, or C according to experience, rather than capital-gains standing.

I ask her about her own movement into professional fighting:

Kru Nat:  [In the US] anyone can turn pro whenever they want; after their first fight they can turn pro. What does that mean? Nothing.  I had 20 amateur fights before I turned pro – for a reason. Because I knew that if I turned pro I couldn’t fight any of the amateur girls: that was it for me. There’s no turning back.   So thought to myself that I want to fight every woman I can possibly fight because already the options are so little for my generation. Now it’s much better, even at my weight class. But my weight class, at the time, was very difficult, so I wanted to capitalize as much as I could – and I did. It was a strategy for me, it was my strategy, I made my choices. I had a very clear vision.  So I did exhaust the list – I had a list of women I wanted to fight, I went through my list – and when the list was done, though it was not completed, not because I didn’t try, but because they didn’t want to do it, or it didn’t happen and I’m not going to wait around for years for one match to happen – I moved on to pro. The difference is: I fight, I get paid. Is it a lot of money?  Forget it. You still need to have a fulltime job, trust me. It’s ridiculous.

As Kru Natalie explains it, it’s pretty clear that professional Muay Thai fighters – in this country – don’t do it for the money; it’s simply not lucrative enough.  This is significantly different from Thailand, where children begin fighting at an early age and are often the providers for their families through Muay Thai fighting.  In this context, it makes sense to fight professionally as soon as possible.  But Kru Nat is quick to explain that Muay Thai is not a mainstream sport in the US and is therefore not going to result in the kind of money that Football, Basketball, Baseball, or even Western Boxing athletes can earn.  Yet Kru Nat is not advocating for the mainstream popularity of Muay Thai; she doesn’t want it to be mainstream.  She feels that the sport is a “big enough niche that there’s a ton of possibilities… a ton of growth possibilities, but… it’s never going to be a mainstream sport in the US; most sports are not.”

But her feeling that going pro in Muay Thai in the US is negligible does not keep her from noting strong opinions on the unequal pay to male and female fighters, as the subject arose in our conversation:

Kru Nat: Because we are women, they think it’s okay [to pay us less], because that’s the way of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we should be complacent about it, or just accept it. For me I need to push that glass ceiling up all the time, in everything I do. And now as a Kru going into the business and building my own team, it’s going to be men and women.  Lots of women because I know what every woman talks about, why having a female trainer is just more bearable because we understand each other; we are not a different species.

For women fighting Muay Thai in the US, there are usually a lot of plates spinning at once.  Kru Natalie is co-owner of a number of clothing boutiques in NYC and maintains this business while pursuing her Muay Thai.  Returning to the issue of finding fights and her early experiences with Muay Thai since she began her training and then decided to enter into fighting, she told me about how the difficulties lead her into teaching. 

Kru Nat: It was like pulling teeth trying to get a fight, and getting put on the card.   And whenever I had the opportunity, I kinda got discouraged because after a year and half I had more cancellations than fights; it was kind of a joke – it became a joke – I had to make humor out of it because, it really sucked.   I had a fulltime job. I had three stores in New York; it’s hard. It’s more than a fulltime job, and then I had to make time for training, and the fight gets canceled. I mean it happened to everybody, and yes, you get better and better every time, because training, no matter what you’re going to feel the benefits of that, that’s great. But every time to be canceled on, it was like ‘Why am I doing this?’ you know, what’s the point? There wasn’t money in it because I wasn’t making any money, which is good, I think, but after a while it was like ‘okay, I really need to rethink that’.

So that is kind of why I decided to become a teacher, because after a year and a half of that, [I thought] ‘No, I don’t have time for this’. [But] ‘I love Muay Thai’…I know there’s a calling here, so that lead to teaching, I was really curious about it. I went with Master Toddy in Vegas to get my certification, and then I found out about all those female Muay Thai fighters in England or in Europe before my generation, that were really ground breaking, but there was nowhere to find out about it.

So, in the US that feeling of being kind of a pioneer, it’s true. At the same time, I think because of that I really need to do something to catch it on. I need to help upcoming women to not experience the same thing I experienced, to make it better.

When she first began her training in Muay Thai, Kru Natalie didn’t want to fight.  Her background in Karate, Judo, and a great many other sports had equipped her with competitive experience, but she wasn’t interested in that aspect of Muay Thai.  This training was for her and she just wanted to have fun – something that she felt competition squelched, rather than quenched.

But when she tried Muay Thai in New York, she knew right away that she wanted to stick with it.  I know what this feels like, because I knew straight away that Muay Thai had fed something in me that I didn’t know needed nutrients, and it only got stronger.  I ask her what it was about Muay Thai that grabbed her I wanted to know what it was about Muay Thai that captured her heart:

Sylvie: And so the movements in your body just clicked in a certain way, or the aesthetic of it… what was it that really caught you when you first started doing it?

Kru Nat: Well, I thought it was very practical, which Karate is not. I always felt that [with] Karate I couldn’t really do anything with it until I was a black-belt basically –

Sylvie:Because of the katas and stuff like that…

Kru Nat: Yeah, it’s just that I loved Karate but after a while it’s just like ughh, you know, it’s not going to get me anywhere;, and I don’t know if I want to dedicate myself to get to the black-belt level. I just wasn’t in love with it as much [as I came to be] with Muay Thai, so I didn’t pursue it the same way. When I came back to New York I knew I didn’t want to do Karate again, but I knew I needed to do something. And my personal trainer at the time, Shauna was lik,e ‘Those guys upstairs, they’re doing Muay Thai kickboxing, you should really try it because I’m sure you would do really good with it’. And I was like ‘Okay, I’ll try’ and then that’s it, that’s how I got into it.

It’s interesting to think of why one martial art appeals to an athlete over another.  In a time when Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is at an all-time high in popularity, when folks turn on the TV and have a better chance of catching an MMA bout than a boxing match and are more familiar with an octagon cage than a traditional ring, it seems that the appreciation of one particular form over another is not really encouraged.  For instance, the MMA fighters in the WEC and UFC are often listed as having “strong Mauy Thai skills” for their stand-up fight, but one would be hard-pressed to find any good Muay Thai techniques in their repertoire at all.  So, practicality seems to an appropriate term for why one chooses a front kick over an axe kick or a Jiu-Jitsu hold over a western wrestling move (try using a wrestling hold when someone is allowed to punch your face!).  In MMA, moves are chosen based on practicality in a situation, rather than their place in one particular art form.

But Kru Nat isn’t talking about MMA, at all.  She’s talking about the difference in Muay Thai from the bulk of all other eastern Martial Arts, which is that one does not learn techniques in a regimented order, or advance from one stage to another, marked by colored belts or the next set of “katas”, or a specific set of moves.  Rather, someone like Kru Nat, who has practiced Muay Thai for over 10 years and continues to study will still be learning how to perfect her kick, her elbows, and knees.  One isn’t an expert in a shorter time than one studying other eastern Martial Arts, but one is certainly able to apply a battery of techniques and moves that are intended to hurt, stun, or dispatch an opponent without years of training.  Certainly one becomes more proficient at each technique, stronger, faster, more adroit in dominating an opponent – but, like Western Boxing, once you can throw a jab, you can control someone opposing you.

The word practicality alludes to the concept of practice, which, one could argue means that the practicality aspect of Muay Thai invites one to put the moves into  action.  The question becomes then, whether there is a difference between practicing moves, and putting moves into practice, ie. fighting.

I was curious to know how Kru Natalie made this transition to actually fighting.

Kru Nat:Simon asked me very early on if I wanted to fight and I really had to think about that. I mean, I was 32 years old first of all at the time, and I was kinda freaked out about it. I’ve had an old history of getting into sports since I was very young and because I was always athletic I usually did pretty good and I just wanted to do it for the fun of it. I never wanted to do it for competition. But again and again I was pushed into competition, and not asked if I wanted to – I was pushed, forced into competition. And it was a disaster, I never did well because I didn’t like it, I didn’t want it. I just wanted to have fun, you know? So when that happened, that was like… childhood trauma [laughing], I don’t know.  I was like, wow, okay, I’m an adult I can make my own decisions and yeah, why not, it can be fun. So …we tried to set up something.

Sylvie:  And did you get a taste for it, I definitely want to keep doing this, or was it still a hard decision –

Kru Nat: No, no, I was full-on. That was why I asked Simon for two weeks. I said, ‘I need two weeks to think about this and when I tell you my decision it’s going to be a full commitment, or no commitment at all.’ And so I was like, ‘yeah, definitely I want to do this.’ So my first fight was actually here, at Church Street gym.

Sylvie: Who did you go against?

Kru Nat: Colleen O’Brian, she was a boxer at the time, she had only experience boxing. It was a very good fight, I didn’t win… she got a split decision by one point. It was a really good fight. She was really hard and she was a very good boxer. It was the lightest I ever fought – I was, like, 140 or something, and I felt a little light on my feet, and in retrospect I think it would have been a bit different if I was a little bit heavier. So after that I actually decided I should fight around 145, just those extra pounds have made all the difference.

And since then Kru Natalie has been quite consistent.  She’s fought at her lightest 143 lbs and up to 149 lbs, a range of 6 pounds.  In a sport where competitors will drop 20 lbs for a fight, it is noteworthy that Kru Natalie knows her body well and even more so that Kru Natalie, as a woman, is confident and aware enough to maintain a fight-weight that she feels to be right for her own body, over time.  The pressure that women face just in daily culture to be conscious and critical of their weight, moving always toward the “lighter is better” ethic, is not excluded from the world of sports, where women are expected to be slight, rather than built and will exaggerate down to a weight class well below their walking around weight.  This doesn’t seem like a complicated issue in Kru Nat’s mind; she explains, simply, that “It’s just where my body is comfortable.

Part III here

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

 A little post-Labor Day sparring was just the way to forget the imminent end of summer.  It was a solid turn out and the energy was good and each of us spent a lot of time in the ring – at one point we even had three sets sparring at once(!)  Heather returned after an injury, Sarah was back with Chris and we were all introduced to Kaori, a (125 lb) boxer from Sweet Science, who was a wonderful addition to the group and a really good partner in the ring.

My personal experience was, unfortunately, flavored by a negative attitude about myself, which was definitely a poor influence on my overall performance in the ring.  I know that I do best when I have a few things to focus on and, for whatever reason, I failed to focus myself.  As a result I did not make much progress of feel good about my technique, but regardless of this, I felt a great deal of support from the other women in the group and I know that just being there was good for me.  These frustrating days are definitely useful exercises in discovering where most work needs to be done or what foundational elements are weak.  After we’d all stepped out of the ring for the night, Chris took a minute to go over some footwork with me, and Greg offered sound advice on parrying and slipping, which has been motivation for me to strengthen my basics in the coming week.

For all of you thinking about coming next week, Lisa West (100 lbs Golden Gloves competitor) will return; Kaori says she enjoyed herself and hopes to return as much as her work allows ; Eliana will be back from her business trip (after having experienced a class with Master Toddy in Vegas); Laurie’s fight at Friday Night Fights on the 25th will be imminent; and Alanna and Heather will be getting ready for fights in October.  It should be a great time!

p.s. As we didn’t get much feedback on the experiment of filming our rounds, and it wasn’t clear that anyone loved it we decided to shelve the idea until another time. If you have any thoughts on how it went for you, please let us know.