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Taking a dream trip for Muay Thai's version of tough love

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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PATTAYA, Thailand -- On the other side of the world, I met a man named Yod. I bowed. He bowed. A short time later, he smacked me in the face.

Mike Freeman and his trainer, Chen, take a break from Chen smacking Freeman in the face.  
Mike Freeman and his trainer, Chen, take a break from Chen smacking Freeman in the face.    
Some of you will know the name Yodsanklai Fairtex ("Yod" for short). Most of you will not. He is one of the most popular athletes in Asia and one of the top five standup fighters in the world. He's a multiple Muay Thai champion, once winning a title fight with a vicious first-round elbow knockout. If Yod fought Floyd Mayweather, he'd chop down Money inside of two minutes.

Yod is friendly but initially didn't know what to make of me, the nerdy wannabe Muay Thai American. I wanted to train with Yod, which is considered a great honor. At first, he said no. But I grew on him. Like mold. As the days wore on, I got a pat on the back from Yod. Then came a short conversation or two. He was warming up to the idiot American.

At the end of my eight days in Thailand, the mecca of Muay Thai, Yod agreed to train me. It was the equivalent of a high school quarterback receiving one-on-one counsel from Peyton Manning.

This is the beginning of a different sort of story. I want to tell you about athletes. About fighters. About maybe the greatest fighters on Earth, who live in a remote part of the globe. Fighters who don't complain about paychecks or possess solar system-sized egos. Fighters who come from nothing. Fighters who do it because they love it.

This story won't say some athlete is a jerk, or speculate which quarterback is dating a television actress, or call a manager a know-nothing moron. This is more self-exploration than self-righteousness; more appreciation than denunciation.

This is a story about fighters. Fighters like Yod.

The Thai media call Yod the "boxing computer" because his strikes are so precise. This is, in fact, a characteristic of Muay Thai. He demands the same from me. Up more on your toes when you kick, he says. Point the toe more on the kicking foot. Raise your hips. Turn the shoulder. Relax.

After 35 minutes of kicking in a boxing ring, we switch to focus mitts, small gloves used to hone punching skills. The minute one of my hands drops two inches, he smacks me -- hard -- on the right side of my face. Pop. "Careful," he says. Later, again, a slight drop. Pop. "Careful." The second hit is harder, the "careful" more pronounced.

My hands don't drop again.

  

On the other side of the world, I met a man named Chen. I bowed. He bowed. A short time later, he punched me in the face.

It was a mild blow, not launched with bad intentions, and it was my fault it got through. We were sparring, and Chen had warned me to keep my hands up. I did, but he was so quick, the cross he threw was a blur. It was preceded by a swift leg kick to distract. Teacher ... student. The lesson had begun.

For eight days, instructor Chen was my father, my professor, my babysitter, my guardian, my assailant and my drill sergeant. We worked in a ring at fight club in Thailand. A Muay Thai education.

Muay Thai is a vicious but elegant martial art, and Thailand is its birthplace. If you want to learn the sport, absorb its every give and take, this is the place to come. Fighters from around the globe migrate to this country, including some high profile mixed martial artists. Their photographs adorn a wall here at the Fairtex facility.

Muay Thai is a well-presented package of strut and gumption, but it is also simple and earnest. Its fighters are perhaps the most humble in all of sports, while arguably among the most skilled and vicious. Your average Thai boxers might weigh 140 pounds but can decimate much stronger and heavier men.

I've always believed playing cornerback in the NFL was the toughest thing to do in sports -- and then I studied Muay Thai.

It takes months to get the Muay Thai kick down. Months. Just for a kick.

A group of us from AMA Fight Club in Whippany, N.J., traveled the nearly 9,000 miles to Pattaya to test and hone our skills. It was the trip of a lifetime. It was the trip of many lifetimes.

The fact some of the best fighters in Muay Thai work in Pattaya seems a contradiction. The martial art calls for disciplined technique and extreme dedication, while Pattaya is anything but disciplined, being perhaps the carnal of international capitals. Seemingly every sexual act -- from the standard to the perverse -- is peddled by an army of young women.

Most of all, in Pattaya, there is the nobility of Muay Thai, and we are back to a man named Chen. The trainers go by nicknames like Tank, Yak (who trains Yod), Jaroon, Preecha and Teelek. They are the engine that makes these training camps combust and cook. All are ex-fighters who've been in the ring hundreds of times. They are the equivalent of Hall of Fame football players who enter into coaching at the conclusion of their playing days. Their experience is invaluable.

Chen speaks almost no English, and I speak no Thai, but over eight days the level of communication is extraordinary. Much is conducted through hand signals, nodding and smiles. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Or the occasional word of English. "Good!" he would say. "Your kick," Chen says, "needs work."

And we get right to it.

  

There are few standup fighting forms nastier than Muay Thai. It is one of the deadliest of martial arts. Muay Thai uses precision striking from punches, kicks, elbows and knees. The Muay Thai clinch -- a sort of standup form of wrestling, where most of the knees and elbows are delivered -- is the art within the art.

Other fighting styles are more flash than actual combat. Thai is hardcore fighting.

It's not known exactly how long Muay Thai has existed, but it's believed to be anywhere from 700 to 1,000 years old. It evolved from Thailand's history of intense internal battle and warfare with neighboring countries.

The Thai way is to absorb the blows instead of dodging them, which is why in real Thai there is little ducking, weaving or circling, and that increases the popularity in this part of the world. (It also increases the level of violence.) The fights here are as frequent as baseball games in the U.S. and as popular as the NFL. Lumpini Stadium in Bangkok, the Yankee Stadium of Thailand, hosts more than 15,000 spectators for its fight card almost every night. In Pattaya, I watched fights daily on TV.

Thai fighters are viewed as patriots. There are about 500,000 Thai boxers in the country, but maybe just a small number of those make it to the professional ranks.

When an Asian version of the reality show The Contender debuted several years ago (the contest was won by Yod), published reports say the series was seen by 500 million people worldwide, with the largest concentration of viewers living in Asia.

It's not unusual for Thai children to pick up gloves and Thai pads (oblong-shaped mitts that serve as training pads for kicks and punches) as young as 8. To them, it's like picking up a bat and glove. By their late teens, some Thai fighters have fought many dozens of times.

In the U.S. and parts of Europe, a diluted version of Muay Thai involves more boxing and fewer kicks. Purer forms of Muay Thai focus on the kicks and clinch. Kicks and elbows are arguably the nastiest part of Muay Thai. Twice when sparring at AMA after being kicked hard in my lead leg just above the knee, my leg went dead. I couldn't lift it for almost a minute.

So how in the hell did I become addicted to this sport and end up here, being trained by and alongside some of the world's best fighters literally on the other side of the planet? It's complicated. Part of my entrance into Muay Thai is the mostly male fascination with inflicting violence on another man. Men like beating things up.

But it's more than that. Initially, after writing a column ripping MMA, I thought the sport deserved a fairer hearing, and while Muay Thai isn't MMA, I still wanted to explore a standup fighting style that was more complicated and fiercer than boxing. I wanted to see (even if in very small ways) what it was like to fight. Muay Thai was it.

(And this is where I officially apologize to MMA. My bad, fellas. I've seen the light -- mainly because several MMA fighters at AMA Fight Club have kicked my ass in sparring.)

Please, don't take this the wrong way. I'm not trying to portray myself as a bad-ass dude. You won't see me in any low-grade "celebrity" bouts. I simply hoped to explore a sophisticated fighting form and then fell in love it. Now, I'm hooked. I've trained Muay Thai in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Colorado. Then came Thailand.

  

Pattaya is a city stuck in time, and that time is the 1970s.

The city looks like something from the Vietnam War movie Full Metal Jacket. Helmetless riders buzz through heavy traffic on scooters. Everything is sold on street corners: clothes, stun guns, sex. Cockfights are televised.

Two Muay Thai fighters -- 10 years old -- prepare for a bout in Fairtex Stadium. (Mike Freeman)  
Two Muay Thai fighters -- 10 years old -- prepare for a bout in Fairtex Stadium. (Mike Freeman)    
In bare-knuckled Pattaya, like Bangkok, there are no rules.

Several days after arriving, I'm in a pickup trip, leaving the hotel for a nearby stadium. One of the trainers from Fairtex is driving. He's got one hand on the wheel, with the other on a remote control that changes the channel on a cassette player. A series of 1970s songs blares. He sings the theme song from Saturday Night Fever in perfect English as the car bobs and weaves down a road thick with scooters and cars. The Carpenters are next. "I'm on the top of the world, lookin' down on creation ..."

We arrive at Fairtex Stadium. It's about 8 p.m. The fights start soon.

The most famous fighting stadium in Thailand is Lumpini, about two hours away in Bangkok, but Fairtex Stadium is also well known. Some 400 people sit on wooden benches in an area the size of a small high school gym. The ring is in the center of the room. Hundreds of gamblers -- screaming and pointing and gyrating -- sit to the side making wagers throughout the fight going on now.

A live band is playing.

The two fighters, after the prerequisite two-round feeling process, explode into violence in the third. Elbows connect to the forehead, and kicks smash. The residue of one kick leads to a leg bending inward with such force that for moment it looked as if it shattered. The fight ends when one fighter uses a strong right cross to knock the other fighter unconscious for several seconds. He is helped out of the ring.

The winner is handed 100 baht. He holds the bill up triumphantly. The crowd roars. One hundred baht is about $3. The loser receives nothing.

The two fighters were 10 years old.

  

Each morning, starting around 8:30, the Fairtex gym begins to stir. A group of about eight trainers work their way inside. They sit in small groups, reading newspapers and cracking jokes, while waiting for victims like me to arrive. Some trainers use a hose to water down the ring making it less slippery.

Once all of the students arrive the gym cracks with aggression. The punching and kicking of pads is loud. Whap, whap, whap. The sounds echo throughout the gym. They stop when a single, loud clock, dutifully keeping track of time in the rounds, beeps and everyone rests for one minute. The most interesting thing is the lack of smell. Despite the presence of so many shirtless and un-showered men the openness of the gym -- it's outside, under cover -- allows for a breeze to push through.

Everyone is barefoot.

The facility is modern and luxurious but it's also appropriately primitive. The emphasis is on the training, not looks. Remember: Professional fighters work here.

This is how the training works at Fairtex. It begins with six four-minute rounds of pad work inside one of the four rings. This is the bulk of the training, and many of the instructors make it as realistic as possible. Sometimes sparring is added. Conditioning becomes critical even in the Thailand winter (which is now), the temperatures easily reach into the mid-80s with a nice dose of humidity.

After the ring work comes kicking, knees and punches on a group of stationary bags. Each day, my post-ring work went something like this: 200 teeps (front kicks) onto a swinging bag, 100 kicks against a large, thick pole wrapped in rubber padding and 100 knees on a hanging bag. Then 20 pullups and 100 situps on an incline bench.

There are two of these sessions a day, and each lasts about two hours. Chen hawkeyes everything I do. If my technique falters even a smidge, he corrects me.

The kicks are always the most difficult part. In Muay Thai, the shin -- not the foot -- is used for kicks. Experts believe that impacting the shin creates a series of small micro-fractures. Once they heel, the shin gets even tougher, or at least, that's the theory. So the Thai constantly kick. And kick. Then kick some more to harden their shins and perfect the technique.

My shin now feels like I could kick the side of a house.

  

Yod was having fun with me. He enjoys the teaching and toying. The level of intensity increased exponentially as the rounds continued. We'd been working for almost an hour -- six rounds -- and other than getting married, my career and maybe losing my virginity, this is the best time of my life.

The first thing almost everyone notices about Yod are his calf muscles. They're as thick as heavy, round tree branches. Thai fighters have large calf muscles because of technique. You kick while standing on the ball of your foot which engages the calves (the kicking leg also returns to the toes). Yod has probably kicked hundreds of thousands of times in his life.

Yod (right) and his trainer take a break during training at the Fairtex complex. (Mike Freeman)  
Yod (right) and his trainer take a break during training at the Fairtex complex. (Mike Freeman)    
Other than that, Yod looks like an ordinary man. If you saw Yod walking down the street, you might not look twice. His face is youngish and his build modest. His is a body unexposed to hardcore weightlifting or performance enhancing drugs. The looks betray the fact he's one of toughest men on the planet.

He ends our hour-long training session with a few pointers about needing to twist my hips more on kicks. It's a common problem with beginning Muay Thai students.

Obviously, Yod has no such problem. I watched most of his workouts, and when Yod kicks pads, each one sounds like a shotgun blast. His technique is perfect.

And this fact will add to the Yod legend. One afternoon when Yod was kicking, a large bee flew in the path of his kick. Either the kick itself or the current created by it knocked the bee out of the air. It lay on the ground, incapable of flight. I wouldn't have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes.

At the end of my training with Yod, I bow. It was a great honor, I tell him. He smiles.

We finish by talking about his upcoming King's Cup fight. The King's Cup is the Super Bowl of Muay Thai, with hundreds of thousands of spectators. The highlight will be Yod vs. Cosmo Alexandre, another excellent Thai fighter. It will be one of the best fights of the year, though few in America will see.

Yod leaves me with one final thought.

"When you come back next year," he tells me, "we fight."

I think he meant spar, not fight. I hope he meant spar.

  

I remember the first time I got punched hard. These are the things you don't soon forget.

It was during one of my first sparring sessions in New Jersey. The guy I was sparring was a bit of a bully, known for going hard at newer students. He hit me with a solid right cross. For a moment, I saw stars. They danced in my head and disappeared suddenly after he hit me hard again, this time with a left hook. The stars were gone, but the pain in my face wasn't.

That moment made me angry rather than fearful and I trained twice as hard. I wasn't going to be battered again. Sparring again about two months later, he and I got into it in the center of the mat -- a hardcore brawl exacerbated by the presence of his girlfriend, who he wanted to show off for. No technique, just punches and kicks thrown with abandon. None of his punches got through my defenses. My switch-kick and overhand penetrated his. He backed off. He never tried to bully me again.

That was it. I was hooked. It wasn't that I inflicted damage on another human being. Some people love that part of fighting. I'm the opposite. I enjoy taking another man's best kicks and punches and still standing.

When AMA promoted Nick Avalos to head the Muay Thai program, I was pulled in deeper. Nick is one of those teachers who understands how to get the most from his students. Same with instructor Amr Ibrahim. In fact, if it weren't for them, I wouldn't have made the trip to Thailand or been so committed.

Brian Gartrell, a friend, is just as dedicated. Like me, he's a newer student. We're mirror images, which explains why sparring him is so difficult. He's is smart and adapts quickly. I didn't know Doug Miller until the Thailand trip. He's a professional MMA fighter. I watched Doug take on one of Fairtex's toughest young fighters in clinching and hold his own. It was one of the more inspirational moments of the trip.

This was the group that went to Thailand. Two white guys, a biracial guy (Irish and Latino), an African-American and an Arab-American. A nice cross-section of America.

Superficial differences have long been the bane of human existence, but there's something about Muay Thai -- and fighting in general -- that is oddly unifying. It's difficult to explain. Ethnicity or religious beliefs, economic or educational differences become irrelevant. Friendships are forged in fighting.

  

By midweek, I figured I've already thrown maybe a thousand punches, many hundreds of kicks and over 400 hundred knees. Chen, on Monday alone, had me throw well over a hundred. In the process, my right knee lost a chunk of skin the size of a silver dollar. Chen cleans it, applies disinfectant, wraps it and then has me throw left knees. He is safe but unrelenting.

I've been able to piece together a little about Chen's life. As a fighter, he had more than 140 bouts and won 108 of them. He was good. Really good.

Chen is quiet and humble. He looks slightly older than some of the other trainers. His frame is tiny, almost delicate. If he weighs more than 140 pounds it'd be surprising. He's lived a rugged life but there is no evidence of this on his body. He's scar-less (another trainer has a scar across his face that looks like the result of an elbow strike) and limber.

Chen is also amazingly quick. It's like science fiction. One second you see his fist coming at you and the next it seems to blink out, violating space-time rules. Again, we lightly spar. He pulls his punches and kicks, but almost everything connects. If we were fighting at full speed, he'd have knocked me unconscious fairly quickly, and again, I outweigh him by some 40 pounds.

Yod later walks by and sees my knee. "What happened?" he says. I tell him it's from kneeing the bag. He smiles. "You not p----," he says, "Keep training hard." Then he stepped to a heavy bag just a couple of feet away and kicked for over 30 minutes. I kept training. I wasn't going to be a p---- in front of Yod.

  

A break in training, a trip to Walking Street.

If you took the worst debauchery of Las Vegas, the foulest happenings of a bachelor party, mixed in a porn movie, swirled the entire fecal mash into a broth while adding condoms and lack of inhibition and maybe a talking bird, then multiplied it by 1,000 ... that's Walking Street.

When the Fairtex Muay Thai fighters need a break, they often head to Walking Street, where you can find -- anything.  
When the Fairtex Muay Thai fighters need a break, they often head to Walking Street, where you can find -- anything.    
Nothing in America comes close to it. It's the Babe Ruth of carnal extremism.

When fighters come to train in Thailand, many of them needing to blow off steam eventually find Walking Street.

It's a long and narrow affair located in a small corner of the city. On both sides are bars and discos. Like in other parts of Pattaya, there are people who hand you postcards showing naked women in various sexual acts. Only here, in what is essentially an anything-goes zone, there is more aggression.

Inside one club, it's like something out of a crazy testosterone-fueled dream. There are nude women everywhere. On walls. Climbing poles. In a makeshift bathtub, soaking in bubbles. In one corner, women spank one another with a rubber hose.

A bar worker walks around carrying a small case of golf balls. Golf balls. You will have to use your imagination for what happens with them.

Wait. Is that a trapeze?

This is how these bars work. The women in their various poses and actions are basically auditioning for the male customers. There are no lap dances. Women either have sex with the customers or they don't. If a woman is chosen, a manager -- often a woman -- negotiates with the customer. After a deal is reached, the woman and customer depart for a nearby hotel.

Most Americans would find what happens here questionable at best, and most likely disgusting. To the Thai, this is normal. In fact, sex-trade workers are viewed as admirable. The money women make here, it is said, is sent on to their destitute families in various parts of the country. There are limited ways the Thai can escape poverty, with Muay Thai and the sex industry being two key ones.

In leaving the bar, it's as if you just departed the moon. The words don't come easy.

  

My last day. I say goodbye to Chen after what I thought was the conclusion of our workout.

I bow, he bows. Then he says: "teeps ... 200." He wasn't quite done with me yet.

It was a Muay Thai farewell. It was the best possible goodbye.

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