“So, did it hurt!”
“Yeah, how was it? Was it really painful?”
Their eyes were huge like saucers as they glanced down towards my legs. I had just gone for my first pro Muay Thai fight and they were worried/curious/morbidly fascinated about the state of my shins. But before we get to that, let’s jump back to two months earlier.
Sometime in February 2019, my trainer uttered two words that made my heart quake. “Pro ah?”. There was an upcoming event in Malaysia and the promoter had reached out to Onyx MMA for available fighters. The bouts were under pro rules, meaning that there will not be any protective gear and the use of elbows was allowed. I was hesitant from the start. The pain of bare shin-versus-shin kicks was legendary. Even thinking about kicking somebody else’s shin while sparring makes me hesitate. I would line up before Stanley or Chocolate, yell out and swing my leg wildly, only to stop a few inches away from their shins, fearing the impact that would follow. More than anything else, it was a mental barrier.
So like for anything else, I trained. Maybe I could condition my shins to get used to being battered? Oh boy, it turned out to be an excruciating process. I kicked the bottom of the heavy punching bags, which sent a nasty jolt of electricity along the bone. There was a sting every time my shins made contact with the bag. Other times, it was rolling a Thai oil bottle up and down the shin. But the worst was hitting my shins with a bamboo stick. Josh or Faruq had tapped very lightly, but I ended up in tears after fifteen seconds every time. The pain spreads out and builds up under the skin, and my shins would become all bruised and tender. It was agonizing and the pain would linger for hours after. I didn’t know if all these conditioning would work, but I did it anyway, just in case.
Along with that, there were the usual trainings. Strength and conditioning, padwork, sparring, clinching, bagwork; a permutation of all these and sometimes, all in a single session. The days passed slowly,— some days were more exhausting than others, and I counted down the training sessions until the precious rest-days on Sundays— but the weeks flew by. Pretty soon, it was Fight Week!
We boarded the morning coach on a Tuesday morning and reached Ipoh in the evening. It was butt-numbing eight hours, but we made it. The landscape was unmistakably different: forested cliffs flanked the expressway and there were misty outlines of mountains in the distance. We rented a car and headed to the weigh-in held at the fight venue. It was at a temple, so we didn’t bat an eyelid when the navigation app told us to turn left into a decorated gateway. Until… a large cave loomed in front of us. Whoa. That was unexpected.
The place was grand. It was a huge compound, with the cave housing a temple, a single-storey building which had a Muay Thai gym, and the carpark. Ferns sprouted from the crags of the cliff. It was an interesting blend of religion, sports, and nature. But I was hungry, so we didn’t stay for too long. Passed the weigh-in and it was time to refuel with dinner!
The rest of the night passed quickly with multiple meals. The next morning and afternoon was productive too, having had four meals in eight hours. Ipoh’s food scene is unparalleled in taste and variety. Evening fell and it was time to report for the competition. It was even grander on the event day. The ring was elevated on a platform and placed at the centre of the building. There were spotlights, a deejay, two emcees, a smoke machine, and ninety banquet tables packed with people. Muay Thai was their dinnertime entertainment. It was crowded and noisy from people jostling each other and having a good time. What a lively atmosphere!
But a lively atmosphere also meant that it was easy to get distracted. There were so many things to look at and observe! It was difficult to keep a calm heart when the surroundings yelped at you with technicolour. I tried to keep focused on the night, tried to treat it like any other competition. As my coach said, it was “time to get to work”. I changed into fight attire, my coach wrapped my hands, and was about to warm up when… all the fighters had to get onto the ring to be introduced.
The spotlights were glaring. The diners pointed us out and cheered when our names were called individually. There was photo-taking. There were speeches from guests-of-honour. More photo-taking. Spoons clinked against porcelain as the audience drank herbal soup, and beer cans clanged. After thirty minutes, the segment was over and the fighters went to their own areas. It was time for warm-up!
Time passed in a blur after the initial chaos. One moment, I was lying on the ground, soaking in Thai oil. Then, it was shadow boxing and sparring with Chocolate to loosen up the limbs. I blinked and the next moment, I was seated in the waiting room, bound up in the gloves and waiting to walk out to the ring. The cacophony around echoed my heartbeat. I was a nervous wreck. In just a few minutes, I would be out there, bashing and being bashed, in front of all the people, the music, the buzz.
My coach saw the anxiety written all over my face and took me aside. “This is only the beginning,” he spoke slowly and deliberately, giving time for the words to sink. Gesturing to all the lights and effects and people watching, he continued, “take away all the bells and whistles, and it is what it is: a fight. It’s not different. It is the start. Just enjoy.” And with that, it was time to go into the ring. The emcees announced our names with gusto and the audience applauded. We were the only female bout of the night and they played it up. They put on the wai khru music and turned it to full blast. It was go-time.
In the blue corner, my mind jumped on the phrases like life buoys in a stormy sea: bells and whistles, enjoy. Enjoy. Just enjoy. I turned them over and over again in my head, as I performed the wai khru. The further I went along, the quieter the surroundings seem to become. There was a narrowing of vision, a homing-in on what was essential for the next ten minutes or so: me versus my opponent. The referee brought us together and talked for a bit before we headed back to our respective corners. This was it; the moment had arrived. Ding!
She started off with a low kick and boom! the trainings took over. I tried to minimize unnecessary movements and keep my balance. We traded blows. Push-kick, punches, more push-kicks, more punches, and finally, the answer to the burning question of “do shin-to-shin kicks hurt in pro fights?”: yes, there was impact, but no, there wasn’t any pain felt. What people said was right, although it was difficult to believe. I saw her swing her leg and brought my left leg up to block. Bam! There was a slight sting, but nothing beyond that. It emboldened me. Okay, I can take this! This much, I can tolerate. It was liberating without any guards; my limbs felt lighter and could move more freely. It was exhilarating!!
Round one ended. I felt pretty alright, fresher than how I had been during trainings. My coach sat me down and told me to focus. The noise had been starting up, but then, dimmed into the background. The minute break actually felt longer than before. Deep breaths, inhale and exhale, trying to regulate the heartbeat, a sip of water, and it’s back to the centre of the ring. Ding!
We switched on and went back to bashing each other in Round 2. This time, I initiated the kick and she blocked it. Alright, alright, I felt the impact, but again, I was shielded by adrenaline and it made me want to kick more, because I could see that it affected her too. Future me might regret it, but not this me! Let’s go!
Round two ended. Okay, one more round after this. Time to empty everything left in the tank. Ding! Round three. I could hear my coach shouting, “relax your shoulders!” and “let your hands go!”. Okay! Jab, jab, cross (and a half-hearted kick at the end). More punches. I jiggled my shoulders, trying to loosen up, but my arms were getting heavy. I looked at my opponent. She was getting tired too. We were in this together; there was nobody else who could do this for us. So we dug into ourselves, found strength, and powered through the round.
Ding! It was over. I had just completed my first pro fight, whoohoo. Relief and thankfulness flooded through me. Adrenaline was still coursing through my limbs, so no pain was felt yet. We walked to the centre of the ring for the results and waited. The emcees drew the suspense out, elongating every syllable. Then, they announced my name and the referee yanked my arm up. I had won! Happiness! Joy! Accomplishment! My insides surged with the helium of these feelings. Oh, what a night.
After we got down from the ring, I couldn’t stop babbling excitedly. I looked at my corner: my coach, Chocolate, and Jiabing (and Onyx MMA in spirit), and was so thankful for their support, so overjoyed at their presence. I couldn’t have done it alone, and wouldn’t have done it by myself. And of course, the Malaysian promoter and event organisers who arranged this event. The noise came back with a roar. The people have gotten more raucous with beers in their digestive system. There was a warm hue to the lights, although it remained bright. I blinked. This was a fairytale night. The night air was cool; there was a fricking cave next door, we were 10 hours away from home, and I had just won my first pro fight, after all that pain and hard work.
I blinked again. We were at the corner where I had warmed up, to remove the wraps and stretch it out. And then, as if a switch had gone off, the pain came. It was a distinct and dull throbbing of the shins. I looked down at my legs. Some parts were squishy and there was a huge bruise on my foot. Ouch. The blood pooled at the ankle, making it hard to walk properly. Later on, in the apartment, I would experience the (previously unimaginable) pain of scalding hot presses and ice treatment. And much later on in the gym, the pain of dissecting the fight and mistakes and the endless road to improvement.
But at that instant, splayed on the mats, I felt so happy. This is why we put in so many hours, why we train until we cry, why we batter our bodies with trainings. For the chance to switch it all off and simply live in the moment in the ring. Just enjoy; nothing can take that experience away from us.