There Is a Light That Never Goes Out
Whenever people hear I take part in Muay Thai competitions, they would ask how many bouts I have done. It is natural human curiosity to find out the extent of another’s experiences. You’d want to demarcate their intentions, whether they are serious or casual practitioners, so you can pitch the conversation better. And to suss out the person’s prevailing interest, you’d ask “when is your next fight?”. Without fail, these two questions function as a one-two combo: quick and unthinking and flowing to the next.
I used to answer it easily. My next fight is next month. Next week. Once, I took on a fight on three days’ notice, and the answer was “tomorrow”. There was always something planned. There was a runway for us to take flight from. This competition in Jakarta would help me shake off the ring rust and prepare me for the 8-women tournament a few months later. This pro fight in Ipoh would warm me up for the pro fight in Thailand. The calendar was marked with milestones. Time was a river into which I traversed by hopping from fight to fight. It surged with trainings I don’t remember now, pain I don’t feel now, but during those moments, it was an endless current wearing me down. I miss the roar of things.
With Covid-19 ravaging the world, everything has been placed on hold. The world is holding its breath, waiting for things to pass. Meanwhile, I’ve long exhaled without intending to. People ask when my next fight is, I demur. “There aren’t any competitions now”, “helping out with the gym is my priority”, both of which are very true and salient. There just aren’t large-scale competitions held anywhere due to restrictions on social gatherings. The safe management measures also call for a heightened vigilance around Onyx; an extra pair of eyes or hands. Thus, there hasn’t been a strong conviction to firm up a date, even though there were actually a few local competitions held.
The closest I got was a match-up for a sparring bout. It was to be held in late May. I tried to get the ignition going. I dragged myself to run in the midday heat, did strength & conditioning classes 5 times a week even when I didn’t want to, and woke up early on my off day to train. It was as painful and torturous as I remembered, maybe even more because I was unfit. The tears came easily: before the fifth set of jump squats, during the third round of sparring, after a demoralising twenty minutes of clinching. My muscles ached constantly. But somehow, it felt like I was mimicking shadows. The motions were there, but there was something missing, which I could only sense yet not see. When that bout was inevitably cancelled due to Phase 2 Heightened Alert restrictions, I felt a sense of relief crash over me. “More time for you to train!” the rest trilled. I laughed and nodded along, but also rejoiced in having the looming pressure taken away and not needing to do any more runs. It was a curious state to be simultaneously disappointed and gladdened, with the latter deepening the feeling of the former.
I only understood why after someone asked me “how are you?”. For the past five years, there wasn’t a need to ask me that question. My answer was straightforward because I was on autopilot. I was exhausted, I was fatigued, but I was motivated, I was hungry. I did the physically draining tasks I hated because there was something I loved more: to be in the ring. The thrill of betterment, of priming your reactions just a smidgen better. There was no need for a pause or a break, because the world spun on in a carousel of competitions. When there was a lull in the local fight scene, there was Malaysia, Indonesia, and of course, the Motherland, Thailand. No need to hesitate, no need to pump the brakes, there were fights to get to, ring ropes to climb under, whenever I was ready. My mind, body, and spirit were aligned.
Since 2020, this has not been the case. Covid-19, as much as we hate to give it so much control over our lives, is a monumental disruption. It upended everything. Every day, we play at normalcy. Sure, Circuit Breaker was implemented, but we were all still healthy and hale. We celebrated when gyms could reopen and ran classes as close to the usual Onyx way, retaining the skipping, the jump knees, the padwork, the kicks. But things did change; I just refused to admit it to myself.
For the longest time, I had assumed this pursuit of mine was untouchable. All it took was hard work and dedication. If I trained diligently enough, it would translate into results. Of course, it took a whole community— the coaches, the fight team, the gym members, the promoters—, but it felt like a separate sphere from the rest of the world. We operated on a different time (spent on the pads, the bags, the mats) and currency (skills and techniques). My peers chased after promotions and prospects while I chased after the elusive highs of being grounded, balanced on the backfoot, when somebody stalks me down in the ring. The days were simple and the intention was clear: to become better than I was before.
That hadn’t changed, of course. Martial arts is all about discipline and determination. But unfortunately, I have. From last year, it has felt like a tunnel with no light in sight. There was a merging of worlds: my fighting pursuits are inextricably linked to the material world now. My source of consistency is shaken and I don’t know when things will settle. There is a lot of detritus and noise from the surroundings. Just this month, we went from 15 members per class and sparring allowed, to 12 members per class and no sparring, to 0 classes because indoor high-intensity exercises are banned. There is no knowing if or when the next lockdown would be imposed, no predicting when the Covid-19 pandemic would recede, no gauging what the “new normal” would be like. We are all navigating the best we can, trying to do what we had done before, but there is no doubt there are fundamental differences in the way we approach life now.
With the changes in the environment, I had changed. Became softer. Gotten used to the good and relaxed life, maybe. When there is nothing to anchor yourself to, you drift like a jellyfish and I have indeed been adrift. Sprawled out and soaking in the sun. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but for someone who is used to structure and defined by routine, it is overwhelming. I have always doubted the extent of my passion for Muay Thai and grappled with the identity of “fighter”. This lull, this extended off-season, has only deepened my self-doubt. So when the opportunity came up for a sparring bout, I took it, as if to prove something to myself. But by right, I shouldn’t need to.
I remember before, when the coaches asked people if they’d want to compete, the coaches would take them out if they took too long to answer. Because to answer it simply, it is a simple answer. It is either a fuck yes or no. Lose 6 kilograms in 2 months? If it is a yes, you (and the team of course) will put in 100% to get you there. Do 10 rounds of padwork? If it is a yes, you will do it, even if your breaths come out in ragged threads. It is either 100km/h or you better get out of the lane, because in a fight, nobody is going to wait for you to get revved up. You have to devote yourself entirely, because the risk of injury, both physical and emotional, is real. Do you still want to fight? It is an easy question that is difficult to answer, because of how simple the answer should be.
So, how am I doing? I am doing fine. I am enjoying life as much as I can in this harried and urgent world. Maybe I am luxuriating too much, because it has been 1.5 years since my last Muay Thai competition, and I’m feeling okay about it. Do I still love Muay Thai? Yes, definitely! I can answer that without hesitation. It is a soothing balm that gives you aching muscles. Nothing hits the spot like hitting the spot on the pads. Do I still want to compete? … yes, if I can, when I can, where I can. It is a strange and compulsive love. It is stubborn. It is anxious and spiky about proving itself. It also feels like a fraud sometimes.
That is how I feel if you ask me when my next fight is. There is a lot of ambivalence and contradictions (where there should be none… right?). But there is also a fierce and quiet defensiveness. The pandemic has overturned ordinary life without an end. However small and modest it may be, I will be keeping this flame alight and carrying it along as far as I can take it.