I enjoy the guilty pleasure of a late breakfast. I defend myself by citing to the old refrain of Noel Coward that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” You can then well imagine my surprise this morning in finding none other than an Englishman seated in the breakfast room. “King calls for understanding” was his defense and he had it published on the front page of the Bangkok Times. As I sat down, he lowered his newspaper. I could see from his cleric’s collar that he was an Anglican vicar. He gave me a grandfatherly smile and I said good morning in return. He looked at me, suspecting perhaps from my accent that I was European. I answered by ordering tea instead of my usual coffee.
I would avoid the milk, he said leaning over, it’s a little off.
Darjeeling is best without, I replied and he concurred.
He introduced himself as “the Reverend Donald Kingsley,” which made me want to ask exactly how many other Reverend Donald Kingsleys were currently vying for the title. He was from Oxford, and in Thailand for an ecumenical conference on inter-faith tolerance. He came south from Bangkok for a little R&R, “as the Americans call it.” He had been here four days at this point and was getting a little restless. I told him of my plans that day to take some photographs at the Thai boxing gym in town and that he was welcome to come along. He accepted, eagerly. He seemed harmless, a big white whale gasping for air on a beach full of blackened Swedes. Our Cantonese landlady cleared the tables and having overheard my plans offered to call someone she knew at the gym to fix us up. A few minutes later I was standing in the lobby while the Reverend went to wash up.
Sawatdee Kaa, ka, Hotel Amanta, . . . ka . . . I have guest want to come to gym, ka? Ok . . . Don’ Kingla . . . ka . . . you know him? . . . Ok . . . maybe 30 minutes . . . ka, also photos . . . Khawp khun kha.
Cries of “welcome, welcome” washed over our red tuk tuk as it slid into a casual repose by the side of the road in front of a bar. I confirmed with the driver that the gym was in the back. The Reverend and I made our way past the charcoal grills at the entrance and through the sea of pretty girls, nodding and apologizing as we went;
Sorry, no money, we go boxing, muay thai, no boom boom, holy man, maybe tomorrow, etc.
Once past the darkened bar we could see three boxing rings, each singularly illuminated by a bank of precariously suspended florescent tubes. There was no real division between the bar and the gym. The place smelled of beer, metal and rubber with the occasional drift of cheap perfume. An old man, with a face like knotty pine, approached us and went straight to the Reverend. He shook the Reverend’s hand. He shook it whole-heartedly.
Very glad to meet you Don’ King’ – I show you best fighters – only the best – you pick winner – these guys best in Thailand.
We were escorted to the raised bench seats set against the far wall of the gym. They looked down on the three rings and towards the bar. One of the bar girls brought us each a bottle of Singha beer. The old man went to talk to two fighters and they replied to him with punctuated glances at the Reverend. I tried to figure out the best setting for my camera.
The younger of the two boxers, dressed in blue Nike shorts, began warming up in the corner of the center ring. He danced from one foot to the other, bobbed and weaved and threw shadow punches. Behind him, I could see, by the light of the exit, the bare midriff of one of the girls as she leaned backwards across the bar. Someone stood in the doorway and she disappeared again into the shadows. In the other corner the slightly older fighter, in black Hilfigger shorts, was standing still. He moved his gloves up and down to his face, his eyes focused on Nike’s feet. Then he turned and looked at the Reverend. The Reverend sat beside me, oblivious in his own midriff and wiping the brown snout of the beer bottle with his cloth handkerchief. I told him that I needed to get closer to the ring because of the light. He nodded, dabbing the beads of perspiration from his brow. The boxers moved towards each other. One of the girls moved from the shadows towards the Reverend.
Nike threw the first punch, a light right-hook teaser to Hilfigger’s head, just to gauge his reaction. Hilfigger merely stepped back. Nike was lean, swift on his feet, his face younger than his body. Hilfigger looked like he had been carved with a hatchet, was slightly shorter than the other, stocky. His arms seemed disproportionally large for his body and made him look like a cross between a bull and a crab. Nike lightly stepped to move to Hilfigger’s right. Hilfigger hit him with a solid hard right to his ribs to keep him center. Nike moved swiftly to the left and out of range, smiled, but moved his left arm slightly to defuse the pain. Hilfigger lowered his brow and took note. Nike danced, threw another punch to Hilfigger’s head – this one connected. Hilfigger, indifferent, turned his shoulders like a Greek galley, faced Nike broadside and framed him into the corner. Nike’s gloves were up but Hilfigger undeterred laid seige. Each punch was louder and heavier than the previous, each one aimed like a steel wedge trying to cleave open Nike’s arms and give Hilfigger access to the soft guts inside. Given the pounding force, it was inevitable that Hilfigger would eventually break through. He interspersed the body blows with fakes to the head but then a single direct punch cleaved Nike’s arms, hit him solid in the chest and threw his body back against the padded corner. Nike instinctively raised his arms to counterbalance the backward momentum and Hilfigger went in for the stomach. 2, 4, 6, 8 – Nike felt each and every strike. Hilfigger leaned in, his shoulders preventing any defense by Nike, 10, 12. Only the sight of the muscles moving like pistons along Hilfigger’s back could tell Nike when to prepare for the next blow to his stomach. 16, 17, 18, the rhythm was now that of single heavy deadweight punches and it became almost soothing to those of us that merely watched. Time stood still, beads of perspiration moved, slowly, vividly, on bodies, faces, bottles, lips.
Awareness slowly returned. Hilfigger pulled back, looked at the Reverend. Nike hung now on the ropes like wet washing. The Reverend was in the shadows talking to the bar girl that had shuffled up beside him, her fingers thumbing his collar. Hilfigger returned to work. Nike had gotten to his feet but his arms, eager to stop the body blows were now too low. This was a set up – this was not a fair fight – this kid knew nothing, only pain. The Reverend seemed preoccupied. Perhaps amidst the onslaught, Nike realized that his role in this whole affair was to suffer. He threw a punch that connected directly with Hilfigger’s face. Hilfigger, surprised, now returned to script. Nike’s head did not behave like you would think a head should. His face became a sea of seemingly malleable flesh, absorbing each punch, rippling, punch, blood projected from his nose, smeared across his chest and ran down into his groin. Just before the last one, the one that knocked him out, Nike faced the Reverend, peering through a riverlet of blood streaming from above his left eye. Hilfigger looked at the Reverend too. The Reverend was now watching. Hilfigger slowly turned his entire body along an axis that ran from his left heel to his right shoulder. His fist met Nike just below the temple.
As Nike lost consciousness we all gradually floated into the ring, the boxers, the old man, the girls, the Reverend. We were all together in the ring beneath the florescent lights. Flies buzzed among the bright fluorescent tubes and you could see the pock-marks on the faces of the girls beneath the heavy make-up. Everybody was squashed against everyone else like we were all becoming one mass of limbs crushed togther like scrap metal in a junkyard. There was the smell of underarm, fresh blood and charcoal. Hilfigger looked at the Reverend.
You see I’m the best.
The Reverend looked down at Nike creamed across the canvas. The old man looked at the Reverend – a big white whale gasping for air. Everyone was breathing deeply the smell of cheap perfume and violence. The Reverend moved to speak.
I interrupted and laughed. I put my hand on Hilfigger’s shoulders and said;
Too fast, you too fast, we make no money.
He laughed, the old man laughed, but not the others. I moved towards the light of the exit, put my arm around the old man and kept the Reverend in front of me. We were about 10 feet from the door. Its white light seemed so pure and clean. The momentum of the room and its occupants followed me. 8 feet. Nike remained on the canvas. I asked the old man for his phone number and told him that it was a great fight, one of the best we had seen in fact. 4 feet. He asked me for Mr. King’s number. I pretended not to hear and confirmed with a look of concern that the piece of paper he gave me was in fact his direct number. The Reverend was already outside, standing like someone in a shower, washing himself clean in the white light.
Yes, that my number so you call me okay?
I looked at him and said that I would definitely call him. I then put my hands together in the traditional Thai greeting and raised them high to my face to indicate that I held him in great esteem. He smiled, slapped me on the shoulder and then turned and went back into the bar.