In the centre of the ring, to the right of the referee, I stood with my hand raised. Over the din of the voices in the crowd and the thoughts in my head I heard the MC for the second time, “And a big hand for your runner up, from the Phraya Pichai Muay Thai club, Kieran McNairn!” I had lost my first fight, but I was happy. Happy with my performance, happy with my experience and most of all, happy that I would be able to walk out the ring safe in the knowledge that I had come through this experience relatively unhurt. The bruises I had gained from training and from fighting would eventually fade, the swelling would die down and my lip would stop bleeding and heal but the things I have gained from training and fighting will never leave me.
I started training in Muay Thai around two years ago with the primary intention of getting into the ring and competing. I've aways had an issue with protecting and defending myself but since I was in a relationship with a woman who I knew I would spend the rest of my life with (and have since married, in August this year) I was consumed by fear. Not of commitment but of protecting my future family. How could I protect what would be my family if I was too cowardly to protect myself; a fact violently pounded home by a head-butt and a punch after a night out almost three years ago on Christmas Eve where I walked away from being hit twice instead of fighting back in a fight, I am embarrassed to say, I started on a drunken whim. This is backed up by most of my primary school years being filled with bullying and most of my time in secondary school were made shit by the people around me. Despite me being drunk at the time,the fact still remained that I couldn't defend myself properly and if I was to feel happy about marrying the woman that I loved and bringing children into this world then I would have to feel secure in the knowledge that I could at least try to protect my family if the need ever arose. So with the intention of just boxing, I went along to the local community centre to join the boxing club so I could start to learn how to fight. I had attended this club about ten years previous but was scared off by a guy bullying me. The guy was kicked out the club, but the experience put me off boxing, until now. Unbeknownst to me, amateur boxing clubs work in seasons, and this was off season. Above the empty hall, however, was the sound of pads being hit. Venturing upstairs I was surprised to see what looked like kickboxing and decided to stay for the class and see what it was all about. What I had walked into was a Muay Thai class – the national sport of Thailand which can date itself back over 2000 years and was the basis, along with Karate, for western Kickboxing in America around 50 or 60 years ago.
As soon as I seen what these people were doing; kicking and kneeing as well as using elbows and fists, I knew I had to do this instead of boxing. If you want to become confident in self defence, I can think of few other martial arts which offer the real world crossover that Muay Thai does. All martial arts come from the same place – a need to defend yourself and your family, farm or livelihood, but few have retained this application as well as Muay Thai. In Thailand, it is not uncommon to see children as young as 7 or 8 fighting full contact in the ring and British Muay Thai has only two brackets to compete in – amateur (with body, shin and head protection) or full contact (with three classifications of rules).
My studies in this martial art were diligent and to be honest, fascinated me. Muay Thai is steeped in Hindi and Buddhist traditions, like Thailand and every movement (including simply walking!) has a history which can be linked to wars, great heroes, stories from the Ramayana and movements in other Thai martial arts which incorporate weapons, Muay Boran and Krabi Krabong. But I don't intend to bore you with the history of Thailand, like I have with the history of my life so I'll press on a bit. If you really are interested in this history, I'd suggest you start looking at Yaang Saam Khum and the story of Tatawan the Demon...
Go backwards in time about eight weeks and you get to the start of the training for my fight. My friend, Graham was going to fight for the first time on the same night as I was, and we were both glad of this. It meant we could complete the next eight weeks of training together and prepare for the fight with someone who was going through exactly the same thing as you were. The training for fights in our camp usually starts six weeks before the bout but both Graham and I were keen to get started so our Kru (coach) decided that a further two weeks of less intense training would be good, to get us started on the more technical side of Muay Thai, things such as ring craft, pacing ourselves for the 5 rounds and when to throw which shots where.
I am generally quite clumsy, so as you can imagine, training for a fight 5 nights a week for two hours at a time was a much scarier proposition for me that it would be for most people. It wasn't if I was going to be injured in training but when really. Over the course of the eight weeks of training I: Dislocated my big toe, fractured the one next to it later on, suffered multiple injuries to my shin bone, as well as the muscle in that area and also had such heavy bruising on the inside of my left thigh that I still can't bend my leg completely, four weeks after injuring it!
Nevertheless, Graham and I diligently trained at RM Condor with our Kru three nights a week, as well as attending class twice a week and stuck out the many exhausting sessions. It was exhausting mentally and physically as we were learning many different things as well as cementing the basic knowledge into our instincts. We were to work out our weak points so we could work on them, without ignoring the stronger points of our game at the same time. Mood swings affected me around mid way through the eight weeks where one day I would feel over the moon to be training and feel positive, even about my weaknesses and the next day I would be almost in tears (at least one training session was followed by a weeping session!) and feel like I should stop training and give up. I'm sure all fighters feel like that at least once in their career if not more, but it was completely new to me. The emotional rollercoaster and daily ups and downs gives me great sympathy for women who have to go through that once a month for most of their lives! I know that Graham felt the same way as I did but ironically, our moods were usually polar opposite, so I'd be pounding on Graham on Monday and he would be feeling like quitting but by Wednesday he would be mentally in the game and feel pumped while I didn't even want to defend his head kicks because I felt so miserable.
Come forward in time a bit, to Saturday the 13th of December. We left Graham's house in Colin's car at around 1 o'clock. We were travelling to Linwood, just past Glasgow for the weigh in, which was set for 4 o'clock. After a short stop in Tesco Extra in Dundee and a nervous 20 minute search of the venue in Linwood (no thanks to the sat nav, I might add!), we arrived at Tweedie Hall, the venue of our first fights. I have been to better venues...
I was to be fighting at 81kg and Graham was down for 70kg. My original opponent and I were to be meeting at 79kg, which was ideal for me. Unfortunately he pulled out and the replacement would be looking to fight at 80kg. Since we were told this about 4 weeks before the event, we accepted, since it's only a kilo. That guy pulled out too. Three weeks before the bout, I was matched with a guy from Markinch called Malik who informed the promoter that he would fight but would have to lose weight to get to 80kg and would inform us of his weight the week before the fight. He must have been cutting an awful lot because we were informed almost three weeks later, a few days before the fight, that Malik would not be able to make 80kg. He would be able to weigh in at 81kg instead, if that was ok for us. Colin discussed this with me over the phone and since I had come through multiple injuries and a lot of hard training time had been invested, I decided to agree to the fight at 81kg, knowing full well he would have at least 1kg weight advantage on me.
Stepping into one of the rooms set aside for fighters and coaches above the Tweedie Hall, there was an air of suspicion. The coaches all know each other from previous events and having trained with one another over the last twenty five (or more) years, but for many fighters, this was their first or second fight and there were a lot of new faces: no man knew his opponent at sight, which created an atmosphere of excited nervousness. I had felt this before, while cornering another fighter from my camp but to know that someone in this room was going to be my opponent was a much more exciting, and nervous prospect.
We were handed packs which included the running order of the show , our disclosure form (to ensure we wouldn't sue if we got hurt etc) and our medical form. Since all fighters were classed as novices (less than 5 fights), the running order of the show was put simply in order of weight class. This meant I was on second last, with only the 86kg fight after me. Graham was mid bill, even though he was without a certain opponent until that day, as he was down as fighting at 69kg. The two junior bouts were to start the night. In Scotland, junior rules are fought up to the age of 16 and these ensure that there are no blows to the head with any weapon; knee, kick or punch. No elbows are allowed in Scottish Muay Thai rules aside from elbows to the body in C and B class until you reach A class fights, which are professional fights and usually the main attraction and headline bout at any show.
Graham weighed in at a surprising 68.4kg, he had been struggling to get below 70kg until a day or so before so was surprised to see himself weight in without a hitch. His opponent was from North Aryshire and came in at a much lighter 64kg, that's 5kg underweight. As both he and Graham were happy to continue with the bout, it stood. I weighed in later on at a shocking 77kg. I had been consistently weighing between 78 and 80kg up until the fight, even weighing in at a fraction under 79kg the morning before we left, and that was after having two protein cookies and a protein flapjack in the car! Even more shocking was that Malik weighed in at 82.8kg! He would have to lose nearly 2 kilos of water weight in an hour or so in order for the fight to be confirmed. Having skipped for about an hour and stepping on the scales twice in the buff, he finally weighed in at 81.1kg. We decided to allow this as he was only gonna drink water and eat, piling all that back on. And he had time to as well. We estimated that he had around five hours to eat, drink and let it all settle before he had to warm up for our bout. I tried to do the same but was to nervous to eat much after the weigh in, and by the time I felt like eating, the buffet that was laid on for all the fighters and coaches was long gone, with only a bowl of sad looking salad and a browning, half eaten banana left standing. I had to settle on a yoghurt drink and an expensive sandwich from the garage behind the Tweedie Hall.
It was decided that there was enough time between Graham's fight and my fight for me to be able to do Graham's corner as well as go through my complete warm up, massage and hand wrapping included. After wrapping Graham's hands and helping him warm up with light, technical sparring, Colin took him for a few rounds on the pad to get him warmed up and we were ready for Graham's fight. He was not nervous at all coming down the stairs or standing backstage, but I was shaking with nerves and excitement. We heard Graham's chosen entrance music start up – Little Richard - and made our way to the ring.
Graham's fight was, in my opinion, null and void. His opponent, while weighing in much lighter, was built like a wee steam engine and used his punches like pistons, constantly pressuring Graham to keep his guard up and resort to push kicks and attempts at body kicks. The reason I consider Graham's fight a write off is simply for the number of fouls the referee missed. Graham was kicked on the ground three times before the referee intervened, he was kneed in the groin and was also kneed in the face – all three fouls were intentional (maybe not the knee to the groin actually, it was solid but maybe just off target). Graham did not complain though, and was eventually stopped via punches in the third round. Graham maintains that he was tired rather than hurt and looked unable to continue through exhaustion rather than being injured. The fight was ruled a TKO but after my experience in the ring, I was forced to agree with Graham in that he was probably just exhausted.
I was as calm as I had ever been before my fight. I knew what I could and couldn't do, in terms of my own strengths and weaknesses. I knew that Malik was more of a brawler than a martial artist and that I should concentrate on leg kicks in the first two rounds in order to tire him out and make him lose concentration. I know that my right hand has knockout power so the plan was to focus on leg and body kicks until his guard started to drop after which I could work for my big right (either a straight or a hook would do!) and knock him out. The fight started exactly as I planned... for all of ten seconds! I started with a leg kick, the power of which seemed to shock him, then followed up with a huge right hand straight to his face, both of which landed perfectly. The rest of that round, I have been told, was just back and forth brawling between he and I. I can't remember it at all! I was told between the 1st and second rounds that I was hurting him and to keep pressuring him, that I was doing great. I got back in there and just threw everything I had at him, completely ignoring his attacks and just focusing on hitting him as hard as I could. In the clinch, I felt I was mostly effective, turning and kneeing him very well. He was a strong guy though, and I couldn't throw him. He half threw, half fell on top of me near the end of the third round though and this knocked the stuffing out of me completely. When I sat down between rounds 3 and 4, I knew I was finished. It was the one coherent thought in my brain as Colin was giving me a talking to about my defence (ie – where was it?). I just came out with it, “Colin, I'm finished. I am sorry if I let you down but I can't continue. I am just too exhausted to finish”. He was sad, I could see it, but he told me that I was not letting him down and I fought as hard as anyone could. If was exhausted, there was no way he could force me to continue.
The referee was told I was retiring and the fight was stopped. I know now that Malik was just as tired as I was, and that was why he had simply fallen on me when trying to throw me in the clinch. If I could have gone another round, I am convinced I could have knocked him out. Equally, I am convinced that if I had continued, I would have been seriously hurt, knocked out or both as I was too tired to even maintain a fighting stance or throw another punch.
Afterwards, I knew this experience would stay with me for the rest of my life because of three things: Firstly, Malik telling me in the ring that it was a very hard fight and thanking me for the bout made me realise that I hit bloody hard and can take the best punches and kicks that the bigger, stronger man could offer and still stand fighting. Secondly, Colin, his wife and Graham all told me that they were really surprised to see me fighting with such ferocity and aggression and never expected me to take and give so much punishment in three rounds. Finally, as I exited the ring and came down the steps, the look in the eyes of my parents, my brothers and my wife told me that I had done something that made them all very proud. Making my family proud of me for doing something none of them though imaginable two years ago is one of the best feelings I have ever had. Despite not winning my fight, I made those close to me; my family, my coach, my friends, proud of my achievements and progress and truly made myself feel happy with what I had done.
I do not think I will ever fight in the ring again but as corny as it may sound, the experiences I take away from the time spent training and fighting really will last me a lifetime.