06 Oct Sparring 101 – Lessons in Muay Thai & Life from Rolex Sitsongpeenong
Memories form Bangkok December 2015:
Recently we saw young Rolex Sitsongpeenong get a KO win at Lumpinee over a
vastly more experienced, and older, opponent who had never been knocked out
Rolex has just turned 17 and is an incredibly gentle and smart young man, who
really impressed me the 2 weeks I trained alongside him at Sitsongpeenong
The story that follows was an important life-moment for me and I thank Rolex for
unwittingly teaching it to me. And, once again proving that after 30 plus years in
martial arts I still learn something new everyday.
It was my first Saturday morning sparring session in Camp and there were quite
a few faces I didn’t recognize. It turned out that Saturday morning sparring
attracted a few foreigners who were living in Bangkok but weren’t training at our
Camp full time. I‘d only just arrived and I was still not entirely sure how hard
people tended to go and who was technically good and who was a brawler.
For a little bit of background on me; I suffered a detached retina in 2000 and after
emergency surgery was told that if I took a blow to the head I could go blind,
hence I’m quite cautious who ! spar with, and how I spar.
First round was with one of the young Australians in Camp and I was pleased to
find it was of a high technical level and speed, but not crazy hard. Glancing
around during a break I could see most people were smiling, making lots of noise
and obviously enjoying themselves with no malice or ill intent.
I obviously looked OK first round because I got moved over to the ‘Thai Ring’
where the top Thai fighters tended to be. My second round was with Sittichai
(Glory World Champion & Lumpinee Champion) and I loved every moment of it.
Incredible speed and timing but also control. I could see how quickly he would
have had me in trouble if this was a fight but it was also very obvious that he was
here this morning to learn and not to prove anything to some ‘farrang’ (foreigner
My next round was with a strong looking Russian guy and he came out fast with
terrible form, clearly just looking to land some big shots. I wasn’t going to get
drawn into that silly game, so stayed at a distance and proceeded to kick his
I have to admit I kicked them a lot, and then I kicked them some more. This made
him try even harder to take my head off, so naturally I kicked his legs harder still.
By this point I was really blasting his legs and was starting to think, ‘he won’t be
walking for a week’.
This was my first day in Camp and I started to worry that me blasting his legs
was inappropriate, I quickly looked over at one of the trainers watching the
action. He smiled at me and gave me a big thumbs-up. Ok then, I thought.
At the end of the round, I was feeling a little proud of myself for the way I had
handled things without getting touched by his big shots. And, I hate to admit, I felt
good about how hard I’d kicked his legs.
My next round was with one of the young Thai fighters, Rolex, and it was just
what I needed after the previous round. It was fun and smiling and relaxed. At
points Rolex would let me hit him to the body and pretend he was being KO’ed, it
However, half way through our round I heard a massive commotion across the
ring. The Russian was now with a big Irish guy who was obviously very upset
with how hard the Russian was sparring. He was shouting and swearing and
trying to grab him by the throat.
All of the trainers were very fast to react and jumped into the ring to restrain the
Irish guy. The trainers appeared to take it very seriously and the Irish guy was
told to sit-out the rest of sparring. However, the Russian guy was to continue as if
nothing had happened.
At the time I was confused, the Russian had been sparring very hard and, in my
mind, had therefore ‘started’ the argument. However, I understand now that it
was the loss of composure and the display of temper from the Irish guy that was
really frowned upon.
Even though I was going hard on the Russian I kept my composure – hence the
smiling thumbs up from Kru Sankhom. But the Irish guy showed his emotions
and was thus penalized. As for the Russian – I’m pretty sure the trainers thought
that any of us in the more advanced ring should be able to handle him, and I’m
positive they would never have let him swing at a beginner like that.
Anyway, here comes the real lesson. The next round I was with another top Thai
and I saw them pairing up Rolex and the Russian. I knew Rolex had well over 50
fights and was top ranked bantamweight in Thailand so I figured this would be
interesting, and I was expecting Rolex to KO the Russian if he started being an
idiot. But, instead, Rolex proceeded to be even more playful and smiling than
ever. He let the Russian, who was full of adrenaline from the altercation with the
Irish guy, hit him at will and the whole time he smiled and made fun noises.
Whenever Rolex hit back he literally tapped the Russian guy with an open hand
and kept smiling. As the round wore on I would see the Russian relaxing and
hitting lighter and lighter, eventually I think I saw him almost smile at Rolex’s
That round was the end of sparring and as we got ready for bag work I reflected
on what I’d just seen. I’ve been around long enough to realize that most guys
who go hard in sparring just do it either because they’re scared and insecure, or
lack technical proficiency. Or, they mistake sparring for fighting and have a point
to prove in the gym.
I’d got sucked into the old trap of, ‘if you’re sparring partner goes hard you go
harder!’ Many coaches teach this and I’ll admit there was a point in time I actually
subscribed to this school of thought. But it’s not really beneficial for either person,
your quality of technique suffers and you become a brawler, serious injuries
occur and you lose sparring partners, and friends, pretty fast too.
Rolex had no point to prove in sparring a farrang who had probably only had a
handful of amateur fights. He recognized this wasn’t fighting it was sparring –
time to work on timing, rhythm and techniques. When he fought it was for a
purpose; to win a championship, to earn money for his family, to prove how good
he truly is.
Many months later it still amazes me how Rolex diffused a very tense situation
with his smile and playful attitude. My approach of blasting the Russian guys legs
wasn’t anything to be proud of, any idiot can meet force with more force. But, the
mark of a true martial artist was what Rolex did! He met force with gentleness
and changed the entire nature of their encounter. Now that’s a great Nak Muay!
Kru Giles Wiley
Jax Muay Thai