Lessons in Muay Thai & Life from Rolex

Recently we saw young Rolex Sitsongpeenong get a KO win at Lumpinee over a vastly more experienced and older opponent who apparently had never been KOed before.

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 Camp last December.

The story that follows was an important life-moment for me and I thank Rolex for unwittingly teaching it to me.

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.

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 (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.

My next round was with a strong looking Russian guy and he came out fast with terrible form and clearly just looking to land some big shots. I wasn’t going to get drawn into that so I just moved out of distance and proceeded to kick his legs – a lot. This made him go even harder so naturally I went harder back – by this point I was really blasting his legs and was thinking he won’t be walking for a week. Of course this seemed to make him even crazier, and he was now trying to take my head off.

I was starting to worry that this was inappropriate my first day in Camp and I looked over at one of the trainers watching the action. It was Kru Sankhom and he just smiled at me, as usual, and gave me a big thumbs-up! At the end of the round, I have to admit, I was feeling a little proud of myself for the way I blasted him without getting touched.

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 was great.

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 but I was surprised at the time that they only seemed upset with him. He was told to sit-out sparring but the Russian guy was to continue.

I understand now that loss of composure and displays of temper are really frowned upon in Thai culture (read my article on Sabai Sabai).

Even though I was going hard on the Russian I kept my composure – hence the smiling thumbs up from 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 antics.

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 proficiancey, or mistake sparring for fighting and have a point to prove in the gym.

I’d got sucked into the old trap of, ‘if your 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 is.

Many months later it still amazes me how Rolex diffused a very tense situation with his smile and playful attitude. Me 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!

Giles Wiley

Jax Muay Thai


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