|When you step in the ring, you really are on your own.|
As I prepared to enter the ring for my very first muay thai fight on Saturday, November 5th, I was not afraid. I was not worried. I wasn’t the slightest bit jumpy, or even anxious.
I should have known something was wrong.
I did have a moment of–call it trepidation, call it detached panic–when they taped on my boxing gloves.
“I guess I can’t get out of this now, can I?” I joked. Yes, I was still joking. The entire day (we showed up at 3:30 in the afternoon for our medicals, and didn’t fight until after 7 p.m.) was a surreal blur of waiting, laughing, and chatting. It felt more like a social event than impending doom. The weigh-ins had felt more nerve-wracking than this.
I’d come prepared with pages of inspirational writing and advice from fighter friends and angry music on my iPod, but I didn’t have the chance to use either. Everyone was hanging out in the multipurpose room, talking. It was just like any other day.
This feeling of unreality persisted after my name was called and I walked into the darkened gym to the beat of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger (when in doubt, go with a classic). I thought I’d look angry and be completely focused on beating the crap out of my opponent at this point. Instead, one of the first things I saw was two hand-drawn posters with my name on them, held aloft by dear friends. The entire gymnasium was crowded with friendly faces, and the cheering was deafening. How can anyone be angry in such a show of love and support? I’m sure I walked to the ring with a big goofy grin on my face. I believe I even fist-bumped my boyfriend on the way in.
Once in the ring, things got a little more confusing. I thought there would be clear direction over what to do, but I had to ask permission to seal the ring (a traditional act of respect in muay thai), because there was no other indicator or instruction. When the ref explained the rules, that was my first opportunity to finally get clarity on what was or was not allowed in a K-1 match. Thankfully, he was patient with my questions. And then suddenly, it was time to fight. There was no touching of gloves, no nod to the opponent–just this woman rushing at me looking ready to kill.
“Oh, I guess we’re fighting,” I thought.
I was in a daze. My body would not obey my mind, and even my mind didn’t seem to be working properly. I could hear my coaches screaming at me to kick, but I couldn’t process what they were saying. More than anything, I could hear her coach, who until recently had been one of my coaches, another complicating factor. I couldn’t seem to shut out his voice, and he never stopped yelling instructions.
Now, throughout this fight camp and beyond, I’ve had very tough sparring partners. And I’ve proven, without a doubt, that I can take a lot of punishment. So, when she lunged in and started hitting and kicking, I prepared to experience some pain. But to my surprise, I didn’t feel a thing. The first two rounds sped by while I tried to punch and kick through the fog that encompassed my brain. I’m nervous to watch my fight, because I can’t imagine that I did anything right in the initial four minutes. It was like being intoxicated, but worse. Where was I? What the heck was going on? Who was this person coming at me? I never heard a single end-of-round bell–now I know why there’s a referee to stop the fighting.
During the break, Olivia put a stool under me, gave me water, and hammered me with instructions. I could see her lips moving, and I struggled to listen to what she was saying, but I couldn’t make sense of it. My mind was whirling.
I looked up at Kru Kelly, who stayed mostly silent during the breaks. (Olivia was talking for both of them.)
“Am I doing okay, Kelly?”
“Yes, you are. You’re doing great.”
“There’s something wrong. It doesn’t hurt. Nothing she throws at me hurts.”
I think they could have dropped a piano on my head at that point, and I would have thought a mosquito bit me. It was crazy.
I finally started coming out of the haze in the third round, but by then, I was too far behind on points. (I found out later that I was in shock for the first two rounds.) Still, I didn’t back down, I didn’t turtle, and I didn’t run from her. Even in my stupor, I had that elusive quality I had always hoped for–heart. You can teach a fighter skill and aggression, but you can’t teach him heart. You either have it or you don’t.
When the last bell rang, I knew my opponent had won the match. And the truth was, I didn’t care.
I used to think that losing this fight was the worst thing that could possibly happen, but I was wrong. When my opponent’s name was announced as the winner, I smiled. As I climbed out of the ring to overwhelming cheers and applause, I was just…happy. So many people told me they were proud of me. So many people took the time to come out and show their support. There was no way I could feel like a loser.
And I have plenty of time to win a fight. This time around, getting in the ring and going the distance was enough.
Winning isn’t about hitting hard. It’s about how many hits you can take and still get up and keep going. – Rocky
My coach sent out an email to all the fighters afterwards, and this is an excerpt from what he said to me:
Under the most extreme pressure you still worried about other people’s feelings, that says a lot about who you are.
I’m not sure what he’s referring to, but I’m thinking that fighting teaches you a lot about yourself. In the heat of the moment, under that kind of pressure, you get to find out exactly who you are.
And if I’ve found out I’m a happy-go-lucky person who cracks jokes in a tense situation, cares about others, and doesn’t back down, that’s more than good enough for me.
Thanks to Kelly Westerlund and Olivia Gerula for training me, to all the members of fight camp for the support and advice and the shared experience, and to every single one of my wonderful friends who wrote, called, came to the fight, or cheered me on in any number of ways. I love you for being there. Thank you for joining me on this journey. And last but definitely not least, to Chris for going through this with me, every step of the way. I couldn’t have done it without you.