When I started learning muay thai, things were very different than they are today. My first dojo was located in the bowels of a condemned building, which shared an address with a dodgy pool hall that was probably a money-laundering front for some criminal activity. The area, while rife with character, was not exactly what one would call safe.
If the instructor had chosen to show up on time for class, which was a luxury–not a given, you pulled open a battered metal door and descended into a dark stairwell. We’d been warned that the homeless sometimes curled up in the corners to get out of the cold, but there was no point being afraid, because you couldn’t see anything, anyways.
At this point, you could smell the gym. Years of sweat, blood, and tears, combined with the mold and mildew from a perpetually leaking roof and rotting carpet. Ah, the sweet perfume of muay thai!
You opened the door to a narrow passage, which was lined with jeering kickboxers. As a beginner, the most difficult part of class was to squeeze past that gauntlet into the gym. Once you got acclimated and knew the fighters enough to say hello and trade jokes, it was easier. I have no idea how the guys felt when they started, but as one of the few female students, it was damn intimidating.
The dojo was just starting to accept female students, so we didn’t really have a changing room. Someone had thrown up a sheet of plywood to create a little makeshift room, and we changed hurriedly in the dark, careful not to back into the board, which still had nails sticking out and could fall over at any time. As for the bathroom, forgetaboutit. I never went in there, for very good reason.
To say the classes were tough would be an understatement. Our instructor had trained in Thailand, and we learned muay thai the traditional way. We held a horse riding stance until our legs were shaking, only to get whipped with sticks in the inner thighs to test our mental strength and resistance to pain. We kicked iron poles. Sometimes the cardio was so intense that people puked. And there was always a lot of sparring, between people of all levels and genders. So yes, I sparred with men. Frequently.
There were about five women in the class, and we were tough by design. We wore our hair in simple ponytails and didn’t bother with make-up, lest it ran all over our faces. No one wore $300 spandex pants from LuLu Lemon. We wore the same club T-shirts and shorts as the men, and were proud of it, just as we were proud of our bumps, bruises, and cuts. To train in that club was to survive something, to earn a place in this fierce and incredible sport.
I remember clearly when things started to shift. At first, the move to a newer, cleaner facility was a wonderful thing. Hey, a real changing room for women! And bathrooms we could use! More women started attending. Nothing wrong with that, either. These girls came to the gym with perfectly made-up faces and coordinated outfits. We gave the first person with pink boxing gloves a really hard time, but now it’s the norm. The same person who thought tools would be more female-friendly if they were pink had infiltrated muay thai territory.
To each their own, but then the complaints started. These girls didn’t like the drill sergeant vibe of the instructors. They complained whenever a class was “too hard”. And forget hitting them with sticks–do you want to get sued? Sparring was a challenge because they took it personally, getting angry whenever they were hit, and using that anger as an excuse to play dirty. Hair-pulling, kicks to the back, you name it. I even had a woman rush me, head down, as if she was a bull and I was the matador. Unsure how to handle it, I put her in a headlock until she calmed down.
The little crappy condemned building hadn’t required much rent. The new, flashier gym did. Higher rent = the need for more students. Our club needed this demanding, whiny group of Shapes rejects in order to survive. The classes quickly changed to accommodate their needs. No more sticks. No more holding the splits for twenty minutes until you were ready to cry. No more running until you puked. What remained was a “sensible” workout that taught some of the skills of muay thai with none of the mental conditioning. Today, anyone and everyone can be a “kickboxer”. The sport is much more accessible, and I guess that should be a good thing.
Still, I miss the good ol’ days, when being a member of a dojo was a badge of honor few people could lay claim to. I initially met my current kru at that old condemned club, and we both shake our heads in wonder at the students who complain that our spacious community centre gym is “too crowded”, or who whine when one of the toilets in the squeaky-clean bathroom leaks.
If they only knew….
Ah yes…I do remember my own version of this but in the fire service. The hard work of the dirty, scrappy and sweaty days cannot be replicated or explained in the clean, gender friendly and tidy areas of a ‘new’ place, can they? Great post, I enjoyed it thoroughly!
Thanks for your comment! Please don’t tell me that the fire service has implemented pink gear!!!
Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend.
Pink would end up being the same color as the yellow, buff or red – black and sooty. But no, no one would want to have that going on because some Captain or other officer would find himself wearing it instead…
I can only imagine the reaction it would cause if the fire department showed up for the job wearing pink! Maybe in October…
I did feel the same way about the pink gloves as you, until I started working for a male-dominated industry in the past couple of years, where pink coveralls/gloves/etc. are a sign of not being afraid to show you’re a woman instead of covering it up all the time. I can’t understand the full makeup to workout since mine would be sweat off in minutes at work or the gym 🙂
But girly-girls don’t sweat, Cee Bee! I’ll never forget that one girl at CKMTC who used to shame me by saying, “Ewww…you’re sweaty,” whenever we were partnered. What did she expect?
I’ll venture that some women can wear pink to show they’re not afraid of being a woman. But why does being a woman mean you have to wear pink? I love my black boxing gloves, and if some guy wants the pink ones, more power to ‘im! 🙂
Interesting and descriptive writing style, but the first dojo experience sounds a little masochistic. Too “old school” and not part of the gentler paradigm change some are anticipating in our world.
I for one am thankful for kru Kelly and the club he has built. As someone who’s wife is already apprehensive about him doing a “fighting sport”, I appreciate the fun and safe environment. I like to think that less is more. I find that you appreciate the small, subtle things more. 🙂
I LOVE this and wish I could have been part of the good ol’ days.
@ Carole – Thanks for the compliment and welcome to the blog. While I’m not used to the old school training anymore, there are aspects of it that I miss. There’s good and bad points to both the old and new school.
@ Chris W – Thanks for commenting, Chris! I, too, am very grateful for KWest and its friendly, fun atmosphere. Kelly has put a lot of effort into giving us the best of both worlds. Joscelyn can be very “old school”, for instance. Would I trade the reliability and safety of KWest for slightly tougher training? I don’t think so–not anymore.
@ Elisabeth – welcome, welcome! Thanks so much for the follow. Are you a kickboxer as well? I will definitely check out your blog!
This post certainly rang bells with me. When I started boxing (age 11) we had an ex-army instructor who was definitely old-school. And it was in the context of an English private school at a time when the use of the cane was normal. We’d fight 3 x 3 min rounds with no head guards and light gloves, quite often more than once in the same day. If you weren’t trying hard enough it was quite normal to be encouraged by a dozen hard punches in your abs or whacks with the cane. And if you flinched you got a few more. It was sort of Spartan, but it was great way to get more competitive.
Those of us who really wanted to succeed in the ring (I was one of them) really benefited from this sort of training. But the bad side was that it put off kids who were less committed, but might nevertheless have enjoyed less rigorous training.
Thanks for your comment, boxing scientist. I found the same to be true with this club. My friend who joined with me, for instance, lasted three classes. It was a scary place and I’m surprised she went to that many.
The dojos had to become more generic in order to get the number of students they needed to stay afloat. It was that or get into criminal activity, and if I have to choose between gangs and pink gloves, the pink gloves win every time!
Well Holli, I’m seriously impressed that you persevered in a place like that. Mine might have been tough, but at least we had no gangsters.
And there’s nothing wrong with pink gloves -they hurt just as much as black ones!
Thanks! After the gangster sh*t hit the proverbial fan, the club closed down. Some of the fighters started their own gym, and I trained there for awhile. Eventually I found my way to KWest–the owner was also a student of that original gym. Sik Tai was a huge influence on all of us–you can see it in the way we fight. It’s too bad a few misguided decisions ruined everything for so many people.