Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Interview: Muay Thai Fighter Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu Part 2


If you haven't done so, please read Part 1 of my interview with Sylvie

So what is your relationship like with your instructor?  Are you his only student or does he have other students?
I think my relationship with him has changed and evolved over the time that I've been training with him.  He has trained women before; definitely not to the capacity that we've trained together.  I don't think he's brought any other women to a competition state.
And he had a hard time of it, you  know he's old-school Thai.  He left Thailand basically at the time I was born so he's been in the U.S. a long time and so his kind of understanding of Muay Thai tradition comes from the golden-age of Thai boxing.  So he has this old-school Thai mentality that hasn't changed whereas Thailand itself has changed its custom.  So he is kind of a time-capsule.  And he's also been in the U.S. a really long time and he loves women and I know that he really found it beautiful that I loved Muay Thai as much as I do and to a degree that's similar to the way he loves it.  So I think that he is kind of conflicted in that he really wants to help give me all these opportunities and he really wants me to expierence Muay Thai in the way he loves it but he also worries about me like a daughter.  He's like, "I don't want you getting hurt."  He really doesn't want me fighting.  When I first started fighting he really didn't want me to do it and I was basically told him "I'm going to Virginia to fight and it would be great it you came with me." (laughs).  It was not a discussion that went well.  And he's kind of gotten more into it and relaxed more.  He had a really hard time with me not winning fights for a really long time and he was like, "You have got to stop fighting if you're not going to win" because it's losing face and it's complicated in this maintaining honor and integrity for those who train you and for yourself. But I think that my tenacity and saying, "Master K, I totally respect what you're saying but I am going to go and have another fight," (laughs) it kind of pushed him into acknowledging that my path is not necessarily the way he sees it in an ide
alized form and he really respects me in a way that I think is a struggle for him.  He actually sacrifices a lot to offer me the support and love that he does.  It's pretty beautiful.

Why do you train and compete?  What is your motivation behind fighting?
Sylvie training with Thakoon Pongsupha, owner of Sasiprapa gym in Bangkapi
Um, I didn't want to fight when I first started training.  And then about a year into it I realized that I couldn't know Muay Thai unless I competed.  Because you know these forms and it's beautiful.  And you're performing these movements in a way that is the art, but until you can do that under pressure, to me it didn't seem like you were really experiencing Muay Thai.  And fighters have this completely different feel about them.  So I told Master K that I loved Tony Jaa's Muay Thai, which is really inspired by Boran and he scoffed and was like, "Tony Jaa never fought." And I think that in my process of fighting, I have come to understand aspects of Muay Thai that I wouldn't have if I were just training for technique or for fitness or whatever the thing is that people who don't compete love about it.  And I think it has evolved the way I feel about it.  And it helps me understand that I may be a certain way and that I may want to look a certain way in the way I do Muay Thai, but that is not my style, that is not my accent or whatever and I just have to acknowledge the kind of fighter that I am and push more towards the fighter that I want to be.  But you can't just imitate someone.  You have a fingerprint or handwriting in your style.

I think that is a really interesting point.  Now you said that you've gone to Thailand.  Did you go there specifically to train?
Yeah.  Two or maybe three years ago in the winter, Master K had heart problems and he had to have a stint put in.  And he was really freaked out about it.  He kind of had this change of attitude and I think was kind of facing his mortality in a way that he had not had to before because as a seventy-year-old man he is like forty.  He's in incredible shape.  And it kind of spoke to me and my husband in this understanding that Master K is not going to be there forever and we kind of owed it to him to get my groundwork in so I could really understand the things he was teaching me.  And so we decided to go to Thailand as a way to really build up my foundation so that my understanding of what I was learning with Master K could have more context and meaning.  And so we went for about ten weeks during not this past winter but the one before, and I trained in two different camps.  One was up in the Northern province in Chiang Mai and the other one was down just outside of Bangkok, actually right by Master K's house in Thailand so I got to go see that, which was kind of cool.  And it was just such an eye-opener in terms of...when you take a tradition or sport and transplant it into another culture, there are little idiosyncrasies that you think you get.  But going to Thailand and actually seeing the way that it is practiced on a mundane, daily basis, really just opened my eyes to how much I dislike the way it is done in the United States (laughs). 
I was able to fight every two weeks; I got three fights while I was there.  I don't like the way it is built up in the United States.  You know, people train for six months and not the UFC; that's not normal fighters, but they fight very infrequently and build it up to be that this fight means everything and if you don't win in this spectacular way that you are not a good fighter and all these things.  The way that it is done in Thailand, where people fight all the time, is comfortable to me because it is like if kids got bent out of shape because they lost their soccer match when they have another one next week, you know?  It's a process; it is not trying to collect the best record possible, it's trying to grow as a fighter.  And that doesn't mean that it is not important to try to win, but it's putting emphasis on the wrong stage of the process. 

Sylvie assisting at a Master K seminar
You're right.  The way the UFC is built up and even pro Boxing, it is like the old WWE-style, pro-wrestling, where there is so much story, so much narrative, it really gets in the way of the fighting.  And you're right, you'll meet these Thai fighters who have sixty, seventy fights under their belts who are in their early forties, it's pretty incredible.  But fighting every two weeks is intense! It's brutal!  How did your body hold up to that?
It went really well.  I did not have injuries until my last fight.  My first two fights ended in a knockout, which I think was because I was scared.  I was just so amped I was like, "Oh my god, this just has to finish," and I kind of felt let down by those two fights because I felt like I really did not put myself into them because I was so scared.  And then my third fight down in Bangkok, we had agreed on a weight class that was a little bit higher than mine but not much, maybe about four pounds.  And when I got there this girl was like fifteen pounds heavier than me.  She was this enormous British girl and they said that this was her first fight, which I believe she had not fought Muay Thai before but I don't believe this was her first time in the ring.  Which is another thing they do in the United States, you know they have twelve karate or tae kwon do fights and then they say this is your first fight (laughs).  So that one I got a few injuries from, just in terms of how your leg gets bashed up.  So yeah, I was actually supposed to have a fourth fight but the political demonstrations cancelled that.  I was really upset about that but I had to put it in perspective that a country that is under political change is more important than whether or not I get a fight (laughs). 

You are an amateur fighter in the U.S., correct? 

So while you were in Thailand did it make you feel like a pro-fighter being able to train the majority of the time?  Because that is why you were there, was to train for a fight.  So did your training style change when you were over there for that ten weeks?
Well, it's really just a dream, the way it...you know, coming at it as a Westerner who is doing it because they want to rather than an impoverished Thai person doing it as a job, it felt like a dream to be able to just train all day.  It's like, when you were in college as a student, if you could just be a student and not have to have some crappy job (laughs).  It seems really lavish and surreal.  So yeah, it's different because here I can't train that way; there aren't camps set up the way there are in Thailand where you get into such routine and it's very intense and everyone is kind of sincere about it in a way that is not proving their authenticity, it just is authentic, you know?  And I know some pro fighters here in the states.  A friend of mine, Amy Davis, fights at about my weight, 105-110, and she actually has a really hard time with it because she has a full-time job and she's a pro fighter and she's fought everyone her size, run out of fights and then trying to find all these people.  I feel like the pro opportunities for women and especially women my size in the U.S., I don't know what that would actually feel like, but it seems like it would feel awful (laughs).  So I guess in Thailand I didn't feel a major distinction as in this is how the pros do it but more this is what it feels like to be able to dedicate as much energy as you want to, which is just amazing. 


Now your fight is December 3rd.  Is it going to be in New York?
No, it's in New Jersey.  I've never fought in New Jersey, as far as I know.  And they have different rules.  I think that New Jersey allows elbows for amateurs as long as you're wearing pads on your elbows, which is really exciting because I've always really, really wanted to use elbows.  But they also on the flip-side mandate that amateurs wear shin-pads and head-gear, which I haven't worn in over a year.  So I'm not super upset about it; it is not a deal-breaker for me but it is so cumbersome and annoying (laughs).  And it is definitely something that I am considering because the head-gear is something that gets in the way and it moves and all these things that make it a little bit, I don't know, more difficult.

When you are preparing for a fight, I know you said that for you it is a mental game, so what do you do that day of, when you're waiting for you're fight to begin? What is your protocol?
I hate waiting (L.A. laughs).  That is the worst part of fighting to me.  I've done different things; I don't have a tried and true routine.  When I was fighting with Natalie Fuz, the day before we would go to a Thai temple and have my mongkong and prajed blessed and then the day of was basically just driving down to whatever venue where it was going to be.  It becomes a day-long thing because they need you to be there so early.  And it is really exhausting to spend two hours in the car driving to the venue and then four hours at the venue waiting for your fight.  So it is kind of a matter of forced relaxation and trying to zone out from the boredom of waiting around.  I don't get nervous, I'm not antsy or freaking out about just wanting to get it done or anything like that.  But there is definitely a distinction in my visceral experience between the hours waiting for a fight and moment I actually step into the ring.  I feel like the excitement or maybe the nerves kind of build to this point when your name is actually being called, but the minute I step into that ring it just vanishes and I am ready to go.  And I feel like it's because that is the point of no return.  You can't get back out of the ring, you know, so you've just got to do this and the only way out is on the other side. 

That's true.  It is kind of funny to think of the fight as being a cathartic experience.
Totally and that is what everything has built towards.  I don't know, it is kind of funny because looking at my opponent across the ring has always been a very weird thing for me, because I usually smile at them, because I'm excited, I'm like 'look what we get to do.'  And I'm really into it and they are always kind of freaked out (laughs).  Not by me, but by the situation so we're not always at the energy level.  And on top of that because there are so few women my size, I fight my friends.  Which is kind of bizarre, to be looking across the ring and be like, "Hey Jess...we're about to his each other across the face, let's go for it" (laughs).  It is kind of funny, actually.

Stay tuned for more of Sylvie's thoughts on female fighters and the future of Muay Thai in Part 3!


Anonymous said...

Great interview L.A. I'm excited to read more! :) -SJ

Dani Callejas said...

Loved this interview!