On a mission to lose weight and get in shape, journalist Jeremy “Lion Heart” Hartley found himself squaring off in a Muay Thai bout. It wasn’t pretty.
I traced my finger down the list of bouts set for that night’s in-house fight at Swish Club, a Hong Kong Thai-boxing gym, and felt sick to my stomach. In the days leading up to the fight, the club owner, a 30-something Hong Konger named Antony, had been cagey about my opponent. Whenever I approached him for an answer he would give the impression of suddenly having to address some pressing piece of business and then dismiss me with some encouragement to spur my training, usually something pithy like “Train hard!”
After weeks of after-work sessions of sit-ups and heavy-bag work, I was as prepared for the big night as I wanted to be, but not knowing the name of the man for whom I’d temporarily given up roasted pork belly and deep fried prawns dipped in duck-egg yoke had left a vacuum at the center of my efforts. That void had already drawn out my anxiety and was on the verge of draining away any desire to go through with the lunacy of fighting another human for sport.
Now, it was the night of the fight and I was reduced to reading my opponent’s name off a list posted on a wall in Swish Club’s fighters-only zone. Would it be one of the guys I knew from my regular training sessions? Might we have man-danced before, either in the boxing ring or, awkwardly, in the narrow walkway alongside the showers in the locker room?
I HAD TO SIGN A WAIVER RELEASING SWISH CLUB FROM LIABILITY IN THE EVENT OF MY DEATH
My finger slid down to the penultimate spot on the list and stopped: Jeremy vs. Alex.
I had never worked out with anyone of that name. I asked one of the trainers which of the sweaty, shadow-boxing roughs milling about us was Alex. The trainer turned and pointed to a tall, well-muscled fellow with a crew cut and glasses. Some kind of tribal tattoo entangled much of his left arm. Gulp.
I was in Hong Kong to work a desk job as a copy editor in the news business and had taken up Thai boxing primarily to shed some weight and lower the pressure with which my heart pumped blood around my nearly 40-year-old body. Now I was about to step into the ring with an incredibly fit-looking Chinese man about whom I knew nothing. Just looking at him I was fairly certain his abdominal muscles were more rippled than mine, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t had to bother running a set of hair clippers over his chest because he was ashamed of how beast-like he would look to the spectators. And to think that before accepting the privilege of facing Alex, I had first had to sign a waiver releasing Swish Club from liability in the event of my death. What was I thinking?
I HAD MY FIRST TASTE OF ANOTHER MAN’S FIST YEARS BEFORE
I had my first taste of another man’s fist years before, at the age of 22, as a student at a kickboxing student at a gym in Chicago. I placed myself under the tutelage of a pro named Oscar Bravo—possibly one of the best boxing names I’ve heard—who welcomed me to his class by making me his partner for a three-minute round of sparring. He was friendly but tough, and it was with great apprehension that I popped in my mouth guard and put up my dukes. Oscar allowed me to land a few half-hearted jabs before he let loose. He hit my stomach when I tried to cover my face and my face when I tried to cover my stomach. When the buzzer sounded at the end of the round he smiled at me and patted me on the shoulder. I was overjoyed at the implied friendship but never sparred with him again.
My experience with martial arts would proceed unevenly over the following years as work, laziness, and a decision to move to Thailand in 2001 intervened.
I returned briefly to the ring while working as a journalist in Bangkok in the mid-2000’s. Going against precedent, I had managed to grow incredibly fat on a Thai diet, possibly because I washed down all those delicious chili pastes and fried bananas with jug after jug of cheap beer. Also, a cuisine as rich and varied as Thailand’s more or less demands one’s whole devotion. I gave it.
Ashamed at my portly proportions, I decided to take up Muay Thai, the local variant of kickboxing also known as the Science of Eight Limbs, so called because fighters are allowed not only to punch and kick, but also to employ their knees and elbows. As a martial art, it is beautifully simple, totally lacking in subterfuge and quite at odds with the gentleness of Thai people. (Anyone interested in witnessing a master class of Muay Thai’s forthright power and grace should look up videos of the fighter Buakaw.)
Most Thai fighters begin training as kids, and by the time they’re old enough to grow a wisp of mustache they’ve been so hardened by training that they can easily absorb blows from all eight of the weapons in the Thai boxer’s arsenal. Perhaps because of that, many boxers peak young and retire by the time they’re in their twenties.
I knew I wasn’t up for the real thing, which was practiced in Bangkok under a tin roof in the hot, auto exhaust-filled air of the city. So I found a gym in a modern skyscraper that had nice views and air conditioning. Even in those cushy environs it was clear my lack of physical fitness bordered on a disability. I couldn’t come close to making it through even three rounds of throwing punch and kick combinations at the trainer’s focus pads. I was also intensely self-conscious about how jiggly my man-boobs had become. Even my imagination conspired against me: I was dead sure that when I jumped rope the construction crew working on the skyscraper next door dropped their tools so they could hoot in admiration at my matronly curves. Thankfully, the sound of the air conditioner drowned out any cat-calls.
I was generally the only student who bothered to show up for the 7 a.m. weekday classes at the Bangkok gym, so when I could train no more, the instructor didn’t have much to do besides admire his trim physique in the mirror. Once, he handed me his phone so I could take a picture of him flexing his muscles, fists up in a fighter’s stance.
My time there was cut short by a leg injury I brought on myself. One day during a rare afternoon training session, I realized that a Thai movie star, a young guy who specialized in light indie comedies, had joined my class. The mere presence of celebrity triggered something in me, and I kicked higher and harder than ever before. For my reward, a rivulet of pain traveled from the toe of my kicking leg straight into my groin.
I tried to explain to the trainers in my limited Thai that I had hurt myself. Their advice was to keep kicking, presumably to exorcise the pain with some good honest labor. That approach didn’t work, and it would be several years before I attempted exercise of any sort.
BURPEES ARE A FORM OF TORTURE CONCEIVED IN HELL AND PERFECTED BY SATAN HIMSELF
That brings me to Hong Kong and Swish Club. I was drawn to Swish primarily because it was in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, putting it within walking distance of where I worked in Wanchai. I would bring all my boxing gear to the office and when the work was done I’d cover the mile-and-a-half trek to the gym in about 15 minutes, breathing in the traffic fumes and the stink of the garbage-collection point on Gloucester Road.
Swish Club was on the second floor of an otherwise unremarkable building on a street of unremarkable buildings. The elevator opened onto an entryway filled with the shoes of training fighters. To the left was a room with heavy bags and a small boxing ring. On fight nights, this space was reserved for the fighters only. To the right was the Swish Arena, another room with heavy bags and a larger, elevated boxing ring. The Arena room is where club members who wanted more attention from the trainers did their stuff. Fight night bouts took place in the Arena’s boxing ring.
Classes were led by an all-Thai training corps of former pros who were perhaps too long in the tooth to perform back home but could make good money training office workers here. The hour-and-a-quarter classes consisted of a 15-minute warm-up of shadowboxing and calisthenics, followed by several rounds of hitting the heavy bags and working the focus pads with a trainer. Class wrapped up with a lot of kicking and then 100 knee strikes on the big bags. Some of the trainers also liked to throw in sit-ups, push-ups, or burpees between rounds—unsympathetic to the fact that burpees are a form of torture conceived in hell and perfected by Satan himself.
THE TRAINERS THOUGHT I ENJOYED HEARING AND SAYING THE F-WORD IN THAI
I often tried to lighten the burden of training by making some crude joke in Thai during the interminable (really, three-minute) rounds, which the trainers seemed to appreciate. They would often complain to me, eyes a-twinkle, that they were too tired to teach class because they had “fucked” so many times the night before. We repeated this conversation many, many times, mainly, I suspect, because the trainers thought I enjoyed hearing and saying the F-word in Thai. Also, I may have wanted to show off in front of the English- and Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers who comprised most of the gym’s student body by pretending to understand Thai.
A trainer named Turbo seemed drawn to me, perhaps because we were both chubby. The most notable thing about our relationship was Turbo’s steadfast frustration with my poor technique. He would sigh and tut when I kicked, which somehow strengthened my inability to improve. Thankfully, Turbo left the gym before I could completely devolve.
I was much more fond of Dom, a tough little fireplug who struggled with shyness whenever he had to lead warm-ups, counting out the push-ups in a mix of Cantonese and English. I was probably a foot taller and 80 pounds heavier than Dom, but we would occasionally spar after class. If I ever managed to hit him I would grab him and start apologizing. He would smile and say “no problem, no problem.” (Dom could take a hit. He later had his nose broken by a Malaysian fighter’s elbow during a professional match in Hong Kong. The sight of his mangled nose made me queasy.)
Eventually, I got to know the trainers on a personal level. One Sunday night, Tik, a loud, rambunctious type who usually reserved his training talents for lady students, invited me over to the apartment Swish Club’s Thai trainers shared for dinner and beers. Tik was a fine cook, and it turned out to be quite a feast. Asia, a mischievous little guy with orange-dyed hair and earrings, called Tik “bin Laden.” I’d heard people in Thailand playfully address their Muslim friends this way, so I assumed Asia was working in that comedic tradition. (He also complained that Tik had stinky farts, but I can’t confirm this.)
I also enjoyed the company of Toon and Saenchai. Toon was a great trainer who also had a weakness for the ladies—he would often tap them with the gentlest little Thai kicks as they stretched. At our first beer-drinking session together, I promised to give him an old TV, which I ended up carrying to Swish Club in the back of a taxi and leaving for him in the shoe-covered area by the elevators. I never found out if he retrieved it.
Saenchai was almost freakishly graceful and had a gentle face, but I once saw a YouTube video of him thrashing a very tough-looking German fighter. One night, Saenchai hosted my wife and me for dinner at a restaurant, and went to the trouble of bringing his own prawns for the cook to fry up. The trainers couldn’t have been making much money, so I appreciated their hospitality. Most of the guys were supporting wives and children back in Thailand, not to mention all the money they spent on the girls they picked up at the gym, so I was touched when they would offer to dip into their pockets to buy me a beer or food.
IT WAS FAR LESS LIKELY THAT ONE COULD LOSE AN EYE OR GET KNEED IN THE TEETH OR BALLS
After months of training and few signs that my skills were improving, I contemplated quitting. That’s when I spotted Antony putting up a poster advertising an in-house fight night. At first the idea of participating struck me as crazy. Most of the other students were desk-jockeys like me who enjoyed playing warrior a couple hours a week after work. A few guys were more serious, but they were the exception. I couldn’t believe that Swish would sanction an actual fight between two of its members. I asked Antony what the deal was, and he assured me that people participating in the in-house fights would be wearing shin guards and that two of the more devastating tools of Muay Thai—the elbow and knee—would be forbidden.
Such prohibitions meant it was far less likely that one could lose an eye or get kneed in the teeth or balls. And, statistically speaking, most of the participants would probably be uncoordinated office workers like me. I liked the odds and decided to go for it.
I participated in one in-house fight night before my set-to with the finely muscled Alex. My opponent was Albert, a big Hong Konger to whom I’d directed friendly nods in previous classes. We both weighed more than 200 pounds and were lacking in the easy grace of our more lithe classmates, which I felt demanded comradely acknowledgement. I’d also exchanged pleasantries with his significant other, a giggly woman who had once pointed to a hole that had appeared on the back of a sweat-corroded T-shirt I was wearing and said, “So sexy, ahh!” (She was either a brilliant satirist or deeply misguided. I examined the area in question after training. The mottled skin and errant back hairs visible through the hole didn’t make me think of sexy times, and I threw the shirt away. I was worried the sweat-rot would lead to the opening of additional holes that might draw more attention to the corpse-like hue of my body.)
Upon learning before the match that we had been paired as opponents, Albert and I repeatedly patted each other on the shoulder and wished each other luck. Disarmed by the aura of pre-combat tension that had enveloped us, I found myself in the grip of a strong confessional mood.
“Ah! I’m nervous!” I said.
Albert’s lady friend giggled.
“Don’t worry, he can’t hurt you,” she said rather dismissively.
The announcer for that evening’s matches, a Hong Konger with a deep voice and plummy English accent, called us to the ring. He told me beforehand that he was giving each of us an exciting nom de guerre, and that mine would be Jeremy “Lion Heart” Hartley. I asked him to call me “Gentleman” Jeremy Hartley instead, but to no avail; he stuck with “Lion Heart.” And before I had really come to terms with the fact that I was standing in the ring with someone who wanted to knock me out, Albert set to work on trying to do just that.
I neglected to mention that I’d injured both of my big toes in the run-up to this bout and so wouldn’t be doing any kicking. This, of course, would put me at a great disadvantage, something I’d contemplated heavily in the days leading up to the bout. The only strategy I could come up with was one I called “bread and butter”—basically that meant wildly swinging my fists.
I don’t think Albert knew my legs were out of commission, but his strategy seemed tailored to my weakness: As soon as the bell rang, he started directing kicks at both the inner and outer thigh of my left leg. The goal, I suspect, was to pulverize my leg until I was tempted to drop my guard when I sensed he was about to kick me again. Thus discombobulated, I would be ripe for the coup de grace.
I was a little surprised by our first clash. Albert seemed like he really wanted to hurt me, and I was very put out. As he kicked away at my leg, I retreated to a corner in the unconscious hope of securing a little space where I could think things through in peace. Albert didn’t let up, though.
Then I remembered my own strategy. Time to let bread and butter out of the pantry! All other thoughts—proper form, defense, friendship—fled before me as I unleashed a barrage of embarrassing haymakers, each delivered with an embarrassing ungh!. Some of them landed, others went wide. From that point on, I answered each of Albert’s leg kicks with an unfocused onslaught of grunting and punches.
We fought this battle over three two-minute rounds and ended in a stalemate. Once it was over and Albert and I were standing before the crowd, I realized I might not be able to handle my emotions if Antony and the deep-voiced announcer decided I’d lost. What a relief when Antony raised both our hands and called it a draw.
Albert and I both got a medal and a gift bag of pleasant-smelling male cosmetics from Biotherm Homme, one of the fight night’s sponsors.
I had a hard time sleeping after my fight with Albert. First of all, my leg was in agony. Dark purple bruises would eventually erupt from the deep tissue of my thigh muscles, spreading into a rump-roast colored lake of subcutaneous blood that stretched from my groin to my knee. It would be several weeks before I put in another appearance at Swish.
I was also troubled by some psychological bruising that I can describe only as feeling like a mix of post-traumatic stress disorder, pride for having actually fought, and shame at how it must have appeared to onlookers. In the end, although I appreciated the men’s cosmetics, the risk of a broken nose or teeth hardly seemed worth it.
But over the following weeks this soul-searching brought me to a surprising conclusion: I really wanted to do it again. It would take some time to recover from my injuries, yes, but the desire to correct my shortcomings and overlay the bad memories with some kind of glory was strong.
The training regimen I started then was freighted with additional urgency because after five years I was planning to leave Hong Kong. My wife and I had decided it was finally time to move back to the U.S., and the logistics of our relocation were falling quickly into place around the time Antony posted the date of its next in-house duke-a-roo.
Right, I thought: it’s time to go all-in and really show Hong Kong what stern, dedicated stuff I’m made of. The guy who fought Albert is going to emerge from his cocoon of injury as a terrifying, powerful butterfly. In addition to my regular sessions at Swish (now totaling four classes per week, maximum), I was visiting the California Fitness gym near my office. There, I would do pull-ups on an assisted pull-up machine, listen to the Ke$ha mix blasting from the stereo system, and jog for 15 or even 20 minutes straight. Then it was time for a protein shake and a sauna session.
I’D SKIPPED LUNCH BECAUSE I WAS WORRIED ABOUT VOMITING OR BEING SLUGGISH
I was feeling good. And this time around, only one of my big toes was injured, meaning I could kick with my right leg all day. Well, for the six minutes of scheduled fight time, at least.
I showed up at Swish for my second and final match around 4 p.m., hours before my bout, so I would have ample time to stretch and soak up the atmosphere. I’d skipped lunch because I was worried about vomiting or being sluggish. (I would start regretting this around 7 p.m.)
After Alex was pointed out to me, I never let him move too far from my eyesight. Was he warming up on one of the heavy bags? Maybe I’d just slide back behind the bags so I could study his attack.
Hmm, pretty good.
Finally, I summoned the courage to introduce myself. I wandered over and asked if he was my man.
“Aye, I’m Alex, nice to meet ye,” he said in a thick brogue.
“Hi, nice to meet you, Alex. I’m Jeremy… So, you’re not a Hong Konger, are you?” I answered.
“Nay! Haha, how did ye guess?” he said. “I’m from Glasgow and am just passing through, visiting some family. My cousin told me about the fight, so I decided to give it a go.”
We sat down on the mat-covered floor at the foot of the long kicking bags. We both put on a show of stretching our groins in a butterfly stretch. We chatted for a bit longer, and eventually he got up and wandered over to the table where Antony had laid out a spread of snacks for the spectators. Alex hadn’t had lunch either.
To my chagrin, he had proven himself to be thoroughly charming and friendly. My nervousness had faded as we talked, and I found myself wanting to hang out and tell stories. It hardly seemed real that we would soon be trying to knock each other out.
A few other considerations had presented themselves. The first was that Alex had told me he worked for a takeaway Chinese restaurant in Glasgow. Also, it was his birthday, and his wife was waiting to have dinner with him. She wasn’t very keen on him deciding to go out for a boxing match during what must have been a rare trip to the motherland for a couple living on a takeaway restaurant salary. Could I fight this man?
I guess I was hoping my opponent would turn out to be one of those guys who took himself really seriously—a banker, say, whose humanity I could dismiss, thereby simplifying the psychology of the fight. Instead, I had suddenly burdened myself with a novel’s worth of family and class issues, and a lot of undeniable humanity. Plus, I was super hungry.
WHEN PRESENTED WITH AGGRESSION, MY BODY AND BRAIN OPTED TO RETREAT
All this material occupied my thoughts as I stripped off my shirt and lay down on the floor so one of the trainers could smear my body with Vaseline and menthol oil in preparation for the fight. (I think the point was to make my body greasy enough that the punches would slip off.) I popped in my mouth guard and walked over to the Arena.
The same announcer who presided over my match with Albert called our names. I climbed through the ropes and, once again, was still coming to terms with the situation when the first bell rang.
Alex came straight at me, and we both started swinging. Then, to my horror, I found myself turning completely away and trotting back to my corner at a pretty smart pace. Betrayed! When presented with aggression, my body and brain opted to retreat. For shame!
To his credit, Alex didn’t pursue me, flailing away as I tried to escape. Sakhon, a trainer I didn’t know well but who had nevertheless been assigned to stand in my corner, wasn’t happy and made me turn back and fight. It quickly dawned on me that I would have to suppress such totally natural and disappointing urges. This was a fight night at Swish Club, a place of champions!
I turned and marched back toward Alex. The ensuing several minutes were mostly a blur. I can’t say it was a pretty match. Once I had overcome my desire to flee, I flew at Alex with the same sloppy bread-and-butter punching attack that had secured my draw with Albert. Alex and I would approach each other and we’d start swinging and then clinch. Saenchai, who was officiating, would break us up and the process would start over.
By the third round, things were getting rough. During one clinch, I pushed my forearm into Alex’s throat and drove him back into a corner. I could see his lips had pulled back, exposing his mouth guard, as he strained against my arm bar. I felt ashamed for pushing him like that.
Later, Alex tried to shove me away with a forward thrust of his foot but accidentally kicked me straight in the balls. I was wearing a cup so it didn’t hurt as much as it might have, but I still had to take a knee. Mainly, I wanted to advertise the fact that I had been hit in the crotch, which would allow me to look heroic when I pretended to shake off the pain and recommit myself to the combat.
Unfortunately, Sakhon preempted that taste of glory by pulling out the waistband of my shorts and pouring water on my privates, which made the audience laugh. I’d be getting no sympathy.
I started launching Albert-style kicks at Alex’s legs and then following up with some wild left hooks. To my surprise, Alex answered these by launching himself into the air and delivering a series of airborne punches. He backed me up to the ropes and the jumps kept coming. To protect my face, I leaned far out over the ropes and put my knee and shin in his stomach, so every time he jumped, I could shove him away.
Finally, the buzzer sounded to mark the end of the final round. Alex and I came together and hugged. Antony and the deep-voiced announcer climbed into the ring and delivered the good news: another draw!
Antony gave us some medals, and I got a bottle of aftershave from Issey Miyake. I was feeling inspired, magnanimous in the moment, so I asked for the microphone and delivered a rambling speech about what a nice chap Alex was and insisted that we all applaud him for fighting on his birthday.
I THINK YE GAVE ME BRAIN DAMAGE, MATE
No one clapped. (My wife told me afterward that the sound had cut out on the microphone while I was talking, so no one understood what I was saying. Alex, who was standing next to me, had heard, however, and seemed pleased.)
Afterward, back in the fighters-only area, Alex and I slapped each other on the back and took some pictures. Then he grabbed his stuff and headed for the locker room and dinner, while I wandered back out to the front to watch Dom beat up on a professional fighter who had come down from Mainland China.
A few minutes later, I saw Alex come out of the locker room and head for the door. His lip had swollen up like a blood-fattened leech. I almost had a panic attack. I grabbed him by the shoulder and asked if he was all right. He laughed and said, “I think ye gave me brain damage, mate.” And then he headed for the elevator.
I saw Alex one time after that. I was just finishing up a class several days after the fight when I saw him warming up for the next session. We said hi, but that was the extent of it. Maybe it was because we’d both had time to think about the fight and replay our mistakes and maybe even convince ourselves that one of us should have won.
A few weeks after the fight, I moved back to the U.S. The two “draw” medals I earned in the ring now reside in the box where I keep my quirky keepsakes. The Issey Miyake aftershave is in the medicine cabinet in my bathroom. I apply it only on special occasions, like job interviews or weddings. Its pungent musk is laden with associations: fear, excitement, and the underappreciated reward of neither hurting nor being hurt.
Top illustration by S. Eddy Bell, who is author and illustrator of Lulu & Mitzy: Best Laid Plans, which is pretty much the most entertaining comic about undocumented sex workers in San Francisco ever.
Additional illustrations by Andrew Farago, the author of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History and The Looney Tunes Treasury, among other books.