“My trainer invited me to go to my first fight. It’s going to be in Panama. Should I go?”
That’s how Nikita’s first real martial arts match started.
After years of training in Muay Thai as a hobby, a chance to fight in a big event came.
The event, Muay Thai Nights 7, was part of a series of professional and semi-professional matches organized for a live television broadcast in Panama City, Panama.
Convincing Nikita that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and a chance to travel some place new, he agreed, under the condition that I got to go too, of course.
Preparing for the Fight
You can’t just agree to take part in a televised fight and just show up. You have to be ready. Thus followed several months of long, rigorous training sessions, always after a full 10 hours of work during the day.
Preparing for a fight is unlike regularly showing up to a martial arts class. Unless you’ve never tried martial arts, it’s hard to understand just how fit fighters have to be. The term “fighting shape” aptly describes the peak condition martial artists and fighters have to achieve in order to perform.
Promising to pull my weight in the event, I handled all of the chores in those months so Nikita could devote his energy to training. And he came home late at night almost every day, tired and battered, from punching and kicking, and being punched and kicked.
Before the Event
After what seemed like forever to me, and probably not enough time to Nikita, we flew to Panama City for the event.
Because Mauy Thai nights was sponsored by the Hotel Riu Plaza Panama, not only did we have pre-arranged accommodation waiting for us at a four star hotel, but a driver to pick us up from the airport.
In total there were 5 of us: Nikita and me, another amateur fighter, and 2 professional fighters, one of whom was Nikita’s trainer.
While other fighters spent the days before the event in the gym and running on the treadmill in sweat suits, Nikita and I relaxed in our room, took some time to leisurely explore the neighborhood, and enjoy the bottomless buffet of breakfast, lunch and dinner at the hotel dining room. Just one of the differences between amateur and professional fighters.
It was a swank set up, and we savored it, realizing that this was probably the only time during our travels when we would be in luxury.
Turns out Muay Thai Nights is Kind of a Big Deal
Going with the flow, expecting the unexpected, is a part of travel, all the travelers seem to say.
I can be prone to anxiety at times, especially when plans change (something I’m working on), but the pre-fight anxiety occupied my entire body with gripping tension that went so far beyond nail-biting, I was ready to gnaw off my whole arm.
Before going to Panama for the fight, I’d only seen one amateur fight before. In retrospect, there were quite a few knock out endings to those matches, but I avoided thinking about it out of self-preservation. And whether this is naive or a bit stupid of me, I didn’t really stop to think on the realities of what my boyfriend was about to do until it was right in my face.
And when it was in my face? Well…
It was only after going to the televised Muay Thai Nights weigh-ins did I start to get an idea of how big of a deal this was.
Muay Thai Nights Weigh In
In muay thai, and most martial arts, weigh-in refers to both the act and event of weighing the fighters, and it takes place the evening before or the morning of the fight.
Fights are matched by weight, and it’s important for fighters to weigh within acceptable range for their weight class. Because this usually requires rapid weight loss through dieting, sweating and water weight reduction, the weigh ins take place earlier in the day, giving time for fighters to eat a substantial meal and get hydrated before the actual fight, which almost always happens later in the evening.
While none of our fighters had too much weight to cut, there were still meager plates of veggies and protein for the guys in the meals leading up to the weigh in. I, on the other hand, availed myself of bread and dessert at the buffet-style meals included with the hotel sponsorship.
BUT I digress.
After about an hour, the seriousness of the event began to dawn on us, or dawn on just me.
The weigh in had a substantial press presence, with advertised sponsors, an official announcer, uniformed ring girls, and multiple TV cameras. The belts, the standard trophy piece for title fight winners, were displayed on stage and emphasized with dramatic gestures by a suited mascot.
Fancy cameras flashed, baselines bumped, and in a small room on the side, fighters took turns shadow boxing in front of a green screen for their feature segments.
Did I mention this was Nikita’s first fight?
Well, it was his first fight. Yet during the weigh in the event promoter decided to correct some misinformation about his opponent. While initially they reported that it would be his opponent’s 2nd fight, it would actually be his 6th.
5 previous fights to Nikita’s 0.
And no. That is not a good match.
Less experience in many other sports may just result in loss and humiliation. In martial arts, it can result in loss, humiliation and substantial injury. Even well-matched fights end in injury, and an unfair match?
This soured the rest of the weigh in event for us, with both of us being extremely nervous and upset over the drastic shift in circumstance, and both trying not to show it.
Were we being set up to fail? Or rather, to fail spectacularly to great entertainment value? What if Nikita got hurt, badly? And if we said something would it make us look like pussies?
That last bit seems silly- and it was- but in the world of martial arts, face is everything. Surrounded by hardened fighters, the last thing you want to do is let on that you’re scared you’re going to get your ass beat.
Our second shake up of the event was finding out that Nikita’s fight had been moved from 2nd of the night, to 7th. The only good thing about that line up for the two of us was getting it over with as quickly as possible.
We later found out that Nikita’s Ukrainian heritage was perceived at having a higher, or possibly more unique, entertainment value- a Panama vs. Ukraine match was more interesting than a Panama vs. USA match. So the fight was pushed back closer to the main event.
And having to wait longer wasn’t even the worst part.
Another fighter in our group, a much more experienced former boxer, was now going on ahead of Nikita, in match #4.
Since there are only 3 people allowed in a fighter’s corner during the match, I stayed back while Nikita, his trainer and the other fighter manned the corner during their teammate’s event. Saddled with a camera bag, I got as close to the ring as I could and began to film the first of our fighters’ match.
After about a minute and a half into the fight, my stomach dropped as I watched our guy stumble, spin and hit the floor like a felled tree. A knock out.
I wasn’t prepared to see any knock outs among the amateurs, least of all among us, and on the video I took of the fight, my gasp of surprise can be clearly heard as he hits the floor.
As the guys explained to me later, there are certain moves that are not allowed in certain fights, especially in first fights. A knee to the face was one of those moves, which as it turns out, was allowed for all of the fights of the night. If our fighter had known, it’s possible the knock out and broken nose wouldn’t have happened.
We didn’t complain, even as our teammate nursed what was clearly a broken nose, split through the skin and oozing blood. Things are different in different countries, and we weren’t going to be those Americans that couldn’t handle it.
Meanwhile, my fears of my boyfriend becoming seriously injured were busting though my seams of composure. I knew trying to throw out some encouraging words could make things worse for him, it would be an obvious attempt at covering up fear, so I stayed quiet. We all did. I think the whole team was a bit rattled from the knock out.
Heart in my throat and shaking hands jammed into my pockets, I trailed the team as they prepped Nikita for his fight in the hallway outside of the main room. The ohs and ahs from the crowd, the emphatic Spanish announcer and the cinematic sound effects made it almost impossible to focus.
The 5-more-matches-experienced opponent, “Rockman,” was clearly a local favorite, and garnered lots of cheers both during the weigh in and his ring entrance.
That certainly did not help.
With my “Corner” pass, I grabbed a seat front row and started to record the match. I don’t think I watched any bit of the fight outside of the viewfinder- it was just too real to watch it with my own eyes, happening only a few feet away.
For the most part, the match was uneventful. Being his first fight, Nikita had no idea what to expect, and fought to defend and preserve his body from injury. He does have a day job, after all.
And to my relief, despite a kick in the nuts, he was uninjured. Lost the match by points, but no injuries to speak of. No knock outs.
I could finally breathe.
After the match, his opponent came back to see us, and turned out to be a really friendly guy. He made quite a few recommendations for how to spend the rest of our time in Panama, and even met us for drinks at one of his favorite local breweries the next day.
When I wasn’t assisting Nikita and his teammates behind the scenes, I was watching other matches from the sidelines.
Even for amateur matches, they were certainly entertaining, with a lot of feisty energy from both the Panamanians and the opponents. All of the fighters were given a full entrance, with their song of choice, multicolored stage lighting, and a fog machine. One Colombian opponent even had someone walk behind him while holding up a full-sized flag during his entrance.
This was fun to watch, but after a while I started to notice the Panamanians claiming victory on almost all of the matches.
I don’t think it was a coincidence.
Even factoring in something like home-field advantage, because of the misinformation we received about the experience of Nikita’s opponent, I’m less inclined to believe that the matches weren’t fixed in some way.
From what we saw, the referee calls were fair, so in my entirely unexpert opinion, it really came down to the mismatch in fighter experience. It is simply unlikely that one-on-one matches would all fall to one side.
Title Fights – Battle for the Belt!
The exception to many of the Panamanian victories were the title matches in which there were no Panamanian fighters present. Nikita’s trainer was set to fight a Panamanian pro fighter, until he suffered an injury a few weeks before the event, and another match had to be arranged shortly beforehand. The two matches ended up being our two fighters versus, and this was kind of weird, two brothers from Argentina.
The brothers both lost.
Even though amateur fights can be fun to watch, when compared to professional fights, they start to look sloppy. Which is fine, because they’re not professional and that’s the point.
While professional matches can also be boring and uneventful, there’s no denying the tightened technique and sheer physical strength from years and years of training. One, well-aimed blow from a professional fighter can take down an opponent of equal size and strength, and it’s this dramatic unpredictability that makes the sport so exciting.
For the record, the runner up to the main event was Stephen Richards, a Jamaican transplant from Atlanta. Incredibly quiet and good-natured outside of the ring, he knocked out his opponent (and when I say knocked out, I mean out cold for minutes) with a kick to the head 45 seconds into the match. I didn’t even have enough time to get a good position for the shot.
The main event was Nikita’s trainer, Harris Norwood. The officials called an end to the match in the second round, after they were unable to stop the bleeding to a gash on his opponent’s face.
Two amateur losses but two title wins. Overall, I feel like it was a successful trip.
After Thoughts on the Trip
It was a once in a lifetime travel opportunity and we took it. Not many people have fought in a martial arts match, even less a televised one, and I suspect even less have traveled to another country to participate in a fight event.
While I just tagged along for the ride as Nikita did the actual fighting (and months of preparatory training), I did hang with a bunch of fighter dudes, and tried to keep the girly vibes to a minimum. I don’t have that many girly vibes to begin with, but once the actuality of my bae up there in the ring getting beat on inched closer, I had to keep my instinct to protect and smother with love in check.
Despite my irritation with the mismatch between my boyfriend and his opponent (and all of the anxiety that came with it), Muay Thai Nights was professional for the most part. Even though there was no guarantee, I got to stay behind the scenes and enjoy the catered meals and privileges of the fighters, under the label of “staff.” There was plenty of medical support with a physician and medical assistants on staff for the fighters.
Muay Thai Nights 7 in Panama City was a great experience overall. Any time you can take a sponsored trip, it’s an opportunity to say “yes” to something you wouldn’t usually do. And those are the experiences you remember the most, and look back on and feel proud of yourself for doing. Clearly I’m talking about Nikita here, because I can’t exactly look back on myself and feel proud about eating a lot of free food. Or can I?
Overall, we hope to experience more trips like these in the future, but without so much of the physical- and emotional- requirement 🙂