As I’m standing barefoot on the hard concrete, I hear the emcee call my name and begin the ascent onto the stage. Hundreds of people are crowding around the small metal barriers, stopping them from spilling into the ring. Head to toe in traditional Muay Thai garb, I turn to my coach and say: “I’m going to knock this guy out.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Living in China brings about countless opportunities for foreigners. From making a bogus speech at a Chinese company meeting to impersonating an antique buyer, these random gigs are always an adventure.
I once starred in a Chinese rent-a-car commercial, despite not being able to drive and never acting a day in my life. I had only been in China for six months when my colleague said her friend was looking for someone to help with some filming.
I thought I’d be a small part, a background character. When they sent me a script, however, I quickly realized I was the only actor that day. Nevertheless, another story in the book and a couple of thousand yuan richer – I’m not complaining.
So, when I was offered the chance to fight in the main event of a professional World Boxing Council-sponsored Muay Thai tournament in Shenzhen in November 2020, I was never going to say no.
I initially got into Muay Thai during the coronavirus lockdown to kill some time. Back home, I’d dabbled a little bit in boxing, but my skillset was nothing to write home about. Even after training for over a year, I still punch like I did when I was five years old and fighting with my brother.
On my first day of training, I kicked the bag the only way I knew how – like it was a football. The trainers couldn’t help but laugh as my foot slapped against the bag, sending a sharp pain up my leg. They began spurting out jokes in Thai and then dribbling medicine balls around the gym as if suddenly teleported to the World Cup.
After a mere six months of training (and some improvement in my kicking), the coach signed me and another fighter up for the WBC competition in Shenzhen.
We’d expressed some interest, and he said the event would be a good experience – but I don’t think any of us were ready for the level of fighters we’d be up against.
There were professionals from some of the best fighting gyms in China in this competition, and our gym had only been open for 18 months.
The tournament itself had several rounds before the final, where the winner would be given an actual WBC belt.
I was fighting in the 70-kilogram weight category, the heaviest weight class available, and therefore the last fight of the night.
Just to put that into perspective, after six months of casual training and no fighting experience, I was – by definition – the main event of the night. Looking back now, what in the hell was I thinking?
At 17 years old, my opponent was 10 years younger than me and trained at a gym called Shengli Renhe in Shenzhen. Shengli Renhe is considered the best fighting gym in South China, with fighters competing in the UFC and One Championship. The gym is training athletes to become the best in the world, and this kid was about to hand me the beating of a lifetime.
The preparation for the fight was grueling – six days a week of fight training, four days in the gym and just one rest day. After training, I would stay behind to practice my kicks, pivoting on my foot until the skin peeled away from my toes.
But even this was nothing compared to my opponent – this was his career.
The fight took place in the middle of an outdoor shopping complex in Shenzhen. Spectators packed around the front of the ring and surrounding coffee shops and restaurants on both levels of the mall. Behind the ring was a colossal TV screen broadcasting the event to 800,000 people online. My friends joked that they were all waiting to see me “get knocked out.”
Before the fight and after the weigh-in, we had to stick around for some photos as part of the event promotion. As the only foreigners competing in the event, the two Thai judges took a particular shine to us – they gave us some tips as they knew it was our first fight. They were nice guys, and they seemingly understood just how out of our depth we were. “Keep your hands up!” they repeatedly warned us, before inviting us for a group photo.
When they called my name, I stepped into the ring and threw a simple jab and cross hook for the camera – might as well play it up, right?
Once we were settled in our corners, it began to dawn on me just how tall my opponent was. “How am I going to hit him?”
The referee, dressed in all black with black rubber gloves, called us into the middle of the ring and explained the rules. My eyes never left my opponent’s, and his never left mine; my heart was pounding at this point, “What am I doing here?” I thought.
The referee made us return to our corners, where I received some final words of encouragement from the coaches. The bell sounded, “Fight!” shouted the referee – the moment was upon us.
We both moved to the center of the ring and gave the obligatory fist bump, a mark of respect between fighters. The fight started well. I landed a low kick to my opponent who was slow to block. He tried to return the favor, but I stepped back, and he missed.
Next, I faked a low kick, and as he raised his leg to block, I caught it with my glove and kicked his standing leg. “Yes! I’m winning,” I thought, but that notion was about to, quite literally, get wiped from my face.
We danced around each other for a few seconds, and my hands were very low – my opponent saw the chance, and he threw a lightning-quick high kick which landed straight on my jaw.
A huge collective gasp sounded from the audience, and the blow rocked me. I tried to play it off, but before long I was backed up against the ropes.
I got caught with a flurry of body shots before a hook to the head sent me falling to the canvas. That last exchange must have lasted only 10 seconds, but it felt like an eternity. The sheer power and speed of his attack left me numb and dumbstruck – I was suddenly too tired to think.
I stood up to go again, but I was breathing heavy, and a bruise had already formed on my right ribs. As I moved towards the center of the ring, I took a hit that would hurt for a good month after.
The final action of the first round ended with me taking another barrage of punches and falling to the canvas again. The bell rang before the referee could finish counting – I had somehow managed to survive the first round.
During the one-minute break between rounds, I can’t remember anything that my coaches said. While my physical body was in the corner, my mind had left me.
The Thai coaches were blasting ice cold water on my head, torso and even down my shorts to try and shock some life into me, but it was no help.
We came back for the second round and touched gloves. There was a brief moment when the music stopped, and the commentator paused. It was complete silence as if everyone had suddenly fallen into slumber.
For that split second, I could hear my breathing and the tapping of our bare feet touching the canvas. Suddenly, the roar of the crowd returned, the commentator began to speak, and our coaches were shouting instructions.
One minute into the second round, as if he knew he was about to win, my opponent slapped his fists together.
I stepped forward to kick, and in one swift movement, he moved his leg back, making me miss. In the same move, he stepped forward for what appeared to be a low kick.
His leg was like a whip, the way it flew straight and accurate towards my leg before suddenly whipping and curling towards my face. His leg snapped against my chin, right on the same spot as before, and it sent me flying to the ground.
I was sprawled out on my stomach, and the referee called the end of the fight – he had knocked me out. My coach was immediately in the ring, and they turned me on my back. Two doctors rushed to the ring to check that I was alright and hadn’t been concussed.
I can’t remember what they said, but I was staring at them all and nodding. I slowly sat up, and after a few seconds, got to my feet.
With the adrenaline still coursing through me, I was pushed to the center of the ring, where two scantily clad ring girls draped a medal around my neck, which should have read: “Congratulations on getting knocked out.”
As I walked backstage to collect my things, I looked over at the Shengli Renhe fighters. They had several athletes competing at different weight classes, and they had accumulated more than half a dozen trophies on that night alone. In contrast, our team sat in silence, the bitter taste of defeat stewing among us and our consolation medals resting on the floor.
Although they didn’t say anything, the coaches were annoyed that I had been knocked out because my hands were too low.
When I watched footage of the fight, I noticed one significant difference between my opponent and me. My body is stiff and rigid from nerves, and my movements are robotic while my opponent is smooth, his movements flowing like water down a stream.
But isn’t that to be expected? The world of professional fighting is still foreign to me, but for him, it’s as commonplace as chicken feet at dim sum.
With the adrenaline that went through my body and the array of emotions throughout the night, I can see how people get addicted to combat sports and build their life around it.
The beautiful thing for me is that this most likely wouldn’t have happened unless I was in China. There’s no way I could somehow get myself into a professional sports competition back in the UK. Let’s be honest, that’s why we come to China – we are all chasing experiences and hoping to grab these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
It’s just a shame mine ended with a kick to the face.
[Images provided by Lars James Hamer for That’s]