This is a follow up to From Writing to Fighting: Coaching a Colleague.
“What bout are we on now?” I ask one of the organizers as I enter the ballroom where two rings are set up.
She flips through the papers she’s holding, looking at today’s fight line up.
“This is fight number ten. Name?”
“Tabuena,” I tell her, pointing to Paolo’s name on the list. She puts a tick mark to note that we’re already in the venue, and tells us that we’re scheduled as bout number 46.
This could take a while.
After last year’s delays, I now have an idea on how this promotion operates. Bout orders are more like suggestions than actual rules, and fight arrangements constantly change – as do opponents.
There are multiple officials trying to take note of the fighters who are already in attendance, so I make sure to have Paolo’s name marked as ready on every single one of their lists.
I tell my brother to lie down, rest his body, and get some sleep, while I bug the organizers and follow up with them every few bouts.
I’m really not letting my brother “warm up” for three hours again this year.
At the corner of the venue, Paolo is lying down with his earphones on, and using his bag as a makeshift pillow. He’s been napping for a while, and just seems to be far more relaxed now compared to his Muay Thai debut.
He sits up and removes an earpiece, before asking me if he’s fighting any time soon.
I shrug my shoulders.
While waiting, we decide to watch the on-going Muay Thai bouts on the two rings they’ve set up. These fighters are obviously not going to be my brother’s opponent, but we’re looking at their technique and discussing how we would approach these fights if it was him in these situations.
“Watch this guy,” I tell Paolo. “He was aggressive in the first round, but after he got hit flush a few times, he doesn’t look as assertive anymore.”
“Yup. He had nice combinations, but now it’s down to just one or two strikes at a time,” Paolo said.
“Exactly. And that’s the style you feast on in training,” I tell him. “If your opponent comes out that aggressive, control distance and punish him with those counters that you like very early. It will make him think twice about doing it again.
“See that slight hesitation he’s showing now? That’s our goal. If we ruin his initial approach, we can control the pace and make him fight your style of fight.”
Paolo nods, and we keep discussing various openings that we see in the ring and how we can capitalize on similar situations.
I’m so glad he’s a lot calmer this time around. I can actually discuss more technique and game plans instead of just finding ways to keep him composed and worrying about his pre-fight jitters.
We continue watching the action until I see another official walking by. She recognizes me from earlier and probably knows what I’m going to say already.
“Hi, is our opponent here yet?” I ask the official again. “We’re ready, so just let us know if we can fight yet.”
She flips through the pages of her list before giving an answer.
I finally see a similar tick mark on the name opposite Paolo’s.
“Hmm. Okay. I can line you up,” the official tells me. “It will be your turn four fights after this one in the ring.”
Her words were music to my ears. We may actually get to compete a lot earlier than expected this time.
I motion over to Paolo, telling him we finally have the go signal.
We move to the back of the venue, where I help him put on some gloves and warm up.
“What’s the biggest improvement you wanted from your first fight?” I ask a rhetorical question as he starts to shadowbox and move around. We’ve already discussed this countless times, but I just want to remind him again. “This time, let your hands go. When you land your counters, follow up.
“Don’t settle and think you’re already good with scoring points from that one clean shot. Every time you land flush and get him out of position, I want you to immediately follow up with another combination. That’s where we’re most likely to hurt him.”
We only know two things about his opponent. First is that like Paolo, he won a fight in this same promotion last year. Second, is that he is part of a well-respected MMA camp — his teammate actually beat me in the Muay Thai National Championships before taking gold in our division.
We don’t know how his foe actually looks, but with Paolo’s body type, I’m working on the assumption that he will be the taller man. I run him through a few drills to work on proper reactions against specific strategies that shorter fighters commonly use.
“Remember, at this weight, it will be awkward for most people to figure out your reach at the start,” I tell him in between drilling repetitions. “So use that distance and land your favorite counters early. Break his rhythm and control the pace from the very start.
“You’re good at capitalizing on small mistakes, so just do what you do. Slow the fight down and punish his early attacks. When he’s forced to play your game and starts to second-guess himself, that’s when our feints will work better. That’s when we really open up and push the pace.”
We work on a few more drills, before heading to the officials outside the ring.
I’m navigating through a crowded area, where the organizers are struggling to control the amount of people allowed ringside.
“I’m told we’re next?” I tell the official as I squeeze through a group of loud spectators. “Tabuena, bout 46. Can we get our gear?”
He either doesn’t know the updated schedule, or he’s a bit confused from the ruckus around him, but he’s just not allowing Paolo to wear his fight gear yet.
“Please talk to that lady,” I point to the official I spoke to earlier. She’s on the other side of the ring, tending to a fighter. “I think that’s our opponent already wearing his gear. Can we have ours?”
I try not to show Paolo, but I’m already irked that the opposite corner is far more organized than ours. I see his probable opponent already moving around and getting acclimated to the gear he’s wearing, while we’re just sitting on our hands in a cramped corner.
After a couple of minutes, the official finally confers with his other colleagues, and he realizes that we are indeed next. He grabs a pair of gloves and shin guards from under the ring and hands it over. Unlike during Milan’s bout today, it looks like we’re not going to get to choose what to use now.
These gloves are absolutely soaked. Even just touching the outside layer of leather, I can already feel the collected sweat from the amount of people who competed in these today.
The body armor and headgear are somehow even more drenched.
As Paolo starts wearing his gear, I notice the marking on the side of his gloves.
“Are we really using 16 ounce gloves?” I turn around and ask the official. “Is that what he’s wearing also?”
He double checks with the blue corner then nods back at me.
I guess we’re using sparring size gloves for an actual fight. Weird, but whatever.
His opponent is in the ring, ready to fight. My brother is still outside, struggling to wear body armor that’s about two sizes too big.
“If only we can both fight without using these,” Paolo comments, obviously looking uncomfortable in it.
I respond with a shrug and slight laugh. These little things could’ve thrown him off his game last year, but Paolo seems calm and has his nerves under control now.
The referee tells Paolo to enter the ring.
I can feel my heart start to race again. I’m probably more nervous than my brother, but at the same time, I’m also excited to see how the things we’ve worked on would translate in the fight.
Paolo is in the ring, trying to move around, still looking a bit uncomfortable with the gear he’s wearing. I step up to the apron and call him over.
I give him a small sip of water, put in his mouthpiece, and give a few final reminders.
“Keep it simple,” I tell Paolo. “Use that distance, counter. Chop at those legs, and follow up when you can.”
As I’m stepping down the ring, the announcer gets on the microphone and introduces this next bout.
The referee calls both fighters to the center, and they face off.
As expected, Paolo is the much taller fighter. His opponent is wider, but unlike last year, the difference doesn’t look too bad now. I’m hoping the 10 lbs. of water weight that he cut for this bout means that he wouldn’t be giving up an insane strength advantage anymore.
The referee makes them step back to their corners, and he asks the judges if they’re ready.
“Remember the basics, relax, and make him fight at your pace,” I give a final reminder from outside the ring.
The bell rings to start the fight.
You’ve got this.
They meet in the center and touch gloves. Paolo maintains distance and starts feinting a bit.
“Your pace,” I remind him. “Your pace.”
His opponent throws a right leg kick without much power, which Paolo doesn’t bother to block. He then throws a left kick, and Paolo steps back to counter with a hard leg kick of his own. He immediately follows up with another kick on the same spot on his thigh.
The opponent tries to bull-rush and get in close after being hit with those kicks from the outside. Paolo responds by flinging a jab and pivoting out, then he follows up with a left hook and a right hand that connects.
I see one of the straps from Paolo’s shin guards get loose. I alert the referee, who puts a break in the action and allows me to fix it.
The strap is barely connecting and he clearly needs bigger shin guards, but I just tighten it as much as I could and quickly send him back out there.
I could’ve asked for tape, but Paolo just landed some nice shots and I didn’t want to delay the fight any longer.
This is why I wanted to pick our gear and have time to try them out.
The referee restarts the action.
“Do the same. Just counter first,” I tell him.
As his opponent starts to lift his right leg to kick, Paolo throws a kick of his own to the other leg that was planted on the ground. The kick makes another thudding sound as it connects.
The opponent again reacts by trying to rush in. He throws a front kick before trying to clinch, but Paolo manages to circle out and avoid fighting on the inside.
Paolo keeps distance and starts feinting again. He fakes a left kick, fakes a right hand, and then throws another hard leg kick that connects on the exact same spot. He lands another one.
His opponent’s leg is clearly hurting now and he looks flustered.
Paolo fakes with a jab and throws another hard leg kick. The impact turns his opponent’s entire body.
“Follow up!” I yell at Paolo. Urging him to start opening up now.
His opponent throws a push kick to create space, seemingly now more concerned about defending than forcing the action inside. Paolo works a few more feints to keep him guessing, before landing a shuffle jab and getting better position on the side. He then lands a left hook and fakes a right hand, before scoring with two more left hooks and moving back out to reset.
“Nice!” I react. His opponent looks flustered and a bit gun shy now.
His opponent throws a body kick then initiates a clinch. Paolo grabs behind his neck, reverses position, and turns him to the ropes.
As they separate, he again throws the same body kick, but this time Paolo catches it with his left arm, and hits him with a big right hand. Paolo follows up with a left hook and a knee as they battle in the clinch. He lands two more punches inside, before the referee calls a break and resets them.
He didn’t get outmuscled and actually looked strong in the clinch. This is a very good sign.
“Distance! Just jab-straight-leg kick, over and over,” I tell Paolo as the referee resets the action. He’s also winning in close but I don’t want him to waste energy clinching when he can have an easier path to success from the outside.
Paolo listens and he immediately throws a jab to distract his opponent, before landing another hard leg kick. He then fakes another jab. Right when his opponent expects another low kick to follow, Paolo goes up high, landing a kick to his temple.
He doesn’t look badly hurt from the head kick, but his body language clearly changed after that.
“Nice. Push forward again. He doesn’t want to engage anymore,” I tell Paolo, urging him to keep the pressure on.
His opponent’s leg is starting to look even more compromised and he isn’t very mobile. He tries to lift his leg to throw a kick, but Paolo reads it correctly and once again lands a counter leg kick to that damaged leg. He follows up with another low kick.
“Again! Just keep doing that. Destroy that leg,” I implore him to not let up. “Feints then leg kicks.”
Paolo’s still a counter fighter at heart, but his opponent is hurt and he’s biting on every fake now. He needs to pressure more.
His opponent throws an ill-advised left kick from out of range that misses the mark. As soon as this leg lands on the floor, Paolo capitalizes on the mistake and lands another low kick. His opponent tries to respond by kicking with his other leg, but Paolo just dodges it and again fires back with a counter.
He lands another leg kick that turns his body and breaks his balance.
After seeing this, Paolo follows up with two punches that backs his opponent up. He immediately pushes forward and lands a superman punch and two left hooks.
The bell rings in the middle of his combination, and the referee steps in between them to signal the end of the round.
Wow. I wonder if he could’ve gotten a stoppage if he had a few more seconds there.
I head up the ring and stand by the apron. I remove Paolo’s mouthpiece and give him a sip of water.
“How’s your cardio?” I ask him.
“A bit of an adrenaline dump, I think, but I’m okay,” he replies.
“Deep breath,” I tell him. “Just keep distance. Be careful and counter him if he tries to come out desperate now. Make sure you keep feinting, because he’s biting more on them after getting hurt by those shots.”
I offer him another sip of water and put his mouthpiece back in.
“So feint, jab-straight, then leg kick,” I instruct Paolo. “His leg is starting to lock up, so keep setting up those leg kicks and chop it down. Keep it simple and just do that over and over.”
Paolo nods, and he turns around as the next round is about to begin.
“Distance. Use your jab,” I tell Paolo as the final round begins.
Paolo immediately flicks a jab, followed by an outside leg kick that is partially blocked. He jabs two more times, and this time throws with an inside leg kick that lands hard on his inner thigh.
His opponent switches stances to try and protect his damaged left leg. After a couple more feints, Paolo lands two low kicks on the right leg.
The second the opponent returns to his normal stance, Paolo again sets up a hard kick on his left leg, followed by a stiff jab to his face. They clinch, and Paolo lands two punches inside before the referee breaks them up.
“Don’t clinch with him. Just stay outside and pick him apart,” I tell my brother.
They both throw leg kicks that land at roughly the same time. It’s already a good trade for us as I’m sure his opponent’s leg is hurting more, but Paolo makes sure he doubles up and chops at it again.
His opponent is walking gingerly and only taking very small steps now. Paolo is feinting but he lets him off the hook and resets to the middle.
“Pao, pressure!” I yell. “He doesn’t want to fight anymore. That leg is hurt. Throw with power every time he lifts that leg.”
Outside leg kick, inside leg kick, and now a stiff jab. After those three hard shots, Paolo lands a big right straight that makes his opponent desperately try to clinch. As he tries to grab behind his neck, Paolo sees the opening on his defense and decides to throw a flurry of hard punches.
His foe is stumbling a bit with one hand holding on to the ropes, as Paolo lands the fifth and sixth punch on that burst. He ends the flurry with a powerful kick to the damaged leg.
His opponent shakes his head, obviously hurt and rocked after the exchange.
Paolo stops his attack and resets to the center so he can adjust his body armor. The straps are too big, almost falling off his shoulder.
Seems like this “protective” gear is actually protecting the other guy from further damage.
After a couple of feints, Paolo lands two leg kicks and a right straight.
“Ten seconds! Push!” I yell. We have the fight in the bag but I want Paolo to press on and finish strong.
“Oyy!” Paolo shouts as he throws a hard push kick that bounces his opponent off the ropes.
“Oyy!” He again shouts, landing a powerful right kick to the ribs.
“Oyy!” Paolo makes the same sound, but only to twist his hips and fake a kick. His opponent lifts a leg to block, but the kick isn’t coming.
“Oyy!” Paolo lands a thudding left hook that knocks his head to the side.
The bell rings. The referee steps in, and the fight is over.
We’ve surely won the fight, and it looks like he was even having some fun at the end there.
“Your winner, by unanimous decision,” the announcer shouts. “From the red corner, Paolo Tabuena!”
A ring girl puts a gold medal around his neck. Paolo hugs his opponent and thanks the opposing coaches for the match.
I’m filled with pride and I can’t help but grin as my brother soaks up this moment. He’s won his second Muay Thai bout, and he was absolutely dominant in doing so.
Paolo steps down the ring and I tap him on the shoulder and commend his performance.
There will always be things to learn and technical details to work on, but at this moment, I just can’t be happier with what my brother has accomplished. He stuck to the plan, and just completely shut down his opponent’s game. Perhaps more important for me, he had fun in there and clearly showed a lot of improvements from his debut.
Our friends and family from the audience come over to congratulate us.
We went 2-0 today, and I don’t think this smile is going away anytime soon.
We gather at one of our favorite restaurants in the area after today’s events. At this point, it feels almost like a post-fight tradition to head straight for good food and be around good company.
Midway through ordering tacos and talking technique, Milan taps me on the shoulder.
“I’m buying you a beer,” he tells me. “Thanks for coaching us.”
After weeks of hard work, we finally get to reward ourselves and indulge in a bit of a feast.
“Two victories! F—k, I’m so proud of you guys,” I tell Paolo and Milan. “It’s been a while, so enjoy your beers. You deserve it.”
We did it, guys. We f—king did it.
As our friends joyously celebrate and discuss today’s experiences, I sit back on my chair and soak it all up.
Earlier in the week, I was thinking I would actually end up regretting not competing today. I thought that once I see the referee raise their hands in victory, I would crave that same feeling and hate how I wasn’t fighting next.
Well, I was dead wrong.
I’ve always felt there’s a bit of selfishness in fighting, where you have to choose to focus solely on yourself. But today was never really about me, and I am beyond content with how everything played out.
I see everyone’s beaming faces around me, and I’m elated I can just be a part of it all and share in their victories.
As cheesy as it sounds, seeing them both win feels as if it was my hand being raised as well. This euphoria and sense of accomplishment reminds me of the time I won my very first bout. Hell, this might even feel a bit better.
Paolo nudges me, and snaps me out of my thoughts.
“2-0! Cheers!” he yells. I raise my glass with everyone’s and we celebrate through the night.
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