Lion Fight 37 – My introduction to Muay Thai

“Jurrell! Kill’em!”

That was a fan who rooted for Jurell Laronal, a super middleweight Muay Thai fighter competing in the amateur prelims of Lion Fight 37. The fan was the only person screaming at that moment, but he certainly wasn’t alone the rest of the night.

If there was anything I learned from my first Muay Thai event, it was that Thai boxing fans are as dedicated as they come to their hometown fighters, but they love the art above all else.

Athletes from all over the U.S., Canada, and Thailand showed up to Foxwoods Resort Casino Friday night, and quite a few of them brought their own fans. Keeman Diop traveled from Silver Spring, Maryland for his professional debut, bringing an entire seating section of friends. Steve “Put’em to Sleep” Walker ignited the crowd with his pro debut, along with a first-round T.K.O.

Paul “The Reaper” Banasiak wears an eerie mask as he enters the ring.

However, no fight provoked more noise than the co-main event for the vacant cruiserweight title. Connecticut’s own Paul “The Reaper” Banasiak was scheduled to fight Chip “The Surgeon” Moraza-Pollard. The stands were divided for the respected fighters the moment they walked out.

And I was sitting in Moraza-Pollard’s section.

“Let’s go, Chip!”

“Chop that tree, Chip!”(Banasiak stands 6 feet 4 inches tall.)

Moraza-Pollard’s most dedicated fans made their presence known  during the fight as he set the tone early against Banasiak. Though he was the shorter opponent, Moraza-Pollard had a two-inch reach advantaged, and he made good use of it with punching combinations that penetrated Banasiak’s guard, much to his fans’ delight.

Banasiak got more aggressive as the fight progressed, drawing cheers from his fans. He even won the third round. But the crowd rose to its feet when Moraza-Pollard regained his advantage. In the fifth and final round, both fighters traded shots, but Moraza-Pollard scored a knock down with a head kick. With only a few seconds left in the fight, Banasiak recovered, but Moraza-Pollard won the fight, and the victorious fans celebrated with more commentary:

“The Chip is here!”

“I’m naming my first child after Chip!”

Those are not paraphrases. A man sitting one row ahead of me actually said these things.

There was one moment during Lion Fight 37 when the fans were somewhat subdued, and that was during the main event. Ironically, this was a fight between two fighters with more combined experience than the entire card combined. “Smokin” Jo Nattawut (62-7-2) defended his super welterweight belt against Petchtanong “Petch” Banchamek (345-51-1).

There was little cheering during this fight, no heckling, and less laughter. The Fox Theater fell mostly silent as the two warriors engaged each other with the sharpest punches and kicks of the night. Every kick to the ribs cracked. Punches knocked their heads back. Banchamek, the bigger fighter, established himself with his size and strength one round by taking Nattawut to the floor. The following round, Nattawut’s accuracy and timing picked Banchamek apart. The fighters traded rounds all fight until the judges scored them 48-47 in favor of Nattawut.

The crowd gasped and booed at the decision. During this moment of utter disbelief, I realized that the crowd wasn’t silent because they didn’t care. They didn’t fall asleep after all of their hometown heroes went to the showers. Their silence was a sign of awe and reverence.

And I don’t blame them.

Nattawut and Banchamek put on a performance that demanded silent observance outside of the occasional gasp after a smacking kick.  I even found myself sitting and watching without uttering a single word, my eyes glued on the ring with as two men built gave and received punishment on a level I couldn’t fathom. I’ve watched amateur boxers fight in the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and they took punches that made me cringe.  I sat a few rows from the ring during Andresj Fanfara’s bout with Nathan Cleverly, watched them set the Compubox record for the most punches thrown and landed and saw their blood fly all over the ring as a result. While these Muay Thai fighters didn’t punch as hard as the boxers I witnessed, their kicks were another level of striking, and Nattawut and Banchamek raised the standard even further.

It was truly an exhibition of the human body acting as a weapon.

When a reporter asked Nattawut about his victory, he still deferred to Bancahamek and said, “I am still learning.”

That is one thing we have in common when it comes to Muay Thai.

Keep fighting, my friends.

No apologies,

G. Miller

Featured image credit: Joe Stump

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