This is not a film in memorial of Sirimongkol, I simply did not know him well enough to make such a thing. It's not about him, anymore than a particular star or glimmer of starlight would be what the night sky is about. It is about the cremation ceremony we attended upon his death, and about the legends and others who attended. And it is about the travel taken to attend, because that is all that any of us can do: attend.
What are we attending to when we admire the extraordinary performances of great fighters of the past, flicking towards us on YouTube, on our mobile screens? What are we attending to when we reach out to these same fighters long past their athletic prime, full of dignity and techniques, many of them no longer actively teaching students and passing on the crest of what they were? I feel that there is something that this film is reaching toward, a something of the abyss that Muay Thai long-stridedly crosses, like a mythical creature stepping through the milky way. Muay Thai is thought to be a battlefield art. It is an art of death, in the arena of death (but long abstracted from that root and put into rings, full of ceremony and changing aesthetics), and therefore an art of Life, the composite of knowing how to live, and to keep your own alive. Like Achilles shield says, warfare is in the fabric of Life. These men, artisans who fought under great pressure, in Lumpinee and Rajadamnern, grueling through hots endless camps for a decade, defying gambler threats of death or damage, are the closest thing to death-striding honorifics we have in the cultural realm. What are we attending to when we think of them, admire them, seek to preserve them? I feel like I don't have the answer, but somehow the film reaches for where my mind cannot go, it has something of the answer, like Augustine's finger pointing to the moon. If everything is death, and we all die, and living in the shadow of dying is the lesson of our time here, somehow the Art of Muay Thai and the men of it teach us something, and should bring out our tenderness.
There are some special moments in the film. There is the honorific Ram Muay and fight performance between 1975 Fighter of the Year Pudpadnoi and "Street Fighter" inspiration Sagat Petchyindee (photos below). Pudpadnoi's is in one of Sirimongkol's few surviving fights on film/video, so there is special closeness to this cremation performance. You can watch their fight here: Pudpadnoi vs Sirimongkol the two fighter's of the year facing each other.
Because this is not a memorial film there are also lighter moments, one of which it might be good to speak of. Samson Isaan and Sagat horse around in the parking lot before the ceremony begins. Sagat immediately is insisting that Samson's Muay Khao clinch fighting is easy to defeat with upper cuts and hooks. Samson playfully agrees, and then proceeds to defy him with a one-arm clinch, a kind of "what are you going to do now?" move. It is an incredible moment to me. These two great fighters, themselves almost a generation apart, are still kids in the parking lot before an official event, testing their styles against each other. There is something irreverent about the moment, they kind of quiet down like children scolded, but there is an incredible life to the moment too, just like how Sirimongkol grabs Sylvie and tosses her in a clip from our filming with him. It felt like these fighters were joined to Sirimongkol in this jostling, this is the bright golden thread of Muay Thai, that weaves across death and time.
Muay Thai in Thailand is the full span of life. To think about and meditate on death and Muay Thai has to include this thread of joy and play, right next to the solemn and ceremonial. This is because Muay Thai full spectrum. It is not an ass-kicking art. It is a reflection of life, its mirror.
There is one more scene to be mentioned, where Sirimongkol tells the story of the man who died in the ring with him in one of his very first fights, a temple fight. He as a self-trained fighter, telling us that he he would just shadow and imagine himself, listening to the radio. Upon this death he was whisked to Bangkok. He was given the nickname "The Executioner", something he labored under painfully. He told us (it's in the full interview which we'll publish soon) that when he lost those early fights gamblers thought he was throwing fights, because of his dread reputation, but he wasn't very good he said. You hear this from many of the great legends we've talked to. They came to Bangkok and were not very good, but they somehow immersed in the gym culture became good. By 1972, a few short years, Sirimongkol was the best in Thailand. There is something so heavy in this story. His birth in the sport was at the hands of the death of his opponent, in a fight that wasn't even supposed to happen. And then his whole career carried with it the transformation of that death into something more. He earned the name "The Pious Boxer" for donating some of his fight earnings to the son of his fallen opponent, making sure he got an education, but it was more than that I believe. The process of Muay Thai itself became the crucible of a redemption, perhaps, and that is why these men and the high art speaks to us. We are all redeemed somehow through it's evidence of bravery and fear, and reached for art in ourselves.
I'm not sure what that redemption means in the scope of Death, and our meditation on it. Non-Being. But I suspect it means a great deal. It points a way. A philosophy of the warrior who maintains, or curates a dignity in the face of things that are imagined to strip dignity away. And we as respectful fans aid in our efforts to confer dignity to the warrior, to affirm it. As the warrior leaps forward, we though ourselves with them. And after we esteem and hold them throughout their days.
In Ancient Greek there is a use of the verb "to bristle". I've since forgotten the word in Greek, a long way from my Greek reading days, but it was used in the Iliad, a treatise on the beauty of war, to describe the moment when the divine came to you. Divinity was this terrible thing, almost like a light that was too bright, that you could only glimpse in slivers or moments. If something glinted, a piece of armor, or a man's eyes, you were catching the divine (perhaps). It could make the hair on your arms stand up and bristle. I'll never forget the analogy the Homeric author used to convey this state. It was like how corn in the field stands up and bristles as the sun comes up, as the dew is just about to evaporate.
I'm left just with this. Sirimongkol's death made me bristle, and it makes me bristle. We were just with him a few months ago. The light in his eyes was beautiful and it made its mark on me. We are losing these men. All of them, and all of us are going. I feel that in the face of that we must do something. I made this film as a small part of that something. A very small part.
Thank you very much to Khun Mai and General Tunwakom of the World Muaythai Alliance Association who opened the door to meeting and filming with Sirimongkol for the Muay Thai Library project. And thank you to all the patrons who have contributed to support the Preserve The Legacy Muay Thai Library itself, through this Patreon. We would know none of these men without you, and it makes our mission all the more vital and urgent to capture and celebrate what these men are now. If you are not a supporter yet you can become one on this Patreon, this Table of Contents is what we have been putting together so far. Thank you to Prin for helping with the translation of Sirimongkol on such short notice, which helped this film come together. And thank you to the official sponsors of the Muay Thai Library: SMAC Gym, J Su & Family, Chikara Martial Arts. If you are a business you can join this team and help the project archive the techniques and men of Thailand.
You can read Sylvie's account of the cremation ceremony here:
If interested in some of the men in this film you can watch their full length sessions in the Library here:
#41 Samson Isaan - The Art of Dern Fighting (64 min) watch it here
#36 General Tunwakom - Lertrit Military Muay (46 min) watch it here
#26 Sagat Petchyindee - Explosive Power (57 min) watch it here
#38 Sagat Petchyindee (part 2) - Maximum Damage (61 min) watch it here