It’s Saturday night and a crowd of 250 people have gathered to watch the Boxing/Muy Thai Interclub Fight Night hosted by the Saigon Sports Club. There are 17 fights on the card tonight with contenders hailing from six gyms in Saigon and Nha Trang. It’s by far the biggest crowd since SSC started hosting these events two years ago and there is a palpable air of excitement. The energy is buzzing and in the background there are microphone checks, cameras snapping and a flurry of other last minute preparations. The only female boxing match tonight is between Thao Do and Cam Le.
I first met Thao 72 hours ago, she was soft-spoken and had a sweet smile which went all the way up to her eyes. Tonight is her very first fight since she started boxing six short months ago. Thao, now 28, first experimented with more traditional martial arts. She joined an Aikido class and trained for three months but lost her motivation as the sport was just “too slow” for her.
In April of 2018 she joined the boxing class at Saigon Sports Club at the urging of her boyfriend who also trains. Initially her motivation was to get fit and lose weight but her focus quickly changed. She fell in love with the sport and the mental challenge it presented. She was surprised at how quickly her perspective on the sport changed and just how much it changed her. She often used to feel overwhelmed by the challenges life would throw at her ,and tears would come easily, but now through boxing she is learning to not only master the physical aspect of the sport but the limitations of her own mind more than ever. She feels more capable, confident and brave.
Do Dong, head boxing coach at SSC notes that an increasing number of women have been joining boxing classes and this is a global trend. “Training boxing is perfect for women who like new challenges, are bored by typical gym routines and have fitness goals beyond just losing weight.” While most are initially attracted to the high-intensity, calorie-blasting workouts to tone their physiques, “it never takes long for them to get hooked on the adrenaline, quick mental work and sheer power of the sport” says Do Dong. One of the best parts of his job is to watch students like Thao grow in both skill and confidence. “She’s got power, a mean right hook and she’s a quick learner.” By day Thao works in marketing for a life insurance company but by night she trains hard, seven days a week for the past few months in preparation for her big debut.
Boxing Muay Thai Interclub – Thao Do vs Cam Le Highlights
She says her boyfriend, friends and younger co-workers have been mostly supportive of her new-found interest but she has yet to tell her parents. They aren’t here tonight because she feels that they wouldn’t understand why she wants to do this and that her mother would worry about her getting hurt. Their view on boxing is that it’s a sport about violence and blood. When I asked her if she was scared of getting hurt, she didn’t hesitate to tell me “no”. “I’m not scared to get hit” she replied, “I’ve taken quite a few blows in practice, I know I’m strong enough. I’m most worried about the crowd I guess.” No kidding. Boxing is in large part a performance sport. The ring is raised up high tonight like a stage and all eyes will be on the action soon, all eyes will be on her. Will she succeed in “drowning out the noise” and overcoming the inevitable fear?
Her name is called and she makes her way out of the blue corner to center ring. She looks decidedly different tonight then she did three days ago when we first spoke. The softness in her face is replaced with something different, determination. She wants to win and it shows. The two women face off for the first round. Thao’s opponent is quick and light on her feet; she’s throwing out a lot of punches. Thao by contrast looks slower but she’s calm. Rounds 2 and 3 gradually pick up speed and intensity. Her opponent continues with quick jabs circling in and out, but Thao lands an uppercut and a left hook. It’s a rollercoaster, it’s hard to tell who’s winning as their styles are so contrasting. Light and quick vs. slower but packing some serious power. It’s the last 20 seconds of the final round and Thao unleashes a powerful combination. It feels like she was saving her energy for this moment. She’s crouched forward now and the change in intensity is obvious to the crowd watching. She lands a final combination and her opponent looks exhausted. Thao takes the win tonight.
As the referee holds up her hand to declare her the winner and hand out her medal, her adorable smile is back in place and she’s beaming as she hugs her opponent. She looks once again like the girl I first met three days ago and it’s hard to imagine that just a few short moments ago she was ferocious, another version of herself. “I won my first fight tonight and I feel unstoppable” says Thao after exiting the ring and joining her boyfriend, Wayne who also served as one of her cornermen and the gang of friends who were loudly cheering her on. Thao and I connect once more 24 hours after her victory. She’s still elated and high off the win but tells me the bigger fight was the one within herself. She did something which only six short months ago seemed inconceivable and the victory tastes even sweeter today. The irony is not lost on her, she joined the boxing class toloseweight, but what she gainedthrough training was so much more important.
Naomi Sutorius-Lavoie is a freelance writer and Canadian transplant who lives in HCMC, Vietnam.