Street Fighting Woman

by

04/05/2002

Mercer St & Bleecker St, New York, NY 10012

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village

World Gym, upstairs, is fresh with creamy white paint and music, while beat-driven, played at an appropriate level. There are the requisite scantily clad Spandexed women and the scantilier clad hyper-muscled men. But there is a civility, a sense of propriety, a lovely calm to this gym that the trendy joints are lacking. Downstairs, however, the music from the boxing room is so consistently and uproariously loud, the Pilates instructor (whose small room has the misfortune of sharing a wall) is once again pleading her case for less bass, shouting over Dancehall scourges against which she doesn’t stand much of a chance.

But besides the raucous rhythms, which the boxers–students and instructors united–find a necessary part of training, there’s quite a gem hidden in this basement on Mercer Street. Kru Phil Nurse rents the space as headquarters for his Lugsitnarong Thai Boxing Gym. Not to be confused with comparatively warm and cozy kick-boxing, Thai boxing (or Muay Thai) is about as violent as it comes. Think: regular punches–jab, right cross, et cetera–plus elbows, knees, roundhouses where you whack with the shin not the foot, clinch work, grappling and so on.

“It’s the nearest thing to street fighting without street fighting,” says Nurse, a shaved-headed, light-skinned, ridiculously-twinkly-blue-eyed fighter of Barbarian descent. Standing at around 5’7″, and clad in a white tank top and white Thai shorts (much like what Western boxers wear but emblazoned with large Thai letters), he’s fit as a fiddle, but not a fiddle you would necessarily imagine able to beat the heck out of someone. In which case, you would be in heaps of trouble. At 39, Nurse’s record is 32-3-0 (15 KOs) and he holds three title belts. That of European Light Welterweight Champion, British Superlight Welterweight Champion and British All-Styles Superlight Welterweight Champion. “Street fighting has no rules,” he continues his voice as refined and his gestures as urbane as an Ivy League dean. “There are very little rules in Thai boxing, but there are rules and there are guidelines.

Nurse hails from Manchester, England and has the British work ethic and (American-ified) accent to prove it. He rises at 5, having typically gone to sleep only hours before (dancing, thinking, planning, over-thinking and so on), and is at the gym by 6. “You’re everyone’s leisure time,” explains Nurse as we sit and watch one of his fighters teach a class, packed out to the limit. Jump ropes, weighted with heavy plastic to help build strong upper bodies, swinging in unison, students strategically stationed around heavy bags, speed bags and, of course, the ocean blue ring. On the far wall there’s a small altar which holds some incense and a statue of the Buddha. Any student entering the room, folds his hands and bows to Nurse. “Saturdays is when you’re working the most. At night when they’re finished working and go to the gym, that’s when you’re working the most.”

The floor down here is bright yellow, encapsulated by a thick black band. But mostly it’s pretty beat up. Not in a dirty way–it’s mopped at least once a day–rather in an used-regularly-by-a-lot-of-folks way. At last count, 445 students attend Nurse’s school beneath the sidewalk. As with the martial arts there are ranks to be moved up and arm bands to be awarded, to be worn around the right bicep, for doing so. The highest ranking is red and white, which is, quite naturally, what Nurse sports. He also sports a heavy gold necklace with a stone image of the Thai Buddha worn by most Thai fighters, but only if someone deems you worthy of giving you one. “They only give that to special people,” says Nurse, several times. “They give it to you to protect you.”

They, being the Thais. At age 17 Nurse began training with Master Sken who was a celebrated Thai boxing champ from Thailand and who, in 1979, opened a school in Northern England. In fact, Sken is credited with introducing Thai boxing to the West. Nurse supported himself as a mechanic during the day and trained at night and on the weekends. Since those novice days, Nurse has made countless visits to Thailand, speaks some Thai himself, and is designing his own line of Thai boxing clothing which will, naturally, be manufactured in his adopted soul-land.

The life of a fighter in Thailand, however, is a tad different than that of a fighter here. There: they train seven hours a day, seven days a week. Here: we train a couple mornings before work and on the weekends. ” Thai boxing is from a third world country and all they know is train hard,” says Nurse suddenly sounding less dean-esque and more impassioned street activist. “Whether they like it or not. That’s all they do. Then they fight. Then they get a little bit of money and they survive. It’s a completely different scenario. Like here, you work, you go to movies. That sounds crazy. They don’t have no movies.” Therefore, Nurse has created a substantially less rigorous training, both mentally and physically, for those of us with jobs. “Here you have to accommodate so many different needs. Here is needy compared to there. They don’t have no complaints here, but they don’t realize it.”

Try telling some of his students that. Ten minutes, five minutes, even 30 seconds into a Nurse workout the student has plenty to complain about, though Nurse has a knack for making the workout fun and the (fairly quick) mental and physical results draw nothing but raves. The Kru in Nurse’s name is Thai for teacher and Nurse is a natural: equal amounts supportive and insanely challenging. “I think for me my role in life is to be a teacher no matter what,” says Nurse. We’ve left the boxing room (due to aforementioned loud music and madly swinging ropes) and are seated in the foyer of World Gym along a comfy bench. Every other person who exits or enters knows the wily fighter and comes over for a handshake and a smile. Nurse has an odd mixture of cockiness-slash-egotism and genuine insight and kindness. And his purpose for teaching, “because I like to see people achieve something that they wouldn’t have achieved without me,” pretty much sums that up.

Yet, it would seem, by and large, the kindness wins out:

“I only have to watch them punch once or twice,” explains Nurse, grabbing his palm pilot as it slides off his white satin Thai shorts, then his cell phone as it slides in the process of retrieving his pilot. “If I discover in that second this person is very timid, but they’ve actually come to me, that’s one little piece of getting them out of their timidity. And they do one punch and I see halfway through that punch something that looked perfect, that something that I saw is what I’m going to build to make the whole thing perfect.”

When Nurse trains you sometimes he needs to illustrate a move and, man, is he fast. Of course, he slows it down so you can see what he’s up to, but the second you gain any bit of mileage he ups it again. At times, Nurse shares the boxing room with Western boxers who are hired by the gym to train students. Compared to Nurse’s wicked-fast fancy footing and somehow entirely elegant roundhouses, these boxers seem lumbering and, well, completely stoppable by a Thai boxer. This is a topic Nurse knows something about. For three years he fought as a professional boxer in Britain and established a 14-3-0 (6 KOs) for himself before returning to Muay Thai.

So, who do you think would win if an American boxer and a Thai boxer got in the ring?

“I know who would win,” says Nurse, his eyes atwinkle. “He has more weapons. It’s not necessarily saying the boxers no good or that Thai is better than boxing. It’s saying, okay, you’ve got two hands. I’ve got two hands, I’ve got two elbows, I’ve got two knees, I’ve got two legs to kick. And the ratio should tell you straight away whose going to win.”

Which brings us back to the violence bit again. Muay Thai is on the rise in America, as well as Europe, Japan and Australia. Training camps have been springing up in more countries, creating large numbers of professional and amateur Muay Thai boxers. “It’s becoming vastly more popular because it’s all about keeping up with the times,” explains Nurse. “Society is getting more violent. Back in the 60’s and 70’s it was more karate that was big. 80’s-90’s it was tae kwon do, very flashy. But the times are getting kind of crazier. And Thai boxing is what’s taking over. Nobody comes to mug you and says, ‘Okay I’m going to touch you’ and then you get to pose. They’re going to come with a bat or a gun or a stick. You’ve got to be real about what you’re going to do back to them. If you’re hitting them, you’ve got to hit them. If you’re in a corner you’re gonna have to use your elbows. If they grab you you’re going to have to hold them and knee them. It’s a real form. You gotta go with the times, but you try not to make society like crazy. You’re not trying to make everybody killing and fighting, but you’re trying to make it where there’s some justice, I suppose. Where you can handle yourself. It’s a fine line. It’s a fine line.”

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