This is the ninth in the This Fighting Life series by Underground Blogger DeLeon DeMicoli, whose column is insipred by NPR's "This American Life." It covers in long essay form fighters and those that train.
Here he profiles Lynda Chunhawat and the “Bullie” Fight Team.
A diverse group of neighborhood hipsters pause in front of the rolled-up garage door, leaning from side-to-side to look past rows of Fairtex heavy bags mounted to the floor. Inside the gym, students perform an exhausting sequence of punches and kicks into Muay Thai pads. A mixture of marijuana and cigarette smoke waft indoors. Causes some students to pause and question what they’re sniffing. Overpowers the gym’s menthol musk of liniment oil “Bullie” fighters rub over their arms and legs.
“Why is there a work stoppage?” Head trainer and owner of Dek Wat Muay Thai, Lynda Chunhawat, yells over the hyphy sounds of 106 KMEL blaring over everyone’s head.
Those students sneaking in a quick breather, return to their workout: Double jab into the pad. Followed by a Sok Ngad (uppercut elbow). Lead arm extended. Opponent pushed backwards. A wide step forward, knee bent. Arm swung down to build momentum. Shinbone cuts into the pads once, twice. Reset to fighting stance. Hands up. Chin tucked in. Step forward. Cross-hook-cross. Finish with two Tae Chieng (diagonal kick). Then, repeat for three three-minute rounds.
Dek Wat (meaning “Temple Boy” in Thai) resides along 7th Street. Foot traffic is common since the West Oakland BART train station is down the street. The neighborhood, sometimes referred to as “The Lower Bottoms,” has been undergoing gentrification for the past few years with building developments nestled between one hundred year old Victorian homes and section eight housing.
Recently in the news, a story announcing the twenty-five million dollar renovation of an old General Electric manufacturing plant into work/live lofts shared headlines with the discovery of a mummified human head found in debris at a recycling center right down the street. To say West Oakland is a diverse community is an understatement. Same can be said for Dek Wat’s students and staff that come from all over the Bay Area to learn the “Art of the Eight Limbs” from a former world champ.
On October of 1997 Lynda Chunhawat (formally Lynda Loyce) was seated inside a taqueria in the Richmond district of San Francisco when she came across a flyer that had a petite woman throwing a mean right cross. It posed the question, “Do you punch like a girl?”
“I was living on my own in San Francisco and I thought it might be good to know how to protect myself. I had always wanted to learn martial arts or box,” said Lynda speaking over the bubble wrap popping sound of shins striking heavy bags from inside the upstairs office.
The first time she stepped inside the Fairtex gym on Clementina and 5th Street, she was pleasantly surprised to witness two girls sparring inside the ring.
“They were really going at it. I thought, ‘That’s really inspiring.’ Clearly this was a place that was welcoming to women.”
Lynda arrived late to the boxing class. She was told she could try the Muay Thai class, which ultimately changed her life. Not to mention the trainers made her feel welcome and encouraged her to pursue the art once they saw potential (of which she credits to studying six years of Russian ballet).
“I got laid off from my first job in investment banking a year after joining the gym and started working at the gym. One of the perks was I got to train alongside the fighters. Really what that meant was that I got a lot of individualized attention. I got to train, spar and learn from the Yankees of Muay Thai. They were considered the top guys in the pro and amateur circuit in North America at the time.”
The “Yankees of Muay Thai” Lynda referred to were legends before their time. There was Alex “F-14” Gong, Ganyao “Dr Knee” Arunleung, Jongsanan “The Wooden Man,” Enn “Quiet Storm” Janthakhun and Bunkerd Faphimai.
Owner of the San Francisco Fairtex gym, Gong was a world champion and had appeared on ESPN, HBO and the television show “Walker, Texas Ranger” with Chuck Norris before his devastating murder (more on that later).
Ganyao “Dr. Knee” Arunleung began training at the Sitpodang camp in Thailand by the age of fifteen. He was forced to retire early from professional fighting due to a lack of competition. At six-foot four-inches and weighing over one hundred forty five pounds, he was taller and much heavier than most of fighters of that era. Was known for having very strong knee strikes, hence the nickname “Dr. Knee.” Also, he was the Muay Thai coach on “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2005.
Enn Janthakhun is a former world champion that began fighting at twenty years old. He fought inside the legendary Lumpinee stadium with over one hundred and fifty fights to his career and became a World Champion after moving to the United States. Also, he made a successful, but brief transition to boxing under the tutelage of Danovis Pooler who runs the Boxing program over at Dek Wat Muay Thai.
Bunkerd Faphimai began competing in Muay Thai fights for extra money back in Thailand. By 1992 he was one of the head trainers at the Fairtex gym in Arizona, while at the same time considered one of the top Muay Thai fighters in the world. He retired from fighting in his forties with over 350 professional fights.
Jongsanan “The Wooden Man” was a Lumpinee Stadium Champion and known for his notorious fight rivalry with Sakmongkol. Both fighters faced each other a total of eight times with Jongsanan winning five of those battles.
“Between them, they had well over one thousand fights,” said Lynda over the loud grunts made by her “Bullie” fight team training downstairs. One trainer in particular, Phanuwat “Sugar Cane Coke” Chunhawat, known around the gym as “Coke” (also Lynda’s husband) motivated the team by yelling in a thick Thai accent, “KEEK HA-DA!” before the sound of the buzzer.
This rare once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to train alongside the best Muay Thai practitioners in the world eventually led to Lynda accepting her first fight under unusual circumstances.
“One day my trainer walked past me and said ‘Ay motherf--ker, you fight in two weeks.’ That says a lot about the kind of gym we were in. My name for about a year was ‘Ay!’ My full name was ‘Ay Motherf--ker.’”
Lynda’s first fight was with Strikeforce on July 23, 1999 inside the San Jose Convention Center. This was when Strikeforce was strictly a standup show.
“I won via unanimous decision against a girl who didn’t fight again after that. What I remember most, though, was all that training you do at the gym, going five to six three minute rounds on the pads doesn’t prepare you for the nerves that follow once you step in front of a crowd. That took a lot of energy out of me. I’ve never been so tired in all of my life.”
After that win, training became an addiction. Improving her technique was the goal. More fights followed, stiffer competition. She fought for Strikeforce several more times. Also competed on the all-women fight cards Master Toddy held at the Stardust in Las Vegas alongside former fighter and “Fast & Furious 6” actress Gina Carano when she was starting her fight career. Things were looking up until that horrific day on August 3, 2003.
Lynda had just finished her workout. While assisting one of the trainers’ wives with their children, a Jeep Cherokee pulled out of an alleyway, stopped at the intersection and then backed into Alex Gong’s jeep.
Gong ran after the Cherokee once it pulled away. When he caught up with the driver who was stopped at a red light to question him, the driver pulled out a gun and shot Gong before speeding off. Gong died shortly thereafter.
Lynda will never forget that day, seeing her trainer and friend killed under such bizarre and unnecessary circumstances.
“He was like the dorky brother I never had,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. “There was a lot of little kid humor, like burping. Somewhere, I know Alex is looking down, happy that I told everyone he was burping at workouts.”
Her biggest accomplishment as a professional athlete was being chosen as captain for team USA in the World Cup of Muay Thai in 2004. How Lynda described it, “It’s essentially the Olympics of Muay Thai.”
It was the first time the United States sent a full team. There had been Americans that participated in the tournament in the past, but never under the guidance and organization of a team captain and sponsorship.
“It was such a big deal. The event was televised and had an opening and closing ceremony, showcasing flags of all seventy-one participating nations. Also, you fought for medals.”
Team USA captured six medals, including a gold medal by Lynda for winning all three of her fights. She also won a trophy for the best Wai Khru, or the dance before the fight, which pays homage to your trainer.
“It gave me a chance to relax and get comfortable before I tried taking someone’s head off,” she said with a smile.
Lynda competed in about thirty professional fights. Was ranked in the top five of her weight class before deciding to retire. Her reason was simple and straightforward, “It wasn’t the same without Alex. Things were different. Sadly, some relationships ended as a result.
But, there was another way to honor his legacy.
Part 2 coming on Wednesday...
DeLeon DeMicoli writes and trains in San Francisco, CA. He is currently writing a novel on Mixed Martial Arts.
If you or somebody you know trains in martial arts and has an interesting story they would like to share, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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Previous Pieces by DeLeon DeMicoli:
This Fighting Life 8: Author Frank Bill
This Fighting Life 7: Brett “The Hitman” Hart
This Fighting Life 6: Chris “Maximus” McNally
This Fighting Life 5: Kevin Roddy vs. Hurricane Sandy
This Fighting Life 4: Mirko Büchwald
This Fighting Life 3: Bashir Ahmad and MMA in Pakistan
This Fighting Life 2: Diorelle and Brooke
This Fighting Life 1: Casey McEachern
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