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Robert Horn
November 26, 1990
A U.S. devotee sees a great future for a Thai sport
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November 26, 1990

A Dream With A Kick To It

A U.S. devotee sees a great future for a Thai sport

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It wasn't until the American reached his dressing room that Kayan told him he had gained much more; Kvalheim had won the lightweight championship of northeastern Thailand. Kayan had chosen not to risk burdening his boxer with this information.

Growing up in Wenatchee, Wash., Kvalheim wanted to box, but the town of 16,700 had no gym where he could learn the sport. Then, as a platoon leader in Vietnam, he had no time. And when he was stationed in Udorn Thani, Thailand, not far from the Laotian border, for his second hitch in the Army, there was no boxing program. But a buddy mentioned that one of the Thai drivers on the base had been a famous Muay Thai fighter and perhaps he might teach Kvalheim.

The driver, Khun Kayan, wanted nothing to do with teaching Muay Thai to this slight, sandy-haired farang. Others like him had tried the sport, but all had quit after suffering injuries. One American had been so unspeakably rude that he had challenged his teacher, who had literally kicked him out of the sport.

Kvalheim kept after Kayan. He spent weeks drinking Mekong whiskey with him and losing all his baht at cards to the ex-fighter. At last, he relented. "After all the gambling losses," Kvalheim says, "I think he felt sorry for me." Kayan also thought the farang wouldn't last very long.

They set up training at Kayan's house. Kvalheim spent hours kicking a heavy canvas bag. Like most foreigners, he had soft shins, and so at first the pain was excruciating. "I could hardly walk due to deep calluses with fluid beneath them," Kvalheim recalls.

Kayan taught him a few simple combinations and then encouraged the student to invent his own. That wasn't what Kvalheim expected at all. He thought there would be kata—strict movements, as in karate. Nonetheless, he enjoyed the freedom to improvise. Kvalheim had no sparring partners, so he relied on Kayan's 13-year-old nephew to kick at him until he learned to pick up his shins and block, and to spot a kick about to be sent his way.

Initially, Kvalheim had wanted to learn Muay Thai only for conditioning. But the more he learned, the more he needed to test his knowledge. He asked Kayan to get him a fight. Kayan resisted. Again Kvalheim persisted and, again, he eventually wore down the Thai's reluctance.

Kvalheim shocked everyone, himself included, by knocking out his first opponent, in a bout in 1972. "I became a Thai boxer at that moment and never looked back," he says. Other Thai boxers, however, soon found weaknesses in the American's defense. His third opponent floored him with a crushing knee-and-elbow combination, prompting Kayan to throw in the towel. In his sixth fight Kvalheim was knocked cold by a knee to the jaw. He ended up with lines of stitches in his nose and chin. The next day, on the base at Udorn Thani, Kayan confronted him. "Well," said the Thai, "you've gotten beat up now." Then, in a voice that was more statement than question, he said, "You want to quit?"

"Why?" asked Kvalheim. "I still have a lot more to learn."

Kayan laughed. A few days later, Kayan took Kvalheim to a wat, or temple, near the base. Kneeling before an altar of golden Buddhas adorned with lotus blossoms and burning joss sticks, Kvalheim took the oath of loyalty to his teacher, training camp and the spirits. A saffron-robed monk blessed him and taught him a prayer to chant during battle. He presented Kvalheim with a kruang rang, a piece of cloth engraved with a secret Sanskrit text, to be rolled into a ring and worn around the biceps. As far as is known, Kvalheim was the first farang to have taken part in this ceremony, called kheun kru, a rite of passage for a proven Thai fighter.

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