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As Dale Kvalheim climbed into the Provincial Boxing Stadium ring in Chiang Mai, Thailand, the murmur of the crowd told him he wasn't welcome. The local fans had never seen a fighting farang (white foreigner) before. Surely, they thought, he would be cocky. Surely, he would lack discipline and respect for Muay Thai, which differs from the more widely seen kick-boxing in that blows can be struck with elbows and knees as well as feet and fists. Surely, this farang was about to be taught a lesson. The bettors in the crowd set the odds as high as 20-1 against him.
Kvalheim, a U.S. Army Specialist E-5, had almost pulled out of this match. It wasn't that he was afraid. Not with 21 Muay Thai bouts to his credit. His concern was the anti-American feeling rife in Chiang Mai in mid-1973. Only about a week before the fight, a visit to Chiang Mai by William Kintner, the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, had ignited a riot. Kvalheim didn't want to fight in Chiang Mai at this moment, but a bout in Thailand's second-largest city would be a milestone in his Muay Thai career.
The promoters still wanted him, and so they gave assurances as to his safety outside the ring. His safety inside the ring was another matter. His opponent was a devastating kicker who fought under the ring name Apidet Noi, meaning Little Apidet. The original Apidet was an old-time Thai boxer who, according to legend, broke men's bones with his kicks. The crowd grew raucous as the new Apidet strode through it toward the ring.
Kvalheim stayed cool. He turned toward his corner and, as is the custom, began the wai kru, an obeisance to one's teacher, training camp and fighting ancestors, and then the ram muay, the ritual dance of respect for the spirits of Muay Thai. While the haunting music of the Java pipe, drums and cymbals echoed through the otherwise silent stadium, Kvalheim moved about the ring, dipping, spinning and whirling his arms in a ceremony so graceful and dignified the Thais were at first astonished, then appreciative. He knew how crucial this prefight performance was. "It showed that I was not there as military personnel," he says. "I was there as a Thai boxer." Then, his eyes met those of a ringside fan who shouted at him in Thai. "I didn't understand what he said," says Kvalheim, "but the crowd broke up." Kvalheim smiled at the laughing ringsiders, and the tension throughout the arena was broken.
Once he was back in his corner, Kvalheim's second, Khun Kayan, wrapped his arms around his man's head as they chanted the blessing given to them by a Buddhist monk. Kayan removed Kvalheim's mongkon (sacred headpiece), blew in his hair to drive away any evil spirits and as Muay Thai music began to play, sent his fighter out for the first round.
Apidet Noi came out kicking furiously. Kvalheim pressed forward, realizing that his only chance was to get inside the deadly are of his opponent's legs. But Apidet was blasting him back with brutal kicks. Hardy Stockman, at ringside for Black Belt, an English-language magazine, was amazed at Kvalheim's "untiring drive and complete disregard for pain."
Kvalheim, however, gained confidence after the first round. If he wasn't in control of the fight, he was at least in control of himself. In Round 2 he continued his pursuit of Apidet even though the Thai was exacting a terrible price for entering the inside zone.
Apidet was scoring more points, but during the third round, Kvalheim began to sense doubt. "He didn't think he was winning," recalls Kvalheim. "I could see that each time he kicked and I just kept coming, it was bothering him. He had this look, like, Wait a minute, I'm Apidet Noi. I break bones. Don't you know who I am?"
In the fourth round Kvalheim seized the inside. There he could use his stronger, faster hands and elbows. He bulled and mauled his man for the final two rounds. It was a strong finish, but Kvalheim wasn't sure it would be enough.
After checking the judges' cards, the referee walked toward Kvalheim's corner. While the fighting farang stood at center ring, glove raised in triumph, the Thai fans stood with him, their ovation pouring down from every corner of the Chiang Mai stadium. "To gain fans—whom I always considered friends—that's what it's all about," says Kvalheim.