I don’t speak Khmer, but this, or something like, is what the lady behind me is yelling. Although not tall, she is a woman of substance, with bangles of flesh on her arms that shake as she jumps up and down with glee. She wears a black top with white polka dots.
Up in the ring two men are trying to inflict as much damage on each as they can in the time available. They wear gloves and matching trunks, coded red and blue. I’ve sort of adopted Red. He has the look of an underdog, a bit smaller than Blue, a bit amateurish, a peasant boy trying his luck in the glamorous world of Cambodian kick-boxing. Blue is bigger, downright handsome, with a cold professional gleam in his aristocratic eye.
There is also an orchestra. Do you remember where Jabba the Hutt is about to throw Luke Skywalker off a kind of flying gondola into the maw of the sandworm (it takes a thousand years to digest its meals)? You remember the orchestra that Jabba had on the gondola, a pink elephant playing gamelan? That’s exactly the music. There’s the orchestra, up on the stage behind me; there’s the ring, right in front (I’m ringside, where the VIPs are meant to be – I just sort of assumed they’d let a man with a camera in, and they did); and there’s the audience, some on the floor, some on the tiers on two sides. The audience are shouting and cheering and laying bets. There’s also a platform or two for the TV cameras, broadcasting live to the nation, because kickboxing is bigtime in Cambodia.
Red lets fly a kick at Blue’s groin. That’s my boy. Blue blocks with a faint smile on his face and lunges a left at Red’s head. Red dodges. No blows have connected to date. Nor to the dates. A moment later they’re in a clinch, Red has Blue in a headlock and is kneeing him in the intestines, Blue is pounding Red’s kidneys. Break, break, says the referee. And so it goes. Both sides connect, but somehow Blue gets through more often. Back to corners, and Red’s minder pours a bottle of water down his boy’s pants to cool his overheated gonads.
Yes, I’m sure Red is a farm-boy trying to break into the game. Kickboxing brings fame and fortune, but only to a tiny fraction of those who try. In the good old days, a hundred years ago, the contestants wore knuckledusters of crushed shells to inflict maximum bloodshed, and stretcher-bearers stood ready at ringside to carry out the losers, who were sometimes dead. Nothing like that awaits Red tonight, but he certainly doesn’t seem to be about to make a breakthrough against Blue.
Yet he’s come a long way to be here, because Phnom Penh is the top of the tree, Cambodian kickboxing heaven. Probably he started out in Battambang, where many young fighters come from. He would have trained in makeshift rings with punching bags leaking sawdust onto cracked concrete floors, had his first bouts in makeshift rings lit by strings of fluorescent lights, each boxer handing his shorts on to the next as he finished. And if our lad does well, it’s off to Phnom Penh and this night in the glare of spotlights and TV cameras.
“The goolies, the goooooolies! Kick ‘im in the goolieeeeeees!” The lady is giving advice to Blue. He doesn’t need it. Red is landing blows, but he’s looking more and more tired. Who wouldn’t, the amount of high-joule energy these two are putting in. Blue has Red’s neck in a knee-lock, and he’s pummeling my boy’s ribcage. They break apart, and fly together again, and Blue has his knee in Red’s left kidney. A kick, a punch, and suddenly Red is carpeted. Or canvassed. Whatever. Anyway, my boy is down. Blue prances a little. “Get up! Get up!” yell the crowd in Khmer. “Stay down, you poor idiot!” I yell in English. Red gets up. “The goolies!” yells the lady in the polkadots.
Now, while Red has a rub-down and quick massage of the solar plexus with his handlers, and another bottle of mineral water down his elastic, it’s time for a brief digression concerning the word goolies. This is British and Australian slang (especially children’s slang) for the balls. Microsoft Word auto-spellchecker draws a squiggly red line under it whenever I type it in, and suggests I replace it with ‘goalies’ or ‘goodies’. If Microsoft Word had a brain it would see that neither of these fit. I’ve done a quick bit of research and can’t find anything about the derivation of this word. But my guess is that it comes from googy (or googie), a child’s word. Very young children, having trouble with the second voiced velar plosive, might substitute an easier phoneme and come up with goolie. Anyway, it means egg, which seems to fit. The phrase ‘go for their goolies’, is first attested by the historian Veritas Absolutas, who ascribes it to the Roman commander Arius Scrotum, who used it to urge on his legions against the Greek general Testicles at the Battle of Genitalia Minor. This is the sort of thing you learn if you stay awake in class.
The fight resumes. They swing, they kick, they connect. They sweat a lot. The crowd roars. (‘The goolies’!) Blue has Red in a headlock, again. They’re in a clinch, swaying slowly with the music like Frank Sinatra-type lovers to a waltz by Jabba the Hutt. Except that the clinch is an opportunity to knee each other in the ribs. Jab-kick-lunge, Blue is kicking Red’s ham muscles, pizzicato, like Liberace on a riff, weakening his legs. O Red, O Red, go home mate, take up rice-farming or Formula One racing, because he’s killing you my friend.
Up behind me in the stalls there’s a young boy, about sixteen, pigeon-chested, weak-chinned, round-shouldered, macaroni-armed. He’s watching proceedings with the yearnfull eyes worn only by the very young, like an alter boy watching a Papal Mass, like the class nerd watching the school beauty queen. This is how it begins, this is how it continues.
The plump lady next to me in the VIP section continues excited. “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee……….” she screams as Blue gets in a particularly elegant bit of damage to Red’s internal organs. Beside her there’s a svelte young man in a very fancy shirt, with a look in his eye that bodes ill for anyone who owes him money and doesn’t have a reasonable excuse. He smiles at me – thank God the locals are friendly – and consents to have his photo taken while Red consults yet again with his manager and trainer in a break between rounds. I don’t know what the trainer is saying as he pours water over Red’s head and down his shorts, but I can guess: “Go for the goolies, son…”
Eventually it’s all over. Red has lost. For one long moment he was flat on his back again, Blue bending over him like a dark angel (Blue was pretty tired too, oh yes he was), and I thought it was stretcher-time, but he pulled himself together again and battled on, but now it’s over and it’s Blue’s arm that’s being held aloft for the cheering fans. Red climbs out of the ring and disappears down the passage to the change-rooms. I follow. The change-room is crowded. I ask Red for a photo. He strikes a pose, both arms held up by an invisible referee in the sky. My lad is not defeated!
I rejoin my friend up in the stalls. The next bout is under way, down in that little square of light at the centre of the universe. Jabba is conducting his orchestra for another pair of hopefuls, and the crowd has totally forgotten my Red and Blue, for a new Red and a new Blue are hard at work knocking the tripes out of each other. This is the meaning of eternity. My friend is awestruck – not at the kickboxing, but at me. “Do you know who you just took a photo of?”
“Um…the guy in red who just lost the last match…”
But no, not poor old Red. The guy in the fancy shirt. Who?
“Only E Pho Thoung, that’s who! Only the champion kickboxer in all Cambodia, that’s all! How’d you get him to let you take his photo? Don’t you know who he is?”
Well no, I didn’t. But I do now. And the plump lady? “His mother I guess… But didn’t you even know????? I mean, E Pho Thoung…!”
So the man that both Red and Blue aspire to become, that the anonymous chinless kid in the crowd dreams of being, is the son of Our Lady of the Polka Dots.
For behind every successful man there stands a woman – screaming, “Kick ‘im in the goolies!”
(This piece was originally written in 2004)