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.
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.
Kayan explained that the monk's blessing would cause blows to miss Kvalheim's head. As further protection, he soon received a mongkon, a headpiece made of twine and tape that had been blessed by seven monks in seven temples. Kvalheim claims he never thereafter was knocked unconscious. He admits, however, that renewed training with Kayan was a significant factor in this change of fortune. Specifically, they worked long and hard on his defense against knees and elbows.
Word was spreading that the farang could fight. Despite Kvalheim's growing reputation, most opponents still assumed they could defeat him by attacking his legs. The Thais had always enjoyed success against foreigners, including foreign karate and kung fu masters, by relying on this tactic. "They all came prepared to fight me one way," says Kvalheim, "and then I blew their strategy." His legs had become rock hard, and he had become adept at using them to block and counter.
Winning the northeastern championship in Chiang Mai earned Kvalheim a Top 10 ranking in the sport. There was speculation about a national title shot. Eventually the lightweight champion sent him a challenge to a fight at Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok. Kayan, however, ruled it out. "Wait," he told Kvalheim. "You're not ready yet."
Seven fights later Kayan entered him in the challenger elimination tournament. In a bout in Lampang, just southeast of Chiang Mai, Kvalheim lost a close decision. "I was in it all the way," he says, "but I was too tentative. I just didn't do enough." Certain to this day that he was the better fighter, he remains bewildered by his performance, not sure if he over-trained or if he psyched himself out.
He still had his skills and reputation; he had the desire to fight his way to the top. But another cross-cultural event soon changed everything. Kvalheim got married in 1975. His wife, a Thai, raised no objections to his fighting. According to Kvalheim, it was the trainers and promoters "who lost interest...believing that a fighter, particularly a farang, is never as strong once he takes up with a woman."
Kvalheim kept fighting and winning, but it was clear his career was winding down. The fights weren't big fights, and he sensed there were no more big breaks coming his way. At the end of the year, Kvalheim retired with a 25-10 record. At almost the same time, his tour of duty in the Army also came to an end.
Kvalheim settled in Seattle but immediately felt uncomfortable. He had become "more introspective, more internal than people in America like." While working at a variety of jobs, he began attending Seattle University, eventually graduating magna cum laude, earning B.A. degrees in history and in education.
It took 12 years of working, saving and studying, but finally he made it back to Thailand in 1987. Now 42, he teaches U.S. history and world geography at the International School in Bangkok, a career that "fits nicely into the respect for learning" that Kayan gave him. When Kvalheim isn't teaching, he's a missionary for Muay Thai, serving on the executive board and U.S. publicity committee of the International Muay Thai Association, the sport's first worldwide regulatory organization. He also did consulting work on the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie Kickboxer, but it was work that has given him regrets.
Kickboxer hasn't been shown in Thailand. For the most part, the film reduces the Thais to Hollywood-stereotyped Asian villains. The Thai champion, played by a Westerner in Asian makeup, is depicted as a psychopath who deliberately fouls and paralyzes his American opponent. "To go out and kill and maim," says Kvalheim, "is not the philosophy of Thai boxing." Now dedicated to promoting a more positive image of Muay Thai, Kvalheim has joined with some fellow enthusiasts to produce Muay Thai magazine and a television series of kick-boxing bouts.
Kvalheim also has assumed the role of Kayan, teaching foreigners the rudiments of the sport. He hopes that through an expanding corps of disciples yet another of his dreams will be fulfilled: to see Muay Thai become an Olympic sport. "Muay Thai is the most effective ring sport in the martial arts," he says. "I don't see how they can stop it." Kvalheim has learned his lessons well enough to realize that this latest dream might bring the severest test of his persistence and dedication since he became a Mauy Thai champion almost two decades ago.
Robert Horn is a free-lance writer who lives in New York City.