SMOKERS 101: From 0-0 To Fighter

What To Expect From Your First Exhibition

Exhibition fights, or smokers, are a fantastic way to increase your ring experience. Smokers are arguably the best way to get ready for a title fight or simply get that “real fight feeling” embedded deep in your bones.

It’s incredibly valuable to emulate every aspect of fighting versus when the stakes are higher by doing a smoker or two. It’s part of the growth curve for Muay Thai to fight. Other martial arts give colored belts to measure progression through the art and maturation as a student. In Muay Thai,  maturity is universally recognized by actually fighting people. The first level of this progression is smokers.

Expectations for a smoker and for the way they are run should be viewed as distinct from a judged fight or a fight in Thailand for some very good reasons. Having done my last smoker pretty recently and now scheduled for another one in a week, I can offer some fresh perspective on smokers, including how to get the most mileage out of your early transition from Muay Thai student to actual fighter.

 

What’s Different About Smokers?

First, it’s not going to be the beautiful 25-minute “ballet of violence” that you see in Thai fights on TV.

To quote my coach, Ajarn Buck Grant, who has coached and cornered an obscenely high number of fighters:

Smokers go like this: You come out, touch gloves and then it happens. You collide in the center of the ring and then [makes a messy, scrambly motion with all his fingers moving in a totally random pattern]… It’s a different kind of fight.

He’s right. Almost every smoker I’ve ever watched was the purest form of total mayhem I’ve ever seen. There are just three 2-3 minute rounds, which makes the rounds short with zero feeling-out-period, which is commonplace in Thai fights. What this really means it’s an arena for each fighter to try out every move they’ve ever learned in the gym, ever. This translates into the real world as a big jumbled mess operating at very high speed and demonstrating extremely low precision.

In other words, a lot of smokers look like something a cat hacked up a half hour after giving itself a bath.

 

Get The Stupid Out

One thing I remember doing in my first smoker is focusing on something that I’d literally only ever practiced in one single training session in my entire life: weight placement on my front foot.

For some bizarre reason, I was very heavy on the front foot much like a Western boxer might distribute weight. I never do that since I have what everyone would say is a clear-cut “Thai stance.” It was goofy and definitely not something I had practiced but that’s just what my body decided I needed to do under the pressure of the lights in the big ring. Luckily my cornerman spotted the problem and knocked some sense into me after the first round.

My point is that different things happen to your body and mind under the lights. They can be good or bad things but you want to fight the way you train and listen to your corner. You’re going to do weird things you didn’t practice when placed under stress, so just expect it and work through it. That’s why we do smokers in the first place. It’ll probably take a few to fine-tune all of the stupid mistakes in your game but that’s OK. Go with it: get the stupid out.

 

Embrace The Chaos

So you’ve signed up for a smoker.

You’ve watched a lot of fights from the UFC, definitely some Thai fights, too. Maybe in your head it looks and paces like a Sean Fagan Thai fight you saw last week on Super Muay Thai. In your head, the logistics work perfectly like this:

I sign up, there’s a full-blown (and free) medical screening, I find out about my opponent many months in advance and train for his specific fighting style, I cut weight at my leisure, watch video/YouTube of the other fighter, peak/taper for that fight,  then show up three hours early and hear from my coach/psychiatrist/whatever plus my corner, then walk in and execute the very deliberate 10-strike combination I established months ago which promptly ends the fight in the first minute.”

You may be in for a slight surprise: nearly none of the above is true.

 

My First Smoker (Of Which I Loved Every Minute)

I went on standby just to get into a fight. When I did, it was with a guy no one else on the card wanted to fight.

The lowdown on me goes like this: high age, low weight (140 lbs.) and low fight experience (though I’ve been training and sparring forever). That makes for a tiny, maybe even infinitesimally small number of candidates for opponent if you demand a precisely even fight in every single category (by the way, don’t expect all of that or you’ll never get to fight.)

So I took a fight that no one else on the card wanted for the experience and to put fight numero uno in the rear-view mirror. My opponent was a guy who had a 3-1 formal MMA record, outweighed me by more than 10 lbs. and was half my age. I found this out at noon on the day of the fight.

I cut no weight at all because I’m already light for the fight. Due to awful traffic conditions getting to the location, I got there exactly 15 minutes before my own fight, which was just enough time to do a quick warm-up and then go straight into the ring. I didn’t even get to hear the rules meeting, though I did know exactly what they were.

Suffice to say that I had no choice but to embrace the chaos in this first smoker. Not at all like I thought.

A few unexpected positive benefits I received from taking a fight no one else wanted:

  1. I fought a fight that looks and paces like an actual fight, not the hairball some smokers can end up being.
  2. I fought a very tough opponent and survived.
  3. I learned a ton about myself as a fighter and trimmed a lot of nonsense from my game.

 

Conditioning (And Not Just For Your Body)

There’s a set of overload conditions that occur in everyone’s first fight.

You’re absolutely going to get the dreaded “adrenaline dump” because you’ve not learned to pace yourself. It’s going to feel like you’re fighting at the bottom of a swimming pool. If not in round one, certainly in round two. Just realize that everyone gets it, including your current opponent.

But another overload condition happens, too: brain overload. The fight you’re fighting in no way resembles any fight you’ve watched. Even if you have a 1000-inch plasma TV with full 7.1 surround sound and you watch the fight filmed from first-person perspective, you’re just not getting all the information.

A single bead of sweat rolls down your opponent’s forehead… He grunted just a tiny little bit on that last kick but not on any of the others… Now he just blinked his left eye (why’d he do that?)… Some lady in the first row wearing a red shirt keeps jumping around and shouting what I think sound like “SHHHSBBBBRRRGG!!” (what did she say?).

All that happened in a single second of my last fight, and just as much brain energy was spent as the physical energy required to block, kick, punch and step.

 

Curious Psychology Of Smokers

Odd things happen at smokers. I don’t know if they happen in all fights but they most definitely do in smokers.

Right before the fight, I didn’t know the actual person I was fighting. So, during warm-up, we had a lot of fighters giving each other what I’d call “the hairy eyeball.”

  • “Is he watching me do my signature move so he can counter it?”
  • “Is that even the guy I’m fighting or is it the one in the corner?”
  • “They both seem to be close enough in weight to be my guy.”

It’s totally clear to me why, after fights, pro events take the fighters backstage and let them decompress out of “dumbass mode.” The dumbest person you’ve ever met in the world is the immediately post-fight version of yourself.

I was talking about this with a female fighter afterward. We both said, almost simultaneously, “I can’t talk to anybody right now because I’m too stupid.” Someone asked me my own name and I had to pause and think about it.


Final Thoughts

I liked being overmatched for my first fight. It’s probably not the right strategy for everyone, particularly if you are working out confidence issues, but I really liked the pace it produced. Plus, it felt “real” and not like yet another hard-sparring session.

No- it wasn’t what I’d consider beautiful. But I feel like I need to get as many smokers in as possible so that someday it will be a beautiful fight that I’m in.

Win or lose… I want my fights to be spectacular.

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