Photos by Lindsey Newhall
Twelve years ago, when internationally famous fighter Kem Sitsongpeenong was an up-and-coming young contender contracted with Sor. Ploenchit Gym, he joined the ranks of a sizable group of Muay Thai fighters who have been intentionally poisoned before a fight.Kem had been favored to win this particular fight, having won nearly a dozen in a row. Directly before the fight was to begin, Kem performed the wai kru and returned to his corner, where a relative of the owner of his gym took off his mongkol and gave him a pre-fight drink of water.
Kem took a gulp and immediately sensed something was wrong. The man who gave him the water quickly left his corner. Before joining the referee and his opponent in the center of the ring, Kem whispered to his cornermen, "Keep that water."The poison took effect quickly. By Round Three, the fight was a lost cause. Kem latched onto his opponent and told him in the clinch, "I have no power. I'm done." The other boxer accepted Kem's surrender and fought lightly the last two rounds, careful not to inflict further damage on an opponent so clearly suffering from outside causes. Kem's opponent won easily on points.Kem's team took him to the hospital after the fight. He tested positive for a type of drug he called yaagomphasat, a sedative. His cornermen had saved the water he'd been given before the fight. Lab results were conclusive—the water had indeed been laced with the drug."We all knew what had happened," Kem told me. "We knew it was the man who took off my mongkol that night. He'd never removed my mongkol before and was very insistent that he do it that time. I didn't know who that man was and I still don't know much about him, other than that he was somehow related to the head of the gym."It took Kem a couple months to make a full recovery. He was put on an IV drip for a while, then was prescribed long dosages of medicine. Now 12 years later, sitting in the cool air of his own gym in the Khao Yai Mountains, Kem is still trying to make sense of the incident. "That guy did it because he was a gambler. I don't think anyone ordered him to do it. He just wanted to make sure he'd win. After he took my mongkol off, he went up and placed a bet on my opponent. My father told me the man came back to my corner to get the cup of water back, but my cornermen had already taken it away."
Kem never saw the man again. He told his gym owner, a relative of the man, what had happened. His cornermen, as well as hospital records, backed up his story. "I'll take care of it," was the gym owner's reply.
Ten years later, Kem still doesn't know what became of the man who poisoned him.The intentional poisoning of Muay Thai fighters in Thailand is disturbingly common, so widespread, in fact, that the recently retired Muay Thai star Pornsanae Sitmonchai described it as the most dangerous aspect of fighting Muay Thai today. The severity of poisoning ranges from relatively innocuous to potentially lethal. Many incidences of poisoning end up with the fighter being hospitalized, having to take weeks or months to make a full recovery.The crime is almost always money-driven. Generally speaking, the perpetrator will poison the fighter favored to win, thus getting better odds when betting on the opponent. Many poisoners time their attacks in hopes of it taking effect during the fight, when the boxer has already started the bout and cannot back out or cancel the fight.Perpetrators have to be close to the fighter, at least in a physical sense, to administer the poison. Sometimes the victim knows the perpetrator well; other times he's just someone in the community, often a gambler working independently or for someone more powerful.
It was this sort of neighborhood gambler who poisoned the locally famous transgender fighter Rose, who goes by Rot-Duan in the ring. A gambler from her Isaan hometown had volunteered to drive Rose and her family from Khorat Province all the way to Bangkok's Channel 9 Stadium for a fight Rose was favored to win. Thinking all he wanted was to make a little extra cash by driving them, Rose's team hired him on.
After checking in at the stadium, Rose wanted to go buy an electrolyte drink. The driver offered to buy it for her."No," she said. "I can get it myself."He insisted, saying that she needed to focus on the fight, and not be running off to buy drinks.A few minutes later, the driver came back with the beverage and opened it for her. Rose hesitated to drink it, and felt strange about the way the driver had been acting. Her mother told Rose to hurry and drink before her fight began.
Soon after, Rose started urinating in heavy volumes. When she finally emerged from the restroom, she told her mother she felt sick, lethargic. The teenage Rose had never been poisoned before, didn't know to identify it as such.Rose got into the ring for her fight. The first round, she took it slowly and made it through. By the end of Round Two, however, the poison had caught up to her. She told her cornermen what she suspected was happening, but they told her to endure, to pull it together and fight.Round Three was the end. Rose could barely lift her legs to kick or block. The ref stepped in, stopped the fight. She lost by TKO.As soon as she told her coach her symptoms after the fight, he knew she'd been drugged. They took her to the hospital, and the rest of her team went in search of the driver. He had already disappeared. So had his car—Rose and her family had to find another way home to Khorat.The recovery was long for Rose. She couldn't fight for three months, could barely make it to her high school classes. Eventually, though, she made a full recovery, and later heard that the police at Channel 9 captured the driver. He confessed, said he'd done it of his own accord and that no one else had put him up to it. He'd put 100,000 baht (US $2,800) on Rose's opponent.
"They found him and beat him up, broke his teeth," she said. "The Muay Thai community is on top of things."
It's often that sort of vigilante justice for poisoners, though many of them, those who cover their tracks well or are powerful in the Muay Thai community, are never held responsible. Take, for example, a story from a well-known Bangkok fighter who asked to remain anonymous. "Don't use my name," he said, "because I'm pretty sure the person who poisoned me was my own boss."I was poisoned before a fight at Channel 7. I was walking around at 62kg but had recently cut to 59kg to make weight. Within four hours after being poisoned, I dropped to 54kg.I had been chewing gum and drinking a Sponsor drink, and I noticed it tasted funny but I didn't think anything of it so I drank the whole thing. I started feeling the effects about 20 minutes later, less than an hour before the fight.I couldn't fight. I got intensely painful cramps but didn't go to the hospital because no one would take me. The boss of my gym wasn't that interested.I'm 80% sure it was my own boss who did it, because he was the one who bought the Sponsor and gave it to me. I wanted to report it, to try and find out who did it, but my boss wasn't interested in pursuing it. There was no side bet on the fight, but there was gambling of course, and I'm pretty sure he put a bet on my opponent.The fighter who spoke anonymously has since been bought by another gym, continues to fight in Bangkok, and is still very successful in his Muay Thai career. To his knowledge, the man who poisoned him has never been accused of the crime.
"It's always someone you know," says Ya Kiatpetch, a gym owner, scout, and promoter working out of Isaan. "Sometimes, it's someone you know very well." According to Ya, one of his young fighters was poisoned by a member of the fighter's own family:This happened six years ago at Channel 7 in Bangkok. My fighter, Dum, was 16 and his brother, Dong, was 23. Dong took his little brother out to eat snacks the day of the fight and warned him, "Don't eat anything anyone else gives you." Dum trusted him because obviously it was his big brother.Dong wasn't a fighter, but he was a gambler. He poisoned his little brother's food, put a liquid shot into Dum's essence of chicken, the kind that makes you sweat a lot, makes it so you have no power. He gave it to him in the morning, a little while before his fight.The kid fought, didn't feel it before he got into the ring. Dong timed it so the drugs would take effect during the fight. He watched as his little brother lost by knockout.I knew what had happened because I know my fighters. I know how Dum fights and I could tell something was wrong during the fight.We all knew Dong was responsible. He was the only person who gave Dum anything beforehand. We went over to confront Dong but he'd already run away right after the fight. I had his number so I sent him a message: "We know you're the only one who gave him anything. Speak up. Tell us the truth. If you don't own up to it, you will never be able to set foot near a Muay Thai ring again. I'll give you the chance to own up to it because I love your brother; he's my fighter."
Dong knew we were serious. He told us everything. Turns out another gambler paid him 60,000 baht (US $1,680) to do this. Then, right after Dong poisoned his little brother, he called the Big Legs [colloquial term for powerful gamblers] and said that other guy, Dum's opponent, was going to throw the fight. Then he placed a bet with other gamblers on the other guy, the one who was supposedly going to throw the fight. He got great odds, thought he was real clever.These people have no heart. They're selfish, absolutely selfish.If it had been a stranger, we'd have shot him, just driven by on a motorcycle. But we let him live because we felt bad for Dum. It was his own brother, after all. I know Dong is still around but we don't see him much. Whenever he sees me or anyone from my gym, he runs away. He's just a petty gambler.As for my fighter, Dum stayed at home in Isaan for three months until the poison fully left his system. He kept fighting after that, pretty average career. He's still fighting now, mostly against foreigners in Phuket and Pattaya. He comes back here [to my gym in Isaan] to train in between his fights. And I heard he forgave his brother eventually.
Toward the end of the interview, I asked Ya how long it typically takes a fighter to recover from being poisoned."All over the board," he said. "Depends on a lot of factors. But here at my gym I grow an herb out back. If a fighter gets poisoned, you brew it for them and make them drink it every day to help them recover."He turned to our mutual friend and interpreter Frances, a Canadian who has lived in Thailand for much of the last 10 years. "You just opened your new gym, didn't you?"Frances and her Thai husband had recently started Wor. Watthana, a grassroots gym in a tiny Isaan village about an hour away from Ya's gym. "We're small-scale," Frances said. "We have local kids, mostly beginners. Some of them just had their first fight last week.""I'm going to give you a small plant before you leave," Ya said. "Start growing it at your gym in case someone slips something to one of your fighters. It's the herb I was talking about. You're a gym owner now. Trust me, you're going to need it."Interpretation by Frances Watthanaya.