pencak dor indonesia fight club
A Pencak Dor fight in Kediri, East Java, in September 2019. All photos by Arief Prinoyo.

Inside Indonesia’s Islamic Boarding School Fight Club

In the ring, children, senior citizens, and professional fighters go head to head.
photos by Arief Priyono
translated by Jade Poa

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

Two decades ago, the film Fight Club, adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name, portrayed fights as a means of escapism for the working class to resist capitalism. Even before that, some six decades ago, Muhamad Abdullah Maksum Jauhar, known affectionately as Gus Maksum, realised a similar concept, but for East Javenese Islamic boarding school students.


Gus Maksum called the tournaments “Pencak Dor.” Pencak means “to fight,” while “dor” refers to a small drum that plays music during the tournament.


Santoso poses with a punching bag he uses for practice.

When Indonesian students constantly got into trouble for breaking out into fights in 1965, Gus Maksum provided them with an alternative avenue to direct their emotions. By opening up the fights to everyone, students, ordinary residents, and professional fighters built a community.

It didn’t take long for Pencak Dor to become a favorite pastime for locals in Kediri and its neighbouring cities. Now, the Pencak Dor touranment is a large-scale and much-anticipated event all over Indonesia that happens every September.

For Anshor and Santoso, two athletes from a Pencak Dor collective known as Bara Sekar Taji (BASETA), fighting is indeed a form of escapism from their day to day lives in the Indonesian city of Kediri, East Java.

BASETA consists of members of the military, Indonesia’s national clerical body, and government workers. Corporate sponsors provide cash prizes to the winners.


Anshor (right) training his student.

Santoso first set foot in the ring when he was in primary school. By day, he works at a tannery, sorting and cleaning hides before they are exported to various other Asian countries. On weekends, he unloads cargo from trucks, which he said gives his muscles a good workout.

“All of this hard work is a form of training for me that boosts my stamina,” Santoso told VICE.


The audience at the 2019 Pencak Dor tournament.

Santoso has become a local celebrity and earned himself the nickname “Destroyer” after he broke a policeman’s bones in the ring three years ago. He has seen his fair share of injuries, having broken his arm over ten times.

“One time, my sclera ruptured during a fight, turning it permanently purple,” Santoso remembered.

Despite constantly getting injured, Santoso has always refused to see a doctor. For him, the local witch doctor is the solution.

“A doctor means hospitalisation, which means neglecting my work. I make do with what I have or let it heal on its own.”


A bloodied teenager after a fight holds his voucher, which he can exchange for food and a small gratuity.

Before becoming a local legend, Santoso was satisfied to receive a plate of rice as payment for fighting.

“After the fight, we would eat and smoke together. There was no bad blood,” he said.

Anshor, who also heads BASETA, said the prestige of being in the ring is enough to motivate him for the next fight. BASETA has evolved into a space for fighters without a place to practice. Anshor took charge of training young fighters at his home free of charge.


Pencak Dor fights are often bloody and difficult to watch.

BASETA originally consisted of Indonesian migrant workers who traveled to Malaysia for work and used to participate in Pencak Dor fights. Some BASETA members have come head to head with Malaysian fighters, among other fighting groups from other Indonesian cities.

“We had a bloody fight in Malaysia. It turned pretty sour, so we went home. We were young then, and we always wanted to be one step ahead,” Anshor said.


With hundreds of members led by Anshor, BASETA has come to be a respected name among Malaysian underground fighters. Until today, the group helps to organize Pencak Dor fights through a collective fund shared with migrant workers in Malaysia.

On the day of the 2019 Pencak Dor tournament in Kediri, an 8 x 4-metre ring served as the centre stage, where the strobe lights illuminated remnants of dried blood. Slowly but surely, thousands gathered around the ring as fighters marched into it one by one. They showed off their moves before each match started.


A Pencak Dor fighter praying before his turn in the ring.

“We use Pencak Dor as a way to network with other Islamic boarding school students, as well as to test our intelligence. But we also get money and food, so that’s pretty nice. And if we perform well, who knows. There might be a talent scout in the audience,” Hussein, a 16-year-old student fighter said.

Pencak Dor is open to participants of all ages, from children to seniors. The sport is risky. No medical assistance is present in any of the matches. There are, however, therapeutic massage experts and witch doctors standing by in case of emergency.

Before the fight began, each participant received a voucher for cash and a meal. Children receive Rp50,000 ($3.53), while adults typically earn up to Rp100,000 ($7.06). Professionals, on the other hand, can earn between Rp1 million ($70.59) and Rp3 million ($211.77), depending on how generous sponsors are feeling.


The rules of Pencak Dor are simple and there are only two restrictions: no spitting on or biting your opponent. Otherwise, it’s every man for himself.

"Santoso! Santoso! Santoso!" the crowd chanted as he made his way to the ring. Santoso and his opponent, Ibnu, shook hands and began to fight. Santoso inched closer to his opponent and hit him with an uppercut to the throat. Ibnu fell and the crowd went wild.

Ibnu immediately recovered and retaliated with a fierce blow, which Santoso dodged. Ibnu then shot Santoso down with a swift punch to the temple, reopening Santoso’s wounds from a previous fight. With a final jab at his opponent, Santoso finished Ibnu, forcing the referee to separate them and cut the fight short.

Anshor, on the other hand, was not so lucky. In a 10-minute fight, his opponent, Tohari, nearly sent him flying out of the ring before the referee put an end to the fight.


A representative from the Silat Academy treats an injured fighter.

When the fight concluded, Anshor embraced his opponent and bowed in respect to the audience. An hour later, the ring was silent. Anshor and Santoso hung out below the stage, waiting to collect their earnings. Although both sustained injuries, they said they had no regrets and only had the next fight on their minds.

“We don’t know when we’ll stop. Maybe we’ll keep fighting until the day we die, having chosen Pencak Dor as a way of both life and death.”

Reno Surya is a journalist from Surabaya, Indonesia. Follow him on Instagram

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