There's nothing quite like a true crime boxing gym run on blood, sweat and the frighteners. One such den of iniquity was the Sor Thanikul boxing camp in Bangkok, Thailand. Founded in 1977 by a shady Thai-Chinese entrepreneur by the name of Klaew Thanikul, the gym, a modest little set up in a nondescript suburb of the city, was once a human munitions factory with many big name champs on its books like Boonlai, Samingnoi, Sombat and Komkiat.
With his raspy voice, reptilian face, trademark Buddha amulet necklace and clammy hands, Klaew Thanikul wasn't just some rich guy who owned a Muay Thai boxing gym and dabbled in the odd promotion. During the 1980s, the so-called "Golden Age of Muay Thai", he was the No. 1 fight promoter in Thailand. A former casino owner, who had made his fortune in property speculation, Klaew became famous for being the first businessman to successfully combine the international promotion of homegrown Muay Thai and lucrative western style boxing.
That's the bullshit. He wasn't a legitimate businessman by any measure of the yardstick. A dodgy Thai mash-up of Don Corleone, Don King and Donald Trump, Klaew Thanikul was the No. 1 Jao Poh (mafia godfather) in Bangkok, a shot caller who had made conspicuous bundles of money, and enemies galore, on his way to the top of the food chain. Gambling. Drugs. Prostitution. Protection. Human trafficking. Illegal logging. You name it; Klaew ran it. But life in Bangkok as the main Jao Poh of organized crime was a coffin maker deal, and Klaew was a marked man from the get-go. Vikings get bonfires but gangsters eat lead.
Or grenades. The first attempt on his life was a ringside hit at Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok in 1982. Klaew and his bodyguards were at the venue when an assailant lobbed a hand grenade at their seats. Klaew was absent at the time but this didn't stop his punch drunk bodyguards from letting rip with automatic submachine guns in the packed stadium, killing and injuring several bystanders in the process. As for the grenade, it seriously maimed the manager of one of the fighter's on the card. Both of his legs were amputated.
One ringside assassination plot begets another. Not long after, Klaew allegedly put out a notice on the owner of a rival boxing camp named Ngu Hapalang. Team Hapalang had some popular fighters in its stable like Dieselnoi, Panomthuanlek and Chamuekpet. On the night that he ate a bullet, Ngu was cornering Chamuekpet's bout with the dangerous knee fighter Langsuan at Lumpinee Stadium. At the end of Round 4, Ngu was shot dead by a lone gunman from the cheap seats. No one knew for sure who did it but everyone suspected that Klaew Thanikul, the unpopular racketeer in attendance that night, was the man who ordered it.
Payback outstanding, it was business as usual for Klaew. Boxing was his favorite racket and the greedy Thai mobster was behind some right free-for-alls back in the day. In 1983, he organized and promoted the legendary Samart versus Dieselnoi bout with record, and unprecedented, six-figure purses for both fighters. Dieselnoi, the tall Thai with the "sky piercing knees", was so impressed by the star treatment, and record pay outs, that fought under the brand of the Sor Thanikul stable until his retirement. Given what had happened to Dieselnoi's previous manager at Lumpinee Stadium, it was probably an offer that he couldn't refuse.
The champs were groomed and oiled in the Sor Thanikul gym, and well compensated by the earnings from big league boxing; but this was also a fight syndicate, a dirty racket where men, mostly kids, were often bought, sold and exchanged as human chattel. This was the basis for a fuzzy legend behind two of the most famous fighters in Klaew's "mafia gym", the fighting twins Boonlai and Boonlung. Rumor has it that they were given as "a gift" to the unscrupulous promoter to work off an outstanding gambling debt. Life is cheap in Thailand. And cheaper still for the slum-dwellers and country boys pressed into service as professional Muay Thai boxers.
The debt was more than settled. Boonlai went on to become a two-weight champ at Lumpinee Stadium, and bested some of the gods and titans of the Golden Age. Boonlai was not an exception in the prizefighting gene pool. His ass-kicking brother, Boonlung, was a top-ranked Lumpinee fighter in his day, too. His career was sadly cut short by a car accident. The coroner ruled out foul play.
That detail is significant. Death by foul play was an occupational hazard when you were working for, or against, the mobbed-up figure of Klaew Thanikul. He was the prime suspect behind the killing of a Thai bookie called Chaiwat Palangwattanaki in March 1988. An under-boss in the Bangkok mafia, Chaiwat was a figure of considerable influence, violence and ambition. Gambling, prostitution, drugs, smuggling, he was a face on the make with lots of dirty cash machines. Unfortunately, his great aim was to unseat his big brother in the Bangkok mob, Klaew Thanikul. The old godfather got wind of his boastful one time protégé, and, allegedly using the manager of a rival boxing gym as a deniable go-between for an outside gun, put out an $800 contract on Chaiwat's head.
The upstart hood was sitting at ringside in the old Lumpinee Stadium when it happened. At point blank range a hitman shot Chaiwat once in the head and three times to the body, killing him instantly. His bodyguards returned fire wounding the hitman. Two fans died in the exchange and many more were injured in the riot to exit the creaky wooden stadium. Chaiwat died in hospital a few days later. When asked about the hit at Lumpinee Stadium, Klaew shrugged off the suggestion that he was behind it. "If I really wanted to kill him," he told reporters at the time, "I don't have to make any order. I could just say, 'I don't want to walk with him' and he would be in big trouble.
Long walk or big talk, the message was resounding clear for those who crossed Klaew Thanikul. At ringside, or in the ring, no tough guy was untouchable. Klaew was the big brother, the mob boss of Bangkok and the baddest man in Thailand. No one messed with Klaew Thanikul. No one made him lose face and lived to tell the tale. He was top of the layer cake. And he didn't like criminals or civilians to forget it.
Rumor has it that if you fought for him, and the dangerous pimp was betting a fat bankroll on the outcome, it was a case of do as you are told or get whacked. One Thai prizefighter who reputedly fought under such a caution was Changpuek Kiatsongrit. He was competing away from home, on the alien turf of Las Vegas, and under foreign rules against the hardy American kickboxer Rick Roufus in 1988.
Klaew didn't like his boys to lose against foreign fighters. No patriotic and self respecting Thai in his right mind does. In the case of this legendary match-up, a loss would have entailed mortal consequences, and the vigilant eye of Klaew at ringside was a big incentive to Changpuek to best Rick Roufus. Despite getting knocked down twice, and breaking his jaw, the Buddha was looking out for Changpuek on that particular night at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Vegas. He took out Roufus with some depth charge leg kicks in Round 4, and didn't have to sleep with any fishes at the bottom of the Chao Phraya River when he returned home to Bangkok the following week.
Mob handed frighteners or not, the merry men of Sor Thanikul could often hustle up a turnaround victory because they were gutsy and well trained. Klaew Thanikul was the gangster hustle but his senior coach, Pairut Lavila, aka "Ajarn Peng", was the boxing muscle. Peng was the "big professor", the pad holding overseer who handled the fifty or so fighters under the Sor Thanikul flag. You can see him, and the Sor Thanikul gym in its late 1980s prime, in the Jean Claude Van Damme film Kickboxer. Peng is the acerbic boxing trainer in the striped T-shirt who chides Van Damme for wishing to fight the bad guy Thai champ, Tong Po. Though some foreigners were already living and fighting out of the gym, the film brought even more. Men with class, men who wanted to be contenders, all the way from Palookaville on a one-way ticket, to fight and learn at Sor Thanikul's camp in Bangkok.
It may have been one big happy Muay Thai mafia family down at the gym but it was a low-intensity war everywhere else in Bangkok. Gang feuds, ringside gunplay, grenade attacks, and fighters taking dives to make super-profits for Klaew's illegal gambling racket plagued the twin boxing stadiums of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Even Klaew, Bangkok's gangster No.1 wasn't immune. The target of numerous murder attempts, in public, and in transit, Klaew was always surrounded by a phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards. And with good reason. A member of the executive committee of the Seri Niyom Liberal Party, Klaew was entertaining ideas about running for high office. He grew so fearful of assassination that he even had his bodyguards accompany him on trips to the toilet.
The crew of armed heavies did little to deter Klaew's enemies from gaining on him. In April 1991, ten hoods in a pick-up truck, armed with M16 assault rifles and M203 grenade launchers, bushwhacked Klaew's car on the outskirts of Bangkok. Klaew and his bodyguard were gunned down and finished off with a round from the M203. Dozens of bystanders in a nearby restaurant were injured. Though he had died instantly from the first three gunshot wounds in the back, Klaew's 57-year-old corpse was riddled with lead. The coroner removed 60 rounds in total from his body and found Klaew's trademark Somdej Wat Rakang amulet necklace, worn for protection from harm, hidden in his mouth. The feared mob boss had been sucking on it like a bib. Inglorious details aside, Klaew died at the top, in a hail of bullets, like a true gangster, and with a reputed fortune of $12 million in the bank. Soon after his death, three mistresses showed up to claim a share of his ill-gotten estate.
It's a mystery that remains unsolved to this very day. Who ordered the hit on Klaew? Was it a notice courtesy of the Bangkok mob? Or was it some dodgy and untouchable higher-ups with four-star military connections? Perhaps the latter. One theory doing the rounds is that the military, who had just taken over the country earlier that year in a February 1991 coup, and had vowed to tackle "evil" in Thai society, took out Klaew in an extrajudicial execution. The Muay Thai Mafioso was supposedly on a kill list of people who had garnered "conspicuous wealth" and the military regime, the "National Peace Keeping Force", were on a mission to clean up Dodge. Klaew was human garbage. And he had to go to the dump.
Nobody found out who whacked Klaew Thanikul. The only thing that mattered was that he was out of the way. Big promotions. Big fights. A bygone age. A different era. Stand up guys like Klaew made History happen with competitive match ups, huge purses and record gates. The people wanted fights. And, lack of scruples or not, Klaew made them into events, made them into happenings, that still linger in the mind and draw the breath of wonder. He was a champion breeder of iron jaws and cast-iron stomachs. His place in the history and development of Muay Thai boxing will always be unassailable. Is the sport suffering for the absence of his kind? No. Just like the fighters they so often exploit for personal gain, promoters are expendable. The Jao Poh of the underworld was dead and Songchai Ratanasuban immediately filled the promotional void. Long live the Jao Poh…
After Klaew's Hollywood gangster exit, the gym that carried his mighty name limped along for a number of years and finally closed its doors for business in 2003. Peng, Toy and Mueg, the famous trainers of the prolific stable, moved on to ply their trade at other boxing camps of note. Peng can be found these days at 96 Penang in Bangkok's slaughterhouse district. None of the old champs or trainers seems bitter or sad about the past. They were just a family – a dysfunctional one, who had gone through as many good times as bad. They hold a reunion ever year or so at Soi 93 in Bangkok. The old friends eat a buffet of spicy food; get drunk on pricey Scotch whiskey; sing bad karaoke, and share old memories from the gym's days of shock and awe. What was the literal truth about Klaew Thanikul and the camp that bore his name? Only those men know. Sometimes it's a truth too brutal and too ludicrous to be true, but that's the only truth that matters in Muay Thai boxing. And real life.