Photos by Matthew Yarbrough
On a warm, breezy day this last spring, a young foreign fighter approached Kru Lop, a trainer at Santai Gym in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
"Here," he said, and held out his room keys. "I'm leaving today. Can I turn these in to you?"
Lop accepted the keys and wished the Muay Thai student a safe journey home.
A few minutes later, the student bade farewell to Ood, gym owner and manager. She asked about the keys, and the student said he'd given them to Kru Phon. Ood looked around. Phon was nowhere in sight, but Lop was by the ring, a few yards away. "Did you give the keys to him?" she asked, pointing at Lop.
"Yeah, him. Kru Phon."
Ood laughed. Students were always mistaking Lop and Phon, the twin trainers, for one another.
Nik Hjalmarsson, Ood's husband and co-owner of the gym, lauds the twins as some of the best fighters he's ever known. Reverently, he shows foreign students videos of the twins' Bangkok glory days, almost as if he's letting them in on a secret.
The brothers' Golden-Era fight names, Phon Narupai and Vanlop Narupai, are known to this day, though neither has titles to show for it. "They never got title shots because they made everyone look stupid," Nik says, "so no one wanted to put their big fighters against them for a belt." Nik heard the story it straight from Pinsinchai Gym's famous trainer Pichit, the twins' old coach, himself. "No one wanted to fight them because they were impossible to touch. They made superstars look like beginners, so the promoters never gave them a shot."
Now the twins work together at Santai, usually in the same ring, raising up a new generation of fighters. They train top-level boxers, expertly drilling technique, adeptly spotting weaknesses to fix. They train beginners too: they start all new students, turning them over to another trainer in another ring only after the their assessment and approval.
Lop and Phon's closeness as brothers, as twins, is expected. They complement each other, the carefree Lop making his usually stern, poker-faced brother crack a smile. While everyone at the gym knows him as Kru Phon, Lop calls his twin Rit, short for his birth name Boonrit, and reserved only for close friends and family. As his brother wraps up training and rides home on a motorbike, Lop grabs a tin cup of cold water and settles in to tell stories of growing up as a Muay Thai-fighting twin.
+ + +
Twins aren't unheard of in Muay Thai. Thailand itself has a lot of twins, it seems, and even twin fighters like Rit and me, but we never encountered any other twins in our same weight class. They were all lighter. And I can recall only one other set of twins who were Bangkok-level fighters like we were. All the other ones I've seen have been out in the countryside.
Sure, Rit and I quarreled when we were growing up, just like all brothers do. We were always arguing, sometimes fighting each other physically. But this was only when we were kids, and usually over little things that don't matter when you grow up.
Rit and I don't look exactly the same anymore, but we did when we were younger. People used to confuse us all the time. I remember one time—must have been when we were teenagers and just starting to make names for ourselves as fighters—that we each had our pictures taken for advertisements for our fights. Well, the photographers switched our photos, used my photo for my brother's fight, and his photo for mine. Easy mistake, I guess. Like I said, that sort of thing happened all the time.
When my brother and I were kids, sometimes I would take his place at fights. He would get sick sometimes, and I'd pretend to be him so we could still earn the purse. My brother stood in for me when I was sick a few times too. We were together all the time, so we could tell when the other wasn't feeling one hundred percent.
No one in the audience ever knew that we were switching at the last minute. Neither did our opponents. At least, I don't think anyone knew. This was in our early careers when our gym owner didn't keep track of us; we just went and found our own fights ourselves. If we knew this stadium or that festival was having a fight, we'd go and wait to be matched up.
Oddly enough, we never fought at the same event. Ever. I don't really know why; it just happened that way. I guess that's what made it easy for us to take each other's place in the ring when one of us wasn't feeling great. But sometimes it was because one of us was just lazy and didn't want to fight. Our rule, though, was that whoever fought was the one who got the money.
Only people close to us knew that we were switching with each other. Our family would say bye to my brother when he left the house for the match-ups, and then cheer for me when I went to fight instead.
This sort of thing only worked when we were kids fighting in the countryside. It all ended when we were teenagers. When we moved to another province in the south to keep fighting, we couldn't replace each other anymore, I guess because we were at different levels. Don't get me wrong; people still got us confused on a daily basis—hell, we're both 51 now and the villagers and even our students here at Santai still get us confused. All I'm saying is that once we grew up a little and moved down south, we couldn't fight for one another anymore.
Our training was basically identical. They treated us the same, the only difference being based on the fight schedule, like if one of us had a fight coming up. We had to cut weight for fights, couldn't fight every month once we started fighting in Bangkok. It was more like fighting every three months, sometimes five or six fights a year. It was a different time for Muay Thai back then, 20 or 30 years ago. The venues were different; the whole idea about Muay Thai was different. Our gym owner always wanted us to be in perfect shape, totally ready for the fight, so we didn't fight often.
Our whole career, it was like we were linked, but in some inverse way. Like when Rit was successful, I couldn't find many fights, and then when I was doing well, he had fewer fights. It went back and forth like that. No idea why. Things like that depend on the promoter.
Rit and I have similar styles in Muay Thai, but there are differences that come from our unique qualities and situations. We may be twins, but I'm a couple kilos heavier. I was always a little stronger and more powerful, whereas Rit was more of a moving dancer, evasive. If you put the two of us together in the ring, I really don't know who would win in a fight. It wouldn't even be a fight because we could never catch each other.
Now we're both here at Santai. We didn't come here the same way, though. After fighting, we had different lives, went in different directions. Rit became a full-time coach right after he left fighting, while I took some time off from Muay Thai. I retired and got married, traveled around with my wife selling vegetables at markets. I just started working as a trainer here about four or five years ago.
Every now and then people ask which of us had a more successful career. That's hard to say. I had a chance to fight for a title belt, but I didn't win. On the other hand, my brother beat the champ, but it wasn't a title fight. So who is to say?
You know something else people ask sometimes?
They say, "What's it like to be a twin?"
Well, how can I answer that? We've been together since birth. It's all I know.
Language interpretation by Jiraphan Hjalmarsson.