When Jet Benjaminson flew to Thailand to represent the United States at the IFMA Youth World Championships in Bangkok beginning on August 3, he was among the best young Muay Thai fighters the U.S. had to offer. In the first round of the tournament, however, he faced a Thai kid with more than 200 professional fights. For Jet, a seventh grader from Bothell, Washington, who has been training in Muay Thai since he was six years old and had his first fight at age nine, the gap in experience was too great to overcome. He lost, and was eliminated from the championship.
It was a tough loss to take, but Jet's experience is typical for fighters from the U.S., which severely lags behind other countries in international competition. Despite a strong program at his home gym, United Source Muay Thai in Kirkland, Jet has trouble finding qualified opponents and sparring partners for his weight. Instead, the 12-year-old has spent his past three summers training and fighting in northeast Thailand, where there is much more opportunity to compete against experienced opponents at a younger age.
But for Jet, who is half Thai, Muay Thai is more than a sport—it's part of his cultural heritage. His mom is from Buriram Province in Northeast Thailand, an area known for producing not only the most fighters but the most champions in all of Thailand. Since he was small, Jet has spent his summers with his grandparents, who still live in Buriram, watching the weekly Muay Thai broadcasts; it's ingrained in the way of life.
"I want to keep Muay Thai in the family and pass it down. It makes my family in Thailand proud to know that I am keeping our cultural heritage alive. It's in our blood."
Jet's grandfather fought a few times, but he never had the opportunities that have allowed his grandson to travel to Thailand and compete on the international stage.
Medal hopes were high for Jet one month before the world championships, as he packed his bags and headed to Thailand for a training experience unlike anything available in the States. Leaving his family behind, Jet would spend the next few weeks training twice a day at Wor. Watthana, the village gym where he had gone in previous summers. It was his first time being away from both his parents and his first time training full time for an extended period.
Just a few days after arriving, Jet was packed into the back of a pickup truck with the rest of the kids from the gym and taken to a local event for morning matchups. After a lot of yelling, pushing, and pointing, Jet finally found an opponent. They were matched on the spot, gauging weight by sight only. Deposits for the required side bets were made and the kids were taken home to get some rest before setting out again later that night. After a Wai Kru—a ceremonial performance done before fights—that Jet had been preparing specifically for IFMA, the fight began. It only took Jet about a minute to completely overwhelm his opponent, and for the referee to jump in and stop it.
Life at a Muay Thai gym in Thailand means you live Muay Thai. Jet shared his time, his possessions, and his room with three other fighters from the gym. They would run together, train together, eat together, and play together. Days in the village were spent catching lizards, fishing, or riding the skateboards Jet brought for the kids at the gym to use. The training was hard, and a lot was expected of Jet as a representative of the U.S. on an international stage. Much like the Isaan style of matchups Jet had grown accustomed to, anything could happen at IFMA: tournament byes, walkovers, and more. You had to be ready and on weight every day of the tournament. It's a big deal for a 12-year-old to sacrifice his summer holidays, especially when the sacrifice doesn't necessarily pay off.
Jet's trainer at Wor. Watthana, Boom, said that he "was confident that as long as Jet didn't face Thailand in the first round he would win a medal. Despite how hard he trained, it's hard to beat the ring IQ and composure of a Thai kid who's been fighting multiple times a month for years."
Four days before the IFMA opening ceremonies, Jet finally got to meet his coaches and teammates at Khongsittha Muay Thai Gym in Bangkok. Jet only learned who his opponent was the night before the competition, so when fight day finally came around he barely had time to process everything. Although his trainers assured him he would do fine, reminding him that he had won fights in Thailand before, they left out the part that his opponent was a veteran of 200 fights, had competed at all the major stadiums, and would soon be competing for his fourth championship belt. Compare that with Jet, who had only 12 fights to his name despite starting at the same age.
When the bell rang, Jet gave it everything he had, but his opponent was far too composed to be overwhelmed. Flawless in execution, he out-pointed Jet in every round, barely breaking a sweat. Jet didn't give up, though. When technique didn't work, he tried to make the fight ugly. Jet was able to surprise his opponent a couple of times via sheer grit, but he still lost. Years of training, a month away from home, and in just three rounds it was all over.
Jet took the loss in stride. The next day he searched for his opponent so he could cheer him on from ringside for each of his subsequent bouts. It turns out that Jet was the only one in his bracket to go the full three rounds against his Thai adversary, something that Jet took as a victory in itself. His opponent effortlessly captured gold for the second year in a row. And when Jet finally discovered he went toe-to-toe with an active stadium fighter and IFMA gold medalist, he was ecstatic.
"I didn't know anything about the kid I was fighting and went in hard and fought like I would any other kid. If I knew how good he was, I would have been scared and hesitant."
Jet was able to take away some positives from his experience. He became friends with his opponent on Facebook and is hoping to train with him next summer. And while Jet may have fallen short of the podium this time around, his efforts weren't completely overlooked. His time spent practicing and learning his Wai Kru was recognized and appreciated by the judges: the gold he won at the tournament for his performance is the highlight of his career so far.
Mostly, however, the experience at IFMA showed him the prestige and potential of Muay Thai at the international level, which was a huge motivation to him as a fighter. At only 12 years old, Jet will need a few more summers in Thailand and more tournaments at home before he's ready to compete against the best in the world.
Although he is one of the best the country has to offer, the U.S. Muaythai Federation recognizes the disadvantages Jet and his peers are facing, especially since the sport was granted provisional status by the International Olympic Committee last December—the first step toward inclusion in the Olympic Games. In order to close the gap between U.S. athletes and the rest of the world, as well as get the younger generation Olympic-ready, the USMF started a Youth Development League. Earlier this year, they hosted their first event at El Niño Training Center in San Francisco, home to Woodenman Muay Thai, and they're looking to expand and host events nationwide. Its aim, according to Vice President Marcy Maxwell, is to provide a safe, controlled environment for kids to start competing in Muay Thai at a young age.
Jet started the registration process for the youth league after returning home from the world championships. With an amazing family of support in both Washington and Buriram, and the goal of making a run to the Olympics now at least a possibility, he is more than willing to walk that path.