FIGHTLAND

Tigers Must Live in The Jungle: An Interview with Buakaw's Manager

We sit down with Teerawat Yioyim to talk about his big plans for Banchamek gym and the ideologies in which he runs it.

by Frances Watthanaya
Jun 8 2017, 4:57pm

Photos courtesy of Banchamek Gym

Teerawat Yioyim might seem like an unlikely fit to Muay Thai but his credentials do more than back him up. Teerawat, who goes by Yim at the gym, first started working as Buakaw's physical therapist nearly a decade ago when Buakaw was contemplating retirement. Since then the pair has built the 'Buakaw Empire' of fighters and endorsements to one of enormous proportions. But their true success is the ideology with which they run their gym. Their passion, and innovation—daring to be different in the old school world of Muay Thai in Thailand, is what sets them apart from the rest.

Despite only being open for a few years Banchamek gym has an impressive repertoire of fighters; aside from Buakaw the most notable would be Superbon Banchamek. Prior to joining forces with Yim, Superbon was both a Thailand National Champion and a WBC Champion but he was only making 60,000 Baht (1,800 USD) a fight and fighting fairly infrequently. Now he makes a minimum of 1 million Baht (30,000 USD) per fight and has signed a three year contract with Kunlun Fight in China. He is also a member of the Thai National Team and won a gold medal at the IFMAs just last month.

According to the Thailand Sports Authority gym owners and/or managers are entitled to a fifty percent split including purse, sponsorship, and tips from gamblers, but Yim only takes a small portion of that, making most of his money via the gym, sponsors, and business deals. He has also never bought a fighter, instead his impressive stable of boxers have all arrived of their own accord, mainly via word of mouth. What is more is that Yim refuses to put his fighters under contract, instead it is up to them if they want to stay or not. Banchamek may very well be the first gym in Thailand to employ such a system, but whatever they are doing, it's working.

It's Yim's mix of sports science, business, and grassroots Muay Thai that keeps fighters coming to him. Most of the fighters who arrived at his gym had been broken both mentally and physically and it was Yim that showed them their true value. According to Yim, his secret is to fix the 'lazy' fighter by making them feel good. Change is slow but when the fighters start to see results in both their physical body and earnings the 'lazy' is cured. In Thailand you are dealing with fighters who have fought over 300 times and have been doing it since childhood. It's perfectly understandable that they break down before reaching their prime earning potential. Yim's approach is basic yet effective.

"Sports science isn't complicated. Having good running shoes, that's sports science, eating healthy food, that's sports science, stretching, icing injuries, etc. It's all fairly simple."

Yim's fighters rarely fight in Thailand anymore, due to a combination of two key factors: purse and gambling. With the money, frequency, and non-exclusivity Kulun Fight is able to offer his fighters, it really doesn't make any sense to fight anywhere else. But it's the overwhelming presence of gambling in Thailand's fight community that has really put Yim off. Yim has a master's degree in Sports Science and extensive experience working with elite level athletes but when gambling influences the athletes, it's something he is not ok with.

"You can have gambling, and you can have sport but gambling must not influence the result. Thailand has gone too far, the promoters and even the referees try too hard to please the gamblers. Muay Thai is entertaining, but that has been lost in Thailand. Only the gamblers watch."

Although not technically Muay Thai, promotions like Kulun Fight that focus on the entertainment value are hugely successful. Athletes need to have fans, and in order to have fans the sport needs to be engaging to a large variety of people. Muay Thai is changing, with promotions like Max Muay Thai leading the way. And now with provisional Olympic status, it's time for Thailand to open its doors to a new generation of Muay Thai. Despite the sport being more popular internationally than it has ever been, trainers and fighters are still reluctant to adapt to the new styles of fighting.

"Thais fight abroad and they lose, and then complain about the judging. It's not the judging, you have to learn the new rules and train accordingly to win."

Raising fighters to fight for the purpose of gambling and raising fighters to be explosive and exciting are two separate avenues, but share the common thread of humble beginnings. Traveling to match ups as a child, fighting multiple times in a month, these experiences breed good fighters but fail to polish them into champions. According to Yim, Muay Thai fighters have lost their way.

"How did we get here? Fighters that have come the wrong way come to me, but we've come the wrong way. Buakaw is a tiger, fighters are tigers, and tigers must live in the jungle."

So how do you take fighters back to the jungle? Running a gym is a huge undertaking. Accommodation is needed for the fighters and trainers. You must be able to feed them, care for them etc. and to do it successfully requires a team of hard-working, like-minded people, some of whom need to be paid. But only taking a small portion of his fighter's purses and sponsorship deals means Yim still relies on noncompetitive customers to keep the gym running. For years those in the Muay Thai community felt Bangkok was the ideal location to harbour fighters. Being away from home meant they were easy to control and being close to the stadiums meant that transportation costs were kept at a minimal. And for business minded people like Yim, Bangkok is not only a huge metropolitan city, it's ground zero for tourists and big businesses in Thailand. With such a concentration of Thailand's assets in the capital, how can you take the fighters back to the jungle, back home where they belong?

Together with Buakaw, Yim is doing the unthinkable. A dreamer's dream of massive proportions. Set in the mountains of Chiang Mai situated next to a national park, they will create 'Banchamek Village'. The property encompasses several arches and has it's own lake, it's also just an hour drive from an international airport; a drive free from the dreaded Bangkok traffic jams. The gym will be situated within the commune, which aims to be as self-sufficient as possible.

Building the gym-village hasn't officially started yet but the preliminary plans for the space includes a large organic farm that will produce its own food. Huts will be built from as many naturally sourced products as possible but still aim to keep travellers comfortable.

The two men have come very far with their gym and philosophy but they're not satisfied with resting on their laurels. They're keeping alive their spirit of innovation and moving forward with some surprisingly refreshing ideas and plans for Muay Thai and the business of Muay Thai. It's served them well so far and there's no reason to doubt it won't serve them well in the future too.