The build up was big. First, there were those saying it was impossible, that the fight wouldn't be approved. Then there was the press release in Muay Siam from the manager at Rajadamnern Stadium giving the go ahead. Then, OneSongchai, arguably the biggest promoter in Muay Thai, released the fight line up: Nong Rose Barnjaroensuk vs Sua Yai Chor. Haapayak was set for 7 June 2017.
Nong Rose is a transgender fighter from North East Thailand. Although she identifies as female, she competes against male opponents. Thailand's oldest stadium has a strict dress code and a rule that forbids females from even touching the ring.
Before entering the ring, proper attire must be worn, such as a steel cup, Muay Thai shorts the same colour as one's corner, and ceremonial arm bands known as pra-pa-jiet. Hair must be cut short and all fighters must be clean shaven. For years Rose wasn't welcome at Rajadamnern as she was reluctant to take off her sports top when she fought. The majority of her experience comes from traveling the trail of Muay Thai throughout Isaan. She had a few fights at Omnoi, a stadium that allows women, but really made it big when she started fighting on ThaiRat TV for OneSongchai's promotion.
Why it was so important to have Nong Rose fight at Rajadamnern, no one really knows. But many speculate it was a power move by OneSongchai. They said it couldn't be done, yet he did it.
The lineup was nothing short of spectacular. Fighter payouts totalled 1.2 million Baht and 2.5 million Baht was collected at the gate. Two southpaws, Puenkon Tor. Surat vs Wanchalong PK. Saenchai Muay Thai, headlined the event. With each fighter making over 100,000 Baht it was no average match up, but it didn't have the same draw that Nong Rose did. According to long-time Muay Thai commentator Rob Cox, this fight was different.
"The atmosphere of the stadium really changed in the lead up to the fight. People kept going into the back to get a photo with Nong Rose."
With her twin brother in her corner, and a 450,000 Baht side bet on the line, Nong Rose 'rose' to the occasion. The heavy favourite to win, Sua Yai quickly became the underdog when he suffered not one but two knockdowns. In just the second round, Nong Rose landed two perfectly timed right crosses sending Sua Yai to the canvas for the first time. Then in the third round a barrage of elbows followed by a head kick put Sua Yai down for the second time.
Nong Rose was given a 2lbs weight advantage for the fight, in addition to Sua Yai moving up a weight class. The pair weighed in the morning of the fight at Rajadamnern where Sua Yai took the opportunity to sweet talk his feminine opponent. During an interview, when asked to look at his opponent Sua Yai replied,
"I can't look at her, she is so beautiful that I will fall in love."
The reporter then asked him to estimate Nong Rose's bra size, and without skipping a beat Sua Yai answered 36 inches leaving Nong Rose both flattered and embarrassed. To many, this kind of pre-fight interaction may appear to be inappropriate, but in Thailand it's business as usual come fight night.
Sua Yai was definitely underestimating his opponent – he even presented her with a Rose in the ring before the fight. Sua Yai has much more experience fighting on high level shows like this and was paid nearly double what Nong Rose made. On paper, he was the better fighter, regardless of the weight disadvantage. But the two standing eight counts he received pretty much meant he had to knock Nong Rose out to get his piece of the side bet and tip outs from the gamblers. Prior to the fight taking place, he was guaranteed an extra 100,000 Baht to win.
He didn't give up. Nong Rose started to fade in the fourth but Sua Yai failed to capitalize as he was too hungry for the KO. His movements became wild, forcing errors that left him open to kicks and knees, favourite weapons of the gamblers. However, in the fifth he managed to throw a visibly tired Nong Rose down twice, his experience in the ring finally starting to show following his earlier sloppiness. As Nong Rose began to wither the gamblers held their collective breath. Could Sua Yai knock her out? A fighter known for his punching power and KO ability against a fighter who was believed couldn't take a punch?
Sua Yai fought valiantly until the final bell but this wasn't his night. It was Nong Rose's night. The fight was bigger than her and it's not known if the soft spoken boxer really understood the impact she was having. But the inner circle of the Muay Thai community, they got it.