The Seedy Underworld of Muay Thai Kickboxing
In my years as a British fighter in Bangkok, I saw fixed matches, gambling debts and child exploitation.
All photos courtesy of the author
Muay Thai kickboxing is one of the hardest contact sports in the world. I know from firsthand experience; for nearly a decade I was a nak muay (kickboxer) in Bangkok. My wife worked for the UK's Department for International Development and we got posted to Thailand in October 2003. Rather than spend all day converting my Bhat into Singha at the Queen Vic, a pub in the British Embassy, I booked into Rompo Gym, a professional stable in the heart of Bangkok’s slaughterhouse district.
I’d been a nak muay since I was 19, studying “Dutch style” in the gyms of rainy Manchester and London's East End. But in the heart of Bangkok’s professional, organized scene, I had to unlearn what had been learned in the West. I also had to shed the beer fat and man up. Over the course of eight years, ten months, three weeks, and five days, I was to learn much about the “art of eight limbs” and life as an undercard fighter—Muay Thai's equivalent of a support act.
Rompo Gym was a filthy rat hole that backed onto a series of the city’s shanty dwellings. It was love at first sight and I love it still. Fighters from all over the world came to Rompo Gym because they could get title fights at big venues and live out their dreams. But it was also known as “the mafia gym” in Muay Thai circles.
The first lesson I learned was that the toughest, trickiest opponents to contend with were outside the ring. “Mr. Pek” was our promoter back then. With 114 fights to his name, he'd been a superstar champ in the 1970s and was now a fight promoter in charge of setting up and paying for everything involved in a Muay Thai boxing match. Mr. Pek was top of the food chain, and he shat on and hustled from everybody.
One Rompo alumnus, a farang (Western) fighter, was left up country in Buriram (“the city of happiness”) by Mr. Pek after he KO’d a Thai who was known for flogging his opponents with knees. Mr. Pek was incandescent with rage. A gambler of aristocratic proportions, he'd bet his purse on the Thai to win by KO. He was out of pocket after making a dumb money bet against his own fighter. What’s more, our man didn’t even get his winnings—Mr. Pek left him stranded in the boondocks and he had to make his own way back to Bangkok, dejected, disillusioned, a winner who ended up broke.
Gambling is so entrenched in the sport that a 2013 review of Muay Thai becoming an Olympic event included a comment to the effect that while the sport had become popular worldwide, its lack of proper systems for doping control and the conflict of interests deeply embedded in the industry meant that it was unlikely anyone would win a gold anytime soon.
Similarly, as a newcomer to the professional game, you soon discover that the Bangkok fight scene itself is a smoke-filled world of fat bellies and oily hustlers with Fu Manchu moustaches – and that you're just a non-durable commodity in a big, organized, peripherally criminal enterprise. This is a business. If nobody is fighting, no one makes money.
Cue the second lesson I learned: Not all matches will be even. Life-threatening mismatches were a frequent occurrence. Many foreign pugs, me included, were paired with opponents often 20 pounds heavier. This is a classic trick. The promoter would offer you a big bout at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium (Wimbledon for kickboxers), but the catch was that you had to drop ten or 20 pounds in two weeks and fight in a new weight division. After a fortnight of fasting like a monk and wasting in the sauna like a jockey, you meet your opponent who weighs what you did two weeks ago. Few guys, including me, escaped this set-up with a classic Rocky-style victory.
Thais, on the other hand, often claim they don’t care about how much their opponents weigh. For them, it’s not about winning or losing; it’s about displaying proper technique, having heart, and showing “a true fighter’s spirit” Poetic, yes, but bullshit. A fair fight is as rare as hen’s teeth. Matches get fixed, fighters get doped, officials get bribed and venues get bombed.
Are Thais better at “the noble art” than Westerners? By and large, yes. They have faster legs and clinch (upright wrestling with knees and elbows, a hallmark of Muay Thai kickboxing). But Westerners tend to have better hands and head movement (generally a no-no in Muay Thai because it opens you to getting kneed in the head). But times are changing. More and more foreign fighters—from England, Ireland, France, Russia, Israel, and Iran—are making serious inroads, much to the chagrin of the Thais.
Yet Western kickboxers gape in awe at the fight record of the average Thai boxer, which often runs into the hundreds. They soon find out why Thais have had so many bouts. Young kids, both male and female, are sold off to gyms as indentured fighters to work off family debts incurred from high-interest loans or gambling. They make no money and have no choice about fighting. This exploitative arrangement does not lack cruelty. I witnessed one child, no more than 13 years old, whipped with a plastic skipping rope for refusing to obey the orders of his guardian-promoter.
Here’s the relatively absolute fact of the fight game: Promoters—in my experience, at least—tend to be liars and cheats who don’t give two hoots about the young bucks on the card unless they're big-time champions. I was once matched in an “easy fight” with “an over the hill fighter” by an unscrupulous Australian promoter (who claimed to be an ex–Special Forces sniper). Fifteen minutes before the ring entrance, I was told that my opponent was “Jaradorn the Rocket,” a former world champ with a vicious right round kick. I lost by technical knock-out 123 seconds into the first round. But my corner man, Tomas Nowak—then world heavyweight champion—put the frighteners on the promoter, marched him to the ATM, and we got paid that night, a rarity in Bangkok.
While use of strong-arm tactics with upstart promoters were a constant necessity at Rompo Gym, gamesmanship was essential for victory within the ring. Tall orders aside, it’s best to beat a Thai by KO. Why? Because if it goes to the three Thai judges at ringside, they will rule against you or call it a draw. Should you be lucky enough to win a world championship, there is a catch: You might have to pay for the belt. In one instance, the cost of the belt (25,000 Baht, or $770) was in excess of the prize money (23,000 Baht, or $710). But it’s not all heartless—foreign fighters who win belts at least get a chance to pose for a picture wearing it, but only before it's swiftly snatched away by a lowly official from the sanctioning body.
Believe it or not, the training is harder than the fighting. You have to run ten kilometers five times a week and box five to six times a week at the gym. You train all the time and only take one to two days rest, max. Any more than that and you get chewed out by your trainers. The injuries suck—among them, golf ball–sized bruises on your shins, mild concussions, and zig-zag scars in the middle of your forehead from sok glaps (reverse elbows). I've lost three back teeth, dislocated a jaw, had a knee injury that kept me awake for almost a year, endured two nasty bouts of plantar fasciitis and a painful dose of red eye from practicing clinch.
Was it worth it? I do look back at my time down Rompo gym with fond affection, and I don't think I'll ever have as much fun again. Muay Thai kickboxing, just like professional boxing in the West, is a mug’s game. No one cares about the fighters, there’s not much money in it, and you might walk through life carrying a permanent injury. But it’s not about the money; it’s about the glory. And when it’s time to go, we get to take that with us—that, and the thrill of the occasional win.