Photos by Matthew Yarbrough
As the sun sets over the old city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, Thai vendors set up shop, hawking their wares to the stream of foreign tourists meandering through the night bazaar. Some tourists splinter off to the adjacent venue, a little open-air stadium with full-color banners proclaiming real Muay Thai fights. Spectators trickle in, find spaces on plastic chairs surrounding the ring, and wait for the fights to start.
They don't notice the large, imposing-looking Thai man stomping around the background making sure everything is in order. While his tourist customers swill back beer and speculate on whether the fights will be fixed, promoter Somnuek Wongsak is hard at work, dealing with problems as they invariably arise. A Thai fighter scheduled for the third match reported an injury just yesterday; has the replacement arrived? A gym owner with a European contender lied about his fighter's size; can they still put him against his scheduled opponent, a fighter he outweighs by a couple dozen kilos? The high-level female Thai fighter taking on a Singaporean woman is rumored to be ill; will she still be willing to fight when it comes time?
Like many promoters, Somnuek started out as a fighter. His career was short-lived, though. He began fighting at age ten, stepping into the ring only four or five times before quitting because "boxing was too painful." Muay Thai still held his interest, though; after his failed foray into fighting, he continued engaging with the sport from outside the ropes.
Somnuek began promoting about thirty years ago, at small shows in his home province of Lamphun in northern Thailand. Eighteen years ago, he moved to the neighboring province of Chiang Mai and jumped into the promoting circuit there, focusing mostly on small-scale matches at various annual festivals and temple fairs. After about three years of putting on temple fights, networking, and building his resume, Somnuek got his big break: he signed on as a promoter at the well-known Kawila Stadium, which he refers to as "the number one stadium in Chiang Mai."
A decade later, Somnuek left Kawila after a fire tore through the stadium. He took his promotion to Kalare, at the time a struggling outdoor stadium attached to a night market. Somnuek and his team worked to increase Kalare's profitability, targeting the foreign tourist demographic. "At that time, no one knew that Kalare had a Muay Thai stadium," Somnuek says. "Our stadium wasn't good enough to compete with others. It took me two years to make this place known to foreigners, but now we can stand on our own feet."
It's been four years since Somnuek Wongsak came to Kalare, and a full three decades since he started promoting in northern Thailand as a young man. His business practices and target demographics have changed with the times, though many of his basic practices have remained the same. For example, Somnuek takes a straightforward, simple approach to matching up his fighters. "Sometimes heads of boxing gyms contact me [about their fighters]," he says. "Sometimes I contact them. They send me information for each fighter and then I look at it and match up fighters whose weight and height are around the same." Many of his Thai fighters come from Chiang Mai or adjacent provinces, but Somnuek's promotion has, at one point or another, featured fighters from all over the country.
Foreign fighters are similarly sourced. As with Thai fighters, gym owners often contact Somnuek directly about their foreign contender. The actual fights, however, are occasionally run differently. "Normally, each boxing round for Thai fighters lasts three minutes, with a break of two minutes," he says. "But for foreign fighters, each round might last only two minutes with a break of two. It depends on their fight experience."
Promoting Thailand's increasing population of foreign fighters poses unique challenges. "The thing about working with foreigners is that we don't speak each other's language," he says. More than language, though, is the cultural difference in fighting. "It is important that I give them certain match schedules, tell them in advance what date and time they'll be fighting. With Thais, I don't have to give them much notice, I can just tell them to go fight right beforehand. Thais are more flexible. But foreign fighters will not fight if they think they don't have enough practice."
Somnuek works with a large mix of nationalities, but his audience is composed almost exclusively of foreigners, at least ninety percent, by his estimate. On the night we visit, I am hard pressed to see even a single Thai face in the seated audience. The Thais who have shown up are largely coaches, gym owners, teammates, and friends of tonight's Thai fighters cornering or offering support. They stay in the background, prepping their fighters, networking with others in the Muay Thai business. There is a surprising dearth of Thai gamblers.
For many of the foreign tourists here tonight, these Kalare shows are an interesting ethnographic spectacle, a source of cultural entertainment on a Thailand vacation. Most spectators express their appreciation and interest quietly, in stark contrast to crowds of screaming Thai gamblers, typical of big Bangkok stadia. Foreign crowds are their own special animal, though. The most vocal audience member here tonight is a white man who shouts encouragement to a female Thai fighter in the blue corner, having selected her to cheer for seemingly based on her long braid and svelte body.
"Yeah, BLUE!" he screams repeatedly. "You're so hot!" A smattering of other foreigners roll their eyes at his outbursts. The fan boy doubtlessly has no idea his beloved Blue is feeling under the weather tonight. He probably also doesn't know he's watching Chabaprai, a former champion. He and other spectators watch intently as Chabaprai loses in a close, entertaining battle with her Singaporean opponent. Blue's friend and cornerwoman, well-known female fighter Lommanee who won her fight earlier tonight, gives her words of encouragement afterwards in the fighters' prep area: You'd have won if you hadn't been sick tonight. Chabaprai shrugs it off; professional Thai fighters are used to the ebb and flow of winning and losing. Fighting is a job, not just a passion. Sometimes you have to fight sick. With hands now free from gloves and wraps, Chabaprai approaches her short-haired, Singaporean opponent backstage, and congratulates Marilyn from Santai Gym on a good fight.
A few more fights are on the card, including the obvious mismatch between a large German and a much smaller Asian fighter. Few are surprised to see a K.O. in the first round. After the last fight, the mostly Western audience exists anticlimactically, pushing askew the rows of plastic chairs and returning to the night market, reabsorbed into the aisles of Thai snacks and Siam kitsch. Somnuek takes a breath and watches them file out, relieved the show went mostly well.
The influx of international tourists to Thailand and their interest in Muay Thai, good for his ticket sales, is one of the many changes in the sport Somnuek has seen over the years. The small changes vary by region, based on whether Thai gamblers or foreign tourists are the audience. The larger changes, though, blanket Muay Thai culture, and not in a positive way. "As a whole, people in the boxing industry now are not as trustworthy anymore," Somnuek criticizes. "I mean promoters in Bangkok and in other provinces. They work just for money."
It's not only promoters and the higher-ups succumbing to greed, Somnuek says, but also the fighters themselves. "It's not like how it was before, when boxers fought for fame and saw money as the second thing," he says, echoing the same sentiment I've heard from other Muay Thai old-timers. "Boxers of the previous generation were more responsible to their profession than boxers today."
There may be truth in his words, though members of older generations across most cultures classically dismiss the work ethic and values of younger generations. In Muay Thai, a common complaint of older generations is the deterioration of classic, "beautiful" technique. Somnuek shares this feeling. "The old generation liked to show their techniques so as to impress audiences. But nowadays, fighters just want to win. They don't care about showing any impressive technique that people like to see. They just want to save as much energy as they can, do the bare minimum to win. Watching Muay Thai in the past was much more fun since those boxers gave it all they had in each match."
Somnuek does acknowledge the variances in Muay Thai around Thailand, though. Each region, he says, has its own unique idiosyncrasies. As a promoter in the north, he sees a very different Muay Thai culture than those of the northeastern region of Isaan, the south of Thailand, or Bangkok.
First off, Somnuek says, the seriousness of training is different region to region, as is the expectation of making a career out of Muay Thai. "Let's say we have one hundred boxers from the North," he offers. "I don't think more than ten of these hundred will become top fighters. But for boxers from Isaan, it's reversed. Not more than ten percent would not be able to reach their [Muay Thai career] goals."
In his view, boxers from the south of Thailand are similar in fight culture and training background to those of Isaan, though might be a close second to their northeastern counterparts. "Fighters from Isaan are poor. Fighting is their real job," Somnuek says. "If they win the fight, they get famous, and they get paid better than they would for other jobs." Bangkok, of course, is the "center of Muay Thai in Thailand," Somnuek says, and, "there are no boxers originally from Bangkok."
Like many promoters who work outside Bangkok and cater to a foreign customer base, Somnuek's goal is to promote evenly matched fights between real contenders. Flyers from venues in places as varied as Chiang Mai in the north and touristy islands like Phuket and Koh Samui in the south all advertise "real fight 100%." No choreographed exhibitions or matches between so-called "fighters" who don't train, they claim. Nothing fixed, nothing fake.
But it's hard to put on real fights. "Promoting real Muay Thai costs a lot of money," Somnuek says. All kinds of expenses go into the business of promoting. The fight purses alone are a major expense: better fighters demand higher purses. "It's true we promote just three times a week," Somnuek says, "but we make sure our shows will be good. We emphasize quality in each match, not like other venues where they have shows every day, but lacking quality. We will not permit fighters lower than 'B-grade' to fight too often because we know our regular audiences want to see real matches."
Kalare Stadium's ticket sales have risen since Somnuek's arrival four years ago. He attributes his success to his passion for the work. "Being a promoter, you need to love your job. Matches made by promoters who have a real passion for this industry will always be better than matches made by those who are in it just for the money."
When asked to offer advice for future promoters, Somnuek touts honesty and cooperation. "You need to be honest in your profession, honest with your peers and the fighters. Sometimes you might have no money left after paying the fighters, but what you should keep in mind is that we all depend on each other."
Language interpretation by Jantakarn Narweephab.