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Thailand's Fight Club

Inside the little-known, action-packed world of Muay Thai boxing

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My first round with Ajaarn Sit lasted about ten minutes, but the pace he demanded made it feel like ten hours. We stopped at one point to take a break—except it wasn't a break. "You push-ups now!" he yelled. The intensity of the training combined with the heat made me dizzy, and when the drill resumed I stumbled onto the mat. Ajarn Sit told me to drink some water as the boxers surrounding the ring laughed. I wanted to throw up.

When not in the ring with Ajaarn Sit, the boxers often spar with each other, either at a brisk pace with protective shin guards and headgear, where the aim is to improve timing and coordination, or at a slower tempo without the protection, working instead on technique. They practice "clinching," a kind of stand-up wrestling allowed in Muay Thai. The goal of clinching is to position your arms inside of your opponent's and grab control of the back of his head, providing leverage to knee him in the chest or, in some cases, the face.

Even during training sessions, the boxers' faces never betrayed any emotion or exhaustion. Years of these repetitive exercises had not only perfected their technique but seemingly also hardened each boxer's visage. There was no hesitation or wasted movements—only mechanical, lightning-fast blows and blocks.

After the morning session the boxers eat a big lunch and relax until the later afternoon, when they take a two-mile jog and start again. I only rarely did both sessions in a day, but even in my "limited" training of three to six hours a day, I shed 15 pounds in the first two months.

Most Thai boxers come from poor families. Saktaywan's best boxer, Gaew (pronounced Gee-oh), was born in Bangkok. Struggling with the cost of raising him, Gaew's parents dropped him off at Saktaywan to start training when he was eight-years-old. Muay Thai camps have straightforward arrangements with their boxers: the camp provides them training, a place to live and eat and health insurance. In return, a boxer splits half his prize money with the camp.

In his prime Gaew was ranked third in his weight class at Rajadamnern Stadium, earning more than 40,000 baht (about 1,000 U.S. dollars) per fight before splitting it with the camp. He gave some of the money to his family and saved the rest. In November, the 23-year-old Gaew announced his retirement after almost 80 career fights.

Saktaywan's other boxers—nicknamed Dow, Chay, Koong and Bahb—have similar stories; for each of them, Muay Thai represented a way to make money for their families at a young age. At the very least, it guaranteed food and shelter.

To start making money on their investments, Mauy Thai camps typically start boxers fighting professionally at an early age. Gaew and Ajarn Sit, for example, both had their first fights at age 12. Saktaywan's other boxers, all younger than Gaew, started training in Muay Thai before their tenth birthdays and were fighting professionally by age 15. The rigors of training daily and fighting monthly wear down a fighter's body; by their twenties, most boxers are considering retirement.

The intensity of the training makes it difficult for Thai boxers to advance in school. Gaew dropped out in high school, as did two of the other four Saktaywan boxers. Only one of the five, Chay, is on pace to graduate from a local university. Perhaps as a result, Chay happens to be Saktaywan's weakest boxer.

It's difficult to say what awaits these boxers when they retire. The better ones, such as Ajarn Sit, can get jobs training other Thai boxers. Gaew doesn't yet know what he's going to do, but he has saved enough money from his fights to live comfortably for a while. It was clear from speaking with him that after 15 years he had grown weary of Muay Thai. When I asked him why he had retired, he started pointing to different parts of his body that had been injured. "I no want Muay Thai," he said dismissively. Then he shook his head, which I understood to mean he was tired of being hurt all the time.

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