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Thailand's Fight Club

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

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Thailand has embraced Muay Thai's growing international base. Concerned that the sport's popularity abroad would lead to its perversion by inauthentic teaching, the Thai government created the World Muay Thai Council in September 1995 to establish a single set of international fight rules. The council later founded the Muay Thai Institute inside the sprawling Rangsit Stadium compound in northern Bangkok. The institute invites foreigners to live in the compound for weeks or months at a time, training in Muay Thai and learning its rituals. After enough time, the students get certified as Muay Thai instructors, referees or judges.

When I stopped by the institute one afternoon in November, about ten adult foreign students—including two Canadians, an Englishman and a Syrian—were training in one of Rangsit Stadium's three boxing rings. "Our goal is to make Muay Thai an international sport, just like soccer," Amnuay Kesbumrung, who is the institute's owner and a well-known local fight promoter, told me.

By chance, a few days later a tall and skinny westerner came through Saktaywan's camp wearing a pair of Muay Thai shorts. Surprised to see another white face in the neighborhood, I stopped him and asked who he was.

Yoann Govaida is a 25-year-old Frenchman training at another boxing gym in the area. He came to Bangkok six years ago to escape his job in a Paris bakery. Now he has 29 professional fights under his belt and wants to start fighting in Mixed Martial Arts, which combines Muay Thai with ground fighting. I asked what motivated him to pursue a career—indeed, a lifestyle—in Muay Thai.

"Well, you can't do it only for the money," he said in a thick French accent. "The training here is full-time, everyday, really intense. You have to love Muay Thai to do it this way."

One evening, Dow, one of Saktaywan's boxers, was scheduled for a fight at Rajadamern Stadium. I jumped into the bed of a large pick-up truck with Ajarn Sit and Saktaywan's other fighters, along with my teacher from New York, Nestor Marte, who was visiting his camp. We were also joined by Saktaywan's groupies—four middle-aged men, friends of Ajarn Sit, who always came along on fight nights to bet on Saktaywan's boxers.

The upper decks of Rajadamnern Stadium are reminiscent of a Wall Street trading floor from the 1980s. On the ground floor are the ringside VIPs, mostly tourists and wealthy Thais who coughed up 2,000 baht (about $50). But the real excitement takes place in the second and third tiers, where the gamblers and bookies pack together, constantly updating their bets, yelling hysterically at the fighters in between rounds and performing strange hand signals.

"They bet on everything at these fights," Marte said: which boxer will win, how he will win (knockout or decision), how long the fight will last, even which boxer will win an individual round.

With stakes so high, boxers are sometimes approached by gamblers seeking to influence the outcome of fights either through intimidation or bribery. "We once caught one of our guys [at Saktaywan] taking a payoff and had to throw him out," Marte said. "This is a big deal to a boxer. He lost everything—his place to live, his way to make a living, his reputation."

I asked Marte how a boxing gym can guard against its boxers falling prey to this kind of influence. "There's only one way," he said. "You have to build a sense of community at the gym. When one of our guys wins, it's good for the whole camp. We make more money and I can invest in making the camp better. So if one of our guys loses his fight because he was bribed, he knows he'll be disappointing the other boxers."

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