Saktaywan Boxing Gym resides on a narrow and quiet road in northern Bangkok. It is neighbored on one side by a small apartment complex and on the other side by a sewage canal. The gym is outdoors, and a rank odor lingered in the air when I first walked through its gates on a muggy afternoon in July.
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Three skinny, shirtless Thai boys punched and kicked invisible opponents inside a dusty boxing ring. A shaded area beside the ring housed gloves, shin guards, head protectors, four punching bags and free weights. Next to the equipment two more boys jumped rope, their bare feet bouncing in rhythm on the cracked concrete.
As I watched them, Ajarn Sit, Saktaywan's 48-year-old head trainer, grabbed me by the arm and sat me down on a stone bench. (Ajarn means "teacher.") Sit's nose was flat and slanted to the right—it had been broken several times in his younger days as a professional Muay Thai fighter. He stood a mere 5-feet-5-inches tall, had spiky hair, wore a perpetual scowl and spoke barely intelligible English in declarative, enthusiastic bursts:
"You lazy, you no good Muay Thai," he said to me right away.
I was perplexed by what seemed an obvious insult, until he kept talking and I realized he was saying: If you're lazy, your Muay Thai won't improve.
I had come to Saktaywan to train in Thailand's national sport, Muay Thai, also known as Thai Boxing—a martial art known for its ferocity and direct style. For many centuries, Muay Thai has been a profoundly important part of Thai culture and history. Now word has spread west. The emergence of Mixed Martial Arts organizations in the 1990s, such as Ultimate Fighter Championship and Pride, made Muay Thai a trendy choice for martial artists in the United States and the rest of the world. The 2005 Muay Thai action film Tom Yum Goong grossed more than $12 million in the United States, boosted in part by the endorsement of Quentin Tarantino. In November, television producer Mark Burnett, best known for his hit series Survivor, announced plans to air a Muay Thai reality show in Bangkok with a cast of international boxers.
Training camps like Saktaywan, which number in the thousands throughout Thailand, have become destinations for foreign martial artists who want to dive deeply into the sport and temporarily experience the austere and disciplined lifestyle of a Thai boxer. I was introduced to this possibility by Nestor Marte, the 40-year-old owner of Ultimate Gym Muay Thai in New York City, where I had been his student for two years. In his twenties Marte had spent seven years training at Saktaywan. Following the death of Saktaywan's previous owner in 2004, Marte started managing and financing the camp. He agreed to let me train at Saktaywan alongside its Thai boxers for several months.
That first day, it took Ajarn Sit almost 20 minutes to tell me his personal history. He had fought more than 200 times during his 17-year professional career, which started at age 12. At one point he was ranked number three in his weight class at Bangkok's Rajadamnern Stadium, which along with Lumpini Stadium is one of the two most prestigious boxing venues in Thailand. And he has been training boxers at Saktaywan since he retired as a fighter 19 years ago. His linguistic trademark is "super," which he pronounces "soop-uh."
When he finished, he looked down at my stomach, smiled and cheerfully pinched my belly. "You soop-uh full man, no good. You soop-uh seet-up," he said. You're too fat. You should do sit-ups.
Muay Thai is known as the "Science of Eight Limbs" because it includes the use of elbows and knees as weapons, in addition to punches and kicks. The sport's history is shrouded in myth. It's even possible that it wasn't developed in Thailand—Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar (formerly Burma) each sometimes claims responsibility for its origins. What is certain is that the history of Muay Thai is closely and uniquely intertwined with the history of Thailand.