On that first day, Marte met Ajarn Taywan, the founder of Saktaywan. Marte struggled at first. He spoke no Thai and was ignored by the other boxers. He would awaken covered in mosquito bites because he had discarded the hot blanket he was meant to sleep on to keep the bugs from coming up through the floor. Ajarn Taywan assigned a ten-year-old boxer to stay behind with Marte during the early morning runs to make sure he could find his way home after falling far behind the group.
But over time Ajarn Taywan took a liking to Marte, often inviting him over for dinner. Slowly, Marte learned Thai, and his boxing skills improved quickly as his body adjusted to the intense training. A 6-foot-4-inch Dominican weighing 190 pounds, Marte was too large to fight in Rajadamnern or Lumpini, so instead he fought in four special holiday festivals against opponents his size. He won all of them. Eventually Marte saw Ajarn Taywan as an adopted parent. He moved back to New York in 1996 and opened Ultimate Gym, returning to Bangkok several times a year to sharpen his skills.
When Ajarn Taywan died in 2004, Saktaywan closed temporarily. Its stable of professional boxers, whose prize money gave the camp its livelihood, disbanded to fight for other camps. Unwilling to watch Ajarn Taywan's legacy disappear, Marte pledged to restore Saktaywan to its former glory. "I was pretty much starting from scratch," he said. He began financing the camp, investing several thousand dollars to renovate the facility, hire a head trainer and purchase four new boxers from other camps, who in their prime can cost 100,000 baht, or roughly $3,000 apiece.
When Saktaywan officially reopened in January 2006, a group of Buddhist monks in orange robes blessed the grounds. But despite his efforts, Marte learned in December that Ajarn Taywan's daughter had sold the campgrounds to a family who wants to build an apartment complex on top of the gym. Saktaywan will likely close for good this month, so Marte has gathered all the camp's equipment to take back to New York for use at Ultimate Gym. And he's trying to secure a visa for Ajarn Sit, who may find himself unemployed, to teach Muay Thai alongside him in New York.
Several days after we discovered the camp had been sold, I sat with Ajarn Sit on the same bench where he had first introduced himself. Shadowboxing in front of us was his pudgy three-year-old son Sanooka, wearing tiny Muay Thai shorts and a pair of red boxing gloves that looked bigger than his head. He punched awkwardly and repeatedly tripped over himself trying to kick the air.
I asked Ajarn Sit if he thought that someday Sanooka would become a Muay Thai champion. He chuckled: "Oh yeah, man. Sanooka soop-uh fight. Soop-uh good, man."
Freelance writer Cardiff de Alejo Garcia reported this story from Bangkok, where he spent four months training in Muay Thai at Saktaywan Boxing Gym.