Alive and kicking
The Muay Thai children who fight their way out of poverty.
Fifteen-year-old Jook delivers a headkick at lightning speed, whacking his opponent’s jaw with his shin.
His opponent, also 15, stumbles and Jook seizes the moment – following through with a devastating cross that leaves his opponent slumped on the canvas. He’s out cold.
Jook looks like a child, but he fights like a man: with awesome speed and power, and excellent poise and elegance. He is one of many Thai children who have taken up Thai boxing (known as Muay Thai) in order to fight for a living.
Boys as young as eight spend their entire childhood training for these gladiatorial-style confrontations. They are among the most highly skilled fighters in the world, seeming to fear nothing – except defeat, the one thing that could remove their means of survival and force them back into the gutter.
Jook fought his sixty-eighth fight in a showcase contest in a makeshift outdoor stadium in the Lamai district of Ko Samui island. Drums, Javanese clarinets and cymbals accompanied the rhythm of his movements. With every blow and kick, the locals in the audience roared their appreciation, drowning out the hustle and bustle of betting and money changing hands.
Jook’s opponent lies lifeless on the canvas for at least 30 seconds before he starts to regain consciousness. He is helped to his feet, his eyes glazed and his legs shaking. But he manages to give the crowd a faltering smile, making them erupt into cheers.
Jook raises his fist in victory. This knockout has earned him 1500 Baht – about £30.
Western sensibilities are offended by a culture that allows children to fight like this. However, Muay Thai is Thailand’s national sport. Young Thais like Jook dream of becoming champions, and even toddlers delight at being allowed to wear boxing gloves and to practice their kicks on the sandbags.
Muay Thai wasn’t always so widespread. Originally taught to the Thai army as a means of fighting with weapons and bare knuckles, Muay Thai didn’t gain popularity as a ring sport until the start of the twentieth century. After a high number of fatalities, the Thai government enforced strict rules in the 1930s and 40s – outlawing groin shots and eye-poking, and introducing time-limited rounds, weight categories and boxing gloves. Before these laws were brought in, fights would last until one of the fighters died or was unable to carry on, with no rounds, no judges, and few rules.
But despite the Queensberry-style rules, Muay Thai is still considered the toughest and most demanding of the martial arts – allowing the use of fists, elbows, knees and legs as weapons.
For such a hard sport, Muay Thai attracts some curious devotees. An increasing number of ‘ladyboys’ box in Thailand – some even getting to fight at the Lumpini Stadium in Bangkok. There are stories of ladyboys demanding the right to wear bras when fighting and refusing to be naked for the weigh-in. When Thai-boxing ladyboy Parinya Kiatbusaba had a sex change, she was no longer allowed to fight men in a Thai boxing ring.
Some male Thai boxers now use the feminine touch to unsettle their opponents. At a boxing contest in Manchester, England, the audience was bemused when a Thai world champion entered the ring wearing bright red lipstick. When the Thai pecked his opponent on the cheek instead of touching gloves at the start of the first round, his opponent could only look down in embarrassment, while desperately trying to wipe the lipstick off his cheeks with his clumsy gloves. Opponent ruffled, mission accomplished.
But Muay Thai is no effeminate sport. To achieve the strength, power, agility and speed necessary for Muay Thai, fighters have to go through intensive training. Tens of thousands of Thai boys subject themselves to this kind of training in camps throughout Thailand.
Life at the camps is hard. Somchay Hattapradit, alias Maair, joined a camp in Bangkok when he was 15. ‘Whatever the trainer said, we had to do’, he told us.
His day would start at five in the morning, with a 90-minute run and half-an-hour of skipping, followed by stretching, several rounds of shadow boxing, heavy pad-work, shin conditioning on the painfully hard sandbags, and grappling and sparring in the ring. This was all before breakfast at 9am. The second session would start at 2pm and last for up to five hours.
Muay Thai children live regimented lives, with little time for anything outside of training. They have set meal times – 9am, noon and 8pm – because, as Maair explained, ‘To be a good fighter what you eat is very important. We eat three hot meals a day: a selection of meat and fish dishes, like rice soup, green and red curries, egg and rice noodles and coconut soup. And with every meal we eat fruit, which is good for re-hydration’.
Maair explained how arriving late for training sessions or getting caught sneaking out after lights out would result in the immediate punishment of a five to 10km run. While at the camp, the children’s entire lives are dominated by the demands of Muay Thai training.
But although discipline is harsh, the camp trainers also care for the children, almost becoming their substitute parents.
One of Thailand’s most respected promoters, Lannakorn, alias Krieng, is called ‘Papa’ by his young fighters. He told us that ‘when parents come to me asking if I will train their children, I make it very clear that they will have no say in their children’s fighting career. I will not allow them to interfere in the life of their child at the camp. They cannot tell me when their child is ready to fight and when he is not ready. They have to abide by my rules’.
Krieng explained that ‘95 percent of the boys who train in camps around Thailand come from very poor families in the northern, mainly agricultural, regions of Thailand. I train the boys and provide them with a home and pay for their medical needs. My wife cooks for them and, if they want, they can get some schooling. In return I get 50 percent of the money that they win when fighting’.
Krieng insists that uncompromising discipline is necessary in order to rear champions – but such discipline is not always easy to impose. One of his boys is going through a rebellious phase, causing Krieng much heartache. ‘He’s running after girls, drinking and coming in late, and for what? For nothing! I told him to leave the camp and not come back.’ Krieng has sent the boy away five times now, each time telling him this was his last chance. ‘But then I always forgive him’, he sighs.
It’s hard watching 10-year-olds being knocked out in the ring. Jook’s story about being unable to train for 10 months because of serious back injury and broken ribs made us feel squeamish about what the boys are put through.
But what alternative do they have? A life of poverty, working in paddy fields for 12 hours a day for a pathetic wage? At least as fighters they have a decent source of income, can support their families, and have the possibility of one day fighting for big money in Bangkok.
Jook joined a camp when he was 12. He never knew his mother and his father died when Jook was just 10, leaving him to be brought up by his grandmother. Before joining the camp, Jook worked as a labourer, starting work at 6am every day, including Sundays, and working ‘until the job was done’. He earned 2000 Baht (less than £40) a month, on which he had to support himself, his grandmother and his two sisters.
In every spare moment Jook practiced Muay Thai with local children. He met Krieng at a Thai boxing tournament in Koh Samui and seized the opportunity to join his camp. Muay Thai was his passion, but he also saw it as an opportunity to make a better life for himself and his family.
Maair also took up Muay Thai to escape hardship. ‘I saw my father, working as a fisherman, with no money. That was not good enough for me.’ By the age of 15, Maair was earning 15,000 Baht per fight – more than his father earned in a whole month. ‘Without Muay Thai I would have no chance of an education’, said Maair. Education in Thailand is government-funded up to the age of 12, after which it has to be funded privately.
Maair insists that despite the rigorous and punishing training, he has never regretted taking up Muay Thai – not just because of his love for the sport, but because of the opportunities it has afforded him. He has a fairly good income and has travelled the world, running classes and fighting everywhere from Australia to England to Canada. He never felt like he was forced to fight when he didn’t want to. ‘If I said I was not ready for a fight, my trainer would accept it.’
But Jook says he often has to train and fight when he doesn’t want to, and is affectionately known as ‘lazy Jook’ in the camp – despite having 68 fights under his belt. His exceptional speed and agility allow him to get away with a little less training than the average fighter. But according to Jook, ‘Even if I don’t want to, I have to fight. I need the money’. Financial necessity, rather than pressure from his promoter, means he has little choice but to enter the ring week in, week out.
In the late 1990s, the Thai government proposed banning children under 18 from professional boxing. Hundreds of young boxers protested outside the Thai parliament, arguing that the move would have a devastating impact on thousands of rural families.
Peter Groves, who moved to Thailand from the UK just over three years ago to run a gym near a Muay Thai camp, insists the camps are not exploitative. He points out that during school holidays local children spend hours in the camps, when the fighters are resting, sneaking into the shed to retrieve oversized gloves and shinpads and taking turns in the ring.
That may be so – but it is hardly the same as living in a camp and training for eight gruelling hours a day, is it? Groves rebuts: ‘But the camps are run by good people, who will be as much a parent to the children as they can. There are probably more injuries in football than in Muay Thai. And at every competition, there are doctors and officials to look after the boys.’
‘When you’re poor in Thailand, you pretty much have nothing’, says Groves. ‘There are no state benefits. Muay Thai can give them a way out of poverty. But also champions gain an immense amount of honour and respect – not just for themselves, but also for their families and their local community.’
Not everybody has a romantic view of the boxers’ lives. Manop Maswichean, alias Nong, enjoyed practising Muay Thai as a child, but never wanted to be a fighter and was also strongly discouraged by his family.
Training in Nong’s home village was basic. All they had were sandbags hanging from mango trees. But Nong went from strength to strength and became the South Thailand champion at the age of 19. At 20, he went to fight in Bangkok and knocked out the reigning champ. ‘But when you are young you fight with your heart’, he says now. ‘That’s all I knew. The Bangkok fighters had far better technique and were much stronger.’
Despite fighting until he was 36 (most Thais retire before they hit 30), and sustaining no injuries, Nong is emphatic that he doesn’t want his children to take up Muay Thai. ‘I wouldn’t want them to get hurt and to have a boxers’ life.’ He doesn’t like the fact that so many children and young men are forced to fight for a living. ‘If you are a good fighter, it is okay’, he says. ‘But if you are not good, you can get very serious injuries. Many fighters end up wasting their lives.’
Unlike most Thai boxers, Nong had a number of options open to him. He came from the more wealthy south of Thailand and his parents had a decent standard of living. Nong became a fighter, not out of economic necessity, but due to his exceptional skills. He is passionate about Muay Thai, and promotes it internationally, but would like it to be celebrated as a sport rather than a way out of poverty.
In an ideal world, children wouldn’t have to train so hard and fight for a living. But neither would they have to work for hours on end on rubber plants or in paddy fields with no long-term prospects other than trying to feed themselves and their families. ‘At least Muay Thai gives us some hope of a better life’, says Jook.
Muay Thai in Koh Samui, by Elisabetta Gasparoni and Helene Guldberg
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