A night of tradition and Buddhism in Bangkok’s kickboxing Thunderdome.
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in August 2002 issue of The Martial Arts Journal. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
LUMPHINI STADIUM, Bangkok — It’s a Tuesday night. Inexplicably the best night for muay thai (Thai kickboxing) at this, the older, smokier and by all accounts better of Bangkok’s two kickboxing crucibles.
On this night it is even more crowded than usual as the caliber of fighters are all main event-worthy in their weight classes. Not a single ringside seat is free. All the expensive seats are taken up by farang (foreigners) — tourists suckered into purchasing the inflatedly priced chairs but who would never admit they were snookered. Behind me is standing room only — all Thai men, mostly betting at a stock exchange floor frenzy and yelling at every side blow, “Yayh!” My Thai is poor so I asked a native speaker what they were shouting. “Nothing,” she said, “It’s just yelling.”
On a typical night there are five major events, with a couple preliminary matches at the start and a few lesser bouts after the main event. If you’re unfamiliar with Thai kickboxing, considered by most to be the toughest of the martial arts, it is an endurance test that allows fighters to use any part of their body (except their head) to hit any part of their opponent. Unlike boxing, which can run out a lot of time on the clock with footwork and energy-conserving jabs, the muay thai action is non-stop. Because kickboxing is much faster paced than its Western counterpart, matches lasts only five rounds, of three minutes each, with a two-minute break between each round.
Where I sit, in the mid-region, it’s a beltway of dirty wooden benches cut into a polygonal shape around the ring, protected from the ignorant out-of-towners in front and the wildly betting Thais behind by metal fencing. In front of me sits the band, blowing out the bag-piped sounding squeals of the pii chawaa (Thai oboe) and banging the glong kaek drum faster and faster to match the action in the ring.
Even in mid-February the heat would be unbearable with so many bodies in this circus-tent shaped building without the fans spinning from the corrugated roof ceiling. The stadium is very Frank Gehry, my friend Kami tells me, all fence and metal. Gehry should visit this place and see his vision in all its pulsing, banging, sweaty Thai-ness. This is where architecture and blood mix and Lumphini (unlike its large concrete sister Ratchadamnoen Stadium) looks as if it might shake down like a pile of Lincoln Logs under the jostling weight of the excited crowd. This is sport in its best possible incarnation — no commercial breaks, no commentary, no replays. The music is live, the action is spitting distance away, and no one is getting up for a hot dog. In Thailand, it’s the best show going.
The First Event
Two pre-teens enter the ring. They are miniflyweights at 102 pounds each and have pecks and washboard stomachs that would make you confuse them with adult pygmies, not 11-year-olds.
Before a muay thai fight begins, each boxer performs a ritualistic dance called the ram muay, a slow and serious tribute to their training camp and coach which incorporates moves to please the spirits and draw power from the four elements. Every boxer’s moves are similar but the order and length of the ceremony is individually designed and practiced. The rhythmic ceremony, lasting about five minutes, includes patterned moves such as outstretched or rotating arms and bouncing on one’s knee. The tradition dates back to a time when muay thai was fought outside and the low-to-the-ground movement helped the fighters size up the condition of the dirt circle (back when a ring was really a ring and not a box). All ram muay ceremonies include a special bow, or wai kru, given to the trainer (kru means “teacher”), as well as turning to the four corners of the ring in recognition of the four noble truths of the Buddha: compassion, temperance, prudence and justice. The solemn ritual is graceful in its religious and symbolic earnestness and a fascinating extension of a sport that has the singular distinction of originating in a Buddhist country.
At the end of ram muay the fighter walks counterclockwise around the ring running his gloved hand over the top rope to dispel the bad spirits that can cause defeat. Around the fighters’ biceps are kruang rang amulets — cords containing lucky herbs or Buddha amulets, worn for protection. Around his head is a monkhon, a stiff, monk-blessed headband marking his camp, and while the kruang rang will remain worn during the match, the monkhon is removed after the opening ceremony. And just before the match begins the fighter wais (bows) three times: once for Buddha, once for the sangha (order of monks) and once for the Buddhist Dhamma (Doctrine).
Back in the ring, Toy Ting, in the red corner has breezed through his ram muay quickly and is getting a rub down by his trainer who spits water on his legs and kneads the flesh. Manee Paeng in the blue corner continues with his slow dance and wais, unhurried and focused in a meditative concentration being watched by his opponent.
Throughout their match Toy goes for too much, exerting energy on attempts to trip or grab Manee’s arms. But Manee has none of it and holds firm and balanced, waiting for his opportunities without fear or expression. The match is slow by muay thai standards but Manee wins and it seems to me that his concentration, from ritual through the final bell, was his greatest ally.
Muay thai fighters begin their training as young as age 6 and often retire in their mid-20s. Sent off at a young age to live in one of the nearly 100 muay thai camps (a tradition that began in the early 1600s), many boxers will change their last names to the name of their training center out of love and pride. The boxers are surprisingly well paid (on the high end, 100,000 baht, $2,300 a match) and one of the few opportunities a poor family in Thailand has for sudden wealth. Many of Thailand’s best fighters have come from the impoverished northeast region of the country where scouts are often sent to find tough, athletic youngsters working on farms. Once accepted into a camp, the boy will be blessed by a monk and given his kruang rang.
The Second Event
Yodsaenglai versus the uncommonly-Thai-named David. I’m rooting for my namesake but the crowd is with the more imposing and severe Yodsaenglai, the returning champion. The crowd was right. David takes an early punishment and doesn’t seem to understand my English pleas to “Hang in there!”
Yodsaenglai easily wins the first two rounds, holding up his hands in a common post-round sign of victory. David’s cabal of trainers are taking turns barking advice to him and he nods at everything they say. And then, at the start of round three, it starts to turn and David begins a serious comeback. An unprepared Yodsaenglai is soon on the ropes and David is blocking kicks and uppercutting his opponent’s scowling face with great speed. Yodsaenglai continues to fight hard and at the end of the third round grabs David’s legs and starts punching him — a move that isn’t against the rules but seems harsh, desperate and finds little favor from the crowd. By the fourth round the excited spectators are with the underdog and David is loudly cheered on as he makes impressive kicking leaps at Yodsaenglai’s head. The live music has picked up an equally furious pace and every “ching” of the band’s tiny cymbals brings a blow from one side or the other.
The ringside phipat band, consisting of a pee chawaa horn, two glong kaek bongo drums and the donut-sized, onomatopoeically-named ching bronze symbols, plays the tune that is standard for all muay thai matches. The wong pee glong music starts off with a slow and soft composition during the pre-fight ceremony and then picks up with a quick-tempo composition once the fighting begins, increasing its pace and volume as the match progresses.
By the final round of the match between David and Yodsaenglai the music runs at a fast clanging heart rate of 200 beats a minute with both pugilists also at full throttle. By the time the final bell rings the whole stadium is yelling and both fighters look beat. There is a long pause while the referee confers with the three judges before lifting David’s hand in victory. Yodsaenglai falls to his knees and bows to David. They hug and smile and thank each others’ trainers who in turn present each boy a garland of flowers around their necks. It is very un-Thai to embarrass your opponent so once the fighting is over everyone is friends, no matter how intense the match.
The Third Event
Several sanctioned gofers in the audience wait for you to finish your beer to see if you want another. I asked for a Chang (a beer of malt liquor degree, produced by Carlsberg but given a Thai name — chang means elephant — to sell to a nationalist population) and it arrives before the fight begins. The third event consists of the night’s heaviest fighters, weighing in at 133 pounds and looking like muay thai oldtimers in the early 20s.
The match heats up in the usual dance of sidekicks, roundhouse jabs, 1–2s and chest kicks. The rounds go quickly. After the action of the last match, the crowd is more tame. The most exciting moment comes when the boxer in red trunks grabs his opponents head and pushes it down into his upward thrusting knee — a perfectly legal and high-scoring move. While the normal spectators begin to start talking to each other again, only the gamblers are paying close attention. Red wins and the next two fighters are quickly brought in and examined by the bettors.
Betting is the sport-within-a-sport at muay thai. It’s nearly as fascinating to watch as the fight itself. The bettors shout, pace around, and refuse to blink during the action. Between rounds they throw fingers in the air and make bets across aisles to other bettors in a secret language of digits and odds-making.
All betting is made in the stadium among the bettors themselves so neither the house nor the fighters get a cut. Every bet is made with just one other person for agreed-upon amounts and odds and every bet is remembered and paid later. You could make dozens of bets with dozens of other bettors at varying amounts and odds and you’d have to recall all of it in order to pay ,or be paid, at the end of the night. To further confuse things, betting can take place anytime during the match, so the odds are constantly changing as the fight progresses.
The wagerng usually begins to take on a frantic pace between the third and fourth rounds. But the odds-making begins from the opening ram muay ceremony, when the bettors will size up the fighters, taking into account the integrity with which he performs his ritual dance like racetrack regulars who visit the stable before the races. Only the fighters themselves seem to take the fighting more seriously than the gamblers.
Because the whole betting process works on the honor system and not through a state-sponsored entity, muay thai stadiums are the one place where former criminals are free to gamble. But what’s to keep someone from skipping out on a big loss in all the post-match mayhem and gentlemanly nature of the wagering? I asked a Thai woman who once covered the sport for her college newspaper, and she explained that the stadium will eventually catch the welcher, bring him into a room and strip him down. I thought she was about to tell me they beat the guy up or break his fingers mob-style, but no, they take a Polaroid of him in his underwear and put his picture up on a wall in the office. In a country that puts such a high value on saving face, that’s all it takes to keep him ever returning, she explained.
The Fourth Event
The action of the fourth event is immediately intense. Jumping kicks, rope-a-dope flurries, jabs spraying sweat off the opponent’s head all flow into each other without a break in the action. Squint your eyes and it actually becomes beautiful, divinely coordinated. The bettors are going crazy after just the first round. The second round has the whole stadium yelling “Eeehs!” with every frenzied knee-to-abdomen kick. And Ban Pot in the blue trunks starts to bleed.
The fighters grow more intense with each round. The middle section joins the bettors in standing. Ban Pot’s trainers clean him off between each round but the blood flows faster and faster as successive hits further open the wound. There is no stopping the match for cuts so both sides become increasingly painted with Ban Pot’s blood. The fighters look fierce. The blood flow makes the sport look dangerous and deadly. And the entire stadium has caught the bettors’ fever of mad cheering.
Covered in his opponent’s blood, red takes the win. The fierceness drains from both fighters as they hug each other and bow to each other’s trainers. The drama is over but the bettors are recounting the action to each other in chatty Thai, grins all around.
Thailand’s national sport traces its history back to the Ramayana, a Hindu story of good vs. evil depicted in many Thai temples. The sports’ moves and stances are actually derived from fights detailed in the epic. The first written mention of muay thai dates back to 1411 in Burmese accounts of fighting their neighbors and the Thais’ use of a ferocious style of unarmed combat. One account tells the story of Nai Knanom Tom, a Thai prisoner of war and the first known kickboxer, who escaped his Burmese captors by defeating dozens of Burmese warriors. Later, King Naresuan (1590–1605) made it a compulsory skill for military training.
Due to a high injury and death rate, the sport was actually banned in Thailand in the 1920s, only to reenter the ring in 1937 with a new set of rules designed to protect the fighters from debilitating injury — like the banning of glass-impregnated hemp or horse hide gloves.
The Main Event
An announcer enters the ring for the main event and says in Thai what I imagine to be, “In the blue conaa…weighing in at 131 pounds…the heavyweight from the Giat Wanlop camp…Nooooontaaaaachai! And in the red conaa…sporting Batman symbol shorts…also weighing in at 131 pounds… from the Giat Monthep camp….Saaaaaaam Gooooor!”
Unlike other Asian martial arts such as tae kwon do, kung fu, and aikido, muay thai training is grueling and requires full contact sparring. Most camps have regimented schedules and special diets for their fighters as well. No other martial artist has ever defeated a ranking nak muay (muay thai fighter). Hong Kong once staged matches between its top five kung fu fighters and Bangkok’s top kickboxer and lost all five matches in under 7 minutes each.
While many muay thai matches are held throughout the country Lumphini and Ratchadamnoen host the best and there are matches there everyday of the year. If you want to see a pre-1937 Queensland Rules muay thai match, try to visit Thailand during the annual water festival, Songkran, in April and head to the Thai-Burmese border town of Mae Sot where a Thai fighter annually challenges a Burmese fighter to a no-rules, hemp-fisted muay thai fight in a traditional dirt circle that ends only after blood has been shed.
Muay thai fighters will always, given the opportunity, strike with their leg or knee instead of punching their opponent. Punching is considered a weak move and often fails to elicit a reaction of pain that is required in order to score a point. A kick or elbow to the head is preferable. And while there is nothing to prevent groin kicks, the move is avoided. The only tactics not allowed are biting and head-butting. Also, grappling and holding your opponent while knees to the ribs are exchanged is not immediately broken up by the referee. Sometimes the boxers are permitted to hold each other for minutes, often against the ropes.
Most ring fights will go the distance of all five rounds but occasionally there is a knockout. On an off night, during a preliminary fight of newbies, I saw a knockout of one scared youngster where he clearly went down to end the match (he actually helped the trainers get himself on the stretcher), but I’ve also seen the real thing.
As the main event began, the two headliners danced around each other, looking for an opportunity for their first strike. After a night of long, intense and bloody fighting, the stadium crowd was set for five full rounds of action. After a minute of easy sparing, Saam Gor, in his Batman logo shorts, spun around hitting Nontachai in the head with his shin and knocking him out cold — a spectacular conclusion to an exceptionally great night of muay thai.