Man at His Best

Children Of Poverty In Rural Thailand Fight In Muay Thai Tournaments For A Better Life

Duncan Forgan reports on the blood sport in the land of a thousand smiles.

BY Duncan Forgan | May 3, 2016 | Culture

Photography by Aaron Joel Santos

With his neat crew cut, spotless white shirt and miniature frame, Boonsong Samrong looks more like Mighty Mouse than Mike Tyson. The 12-year-old, however, is clear about his future. “I want to be a champion boxer,” he says, as he strips out of his school uniform and into a garish pair of silk shorts, and begins to limber up at a punching bag nearly twice his size.

In a couple of hours, Boonsong will travel an hour along the road from his home in Rayong Province to the seaside resort of Pattaya, Thailand, where he will attempt to extend his record of 31 wins in 36 competitive bouts.

As he pounds the giant bag, the corrugated iron roof—on the tiny room that he shares with his father Sompong and older brother, Preeda—makes an audible rattle while chickens scatter in the yard. The makeshift home gym is a world removed from Bangkok’s famous Lumpini Stadium, which recently relocated to slick new premises on the outskirts of Thailand’s capital. But here, in this nameless encampment, where he, his brother and his father exist cheek by jowl with four other families, Boonsong dreams of the day when he can strut his stuff at the arena regarded as the spiritual home of Muay Thai.

“The only thing that matters to me is boxing,” he tells us. “I try my best at school, but I find lessons boring. All day, I look forward to coming home and doing more training, and it is especially exciting when I fight. I hope that one day I will be a champion and build a better life for me and my family.”

Like thousands of poor boys and girls around Thailand, Boonsong and his family see Muay Thai—the country’s national sport—as a clear route out of the grinding poverty still endured by the majority of the population. Known as the “art of eight limbs”, Muay Thai is characterised by the use of fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet.

The centuries-old martial art retains its broad appeal in the modern era, and the sport is a magnet for money in Thailand where gambling is ingrained in the culture, despite being technically illegal. Registered boxing arenas that hold sanctioned Muay Thai matches are treated as legal gambling venues and, at televised fights in Bangkok, there can be as much as SGD1.15 million circulating in the stands as punters place bets on fights.

While boxers themselves face a tough route to riches, top Muay Thai stars can earn up to SGD4,500 per fight. Not only that, but they are accorded the privileges of stardom, such as fast cars, opulent mansions and glamorous girlfriends—not insignificant carrots in the status-conscious Southeast Asian country.

The big money doesn’t start to flow until the late-teens when kids are allowed to turn professional, but children as young as six are fighting competitively at boxing fairs and events around the Kingdom.

Boonsong has made a promising start to his career, netting a tidy sum for his father with his winnings, which can amount to as much as SGD150 per fight—a useful addition when you consider that Sompong earns just SGD40 per day in his irregular work as casual labour on local construction projects.

“Of course, the money comes in handy,” comments Sompong, who moved to Rayong in search of work from Buriram Province in Thailand’s northeast. That vast area, collectively known as Isan, is one of the country’s poorest regions, and renowned for its folk traditions and agriculture. Isan also has an uncanny habit of producing Muay Thai champions.

"You can call it exploitation if you want," he says. "But in my view, it is an awful lot better than addiction to drugs or video games."

Sompong used to fight competitively himself, but now, he prefers to live out his dreams by training his two sons. “The older one (Preeda) prefers football. But this one has a real drive to make it,” he says, pointing at Boonsong, who has changed out of his shorts and is now engrossed in a game of Angry Birds on his mobile phone. “He has the right attitude. He studies the professionals on Channel 7 (the channel on which most high-profile Muay Thai bouts are screened), he’s dedicated and, most of all, he cares. He hasn’t lost often, but when he does lose, he is horrible to be around.”

The life of a budding Muay Thai star is far from easy though. Training is tough. Pre-dawn 10KM runs and two hours of after-school sparring are commonly part of the daily regime. Pressure from parents to be a success, meanwhile, is intense, and the fights are often brutal.

Sompong admits that he pushes his boys hard. “If I don’t, then they might not take it seriously enough,” he says. Injuries are also common. “Sometimes, my legs get really swollen from all the kicking,” admits Preeda when quizzed on what he dislikes about being groomed as a future boxing star. “When they are really bad like that, I can’t go to school or hang around with my friends.”

Later that evening, we witness Boonsong at Thepprasit Stadium in Pattaya. Tonight’s programme is organised by promoter Soontorn Noiudom, an amiable, round-faced gentleman of 75 who has been involved in Muay Thai for over 50 years. Although the arena is small-scale compared to Lumpini Stadium, there’s still an element of glamour attached to fighting here. A live band provides traditional musical accompaniment to bouts, while the VIP section is filled with important-looking elder Thais, as well as stoic Russians with blonde, buxom trophy wives in tiny denim shorts.

Quizzed about the presence of child fighters on his programme, the promoter defends the practice of having kids box for cash. “You can call it exploitation, if you want,” he says. “But in my view, it is an awful lot better than addiction to drugs or video games.”

The child fighters are positioned lower down a bill that will last for around four hours. Therefore, the arena is half-empty when Boonsong and his opponent enter the ring. Despite the gaps in the stands, those who are there do their best to raise the volume, baying loudly at the two boys while laying down bets through a series of coded hand gestures. There are no official bookies setting odds and taking money. Instead, individuals bet against each other, using the hand gestures to set the odds. According to our fixer, there’s upwards of SGD19,500 circulating in the stands, even at this early stage in the proceedings.

Noise from the crowd and the atonal screech of live music do their best to drown out the action in the ring. No amount of background static can drown out the sound of knee hitting knee or fist connecting with face.

Later in the evening, we will witness the real deal as seasoned fighters face each other, their hooded eyes fixed on their opponents as they rain vicious blows upon one another. Compared with the grace of these older professionals, the two boys look raw and untutored—like grouchy kids trying to settle a playground dispute. Intent to prevail, however, is clearly apparent from the look of focus on the faces of both boxers.

On this occasion, it is not to be Boonsong’s night. His opponent is a year older than him and appears significantly bigger. A natural showman, Boonsong appears unperturbed by the size difference and is a cocksure presence in the ring. A goading smirk rarely leaves his face, fading only momentarily when he receives what looks like a nasty blow to the groin. In his corner, father Sompong and brother Preeda do their best to whip up some fervour in the crowd, presumably to influence the opinion of the referee.

Despite the smoke and mirrors, the older opponent is clearly a superior fighter, and it is no surprise when the judges award him the fight on points. Backstage, Sompong is furious. He says the opponent was switched at the last minute to make it easier for gamblers to pick the winner. Our boy, though, is unperturbed. “You’ll see me on Channel 7,” he tells us, as Sompong, who is by now becalmed, and his friends chuckle indulgently and start on another six pack of beer.

Men like these see very little wrong with kids fighting competitively. For others, however, it is no laughing matter. Child rights activists in Thailand pushed in the ’90s for stricter control of child boxing and, in 1999, the Boxing Act set the minimum age for professional boxers at 15. In practice, the Act does little to protect child boxers. It simply bars them from the ring, unless their parents sign a letter of consent.

"Many of the children showed stunted growth because of measures taken by trainers to control their weight," he concluded. "It is also very possible that boxing for years might cause brain damage in later life."

There are obvious causes for concern. Professor Sombat Ritthidech from Ramajitti Institute, who surveyed child boxing in Isan, found that many in his study group were often absent from school due to long hours of training. “Many of the children showed stunted growth because of measures taken by trainers to control their weight,” he concluded. “It is also very possible that boxing for years might cause brain damage in later life.”

It is not just medical professionals and child rights campaigners who frown upon the practice of children fighting for money.

At a public gym under a bridge in the Saphin Taksin area of Bangkok, next to the Chao Phraya River and a stone’s throw away from the chrome and glass skyscrapers of the city’s business districts, we meet Pin Wongakaparon. The 73-year-old trainer, a former champion at Lumpini, gives up his free time to teach Muay Thai to young boys and girls. Although lithe and limber despite his advanced age, his hangdog features betray years of wear and tear. He, too, views cash bouts for kids as something that should be prevented if at all possible.

“Children should be able to protect themselves and stay in shape,” he says. “Muay Thai is perfect for that. But serious fighting for money is too dangerous, and it comes too early for kids—it thrusts them into an adult world when they are not fully prepared.”

Others, however, argue that boxing competitively from an early age is essential for professional success. They also say that the discipline of training gives youngsters focus and keeps them away from temptations, such as alcohol and yaba, a cheap type of methamphetamine that translates as “madness drug” and is widely taken by poor, young thrill-seekers.

In the early morning, after the fight night in Pattaya, we visit Tor Nongtapan, a training camp for kids run by a local authority in Rayong Province. Facilities here are a big step up from the ones along the road at Sompong’s home gym, with a full-sized boxing ring and decent exercise equipment. The camp is a labour of love for its head trainer Analie Youngsiri—a self-confessed, one-time bad boy.

“I was a no-good person. I used to fight a lot. I smoked ganja and got easily bored by my lessons at school. Muay Thai gave me a better life by giving me purpose,” he recalls. “It is very easy to go off the rails—especially if you are poor—and that’s why the camp is important.” 

Among the junior boxers at the camp are the three Chaiwarae brothers, Amarin, Namchoke and Thanapat (all between the ages of eight and 15), who Analie singles out as being among the most promising of his charges. They certainly look the part—their lean, muscled torsos sculpted by chin-ups and sparring sessions.

Their mother Kanlaya, who is originally from the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, raises her boys alone on a daily salary of SGD11 that she gets for peeling betel nuts and mangosteens.

She admits that the extra money they bring in is invaluable, but she frets about injuries. “Everybody wants more money, and we are no different,” she admits. “I’d like to buy a new car, new clothes and things for myself, and I also want to give the boys the things that they want. Muay Thai can be a career for my boys. Even if they don’t become stars, there are other options. Maybe a referee, or perhaps a trainer. I often worry though. I can’t bear the thought of something bad happening to them.”

The boys themselves are more concerned about a strict fitness regime and diet, which, during the weight-cutting period prior to a fight, tends to consist mainly of rice soup. “I hate not being able to eat candy in the days before a fight,” scowls Thanapat, pulling a disgruntled eight-year-old face.

With the school day approaching, the brothers set off on their morning 10km run with the other kids from the camp. We watch them as they jog past the local temple towards the horizon and disappear around a bend in the road. It’s another few paces along a journey that they hope will turn them from mice into men.

From: Esquire Singapore's May 2016 issue.