Slimmed down to fight (2009)
Muay Thai is one of the hardest contact sports in the world. I know this first hand and not from a bloke that I met down the pub.
Between October 2003 and August 2012, I was a “nak muay farang” (western kickboxer) in Bangkok, Thailand. But how and why did I become a chump change prize fighter, so far from dear old England?
Blame the missus. She worked for the Department for International Development and we got posted there. Rather than get sloshed in “the Queen Vic” (the British Embassy pub) over Shiraz and Chardonnay with the desperate housewives of the Foreign Office, I booked into Rompo Gym, a professional stable in the heart of Bangkok’s slaughterhouse district. Over the course of 8 years, 10 months, 3 weeks and five days, I was to learn much about the “art of eight limbs” and life as an undercard fighter.
Learning the Ropes: Me and Lek, August 2012
But somebody up there likes me. Getting sent to Bangkok, On Her Majesty’s Service, was a rare case of divine intervention. I’d been a nak muay ever since I was 19, studying “Dutch style” (for you aficionados out there) in the gyms of London’s East End and rainy Manchester. Now I was in the heart of the professional, organized scene, I had to unlearn what had been learned in the macho game of the west. But, looking on the bright side, how many no-mark amateurs get a chance to upgrade to the real, the tough, the Thai? Not many. Time to shed the beer fat and man up.
Mr. Pek and the Nak Muay Farang of Rompo Gym (2006)
Rompo Gym was a filthy, septic rat hole that backed onto a series of Bangkok’s shanty dwellings. It was love at first sight and I love it still. Rompo was known as “the mafia gym” in Muay Thai circles. Naront Siri AKA “Mr. Pek,” our promoter then, was rumoured to have ties to the local mob. With 114 fights on his record, Mr. Pek had been a superstar champ in the 1970s. Mr. Pek was now a top promoter. Mr. Pek shat on everybody.
The Bangkok fight scene itself is a smoke filled world of fat bellies, apostrophe eyes and oily hustlers with Fu Manchu moustaches. As a newcomer to the professional game, you soon discover that you are just a non-durable commodity in a big, organized, peripherally criminal enterprise. This is a business. If nobody is fighting, no one makes money. The main reason the sport exists is gambling. But, like prostitution, gambling is technically illegal in Thailand. Go figure.
In the sports press with Ramazan "the Punisher" Ramazanov (third from left) 2005
Lesson Number 1: a nak muay can’t trust anyone. There are tougher, trickier opponents to contend with outside the ring. One Rompo alumnus was left up country in Buriram (“the city of happiness”) by Mr. Pek after he KO’d a Thai who was known for flogging his opponents with knees. Mr. Pek was incandescent with rage. Mr. Pek, a gambler of aristocratic proportions, had bet his purse on the Thai to win by KO. He was out of pocket after making a dumb money bet against his own man. What’s more, our man didn’t even get his winnings. Mr. Pek left him stranded in the boondocks and he had to make his own way back to Rompo Gym in Bangkok, dejected, disillusioned, a winner who ended up broke.
Shagged on the pads with Naa (2006)
That’s the thing about fighting in Thailand: not all matches will be even. You can be fighting someone with a 10k weight advantage, or 200+ fights, with over half of them in the big arenas (Rajadamnern, Lumpinee, Omnoi, MBK,). Thais often claim that they don’t care about how much their opponents weigh. For them it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about displaying proper technique, having heart and showing “a true fighter’s spirit”. Poetic, but bullshit. A fair fight is as rare as hen’s teeth. Just like boxing in the west, this is a bloodsport. Matches get fixed, fighters get doped, officials get bribed and venues get bombed.
Here’s the big question: are the Thais better at “the noble art” than westerners? By and large, yes. They have faster legs and clinch (upright wrestling with knees and elbows, a hallmark of Muay Thai). But westerners tend to have better hands and head movement (generally a no-no in Muay Thai because it opens you to getting kneed in the head). But times are changing. More and more foreign fighters, from England, Ireland, France, Russia, Israel and Iran, are making serious inroads, much to the chagrin of the Thais.
Working the round kick with Tua (2005)
Yet westerners gape in awe at the fight record, running into hundreds, of the average Thai boxer. They soon find out why Thais have had so many bouts. Young kids, both male and female, are sold off to gyms as indentured fighters to work off family debts incurred from high interest loans or gambling. They make no money and have no choice about fighting. This exploitative arrangement does not lack cruelty. I witnessed one child, no more than 13 years of age, whipped with a plastic skipping rope for refusing to obey the orders of his guardian-promoter.
Life threatening mismatches were a frequent occurrence. Many foreign pugs, me included, were paired with opponents often 10 kilos heavier. This is a classic stitch up. The promoter would offer you a big bout at Lumpinee boxing stadium (Wimbledon for nak muay) but the catch was that you had to drop 5-10 kilos in two weeks. After a fortnight of fasting like a monk and wasting in the sauna like a jockey, you meet your opponent who weighs the same weight you did two weeks ago. Few guys, including me, escaped this set-up with a classic Rocky style victory.
Here’s the relatively-absolute fact of the fight game: all promoters are liars and cheats who, by and large, don’t give two hoots about the young pugs on the card unless they are big time champions. I was once matched in an “easy fight” with “an over the hill fighter” by an unscrupulous Australian promoter (who claimed to be an ex Special Forces sniper). 15 minutes before the ring entrance, I was told that my opponent was “Jaradorn the Rocket,” a former world champ with a vicious, right round kick. I lost by TKO 123 seconds into the first round. But my corner man, Tomas Nowak, then world heavyweight champion, put the frighteners on the promoter, marched him to the cashpoint and we got paid on the night (a rarity in Bangkok). My use of strong arm tactics with upstart promoters earned me much respect down Rompo Gym. And a new nickname, “Mafia Alex.”
With Tua at Rompo Gym (2005). He used to kick the crap out of me.
Gamesmanship is essential for victory in the ring. Tall orders aside, it’s best to beat a Thai by knock out. Why? Because if it goes to the cards, the three Thai judges at ringside will rule against you or call it a draw, that’s why. Should you be lucky enough to win a world championship, there is a catch: you have to pay for the belt. In one instance, the cost of the belt (25,000 Baht) was in excess of the purse (23,000 Baht). But it’s not all heartless, foreign fighters who win belts do get a chance to pose for a picture wearing it. If only before it is swiftly snatched away by a lowly official from the sanctioning body.
Believe it or not, the training is harder than the rucking. You have to run 10k five times a week and box 5-6 times a week at the gym. You train ALL the time and only take 1-2 days rest max. Any more than that and you get a right bollocking from your trainers. The injuries suck. Golf ball sized bruises on your shins, mild concussions and zig-zag scars in the middle of your forehead from sok glaps (reverse elbows). I have lost three back teeth, dislocated a jaw, had a knee injury that kept me awake for almost a year, endured two nasty bouts of plantar fasciitis, and a painful dose of red eye from practicing clinch. Fortunately, the drugstores of Bangkok stocked every painkiller that you can think of and the hospitals were top notch. The pharmacies were popular for another reason. You could buy steroids at most of them, over the counter, without a prescription. This is handy: there is NO drug testing in the sport.
Rompo Gym (August 2012) a lot cleaner and nicer than it was in 2003!
I got my schooling at Rompo Gym, the Foreign Legion of the fight game. And what did I learn? Muay Thai, just like professional boxing back home in the west, is a mug’s game. No one cares about the fighters, there’s not much money, and you might walk through life carrying a permanent injury. But it’s not about the money, it’s about the glory, and, when it’s time to go, we get to take that with us. That, and the thrill of the occasional win.
"Do the round kick, Al." (2009)