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Kick Starters

In Thailand’s 500-year-old national sport, the rising stars of Muay Thai toil in rural temples for a shot at the big time in Bangkok


It’s just minutes from fight time, and the fans are pouring into Bangkok’s Rajadamnern Stadium. The venue’s concrete exterior is adorned with bright red and yellow banners and oversize portraits of tonight’s title fighters blowing in the breeze above the entryway. Keeping a careful watch of it all, wearing a black- and-gold sport shirt set off by a diamond-encrusted Rolex, is Songchai Ratanasuban. Unflappable and fleshy, he’s reputed to be the most successful muay Thai promoter in Bangkok, operating with a flattering and unwieldy nickname: “Golden Hand, Diamond Brain.” He sits at a folding table between a couple of food vendors, munching fruit spiked with sugar and chili, and slugging down a one-shot energy drink. This is his show.

The time closes in on 6:30 p.m., and tonight’s first fight, the one for the championship, is poised to begin. The contenders are the 22-year-old favorite Kitti Phromlert—nicknamed Tee U.S.—and a younger, shorter, thicker fighter named Phra Chan Chai. They step into the center of the ring. As is Muay Thai tradition, a three-piece band situated at the front of the stands kicks up a rollicking song with throbbing drums and hypnotic horn lines played from an Asian-style clarinet called a pi chawa. Tee U.S. and his opponent unspool a swirling traditional prefight dance, with rolling arms and twisting torsos, as a thanks to their trainers and supporters.

The music continues after the fight begins, but it’s no longer there to help express thanks. It is there to egg on the fighters, pushing them to be more aggressive. Phra Chan Chai delivers a kick to Tee U.S.’s sternum. Tee U.S. counters by grabbing Chai’s leg, hanging on to it, twisting it, and attempting to drop Chai onto his back. The fighters clutch one another’s necks, kneeing each other’s thighs in an effort to put the opponent off balance and deliver a devastating kick. The music becomes increasingly intense, acting as a score, punctuating each body blow, amping up the crowd of 6,000, as well as the fighters. Up in the top rows of seats, behind a 20-foot-high fence, where the most fanatical Thais are seated, waves of deafening cheers echo around the concrete arena. Tee U.S. is in control.

Muay Thai was first developed in the 16th century by Thai soldiers, likely as a means to repel potential colonizers. These days the martial art, a predecessor to the mixed martial arts currently fashionable worldwide, is so popular that even fantastically stylish hotels, such as the Metropolitan Hotel Bangkok, where I happen to be staying, sell fight packages that include ringside seats and escorts into the arenas where fights take place.

Five nights a week, muay Thai matches draw thousands of fight lovers to two cavernous stadiums in Bangkok. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are wagered each night, which makes the sport more profitable for some fans than it is for the fighters. But the boxers don’t seem to mind the disparity. “Muay Thai is so infused in the Thai culture that it’s borderline religious,” says Yodchatri Sityodtong, chairman and founder of Evolve MMA Academy, Asia’s largest chain of martial arts gyms and a former muay Thai fighter. “It taps into a lot of Thai values: spiritual, cultural and competitive.”

Just a day and a half before the big bout, Tee U.S. is relaxing in Kratumban, a rural village about 20 miles outside of Bangkok surrounded by fragrant mango fields and orchid farms that stretch to the horizon. There’s a muay Thai camp there, and when I arrive at 9 a.m., a half-dozen boys are already kicking at heavy bags, exchanging sharp elbows and punches in a battered boxing ring beneath a corrugated steel roof and executing onehanded pushups in the heavy morning air. The boys, aged 14 to 20, have hard-angled baby faces and work with almost military precision, the smacks of leather and grunts of labor ringing out into the surrounding fields.

Meanwhile, in a small room nearby, Tee U.S. soaks idly in the tub. Ordinarily, the star of the camp would be out there training with his fellow fighters, but he’s saving his strength for what promises to be the most important match of his young life.

He emerges from his bath, shirtless, in a pair of blue gym shorts, climbs into the now empty ring and lies on his rippled stomach as the other kids mill around. Trainer Nakorn Nankell, a big-faced, small-framed man who used to be a fighter, rubs him down with an astringent-smelling liniment oil. Tee U.S., all skin, bone and muscle, weighs 110 pounds. He must get down to 105 by the time of tomorrow morning’s weighin. “The oil provides heat,” he says. “It will help me to lose weight.”

As is the case with many young muay Thai fighters, Tee U.S., whose nickname was inspired by his love for America, was discovered in his local Buddhist temple, where he began fighting at the age of 9, in the northern farming region of Isaan. Fights are held regularly in these holy places, which function like neighborhood YMCAs in rural Thailand, and scouts from Bangkok are always eager for recommendations from monks and neighborhood trainers. Tee U.S. was one of these. He let home when he was 14, moved here and began rising toward professional status, honing the elbow attack that would become his trademark. Like the other fighters, he sleeps in a small communal room next to the practice ring, with wooden pallets serving as beds and the floor doubling as dining quarters. The accommodations are spartan, but nobody seems to mind. The older kids mentor the younger ones, both in how to fight and how to behave outside the ring. At times, the younger athletes seem more like contented sleep-away campers than professional fighters.

The mood is light, but the stakes for the impending bout are high, and the outcome will have financial ramifications that ripple well beyond Tee U.S. If he wins, he’ll split his payment, which will be at least $1,300, with Orasa Chueam, a slender and attractive woman who manages the camp (one of 5,000 across the country) on behalf of her family. He’ll also get a little sweetener in the form of a big party thrown by Orasa in his honor. After paying off his debt to the camp, he’ll split the remaining proceeds with his family. Tithing to parents is a Thai tradition, even among the wealthy. Of course, Tee U.S. doesn’t come from money. Since he started fighting, his family members have relied on his winnings to survive.

If he wins this match, his purse for the next fight will likely increase by 50 percent. If he keeps winning, it can go as high as $5,000 per match. But if he loses? No party, “and his fee for the next fight goes down,” Orasa says.
As one of the camp’s breadwinners, it would be understandable if Tee U.S. were a little nervous. He’s not. “I’m looking at it as just another fight. If I get too excited, I might make mistakes,” he says. But it’s hard to resist getting worked up. “Fighting in Bangkok was my dream,” he says matter-of-factly. He’s had about 300 fights, around 1,500 punishing rounds, but doesn’t even know his record. “After winning the belt, I’ll begin keeping track.”
Like most people involved in Muay Thai, the promoter Songchai fought his way up. “My family was very poor, and, as a boy, I was sent to live with the monks in the temple,” he says, sitting in his street-level office, which is sandwiched between a pair of large homes that he owns. “I began as a fighter, but I saw no future in it. So I began promoting.” Known for his keen eye, integrity and ability to match competitive fighters, Songchai has spent the last 30 years promoting bouts in Bangkok’s two big stadiums, Lumpini and Rajadamnern, including tomorrow night’s bout featuring Tee U.S. Adorning his office is a pair of altars devoted to Buddha, a wall-size dry-erase board on which he keeps track of upcoming fights and four vases that each contain one fighting fish. “Put these fish together and they attack the cheeks, necks, and eyes,” says Songchai, admiringly. “They fight to the death.”

I run into him at 6 the next morning inside the arena, where the evening’s fights will take place. Asked who he likes in the title match, Songchai hedges at first, then finally ventures that Tee U.S. has a better than 50 percent chance of winning. As an ace matchmaker in Bangkok, Songchai knows the fighters as well as he knows his own children. He spends afternoons scrutinizing them, observing their form, finding holes in their strategies. There are no fans around this early in the morning, but the stadium is full of anxious young fighters in boxer shorts preparing to weigh in.

Tee U.S., who still needs to trim down, spends 90 minutes trotting around the arena, careful to find a balance between losing weight and preserving energy for his match tonight. More running, more sweating, more liniment oil all combine to send him to the scale with a sense of confidence. He steps on gingerly, watches the diode numerals settle in at exactly 105. He suppresses a smile and poses for the local photographers. Catching his eye, I ask him what he will be doing this afternoon. Before he can answer, his trainer fires back, “Eating!”

Through much of the fight, Tee U.S. seems to be in control. By the third of five rounds, though, the momentum shifts. Slowly, grindingly, Chai takes the lead. Now he’s the one landing more punches and connecting with his feet. His combination of strength and youthful endurance work in his favor. By the fifth and final round, Tee U.S. is in trouble. Chai comes at him with a series of kicks, which catch him in the chest and head with wicked accuracy. As the round winds down, even Tee U.S.’s mighty elbows seem to be of little use. He loses in a decision.

Five minutes after the fight concludes, I spot a dejected-looking Tee U.S. standing alone backstage by the dressing room. He wears a gold-colored robe; his gloves are off and his hands have been untaped. I ask him how it feels to leave Rajadamnern without the championship, without the big party. “Win or lose, I feel the same,” he says, a bit unconvincingly, demonstrating a no-regret attitude, the Thai version of manning up. He keeps rolling his head from side to side, fidgeting as if he can’t wait for the conversation to end. He insists that there is nothing he could have done to turn things around. “It must go one of two ways for each of the fighters, and I don’t feel bad about it.” Chai was bigger and younger, he says. Tee U.S. was not aggressive enough. The fans rattled him.

By the time we’re done talking, he’s forcing a smile and planning his future. “I take a break for three or four days,” he says. “Then I’m back to work, getting ready for my next fight.”

Whether he wins or loses, MICHAEL KAPLAN, the author of three books and countless articles, always feels bad after a fight.

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