The fighting begins with the coming of the monsoons. Sometime in
May, after the rice has been harvested and shipped, young men
across Thailand enlist in a legion of dreamers. Joining others
who have abandoned classrooms and assembly lines, they head for
training camps where they lace on boxing gloves and try to beat
back the karma that consigned them to the hard life of the farm
or the factory. Their quest: a title, a fortune, their names
etched in the bright lights of Bangkok. For tens of thousands of
young men in this Southeast Asian kingdom formerly called Siam,
the ancient sport of Muay Thai is still the means to glory.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is a martial art culled from the
hand-to-hand combat skills of 16th-century Siamese soldiers.
Modern Muay Thai, which has been around for about 70 years, has
adopted elements familiar to Westerners: boxing gloves, a ring,
a referee and three-minute rounds. The sport is often called
kickboxing outside Thailand, yet as dazzling and destructive as
a Muay Thai fighter's kicks can be, his fists, knees and elbows
are also formidable weapons. As are the spirits, ghosts and
demons he conjures up as allies during a cabalistic series of
prefight rituals drawn from Buddhism, Hinduism, superstition
and, on occasion, black magic.
Over the centuries Muay Thai fighters have developed offensive
and defensive techniques that rival those of the other martial
arts. Unlike the others, however, a Muay Thai fight has the
flavor of raw violence, the frenzy of a backroom brawl. Muay
Thai practitioners don't compete in flowing robes before silent,
reverential audiences. Thai boxers are stripped to their trunks
and sacred charms. The cracking sounds of flesh striking bone
pierce the roar of gamblers and hustlers and tourists and just
plain fans who pack Muay Thai's smoke-filled clubs and small
As with the sport anywhere, boxing can be a path out of poverty
in Thailand. But it is also a window into the darker regions of
the Thai soul. The people of the Land of Smiles are known for
their compassion and gentleness. Those attributes, however, are
balanced by a fascination with gore and violence reflected in
the explicit color photos of murder and accident victims that
appear daily on the front pages of the country's best-selling
newspapers. It is this latter side of the Thais that allows them
to make icons of their fighters.
There was King Sanpetch, who in the 17th century disguised
himself as a commoner to test his Muay Thai skills. Nai Khanom
Tom, an 18th-century soldier who had been taken prisoner during
one of Siam's periodic wars with Burma, defeated 12 top Burmese
fighters to win his freedom. Today's most heralded Muay Thai
boxer is Nam Khabaun, 24, a devastating kicker from the eastern
province of Buriram, where the sport was born and the toughest
fighters are still bred.
"Muay Thai is our culture; if we don't preserve it, who will?"
says 13-year-old Nittikul Khawsantea. The son of factory workers
who migrated to Bangkok from the northeast, Nittikul has had 30
pro bouts since he began fighting at age nine (according to Thai
labor laws children must be 12 to box, but those laws are rarely
enforced). Most fighters start as young as Nittikul, and at the
top stadiums 14- and 15-year-olds can be headliners. Most
continue fighting until their mid-20s. For his first fight
Nittikul was paid 120 baht, roughly equivalent to $5. Now he
makes 1,500 baht a bout. "My dream is to be a 100,000-baht
fighter," he says. Thai boxers measure themselves by purse size,
and 100,000 baht (about $4,000) is champion's pay.
This April night Nittikul and some other boys from his training
camp are fighting at a fair to raise money for a mosque. There
are no peewee leagues in Muay Thai, no headguards or oversized
gloves for kids. Fighters battle for five three-minute rounds
with two minutes of rest between rounds, the same as adults.
Before a bout combatants perform the prefight rituals of wai
khru (the fighters drop to their knees and bow in respect to
their teachers) and the ram muay (a dance that attempts to be
both supplicating toward the gods and intimidating toward one's
opponent). A special song accompanies each ritual.
The lure of Muay Thai's mystical aspects, like ram muay, is one
reason a number of foreigners have given the sport a try. A U.S.
serviceman stationed in Thailand in the early 1970s, Dale
Kvalheim, took up Muay Thai and won a regional championship.
Since then there has been a steady stream of foreigners studying
the sport. Most train at the top camps, such as Saiyok in
Kanchanaburi or Fairtex in Bangkok, where scores of fighters
live and train under the tutelage of the some of the sport's
best teachers, sparring in half a dozen rings with new gloves
A more typical Muay Thai training camp is So Prasit, located
under the At-Narong Expressway in Bangkok's worst slum, the
Klong Toei port district. In this shadow world darkened by the
eight-lane road overhead, families live in shacks made of
plywood, canvas and old auto tires. Many of the jobless start
their day drinking Mekhong whiskey. Young, emaciated men stumble
while sniffing a white solvent from plastic bags. The open-air
training camp includes a single bloodstained ring, four worn
heavy bags and a rusty weight machine.
"I don't want my boys becoming heroin addicts," says Seri
Poompun, the 45-year-old, potbellied former fighter who runs So
Prasit. As he talks, about 20 boys, ages 10 to 18, are kicking
heavy bags or shadowboxing before a soot-covered shrine to
Buddha. Training starts as the rush-hour traffic flows overhead.
Clouds of blue exhaust roll across the open camp like noxious
tumbleweed. "It doesn't bother the boys," Seri says. "Their
whole life is dealing with difficulties." As deplorable as
Americans might find a sport in which kids kick other kids in
the head, there's little protest in Thailand against children's
participating in Muay Thai. In a Third World country with more
pressing problems--such as the estimated 300,000 children
virtually enslaved in brothels and the countless others working
in sweatshops--any abuses involving Muay Thai seem unimportant.
Seri's great hope is a 30,000-baht fighter named Gengkla. At
only 14, he is the pinweight (104 pounds and under) champion of
the central provinces. Gengkla's goal is to become a
100,000-baht fighter so that he can get his family out of Klong
Toei. Seri hungers for a champion, not because his fighters
often make donations toward the upkeep of the camp when they
win, but because having a champion will raise the profile of his
camp and allow him to help more boys. "This isn't about money,"
Seri says. "This is about honor and glory. We have our dreams
The setting for many of those dreams lies just a mile west.
Lumpini Stadium, a two-story, circular building tucked behind
some noodle shops, is the Caesars Palace of Muay Thai, though
it's hardly opulent. Named after the birthplace of the Buddha,
the 41-year-old arena, which seats 10,000, is a patchwork of
concrete, wood and metal with a corrugated tin roof. Inside
there are plank bleachers. Green chain-link fences separate the
cheap seats from ringside.
The smell of liniment wafts from a tunnel where, in two large
alcoves 50 feet apart, fighters are getting rubdowns on wooden
tables. "I'm still a little scared fighting here," says
18-year-old Apidej Sitkruod as his hands are being taped by a
trainer. He is the eighth-ranked bantamweight (118 pounds or
less), according to the rankings of the World Muay Thai Council,
the sport's governing body, but he's the underdog in this
evening's main event, in which he will face second-ranked
Sakchai Hongaharnbua. Apidej rode by bus for five hours from his
hometown of Khon Kaen, in northeast Thailand. The son of rice
farmers, Apidej will earn 40,000 baht for this fight, good money
in a nation where the average per capita income is 74,825 baht
(about $3,000) a year.
With his No. 2 ranking, Sakchai must beat back the boxers
beneath him at least once a month if he expects a crack at
Kompaya Sipkruawt, the bantamweight champ. "It won't be long,"
says Sakchai, a 16-year-old veteran of more than 100 fights,
including 30-plus at Lumpini. He's now a 60,000-baht fighter,
meaning that in one night he'll earn three times more than his
rice-farming parents make in a year.
As the time to enter the ring approaches, the trainers follow a
time-honored tradition by draping their young warriors with
garlands of purple orchids, white jasmine and marigolds. The
fighters are crowned with mongkons, ropelike headpieces made
from sacred Sanskrit scrolls. Other scrolls are rolled up and
tied around the fighters' biceps to curry favor with the
spirits. Lastly, Apidej and Sakchai are smeared with a pungent,
yellow oil that makes their taut, dark flesh glisten under the
lights, heats their blood and helps make the blows slide off them.
The fighters begin their march toward the ring before a crowd of
about 6,000, most of whom are still placing bets on the outcome
of the bout. With odds changing constantly, bettors shout and
wave fingers at the sian panan, the bookmakers, in an intricate
system of hand signals. Military police are on hand mainly to
keep order, but soldiers also chase down gamblers who don't pay
their bets, photograph them and toss them from the premises.
The high rollers make their way to orange plastic chairs at
ringside, the penned-in masses surge against the fences. In the
ring Apidej and Sakchai each run a glove along the top rope to
draw a sacred circle at the edge of the darkness that they
believe will protect them from the denizens of the spiritual and
When the fight starts, Apidej shows Sakchai no respect, leaning
forward and exposing his chin, answering crackling left kicks to
the shins and thighs with his own stinging right kicks to the
stomach. Throughout the bout the fighters grapple in the
clinches, trying to wedge in an elbow or an uppercut. Heads jerk
and sweat flies. One jumps forward and digs a knee into the
other's gut. Near the end of the fifth round Apidej is wilting,
winded but unhurt. Sakchai delivers five sharp kicks to Apidej's
ribs just before the final bell.
The panting boys smile and pat each other on the head. After
collecting the scorecards from the judges, the referee raises a
hand of each of the boxers. The fight is a draw and all the bets
are off. A murmur runs through the crowd, which seems bewildered
by the result, though many fans suspect that Apidej's
fearlessness helped sway the judges.
Back in the tunnel, Apidej's trainer cuts the tape from his
fighter's fists. Apidej is pleased that he held his own, but
there will be no party in Bangkok tonight. If they eat fast and
traffic isn't heavy, Apidej and the trainer can catch a bus in
time to reach their camp, 270 miles away in Khon Kaen, before
dawn. There will be more training and more fights. When the
rains end in November, the boys will return to the classrooms,
factories and rice paddies--the hard life of the poor that is
fertile ground for Muay Thai fighters.
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. UNLIKE WESTERN BOXERS, MUAY THAI FIGHTERS CAN ALSO USE KNEES AND ELBOWS, MUCH TO THE FANS' DELIGHT [Two boys boxing]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--fans screaming beside ring]
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. EVEN THE LITTLEST FIGHTERS GRADE THEMSELVES BY PURSE SIZE, AND 100,000 BAHT, ABOUT $4,000, IS CHAMPION'S PAY [Crowd around boy wearing boxing uniform]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--boy holding money in his mouth]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. THOUGH THE LAW SAYS FIGHTERS MUST BE 12, MANY START THIS BRUTAL BUSINESS WHEN THEY'RE FAR YOUNGER [Boy sitting on stool in corner of boxing ring]
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--two boys boxing]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. FIGHTERS TAPE THEIR HANDS WESTERN-STYLE BEFORE BOUTS AND ALSO GET A TRADITIONAL LINIMENT RUBDOWN [Boy displaying his taped hands and wrists]
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--people massaging two boys]
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. AN ANXIOUS FIGHTER KNOWS THAT VICTORY IN THE RING CAN MEAN ESCAPE FROM THE RAVAGES OF POVERTY [Boy celebrating as referee examines fallen opponent;
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--trainer and boy]
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. LUMPINI STADIUM, WHERE THIS BOY IS GOING THROUGH A PREFIGHT RITUAL, IS THE CAESARS PALACE OF MUAY THAI [Boy kneeling in boxing ring]