“We build them, you break them. Then they come home…”
Notable opponents: Saiyok Sit. Samprayak, Gungwan Lek Petchindee, Duanbley Sit. O Ubon
Where he has fought: Lumpini, Rajadamnern, Assawindam [Channel 9], Channel 7, Japan
Biggest purse: 2,000 USD
He showed up at our gym about a month ago; Mr. Dit had arranged for him to fight Channel 9 fighter Saiyok in the main event of his promotion. With just a little over a week of training, he finished the fight victoriously in a third round TKO of the veteran. From there he was scheduled to fight two more times, a total of three fights in one month.
It was apparent the first day that he showed up that he was good. Not just technically but mentally: he knew exactly what he needed to do to win and most importantly, get paid. His two other fights fell through, and now he is having trouble finding fights.
In Isaan especially, gamblers control the match ups. If your team has no money to bet, then there is no fight. Purse and side bet are agreed upon before the fight takes place; the side bet is an equal amount that each team must match. Other bets with other odds will take place outside of the ring too, but sitting with the ring announcer is the side bet where in the winner will take it all home.
We were told from the two gyms that had pulled their fighters that CIA was too good. More so, what the issue is here is not that he is too good, but that he is too focused on the fights at hand. A lot of fighters up here save their best for Lumpini and Rajadamnern and don’t want to take overly difficult fights with people such as CIA because there is little to gain in the smaller venues. In Bangkok, fighters are only allowed to fight every twenty-one days. Although in the West that seems like a lot, the majority of these fighters are making less than the Thai minimal wage.
An above average fighter who fights regularly in Bangkok can make about 500 to 1000 USD per fight, and then the gym will take forty percent of that.
Fighting every twenty-one days is also dependent on if they can actually get fights that often; injuries, bad performance, and family problems all factor in. Therefore, a lot of fighters will come back home and fight a few times before their scheduled matches in Bangkok. It is a vicious cycle because it wears fighters down and makes it very difficult for them to ever reach their prime.
After checking out our gym out and being able to train with Boom (who shares his exceptional work ethic), CIA wants to fight again in Bangkok— but it isn’t that easy to go back. First, you need a fighter’s license, which only a registered gym can apply for on your behalf. Second, a gym won’t get you a fighter’s license unless a contract is signed. CIA was part of Petacklownueng (a prominent police owned camp in Bangkok) and even though his contract and license are expired, he is still required to get an excusal letter from his old gym before officially becoming part of our gym.
Muay Thai fighters in Thailand are extremely loyal to their gym, and in some cases are also scared of their managers. Asking for such a letter is no easy feat and the gyms can refuse or take a very long time to process the said letter. Furthermore, it is dependent on the owner as to whether he will focus his time on CIA or the younger up and comers; nothing is guaranteed.
CIA has made it clear that he is done with living and training in Bangkok, for him it is not about leaving his gym but about being close to home again. Whether he will make it back into Bangkok, only time will tell. If not, Isaan will take him back again. Once his spirit and body are broken, he will fight again and the announcer will says things like “once a great fighter, he now works to put food on the table, no shame, sabai-sabai” as I have heard them say time and time again of the many broken fighters who once entered the big rings of Thailand and now come back to compete at temple fairs making a means one fight at a time…
This all got me thinking of the cycle of fighters in Thailand. It is widely accepted that the majority of fighters in Thailand, as well as the best, come from Isaan. They are made here at the temple fairs, beginning their careers for a mere three dollars per fight. From here some are sent, and some are sold into the big gyms in Bangkok. Getting into a big gym can be a dream for some and a nightmare for others. Training, eating, and sleeping all in the same location. Some fighters describe it has being similar to the military. At such gyms, there are only a few top guys that really get taken care of; the rest are just lumped together much like soldiers.
There are hundreds of fighters that regularly compete at Channel 7 stadium, Lumpini, Rajadamnern, Omnoi, Assawindom, One Songchai etc. These guys aren’t part of the one percent like Saenchai, and see very little of their hard work truly paying off. Even champions still struggle to make ends meet, especially those from Lumpini and Rajadamnern which although more prestigious, have less opportunity for sponsorships in comparison to Channel 7. There is also a drastic cut in pay when you go from the top to the bottom and most fighters are not prepared for their imminent ‘retirement’ from weight cutting and the big arenas of Bangkok.
Some make it out alive and are able buy a car or build a house, but most come back here mere shadows of their glory days fighting for food.
Just last week, we received a call from a friend who had made it to one of the top gyms in Bangkok who was not only fighting regularly on Channel 7, but was also nominated for fighter of the year in 2013. He asked if he could come stay with us and if we could get him fights. In some cases when fighters come back here ,they are not leaving their gyms on good terms, and for that reason I am withholding his name. Fighting in Isaan, no fighter’s license is required. You can fight often, but there is no opportunity to move up unless you are in good standing and have the paperwork ready. As for my friend, hopefully he can tough it out in Bangkok, but if not, we are always here and always will be.
After receiving a Muay Thai scholarship to train at a prominent gym in Northern Thailand, Watthanaya packed her bags at 19 leaving home with a one way ticket. She ended up however at a Bangkok street gym affiliated with Sor. Thanikul and married one of the fighters. They took off for Khorat and Watthanaya fought her way through Issan. Now, with a degree in tote, a four year old daughter, and a passion to fight again, she is back. Connect with Frances Watthanaya on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook .