Awhile back I took MBSB correspondent Lindsey Newhall to some fights in Mahasarakham province. We left in the gym’s pick up truck after dinner and arrived to see there would be 25 fights that night. In the end, we didn’t arrive home until the monks had begun their morning chants around 5AM.
A few of the matches were made earlier that day when a group of fighters showed up at the venue asking to be put on the card. Some were added to the line up under agreement that they would fight for free and could produce a side bet. One of those fighters was Giatbundit’s own Ong Lee.
The whole card was poorly organized so the line up kept changing. Some fighters were trying to fight twice in one night and asked to be moved up on the card so they could make it to their second fight, others were shifted around so that the reporter from Muay Siam could watch and go home at a decent hour. At about 2AM two more fighters entered the ring ready to go. The announcer called for their side bet and then silence. The promoter, gold chains and all, stormed to the ring and grabbed the microphone:
“I told you all before, my show you can’t just show up and fight. No side bet, no fight. Collect your purse and get out of the ring.”
With that a very tired audience erupted in watered down cheers as the fighters did the walk of shame out of the ring. Lindsey came over and asked what happened.
“No side bet, no fight.”
“Because you can’t fight without a side bet.”
Lindsey looked at me again and I realized that with this being her first time in Issan I would have to explain things a little better. In actuality, I am the only foreigner at the majority of fights I attend, so in someways, the question did take me a little off guard.
I had to think for a second and collect my thoughts. In my own very tired brain everything made sense.
“Because without a side bet there is no point of fighting. The gamblers outside the ring don’t want to bet on you either because they don’t know if someone is going to throw the fight. No one is here to watch Muay Thai, they’re only here to gamble.”
I tired again to muster up a better explanation.
“It reflects poorly on the promoter too. The gamblers are paying a gate fee to gamble and you can’t trust a fighter who doesn’t have a side bet.”
“The difficulty now with the country being under military control isn’t about Muay Thai. It is about gambling; governing bodies are being very selective about who they give licenses too. If there is no permit to gamble, there are no fights.”
She, also tired, let it sink in for a minute before asking:
“So why then didn’t they have a side bet?”
I started laughing, it was a good question and to be perfectly honest, I don’t know why they didn’t. The fights had been going on for over seven hours by this point so there was a chance they lost all of their money on fights from earlier in the night. Or they were hoping that an over zealous gambler would take over their entire side bet, which sometimes happens to fighters who have nothing to put up. The fact of the matter is, no side bet, no fight. This is definitely not the first fight I saw get cancelled and it certainly wont be the last.
Earlier that night I was approached by a reporter from Muay Champ magazine. He specializes in the Issan region and is a good friend of Mr. Dit’s (owner of Giatbundit Gym) also. He asked to get a picture with me to put in the magazine, as Mr. Dit told him he wants me fighting more frequently. A week later, the photo was published and underneath was a caption reading:
“Rak Mali Giatbundit ready to go and has a sit bet.”
Rak Mali is my fight name given to me by my first trainer about seven years ago. Originally he named me Mali which means jasmine flower. I have fought under the names ‘Nong Mali’Young Mali, ‘Sak Mali’Powerful Mali, and now ‘Rak Mali’Love Mali which is what Mr. Dit has named me under his gym.
So, why is any of this significant?
In Issan, fights only happen when there is a side bet.
The magazine was then promoting me as a legitimate fighter who gamblers can trust. In Issan, it is a lot harder for foreigners to get fights because people are less likely to bet on them and they need to have a gym that is willing to back them and put up a side bet.
In my fight career (thus far), my largest side bet was 30,000 Baht (1,000 USD). I was up against the champion of Issan and was able to walk away with the win and a wad of cash that was divided back to the gym, friends and family who had put the money up. For this particular fight, because the side bet was agreed on before, I was also given ten percent of the winnings along with my fight purse and the money that my husband had also bet on me. It was my biggest pay day in Issan and I walked away with about 8,500 Baht.
Side bets are required for all fights in Issan, from the smallest temple fairs, rings set up in rice fields, to the the big shows held in meeting halls that require a gate fee. Bigger fights that have been matched up in advance will agree on a set amount that must be matched by each side. For the smaller shows that are usually matched up the morning of the fight, the side bet is dependent on how much either side is willing to put up. For larger side bets it is customary for the fighters to be tipped out ten to twenty percent whereas for the smaller side bets the fighters rarely see any of that money and usually walk away with just half of their fight purse.
Two or three fights before your fighter is up, you will take your side bet to the ring announcer who is then also acting as a handler. From there, there will be some discussion either asking you to come down or put more money in. This is one of the reasons why fights in Issan are so time consuming, sometimes a fight card can go on for more than ten straight hours.
Conversely, when we take our fighters to Lumpini to fight on the smaller televised shows, the side bet is not allowed due to time constraints. When side bets are permitted it is usually on bigger cards that have been matched well in advance and are often not televised. At these bigger stadiums side bets can range from 100,000 Baht (3,000 USD) to 3,000,000 Baht (90,000 USD).
The side bet is very different than the gambling that takes place outside the ring. Outside the ring, odds are given and you can place a different bet each round. Some gamblers are so proficient they are able to win money regardless of who wins the fight. The side bet can only be placed before the actual fight starts and must be equally matched by each side. It sits with the announcer and when the fight is over the full amount is placed with the winning fighter.
Having access to the side bet is a very special thing in Issan. It is not open to the general public, you must have a relationship to either the gym or the fighter to be able to contribute. This is generally why you see gyms arrive at fights with a whole truck load of people; these are friends and family who are here to support the fighters financially.
Having a good side bet at all times also helps the gyms book fights more easily. Our gym averages our side bets at approximately 2,000 to 6,000 Baht (60 to 200 USD). These figures are based are normal side bets that are collected the day of the fight. We also fight for bigger side bets that are arranged prior but much less frequently. We are one of the better gyms in the region and have no problem keeping our fighters active. As I mentioned in an earlier post, things have been a bit more difficult as of late because of the combination of the recent coup d’état and the rainy season here in Issan but this situation is unique.
Normal side bets are put up regardless of the conditioning of the fighter. During one of the high seasons of fighting we had our guys on ten shows in five days. Every fight we went into completely blind wondering if our fighters would be able to pull a win through.
The thing about fighting around here is that our situation is never unique; if one of our fighters is fighting 5 times in 7 days there is a good chance so is the other guy.
Some of you reading this will know already about Thais preoccupation with not losing face; this is what the side bet is all about. We are ready to fight and win at any time and have the money to back us up.
Check out more about Giatbundit Gym on Thailand Journal’s latest episode:
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 .