We always trained late at Bor. Breechaa Gym. The trainers all had day jobs unrelated to Muay Thai, a situation rare in Bangkok gyms but a reflection of the surroundings: a working-poor neighbourhood in Sukhumvit 93, within walking distance of the legendary Sor. Thanikul Gym.
The young fighters lived with their families at the apartment complex. Parents came to watch training, cook for the fighters, and bring rice from their relatives up-country. There was one kid, though, who always came alone.
His name was Rambo. His parents had abandoned him. He lived a few streets away from the gym with his aunt, who did the bare minimum in her job of raising him. An unskilled yet dedicated fighter, he often chose to sleep at the gym with the trainers, earning his keep by taking care of the gym: sweeping, cleaning, filling the water.
Rambo’s Muay Thai skill-set was definitely lacking. Additionally, his age and weight made it difficult for him to find fair match-ups. At 15, opponents his age would likely be stepping into the ring with more than 40 fights, whereas Rambo had begun Muay Thai just a few months prior when the gym had opened. Additionally, his weight put him at a distinct disadvantage— at 52 kilos, he was occasionally matched up with adults.
Rambo didn’t go to school or associate much with other fighters at the gym. The insecurities he garnered from an unstable home life, plus his lacking education, pushed him into isolation. However, soon after I arrived, he took to following me around. He’d help me order food from the local street vendors. He could tell when I was sick, and would take me to buy medicine. Whenever I tried to learn Thai with him out of my phrase book, though, he’d always push it away. I realized quickly that he couldn’t read. Looking back, it might have been my own isolation brought on by my foreignness that made him comfortable around me. He came to all my fights, hovered nearby waiting on-call in case I needed anything.
The people at the gym noticed a change. My Thai was improving through time spent with Rambo, and his demeanour was softening. Instead of cautioning me against spending too much time with a 15-year-old boy with an unknown past, the gym demonstrated their approval by pairing us on the same fight cards or sending us to run errands together. We all knew Rambo would never be a top-level fighter. The harsh reality was that despite his heart, there was no natural ability. He was also illiterate and uneducated.
Without Muay Thai, he’d have no future other than hard labour.
The next year I moved to Issan to continue fighting. Rambo asked to come, but I didn’t know what to say. Would his aunt care? Could I take him from this gym? The family I’d stay with in Issan, would it be ok with them?
He showed up at my apartment with only a single change of clothes and the pair of Muay Thai shorts I’d given him a while back. It was 6am. My bus was leaving in two hours.
“I’ll come back for you,” I told him, and I meant it.
He followed me into the back of the taxi with my bags but I told him he couldn’t come, not right now. He got out and obediently closed the door. Seeing a little piece of his heart break as the taxi pulled away made me second guess my decision.
After a few months of fighting in Issan I returned to Bangkok for Rambo. The family I was staying with in Issan agreed to take him in as they needed more help on the farm. I was excited to bring him up to the village. I had really missed him.
On my first night back at Bor. Breechaa Gym in Bangkok, Rambo wasn’t there. No one would give me any information. Later that night, a trainer stopped a motorcycle speeding by. At first I didn’t recognize him, a ghost of his former self, but it was Rambo who was driving. The trainers gathered and forced him off the bike. They knew exactly what they were looking for, pulling a bag of glue sniffing paraphernalia off him. They slapped him repeatedly on the head, calling him a buffalo — slow, stupid, hopeless. Rambo remained stone-faced, not even flinching as the palms battered down on him.
Having confiscated the drugs, the trainers turned their backs on him. Rambo got back onto the bike and turned to look at me before he sped away. I resisted the urge to run after him, but felt that what his life had become was partially my fault. I should have taken him to Issan. I watched him drive into the distance, not knowing this would be the last time I’d ever see him.
It was a year after this that I moved back to Canada with my husband Boom, a fighter from Issan whom I’d met when I first arrived at Bor. Breechaa Gym. On every subsequent visit to Thailand, Boom and I always made point of stopping by the gym, and each time I asked about Rambo.
“He’s around here,” the trainers would say before abruptly changing the subject.
Five years passed and my husband Boom and I had a daughter. After finishing my degree in Canada, we decided to move back to Thailand. Our first night back in Bangkok, we stayed near our old gym. That night, I had a dream so vivid that it woke me from my jet lagged haze. I knew I had to get back to the gym.
In my dream, I was wandering aimlessly, alone, at the local market in Bangkok near the gym. There wasn’t anything I wanted to buy, but something kept me there… wandering. Rambo materialized and silently grabbed my wrist. He pulled me toward the darkness of the market stalls. I resisted his pull, told him he could come with me to Issan. He didn’t respond, couldn’t respond. I shook him loose and walked back toward the colourful array of fresh fruit. When I turned to look, he had already disappeared.
The dream left me restless, eager to get back to the gym. The day dragged on in the polluted humidity of Bangkok. We arrived at the gym by 5pm. I asked about Rambo; they told me he was dead. Drugs, drinking, motorcycle. All of the above.
They wouldn’t let me ask questions. The topic was changed before the news even had time to sink in.
Kru Gai, owner and head trainer of Bor. Breechaa, told me about his new gym, Udomsuk Muay Thai.
A lot had changed in the time we were gone. Bor. Breechaa Gym is still active. Kru Gai pays one of the original trainers to run it. It is a mere shadow of its glory days, existing now only for local kids who drop in occasionally, plus the remaining few fighters there since the beginning. The focus has changed to Kru Gai’s new gym, Udomsuk Muay Thai, targeted toward middle-class Thais not interested in fighting.
I still think about Rambo, still think about kids like him, and wonder where they can go now.
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 .