“Sham is fighting the main event at Buriram iMobile Stadium,” Mr. Dit, owner and head trainer of Giatbundit Gym, announces with a laugh.
“Just like that, main event. Only one fight, main event…”
He continues rambling on, mostly to himself.
Giatbundit Gym began accepting foreigners just this past February and Mr. Dit is definitely still learning the ins and outs of it all. In Thailand there is a gradual progression into the big rings. All fighters must get their starts at either temple fairs or rice fields, and even with good connections, a spot at Lumpini or Rajadamnern must still be earned. For foreign fighters however, it is a lot different as promoters are beginning to cater more to a foreigner audience, and they do this by bringing in foreign fighters to fight regardless of their experience level.
For the most part, these changes were happening in Bangkok, and although we have connections there, it wasn’t something that Mr. Dit has been a part of. Now the mutation is starting to infiltrate Issan, leaving us at the gym scrambling to make sense of it all.
Buriram iMobile Stadium was opened mid-way through 2011 and is owned by business savvy politician Newin Chidchob. The football (soccer) pitch can seat over 30,000 and is supplied with lights for night games. It is highly modern and features an infrastructure for live television and radio broadcasting, as well as a fully equipped medical facility.
Since my return to Issan earlier this year, I have heard nothing but praise for how Newin has helped develop Buriram and put it on the map for something besides being one of the poorest provinces with some of the lowest education scores in the country. This stadium enlists huge amounts of pride from the locals and is evident in the crowds of people walking around in Buriram United t-shirts; it is the largest and most modern football stadium in all of Thailand. In addition, Newin’s daughter convinced him to invest in a Muay Thai gym that is located under the bleachers; the floor alone cost 1 million baht (31,000 USD) and just recently, an international racing circuit was built.
Mr. Dit’s old friend Namkabuan is the head trainer at Buriram Be Boxing and he is also the one who booked the fight for us. It would be the first ever fights held at iMobile Stadium.
A live TV broadcast of the three boxing world titles was to start at 2PM and featured top Thai fighters like Knockout CP Freshmart and Palangpol CP Freshmart. Muay Thai and boxing officials from all over the country were in attendance including Sia Now Petchyindee (prominent fight promoter at Lumpini and Rajadamnern) and his son Boat Petchyindee (youngest promoter to ever promote at Lumpini Stadium). These guys are the top tier of Muay Thai in Thailand and here they were chatting it up with us and Namkabuan in Buriram.
The Muay Thai fights began at 4PM after the live boxing broadcast and surprisingly featured many Chinese versus Thai match ups.
I had been gone playing with my daughter at the new playground. When I returned, Mr. Dit walked up to me and pointed to the fights.
“He is Chinese,” I said.
I knew what he was getting at. It didn’t look anything like any of the Muay Thai I have seen in Issan before. Issan isn’t just top fighters, it is where many get their start, so we see all sorts of fights, but this truly was something new. The Chinese was calm, composed and had the perfect physique for a fighter, but everything else was just different. Even though fighting out of a Thai gym, there was no mongkol placed on their head nor was there any attempt at a wai kru.
Kongsak Sit. Boonmee was also at the fights cornering his fighter, who was also Chinese. Sit. Boonmee is a top gym in Issan and possibly the best in Buriram, but it isn’t known for training foreigners. Physically it is difficult to access, and like most gyms in Issan, poses a huge language barrier. How this Chinese guy discovered the gym, I do not know but it definitely made Mr. Dit chuckle.
In total, there were ten scheduled Muay Thai fights and four of those featured Chinese fighters, as well as our fighter Sham who is from Ireland. It was about time for the massage when Mr. Dit finally realized there was no oil, Vaseline, tape, or gauze for sale at the venue. Oil and Vaseline are an absolute must, and on a big show like this, so is taping your fighters’ hands. Luckily, having been to fights in North America where these things are not available, I had brought all of the following but decided to let Mr. Dit sweat it out a little before telling him. In general Thailand is a very convenient country, so in terms preparation, it isn’t really needed. Fights in Issan sell everything from Tylenol to glucose shots but Buriram iMobile Stadium had become the exception to the rule.
About five feet from us was Namkabuan’s gym, his fighters, and the two Chinese fighters he was currently responsible for. In addition to that were the lovely ladies that can only be described as groupies. They were done up to the nines and were all sporting their Buriram Be Boxing t-shirts. This was a sight to see. They focused most of their attention taking selfies with the fighters so I wasn’t able to tell if they actually watched the fights. I recognized most of them from my visit earlier this year to the Buriram Be Boxing gym at iMobile Stadium where they trained solely for fitness and photo opts.
Mr. Dit looked over to me as if I had all the answers, as if this was a fight in Canada and I was the authority. It was the same look I give him, on an almost daily basis, as I navigate my way through the deep canals of Muay Thai in Issan.
Even though it was a large scale production, the Muay Thai fights were fairly lackluster; no top local fighters were brought in, which seemed to confuse Mr. Dit. It took a minute to sink in, maybe it was the walk around the ring where, in only CP Freshmart, food was being sold.
He finally realized this isn’t Muay Thai. This is business.
After the fights Namkabuan pulled me aside and asked me why I’m not sending foreigners to his gym, and by by foreigners, he meant white people. I respond with a smile. We engage in small talk and he assures me I will be on the next card, but a date hasn’t been set yet. Apparently there are plans for a permanent Muay Thai stadium to be constructed at iMobile Stadium, and if the plan goes through, it will be the first permanent stadium in Issan. With more than seventy percent of fighters that compete at big stadiums in Bangkok coming from Issan, this is a much needed change.
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 .