We were stopped at a red light in Phi Mai waiting to turn right when a motorcycle pulled up next to us and knocked on our window. I recognized the two guys from Rot-Duan’s last fight in Khorat; they were in the corner. They pointed right and we followed them outside of the city, driving along the river and through the rice fields until we arrived at a small village. From there it was a series of zig zags through the partially cemented roads until we arrived at a modest house that we were told was the gym Rot-Duan trains at.
About three months prior I had ventured out to Phi Mai to see Rot-Duan. After arriving, we contacted their then manager who told us Rot-Duan had retired. You can imagine my surprise when just last month in Khorat I saw Rot-Duan’s face on a giant poster at the gate of the fights I was about to attend. Despite a lack of training, Rot-Duan won the fight; they were relentless landing a minimum of two shots to every one thrown by their opponent.
We were initially greeted by Saman, Rot-Duan’s current manger and full time trainer. Taking refuge in the shade were the other fighters from the gym, Rot-Duan’s oldest sister, twin brother, their mother and a few other relatives who were most likely there to stare at me. Adding to the mix was a little boy named Kung-Fu who, at two years, was punching the bag like a seasoned pro. His mother is Rot-Duan’s sister, who during her time, was one of the top fighters in the region. His dad is currently the top fighter at the gym. While still competing in Issan, he also fights regularly in Bangkok and China too. It was about twelve noon and the sun was horrid but that didn’t deter Kung-Fu. His parents tried to coax him out of his Muay Thai gloves but he protested. After about four rounds on the bag, the thirteen kilogram Kung-Fu ordered his dad to hold pads. It was clear that the pad holder was going to tire before the fighter.
Rot-Duan came out of the house and politely greeted before sitting down at the table that had been setup for our visit. I began the interview and Rot-Duan shyly looked around for support, causing me to be very taken back by their delicate presence. Prior, I had only see Rot-Duan in the ring; a definite force to be reckoned with, much more than your average Issan fighter.
Rot-Duan literally translates as ‘express-car’. It was a name given to them by their grandfather on their mom’s side. As like most fighters here, they try out a series of names early on in their careers before finding the perfect fit. I was later told by Rot-Duan’s mom that they had won the most under this name, thus it stuck!
How many times have you fought?
Umm…about 300 times.
Do you know your record?
“I win mostly. When I have lost it was usually because I had to fight someone bigger than me.”
When did you start fighting, and why?
“My sister and my brother fought, and my friends fought. It looked like fun. I started when I was in grade three.”
As a fighter did you always identifying this way?
Rot-Duan’s mom interjects:
“They’ve always been like this, always playing with girly stuff and wanting to wear dresses.”
And then Saman:
“Didn’t start wearing the sports bra until high school though, that’s when they started to blossom into a young lady…I offered Rot 5,000 baht [175 USD] to take their shirt off in the ring, but they won’t do it.”
Everyone started laughing. Rot-Duan sat there in silence, but remained completely nonchalant about what was being said. Dit, owner and head trainer at Giatbundit Gym and local fight promoter pipes up:
“Rot-Duan fighting without their shirt, we could sell that.”
I’ve seen you fight twice, but you sit here in front of me and I don’t believe you are a fighter, where does it come from, that passion to fight?
“I fight to win, but I am very calm when I fight.”
Obviously I am forgetting the fact the Rot-Duan is a 300 fight veteran and having only be fighting for approximately ten years, that means an average of thirty fights per year. With the end of Buddhist Lent approaching, Rot-Duan has a packed schedule in Issan and will be heading back down to Assawindam (Channel 9 Stadium) in Bangkok as well. Rot-Duan first fought there in grade six and was brought back a few years later. The most recent fight ended shoddily as Rot-Duan fell victim to a poisoning. They were poisoned by the driver who had brought them to the stadium, the reason? Gambling.
What are your goals as a fighter, do you want to be a champion?
“I don’t really care. I fight because I enjoy it.”
What about Lumpini, do you want to fight there? You would have to take off your shirt.
“I fought there when I was little, before I started wearing a top. I don’t want to fight there now.”
Do you want to fight abroad?
“Would I have to take my top off?”
“Yes, I would like to fight abroad. On a really big show.”
The sun has shifted slightly and the table we are sitting at begins to expose itself to the sun. Rot-Duan’s Mom urges us to move it into the shade. We assure her that we are still comfortable but she insists because Rot-Duan might get a tan and likes to stay as light as possible. We all had a good laugh over this as they table moved to the other side of the tree that had been providing the shade thus far.
Without any goals in mind I wonder if Rot-Duan might be in fact on the way to retirement, so I ask.
“I’ll keep fighting as long as it is fun. I’m in grade twelve now and would like to go to university to become a sports teacher. If I can, I will keep fighting. I’m scared to train at other gyms though, there are too many boys. The university I will attend has a Muay Thai gym…but I am too scared to go.”
As Kung-Fu stops for a water break, insisted upon by his Dad, I still can’t quite believe the conditions that Rot-Duan is training in. I have seen worse, and this is common in Issan but usually fighters of this calibre are shipped off to better gyms in the city.
The is no flooring whatsoever, just dirt that is raked frequently. Sanam explains to us how when it rains they train under cover in the neighbour’s cooking area. He admits that he wishes he could take better care of his fighters, but it’s a start. He refuses to take any commission from his fighters but always arranges prior for his gas to be covered. In Issan, Rot-Duan won’t fight for anything less that 4,000 Baht [125 USD], plus travel expenses, and averages a side bet of about 10,000 [300 USD] Baht per fight. At Assawindam, Rot-Duan makes 12,000 [375 USD] Baht per fight.
Good gyms will not only provide food for their fighters but supplements as well; a proper training facility goes without saying. With Rot-Duan still under the care of their Mom, Sanam feels that it is unnecessary to take his percentage. With expenses covered he makes money from side bets.
I ask Sanam if anyone has been by looking to buy Rot-Duan. Selling fighters to big gyms in Bangkok is a common practice in Issan.
“There have been a few, but I wont sell Rot-Duan. If they want to go to a better gym, I give my full support.”
Would you think of leaving this gym?
“No. I want to stay here. I don’t want to train with other people, I am happy here.”
And what do you do with the money you make from fighting?
“I give most of my earnings to my mom. Whatever is left over I like to buy make-up. I always do my make-up before I fight.”
At this point Sanam proudly interjects:
“Rot-Duan will ordain as monk for their mother. They’ve promised but once the ordainment is complete they will go back to being themselves.”
It is common practice throughout Thailand for sons to ordain as a Buddhist Monk for one term once they reach twenty years old. This term lasts for three months and in general is considered a complete ordainment. Monks must follow two hundred and twenty seven precepts which include abstaining from wearing make-up.
As of now Rot-Duan’s fighting future looks prominent. Their insouciant attitude aids to their success. The first time I saw Rot-Duan fight, the ring announcer was mocking them:
“I know they are taunting me, but I don’t know what they say because I never listen.”
“Everyone around here knows Rot-Duan. They have proved themselves as a legitimate fighter so it’s the gamblers who take over. When we fight somewhere new they will mock but not after the first round, that’s for sure.”
Rot-Duan smiles slightly.
By the way, what is your name?
“My name is Rose.”
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 .