Poverty vs. Professional Fighting in Southeast Asia
A 14-year-old boy should be riding his bike and playing video games. A 16-yearold should be preparing for his high-school exams and flirting with the girl across the way. But on a dark day in 2004, 16-year-old Chhu Thon died, and a 14-year-old learned tha
That was 13 years ago, but I’m sure similar incidents have happened since. I feel comfortable saying that because Thon’s death wasn’t the first I’d heard of. Two years earlier in Thailand, a young kickboxer named Chatchai Phaisithong died after collapsing in the ring. A quick survey revealed that at least two other deaths have occurred since 1996. IN DIVERSE CULTURES from the slums of America to the hill-tribe villages of Thailand, poor boys often see sports — and, more specifically, combat sports — as a means of climbing out of poverty. The myth is wrapped in bright packaging and fed to them in the form of success stories, which are the rule rather than the exception on the silver screen.
The truth is, however, that very few fighters ever make it to the top. And the ones who do rarely keep their money, their fame, their reputation or even their health. In King of the World, author David Remnick reminds us that Muhammad Ali was an exception to most of boxing’s stereotypes. He spoke eloquently and was seen as a social and political leader. He opposed the Vietnam War and eventually defeated the U.S. government in court. But for all his success, his end was typical — typically bad. He battled Parkinson’s disease for years until he succumbed in 2016.
The life of an up-and-coming boxer or kickboxer in Thailand is, in many ways, even more difficult than that of a Westerner who’s trying to fight his way out of poverty. First, Thai boxing is infinitely more damaging to the body. Years of blows to the legs can cripple them. Repeated knees to the torso can cause tissue wastage and organ damage. Elbows to the face can open wounds that need to be stitched — and still can lead to permanent scarring. Thai fighters begin training as young as 7 or 8. They start fighting for money at 14, as opposed to 18 in the West. With the body being subject to so much stress, it’s no wonder most muay Thai competitors are finished by the time they’re in their mid-20s. IN AN INTERVIEW with MSN, Chhoeung Yavyen, doctor for the Cambodian Boxing Federation, said he worried about boxing’s damaging effects on boys. “The teenage body is just not strong enough,” he said.
The sport is obviously damaging to teens and adults, as well — which is perhaps why the Thai government outlawed muay Thai in the 1920s. The fight sport was brought back in the 1930s, and today approximately 60,000 professional Thai boxers live in Thailand.
Several years ago while training at a rural boxing camp there, I spoke with an assistant coach about how the boys came to be at the center. “That one is Jakoi,” the coach said, pointing. “He was addicted to yaba (meth) before coming here. He is 20 years old and can neither read nor write.”
He pointed at another boy. “His mother remarried,” the coach said. “The new husband didn’t want the children from the previous marriage, so she brought him here.”
The stories went on. “That one is the oldest of 13,” the coach noted. “His parents couldn’t afford to feed him, so they gave him away. That one — both parents are in jail for drug charges. This one is a rarity: He is actually an orphan. His parents are both dead, so he came here.”
Most of the boys never had much of a chance in life. Many were from hill tribes, which meant they didn’t have a Thai passport. The lack of proof of nationality would bar them from pursuing an education, obtaining a good job, going abroad or even becoming a soldier, which many would gladly do to escape the poverty. IN THE EARLY STAGES of a young fighter’s career in Thailand, he’ll earn 300 baht for a fight. That’s about $9. In the U.S., a low-level boxer will take in at least several hundred dollars for a bout. In Thailand, it can be worse. Sometimes there isn’t any prize money — just tips from the audience. To risk one’s health for such paltry sums may seem ludicrous to us, but the alternative would be to do agricultural work, which at best might pay 100 baht per day. And in the hill tribes, many agricultural workers receive no cash compensation at all, just room and board. Compared to that, 300 baht can seem like a decent wage.
Well, it might be a good wage if the boys were allowed to keep the money. Often, however, the parents show up the day after a fight to congratulate their child — and then collect most of the winnings.
If a young fighter does well, he can move up the ranks and earn more money, but unless he relocates to Bangkok or possibly Chiang Mai, it’ll be difficult to advance. There are fighters in rural Thailand who subsist by competing for tiny sums of money and have done so their entire life. Even in the big leagues, fighters don’t earn very much. Mike Tyson’s biggest paydays were in the $30 million range. Forbes says that UFC star Conor McGregor could net $75 million for his fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. In contrast, the top prizes in muay Thai run about 200,000 baht, or $6,000. In tournaments in Phuket, foreigners — who earn more than Thais — can win 20,000 baht. Translated, the winner gets $600, while the loser gets nothing. ALTHOUGH BARE-KNUCKLE boxing has been illegal in Thailand for many years, such fights still take place in Mae Sot. Burmese boxers cross the border to challenge Thai fighters in these no-holds-barred matches. Injuries are a given. Two referees are stationed in the ring; they’ll intervene only if a downed fighter is unconscious and his opponent is stomping on his head. Not surprisingly, deaths have been reported.
The injury rate for Burmese fighters is difficult to ascertain because they disappear back over the border, often carried out by comrades. Desperate Thai fighters will make their annual pilgrimage to Mae Sot for a shot at a purse that’s reported to be $22 for Thai nationals. Burmese winners collect half that, while the pay for a draw is $4. Again, losers get nothing.
With such paltry wages, even good fighters often live hand to mouth. Economic necessity forces them to compete more frequently, increasing the probability of injury. According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the most common injuries among pro Thai boxers are to the lower extremities. Head injuries are No. 2.
A single broken bone can end a fighter’s career or bring about financial ruin. Hospital bills can wipe out savings in a heartbeat. Recovery time can result in weeks or months of lost income. Facing such prospects, there’s great pressure to return to the ring prematurely, which may lead to additional injuries. THE ROAD TO THE BIG PAYDAYS is much longer in Thailand than in the West. I’ve heard stories of young boxers fighting as often as three times a week — and in a lifetime never earning a purse over $50. Muhammad Ali had 61 professional fights in his career and held the title three times. In Thailand, there are unknown kickboxers with 75 fights to their credit. That’s 14 more fights, with a lifetime earning record of less than what Ali made for one bout.
When a boxer’s career winds down, it happens the same way in Southeast Asia as anywhere else. A few lucky ones become trainers. Of these, a very few become good trainers and actually help talented youngsters achieve their dreams. Most face the challenge of finding employment while lacking job skills.
Ex-boxers are everywhere in Thailand. When I was there, all I had to do to find a few was walk through the lobby of my hotel, wearing a muay Thai shirt. I did that once, and within minutes, the handyman came over to tell me of his glory days. “Grab my neck,” he said, insisting that he still possessed the strength that carried him through countless matches.
A guy unloading water bottles put down a crate and joined us. “My specialty was the knee to the kidney,” he said, proudly, before throwing several strikes too close for comfort. A third man appeared out of nowhere, and suddenly the fight talk was flying like machine-gun bullets. Their other engagements were forgotten, and they headed to the bar, dragging me along. Over beers, they all talked about how muay Thai had changed and how, if they were young today, they’d all be champions.
Young, of course, is a relative term. I’d bet money that they all were younger than I was at the time, but in muay Thai years, they might as well have been 65.
Sitting on that bar stool, I listened to the same stories from these former Thai boxers as I’d heard from fighters back in Brooklyn. It sounded like the Marlon Brando speech from On the Waterfront: “I could have been somebody. I could have been a contender.”
One of the Thai men pointed to two thin lines running across his face. One stretched from the top of his eyebrow to his hairline. The other started at his lip and went across his cheek. They were the result of the elbow strikes that ended his career. “Look at these scars,” he said, proudly. “I was a boxer.”
The sad truth is that for many boys in Southeast Asia, scars are all they’ll have to show for a lifetime of effort in the ring. If they’re lucky.