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

Black Belt - - DESTINATIONS - by An­to­nio Grac­effo

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.

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