With Thailand’s Muay Thai prize fighters earning fame, fortune and a salary that most Thais could only dream of, children throughout the country are being lured into a career in boxing from an early age. But with Muay Thai seen as a golden ticket to wealth for even the most poverty-stricken families, are these vulnerable children being exploited and put under too much pressure, too young? MOJEHMEN travelled to Pattaya to find out…
With his neat crew cut, spotless white shirt and miniature frame, Boonsong Samrong looks more like Mighty Mouse than Mike Tyson. The 12-year-old, however, is clear on what he wants his future to hold. “I want to be a champion boxer,” he says as he strips out of his school uniform and into a garish pair of silk shorts and begins to limber up at a punching bag filled with sand.
In a couple of hours Boonsong will travel an hour along the road from his home in Rayong Province to the seaside resort of Pattaya, where he will attempt to extend his record of 31 wins in 36 competitive bouts.
As he pounds the giant bag – which is nearly double his size – the corrugated iron roof on the tiny room he shares with his father Sompong and older brother Preeda makes an audible rattle while chickens scatter in the yard.
The makeshift home gym is a world removed from Bangkok’s famous Lumpinee Stadium, where the world’s elite Muay Thai fighters battle it out in front of an always-packed 5,000-capacity crowd. But here in this nameless encampment, Boonsong dreams of the day when he can strut his stuff at the arena regarded as the spiritual home of Muay Thai.
“The only thing that matters to me is boxing,” he tells us. “I try my best at school, but I find lessons boring. All day I look forward to coming home and doing some more training. I hope that one day I will be a champion and build a better life for me and my family.”
Like thousands of poor young boys and girls around Thailand, Boonsong and his family see Muay Thai – the country’s national sport – as a clear route out of the grinding poverty still endured by the majority of the population.
Known as the ‘art of eight limbs’, Muay Thai is characterised by use of fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet. The centuries-old martial art retains its broad appeal in the modern era, and the sport is a magnet for money in Thailand where gambling is ingrained in the culture, despite being technically illegal. While boxers themselves face a tough route to riches, top Muay Thai stars can earn up to 120,000 Thai baht (AED12,750) per fight. Not only that, but they are accorded privileges of stardom such as fast cars, opulent mansions and glamorous girlfriends.
The big money doesn’t start to flow until the late-teens when kids are allowed to turn professional, but children as young as six are fighting competitively at boxing fairs and events around the Kingdom. Boonsong has made a promising start to his career, netting a tidy sum for his father with his winnings, which can amount to as much as 4,000 baht per fight – a handy amount when you consider that Sompong earns just 1,000 baht per day in his irregular work as casual labour on local construction projects.
Sompong used to fight competitively himself, but now he prefers to live out his dreams vicariously by training his two sons. “The older one (Preeda) prefers football. But this one has a real drive to make it,” he says, pointing at Boonsong, who has changed out of his shorts and is now engrossed in a game of Angry Birds on his mobile phone. “He’s got the right attitude. He studies the professionals on Channel 7 (the channel on which most high-profile Muay Thai bouts are screened), he’s dedicated and, most of all, he cares.”
The life of a budding Muay Thai star is far from easy, though. Training is tough. Pre-dawn 10km runs and two hours of after-school sparring are commonly part of the daily regime. Pressure from parents to be a success, meanwhile, is intense and the fights are often brutal. Sompong admits that he pushes his boys hard. “If I don’t, then they might not take it seriously enough,” he says. Injuries are also common. “Sometimes my legs get really swollen from all the kicking,” admits Preeda when quizzed on what he dislikes about being groomed as a future boxing star. “When they are really bad like that I can’t go to school or hang around with my friends.”
Later that evening we witness Boonsong’s fight at Thepprasit Stadium in Pattaya. Although the arena is small-scale compared to Lumpinee Stadium, there’s still an element of glamour attached to fighting here. A live band provides traditional musical accompaniment to bouts, while the VIP section is filled with important-looking elder Thais as well as stoic Russians with blonde, buxom trophy wives in tiny denim shorts.
The child fighters are positioned lower down a bill that will last for around four hours. Therefore the arena is half-empty when Boonsong and his opponent enter the ring. Despite the gaps in the stands, those that are there do their best to raise the volume, baying loudly at the two boys while laying down bets through a series of coded hand gestures. After the youngsters go at it, we will witness the real deal as seasoned fighters face each other. Compared with the grace of these older professionals, the two boys look raw and untutored – like grouchy kids trying to settle a playground dispute.
On this occasion, it is not to be Boonsong’s night. His opponent is a year older than him and appears significantly bigger. A natural showman, Boonsong appears unperturbed by the size difference and is a cocksure presence in the ring. A goading smirk rarely leaves his face, fading only momentarily when he receives what looks like a nasty blow to the groin. Despite the smoke and mirrors, the older opponent is clearly a superior fighter and it is no surprise when the judges award him the fight on points. Our boy, though, is unperturbed. “You’ll see me on Channel 7,” he tells us, as Sompong and his friends chuckle indulgently and start on another six-pack of beer.
Men like these see very little wrong with children fighting competitively. For others, however, it is no laughing matter. Children’s rights activists in Thailand pushed in the 1990s for stricter control of child boxing, and in 1999 the Boxing Act set the minimum age for professional boxers at 15. In practice, the Act does little to protect child boxers. It simply bars them from the ring, unless their parents sign a letter of permission.
There are obvious causes for concern. Professor Sombat Ritthidech from Ramajitti Institute, who surveyed child boxing in the north-eastern Thai region of Issan, found that many of his study group were often absent from school due to long hours of training. “Many of the children showed stunted growth because of measures taken by trainers to control their weight,” he concluded. “It is also very possible that boxing for years might cause brain damage in later life.”
While medical professionals and children’s rights campaigners frown upon the practice of children fighting for money, others argue that boxing competitively from an early age is essential for professional success. They also say that the discipline of training gives youngsters focus and keeps them away from temptations such as alcohol and yaba – a cheap type of methamphetamine that translates as ‘madness drug’ and is taken widely by poor young thrill-seekers due to its affordability.
Early the morning after the fight night in Pattaya we visit Tor Nongtapan, a training camp for kids run by a local authority in Rayong Province. Facilities here are a big step up from the ones along the road at Sompong’s home gym, with a full-sized boxing ring and decent exercise equipment. The camp is a labour of love for its head trainer Analie Youngsiri – a self-confessed one-time bad boy.
“I was a no-good person. I used to fight a lot. I smoked ganja and got easily bored by my lessons at school. Muay Thai gave me a better life by giving me purpose,” he recalls. “It is very easy to go off the rails – especially if you are poor – and that’s why the camp is important.”
Among the junior boxers at the camp are the three Chaiwarae brothers Amarin (15), Namchoke (13) and Thanapat (8), who Analie singles out as being among the most promising of his charges. They certainly look the part – their lean, muscled torsos sculpted by chin-ups and sparring sessions. Their mother Kanlaya, who is originally from the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, raises her boys alone on a daily salary of 300 baht she gets for peeling betel nuts and mangosteen. She admits that the extra money they bring in is invaluable, but she frets about injuries. “Everybody wants more money and we are no different,” she admits. “I’d like to buy a new car, new clothes and things for myself and I also want to give the boys the things that they want. Muay Thai can be a career for my boys. Even if they don’t become stars there are other options – maybe a referee, or perhaps a trainer? I often worry though. I can’t bear the thought of something bad happening to them.”
The boys themselves are more concerned about a strict fitness regime and diet, which, during the weight-cutting period prior to a fight, tends to consist mainly of rice soup. “I hate not being able to eat candy in the days before a fight,” scowls Thanapat, pulling a disgruntled eight-year-old face.
With the school day approaching, the brothers set off on their morning 10km run with the other kids from the camp. We watch them as they jog past the local temple towards the horizon and disappear around a bend in the road. It’s another few paces along a journey they hope will turn them from mice into men.