Ya Kiatpetch is a gym owner, scout, and promoter from Isaan with no formal medical training. On certain days, however, he's also an unlicensed physician who brings exhausted, listless Muay Thai boxers back to fighting shape through the magic of IV drips.
Last year, I watched him administer IVs to two teenage fighters in a dark hotel room a mile away from Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok. The fighters, Tiger and Teep, had each cut about 5kg, a large amount for two Thai teenagers with virtually no weight to lose. They'd been running in vinyl sweat suits, skipping rope in Thailand's hot midday sun, and severely curtailing their intake of food and water the week prior to the fight.
Midmorning, a few hours after Tiger and Teep's official 6am Lumpinee weigh-ins declared them eligible to fight, Ya Kiatpetch rigged a couple IV bags up to the curtain rod above their hotel bed, secured the bags with shoelaces, and inserted the needles under the skin of the fighter's arms. The fighters lay there quietly, flinched minimally at the prick of the needle, and never protested over Ya treating them with gloveless hands.
Ya has been rehydrating fighters for years. He does it when he believes the fighters in his charge will be too weak from dehydration to perform properly without it. He does it because Muay Thai fighters cut weight.
Cutting weight, the act of dropping a few kilos in a short time period in order to qualify for a particular weight class, is a controversial practice and ubiquitous across combat sports. Virtually all Muay Thai fighters have had to cut weight at some point in their careers; most cut weight regularly before any big event. Nutritionists and medical professionals often warn against it, saying it damages the body and could lead to serious injury or even death. Yet even the leanest fighters in Thailand and around the world still regularly cut weight.
Ya Kiatpetch learned the practice firsthand 30-plus years ago when he was a young fighter in Isaan and Bangkok. The science of cutting weight hasn't changed much in Thailand since Ya was an adolescent athlete himself. "It's the same as when I was a kid, same theories," he said.
At Ya's gym in Isaan, which regularly sends fighters to Bangkok, the athletes are put on a weight-cut program two to four days before a fight. Thai fighters are not usually able to nor expected to cut as much weight as their Western MMA counterparts. Most Thai fighters naturally walk around within a few kilos of their fighting weight. Unlike fighters in other disciplines, who sometimes have months of preparation time before fights, many Thai fighters compete at a high frequency, often multiple times a month. What's more, Muay Thai weigh-ins are usually on the same day of the fight. According to Ya, the average weight cut for a teenage or adult Bangkok stadium fighter is about 5kg (11 pounds).
The theory behind the Thai weight cut has to do with dehydrating the body and shedding water weight. It can be dangerous, and severely affect a fighter's performance in the ring. Thus, IV drips have come into vogue. Members of the Muay Thai community with no medical training, like Ya Kiatpetch, are often the ones administering the IVs. After all, being able to rehydrate fighters without visiting a clinic or seeing actual doctors saves the gym owner time and money.
Ya's been giving fighters IV drips for years. He learned by observation, taking his dehydrated athletes to clinics for IV fluids early in his gym-owning career, watching the procedure and asking the doctors questions. "Some fighters came out of weight cuts very weak, but some came through with strength, so I asked the doctors what the difference was and how I could help them," he said. He studied the levels of fluids they combined in a solution, got some needles and started practicing.
"It was too expensive to keep taking the kids to clinics, so I learned to do it myself," Ya said. "Each person is different in how they deal with a weight cut. A fighter with sunken eyes and cheekbones who had a really rough weight cut, you'd have to administer the IV on a slower drip than a fighter who had a strong, good weight cut."
Athletes requiring IV drips to rehydrate themselves before a competition seems extreme to those outside combat sports, but it’s often viewed as necessary and normal in the world of Muay Thai, where a lot of money is often riding on the outcomes of these fights. MMA fighters in the West use IV drips to recover from drastic weight cuts as well, though measures are being taken to end this practice—the United States Anti-Doping Agency is set to ban IV bags starting in October this year.
Not so in Thailand, at least not any time soon. In fact, the amount of Thai fighters hooked up to intravenous solutions has been steadily growing over the years. According to Ya, the previous generations of Thai fighters didn't use IV drips, "but the current generation gets them all the time."
Of course, not all Thai fighters use IV drips. Some fighters in certain parts of Thailand do not regularly cut weight at all. Whereas fighters' weights in large Bangkok venues may be precisely monitored, many fighters in rural areas of Thailand, such as Isaan or the southern provinces, are matched without the use of scales.
Num, owner of Singpatong-Sitnumnoi Gym in Patong, Phuket, grew up fighting in the southern region of Thailand. "They just sized us up visually before a fight," he said. "They didn't really check the scale." This is especially common for younger fighters in rural areas.
Num had to start cutting weight only when he began competing in Bangkok. It was a drastic change from how he had previously trained and fought, and he didn't like it.
No one likes the Thai weight cut. You can't eat your normal diet and you're not allowed to drink much fluid. You're tired but you can't sleep well. You're stuck running miles and miles in a vinyl sauna suit. All you can think about is water or fruit juice. You begin to crave those nasty electrolyte drinks they sell at 7-11. You stop wanting to talk or interact. You lose patience for all those well-fed, hydrated people around you.
At least, that was my experience when I experimented with weight cutting in Bangkok in previous years. My main trainer explained the process very simply to me: "Eat just a little bit, drink just a little bit, and then put on a sweat suit, and running, running, running. Then more running." I followed his advice and felt the effects, largely mental, right away. I saw emotional and behavioral changes in other fighters on a weight-cut program as well—whenever a Thai fighter seemed more distant or crankier than usual, it was usually because he was cutting weight.
Though simple, my trainer's instructions to curtail consumption and to run long distances in a vinyl suit are pretty typical to the Thai theory of cutting weight. Each gym may be slightly different in their methods but the general theory behind it, focusing on short-term dehydration, is the same. Tim, owner of Sitsongpeenong, reports that at his gym, fighters cut weight starting about three days before the fight, with no starving involved. Some of Sitsongpeenong's foreign fighters also follow the same regimen. "Some foreigners do lose weight for fights but most don't know how to do it properly," Tim said. "We teach them the way we do it. [The] proper way means not starving, just dehydrating the body of fluids over a period of 3-plus days."
Dehydration is achieved by reducing the intake of fluids and increasing running time in sweat suits. "So basically the two days before the fight are weight-cut days," said Abigail McCullough, foreign liaison of Sitmonchai Gym in Kanchanaburi. "That's when the sweat suits come out and the guys stop eating."
At Sitmonchai, a typical weight-cut day consists of running around 10am, resting, and running again at 4pm, coinciding with when the sun is out and the weather is generally hot in Thailand. The fighters are able to sweat out somewhere around 2kg on each run. "It's then a balancing act of drinking and eating just enough to put back a kilo or so, so the fighters are not totally depleted, and then do it again later in the day," said Abigail. Ideally, the fighters will drop to within 2kg of their fight weight by the night before the match, with a plan to run off any excess kilos before the official weigh-in the next morning.
Sitmonchai hosts foreign fighters as well, many of whom often choose to cut weight the "Thai way," according to Abigail. "A lot of the more seasoned foreign fighters will be really lean and little body fat, so they'd have to cut like Thais anyway. They couldn't try to lose body fat, for instance, which I know some fighters do in the U.S. and Europe. But those fighters usually have a couple months to do it."
Some foreign fighters at Sitmonchai try methods other than sweat-suit running—for example, wearing a sweat suit in a sauna, or taking scorching-hot epsom salt baths. However, due to changes in environment and availability of equipment, many foreign fighters in Thailand have no other options than cutting weight Thai-style. Fortunately, it's generally thought to be effective. "I can't think of one person who had a problem cutting weight the Thai way," Abigail said, "apart from the hell of running in the sauna suit. It's unbelievably hard."
The thing about the Thai style of cutting weight, as exemplified by running in a vinyl suit, is that it's most effective only in the environment in which it was developed. When Thai fighters go abroad, they often face a whole different set of challenges to their methodology. Yodkhunpon Sitmonchai arrived in Los Angeles, California, in time for Glory 17 to fight in the 65kg contender tournament. The southern California climate posed a problem for his weight-cut program. "We were staying at the airport Sheraton or one of those types of hotels and trying to do the weight cut in the gym there," Abigail said. "[He was] wearing a sauna suit and running on the treadmill. Problem is, there was air-conditioning." Unable to sweat sufficiently in the hotel fitness center, Yodkhunpon took to running on the streets of Los Angeles, wearing a sauna suit as he would in Thailand. Unfortunately, it was a cool, windy day, nothing like the hot and humid weather in the Thai fighter's home country.
An American trainer and friend of the Sitmonchai team suggested Yodkhunpon try a new method: wear the sweat suit in a sauna. The fighter reluctantly agreed, but it wasn't enough. Neither were the subsequent epsom salt baths. On the day of the weigh-in, he scrambled to sweat off the last kilo by skipping rope in the sweat suit for about an hour. "It was terrible. He almost passed out," Abigail said.
Most fighters in Thailand follow the same general rules and get similar results. Female fighters in Thailand, on the other hand, have their own challenges when it comes to cutting weight.
Englishwoman Melissa Ray, a former four-time world champion who has been based in Thailand since 2006, is a veteran of the Thai method of cutting weight. "In the UK and when I first came to Thailand, I didn't really cut weight," she said. "I just controlled my weight by being restrictive with food." Soon, however, Melissa started cutting weight Thai-style, under the guidance of her trainers at Eminent Air Gym. They taught her their routine, told her when to start the process, how far to run, how much to eat and drink. They also helped her figure out how to bounce back from the weight cut; through trial and error, Melissa learned how to avoid digestive problems and sluggishness during the fight, pitfalls common to consuming too much, too soon after a weight-cut.
"I think there is definitely an art to cutting weight that can take time to learn," she said. "Not just the way to lose weight without losing too much power, but also how to refuel and rehydrate."
Melissa found success with the Thai regimen her trainers recommended, though noticed a major difference between her results and those of the male fighters. "It is undoubtedly more difficult for women to cut weight than men due to female sex hormones, which cause our bodies to retain water, particularly at certain stages in the menstrual cycle," she said.
The male-female difference was clear when Melissa found herself having to cut weight at the same time as a foreign male fighter at Eminent Air. Both fighters ran in sweat suits in the same weather for the same duration, and while his weight had dropped about 2kg after the run, Melissa had lost only about a third of that amount.
Her trainers shied away from suggesting other methods for cutting weight, such as salt baths, saunas, and water loading. "My trainer believed that saunas made you tired, and I didn't trust that water loading would work for me -- I could imagine my body just holding onto the excess fluid instead of excreting it as it should," she said. Thus, Melissa adapted to the traditional Thai-style method: don't eat much, don't drink much, and run a lot in a sweat suit.
Things are done a little differently down south in Phuket at Mike Swick's gym, AKA Thailand. AKA is part of the growing demographic of non-traditional fight camps popping up in Thailand, offering a full range of MMA training in a self-contained compound. Unlike pure Muay Thai camps, say, in Isaan or the heart of Bangkok, AKA caters to an international clientele with a broad range of backgrounds and needs.
MMA fighters looking to cut weight at AKA are put under a different program than the camp’s Muay Thai fighters. According to Kaylee Dovlet, AKA's director of customer relations, Mike Swick and AKA's more experienced MMA fighters oversee weight cuts for the MMA team, while the Muay Thai team is taken care of by gym manager Adrian Shead, the Thai trainers, and AKA's more experienced Muay Thai fighters.
"We are a very team-oriented gym," Kaylee said. "Many of our fighters have a wealth of experience and knowledge, especially pertaining to 'Western' body types, so we all work together to ensure people are peaking at the correct time leading up to a fight, and dieting down according to their body type and how they respond to water manipulation."
The Thai fighters Kaylee observes often cut only 2 to 3kg for a fight, "if they even have that much to lose." Foreign Muay Thai fighters may drop only 3 to 4kg. MMA is a whole different game, though; many of AKA’s MMA fighters will diet down for a couple months, losing 5 to 10kg, and even 10 to 20kg in their final week of training if they go the water-cutting route.
Kaylee describes the main difference between Thai and foreign theories of cutting weight as Thais looking to hit a specific number on the scale, while experienced foreigners (mainly MMA fighters) attempt to hit the number, then rehydrate to fight as heavy as possible, hopefully heavier than their opponent. "In MMA, [cutting weight] is important because your opponent is doing it and if you don't, then they will have a weight advantage that can drastically change the outcome of the fight," Kaylee said. "In Muay Thai, it's more of an honor system and, especially in Thailand, you, your manager, and your gym will lose face if you miss weight."
Losing face by failing to make weight does pertain to Thai culture—internationally famous fighter Kem Sitsonpeenong went on record stating that one of his biggest regrets was cheating on a weight cut when he was 19. For many Thai fighters, however, losing the fight purse and incurring the wrath of the gym owner is punishment enough for failing to make weight.
Muay Thai in Thailand is largely economically driven. With the amounts of money thrown into the sport, you'd think more scientific attention would be paid to all aspects of the sport, including the process of achieving a specific fight weight. The practice, however, is often based on tradition and "what works," both in Thailand and abroad.
"While weight cutting has been around for a long time in combat sports, there is not a whole lot of science to back up the different methods," Kaylee said. "I think as MMA continues to grow in popularity, we will see a lot more studies pertaining to various aspects of the sport, and athletes will continue to refine their techniques to optimize their performances in the ring and cage."
The Thais know what works for them, for their fighting style, their body types, their diet and climate and environment. We've yet to see if Western outfits like AKA, with their unique international mix of athletes and fighting disciplines, will change the traditional theory and practice of cutting weight in Thai boxing.
For the time being, though, shiny vinyl sweat suits and IV bags rigged up to hotel curtain rods will continue making frequent appearances around Thailand.
Interpretation by Frances Watthanaya and Parichart Prim Padburee.
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