Fighting Through Injury: The Many Recoveries of Manasak Pinsinchai

Fightland Blog

By Lindsey Newhall

Photos by Matthew Yarbrough

[Manasak Pinsinchai, whose real name is Pranom Sungngoen, was born in Thailand's Ubon Ratchatani Province on June 14, 1982. He began fighting at age nine and has fought somewhere between 200 and 300 times (his best guess is 295). He is widely known in Thailand's fight circuit, holding belts from Rajadamnern Stadium and the WMC, as well as winner of both the M-150 and Channel 3 Tournaments, and finalist of the Isuzu Tournament. Now in his thirties, at a time when many fighters have long since retired, Manasak's name is still featured on top fight cards.

But it was not without struggle. In the past decade, Manasak has suffered three separate injuries, which took him out of the game for a time period totaling nearly four years. Each time, he has had to reevaluate his life and career, looking for alternative employment while unable to compete in Bangkok. And each time, it is the recovery process that leads him back to the fighter's life.]

When I was 25, I dislocated my knee during clinch training. I fell, and the kid I was training with fell over my leg. I had to take a break for a year because of that.

But I recovered and came back, fought three times, then entered the Channel 3 Tournament. I won the whole thing, about 250,000 baht. Felt like I was on top of the world.

Then I had a motorcycle accident. Isn't that always the way? You can still see the mark of the accident here on my leg.

[He flexes his calf muscle, which shows an abnormal crevice. Manasak is known for his substantial calves. When asked why his calves are so famous, he laughs, says he doesn't know, but, "It runs in the family. My dad has the same thing. But I don't like it because I can't wear skinny jeans."]

After the motorcycle accident, I had to take another break. Six more months.

These breaks are really challenging. I'm a fighter; that's how I make money. I got married during that first break when I was recovering from my dislocated knee. My first child was born later that year too. I had this new family, and I had to get money somehow, even though I was injured. So I left Bangkok, went back to Isaan and took fights, even with my bad knee. I fought ten times that year when I was supposed to be resting. Won only three of them. They were just low-level festival fights; I'd go to festivals with my pregnant wife and she'd help corner for me.

Second break, the six months after my motorcycle accident, I was doing better financially since I had money from that Channel 3 Tournament I'd won, but money goes fast when you're not working, and I had to budget that quarter-million baht prize money. I didn't have any other job, so I started helping my gym owner, General Pinsinchai, train the kids.

Each break, I told myself the same thing: don't let yourself go. Even though I was injured, I still had to keep in shape. I couldn't run, so I focused on lifting weights, especially my upper body. It's important to stay in shape when you're recovering from an injury. You don't want to have to start from scratch when you're finally able to fight again. And I didn't want an injury to end my career.

But the breaks were hard. Mentally, I mean. I had to keep telling myself that I could get over these injuries and bounce back. I had to remind myself that I still had Muay Thai, still the same love for it, and I could still earn money from it, even while taking time off. I'm not sure if you could even call what I did a true "break," because I was still fighting and training through the injuries. They weren't top fights, just small-scale ones. Also I was working as a trainer. I thought maybe I could just be a trainer¾I was teaching foreigners in Bangkok at one point¾but I wasn't earning enough to support myself and my family off that, so I had to keep fighting.

So after two breaks, one for a busted knee and one because of a motorcycle accident, I finally got back into the ring. And then, the third incident happened. I injured my back, a pinched nerve in my back and hip. This break was the longest: two years and four months! It was a long time before I came back from that one.

In that time, those two years and four months, I had a second child, got remarried, and went to work in a casino in Isaan.

The casino wasn't exactly a legal operation.

My role in the casino was to take care of the commission, like if we have blackjack and the dealer wins, I'm the one who comes and collects the house cut, 10 percent. The dealers were independent contractors who would give a percentage to the "house," the location. The casino was a small room, as small as an average gym office, usually with just one dealer and many gamblers, lots of money passing through.

Sometimes the gamblers were drunk, but I never used my Muay Thai skills on them. [Manasak laughs] You have to treat them politely, because they are customers. Most of these casino customers are just vendors from the local market, but if they have money, they can come and play. I treated them well, had to give them drinks for free so long as they were gambling.

Also, about that casino, that's where I met the woman who would later become my second wife. Her father was one of the dealers, and he and I both worked for the same casino owner. The owner had another business, a karaoke bar and shop that sold rice and soft drinks. My then-future wife was a cashier there.

I found that casino job because I knew people in the village who ran it. It was actually a policeman who opened the casino. A "mafia casino," you could call it. They all knew I liked to gamble and that I was out of fighting due to an injury, so they asked if I was interested in helping out at the casino. I definitely was, and I made 50,000 baht a month from that job. [Fifty thousand baht a month is more than five times the minimum wage.] I worked every other day, which sounds like a nice schedule, but those were long shifts, 9am to midnight.

The job paid well, and I might have stayed longer, but then a military coup happened. The economy soured. No one could gamble as much anymore, and my salary went way down. In good times, I was earning sometimes 4,000 or 5,000 baht a day. After the coup, it went down to 500 baht a day. So I started looking for something else.

I went back to Muay Thai, of course. Someone asked me to go to Koh Samui, be a trainer at Pinyo Muay Thai. They offered me 8,000 a month, but it wasn't enough to support my family, so I took a job at Santai Gym up in Chiang Mai.

The Santai owner had been after me for years. He offered me a good salary, and extra for private lessons too. I've been here for nearly a year now. I tried to open my own gym with some partners in Isaan a little while back. My wife wasn't very happy here in Chiang Mai so I figured I'd start a gym and teach Thai kids and foreign students, and actually it was one of my foreign students who invested in the gym with me. But we couldn't drum up enough business and we closed up shop after just a few months.

My wife and I ended up separating too. That was my second marriage. Call it irreconcilable differences, maybe because of the age difference, who knows? She's almost 10 years younger than I am. I probably would have stayed in Isaan if we hadn't broken up. Things just didn't go according to plan, but that's how life is sometimes, isn't it?

After all that, I decided to come back to Santai and be a trainer. That's when I recommitted to fighting.

It was October of last year, 2015. It was my first big fight since my back injury, first big fight in two years and four months. I fought multiple times over October, November, and December, won three of five fights, all in Bangkok. I fought Saksit three times, won once. He's 24 now, ranked number two at Lumpinee. My other opponent, whom I fought twice, was Phanomrunglek, 31 years old, about my age. I won both fights.

I am so happy to be fighting at a high level again, especially at my age. It's interesting how your ideas about your Muay Thai career change over the years. For me now, it doesn't matter if I fight or not, because I have a job as a trainer. But a long time ago, when I was solely a fighter, I had to train so much before a fight. We're talking like three or four months solid. Now I don't have to train like that anymore, and I can still earn money. But I do train hard for my fights. I have to be the best for them.

When I was at Pinsinchai Gym as a fighter, I didn't fight as often as you would, say, in Isaan, because that's how the gym was managed. Top fighters didn't fight as often. But you still have to train, train, train. But then again, there were periods of time when you'd have to fight three or four times a month. It was unpredictable. In all, I had fewer than 100 fights with Pinsinchai, and I was with that gym for 11 years total.

Sometimes people ask me how I'm able to keep fighting, despite my age and the breaks I've taken because of injuries. I think it's because when I stopped fighting, I was still at the top. I quit while I was ahead, and when I did make a comeback, I was still well known, already famous. They got me a fight with a top-ranked opponent, and I did well, so I kept my reputation, and they kept giving me good fights.

Now I'm in my thirties, and still fighting. If you want to keep fighting into your thirties and beyond, you can definitely do it but you have to stay disciplined. If you want to come back from a break like I did, you have to work hard. Of course everyone gets tired, but you have to keep your goals in mind, really have clear goals, if you want to be a fighter. Train hard. Eat healthy. And then age doesn't matter.

And if you have a family, that's okay too. Many people think that when you have a family, you can't be a good fighter anymore. But you can. My two daughters live in Bangkok and I see them every time I fight there. Sometimes I go to Bangkok when my daughters have special things going on, like recently I made a trip to Bangkok because my girls had a little dance show at their school, so I went to watch them perform. They do the same for me; they come to the stadium to watch me fight all the time. It doesn't matter where I'm fighting in Bangkok; they're always there, watching from my corner. I love having them in my corner. They're seven and five-and-a-half now. Their nicknames are Teerak and Tonrak ["Darling" and "Tree of Love" in English].

Teerak and Tonrak live with their mother now. She's my ex-wife, but we're on good terms. We're friends now, and I give my family an extra 10,000 baht every time I fight. It's about a quarter or a fifth of my average fight purse.

If you're going to ask me why I keep doing Muay Thai, it's because it's a job. Of course. But it's my job, and I love it. As long as I can fight, as long as I am physically capable, I will keep fighting.

Thai-English interpretation by Jiraphan Hjalmarsson.


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