Words

How a Champion Muay Thai Fighter Managed to Avoid Retirement and Keep Fighting

Fightland Blog

By Lindsey Newhall

Photos by Matthew Yarbrough

Lerdsila Phukettopteam (formerly Lerdsila Chumparetour) is a three-time Rajadamnern Stadium champion, which is a pretty big deal for a Muay Thai fighter. He has an armful of other belts, too. When asked to recite his many titles, he rattles off his Rajadamnern accomplishments right away, then pauses and scratches his head, trying to remember the others. "WLF in China"—pause, think—"WBC"—pause, think—"and I can't remember the name of the one championship from America. Dennis Warner is the promoter but I can't remember the name." (Might be the WCK.)

Still an active fighter even at age 36, Lerdsila is a popular trainer at Phuket Top Team in Phuket, Thailand. He helps instruct group sessions regularly, while a steady stream of Muay Thai practitioners, from beginner to pro, sign up to take private lessons from him. He is well known in Thailand, in the West, and increasingly known in China, where fans excitedly greet him at the airport, and frantically wave homemade signs bearing his name during fights. With that kind of attention, one could very easily become a conceited braggart at best, an egocentric maniac at worst. Lerdsila, however, is not that type. He doesn't boast, doesn't continuously remind his students or friends or bosses of his worth as a trainer and fighter, doesn't put on airs of superiority.

Instead, he smiles and cracks jokes. He is friendly and warm. He makes light of his accomplishments and his fame. When he talks about Muay Thai, the sport in which he so excels, he uses words like "fun" and "game."

Many of his students love his playful, lighthearted approach to Muay Thai training. I first met Lerdsila in 2014 at World Muay Thai Gym in Newhall, California, when I dropped off my nine-year-old niece for the kids' session. The flyer at the front desk called him Lerdsila "Mr. Lightning" Chumparetour and featured his photo next to a list of his exhaustive titles. Assuming he had been brought in simply to work with World Muay Thai's growing fight team, I was surprised when he donned Thai pads and took a dozen children through padwork, giving each one personal attention. The kids loved him. He knelt to their level and cheered them on, whooped enthusiastically when they put extra effort into their strikes. At the end of the class, my niece wiped sweat from her brow and said she would be ready to go as soon as she gave Mr. Lightning a hug goodbye.

It is with this same joy and playfulness that Lerdsila approaches his own fighting and training, and life in general. For him, as for most professional fighters, Muay Thai and life are inextricably intertwined. "I have fought all my life. I can't do anything else," he says, echoing the sentiment of many other elite Thai boxers.

Plenty of young boxers leave Muay Thai for other employment; Thailand is littered with fruit sellers and cabbies who used to be fighters. But it's impossible to imagine a man like Lerdsila ever completely leaving Muay Thai. After all, Lerdsila is 36 and still has no set retirement plans for his combat career. "I might quit fighting in two more years, maybe three," he says. "But I think I can keep going in fighting. If I'm tired of it, if I make a lot of money, then maybe I'll stop. But it's all I know how to do."

Luckily for him, his fight career continues to be lucrative even on the verge of his late thirties, thanks mostly to opportunities in the burgeoning combat sports market of China. In Thailand, Lerdsila earns about three to four thousand US dollars per fight. In China, the average is somewhere around twelve thousand. It's excellent money, made even more appealing by the rules of the matches. "It's easier to fight in China," Lerdsila says. "Just three rounds, no elbows and no clinching. In Thailand, it's more dangerous: five rounds, and elbows." He's quick to add that it's not actual Muay Thai he's fighting in China, but rather "K-1, kickboxing," he says.

Lerdsila's first trip to China was three years ago. He didn't speak Chinese then, and still doesn't really speak it, other than a simple ni hao [hello] and wo ai ni [I love you], which he demonstrates for me while laughing. When I ask about his China fight record, he says he has never lost any of his estimated 15 to 20 fights there. He's fought a couple Europeans in China, but the majority of his opponents have been Chinese.

As are the majority of his screaming fans. During his walkout, it's common for Lerdsila to spot his name illuminated on electric signs held aloft by Chinese fans. After each fight, he resigns himself to staying at the stadium for an hour or two, due to photo ops with his admirers. "All I do is take pictures after fights," he says. "I can't go to the hotel because too many people want pictures."

His fans don't fit a specific mold. Women, men, children, they all love him. "They call me 'Lurd Gurd Silla.' Like Godzilla, something like that," he says, with a genuine smile.

"It sounds like you're very famous in China," I say to him. Ever modest, he shakes his head and says, "No, not famous. I just have a lot of friends there because I've fought there so much."

With his fame in China has come multiple job offers: he's fought under the Kunlun promotion, and currently has a contract with Hero, another Chinese promotion. The contract is for only one year, but Lerdsila isn't worried about finding work afterward. "Maybe I'll renew the contract. But if it's not good, I might have to change my mind." According to Boyd Clarke, owner of Phuket Top Team, Lerdsila's contract with Hero sees him earning a highly respectable 250,000 baht per fight (nearly US $7,200).

Lerdsila knows he always has the option to teach Muay Thai in China; multiple gyms have already reached out to him with tempting offers. But it's not something he's seriously considering. He likes working at Phuket Top Team. "I have a good boss, a good manager and good training. Good friends here. Right now it's good here so I don't need to try anything else."

Phuket Top Team has been Lerdsila's home base for the past two years, ever since he came to the gym to train for his own Kunlun fight, and was asked to stay on as a trainer. Prior to that, Lerdsila had spent about two years bouncing between Thailand and the U.S., working in gyms in San Francisco and Santa Clarita, California. He found his Santa Clarita-based coaching job the same way he would later find work at Phuket Top Team, by arriving first as a fighter. "I went to fight in the U.S. with Push Kick Promotions, and Kru Pong, the promoter, asked me if I wanted to stay and work for him."

Lerdsila has enjoyed working and traveling abroad, but he is happiest back in his home country. It's only natural, he says. "I'm happy in Thailand because my family is in Thailand. That's the first thing. In the U.S., it's good money, but I stayed alone."

Opportunities to fight are also easier to find when he's based in Thailand. "A lot of promoters here call me, so I can fight here in Thailand a lot. I could fight here every month if I wanted. In the U.S., you can't do that."

It's clear Lerdsila loves his home country, but he is also pragmatic and understands the lure of working abroad for a good paycheck. He has numerous friends who, having followed the siren call of cash, are now trainers in China. According to Lerdsila, these fighters aren't big names, but can still make buckets more in China than in Thailand. It's a matter of economics, supply and demand. "I think they like working there pretty much just because the money," he says. "If you could make money in your home country, you'd stay. No one needs to go abroad, unless they can't make much in their home country. My family is here; if I can make money and stay here, I will." It is an attitude shared by many Thai fighters: international travel and living abroad is for practical reasons, for financial gain, for work, not necessarily for adventure or self-fulfillment or fun.

Fun, for Lerdsila, is cruising around Phuket, relaxing with friends, spending time with family. Fun is sparring in the gym. Fun is Muay Thai. That, he says, is how he's been able to keep fighting even as he approaches his late thirties. When asked how he's managed to stave off retirement, he guesses it's because of his style. "I'm not crazy when I fight, so I don't get hit much." Too many fighters fight too crazy, and that's why their careers end so early, he concludes. Far from the brawlers he describes, Lerdsila is a muay fimmeu, a technician. "When I fight, I push-kick my opponents away. I kick and jab and keep moving around."

It's a he's been developing since he was a child. Originally, his parents openly disapproved of his desire to fight, but little Lerdsila was determined. "My father hit me with a stick and said, 'Why do you want to fight?' and I said, 'I love to fight! I need to make money to help you!'" According to Lerdsila's memory, this happened when he first started fighting, at age seven.

After an early childhood in his home province of Chaiyaphum in northeastern Thailand, Lerdsila left home for Bangkok at age 12. He trained at Jockey Gym, "with Saenchai and Somrak," he says, naming a couple of Thailand's most famous fighters.

Nearly 30 years after his first foray into the ring and a whopping 500 fights later (though he admits he can't quite remember the exact number), Lerdsila's parents have changed their minds about their son's chosen profession. "Now I have titles," he laughs good-naturedly. "I made a lot of money and my parents have money, so they're happy now."

His own son has also been known to fight Muay Thai, though not quite as prolifically. "My son has a perfect record. I told him to quit while he's ahead," Lerdsila quips. "He fought once when he was 12. He's now 16 and in school. He wants to be a Muay Thai fighter but my mom and dad don't want that for him. They want him to stay in school, keep studying. But I want him to be a fighter..." He trails off, a thoughtful look on his expressive face.

As for the future, Lerdsila's plans are vague. He'll fight, he'll teach others, that's all definite. But for the long term? He says his dream is to have his own business, but he's unsure what kind. "Maybe a gym in my hometown?"

The future doesn't seem to worry Lerdsila in the least. He comes across as a master of appreciating the present, of finding goofiness and joy in even the smallest moments of his day. He looks genuinely happy in training at Phuket Top Team, and his attitude is infectious.

"The way you spar and fight, you seem truly to love Muay Thai," I say to him.

"Yes," he confirms without hesitation. Fighting is fun, he says, stressing that it's just a game. "It's like playing, and I'm never serious. When I fight, I smile and I play. I don't think about losing or winning. I just go in and do my job. I'm happy with my job, and that's it."

 

Check out these related stories:

The Muay Thai Fighter from the Hill Tribe

A Female Thai Fighter's Guide to Life

Rittidet: Drifting Through a Life of Muay Thai

 

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