Muay Thai in Vegas and the Secrets of Sharp Handicapping

Fightland Blog

By Matthew J. Webster

February 14, 2014

When I woke up at 7:30 in Las Vegas, my priority was toothpaste.

This was the day of the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony, and fears of exploding toiletries had apparently spread to domestic flights within the U.S. A federal officer in Boston had seized a six-ounce tube of Colgate "Total Whitening" toothpaste from my shaving kit before my departure on Thursday, saying it was "too big," all the while failing to detect or care about four grams of "Blue Dream" cannabis concealed in a shoe inside the same duffel bag.

I'd flown to Vegas in search of top-class Muay Thai in America, if such a thing existed. I also had a plan to take advantage of Nevada's gambling laws and win back the combined cost of my airfare and two nights at the Hard Rock Hotel ($431) with some savvy soccer handicapping.

But the greatest draw was a chance to see my friend and teacher Coke Chunhawat fight. I’d met Coke in September, when he came to Boston to teach a Muay Thai seminar at the gym where I train. From the time Coke was 10, the old masters had taught him how to kick the shit out of people in his bare feet, how to bludgeon opponents with knee strikes to the ribs, and how to lacerate their foreheads with his elbows. Coke is a relaxed, modest character who smiles a lot, outside and inside the ring. Smiling is a sign of strength in the culture of Muay Thai.

Jet-jittery early Friday morning, I first bagged some travel-sized containers of toothpaste at the CVS across from the Hard Rock then went out in search of Coke, from whom I had purchased my ticket to the fight directly.

I found Coke at the Lucky 7 diner near the Hard Rock’s main entrance. His pre-fight breakfast consisted of tea, waffles with strawberries, whipped cream and maple syrup, and two eggs sunnyside up. He was cheerful. We bowed and rapped a bit. I wished him “Chok Dee” (good luck) and then headed out to start gaming the bookies.

The exotic secrets of illicit finance may not interest everyone, but I’m not nearly as rich as I’d like to be. If I’m going to gamble, I much prefer to do so profitably. My philosophy of handicapping is to know as much as possible about a given sport before betting on it but also about the business of bookmaking in practice.

I understand how bookies profitably fix odds offered to bettors (“lines”) and how to convert lines into estimates of actual probabilities. I also know that lines purchased from one bookie can be effectively hedged with bets bought from another.

In the case of “spread” betting, where punters estimate total points two teams will score over the course of one football match or hockey game, the availability of “running” odds is particularly useful for hedging. Running odds are spread estimates that change over the course of a game as events transpire. They are a great way to buy “short” odds--low-yield bets that are more likely profitable.

The technical term for weighing value bought from one vendor at price A against value bought from another at price B is “arbitrage.” If it sounds sketchy, it’s not. Arbitrage trading of currencies is legitimately one of the most profitable industries in the world. It’s how George Soros made his fortune, to give one example.

Long shots are losers, folks. They might look nice but they cost dearly. Those colorful video poker machines chirping like sirens from across the casino floor? Why on earth would you bet when you don’t even know the odds of winning? That’s not gambling for me; that’s losing.

Here’s how I spent the next few hours: I picked up the Hard Rock sportsbook’s lines for the next morning’s soccer matches. The odds that more than three goals would be scored in the game between my beloved Liverpool Football Club and London’s Arsenal were fixed at “evens” (bet $100 to win $100), while the odds for under three goals were -130 (bet $130 to win $100).

I also inquired if lines were available for the Lion Fight, which was being held at the same casino later that evening. There were none, unfortunately.

A cab ride later, I entered the Las Vegas Hilton, home to the city’s largest sportsbook. A statue of Elvis, described on a plaque as “King of Las Vegas,” greeted me inside the revolving door. Will Celine Dion, one day, be similarly immortalized?

I asked again about betting on the Lion Fight but was again rebuffed. If Vegas bookies need help fixing Muay Thai (or kickboxing) lines in the future, I hereby offer my counsel in exchange for a small fee.

Reviewing the Hilton’s lines for Liverpool/Arsenal, I noticed a fractional difference from those in the Hard Rock sportsbook. The Hilton had the “over” (more than three goals total) fixed at +110.

This is the kind of “edge” sharp bettors love to find: a small difference in fixed odds sometimes signals a good value. I knew Liverpool were scoring steadily so decided to anchor my speculations with a $400 bet on the over. If more than three goals were scored I’d be up $440. If under three were scored, I’d have some hedging to do.

I went back to the Hard Rock and prepared my hedge amidst glass-encased stage clothes worn by James Brown and Johnny Cash. For this, I needed to deposit funds into the sportsbook and register to bet online 24/7, since the English Premier League games I planned to hedge with started at 4:45 am and the sportsbook window didn’t open until 8:00. I filled out a W9 tax form and deposited $1700.

As long as the odds in any of the eight games that morning ran to the very safe territory of +200, I was (nearly enough) assured of not only recouping the $400 possibly lost betting earlier but also winning $450, still covering my airfare and board for the weekend.

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Handicapping and prepping the hedge bet took less than three hours. Satisfied with my acumen but not with the crass extortion scheme hotels call a mini-bar, I bought a six pack of Amstel Light and a bag of ice across the street then retired to my room and its framed photos of Jimi Hendrix.

I suppose the ice bucket provided by the hotel might have fit a bottle of champagne and four to eight ounces of pulverized ice (no ice machine access is available to Hard Rock tenants, to my knowledge), but it was only big enough for two beers, so I removed the plastic lining from a more capacious waste basket, filled it with ice and chilled my Amstels, then mellowed out with some Blue Dream (Humboldt, indoor, hydro) before checking out the Lion Fight’s amateur undercard.

The fights were at a 4000-capacity venue called the Joint, near where Coke and I had breakfasted. Hundreds of people had arrived before the undercard started.

In Thailand, Nak Muays make their professional debuts as young as 7 and often retire around 26. In the U.S. few get such an early start, but at 35, Coke was the oldest fighter on the bill, and the audience was more in their twenties, which bodes well for a growing sport. Muay Thai fans are also probably more fitness-oriented than the average NFL tailgater. Many wore insignias touting the gyms where they trained.

Fights in Thailand are, unfailingly, preceded by magical rituals recalling the Thai people’s animist pre-history. There is the Wai Kru, three deep bows in respect for teachers, family, and friends; the Ram Muay, translated as "warrior dance"; and the blessing and removal of the fighters' headgear, the Mong Kon, by their coaches. These pre-fight rituals are usually accompanied by a live trio of traditional musicians playing a reed flute, cymbal, and drum. In Thailand these observances can take 15 minutes to complete before the sounding of the bell opening the first round of fighting.

At the Lion Fights in the Joint in Las Vegas, Nak Muays are serenaded by Quiet Riot and Naughty by Nature, while briefly dressed young women shimmy on a stage they share with a parked motorcycle.

The amateur fights were good. There was at least one questionable judge's decision, which is not unusual, but all the fighters were game and no one got humiliated. There were no knockouts either, although Muay Thai fights often end by KO. That was good from a humanitarian perspective, but fans like to see finishes.

I rolled over to the Hard Rock’s Nobu franchise for light Japanese before the pro card. Sitting at the sushi bar, I ordered squid and asparagus with a soy-based dressing, then some raw blue fin tuna toro (belly fat) rolled in rice.

The toro was fine, tasting of health and fraîcheur. I cleansed my palate with two Kirins, wishing Coke could have been there because I know he loves seafood. Coke’s hobby is crabbing, according to the Lion Fight’s promo team, but at that moment, my Kru (teacher) was likely shadow sparring in his dressing room or receiving a rubdown with a stinging, menthol-infused liniment favored by Thai fighters.

I went back into the Joint for the main card. I was nervous. Sports were a new beat for me. I drank some more beer.

There were six fights on the main card. Pro Muay Thai fights are comprised of five three-minute rounds. Nak Muays don’t have lots of time to fiddle and diddle like Western boxers. They only have 15 minutes to put up points or to knock out their opponents.

Coke’s fight was third on the card. He had officially weighed in at 138 pounds. He’d cut about 18 pounds in the months before the fight, which is typical. His opponent was Rami Ibrahim, a Palestinian school teacher and former Golden Gloves boxing champ from Philadelphia with 34 wins and 11 losses. Tonight was a winner-take-all rematch of a close fight Coke had won by decision in November, 2011.

Fighting out of the red corner, wearing red trunks with yellow trim and sporting a Mohawk, Coke was razor sharp from the opening bell. He had no intention of losing two fights’ worth of purses live on national television.  

Coke fights in a classic, orthodox Muay Thai stance: left leg leading, feet flat on the mat until circumstances call for springing upward on the balls of the feet, like for a knee strike or jumping elbow. The bobbing motion Western boxers use to duck punches is a great way to eat a knee to the face in Muay Thai. Coke stood straight in front of Ibrahim and stalked him outward toward the ropes, smiling.

Coke closed in for the clinch. Thai fighters are renowned for their skill at upright grappling.  If you’re fighting a good Nak Muay and are slow enough to let him clinch both hands behind your head, you’ll find yourself in a dark and desperate place as he proceeds to squeeze his elbows together, grind his wrists into your neck, and jerk downward in spasms, setting you up for a throw to the mat or a knee to face or the body.

Even without a full headlock, with his elbows pinched against Ibrahim’s sides and gloves behind his opponent’s shoulders, Coke’s balance was perfect as he held his chest flat against Ibrahim’s, then swung his weight in a pivoting motion to pull Ibrahim off his feet and throw him to the mat for points.

The first round was Coke’s. His timing and reflexes were way ahead; when Ibrahim tried to go forward and strike, Coke saw it coming and stepped back or countered with shots that connected harder. Coke also scored with punishing knees, kicks to the body and legs, and punch combinations.

I was enjoying myself. The damage Ibrahim sustained in the first round had already slowed him by the start of the second, and Coke capitalized, 30 seconds after the bell, with a high right kick that caught Ibrahim under the chin and snapped his head back, clearly hurting him. From there it was death by a thousand cuts for Ibrahim. Rear leg kicks to his outer left thigh, lead kicks to his inner left thigh, throws to the mat, punch combinations setting up kicks to the ribs, glancing elbows to the head--Coke threw everything at him.

The judges awarded Coke a unanimous decision. I was happy. If the bookies would have showed me some action, I’d have gone home even deeper in the black.

Jet-lagged and beery, I crashed hard in my room, too tired to even set the alarm to wake me for the Liverpool match. I woke up around 6:30 and turned the game on. Liverpool had scored five goals in the first half while I slept. I was up $440 and wouldn’t need to spend the remaining hours before my flight home chasing losses with my exotic hedging plan. God bless America.

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