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Muay Thai Is Not Completely Back in Business Since the Death of Thailand’s King

Fightland Blog

By Frances Watthanaya

Photos by Boom Watthanaya​

On October 13th 2016, Thailand lost its beloved King Bhumibol, and the Junta government immediately imposed a state of mourning for the entire nation. For thirty days Thais were told to wear black, concerts were cancelled, popular venues closed, and Muay Thai was banned. Despite an immediate loss of income, fighters, promoters, and gamblers patiently waited for the thirty days to come to a close. Events were chaotically re-booked with many fights being cancelled.

The popular festival of Loi Kratong marked the return of Muay Thai as part of the festivities includes beauty contests and Muay Thai events. But this year the festival was quieter than usual, reflecting the nation's huge loss. Thais were still encouraged to release their 'kratongs', a small floatable object with candles and incense, into local waterways, but festivities had come to a halt. People weren't yet sure what to expect, but the mood remained somber. It was later announced that Thailand would continue to mourn by cancelling festivities and celebrations. This trend is currently rumored to continue until New Year.

Despite the halt on festivities, big stadiums in Bangkok were now back in business, and larger promotions in Isaan started up again. Vendors, live bands, gamblers, and referees were back to work, but those who catered to the smaller shows were left without a means to an income. The economy slowed affecting those in other industries as well, except the garment industry, which is still booming. A vendor in Buriram commented:

"Mainly teachers and government workers come to shop here. But now I am selling a lot of plain black t-shirts for the common people too, and the professionals come for dress clothes. We can't keep black items in stock!"

More information should be available once the King's son, Vajiralongkorn, takes the throne. These long grieving periods however, are not uncommon. When the King's sister passed away in 2008 the country mourned for one hundred days albeit not to the extent that they are mourning now.

Festival fights are the beginning for nearly all fighters in Thailand. Although the pay is little, fighters get the chance to showcase their skills without the pressures of putting up a side bet. In Isaan, there is a saying that if you don't have a side bet, don't bother taping your hands. So when fighters get the opportunity to compete on larger promotions it is expected that a sizeable sum will be put up. For small gyms, it's nearly impossible to match these bets. Instead, fighters will make the rounds through the area going to morning match ups looking for opponents. It is at these small shows that fighters get discovered by local sponsors or gamblers who then apply for them to fight on the larger promotions. When a fighter reaches a certain level of success on these shows, they are then sent to Bangkok. With festivals fights currently cancelled, no new talent can emerge. Fighters who were just starting out their careers have been put to a standstill, whereas others, like the kids at Wor. Watthana, who are almost good enough to fight on the bigger promotions, are trying to weigh the pros and cons of letting their fighters compete.

Thanit Watthanaya, owner and head trainer at Wor. Watthana talks about the stresses this mourning period has brought on:

"I have a lot of kids who are brand new and ready to go, but now with no fights they lost interest. My other two child boxers at the gym just aren't at that level yet. I've booked three fights for them since this ban was lifted. It's so expensive for us. We have to travel very far, put money up for the side bet, and pay for the families of the fighters to get into the shows, because they are not free like the temple shows and the families can't afford it."

It's only another thirty days until New Year's and another forty to complete a proper one hundred days of mourning. The Muay Thai community will survive. It's just a little bit more difficult as of late.

 

Check out these related stories:

The Many Generations of Lookboonmee

Across the Mekong: The Life and Times of Master Song

Against the Odds: Bpaet Becomes a Muay Thai Fighter

 

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