When Rittidet first arrived at Sitmonchai Gym in Thailand's Kanchanaburi Province, he was quiet, politely answering any questions posed, but keeping mostly to himself. Through his sparse words, the other trainers and fighters at Sitmonchai learned that he was from a poor northeastern province, had been fighting for 20 years, and wanted to build a house.
At age 33, Rittidet is one of the oldest fighters to join the Sitmonchai family. He arrived during the Songkran holiday in April 2016, having found the job through contacts in the Muay Thai community. Abigail McCullough, foreign liaison at Sitmonchai, thought he would be a valuable addition to the team. "He's a good size for sparring and training with foreigners," she said, citing his weight, 65 to 68kg. Management was soon booking him fights as close as MAX Muay Thai in a nearby province, and as far as China and Spain.
After years of uncertain employment, Rittidet was relieved to have found seemingly stable work, especially one that would help him find fights as well as provide a steady salary as a trainer. He was quickly known at Sitmonchai for his determination to build a house, a potentially monumental task for a boxer from one of the poorest areas in Thailand. The house was to be for his family, waiting for him back in the region of his birth.
Rittidet calls himself a late starter in Muay Thai. He first began training at age 12, "but I'd wanted to be a fighter since I was six," he said. "My parents said no for years, but I went for it anyway. I'd been watching fighters on TV for so long, and I wanted what those fighters all had." At age 12, he was old enough to find fights on his own, no parents or coaches required. Wanting to train, yet without a gym affiliation, he made do on his own, filling up a sack with dirt and rice husks for a punching bag. No gloves, though. He couldn't find any.
Rittidet fought his first fight alone, without the support of a gym, trainers, coaches, or even his parents. In his corner were some local friends, other kids his same age. "No surprise that I lost my first fight," he now says with a small laugh.
After his first fight ended in a T.K.O., the pain and harsh realities of fighting were enough to deter 12-year-old Rittidet from Muay Thai. For a few months, at least. Cutting sugar cane was his next venture, but the payment was disappointing, and opportunities to fight kept popping up. "I said I was finished fighting, but during the harvest season, I kept hearing the same announcements at temple fairs: fighters wanted. I needed money; the sugar cane job wasn't full-time and I wanted to earn more. So said okay, I'll take my second fight."
This time, young Rittidet meted out the T.K.O. His second fight had been a breeze compared to his first, and Rittidet was elated he had won. What's more, the purse was equivalent to a few days' work in the sugar cane fields.
The boy kept fighting, and soon joined a small gym that had recently opened in his village. It was the first time the child boxer, now a year and multiple fights into a combat career, had received coaching.
Rittidet's parents were vocal about their disapproval of boxing and, under their influence, the young fighter abandoned his vague Muay Thai dreams a second time. His parents had other ideas for their son's future: by the time Rittidet reached ninth grade, his father suggested he quit school. "You study, but you also work, so why not just leave school and work full-time?" his father said. Rittidet dutifully obeyed, dropping out to work at a gas station in Buriram, Thailand. His salary was 2,700 baht a month (about US $77). With school out of the way and Muay Thai on pause, Rittidet was soon devoting all his hours to the gas station and sugar cane fields.
Things changed significantly because of something as innocuous as a night out with his friends. On one of their leisurely car rides, they cruised past a Muay Thai gym one afternoon during a training session. Rittidet asked his friend to stop the car. After a short conversation, the gym owner offered to find matches for Rittidet, then in his early teenage years, if the boy would commit to training.
Rittidet struggled to balance his gas station schedule with Muay Thai training, but his time-management skills paid off. After a month, the management of Sit Sin Gym arranged a first match for their new fighter. Rittidet performed well, and was shocked when the owner handed him his fight purse, crisp bills totaling 1,500 baht (US $43). It's a sum he still remembers to this day, nearly 20 years later. "At the time, I was making only 2,700 baht a month at the gas station. But in one fight, I got 1,500. All I could think was, wow, if I fought just three times a month, I'd be making 4,500 a month, way more than I could ever make at the gas station!" For the 14-year-old, it felt like hitting the jackpot.
Rittidet left the gas station and stayed at Sit Sin for three years, leaving to follow his trainer to another gym, Sat Nipon, hidden away in an apartment in Buriram City. He didn't stay long at Sat Nipon, though. Without a formal contract, Rittidet wasn't given much attention from the coaches. He returned home to live with his parents for a few years, once again fighting independently, without gym affiliation, as he had during his middle school years.
Then Rittidet received a call from a promoter offering him the biggest fight of his life, a match in the nearby province of Surin. "It's a 70,000-baht side bet we're putting down on you," the promoter told him. Rittidet thought he'd heard wrong. That amount of money had never been wagered on one of his fights before. He knew this was a fight he couldn't turn down.
No longer a Muay Thai detractor after understanding the rewards the sport could deliver, Rittidet's father was proud to see his son step into the ring for increasingly higher stakes. From the corner, father cheered on son in Surin. The older man watched as his son took a hard strike, wobbled, and appeared dazed when the ref came in to inspect. The ref looked into Rittidet's eyes and waved his hand. Rittidet had lost, but his father recognized his potential. "You've come this far," his father said to him. "We might as well start taking this more seriously and find a real gym for you."
Rittidet bounced around between gyms for the next 10 years. First there was Sit Kawee, a gym in the Satuek district of Buriram. A few years later, there was the famous Kiatpetch Gym in Bangkok, where he achieved modest fame fighting at Channel 7 Stadium.
Four years later, Rittidet once again struck out on his own. This time, the reason was financial. "My purse wasn't very good. The gym was taking so much," he says now. Rittidet's purses had reached a peak, then slowly started declining, the gym still taking their fifty-percent share. "I thought I could make more money fighting in Isaan."
Again, he found himself on his own. Back in Isaan, his old home gym sold his contract to another Buriram gym, Joh Toweechok. For Rittidet, it was like déjà vu, fighting for a gym that didn't provide proper training. It wasn't right, he thought, that his gym should simply take him to fights without preparing him. What good is that? He could do that on his own, as he had in his younger days, and all without having to surrender a cut of the purse.
So he struck out for new opportunities again. When a friend told him about the lucrative, growing Muay Thai market in southern Thailand, Rittidet set his sights on the island of Phuket. Now 28, Rittidet's first idea was to work as a coach, holding pads for Thai kids and the ever-increasing influx of foreign fighters and fitness tourists. The management at his new gym liked him; he was reliable and hard working. He might have been able to continue making a living holding pads, if only the gym had stayed in business.
With no steady income from a gym quickly going under, Rittidet resorted to fighting frequently. He quickly learned Phuket's fight culture was vastly different than anything he'd experienced in Isaan and Bangkok. Thailand is home to thousands upon thousands of fighters hustling to make a living, and Rittidet was amassing extensive experience fighting in three distinct regions, all with unique focuses and economies, rules and expectations. "I fought everyone I could in Phuket, foreigners and Thais, whomever I could find," he remembers. "I needed the money. But it was so different. No weigh-ins in Phuket. Weigh-ins were mostly in Bangkok, where the focus was on pro gamblers, and not many side bets. Not like how it is in Isaan, where it's all about side bets. Phuket was the most lax, and I fought all levels there."
All the while, he kept in mind his goal of building a house for his family far away in Isaan. Rittidet saw it all as a means to an end: work as a trainer or fighter; fight anyone, any level, so long as money is made and a house can be built.
Two years into his stay in Phuket, a medical emergency sent him careening off course. In a freak accident during a fight, a Thai opponent named White Shark broke Rittidet's arm. "It was a fluke," Rittidet recalls. "I've been kicked in the arm millions of times." But the worst was what happened in the aftermath: "Everyone left me. I was in the hospital for a week for surgery, and not a single person came to visit. My whole gym, the promoter, everyone on my 'team,' they abandoned me."
The broken arm was devastating to Rittidet; the doctor said he would have to abstain from fighting and coaching for three to six months, meaning no income. It was doubly detrimental as it happened in Phuket, where, as a resident of Isaan, Rittidet was not covered in the Phuket health system. The promoter of the fight in which White Shark broke Rittidet's arm promised the injured fighter that he would file paperwork ensuring Rittidet's coverage in Phuket, and help with lost income. According to Rittidet, this never happened. The promoter was "too lazy to file the paperwork."
Ritidet was slammed with a 38,000 baht bill (US $1,080), about four times Thailand's monthly minimum wage. When Rittidet reminded the promoter he'd promised to help pay the hospital bills, the promoter handed the broken fighter 5,000 baht and wished him well.
Betrayed and increasingly jaded, Rittidet spoke with hospital directors, who agreed to apply for out-of-province health care. Eventually, the bill was covered, but Rittidet was still out of work for three months.
It was the lowest point of the fighter's life. "I was very disappointed in how I was treated. As a fighter and as a teammate. As a person. It made me realize that I need to be at home with my family."
But he still needed to make money. When his arm healed, he found a job as a pad-man at another Phuket gym and quit fighting. Again, the same problems as before: the work wasn't steady, and his salary dipped considerably without the regular fight purses. But training others beat having to fight, especially with an arm still recovering.
When Rittidet stepped into the ring again, it was with reluctance. This time it was for unexpectedly high-stakes (a 100,000-baht side bet) against an enormous Thai opponent weighing a whopping 140 kg (about 308 lbs.). Both Rittidet and "the big, fat man," as he called his opponent, had been Bangkok fighters. The large man was even said to be a P.E. teacher. Rittidet resolved to train and fight as if he were back in his prime in Bangkok. He thought of it as his comeback fight.
The sight of a 300-pound main across from him in the ring might have been frightening, comical, or so bizarre as to seem unreal. But Rittidet treated it as a professional fight, not a curious sideshow for the audience, and in the end, it was Rittidet's hand that was raised in victory.
At home later that night, recovering from the abuse his body had sustained, Rittidet faced an age-old fighter's dilemma, bordering on existential. Being able to fight was the only way he'd been able to make enough money to support himself and his Isaan-based family. What would happen, then, when he became too old to fight? He did calculations in his head: fighting would provide him with 8,000 to 30,000 baht a month, enough to live on and maybe enough to build a house and even a small farming business to sustain his family. But what about after fighting? He already had experience as a trainer, and knew all he could expect to earn would be somewhere around 10,000 baht a month, a fraction of what he could earn as a fighter.
But how much longer could he, a Thai fighter around age 30 with more than 300 fights to his name, expect to keep fighting? He told himself that at least he'd always eschewed drinking, smoking, and drug use. That should increase his career lifespan, he figured. But even with that, there could be only a few more years of this. Age 35 might be the limit. And then what?
After fighting a few more times in Phuket, Rittidet returned to Isaan, staying with his family, eking by. A second daughter was born: a happy blessing, but more pressure to earn money. Soon after, Rittidet's mother was diagnosed with psoriasis, requiring about US $60 per month for medication. He diverted some of his meager earnings to her every month, much to his wife's disapproval. They could barely survive as it is, she reasoned. In private conversations with close friends, Rittidet admitted he was exhausted, both mentally and physically.
A couple friends in the Muay Thai community suggested he find work as a trainer abroad, but he declined. As a father to young children, working abroad wasn't an option he would consider. Who would take care of his aging mother if he were gone? Would his children respect a father who was always absent?
All possibilities Rittidet considered went back to the same question: What is an aging fighter to do? After months of finding only low-paying jobs in Isaan, insufficient for supporting a family, Rittidet steeled himself to leaving his family and hometown once again. If a suitable Muay Thai gig opened up, whether coaching or fighting, he would have to take it. What other choice was there?
Luckily, Rittidet had the right friends in the Muay Thai community. Through his connections, he fought in Belgium, and then found a job at the widely known Sitmonchai Gym in Kanchanaburi. It wasn't exactly what he'd hoped for—Sitmonchai was half the country away—but it was much closer than any job he could have found abroad.
After a while at Sitmonchai, Rittidet's shy veneer slowly began to crack. The other, more outgoing fighters welcomed him into their circle. Soon after his arrival, a lively, effervescent trainer and fighter named Kongfah started calling him Carabao after the eponymous Thai rock band, simply because Rittidet and Carabao's lead singer shared the same nickname, Aed. Rittidet started feeling like part of the family.
Despite the distance from his loved ones in Isaan, Rittidet found himself enjoying life at Sitmonchai. "Here, I have a better life," he told me. "I'm well fed, and the gym takes care of me. At home, I never had enough to eat."
His work at Sitmonchai is also easier to handle than at gyms back in Isaan. As both a fighter and a trainer, Rittidet laces up his shoes for morning runs at 6am, then returns to the gym and prepares the ring and equipment for the other Thai and foreign fighters, who normally begin training at 7am. When the foreign fighters show up, Rittidet takes them through drills on pads, plus sparring and clinching. He prefers the system in place at Sitmonchai. "In Isaan, I had to take care of the boxers after the training sessions, cooking for them and everything. But this new gym is different. I don't have to do that here."
Nowadays, 33-year-old Rittidet is optimistic about his future. He lauds the senior trainers at Sitmonchai, is grateful for the new skills they teach him. He still fights, believes he will continue to fight for as long as he can. "I grew up boxing, so if there is any opportunity to box, I will," he says. But the house and his family are still at the forefront of his mind. A payment of 30,000 baht for his house is due next month, he says. He's been careful with his money and is confident he can make all payments in time, whether by his savings or by responsible borrowing.
Sitmonchai Gym seems equally happy with their new addition. "Everyone loves him," foreign liaison Abigail McCullough says. "He's sweet. We'd like him to stay long-term."
As of now, Rittidet plans to spend another year or two at Sitmonchai, working and saving up. After that, he may be ready to return to his hometown, "and live my life according to the sufficiency economy," he says, citing the philosophy of self-dependence, moderation, and sustainability, as developed and popularized by Thailand's king, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
An organic farm would be nice, Rittidet says, with pigs and chickens, and their manure as fertilizer for the crops. Grow your own vegetables, collect eggs from the chickens, keep some food for the family, sell the rest to afford medicine for mom and school supplies for the kids. A good life in Isaan. Honest and achievable.
"I don't need much to get by," Rittidet says with a smile, and turns back to his task of readying the gym for another morning session.
Interpretation and additional reporting by Frances Watthanaya and Jantakarn Narweephab.
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