Fights started an hour late, typical of these one-off shows in the countryside with portable rings. Now it's 9pm and the gamblers are hesitantly placing bets.
Red Corner wins the first round, Blue wins the second. The gamblers are picking up speed, making frenzied bets with higher stakes. The fight could go either way.
Surrounded by cheers and jeers from all sides of the ring, Red comes back to win the third and final round. The fighters are eight-year-old girls, but it was a close match, the kind of match the gamblers love, the kind that sets the right tone for the rest of the night.
Next up, a beginners' match between two adult men: one, an overweight, slightly drunk American schoolteacher from the neighboring town; the other, a local "sport man" looking to make some extra cash. Volunteered for the fight by his uncle, he admits to the promoter he has had no ring experience and no formal training, but believes he'll fair well against the large foreigner with little experience. After all, he's Thai, and he's been watching Muay Thai on TV his whole life, he says.
The gamblers chuckle when the Thai master of ceremonies announces the American's fight name, "MOO SA-DAKE!" as he flops into the ring. The sprinkling of foreigners in the crowd laugh at the translation, "Pork Steak." The ref drags Pork Steak and Sport Man into the center, they touch gloves, and the fight begins.
On the surface, it's a regular fight night in a dusty field in a remote Isaan village, just like any other promotion in the region. Except that at this fight night, the VIP stage is not occupied by military, police, or other influential Thais cheering for their fighters. Instead, it's a few local foreign schoolteachers cheering for their American colleague in his professional debut. And at the center are the guests of honor responsible for this promotion, a small group of Belgian businessmen.
From his plastic chair in the middle of the stage, Yves Vyvey, founder and owner of European company Booster BVBA, watches the fight with amusement. His company is sponsoring this show, and as a promoter in Europe, he takes a special interest in tonight's fighters. Pork Steak and Sport Man are great entertainment, but Yves is waiting for the headlining fights featuring the experienced professionals.
Yves and the other sponsors from Booster are enjoying the fights onstage, but down below, promoters Frances and Boom Watthanaya are scrambling back and forth, trying to keep things running smoothly. A Canadian-Thai couple who recently opened a gym aimed at developing young fighters from the village, tonight is their first promotion. Frances is the main shot-caller for this promotion, but it holds special meaning to Boom—tonight's event is happening in his hometown of Krabuengnok. The ring is a five-minute walk from his childhood home.
Not everything is going well tonight. Frances is huddled over a large suitcase on the ground between the ring and stage, trying to mete out free Booster merchandise to those directly involved in Muay Thai, not the drunk and demanding villagers surrounding her. She leaves the bag unattended to corner Pork Steak, shout at him to get his ass back in the fight because he could win it. When she returns to the suitcase after Sport Man squeaks by in a slim victory, most of the merchandise in the suitcase is gone.
She is disheartened but not surprised. There is little industry in Krabuengnok and most of the villagers hover around poverty level. Free gear is hard to pass up.
Odd as it may sound, the low economic demographic of the village is a large reason the Watthanayas built a gym there, and why a large company like Booster chose to sponsor it. For both the Watthanayas and Booster, establishing a gym in Krabuengnok was a way to give back to the community, to use Muay Thai as a means to help local children and their families.
Wor. Watthana Gym, which started last year as a threadbare rug on a dirt floor and one bag hung from a tree, is now a fully functioning gym complete with a ring, focus mitts, belly pads, weights, and gloves. The makeover is largely the result of a successful GoFundMe campaign, followed by sponsorship by Booster Fight Gear. Wor. Watthana is not the first gym Booster has sponsored; the company counts Kiatphontip in Bangkok and Samingprai in Phatthalung among their beneficiaries. Tonight's event, however, marks the company's first foray into promoting in Thailand.
With the financial wherewithal, wouldn't it make more sense for Booster to promote a show in a place that's a little less out-of-the-way? Miles from anything of note, Krabuengnok Village is surrounded by rice paddies, down a severely potholed road the local government can't seem to get around to repaving. Other than the newly opened Wor. Watthana Gym, there's little to no Muay Thai community to speak of. Yet this is where a sizable European company has chosen to host its first promotion in Thailand.
For Booster, though, the obscurity of the village is part of the appeal. Frances and Boom are just starting out as promoters, and Booster wants to get in on the ground floor. The second half of the fight night showcases adult boxers from the area. Yves and the other representatives of Booster are particularly interested in these contenders; tonight's event was set up in part to scout Thai fighters for Booster's European-based Fightnight Promotions. The opportunity to display their skills in front of international promoters is a huge boon for many of the adult contenders tonight.
Frances watches the big boys fight with a nervous knot in her stomach. As a scout and as someone who knows many of these fighters personally, she wants them to succeed in impressing Booster, but as she says, "Getting fighters to fight at their best isn't easy in Isaan." She knows their backstories, knows they have all have the skill and the dedication to succeed, but also knows about their poor management, their lack of consistent training opportunities, their illnesses.
She watches as one fighter after another fails to impress Booster. "I told them to come to this show one-hundred-percent, or don't come at all," she says, "but it's easier said than done."
The first fighter to fall short of expectations showed up with a fever and fought anyway. His doctor had advised him not to, but his gym couldn't find a replacement in time. Predictably, he loses.
Another contender, a 17-year-old who had recently been scouted by major gym Sitsongpeenong in Bangkok, steps into the ring with an already fractured arm. The injury is soon detected by his opponent, who targets his weak spot. He clutches his broken arm and retreats in the fourth round, giving up the fight. When Frances finds him later to deliver his fight purse, he breaks down in tears, cradling his arm and as his mother scorns him with a disdainful glare.
The fighter upon whom Frances had pinned her highest hopes also has a disappointing showing. It's frustrating and disheartening for Frances. She knows his potential—Ritidet was a prominent fighter at Channel 7. He lives a healthy lifestyle, doesn't drink, is taking another run at fighting to provide for his family and improve his place in the Muay Thai community. She believes in him, believes that even at 32, he still has a few more years of fighting left before he reaches for his goal of working abroad as a trainer.
But she also knows that as a full-time trainer at Sor. Dungchang Gym one province over, Ritidet doesn't have much opportunity to train. Preparation for tonight's fight was only running and bag work. He doesn't have a pad holder, and his regular clinching partner wasn't available—he was the 17-year-old who had fractured his arm.
After the fight, Frances shakes her head sadly. "He wanted this more than others because he knows this might be his last chance," she says. "He's seen it all before. He didn't get to hit a signal round of pads in preparation for this fight, and was matched up with an opponent who outweighed him by nearly 10kg. He was matched up by his overzealous, shit-talking manager." Her eyes narrow and she scowls. "This guy doesn't care about any of his fighters. He's all about pleasing the gamblers, taking bribes." Turning to me, she says, "Put all this in your article. I want everyone to know how awful this manager is and the kind of management a lot of fighters in Isaan have to deal with."
It's not easy for Booster and other foreign promotions to find suitable fighters. The athletes have to be a certain weight, have to be willing to fight abroad. They have to fight in a way that European audiences will like. They have to commit to the fight: if they're still conscious, surrendering for any reason, even a broken arm, is not an option. And they have to be accessible—scouts like Frances are the ones making connections with these fighters, introducing them to promotions both domestic and abroad.
Booster owner Yves Vyvey says his company is planning a long relationship with the Watthanayas and their gym Wor. Watthana. It's a long road for the baby gym, but with enough trainers and improved accommodations, Yves believes the gym will eventually become self-sufficient, will not need to send its best talent away to Bangkok once they grow into adults.
A foreign enterprise backing a local gym is a big change for this small town. In Booster's vision, modest Wor. Watthana will become an anchor in the community, a source of income and pride in a place that lacks a notable industry. The main industry of Krabuengnok Village is rice farming, and that is plagued with market instability and declining prices, not to mention Krabuengnok's dearth of those willing or able to work, as many of the residents suffer from drug abuse or alcoholism.
The question remains, though, whether the citizens of Krabuengnok actually want the changes a Muay Thai business can bring. The local government and police were not forthcoming with help and support in the weeks prior to this event. Frances and Boom faced constant obstacles in obtaining correct permits. Conflicts between families of certain young Wor. Watthana fighters have become increasingly common, mostly simple spats in which one family accuses the gym of showing favoritism to a child from another family. In a place where most residents' income is below the poverty line, competition for fight purses and time with a trainer can be stiff.
The community reaction to Wor. Watthana is mixed. "People my age are really proud of this gym," says Boom Watthanaya, who recently turned 30. When he was a kid in this same village, there was no gym, no support system for aspiring fighters. The kids would show up to match-ups and hope for a fight. Distant match-ups were out of the question; no one was willing or able to drive them. Now that he's opened his own gym, Boom receives constant messages of support on Facebook from friends his age, most of whom have taken up menial labour jobs in Bangkok.
The older generation is a different story. They're jealous, Boom says. Plain and simple. "They look at us and see what we've done, we are nobodies but have done so much. They don't like it."
Foreign patrons and sponsors, however, are not discouraged from backing the gym. When asked why Booster chose this tiny gym in this geographically obscure village to host its first-ever Thailand promotion, Yves smiles and attributes it to the ease of working with the new promoter. "Frances is strong and fast in communication, and life is fast," he says. "I can't wait for people to answer an email for two days. And that tends to happen in Thailand."
It's around 2:30am when the last fight finishes. Despite the lackluster showings from the grown fighters and unremarkable ticket sales, the promotion is successful. All the match-ups prove acceptable to the gamblers, who by all accounts are some of the most important people at any Muay Thai event. Two of Wor. Watthana's four child fighters came away victorious. One of the most exciting fights of the night was a rematch between 12-year-old Wor. Watthana fighter Bpaet, a beginner with some serious showmanship skills, and nine-year-old Pupa, a tiny phenomenon with over 100 fights to his name already. The young female boxers were also a hit with the gambler crowd; all three female fights attracted enthusiastic betting.
The Booster representatives pull Frances aside afterwards and tell her how much they loved the kid fighters, especially Ann and Bpaet. It was the kind of heart and enthusiasm they were hoping to see in the adult fighters, they said. Frances nods in understanding, but acknowledges silently that after 200-plus fights for a lot of the big guys, it's hard to get that kind of performance out of them.
The next day, the representatives of Booster board flights for Bangkok on their way back to Belgium. Boom and Frances don't get a respite, though. They're back in the gym a day later, training the kids again.
Then the phone starts ringing. For the next week after the event, Frances fields calls from other gym owners asking for match-ups with her fighters, specifically Bpaet. And Pork Steak.
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