The Expensive Road to Thailand: Crowdfunding in Muay Thai

Fightland Blog

By Lindsey Newhall

Photos by Lindsey Newhall

Coming to Thailand to train in the cradle of Muay Thai is a dream for thousands of practitioners around the world. Now thanks to social media and internet crowdfunding, more fighters and other assorted Thai boxing enthusiasts are able to finance their Muay Thai dreams.

And that is really pissing some people off. Critics of crowdfunding in Thailand's Muay Thai community are harshly vocal in some internet fora, calling these fundraisers a "stain on the sport" and dismissing campaigners as people too lazy to work, dependent on others to pay for their "training vacations."

These criticisms are met with staunch defenders of crowdfunding, who point to the community aspect of Muay Thai, the support that proponents of Muay Thai should ideally extend to one another, and to the fact that people really need to mind their own business when it comes to who chooses to donate what to whom.

A search for "Muay Thai" yields dozens of hits on sites like GoFundMe, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo. Launched between 2008 and 2010, each of these three major crowdfunding sites has its own flavor and target audience, but are generally used to source funds for creative endeavors, medical needs, educational goals, youth programs, and volunteerism. And now, of course, foreign nak muay in Thailand.

So who is supposed to be funding these fighters asking for money? According to the GoFundMe website, probably friends and family. Clearly stated in the FAQ section is this helpful reality check: "GoFundMe users should not expect to receive support from strangers."

The particular case of crowdfunding for Muay Thai training in Thailand is complicated by cultural aspects. Muay Thai in Thailand is a sport for the Thai lower classes, a means of employment. Foreigners involved in Thailand's Muay Thai culture run the gamut from those who try to do it "Thai style," living and training as a sponsored fighter, to tourists looking to give Muay Thai a shot on their holiday. Many foreign fighters pride themselves in having had to work and save up for months or years to afford their time in Thailand, lauding self-sufficiency and concurrently rejecting crowdfunding as shameless begging or narcissistic entitlement.

"I worked my ass off to be able to come to Thailand to train," said American fighter William Logan, who has been fighting out of Sitmonchai Gym for nearly six months. In a sentiment echoed by many anti-crowdfunders, William says he was taught to work for the things he wants. "Cutting corners by asking for free shit reveals the shortcomings in one's work ethic. If you can't buckle down and work hard and save money over the course of a year or two, then how do you think you'll make it as a serious nak muay in Thailand?"

William began training Muay Thai when he was studying in college and working full-time. In 2011, he moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, and trained under Carlos Navarro of Baan Singto, then opened an affiliate gym in Guadalajara, Baan Singto Revolution. "Some people really don't have the financial opportunity to go to Thailand," William said. "I know some very poor Mexicans who were students of mine who dream of training in Thailand. They would have to save money for 10 years to be able to do this."

Crowdfunding through a top site like GoFundMe is not even an option for William's former students in Mexico -- as of now, GoFundMe is only available in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and some European Union countries that use the Euro officially. Kickstarter is similarly limited, though Indiegogo's website boasts its presence in over 200 countries and regions.

William Logan's negative views on crowdfunding are in part due to disparities in in economic privilege between Western nations and Thailand. "Asking strangers to donate money so that you (who has a computer, internet, bank account and enough opportunity to be able to quit your job and travel for an extended period of time) can come train in Thailand is wrong. This is something that should be reserved for people who NEED help, not those privileged enough to ask for something they WANT. I don't always donate money, but when I do, it's for impoverished African children, not privileged Westerners with the travel bug. If your GoFundMe is made to ask friends and family for help, then I suggest you grow some balls, pick up the phone, and call them."

Foreign fighters have found ways to train and fight in Thailand for years, long before the emergence of internet crowdfunding. Niamh Griffin, pioneering female fighter from Ireland, began training in Thailand in 1998 at Jitti Gym. She trained and fought full-time for years, learned Thai, and supported herself primarily by teaching English. Now retired from fighting and working as a journalist in Ireland, Niamh acknowledges that not all foreign fighters in Thailand have the same work opportunities she did. "I managed to find work because I was privileged," she said. "I had a university education and I was able to do a TEFL course. A lot of people who get into boxing don't have that background. It's hard to get a work visa and they've tightened down on the restrictions. For example, teaching English requires a degree, a TEFL course, lots of paperwork. Some people might not be equipped to do that job." 

For Niamh, there aren't huge differences between financing Muay Thai through teaching English, as she did, and using money gathered through internet crowdfunding. "How can you say it's okay for me to be an English teacher, but not okay for someone to do a GoFundMe? What's the difference? It's both people just trying to find money to stay here in Thailand, because it is the best place to train. For an all-around immersive experience, six weeks here in Thailand is better than six months in any Western gym. I think if you don't agree with crowdfunding, that's fine, but you should not attack others for doing it."

It is these "attacks" online that have given pause to those considering starting a crowdfunding campaign for Muay Thai, even for causes outside of training and fighting. Brazilian fighter Juliana Rosa struggled with the decision to launch a GoFundMe to cover medical expenses from a nasty leg infection that required hospitalization at the end of 2014. "I spend my fight money paying my bills," she said. "I didn't have enough for a hospital stay, but some friends told me to make a GoFundMe so I could go to a hospital. It was a hard decision because I don't like asking for things from people who follow me, but it was an emergency."

Through GoFundMe, Juliana was able to raise enough money from the community to afford the necessary medical care. "I had to stay in the hospital almost a week. The doctor told me if I had waited just one or two more days, I could have lost my leg."

Juliana Rosa's first fight since her injury will be next month. Being able to fight is vital for someone like Juliana -- it's how she makes her living. "I'm from Brazil and not a native English speaker, so it's very hard to find a normal job here in Thailand. Fighting is how I pay my bills, rent, everything."

Timo Ruge, whose free content on youtube channel Muayties is regularly enjoyed by thousands of viewers, benefitted similarly from crowdfunding in the Muay Thai community. Last year, after his camera was stolen out of his car, two of his friends started a GoFundMe campaign on the sly to buy him a new camera, all unbeknownst to Timo. The campaign managed to raise a couple thousand dollars, about half the price of the HD camera Timo needed to replace. Contributors were thus able to help the video journalist continue producing the content they had been enjoying. "It was a nice gesture by parts of the community," Timo said of the unexpected donations. "It gave me the motivation to continue with my free work."

Campaigns designed to help victims of illness or crime, such as those of Juliana Rosa and Timo Ruge, tend to be met with little negative feedback from the Muay Thai community. It's the campaigns for individual fighters' personal fighting or training goals that garner the most critics, who freely offer a host of reasons why fighters should not be asking for money to train in Thailand.

For Santai Gym owner Nik Hjalmarsson, however, the matter is simple: support a fighter the way you would support any performer or artist. "To me, donating to an athlete is like buying a musician's records. They perform for an audience. If people want to see the athlete fight, then help him or her. If not, shut up and don't."

An advocate of crowdfunding, Nik went so far as to recommended GoFundMe to one of his fighters struggling to get back to Thailand. Sophia "CocoPuff" Torkos was a sponsored fighter at Santai for most of 2013. Originally arriving in Thailand with enough money saved for three months of training, Sophia extended her stay an additional six months when Nik offered her a spot on the team after watching her fight.

"We had never seen a fighter rise so fast," Nik said. "She was 100 times more exciting to watch than most fighters. Even for us in her corner during her fights, the ones who made the game plan, we kept thinking, 'What will she do next?'"

After nine months as a Santai fighter, Sophia decided to return to Canada. The money she'd saved for her trip had long since run out and she'd joined the ranks of Thai fighters all over the country, living solely on her fight purses. "I started to get anxious because I had no personal freedom and no savings," she said. "I decided to go home and save more, so that when I return to Thailand I'll have my own security and I won't have to rely as much on anybody."

Nik understood her decision to leave but disagreed with it. He warned her it would be tough to find fights in Canada. "I didn't really believe him at the time, but he was right," she said. "I fought 21 times in Thailand in nine months. But in the year and a half I've been home in Canada, all my fights have fallen through. It's been very draining and discouraging."

Sophia soon made plans to go back to Thailand. She started working three jobs: making sandwiches at Subway, serving drinks at Toronto's Rogers Center, and picking up extra hours as a yoga instructor. But saving money for Thailand was slow-going; Sophia lived on her own and was working to pay off student loans.

With the promise of a Santai sponsorship, Sophia told herself she would get back to Thailand one way or another. Nik saw crowdfunding as a way to speed along the process. Timing was important; he was still getting calls from promoters who remembered her a year after she left. "Sophia, you won't be young forever," he said, "so get on it. Try this GoFundMe thing." Sophia took his advice and opened up her own GoFundMe page in early February 2015, managing to raise about $700 of a $4,000 goal in one month from eight donors.

Nik recommends crowdfunding as another way to support athletes. "Think of Mike Tyson," he said. "If he hadn't received help from the Cus D'Amato people, he would never have been the fighter he was. Tyson would not have made it on his own. I think it's the same with Sophia. I see her like a female Mike Tyson in that she needs help to get where she belongs in the fight scene."

Not all demographics of the Muay Thai world merit support, though, not even to Nik. "An athlete selected for the world championships but unable to go because of a lack of finances, I might consider helping. But a party-tourist going for a few weeks to a tourist camp? No way."

Former fighter and current coach Rosy Hayward became an instant CocoPuff fan after viewing one of Sophia's fights posted on Santai's Facebook page. Months later, when a link to Sophia's GoFundMe popped up in Rosy's newsfeed, Rosy helped promote it on her "Female Muay Thai on Facebook" page. "Crowdfunding can be an amazing resource," Rosy said, pointing to the group effort and community feel of it. "I am really pleased to be able to make a difference for someone with a few quid. I wouldn't be able to make a difference alone, but with crowdfunding, I can do something."

With so many charities, nonprofits, and now individual athletes looking to raise money for their causes, the decision whom to support is difficult. "When it comes to financially supporting a fund, I'll do it if I know of the person and have been entertained by content on the Net that they've been involved in," Rosy said. "For example, I supported CocoPuff because I think she is super talented and good to watch." Rosy has opted out of supporting other fighters who failed to impress her or with whom she didn't empathize.

Sophia "CocoPuff" Torkos continues to accept donations while working her three jobs. Nik's sponsorship offer still stands. He calls Sophia the most talented female fighter he's ever seen, a fighter who has been inactive since she left Thailand in 2013 and needs help getting back. "I want to see CocoPuff fight top opponents using her crazy offense so I help her. And if anyone else wants to see more of the Puff too, help her."

Some critics go so far as to call crowdfunding for the purposes of training in Thailand unethical due to the economic disparity between Thailand and the Western nations many of the crowdfunding campaigners come from. Westerners in general are often perceived in Thailand as rich, regardless of the reality of their individual situations. The simple presence of international fighters affects the local economy as well, primarily in large cities and classic tourist destinations, and occasionally in rural areas such as the Isaan region. Happy to cash in on the Western fascination for a sport predominantly seen as for the poorer classes, Thai gym owners have begun catering to the international clientele, offering to train, promote, and sometimes sponsor non-Thai fighters. But what do Thais think of supposedly "rich" foreigners who try to raise money through crowdfunding so they can come to Thailand and fight in a sport dominated by poor people?

Boom Watthanaya, who grew up in Isaan, trained as a young adult in Bangkok, and lived in Canada for four years before moving back to his Isaan village last year, believes that having foreign fighters in Thailand's Muay Thai scene is generally positive. "Overall it's good for the sport; it helps it to grow. But sometimes people come here and are disrespectful because they don't take the time to understand the culture, or they just assume they understand it, which takes away from the sport."

Despite having grown up poor in a family of rice farmers, Boom Watthanaya can still see the reasons behind a foreign fighter using internet crowdfunding. "It's good for people who are dreaming, and have absolutely no way of doing it on their own. But for people who just want to do it because it's the easy way, it's not right. If they can work and save the money themselves, then they should."

Boom and his Canadian wife Frances recently launched their own GoFundMe to create Wor Watthana, a new gym in Boom's tiny village where impoverished neighborhood children can come to train. Their campaign has been met with an outpouring of support from across the Muay Thai community.

"People come to Thailand and give to all sorts of charities, so if you're into boxing, why not give to a boxing charity?" said fighter and journalist Niamh Griffin. "Wouldn't it be great if some kid came out of that gym and ended up a Lumpinee champion because you gave $50, the price of a night out or a new pair of shoes?"

Aside from helping the local children in Boom's village, Boom and Frances are also hoping to create steady employment for their friend and relative, a local trainer named Dam. Widely considered to be an excellent trainer and pad-man, Dam has fallen into alcoholism like many of his ex-fighter peers. He has trained both Thais and foreigners in his career, and has seen the effects foreigners in Thailand have had on the sport. "Foreigners bring in more money," Dam said, "but most of the money just goes to the gym owner, and sometimes they don't pay the trainers fairly. I think it's good that foreigners come here to learn from us, but so many of them go away and forget what we taught them. They take from us. A lot of foreigners complain about money, but they don't understand how it works. You have to pay the owner of the gym, and he has to deduct money from your purse if you fight. Foreigners come and go but the gym has to keep going for the Thai people."

Dam has a thorough understanding of life as a Thai fighter and trainer, but says he doesn't understand why foreigners ask for money to come to train in Thailand. "Can't they work? Or are they disabled so that's why they can't work? If they're disabled, then can they still train Muay Thai? I don't understand this. But if foreigners are going to come to Thailand to train, no matter how they do it, begging for money or on their own, they still need to give back. Foreigners need to pay the owner of the gym, but they have to help the kids too, like buy them ice cream or help out with gym equipment. If foreigners take from us, they need to give back too."


Check out these related stories:

Sitmonchai Gym and the Balance of Cultures

A Japanese Fighter in Bangkok: Sota Komatsu and Ingram Gym

Life After Fighting: Muay Thai Legend Pornsanae Sitmonchai Retires