The fighters stopped what they were doing and stared at us as we stepped out of the car. Young, light-haired Westerners weren't a common sight in this semi-rural suburb of northeastern Thailand. The local mayor himself came out to welcome us. We put our hands together to wai, the Thai gesture of greeting. He did the same, smiling coolly with lips closed around a half-smoked cigarette.
The mayor's gym was nice for the area, looked more like something from Bangkok than the agrarian Isaan region. It was comparatively well-equipped: a few hanging bags and some mats, skipping ropes dangling on beams, gloves tossed haphazardly on the edges of the ring. Behind it were the attached house for the family, and some add-ons for the fighters. It was just an average gym, functioning, utilitarian, nothing of note.
Until we saw the distillery around back.
"It's made of sugar and yeast. And sticky rice," Mayor Brasert told us as we peered into the frothy vats. He was making lao khao, a white alcohol, often referred to as rice whiskey.
"People compare this stuff to moonshine," said Frances Watthanaya, our liaison and interpreter. "I don't think it is regulated properly." She went on: People in Thailand say it's dangerous. Respectable people don't drink it. It's addictive, gets in your veins and destroys men. "It's dirt-cheap too," she said. "Manufactured with poor men in mind." It's also popular, available in stores across the nation.
The mayor wound through the distillery, passing tables of amber-colored bottles. The machines were switched off; the brew fermented silently. The distillery's only soundtrack was the smack of heavy bags and the hum of ring ropes in the Muay Thai gym outside. He tossed us an empty glass bottle and we studied the label, a wreath surrounding an abstract symbol, like an outline of a bird's head. It was his own design, he said.
Stepping outside the distillery, Mayor Brasert lit a fresh cigarette and surveyed his fighters across the way. There were ten of them, eight established fighters in their late teens to twenties, plus two kids new to the game. The mayor was them raising from the ground-up. All ten fighters fought under the gym name, Sit Gamnang Brasert—Students of Mayor Brasert.
As mayor, Brasert heads 18 villages in the suburbs of Khorat City, Nakhon Ratchasima Province, in Thailand's northeastern Isaan region. Neither he nor his wife were local to the area, but that didn't stop him from winning the election and retaining his position going on six years now. He confidently asserts that his constituents have a positive view of him (which may or may not have to do with his distillery). The lao khao business came first in his life—whiskey garnered Brasert some money and small-scale fame in the area. Next came the people telling him to get into local government. Within a few years, he was mayor.
After that came Muay Thai gym ownership, though in a roundabout way. As a business owner and politician, Brasert was asked to sponsor some local Muay Thai shows. Through these events, he made friends and connections in the Muay Thai community, bolstering both his political and distillation careers. Soon he was learning the intricacies of promoting.
Eventually, one of Brasert's Muay Thai-related friends, Ba Lor, approached him with some advice. A man deeply entrenched in the sport as a promoter, gym owner, and stadium owner, Ba Lor told Brasert to funnel his money into creating a gym of his own. He knew Brasert was interested in not just sponsoring fighters, but also in fight promotion itself. "It's just easier as a promoter if you have your own gym," Ba Lor said. Opening his own gym was the natural next step.
Brasert had everything he needed—money, land, resources, connections and clout—to make it happen. He quizzed Ba Lor on how to run a gym, how to build a name, how to get his fighters into promotions. Ba Lor, in turn, gave his friend free advice, as well as thousands of baht worth of equipment to help the gym in its baby stages. Fighters were entering the ring under the new name Sit Gamnang Brasert mere months after it opened.
The gym is still young, though, and Sit Gamnang Brasert fighters stick mainly to Isaan venues. "Bangkok has too many rules," the mayor says, dismissing the fight culture of the capital. "And they don't have side bets there. I'm more comfortable in Isaan." He grants that Bangkok and other regions will be in his fighters' future, but for now, the focus is on Isaan.
The mayor doesn't work long hours in his distillery anymore. He doesn't have to; after 10 years in the business, he's spent enough time experimenting, seeing what works and what doesn't, to have his small distillation process down to a science. It takes less than a week for him to produce a batch of lao khao, made according to his own recipe. He doesn't partake, though. All the bottles in crates are for sale, not for personal consumption. Mayor Brasert claims he has always been a beer man.
His fighters live a literal stone's throw from the distillery, but the liquor business isn't relevant to their daily lives. Mayor Brasert expects the fighters to be self-sufficient: he tasks them with raising and slaughtering their own chickens, taking turns shopping for food and cooking up meals for the camp, plus general gym maintenance. Each fighter is expected to perform regular chores; the mayor hasn't hired anyone to cook, clean, or maintain the facilities. The two pad-holders at the gym are Mayor Brasert's only paid employees.
Sit Gamnang Brasert has been open just under one year, but it's already successful. The mayor hasn't had to buy a single fighter; rather, all his fighters come to him. "I'm turning down fighters because there's so much interest," he says with amusement. The fighters keep arriving though, having heard of his name and reputation, or perhaps having met him personally at a fight night. "All I demand from prospective fighters is that they be free of other contracts, and willing to sign with me," he says. It's a demand easily satisfied. The athletes generally have no qualms about signing with the mayor immediately upon arrival.
Brasert likens his gym to a home for wayward Muay Thai souls. "For all my fighters, it's like their second shot," he says. "They're fighters whose contracts have ended, or they've been out of the game, haven't fought at a high level in a while." Some arrive, complaining of having been screwed over by their former management. Some are fleeing from harsh treatment levied by old bosses. Others are just looking for a change, having heard of the mayor and his new gym. All are here in hopes of continuing their combat careers. "They've all been at a high level, and they still can be," Brasert says. "I remake them."
The mayor runs his gym with integrity, just as he tries to run his local government. He is staunch on what he calls his "three guarantees" for his gym and fighters. First one: "The side bet is guaranteed, one hundred percent real," he says, citing the agreed-upon sum placed between the gyms of two competing fighters, winner-take-all. The side bet is a part of the economic system of modern Muay Thai, especially in Isaan, and helps to assure gamblers and promoters that the fight is real. Mayor Brasert is known for his considerable side bets, often around 100,000 baht (US $2, 795). Powerful people in the area—police, other politicians—often contribute to Sit Gamnang Brasert side bets. The ability to produce such high side bets regularly is a mark of Brasert's high position in the community.
Brasert has garnered a reputation for always putting money down on his fighters. If he feels especially confident in his fighter, he'll throw down an additional sum, upwards of 50,000 baht of his own cash (about US $1,400). It's not unheard of for some of his fighters to add their own money to the pot, thereby betting on themselves.
Authentic matches and honest fighters are part of the mayor's second rule: "I will never ask a fighter to throw a fight, and they never will," he says with resolution and pride. In his eyes, that kind of integrity is what makes his gym so successful.
And the third guarantee: Mayor Brasert's fighters will always be well-conditioned, ready, willing, and able to fight. No part-timers or laborers getting into the ring just for some extra cash. All the mayor's fighters are professionals, training full-time in their craft.
The sky was dimly lit with twilight as training ended. Brasert led us to a round table and poured generous glasses of beer for each of us. He called out to two passing fighters, told them to go slaughter a chicken. Other fighters were tasked with cooking rice and prepping the vegetables.
"Ever had foreigners train here?" we asked.
"Never," he said. "But I'm open to it. Know anyone?"
We said we might. "This would probably work well for a foreigner who wanted to experience the Isaan Muay Thai culture," said our Isaan-based interpreter and liaison, Frances Watthanaya.
"Yes…" Mayor Brasert said, then after a pause, "How much do you think I should charge them?"
Frances gave him a rundown of average price ranges for gyms in Isaan. He looked interested, said he'd have to think on it.
"Would you accept foreign female fighters too?" we asked.
"Sure!" he said brightly. "And you tell them, if anyone wants a Thai husband, they can come here and I'll set them up with one of my fighters!"
Matchmaker, check. Add that to Brasert's ongoing list of identities: gym owner, sponsor, promoter, distiller, politician.
The two fighters Brasert had sent on a chicken mission for dinner rolled back in on the motorcycle, dead bird with slit throat in hand. "Stay for dinner?" Brasert offered.
We politely refused. "Still have to make it to Khao Yai tonight," Frances said. "We're staying at Kem's gym and it's a few hours away."
"Well then, take these for your trip." Brasert filled our arms with bottles of Lao Khao. "Give one to Kem."
The bottles clinked and rolled on the floor of Frances' tiny Toyota as we drove away. The fighters watched us leave, and the distiller-mayor gave us a final wai before turning to light another cigarette.
Special thanks to Frances Watthanaya for language interpretation and driving.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.