Sometime in the mid 1980s, a young Muay Thai fighter, newly in his twenties, parked his motorcycle outside a duck soup restaurant in Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand, hoping to beat the dinner rush. Dam, known in the ring as Saming Thong (Gold Tiger), had changed out of his Muay Thai shorts and into his fashionable blue jeans for a quick errand into town to pick up dinner. The waitress took his order, invited him to take a seat outside in the warm air.
Dam turned abruptly. A table full of doughy, middle-aged men stared at him. Their gold neck chains glinted next to beads of sweat dotting flushed skin.
One of them took a swig of beer, slammed the bottle on the table next to the others they'd already drained. "You got any money?"
"No," Dam said sharply.
"No money, huh? You look like you got money."
Then another said, "How about your jeans?"
Dam met their stares. "What about my jeans?"
Bluejeans were all the rage in 1980s Thailand. Name brands—like the Lees Dam was wearing—were especially coveted and hard to find.
"Give 'em to us," the men ordered.
Dam turned away and waited for his dinner. Typical local bullies, he concluded. Everyone in the area knew people like them, these sort-of rich, middle-aged men wearing their meager wealth around their necks, banding together and getting drunk and treating anyone "lesser" like trash.
"Hey, I'm talking to you, boy! Give us your jeans!"
"Fuck off," Dam said. "I'm not giving you my jeans. I worked hard for them. You want jeans? Go buy your own."
The men laughed condescendingly. They taunted him, made increasingly abusive remarks, called Dam various sorts of insults.
Dam fought to control his anger. Inside the restaurant he could see a table of local policemen eating dinner. He approached them, fury mounting, and pointed to the drunks outside. "Those assholes are trying to take my jeans."
They didn't make a move to get up. "Okay, we'll take care of it after we finish eating," one of them said in between spoonfuls of duck soup.
"Food's ready!" the shop owner called. Dam paid and left the restaurant, walking by the drunks on his way out.
"HEY," one of them shouted again. "Give us your jeans!"
"Then give us the Lee label!"
Dam started his motorbike up, turned to leave.
"You stupid kids think you're so special," they said. "Give us your jeans. You don't deserve them. Probably stole them anyway!"
Dam had reached his boiling point, but the tubby drinkers didn't notice or didn't care. He was just another dumb kid they could push around.
Suddenly, Dam smiled. "Okay," he said, flashing a sneer he did his best to disguise as a smile. "You want my jeans? Let me go home and change out of them. I'll be right back."
"Good boy," they said, and continued drinking.
Twenty minutes later Dam came back, this time with two fighters from his gym.
They walked up to the bullies at the table, still sweating in the evening heat over their whiskey and beer. The numbers were even, three-on-three. Dam glanced inside the restaurant; the police were gone.
"So, you want my fucking jeans?" Dam said.
The men at the table glanced at each other, slight looks of worry shadowing their heavy, sloppy faces. One of them stood up and was immediately treated to a straight punch. The other two pushed back from the table and struggled to their feet. Dam's two friends blocked their escape.
In the end, it was a minor beating. No one went to the hospital. Dam and his friends roughed up the bullies, threatened to kill them if they ever spoke to Dam again. They made no protest and went home with egos and faces bruised. The police never got involved. There were no repercussions.
Restaurant staff and street-side spectators had witnessed the confrontation. Word spread quickly in the little town: Do not mess with that guy Dam. If you bully him, he won't let it go. And neither will his Sitmonchai family.
Thirty years later, Dam has a different reputation. He's known as Kru Dam now, arguably one of the most famous coaches in Thailand. Some call him a champion-maker, having ushered famous Pornsanae Sitmonchai to multiple titles and deftly guiding Yodkhunpon Sitmonchai down the same path.
But that's now that he's nearly 50. Before his domestic and international fame, before he was a world-class coach, before he was a father with a family of his own, way back when he was a volatile twenty-something, he was a bruiser.
And it's not just because he's a Muay Thai fighter and all fighters are naturally predisposed to street scrapping. Fighters' personalities are as varied as any other group of humans. Some are hotheads, natural brawlers. Some are shy, non-confrontational except in the ring. Kru Dam classifies himself as a protector.
After Dam stood his ground in the altercation at the restaurant, his reputation as a local tough guy, maybe even a thug, began to grow. Slowly, he morphed from borderline thug into something more positive in the community. He became a "protector," meting out a Muay Thai version of vigilante justice and achieving a bit of local fame in the community.
Now just entering his fifties, Kru Dam laughs a bit nostalgically about the role he used to play in the community nearly 30 years before. "I was like everyone's older brother," he says. "People would come up to me and say, 'Someone's bullying me. Can you help me?'"
For a while, it was mostly local teenagers and young adults who sought him out. As far as he knows, at the time, he was the only one at Sitmonchai or in the wider community sought out regularly to help with matters of bullying, the only one who filled that role. The younger crowd trusted him; he was a local boy and they'd all grown up together, unlike some of the other Sitmonchai fighters who were from far provinces.
More often than not, the conflicts had nothing to do with him. Kru Dam remembers kids running up to the gym where he lived, calling for him to come help break up a fight at a school or temple fair. When Dam showed up, little attention was paid to determining who was right or wrong. The priority was to neutralize the fight, to protect anyone who was being hurt.
In cases when someone was clearly in the wrong, or one kid was violently beating another in a one-sided fight, Dam would offer to step in and fight the attacker. This was usually enough to end the fight, as few wanted to go head-to-head with a Muay Thai fighter with an established track record at all of Bangkok's top stadia. At times, the threat of Dam's involvement was also enough to quell a fight before he even showed up—local thugs would flee the scene if they heard he was on his way.
It seemed like scuffles were happening all the time, and Dam's big brother rep grew to include volunteering as a bouncer of sorts. Soon business owners started seeking his help—if a fight broke out late at night at a bar in town, he'd be called to come break it up. He was the local muscle, and offered his services free of charge not to a particular establishment, but to the community in general. When he was called in to take care of more than one or two individuals, he'd bring other Sitmonchai fighters as backup, arriving in a group to intimidate the troublemakers into leaving the scene, though ready to fight if it escalated.
Dam's Sitmonchai backup wasn't always available, though. And back in the 1980s and '90s, his reputation didn't extend much beyond the borders of his Tha Maka town. One incident, when Dam was 25, made this clear.
Tha Muang was a few towns over, a half-hour away by car. Dam, relatively unknown in those parts, was sitting with two friends, Sompong and Daeng, on the porch of Sompong's home one night when they heard a group of men approaching.
There were four of them coming out of the dark road. The way they walked, angrily and with purpose, Dam knew something was wrong.
"Daeng," Sompong said, "isn't that the brother of the kid you slapped upside the head this morning?"
Slapping another's head is a serious sign of disrespect in Thai culture, having roots in Thai Buddhist belief in the sanctity of one's head. Daeng, knowing the potential repercussions that awaited him, took off running. Dam watched him go, then turned back to the men. He stood up and met them in the street in front of Sompong's house.
Looking back on it 25 years later, Dam remembers his younger self trying to diffuse the situation, asking the men what was wrong, telling them he and Sompong hadn't been involved. The four men attacked anyway.
Dam was used to fighting one-on-one, even two-on-one at times. But this was the first time four men jumped him at once. His Muay Thai skills offered some protection, though; when one of them kicked him, he grabbed the leg and held it against his ribs, pulling the man down with him when he himself fell into a seated position. Then with one nearly down, it was a matter of blocking their blows until he eventually got back to his feet.
With Dam fighting back, two of the men soon turned to an easier target. Sompong had curled up in his chair, too afraid to move. The men came at him and threw him down. He rolled up into a ball on the ground.
Dam remembers the fight being broken up by a big guy who happened by on a motorcycle. After the four men fled, man on the motorcycle asked if they were okay, offered to take them to a doctor. Dam winced at the pain developing in his back but said he felt alright, then checked on Sompong.
His friend was conscious but badly shaken. He had cuts along his face and hairline, and the man on the motorcycle gave him a lift to the local hospital to be stitched up.
The next day, Dam woke up in his own bed and with some swelling and soreness, having ridden his motorbike the half hour home after Sompong left for the hospital with the good samaritan. He was unconcerned; the next-day pain didn't feel much different than what he normally sustained from fighting in the ring.
But he was angry. Why had Daeng just run off, leaving Sompong and Dam to deal with the consequences of his bad actions? If he'd stayed, Dam would have done his best to protect him, as he felt he'd done with Sompong. And those four thugs—why had they jumped people who had nothing to do with their issues? Dam wasn't even local to that area, it wasn't his fight.
When his mother saw her son's bruised face and heard his story about what had happened, she asked him why he kept friends like that.
Dam never spoke to Daeng again. He saw him only once more, from the other side of a festival. Sompong and Daeng eventually reconciled. It was hard for them not to—they were neighbors in the same village.
Eight years after the altercation, Dam heard Daeng had died. One of the thousands of car accidents that happen every year in Thailand. He had been in his early thirties.
Dam was also in his early thirties at the time. He had recently retired from fighting and was working as Sitmonchai's head trainer. News of Daeng's death didn't affect him much. He hadn't seen Daeng in years, and unfortunately his strongest memory of Daeng was his insincerity as a friend.
Now in middle age, Sompong and Dam are still friends. They speak often, but not about what happened that night. "I don't bring it up," Kru Dam says with a smile. "I don't want to make him feel bad that he got hurt and didn't fight back."
With 20-plus years of reflection on the experiences of his youthful self, Kru Dam credits Muay Thai for giving him both the mental and physical skills needed to stand firm. He's sometimes compared to the Pornsanae Sitmonchai of a decade ago, also known to engage in fights on the street. The difference between them outside the ring, people say, is that Pornsanae was an almost indiscriminatory brawler, but Kru Dam fought smart. "Pornsanae would just lose his temper and go for it—all heart," says Abigail McCullough, longtime Sitmonchai resident and the gym's foreign cultural liaison. "Kru Dam was technical, even in street fights."
Ultimately, though, for Dam it's about loyalty. Dam calls Sompong a true friend, someone who stood by him even when threatened. Dam's best friends, however, are his "Sitmonchai family." Abigail McCullough, who has known Dam for seven years, calls Kru Dam and the rest of the Sitmonchai fighters fiercely loyal. "Everyone shares their problems," she says. "In other words, if someone fucks with me, I know I've got the whole Sitmonchai family behind me. The same for everyone here." She does add, though, that they don't fight over trivial things. "It has to be something substantial to kick off a fight."
A progression from his days as the community's big brother-type, Abigail calls Kru Dam a father-figure at the gym, the person who keeps everything together. "A few years ago when he left the gym for a few months, everyone felt his absence," Abigail said. "It felt like we were missing our head."
Much of Dam's fighting life, both in and out of the ring, has been closely tied with community, doing his part to keep it safe and fair as a protector (though some on the receiving end of Dam's "protection" might well have called him the bully). "He does have values that are really important to him, like trust and loyalty," Abigail says. "It's nice to know that when you have a problem, you can turn to him. Within minutes of him finding out, it will be taken care of."
The gym still has a reputation in the area for producing fighters who will stand their ground when provoked. Recently two teenage fighters, Tia and Kay, scrapped with six local boys in the next town over. The gang picked a fight with the Sitmonchai boys, provoking them with adolescent jabs along the lines of, "Oh you Muay Thai boys think you're tough?!"
Tia and Kay fought off all six boys, went back to the gym for reinforcements, but the instigators were gone by the time they returned to the scene. Abigail calls it regular teenage stuff. "I think most of the time they fight, it's because someone they know has been 'wronged' by someone else," she says. "They're not looking for fights, but if there's provocation they'll definitely stand their ground."
And the older generation, too. Kru Dam, who will turn 50 soon, has slowed down a bit with his street fights but hasn't left that chapter completely behind. Just this past year, he came to the gym with a messed-up hand. When asked about it, he said he'd decked a guy outside his son's school because the guy had slapped Kru Dam's son upside the head.
Special thanks to Abigail McCullough for help with Thai-English interpretation.
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.