Like empires and the great civilizations of human history, boxing gyms rise and fall because of corruption, internal weakness and a failure to adapt to external forces. Rompo Gym, a corrugated tin hut in the car park of a seedy apartment complex in Bangkok's slaughterhouse district, is no exception.
This time, ten years ago, it was a different story entirely. Back then, this rickety old structure was the go-to joint for a foreign kickboxer looking to break his or her shins on the Bangkok fight stage. Many big name fighters haunted the twin concrete floored rings and pendulous bags of Rompo Gym, champs like Faisal Zakaria, Damien Trainor, Alain Sylvestre and "the Dag Posse," Russian terminators who had been sent from the future to take on the Muay Thai scene; Dzhabar Askerov, Ramazan "The Punisher" Ramazanov, Arslan Magomedov, Magomed "The Propeller" Magomedov and Abdulmalik Gadzhiev.
In its heyday, Rompo Gym was so packed full of foreign fighters you would have to queue up for pad work with one of the pot-bellied Thai trainers (who could forget the Falstaff girth of Mr. Tua?) and skip on a rota in the adjacent car park. Alas, the hustle and bustle and empire of Rompo Gym is no more. The space has been taken over by a cartel of Iranian businessmen and renamed the "Muay Thai Academy." It's the end of an era and the beginning of another. Nonetheless, here's the warts and all story of the rise and fall of Rompo Gym.
I discovered the gym by fate or accident; I'm not quite sure. It was November 2003 and I had just been posted to Thailand as a "diplomatic spouse"—my wife worked as a civil servant for the UK government and was seconded to the United Nations regional office in Bangkok (conveniently over the road from Rajadamnern boxing stadium). We had a swank apartment, courtesy of the UK taxpayer, on Soi 24 between Rama 4 and Sukhumvit Road. Though I had trained in Thailand once before, "the land of the smile," by and large, was an alien planet, and I felt very much out of my element. The only thing that I knew was beaches, bar girls and Muay Thai kicky boxy. Nonetheless, as the accompanying partner of a UK diplomat, I was resolved to be on my very best behavior, and stay out of trouble.
Like most western nak muay (kickboxers) my background was strictly amateur. I had been studying "the art of eight limbs" (nine if you count the head), with a strange kind of quasi-religious devotion ever since I was a teenager. Now I was in Bangkok, posted by Her Majesty's Government no less, a bum assed kick fighter from Liverpool. "Somebody up there likes me," I said out loud as we boarded the business class flight from London to Bangkok.
My luck was to get better. The day that we moved into our grace and favor pad in central Bangkok, I went for a wander round the hood. In the distance, up on the pedestrian bridge over Rama 4, I spied a column of westerners doing roadwork in the drowsy heat of the late afternoon sun. They were all wearing Muay Thai shorts. A gym must have been nearby... But was it any good? I got talking to a puffed out straggler—a French kickboxer who spoke perfect English. He told me where Rompo Gym was and gave directions.
Everything seemed kind of predestined. We had been posted to Bangkok, had moved to a street not far from a Muay Thai gym and I really had no excuse but to go and try and get myself back into some semblance of fighting shape. Back then, the big scheme I had was to get fit and return home at the end of the posting, in 2-3 years time, and bag one of the domestic British Muay Thai titles. By the time I left Thailand, nine years later, winning a championship belt was a complete and utter matter of indifference to me.
Rompo was a wonky spit and sawdust gym of character and characters. Immediately, I felt like a rank amateur, a hayseed, a virgin at the prison rodeo. The place was heaving with world champions shorn of all body fat and reeking of namman muay boxing liniment; Israelis, French, Belgians, Russians, Moroccans, Iranians and me, the sole Englishman.
Mr. Pek, a greying, podgy, bespectacled Thai man in his mid fifties, was the promoter and co-manager of Rompo Gym (with an inscrutable Japanese man called Mr. Kanda). He took pity on the newbie. "Go and do some knees with the others," he shouted, ordering me to join the men dancing around the edge of the four square canvas. There was a senior looking trainer with short black hair in his mid-forties in attendance. This was Mr. Lek, a former Lumpinee champion and genius trainer with an encyclopedic knowledge of moves, counters and combinations. With a stern, unforgiving and scholarly eye he pointed me out and shook his head. "He too fat," he snapped in broken English, "he no good." Mr. Pek looked down his glasses like a college professor and cackled with agreement. Too fat, moi? I was soon to learn that professional nak muay had more hang ups about body fat than catwalk supermodels.
Over the coming weeks and months and years of training at Rompo, I found out that I was in the company of exalted personages; national champs, European champs and world champs, all of whom were modest chaps, not chest thumping Hemingway types like back home in the gyms of the west. They did not even seem like fighters, more like chivalrous knights on some endless quest for inner revelation more so than glory. Fighting. Winning. Losing. None of it seemed to matter. Just the life: just the training.
Every man was an emperor at Rompo gym. The Father of the House was the oldest champion on the premises, Shuki "White Lion" Rosenzweig from Israel. You didn't need performance-enhancing drugs when that old Lion was about. Many times he inspired fighters, both down on their luck and up and coming, with the wisdom of the game. I will never forget the pep talk that he once gave to a downbeat fighter from DR Congo. "Every fighter has something," he said to the brooding African pugilist, "you have something, you have a big right hand, use that and work from it." I was deeply moved. "Every fighter has something"... He wasn't just talking to the depressed boxer from Kinshasa; he was talking to the rest of us as well.
The great thing about being a kickboxer in Bangkok is that you can fight when you want, as much as you want, without any of the attendant hassle and bullshit of wannabe fight promoters and amateurish fight cards back home in the west. I remember Shuki telling me about having three fights in one week.
"One was easy," he said laconically, "but the other two were tough." Did he do three in a week because he was broke? No. He did it because he could do it.
The greatest farang (foreign) kick fighters that I ever saw were "the Dag Posse" a crazy gang of Russian lads from Dagestan province. These fellas were ironmen with lightning punches and kicks that broke the sound barrier. They were also wary of strangers, and, for the first year or so that I was training at Rompo Gym, they never uttered a word, let alone looked at me. Later, I discovered that they spoke perfect English. And had a sense of humor. One day, Dzhabar Askerov pointed out my fuzzy head of curly hair and asked, "What happened to you, are the Jackson Five in town?" I laughed at the lame Russian joke and pointed out to the future welterweight champ that he was walking around Bangkok in the 21st Century with a mullet on his head (since gone).
But it was never a lame joke when you stepped up to the apron for a dust up with the Dag Posse. My pound-for-pound favorite was Arslan Magomedov, a middleweight with movie star good looks, who would always command the center of the ring and pick off opponents with masterly punches and kicks. In the blistering indoor heat of the gym, his focused intelligence and blitzkrieg hand speed used to flummox resident fighters, including heavyweights like world champ Tomas Nowak and Sasan Ghosairi. Make no mistake: Arslan the pin-up boy was a knock out artist, who would pour on the pressure with fearsome shots and quickly reduce sparring partners of any size and skill to disconsolate figures. With his explosive limbs and eight-pack stomach, he was the best western kickboxer that I had even seen. A man of few words in the gym, Arslan, however, could be relied upon to say these three things during a routine training session:
(1) "Yes, I know."
(2) "That's bullshit."
(3) "I am world champion."
I worked out that if you were Arslan, you could probably get through life just by saying those three things alone.
Another leg buckling talent was Magomed "the Propeller" Magomedov. One of the greatest Russian kickboxers of all time, he would conjure punches out of the air and cut off the ring with masterful presence before jolting your head with his trademark teep that converts mid-air into a round kick.
"That," said Mickey the bricklayer, a knowledgeable fighter from Scotland, "is fucking hard to do."
But that wasn't the only nuke in the Russian's arsenal. A magnificently innovative and rugged boxer, Magomed had a left hook—which was more of a butcher's hook than a punch. Highly impressive in the flesh, with his flint eyes and comic book muscles, Magomed Magomedov, the WMC and IMF light heavyweight champ, was the one from the Dag Posse who instilled the most fear in visitors to the gym. My younger brother, a former UK karate champion in youth, was no exception.
"That guy scares the living shit out of me," he said, pointing at Magomed and the words stitched into the rear ass of his Muay Thai shorts: "Maniac in the Ring."
He wasn't the only scary animal in our zoo. There was Dzhabar Askerov. At 5' 7" the welterweight was the smallest of the Dag Posse, but he had an all-action, come forward, throwback style. The only guy to ever handle this human express train in sparring was a French Savate expert called Dominique Fontanarosa. He had great hands and was able to cope with the cluster bombs of young Dzhabar—until the Frenchman went for a flash Savate spin kick and Dzhabar swept the floor with a round kick to his supporting leg. With or without his sacred mullet of Russian power, Dzhabar was an amazing blood and guts brawler in the ring and, like the other members of the Dag Posse, a perfect gentleman outside of it.
I recall Shuki, the veteran champ of the house, saying that "Dzhabar" was one of the many Arabic words for "hero." The name, however, was too much of a tongue twister for the Thais of Rompo Gym, like Mr. Pek and Uncle our aged timekeeper who looked a bit like Yoda from Star Wars. They called the Russian kickboxer "Yabba"—the Thai word for methamphetamine, instead.
"Yabba, Yabba," Mr. Pek would shout out, in between frantic calls on the cellphone to promoters, fight venue managers and airlines, "you want to fight in Cambodia?"
This was pertinent. You weren't just fighting in Thailand if you were working out of Rompo Gym in Bangkok. There were big ass bouts all over the South East Asia region, too. One place of interest was Cambodia. Almost every guy who went to fight there returned with a crazy zigzag scar in the middle of the forehead from spinning elbows. Cambodians like to spin their elbows slightly differently to the Muay Thai guys of Thailand—that much was all too obvious to see.
With so many blokes from so many different countries, at times it felt you were in the French Foreign Legion and not a Muay Thai gym in the car park of a dingy Bangkok apartment complex. And it was strange to see Israeli guys doing endless rounds of clinch work with other guys from Muslim countries, and seeing all of them getting along without any of the hatred, hang ups and bullshit of back home. Being a nak muay in Bangkok leveled all of that out. All we wanted to do was train, fight and have a good time.
"It's a great life that I have," said Arslan Magomedov, "I go training, lie around the pool and go back to Moscow with a suntan."
He wasn't wrong. But in between "the great life" was the job of the sport itself. Mr. Pek, who seemed at times like the Don King of Bangkok's Muay Thai scene, would cast his big eye far and wide over the fighters in the gym. Off goes his phone. The ringtone is "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" but it's May, and we are in the swells of the hot season. He can match Erik Teer, an American kickboxer, with an Iranian guy. They both chuckle. An Iranian versus an American is a "grudge match" that makes for good box office. And it's not happening in Las Vegas or Madison Square Gardens, it's taking place in Bangkok and Bangkok only.
"The Iranian fighter," said Mr. Pek, " he laughs too. Everybody happy!"
Mr. Pek didn't smoke, didn't drink and went to pray at the Buddhist temple much like every other Thai gentleman of a certain age. The vice of choice for Mr. Pek was gambling. And he was always keen to make a quick buck or two betting for, and against, his own fighters. To some, Mr. Pek was a great trainer; to others, he was a complete and utter bastard. But Mr. Pek was a trainer, and a businessman, and, like all such combinations in the fight game, was only interested in folks who were game for a fight on a card. Sure, he would give a bum kick fighter a chance, and show equal deference to the lion hearted and lily livered alike, but it was always best to stay on the side of caution, and keep an eye on the horns that would periodically sprout from the top of Mr. Pek's head.
Then there were our trainers. They were all like professors from Oxford University to me. All of them were walking textbooks of moves, counters and various other tricks not recorded, nor written down. There was so much to learn, too much to learn. How could I possibly remember all of it? You did so by training and training all the time. If you didn't train 5-6 days a week at Rompo Gym the trainers would inquire as to your health and wellbeing. Was something up, were you having problems at home? You learned that being a pro nak muay means showing up to the office and putting the hours in. The other thing: you have to love what you do, when you do it and fully believe in it (like voodoo) to make it all work. That was the key. You had to believe in yourself.
Mr. Lek, our genius of a trainer, would often chide fighters with talent for not doing so.
"Don't be scared," he would say, "relax, relax, relax."
Guys losing their cool and blowing it at the gym are a pretty regular occurrence in the west. Not so at Rompo Gym. I was dug in the foxhole between November 2003 and August 2012 and rarely saw guys, or girls, go into handbag meltdown. However, two occasions do stick out. The first was the time champion fighter Ahmed "Kamikaze" Saadi lost his cool during sparring with another Muslim kickboxer. Old Ahmed was getting tagged by the guy's jab and blew a fuse. Quick as a flash, the father of the house, Shuki jumped in and defused the situation. Drama over.
The great rumble in Rompo Gym was not between the fighters, but the management. Mr. Pek's gambling problem caused friction with Mr. Kanda, his Japanese business partner and co-manager at Rompo Gym. In 2009, relations between these two men were not good at all. You would be sparring to the loud soundtrack of both men arguing in gangsta Thai at ringside. It was inevitable that both parties would come to blows. It was just a question of when. This did not stop fighters at the gym taking odds on who would beat whom (5/1 Mr. Kanda KO win) or who would throw the first punch (3/1 Mr. Pek). It finally boiled over in July of 2009. Mr. Kanda had done a deal behind Mr. Pek's back to secure sole lease on the gym space. Mr. Pek exploded and the old Lumpinee champ jabbed Mr. Kanda square in the chops and followed through with an overhand right (that sent his pince nez spectacles flying across the room). Mr. Kanda absorbed the blows and steamed forward like Godzilla. Fortunately, Shuki, ever the blessed peacemaker, jumped in and cooled both men down.
"I think Pek is going to come back to shoot Kanda," joked Mr. Chang, one of the trainers, "I've never seen Pek go mad like this!"
Would Mr. Pek come back to do a drive-by on Mr. Kanda? No. He let the whole thing go and went off to promote B-movie bouts in Thai prisons... where one could easily imagine the old rogue saying to the cons and the lifers, "You win, you go free. You lose, you stay in Bangkok Hilton little bit longer."
This was the beginning of the fall of Rompo Gym. And, like many an empire and human civilization, a great gym is not conquered from without, until it has destroyed itself from within. There was too much infighting between managers. Not enough pound-for-pound investment in the fighters' development. And, this being a Buddhist country, there was the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth to consider. Mr. Kanda wrestled the gym from Mr. Pek and "the Iranians" have now done much the same thing to Mr. Kanda and renamed it "Muay Thai Academy"—complete with showers and toilets that actually flush. Bah humbug! They should have kept the name, they should have kept the brand, the toilets that don't flush (they add character) and besides, "Muay Thai Academy" sounds outright bland to my punch-drunk head. I'm not the only one who's sad to see things change. It was better when Mr. Pek was in bed with Mr. Kanda. There were more fights, more names in the gym, more action and dirty deeds going down in those good old days when outsiders used to call us "the mafia gym." They were the best of days, they were the worst of days, it's the story of my gym, but it's the story of every gym where men train to fight and win, lose or draw.
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