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The Struggles of a Fighting Father: A Conversation with Thailand Pinsinchai

Fightland Blog

By Lindsey Newhall

Photos by Matthew Yarbrough

Born Paitoon Sansawad in the northeastern province of Sakon Nakhon, acclaimed fighter Thailand Pinsinchai has amassed numerous titles in the Muay Thai world. His name is well known; his reputation as a former champion brings people from around the world to Thailand in hopes of training with him. He possesses belts from both Rajadamnern and Lumpinee Stadium, titles he captured in his twenties. Muay Thai has always been his life.

Now in his early forties, Thailand Pinsinchai has other priorities.

In late November 2015, I interviewed Thailand, hoping to record an oral history of his life as a decorated Muay Thai fighter. When I asked him, "What is the most important thing in your life?" he answered without hesitation. "My children," he said, and talked about his new son, only seven months old, and his two older boys back in Isaan. During the interview, each time I asked about his fighting accomplishments, his titles, his travels, his philosophy of life, he always brought it back to his children, as if there were nothing else worthy of discussion.

He touched on his first marriage, said his first two children, Tan and Tim, went to live with his mother and other relatives in his home province after he and his first wife separated. "My ex-wife is a factory worker and can't raise our two kids on her own," he said. "That's why they live with my mother." It was an arrangement that had been going on for years, since before his sons, now 9 and 11, could walk.

Thailand arrived at his current workplace, Santai Muay Thai, in early November 2015, after having coached at FA Group, 13 Coins, and PK Saenchai. Now remarried, the father of a new baby, and living a stable life in Chiang Mai, Thailand was thinking more and more of his two sons half the country away.

Three months after the initial interview, I returned to Chiang Mai, in February 2016, and interviewed Thailand again. His preferred subject of conversation had not changed. With cautious excitement, he told me his two older boys would be coming to live with him in Chiang Mai in just a few months. They would arrive during a school break and live with him, his new wife, and their baby brother. He would train them as Muay Thai fighters and teach them all he knows.

Fightland: You're a father, a famous trainer, and a former champion. What's been the most memorable moment of your life so far?
Thailand Pinsinchai: It was when I first saw my sons when they were born. I remember that as soon as I saw them, I immediately started worrying about everything. Like, what if they get hurt? What if they get sick? All those parental anxieties.

Do your two older sons fight Muay Thai?
Yes, they both do. My oldest boy started when he was seven, four years ago now. So far, he's fought 10 times. My younger son is nine and has fought six times.

Did they learn their Muay Thai from you?
I taught some to my older son. Never taught my younger, but he fights anyway. My kids have Muay Thai in their blood. Every morning before school, their grandmother, my mother, trails them on her bike while they run. So they've got Grandma acting like their trainer. We have some equipment there at home in Sakon Nakhon, and my older boy, Tan, shows techniques to his little brother, Tim. I actually think Tim might turn out to be better than Tan. He has more talent. Seems like it for now, at least.

How has your life changed because of Muay Thai?
Muay Thai has taken me all over the world. I've been to Italy, Scotland and England to fight. And I was a trainer in Singapore, Croatia, and England. Croatia was so cold and lonely; I was there two months. I've been to England many times for seminars, but never stayed longer than two or three weeks. I stayed in Singapore for a month. Good pay, boring job. But it was a nice country, very clean.

That was about 10 years ago, and I had my first two sons at that point. It was hard to be away from them, but I had to work to support them. You have to provide. I'd call home regularly, always had to remind my wife I was working to take care of our family. Did I want to go abroad? Yes, but only for the money. If it weren't for Muay Thai, I'd probably be a shop owner, maybe working at a local market.

You're originally from Isaan, and you've spent many years in Bangkok. What do you think of Chiang Mai so far?
The weather is good here in Chiang Mai. The people are nice. I think it's a good place to raise my children. I haven't been able to watch my two kids from my first marriage grow up. I was always too busy working in the Muay Thai industry, moving around all the time. My kids had to go to school, and I couldn't give them that stability before. But now that I have a stable life, I want to raise them myself, watch them grow up and be proud of them. Never had the opportunity to raise them myself before.

I discussed it with my mother and my wife, and we all came to a decision right before I accepted this job and moved to Chiang Mai that eventually they would move here too. Tan and Tim currently live with my mother, and she is 68 now, too old to take care of them. Tan will be a teenager soon, and it's hard for an older person, like my mother, to control a teenager. I want to take care of them on my own.

How do your children feel about coming here?
Well, just last night my son called me and said, "I don't think I want to move there because I can't speak the Chiang Mai dialect. I'm afraid I can't answer the teacher when they call on me at school." He was worried because we speak Isaan at home. But I said, "Don't worry, we speak almost the same in Isaan and northern Thailand."

Overall, I think they're excited to move here. I call them on the phone all the time. Video calls, almost every day. They seem happy about the move.

What dreams do you have for your sons?
For them to be fighters. Because if you get good at Muay Thai and get famous, then you can do whatever you want. You'll have job opportunities. Everyone will want you to be a trainer.

Actually, I don't want my kids to fight, but I know that being a fighter makes a lot of things easier. For example, you can go to a sports school, or another good school, for free with a scholarship. Right now they play football [soccer] and Muay Thai, but I would let them do whatever they love to do. Art, science, whatever. My only requirement is that they stay in school. I quit after primary school because I wanted to be a fighter. I left after sixth grade when I moved to another gym. My parents wanted me to finish my studies but I insisted on being a fighter. My parents kept saying no, but finally they agreed to it. I moved to a gym in Udon Thani when I was 12. Later I went to Pinsinchai Gym when I was 17, stayed there all the way until I was in my thirties.

All that being said, I want my sons to be fighters, but I don't necessarily want them to be career fighters. I just want them to be high-level amateurs. I'm afraid there's no money for them to go to a good school without fighting, but conversely, if they become pros, that makes it harder to go to school too. Also, I don't want them to be pros because I don't want them to get hurt by pros.

Though you yourself are a pro fighter.
Yes, I am a pro, and that's how I know how hard it is. My sons can do whatever they want with their lives; I just want them to get a good education, and then they can do anything they like. If they're pro fighters, they'd have to train so hard. There would be no time for school. You're going to fight at a high level and also study? No, you can't do it. I used to train students who went to school and also fought, and they had no time to do homework and study. It was just fighting all the time. School and training was too hard for them.

I saw a lot of people drop out to be fighters. If they had an important fight, they would leave school. Not a good idea. I graduated from high school but it was very hard. I didn't go to a regular school. I had to go to a special weekend school because I was too busy training and fighting.

I suppose it's possible nowadays to be a successful fighter and also a full-time student, because there are more opportunities. Many schools support sports, and some even have scholarships for good fighters. Now, there are many good fighters in Bangkok who also go to university. It was different when I was a kid. Back then, you had to choose.

If you could live your life over, what would you have done differently?
I would have stayed in school.

But then again, if I had stayed in school, I would not have reached this level of Muay Thai. If I had continued in school, though, I think I would have studied mechanics, and would have become an engineer or auto mechanic.

Now that you're a father of three, what do you think makes one a good father?
You have to raise your kids, spend time with them. Help them become good people. My biggest regret as a father is that I didn't have more time for my first two sons. I wish I could have raised them on my own, could have been in their lives more.

When you have kids, you have to give them the best you can. I'm a trainer now, and it's almost like being a trainer, in that you try to teach them everything you have. It doesn't matter if you're Thai or foreign; you always try to pass on all you have to your children. All your knowledge and wisdom.

Are Tan and Tim famous in the Muay Thai community just by virtue of being the sons of Thailand Pinsinchai?
People know they're my sons, but it's no big deal that I'm their father, at least not that I can tell. When they're fighting, perhaps the promoter will advertise them as being my sons, but in the village, they're just regular kids.

***

Tan and Tim arrived in Chiang Mai in April. Their stay was short, however. After further discussions between Thailand and his mother and sister, who were caring for the boys, it was determined that the boys would remain in Isaan another year.

According to Santai Gym manager and owner, Jiraphan "Ood" Hjalmarsson, the boys' grandmother and aunt were not ready to say goodbye. "[Thailand's] mom and sister missed [the boys] so much," when they were in Chiang Mai, she said. Despite his disappointment, Thailand deferred to his relatives' wishes. "Thailand accepted it because he didn't raise them, but his mom and sister did, so he let them decide."

The plan now is for the boys to return in one year. They enjoyed their visit this past April, and are looking forward to May 2017, when they will start a new school year and new life in Chiang Mai.

In the meantime, daily video calls must suffice.

Interpretation by Jiraphan Hjalmarsson.

 

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