My first fight at Bangla

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Notice how the headline makes it sound like I was in the ring? LOL — that is hilarious. I was actually sipping a frosty beer and lounging ringside during this fight. Although I did have to work the camera, and sometimes my finger would cramp up. Nothing a week off from training and a ton of Vicodin couldn’t handle.

These fight posters are plastered all over Phuket each week. I thought it would be so cool to train hard, book a pro fight, and get my picture on a real Thai fight poster. But then I realized I could just photoshop my head onto one. It tells you a lot about who I am. And more importantly, who I’m not.

The video above was the first pro fight I’ve seen live, which was at Bangla Stadium in super touristy Patong Beach about 20 minutes from TMT. Every week Bangla holds pro fights for locals and tourists, with fighters from around the world including trainers and students from TMT. The adult winners get 40,000 baht ($1,000) — they also have kids and teens fighting, for a lesser purse. There are giant posters and flyers for the fights all over town, and open bed trucks with fighters in the bed drive around announcing the fight on loudspeakers. If you’re fighting, you’re a celebrity — at least for that week. 

Tonight’s fight was with Ngoo, one of my favorite trainers at TMT — he’s tiny and nimble like a little monkey, and he’s always laughing and joking, so we were excited to see him transform into a pro fighter in the ring. If you’ve never seen Muay Thai before, you’ll notice the fighters doing an elaborate ritual of movements called Wai Khru that both fighters must perform before every bout, according to official Muay Thai regulations. It’s a tradition in which fighters pay respect to their teachers and parents, and pray for their safety and victory. The ritual has been developed in different regions under different teachers and therefore no two fighters perform identical Wai Khru. In a practical sense, it functions as a final pre-fight warm-up and gives the fighter some time alone before the fight to collect his thoughts. In the following clip you can see the Wai Khru, highlights from Ngoo’s fight, and the live betting that goes on in the audience during the fight. Muay Thai has a reputation for being a vicious fighting style, as evidenced by the fighters circling the ring before the fight and dragging their gloves along the ropes. This isn’t strictly for show – they’re checking for needles, which can be hidden in the rope by unscrupulous fighters. If you accidentally get pushed into a needle it could distract you as your opponent goes for a knock-out. (That is so lame. Unless I ever get into a ring, in which case I’m totally bringing a needle.) It’s also the fighters’ way of symbolically “sealing” themselves into the ring.

Kid fighters are up first. At first you think “oh how cute…. look at the little kids pretending to fight…” But then you realize they’re trained, dead serious, and need the money. There is major controversy in the states about these kids fighting, because it’s basically a high stakes cock fight. For many poor Thai families, the parents are forced to rely on their kids’ fight winnings to survive, and the kids have little choice but to train and fight.

A recent 20/20 episode explored whether the tradition of kids fighting Muay Thai was exploitation or necessity. And there is a compelling new documentary called Raised in the Ring which follows the “careers” of two 8-year-old girls, both professional Muay Thai prizefighters. (8-year-old girls. Professional. Prizefighters. WTF?)

Also notice that the fighters always jump over the rope when entering the ring. The head is highly revered in Thai culture and is never lowered under the rope to enter a ring for a fight (although it’s ok for training). Incidentally, it is considered extremely rude to touch a Thai person’s head and if it happens, a sincere apology is required.

Notice how I interject little cultural footnotes into my banter? Who needs fancy book learnin when you’ve got the HorneBlower?

Let’s get ready to rumble!

PS: The “music” (Pi Muay) that plays during a Muay Thai fight is an important part of the experience. It sounds like a clarinet having angry sex with a bagpipe and it makes you want to hack your ears off of your head with a machete. Enjoy.

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