There has been some vague criticism toward me regarding the age of the Thai opponents I’ve been fighting. I have attempted to elevate the criticisms to a point of discussion by addressing the various facts about age and fighting in Thailand in this post The Realty of Fight Matchups in Thailand: The Wild Wild West. Internet shit-talking, while not really interesting in itself, does sometimes give rise to opportunity to shed light on things that do interest people who are serious about understanding fighting in Thailand. It does strike me that there is a degree of sexism involved in the criticism of western women who come to fight (criticism largely voiced by western men) – I get the brunt of it because I’m the most visible, but I’m sure other women have to suffer it as well. The idea is that western women who develop into fighters much later in life come to Thailand to somehow “pick on” young Thai fighters – its funny, but this charge didn’t seem to be flying around when I was regularly losing to many of these same fighters a year ago. The truth is that most of this seems to be borne out of some ignorance about Muay Thai in Thailand, often by folks who claim to have some expertise on the subject due to having trained here.
Above is a graphic of the accomplishments of Muay Thai prodigy Sangmanee Sor. Tienpo, at the age of 15, fighting at the peak of the sport’s summit. Of course he did not start fighting at the age of 15, he started at the age of 6. You can see that as he physically developed he took belt after belt in his 15th year (see his fight against Inseekao below).
Sangmanee Sor. Tienpo (15 yrs old) vs Inseekao Rachanon for the 115 lb Rajadamnern Belt
Now Sangmanee is something of a prodigy, not the common demographic of top stadia fighters; promising Thai boys generally debut at the top stadia around the age of 13 years and may peak around 18 or 19. But even at the precocious age of 15 and riding the top of the sport, Sangmanee was not alone. He in fact did share the 2012 Fighter of the Year award with another very young fighter, Yodwicha Por. Boonsit, who also fought brilliantly in 2012 (2 times as a 15 year old, 10 times as a 16 year old). In fact Yodwicha fought 9 times as a 15 year old at the top stadia, and 8 times as a 14 year old. The age of his opponents isn’t generally part of the discussion, only their weight. The fact is that the stadia fighting scene in 2012 was dominated by what many would call “boys” in the west. In Thailand of course, where youth is not regarded with the same never-never-land fantasy of fragile childhoods as it in the west, these are not children in the western sense, but young men. They’re celebrated for their achievements and there’s excitement over their potential for growth over the next 5 years or so that might be a typical career-span.
While age does tend to group fighters together by weight, especially in the lower weight-classes, it doesn’t draw hard lines between who can and cannot – or should and should not – fight each other, as both Yodwicha and Sangmanee show. Both were proving themselves the best fighters in Thailand at their respective weights, and both found themselves fighting (and beating) older, more mature fighters. (Sangmanee fought and beat Sam-A, who is 31 years old.) What I find somewhat sexist is that nobody (no man) would accuse other accomplished male Thai fighters of somehow picking on young fighters as they fought at these stadia. When Yodwicha, still 16, fought the very experienced Petboonchu FA Group (video below), a rematch of a fight several months before, nobody was saying: Poor Yodwicha, being picked on by the much more mature Petboonchu. And when Yodwicha then had just turned 17 and fought Saenchai, who was 33 and possibly the greatest fighter of his generation, nobody was complaining that Saenchai was victimizing Yodwicha (who won). No, they were instead celebrating the incredible potential and youth of Yodwicha in these fights. Additionally, Sam-A and Saenchai are also exceptions to the rule, fighting into their 30’s at top-level competition. These are “old men” by Muay Thai career standards. And this is exactly what a non-sexist approach to fights between older, more mature western female fighters and younger Thai fighters should be doing. It is about how incredible these young women are – because that is what they are, young women – as westerners living and fighting in Thailand, we fight them because they are among the best Muay Thai fighters at their weights in the world.
Yodwicha Por. Boonsit (16yrs old) vs Petboonchu FA Group
The difference is, of course, that while the best male fighters in their teens have an entirely developed sport of big stadium Muay Thai to work themselves into, debuting at 13 or 14 years old and graduating into the top stable of fighters in their late-teens and early 20’s, the best female Thai teen fighters do not. There is no “major leagues” to fight their way into and have a lucrative, honorific career by. They are already near or at the pinnacle of their sport. They might go to Japan to fight more mature fighters (there just aren’t as many professional teenaged fighters in Japan) and earn some money to bring back home in chunks, but there are no female bouts on Thai Fight, only a handful offered for Max Muay Thai or other televised fight cards. They might gain sponsorship and notoriety on the National team, or occasionally be pulled into promotions to fight (older, often much heavier) western female fighters, sometimes for belts. But this talent pool of excellent teen female Thai fighters systematically has no established career path, unlike the men. So while a 15-16 year old Thai man like Sangmanee has the opportunity to ascend in Lumpinee or Rajadamnern, and even win Fighter of the Year, the 15 year old women like “The Star” or Muangsingjiew, or Cherry Sityodtong (all of whom I’ve fought) are left to be local champions, vying for supremacy in sidebet fights, against a diminishing field of Thai opponents…or fighting foreign fighters, often giving up weight, hoping to gain the notoriety of someone like Sawsing or Chommanee. All the while their skills may not stay sharp as their bodies age and mature because there simply is not the path to higher income to drive the training regime that lead them to such high levels of performance as young teens.
The fact of the matter is that because Thai fighters start so young, and accomplish so much far before western fighters even get going, the best fighters are likely young, and they very well might be much younger than western opponents. These boys – Sangmanee and Yodwicha – were fighting men, and beating them. That’s the nature of the game. And for women, the age disparity might be even greater. Most of the top fighters among western women tend toward late-20’s and into the 30’s. Kru Nu, who is the head of the Petchrungruang gym where I train, is adroit at raising young boys from 7 years old and growing them into young Lumpinee fighters. He has 12 boys, aged 12-17, who regularly fight at Lumpinee. When I point out a young fighter as being promising he’ll nod thoughtfully and always caution my excitement, saying, “if he can make it through 15 or 16 [years old], with motorbikes and girls, then he will be great.” He’s lost countless promising fighters to adolescent distractions, when interest in Muay Thai takes a backseat to teenage stuff. It’s the same with female fighters, who at 15 or 16 years old will develop breasts and softer bodies, start dating and stop running and training, etc. If boys make it through these years, they can be champions at the biggest national stadia. If young women make it through, they don’t often have a great deal offered to them on the other side.
There is the very pointed case of Nong Mai Sit Rapee, who I fought about two years ago in my first big fight on Thai television. She was 17 years old and had recently won the silver medal in the Thailand games. She was a fighter I did not yet have the proper skills to handle, but it was a great experience for me, despite losing decisively. What is perhaps more interesting than what happened to me as my career went on is what happened with her. Nong Mai’s father was a major local political figure. Part of the fight prize was a motorbike (something I wasn’t made aware of, humorously enough – I thought the bike we were standing next to represented a company sponsor). You can see video below of how we were paraded through the streets in full makeup on a truck with a loud speaker announcing our battle:
Shortly after our fight and after I had returned to Chiang Mai, we discovered that she apparently had “run away” shortly after fighting me, winning the motorbike and taking her exams. Her parents went on television pleading for her to come back, that they weren’t angry with her, etc. More than a year later I saw her fighting a low-budget fight at the Loi Kroh ring where I have fought several times, a ring surrounded by bars, falang and kathoey shows. I was surprised and happy to see her and she recognized and greeted me. I don’t know the full story, but it appears that she had run off with her Muay Thai trainer when she made this escape just after exams, not long after our fight. Somehow they both ended up in Pai a town maybe an hour outside of Chiang Mai. Pai is far from her home in Nongbualamphu, Issan, both geographically and culturally. Her televised fight with me – not because of me – seemed to have proved some kind of spring board for her.
There is something notably sexist and even an underlying racism in thinking about the youthful Thai female opponents as somehow “helpless” or as victims that need to be protected by the western male keyboard warrior. Those who have tried to criticize me for fighting younger opponents have consistently effaced the women I fight into a nameless pool, once again thinking about opponents marked simply, anonymously as “Thai”, losing sight of the fighters and their accomplishments themselves. I don’t accidentally keep track of the names of the young women I fight here; it’s important for me to do so, to give credit to the fighters I share the ring with and noting whether she has international ranking, championship belts, keeping up with her career if I can after we fight through the daily Muay Siam newspaper and online reports. These women are important to me. I’m never just going out against “a Thai.” One of the most important persons in my life here, who I devote hundreds of hours to training with as well as documenting her biography and career on this site, is 13-year-old phenom Phetjee Jaa O. Meekhun. Almost all of what’s written about Phetjee Jaa in English comes from my site in some fashion. I’m not trying to profit off of her, I’m in admiration, and trying to capture as much as I can about this young, incredible fighter, who I consider my hero in many ways, because who the hell knows what will happen in the next 5 years for her? Her options are horrifically uncertain and if nothing else I want women around the world to know that she is; that such an amazing young women exists and maybe paths can open for her. For us.
Of course much of this is lost to those who watch female fighting in Thailand from a distance, from across the oceans and the Internet, catching a few video clips, passing along memes they found on Facebook, perhaps following one female western fighter they know or have trained with. Female western fighters historically seldom have posted the names of their opponents, and equally infrequently post video of their fights – and when they do, only a small number of their fans are paying attention. Complete fight records are not kept, and the age of opponents simply aren’t known. I’ve tried to keep as complete a record as I can. In my weight class it is even more the case that the best fighters in the world are younger. What it comes down to is that they are simply who I have to fight if I want to get better. And I believe we make each other better, just as I make Phetjee Jaa better when I challenger her every night in clinch and sparring – and she obviously has propelled my growth.
Shaping the perception of age in the west is that many of the male Thai fighters who are known abroad are themselves anomalies. The biggest names of current fighters are Saenchai, Buakaw, and maybe Yodsanklai. Fighters whose names are recognized, whose fights are searchable on YouTube. The fact is, these are “old men” by nakmuay standards. Fighting in the top ranks into your 30’s is uncommon and it’s arguable that Buakaw is no longer competitive with Thai fighters – he hasn’t fought another Thai in 8 years – and both Saenchai (34) and Buakaw (32) fight westerners in bizarre, modified Muay Thai for shows like Thai Fight or Max Muay Thai, or K-1. There simply are no equivalents to these “old men” fighters for Thai women. The career trajectories and number of years in the fight world are much shorter, much fewer for women. While the male body might show its youth by being pum phui (plump, or baby fat) and then miraculously form itself into muscles and manliness when puberty hits, the exact opposite seems to be the story for female fighters. They start out seemingly sexless and then a formerly good fighter becomes pum phui when her body’s hormones change, breasts develop and body composition shifts. While the male fighter gets “old,” the female fighter simply gets “woman-ed” and women don’t have a solid place in Thailand’s Muay Thai aesthetics, economics and culture.
An exceptionally good female fighter at 14 or 15 might not be at the top of the sport any longer at 17 or beyond. Without getting too personal one can see this happening right now with the really excellent Pattaya fighter The Star, (pictured above, left in the triptych), who at 15 took the interim WPMF 45 kg World championship belt in December 2013 (I then fought and lost to her in February), but now at 16 she already fights regularly at 52 kg (walk around) and has suffered several losses at higher weights, having lost primary gym relationship that helped bring her to prominence, Sor. Klinmee. The loss of gym affiliation is not directly because of her age, weight or losses. From what I understand it’s a struggle about management of her career. But that all this is happening now, just as she is crossing the limnal border does appear to be a constellation of her age in some way. She still is a wonderful fighter, the years of her fighting and technique are in her and man can she throw down as I saw in a fight only 11 months ago, but the support system and economics that turn prodigy 15-year-old boys into even more special fighters in their 20’s is simply not there. Very good teen female fighters might stop training or running regularly, stop sharpening their skills or building on them, yet keep fighting for work or opportunity confident in what they already know which was years in the making – some eventually may become young female versions of (by their twenties) the notorious “Tuk Tuk Driver” opponent down on the Islands; older men who are beer-bellied and out of shape fighting falang or other old men for small money. Except these young women are still young women, and fighters not that far off from the promise for greatness. The “Tuk Tuk Driver” is mid-30’s or older; the female version is in her 20’s! All that is missing is for the Sport to embrace them to continue with their development. While young men face many of the same obstacles at this age that young women do (age 14-15), motorbikes, drinking, drugs, boyfriends/girlfriends/friends, the young men have more incentive, financial promise and gym support to get through it to the other side. If a young male fighter can stay focused, a 15-year-old Sangmanee can be a top name and top earner for his gym for 10 years or more. If a woman makes it through those years she has a hard time finding fights, smaller fight earnings, no national stadium belts… the light at the end of the tunnel is not well-tended.
Above, In 2011 Soisci Porchetta Kiatphontip, 24, wins a World Title against Thanonchanok, who was I believe 15 at the time
To look at the ages of Thai fighters from the west, we simply don’t have a proper lens by which to view and judge. The vast majority of top fighters in Thailand aren’t even known to the west. Their names aren’t recognized, their fights aren’t searchable by most on YouTube, their gyms aren’t known, and quite frankly most of them are “kids” by western standards – how many people know of Tanadet, the amazing clinch fighter from Chiang Mai? I only know of him because he trained at my gym occasionally – he has been bursting on the scene at 15 years old for the last year. Buakaw and Saenchai didn’t become what they are in their 20’s; they became what they are in their young teens and have prolonged their careers in ways that are largely atypical for fighters. Looking at women, the lens is even foggier. The west can barely name a handful of top female Thai fighters – they’re not on TV, they’re not from recognizable, western-friendly gyms, and they’re not on Youtube unless they’re fighting a westerner, and then they are seldom named or may even fight under multiple names. My own channel and fight video page might be one of the biggest English-language resources for seeing named Thai female fighters, which is not even close to being enough. And even I have a hard time keeping track of and representing these women.
The fact is that my difficulty of being at the low end of the weight classes (45-47 kg) puts me in a pool of many young women at a point which may be the peak of their fight careers, and maybe at a moment that they are moving through that point to possible decline on the other side due to lack of opportunity. The west has conflicting views on the ethics of children fighting professionally in Thailand, but no matter our opinion, almost all of the Thai fighters we know and love have come from that background. The young women I’m fighting have been fighting for years longer than I have, sometimes since they were 6 or 8, and facing me is but one moment in their career which may be nearing its height (in terms of arc), careers which span both behind and beyond me. I’m just on a different timeline than they are. It is extremely unlikely that some of the top female fighters in Thailand (Sawsing 18, Cherry Gor. Twin Gym 18, Lommanee 24? Tananochok 19, Loma 20, Yodying 22) are training the same as how they did when they were 12 when they were sharpening their skills and fighting frequently, but I basically have to train AND fight like a 12 year old boy to catch up to the quality of top female Thai fighters. Whether we like it or not, Muay Thai in Thailand is a sport of youth – developed in one’s youth by fighting in youth – and while the stadium champions are young men, they’ve been in it for years before we ever see them.