The Trouble With Belts – Disorder, Money and Madness

It’s December 20th and Modt Ek, who corners for me sometimes when I travel to fights, is trying to convince me to take a Western Boxing match at Royal...

It’s December 20th and Modt Ek, who corners for me sometimes when I travel to fights, is trying to convince me to take a Western Boxing match at Royal Field in five days.  It’s not last-minute notice – I was offered this same fight over a month ago by a different promoter – but it’s last-minute desperation.  I’ve actually been offered this fight by six (6!) different persons and almost every one of them more than once.  I’ve said “no” to each of them for the simple reason that I’m not a boxer.  I don’t train boxing and while it would seem easy enough to just not kick, elbow, knee, or clinch, I don’t in fact fully know the rules of boxing or how it’s scored – beyond that, my love is for Muay Thai and I’m currently in the midst of a full schedule of Muay Thai fights that are important to me.  Nobody who has tried to get me to take this fight has seen any of this as an issue.  “Just go in for two rounds and then take a KO and the check, no problem.”  Not interested, thanks.

The money is good on the scale of Thailand, which is what has all these people pressing.  It’s 20,000 Baht (~$670 USD) – or at least that’s the amount they’re telling me about, it could easily be higher and I’m guessing that there is some kind of “finder’s fee” that each of these men offering me the fight seem to be after – a much higher amount than any Muay Thai fight I will have.  The fight is against a well-known boxer in Thailand, named Samson Tor. Buamas, who has 36 fights and multiple championship titles.  This fight on the 25th at Royal Field is for a WIBA title at “Minimumweight” of 47 kg (103.6 lbs), a title which Samson is defending after previously defending the belt earlier this year against a Swedish fighter who apparently was having her boxing debut.  That’s 35 fights against 0 fights.  And quite frankly I’m not trying to diminish Samson or her accomplishments; as a fighter at this weight I can be certain that she has a hard time finding opponents as a female professional Western Boxing fighter in the land of Muay Thai.  She probably just takes fights wherever she can and is just following what her gym books.  In fact, not one person who has asked me to take this fight has asked about my record.  To be fair, most of them know me personally, but not all of them do. All that seems to matter is how much I weigh.  I bemoan the fact that this title fight could potentially be a mismatch between a professional, decorated Western Boxer against not a boxer.  There’s something wrong with that, but it appears to be business as usual.

For the most part, Thais don’t understand why I don’t want this fight.  It’s a lot of money for nothing, really, they think.  I’m not a boxer so to them there’s no damage to my image or reputation or gym.  Thais just see it as a payday with little or no consequence.  One man who was trying to convince me to fight said, in English, “just like Max or Thai Fight,” meaning it’s just a show and you don’t take the fight for your own advancement, you take it for the paycheck.  I reckon that Thai fighters will go into ridiculous fights against much bigger westerners and call it a “show fight” when they take a dive for the paycheck, which might be not a lot of money at all depending on venue.  It’s part of the stadium business.  It reminds me of the Thai trainers from my old gym up in Chiang Mai, Lanna Muay Thai, who took MMA fights having never trained a moment of “ground game” in their lives.  The pay for the fight was supremely high, in some cases as much as a month’s payment for being a trainer 6-days-per-week, so they had no problem at all trying to kick a guy in the head and then just tapping the moment the fight hits the floor. I think the guys asking me to take this fight see this as the same thing. I should add that the circus MMA fights up in Chiang Mai aren’t just jokes, they can be dangerous. One of the young fighters at my old gym took a huge weight mismatch of more than 20 kg difference (40+ lbs), again with no ground experience, and received a really nasty KO by knee to the head.  He took the fight while cornering for a friend and was persuaded by the 7,000 Baht ($230 USD) pay.

For myself, I can’t imagine that I’m the only 47 kg western female in Thailand.  Apparently the fight has to be against a westerner.  I’m not sure if that’s for WIBA reasons (it’s an “international” title) or if it’s just for ratings on the televised event.  Almost every fight on the card is listed as being Thai vs. Falang.  But it would seem that I am one of very, very few options since they don’t want to pay to fly anyone in for the event – I tried to help find them a match weeks ago, contacting fighters in the west I thought would like to have the fight.  Nobody bats an eyelid at the fact that this would likely be a terrible mismatch, and the fact that this mismatch doesn’t matter at all in the light of it being for a title is, to me, exactly the trouble with belts.  I’ve never been a belt-chaser, it’s just simply not where my heart guides me.  But for many a title and “hardware” is exactly the affirmation and legitimacy they seek from or in their fight paths.  Perhaps for women especially, since we have to work to be taken seriously simply as fighters, a title from an authority lends weight to a fighter’s legitimacy.  From the outside, you can know absolutely nothing about a fighter or a sport but a title or championship belt is a signal of achievement that’s accepted without much question.  Any fighter can claim him/herself to be a great fighter with a photo of themselves with belts.  Truth be told, belts of any kind do seem to matter to Thais as well. They love a photo of a fighter with belts, any belts, I’ve even had photos of me with my few belts taken because others want to see them, and my standing in the gym certainly changed when I recently won the Thepprasit stadium belt vs Yodcherry Sityodtong (local to Pattaya) – the gym Patriarch Bamrung even asked that I print and frame the ring photo so it could be added to their wall of champion photos, a real honor that means something to me as this is part of the gym’s lineage. But by and large, with belts and fighters few ask who the sanctioning authorities are, or more importantly against whom the belts were won, or any other kind of clarification because the belt supposedly speaks for itself.

That’s not always the case.  It could even be argued that it’s largely not the case.  With so many different sanctioning bodies, so many different belts and titles, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of legitimate ranking systems.  I’ve tried to keep up with the WPMF rankings of women in and around my weight class, but it’s dizzying to say the least.  There are multiple “interim” belts that are put between fighters when the reigning champ can’t be flown in for the event.  A new title can simply be invented for the event.  Or the title is simply put up anyway, regardless of the participation of the reigning champ.  (Caley Reece cites one of the reasons she retired briefly from Muay Thai was because her long-sought and hard-won WMC belt was then put up for two different fighters to win without Reece defending it, something that really dispirited her.) I currently have three different “stadium belts,” all of which were against really good competition, and some of my most memorable fights to date, but none of which I had to work my way up the ranks for.  Stadium belts are, to an extent, a way for promoters to hype an event.  They act as incentive for the fighters.  Belts by the way, in Thailand, are most often not physically given to the winner, so there is no real “expense” involved on the promoter’s end.

As far as belts go, in my own case, the reason I would ask for a fight to be for a championship is two fold: 1) it is insurance that the fight will actually happen and against the opponent I expect to face; last-minute change of opponent is not unheard of on fight cards – in fact I recently had a high-profile opponent disappointingly simply not show up for a fight after I had driven hundreds of miles to get there, and instead take a different opportunity; and 2) it’s insurance that my opponent will have trained hard for the fight.  Some female Thai fighters have been fighting for so long that they can get a bit lackadaisical in their training.  They fight to earn money and/or continued prestige but don’t train continuously hard anymore, in some ways because they don’t need to – they’re in training maintenance mode relying on moderate conditioning and their years and years of early fighting and training.  If it’s for a title – or perhaps more significantly for a side-bet where money is to be bet between the gyms, which might accompany a title fight – the camp will make sure that fighter is training for it.  So, it’s not about the belt, the belt can be a guarantee of sorts.

This larger problem has been of course happening world wide in terms of boxing titles, for a very long time. In fact boxing probably lead the way in this practice.  With so many different organizations and new titles and belts created, the meaning and weight of a belt has been diminished greatly.  It used to be that you could name the Heavyweight Champion of the world.  Now you either don’t know or you’re listing several names at a time because of the different sanctioning bodies.  While it’s not without its own problems, the fact that there is one UFC belt after which all the fighters climb has its perks.  It gives meaning to the belt itself. The same goes for Lumpinee or Rajadamnern belts (which are barred from women in Thailand).  In female Muay Thai you can possibly create a belt for your event, one that will never be defended and another can be put up the following week if you like.  It’s hard to claim a lot of weight for any title when a fighter who doesn’t even train in the sport can contend for it.

I can just picture myself now, having never trained in boxing shoes, being put into the ring for this boxing event wearing shoes provided by the promotion, for the “Championship”.  My feet are ridiculously small, so small it is hard for me to find shoes for myself anywhere in Thailand, so no doubt the shoes would fit like clown shoes and I could literally fall all over the ring for two rounds in out-sized promotion shorts, or manage to look like an ass for the full 10 before the farce is over.  It would look terrible and quite honestly be disrespectful to the sport of boxing and the women who train hard in that sport.  It would look a lot like an exaggeration of what Thai Fight looks like to me – a recent Thai Fight featured a fighter who at one point was just spinning and falling on the ropes on his own in the fight against one of Thailand’s top older fighters, a common occurrence.  I told Modt Ek yesterday when he was pushing me toward the fight that I was already going to Khorat on Christmas for a Muay Thai fight I’ve really been looking forward to.  He grinned and told me to fight the boxing match in Bangkok first in the day, then head up to Khorat for the Muay Thai fight at night.  I paused for a moment.  I smiled because Modt Ek understood something about me, that I love to fight; he was only half-joking; and day-dreaming to myself, that’s the only way I could see myself in this fight.  To take the ridiculousness of it and out-crazy it by doing something that matches my own motives.  Something unthinkable, like asking for the boxing match only if I could then literally stay in the corner while a Muay Thai fighter steps in to have a consecutive fight without me ever exiting the ring.  As long as we’re talking crazy.

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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