Yesterday I passed a booth selling T-shirts. One was a very typical black shirt with a highly stylized image of a Muay Thai fighter, with the word Muaythai (มวยไทย) in Thai above him. The other style option was two fighting cocks with the Thai for fighting chickens, “gai chon” (ไก่ชน). I’d never seen that one before, though I’d seen the Muay Thai one everywhere. I didn’t buy it, but my inclination towards it is that as a fighter I’ve grown to feel a strong connection to chicken fighting – I’ve never witnessed the fights, but have heard them through the open windows that line the back of Petchrungruang Gym and seen men walking through the ring area carrying their prized fighting cocks under their arms to the “backyard events” at the chicken farm behind the gym here in Pattaya. The subcultures of fighting chickens and raising Muay Thai fighters cross-crosses the gym itself, and the adjoining property.
About every year, while living and fighting full time in Thailand, I’ve sunk into a new understanding about Muay in Thailand. Realizing that the Muay Thai fights in cities fall under the tourist business was an early realization – that when tourism falls, there are fewer fights; another layer was understanding how important gambling is for Muay Thai and that this sport has grown out of an agrarian lifestyle. Most recently, finishing up my fourth year now, I’ve developed an affinity to the similarities behind all “chon” (clash) fighting – whether it’s buffalo, fish, chickens, or even beetles – seeing that these are connected to the human fighting of Muay. A different word is used, which is not insignificant, to distinguish the art of Muay Thai versus the gambling games of “chon” with animals, but the ethics are the same. What you look for in a fighter, whether it’s a grown man or a beetle on a sugarcane, are pretty close. You look for heart.
In the west we have a repulsion to animal fighting for sport and I am in line with that to a great deal. There is no “cultural history” to dog fighting that will ever make me feel like that’s a tolerable thing. As such, many people who are opposed to the violence of combat sports in general will sneer as they say that Muay Thai is, “essentially human cock fighting.” It is; it has grown out of a similar history. But I think that’s quite beautiful. I’m going to avoid going into an argument or discussion about the morality of cock fighting, but you do have to know that it has a very long history here in Thailand. And it’s big business. There are chicken fighting magazines, complete with records of winning chickens, how to care for the chickens and special feed for sale, and prices for fighting chickens from winning lineages that can reach into the millions of Baht. Seriously. To be “just a human fighting cock” is not so much a dismissal as it might seem on its face.
The past two years of fighting I’ve become more aware of the money that’s always passing between hands for fights. There were a few times that I found out later my trainers had bet on me, but it was probably small-ish sums. But in the last couple of years I’ve come to not only be aware of, but also held to the responsibility of that money – which is sometimes big sums now – even if it isn’t mine. I’ve fought for 40,000 Baht side bets but that isn’t my money and unless I get tipped out from it, I don’t make any of that money either, it goes to my benefactors (usually my gym, or promoters who believe in me). I first learned about side bets from training with and fighting alongside Phetjee Jaa when we traveled with the family/gym. The side bets could be huge (80,000 Baht, easily) but that didn’t mean her family gets all that money. The money would be usually culled together from neighbors, friends, family, maybe some bigger gamblers in the crowd adding to the pot moments before the fight. The money is divvied back up out of the winnings, so everybody doubles whatever they put in. But that means potentially a lot of people are depending on you – and believing in you – to win that money. If I fight in Pattaya, it’s the uncle of my trainer putting up money for a side bet; if I travel, it’s the promoter who invited me to the card. Because I don’t see any of that money, I’m just responsible for fighting as hard as I can to bring honor to my gym name and money to the pockets of those who have risked money on their belief in me, I’m behaving exactly like a fighting chicken. I’m a “champion” of the gambler, not a fighter whose name or career is climbing toward some kind of peak position. And that’s the position most Muay Thai fighters in Thailand occupy.
There’s a lot of negative talking from westerners about the “tuk-tuk driver” fights that some western men take part in when they come for a fight at a very touristy part of Thailand. It’s basically short-hand for a westerner being matched against an out-of-shape, usually older, (sometimes literally a) Tuk-Tuk driver by day who is fighting just for the money he’ll make by fighting and will probably take a dive in an early round so the westerner can feel good about winning. What follows is from what I’ve seen up in Chiang Mai, when I fought there for 2 years, I do not have first hand experience with what happens in, say, Phuket, which is known for the phenomena. This happens, it’s real, and it’s also far more complex than the easy sweeping dismissal of these fights makes it seem. Yeah, there are men and women who are fighting westerners – and losing – for the money they make simply by fighting. Yeah, gyms will make these matches in the tourist-heavy areas because it makes the western fighter feel good to win and they’ll continue business for the gym. But there’s more to it. Firstly, these “tuk-tuk drivers” are not doing Muay Thai for the first time. Some of them are pretty wicked. Further, they’re the biggest bodies to be found on short-notice and westerners who are well above 154 lbs (70 kg) are going to either face someone much smaller in weight or closer in weight but possibly with a beer gut to have reached that mass. If there’s no money on a fight, taking a dive is a possibility and perhaps an inevitability at some of these tourist locations. However, if you spend enough time in Thailand you will see there is an absolute love for what I consider bizarre fights: for instance matching two old, out-of-shape ex-fighters who haven’t trained in a very long time – the “former great” match up. These older men (sometimes in their 40’s and 60’s) will spend a week or a month kicking the bag and then go fight for huge side bets. There was a high-profile one at Lumpinee for a million Baht side bet! Another local example of the bizarre match up is one of the kids at our gym’s father, who was an ex-boxer but had never trained a day of Muay Thai in his life, facing a Thai man half his age and significantly smaller, who was basically a “tough guy.” So, non-fighter vs. non-fighter. And the crowd loved it, the gamblers were roaring and betting money, and there was a side bet. It seems like a freak show, and it is, but it’s real. It’s a chicken fight; it’s the same as a group gathered around a log to cheer two beetles who aren’t “trained” to fight, so it’s completely unpredictable.
And there’s a purity to that which I find beautiful. It means that fighting isn’t about the fighter, it’s about the fight itself. A bull, a chicken, a fish, a beetle and a person are all on the same thread.
And there’s a purity to that which I find beautiful. It means that fighting isn’t about the fighter, it’s about the fight itself. A bull, a chicken, a fish, a beetle and a person are all on the same thread. I do believe that this might partially explain why female Muay Thai fighters are still on such a steep slope toward equality in fighting in Thailand – there are no female animal fights; they just don’t fight, it’s “nature.” However, I also see a fight ethic that runs through all fighting: a beetle can have honor; a chicken can have honor; a woman or a man or a child can all have honor. I don’t think kids really have honor in the west – not like the kid fighters here do. But that’s because of the pure love for the fight. A little over a month ago, Lindsay, a western woman, showed up to Petchrungruang with almost no experience. She’d trained about one week in Chiang Mai, then did a three week travel around the Golden Triangle before landing in Pattaya. On her first day of training I asked if she wanted to fight; her face lit up and she said, “yeah, that would be great!” She is coachable, she works hard, she comes back to training even when she’s tired or when it’s emotionally trying, and she had her first fight with only one month of training. They put her in with a Thai woman who was a few kilos smaller and with more experience, and it was a tough fight for both of them. She came back to training the next morning after the fight and Pi Nu is already talking to her about her next fight. He’s not making money off of her, he’s not putting her in shitty fights to make her feel good – it’s fighting for the sake of fighting, because that’s what Muay Thai is.
Several months ago we bought a fighting beetle, “Gwang Chon” for 30 Baht on the street of Chiang Mai. I named him Kem. We got one of my old trainers, Nook, to take us out to the beetle fights in the fields of Mae Rim, where we actually had to hop between a few locations because the cops had already broken up a few of the events. But even at the little side-of-the-road place we found, the friends of Nook who filled the rest of the car up with us on our excursion took great care in trying to find a suitable match for Kem. They prodded him with a stick to get him to fight back, to test his heart. Kem wasn’t really up for it; he was an amazingly docile beetle, except the one time he hissed at Jai Dee for sniffing him and scared the hell out of me with the sound of it. Kem is just a 30 Baht beetle, like I’d plucked a random rooster off some farm and showed up to a chicken fight where there were real champions around. The cost of a beetle can be high – 300 Baht for a big one is kind of mid-range and there was a guy selling a beetle that he assured my husband was “the Buakaw of beetles” for 500 Baht. I’m sure they can be up to a thousand, which is significant money for a bug that may or may not lock his horns with another bug. But the effort made by several people to match my little 30 Baht beetle was sincere, just as the effort to match a beginning Muay Thai fighter with a suitable match is sincere. For the fight; for the show. There was no overall dismissal of Kem for being soft, there was just no way to match him because even the half-asleep beetles would have walked over him. If they’d put him on a log just to have a fight, against a terrible match, it would have been meaningless and nobody would bet on it. But everyone tried to find him an opponent who was suitable.
I’m not going to say that there are not all kinds of abuses in the game of Muay Thai, both in real Thai kaimuay throughout the provinces, and in the adventure tourism of tourist gyms. These things are good to discuss. But, aside from people trying to take advantage of others, or profit from them, personally I’ve seen a great deal of absolute love for competition, an excitement and celebration of the “chon” (the clash), as long as it feels like things are somewhat even. It’s just an incredible love for the fight itself, a thread the joins all of us, by heart. Of course there is great appreciation for skill, for technique, for art…but beneath that, what underpins it all and anchors it, is something deeper.