first watch the mini- 8 minute documentary on PTT, the star of Petchrungruang gym, shot about 3 years ago when PTT was not yet famous. It is beautiful. In English voice over it tells PTT’s own story, in his own words, detailing his lowest times, and his life as a fighter. He is a hero to me, someone I look up to, despite being only 18.
Mornings at Petchrungruang Gym are just me and my trainer, Pi Nu. The boys have already trained in the early hours of the morning, before going to school, and I come about an hour after they’ve arrived to their first classes for the day. In those quiet mornings I get a lot, both in the way Pi Nu trains me but also because he likes to chat with me while we both use the weight room at the end of the session. In these mornings, I’ve heard a lot about the boys who have come through the gym, the boys who are still there and some who have stopped fighting. There’s kind of a joke – one of those jokes that’s so true that it isn’t quite funny – that even the most talented boys will only have a real chance at becoming champions if they can make it through being 16 years old. It’s a trial period age for boys, who will become sidetracked by girls, drugs, motorbikes, smoking, gangs… all the things that don’t fit into a dedicated boxer’s schedule. And I’ve witnessed boys disappearing at this age already in my 2 years at the gym.
PTT is the oldest boy at the gym. He’s 18 years old, which is an age when many top fighters are starting to peak and win stadium titles, then they ride the wave for a few years and retire. The arc of professional fighters in Thailand skews quite young and some of the best-known names in the west, like Buakaw and Saenchai, are considered “old men” in their early 30’s. As the oldest boy in the gym, PTT stands out because of his large frame and hierarchical power over the younger boys, but he still comes off as very young. Maybe it’s his sweetness that betrays his youth, but it’s also an incredibly strong part of his character and I reckon won’t change as he grows older. His father often accompanies his two sons to the gym (PTT’s younger brother, “Yodpet” is also a fighter for the gym; he’s 14) and lays himself out along the ropes at the corner of the ring to watch training. PTT is his father’s spitting image, nearly a “mini-me” except they’re pretty close in size – and their smile is an exact copy from father to son. Yodpet is still enveloped in “baby fat,” which barely hides a six-pack underneath and rounds out his cheeks in a way that sets him apart from the hard cheekbones of his father and older brother. But Yodpet is also quite big – huge for his age – and often is fighting adult western men in their 20’s and 30’s at the local Max Muay Thai stadium. This is something PTT experienced as well, although that stadium didn’t exist yet in Pattaya when he was his younger brother’s age, so he was fighting Thais in their late-teens and 20’s. That’s a huge challenge, as Thai men are – as I mentioned before – often peaking at this age.
Meeting that challenge wasn’t easy for PTT. He had a hard road. I’ve heard about him over these past 2 years, kind of as part of the mythology of the gym when Pi Nu is talking to me in the mornings. He’s the superstar of the gym now, the name that is on everyone’s tongue. When I’m asked and say that the gym I train at is “Petchrungruang” all the motorbike taxis and people selling me the daily Muay Thai newspaper go, “ah, yes, PTT.” He’s made a name for the gym with his stardom and he’s just gotten bigger, winning an Omnoi Stadium title, followed by an Isuzu tournament at that stadium (8 man tournament) where he took home first place, 1 million Baht, and a truck; and now he’s on a tear as a new addition to the promotion Thai Fight. But I knew that PTT had struggled when he was younger. Pi Nu loves to tell me the story of how PTT lost every single fight for an entire year when he was 11 or 12 years old. Gamblers hated him, he says, promoters didn’t want him on their cards – he was kind of doughy and his style sucked. So it went. But PTT made it through this time by continuing to fight. The version he tells in this video documentary (above) is my favorite version, because it’s part of his story and how everything turned for him because he couldn’t give up. Pi Nu, as an adult and someone who has spent 30+ years of his 42 years on Earth engrossed in Muay Thai, he’s seen kids give up. He’s seen them walk away. His own son Bank, at this same age of about 10-12, decided he didn’t want to fight anymore and took 2 years off from the ring. He still trained, but he didn’t fight. Now he’s amazing. And it was the same with PTT, except without the break. It reminds me a little of my own year of 6 straight losses, before I moved to Thailand, when many people doubted me and my own fight coach told me maybe I should stop. But Pi Nu doesn’t say such things. He allows his students to choose for themselves and, quite beautifully, he permits the struggle to continue until the student finds his (or her, in my case) way. PTT just had to make it through that year and then things turned. His body changed and this chiseled man who never loses now emerged out of the doughy boy who never won. In the past few years many gyms have contacted Pi Nu in the interest of buying PTT’s contract. To this, Pi Nu shrugs his shoulders and puts his hands up, “for what?” he says. “Before I could not pay you to take him, everybody hated him, but now he’s a superstar and everybody wants to buy.” Go make your own champion, he seems to be saying, don’t buy them ready-made.
And that’s a huge thing about Petchrungruang gym and why I love it so much. Why it’s truly a community and family: because Pi Nu never gave up on PTT. When he loses boys to their adolescent urges, influences and indulgences, he’s genuinely sad. He lets it go because he’s a good Buddhist, but I can see if affects him. The boys at the gym are like sons to him, brothers to each other. And there’s sadness to PTT’s story in this same way. When I first came to the gym there were three gym “brothers”, all about a year apart: PTT was the oldest, then Lotus, then Jatukam. They grew up together at the gym, as much as 9 years together and all 3 were more or less poised for stardom. They were right at that point when any one of them, or all of them, would get their break and become something special. (In the video PTT says he’s been fighting for 6 years, but he’s only 15 years old in the video.) But both those other boys are gone now, both under very dramatic, painful circumstances, and only PTT remains. The story goes that Lotus was caught throwing a fight for a payout by low-level mafia at a major Stadium – he was actually caught before he fought but then ended up losing the fight anyway, although Pi Nu chalked that up to Lotus being too unnerved from the experience of being caught and accused. Pi Nu kicked him out of the gym and reported him to the Muay Thai Authority. Throwing fights is not uncommon around Thailand, but at the National Stadia in Bangkok it’s a huge deal. You can be blacklisted and banned from ever fighting in “official” shows again, it is pretty much an end to your career as a young fighter. And it’s a huge betrayal to Pi Nu and a potential debasement of his name – the gym’s name is Pi Nu’s name, so it can be quite literally a mark against both the gym and himself. So Lotus was gone. Then, only a few months later, the father of Jatukam got crazy about money – families can get very impatient waiting for their son to “cash in”, so to speak – and through back-channels tried to sell his son’s contract out from under Pi Nu to a gym in Bangkok. Pi Nu says that if he had come to him and said, “look, we’re not making enough money and I want to sell him to this gym,” it’s likely he would have just allowed the move. But, again, it was done with insult through a behind-the-back method and there was an unpleasant struggle. (It went against normal conduct; the gym to which he was trying to sell his son knew they couldn’t buy a fighter contracted to another gym; it was a stupid move on the father’s part.) Eventually Pi Nu released the contract and Jatukam now fights under a different name at a big, famous gym in Bangkok that buys stadium-level fighters rather than growing them. It’s a big business to buy and sell fighters and most of the time it’s amicable; it’s just not Petchrungruang’s business.
So then there was only PTT left of those three brothers. Not biological brothers, but brothers in Muay thai – a painful separation for both PTT and Pi Nu, as if part of the family was suddenly lost. It was so hurtful for Pi Nu, after 10 years of raising these boys as fighters, he has repeatedly said to me that he’s considering no longer taking in Thai boys. To be fair, these weren’t “bad boys.” Indeed, they’re dutiful sons to their fathers, who ultimately were each in charge of these two boxers’ fates. For a while there, we were quite worried that PTT would take his stardom and go. By “we” I mean me and my husband, Pi Nu only ever said with some stifled sadness in his voice that if PTT came to him and wanted to cancel his contract then Pi Nu wouldn’t fight it. But because of who PTT is as a person, because of his family and growing up at the camp, because Pi Nu believed in him and supported him – PTT has stayed. This is also an indication of who PTT”s father is and what kind of man he is that the two of them have remained loyal to the gym that has been loyal to them. And while the other two boys have come on harder times, he’s gotten all the opportunities he’s ever wanted, peaking as a genuinely budding Thai star despite the gym being small and no-frills and most widely recognized when attached to PTT’s name.
And I love having him train there. I love watching him in the ring, on the bag, the way he swaggers in a little later than everyone else in the afternoons when he’s coming back from his massive runs. He doesn’t train a lot or even really hard, that I see. Being so much bigger than the other boys at the gym, PTT also trains clinch over at Sor. Klinmee Gym, a kind of “brother gym” to Petchrungruang; so I don’t see all of PTT’s training. He’s almost always in a beautiful, slow cruise control. He’s the most bare-minimum success story I’ve ever witnessed, but it’s because he has put in so many thousands of hours already that he’s able to “get away with” the nonchalant way he trains. And when he gets in the ring to fight, he’s just relentless. His energy never wanes – ever – and he almost seems to be moving in slow-motion as he grinds his opponents down with knees and incredibly accurate punches. I idolize his fighting style and the kind of ethic that comes through in it; I asked him to autograph a magazine cover that celebrated his Isuzu Tournament victory and am astonished and flattered every time he talks to me like he knows me. We do train together everyday… it would be way more weird if he didn’t talk to me, but you know, fandom. I cried when watching him win that tournament, I was so happy and inspired.
PTT comes from humble beginnings. In this short documentary, shot by Pi Nu’s young cousin a few years ago, PTT isn’t yet what he is now. You can see it already, the nascent superstar in the brightly-lit ring, his confidence as he dances at the end of the fight. But even now, as the star that he has become, you can still see that 15-year-old on the cusp as well. He hasn’t lost that sweetness, the determination and commitment of being more afraid of quitting than afraid of losing. He’s just a more advanced version of himself now – he hasn’t lost anything in these years, in reaching into the kind of success his younger self was dreaming. A family of 5 trying to survive off the income of delivering gas canisters is difficult, but PTT points out that it’s hard for everyone. The life of a nakmuay is a difficult one and these men in the rings of the National Stadia and under the swarming insects at festival fights – the women there, too – they aren’t very different from each other in the circumstances of their hardships. But when it’s hard, the decision you make about whether to keep trying or whether to give up, that’s the difference. And that’s what a gym like Petchrungruang allows, because Pi Nu loves an underdog – his eyes never light up when he sees some extraordinary talent. What he loves is work and dedication. And really, that commitment that 12-year-old PTT exhibited through and after his year-long-losing streak is the thread that connects straight through to the superstar that PTT is now. It’s his thumb print, it’s that smile. It’s interesting because Pi Nu doesn’t hold pads for PTT anymore, although he probably did when he was a kid and struggling. Now that he’s a superstar, Pi Nu likes to hang back and take care of those who are neglected, the next kid who hasn’t found his stride yet. But he remembers when PTT was that kid and he loves him for it – he loves him for what he is now, too, of course but it’s not common in a culture where appearance is everything to highlight when a person was failing rather than his latest success. In Thai culture, your success or your struggle is your Karma and rags-to-riches stories are rare; “upward mobility” isn’t expected the way it is in the story of American success. But Pi Nu tells me this story because, to him, it’s important. It’s the same ethic behind his reminder to me and his other students that in training, losing is good; struggling is good; but only if you keep going. PTT is precious to Pi Nu because it wasn’t easy for him. As a superstar who has pulled his family out of poverty, PTT’s dedication to Muay Thai, to himself, and to the gym has much to do with the memory that Pi Nu didn’t give up on him when he was failing. And Pi Nu doesn’t forget that part either, because just like watching a Muay Thai fight, it’s about the arc of the fight as a whole, it’s about the progression and the reversal. It’s about the whole story.
This was his 1,000,000 baht Izuzu Tournament victory:
This was his Thai Fight debut against Payaksamui in Korat:
This was his 2nd Thai Fight, this time against western fighter Craig Dickson, in which he was clearly asked to change his fight style to something to suit the Thai Fight Thai vs Westerner aggressive aesthetic: