Muay Thai

Blood, sweat and debt

Perceived by most to be run by gangsters and corrupted by gamblers, one of the world’s most graceful combat sports is in danger of extinction. Southeast Asia Globe investigates Muay Thai’s slow and painful death

Tate Zandstra
October 13, 2016
Blood, sweat and debt
Amazing grace: Muay Thai legend Saenchai aims a kick at his opponent, Petboonchu, in the main event at the old Lumpinee stadium’s final fight night. Photo: Kim Kauko
Zien Ou, one of Lumpinee’s most powerful gamblers, ringside
Calling the shots: Zien Ou, one of Lumpinee stadium’s most powerful gamblers, ringside. Photo: Tate Zandstra
“I will eat them all”

“I am a dangerous man,” said Zien Ou. “I can control the game of gambling and control the referee in the palm of my hand, and if other gamblers want to try me, my team will force the odds. I will eat them all.”

Small and slightly stooped, 69-year-old Zien doesn’t look particularly dangerous, but he is one of the most influential gamblers at Bangkok’s Lumpinee stadium – the most famous Muay Thai arena in the world. “The referee cannot make his own decision if the odds go past 2/1 or 3/1…” he added. “It’s not going to happen.”

Pong Pinit Ponkhan, a sports reporter with T-Sport Channel in Bangkok and ringside announcer for Thai Fight, a Muay Thai promotions company, said gambling has led to “a crisis in Muay Thai” by engendering corruption, an altered, difficult-to-follow scoring system and public alienation. Casual fans have turned to other sports, leaving boxing stadiums dependent on gamblers and, to a lesser extent, tourists for ticket sales. This has enabled the rise of questionable judging practices and a crowd less motivated by love for the national sport than by greed, according to Pong Pinit. The purity of the centuries-old martial art is slipping away.

At the height of its popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, Muay Thai was easily the largest sport in Thailand. Top fighters commanded purses of up to 200,000 baht – almost $6,000 at today’s exchange rate – and the stadiums drew big gates and even bigger advertising revenues. Today, the financial benchmark for a ‘superstar’ is considerably lower at about 100,000 baht per fight. But as the cost of living has shot up along with the capital’s skyline, patron gamblers have stepped in to make up the difference.

“Boxers not only have their purse, but they also get some ‘encouragement money’ from the gamblers,” said Pong Pinit.

Patronage begins in the countryside, and the crucial difference between fighting and other sports, Pong Pinit said, is that children as young as six can earn money fighting in rural bouts. Countryside promoters act as talent scouts, bringing promising young fighters to the attention of city-based promoters.

A boy who ascends to the Bangkok stadium circuit will usually live at a boxing camp in the capital and be held under contract by the camp owner. The camp provides the boxer with a bed, food and training. According to the Boxing Sport Act of 1999, earnings can be divided 60/40 in favour of the boxer or 50/50. Pong Pinit says the latter is more common.

“The real successful camps with a lot of boxers tend to be big players in the gambling scene, betting on their own boxers,” said Rob Cox, manager of Kiatphontip boxing camp, just east of Bangkok. Young boxers, he said, can earn approximately 5,000 baht ($145) for afternoon shows. With victories they can move on to evening shows and earn up to 50,000 baht. The boxers are encouraged to bet on themselves to make more money and to drive them to win.

the old Lumpinee stadium is demolished
End of an era: the old Lumpinee stadium is demolished. Photo: Kim Kauko
Threads of corruption

On fight nights, the contest takes place in the stands as much as in the ring. “If the referee knows ahead of the match who is supposed to win and he lets the opponent win… there will be a problem right away,” said Zien. “First the referee would get booed and slagged off, then the director of the stadium will call him and say: ‘How dare you do that?’ and that referee will lose his job or resign.”

The boxer’s place in all this is merely to follow instructions. Watch a Muay Thai fight closely, Zien says, and in the final round of a fight the boxers will look to the stands for instructions from the gamblers; go for broke, or play it safe and defend. Often, the losing fighter will submit by offering his gloves palm up to the winner to cover with his own; then both will walk in circles until the round ends.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

Built in 1956, Lumpinee stadium was originally operated by the 1st Division of the Royal Guard under General Tongterm Ponsuk. It was the only sporting venue in Thailand where gambling was legal. The ‘Golden Age’ came in the 1970s, when the ex-boxer, Colonel Boonsong Kirdmanee, more popularly known as Keaw Wan, was the head referee. It is said that he could not be influenced, threatened or bought. In those days, gambling was popular, but it was straightforward.

“Lumpinee became famous because of the referees,” Zien said. The stadium was far from beautiful, likened to an overgrown shed stuck in a rice paddy, its tin roof producing a deafening din every time it rained, but the audience loved the tough refs. Fans recall the era wistfully, declaring that from it emerged the best fighters with the most beautiful technique.

However, in July 1979, Lumpinee leadership was given to the Army Welfare Department and, shortly afterwards, gamblers began gaining influence.

A 2011 study by Prince of Songkla University in southern Thailand argued that the commoditisation of boxing by gamblers began when martial arts moved from the battlefield to stadiums. The earliest stadium fighters had normal jobs and boxed for passion and extra money. Stadiums, namely Lumpinee and Ratchadamnoen, came to rely on the ticket sales generated by gamblers, who the study claimed make up 99% of the audience. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact date or event that gave the gamblers influence – but the fact that ticket sales relied so greatly upon them is telling.

Manipulating the scoring system

One of the effects has been to transform an already complex scoring system. Although all successful strikes should be scored equally, judges also look for a principle known as okha kan or ‘perceived damage’. For example, an elbow that lands should count for a point, but if the boxer does not flinch the elbow is seen as weak and no point is awarded. Scoring also traditionally considers such intangibles as aggression and purity
of technique.

For those not intimately familiar with the sport, which the growing gambling crowd largely was not, this is very difficult to bet on. So the gamblers set about changing things.

a gambler watches nervously during a fight at the new Lumpinee stadium
Tension: a gambler watches nervously during a fight at the new Lumpinee stadium. Photo: Paul Lukin

“I could see when a boxer should get a point, so when I saw the final score from the three judges together I thought: ‘Wow, how did the score end up like this?’” remembered Suwanna Srisongkam, who has covered Muay Thai for 40 years and publishes the respected Champ Boxing magazine. “During the fight I could see the gamblers waving signals [aimed at the judges] to the left or right, and when you looked at the scorecard it followed the direction of the gamblers’ hands.”

When she asked the stadium executives why the judges were siding with the gamblers, “they said: ‘The score has to go according to the odds.’”

At first, “the boxers had no idea” about the shifting landscape, according to Zien. “[But] they learned from the gym bosses, who learned from the trainers, who learned from the gamblers… they were all connected.”

It even went as far as trainers advising boxers not to kick – long one of the sport’s most treasured techniques. “You won’t get points… but if you clinch and knee and knock them to the ground, that’s a score,” Zien said, pointing out that this is part of the gamblers’ new system. “In [traditional] Muay Thai rules, throwing the opponent to the floor gets no score, but the gamblers prefer it, and the referee has to respect them – that’s final.”

Such changes mean that a new fighting style has slowly become dominant. Clinching and throwing, which are reliant upon strength, size and attrition, is smothering the classic style, which valued finesse, athleticism and technique.

In February last year, living legend Saenchai fought in the main event of Lumpinee’s final fight night. His bout against Petboonchu was a matchup of the classic technician and consummate athlete in Saenchai against a younger, taller and more powerful clinch-and-knee stylist. The fight has become emblematic of the old and new eras of Muay Thai.

Abandoning tradition

“There have been a lot of changes with the referees and how the gamblers play the game,” Saenchai said to TV cameras backstage following a defeat on points. “Before, it was not about just being strong; fighters had to use Muay Thai techniques to win.” He would not be drawn on whether he felt robbed, saying only: “Muay Thai is my life and this is the sport that makes Thailand famous.”

However, it is also a sport that is being abandoned by Thais in droves. As in many countries, increasing access to top-class international sports on television is eating into live audiences, but the corruption and perceived threat of violence brought to Muay Thai by the gamblers is also proving disastrous for audience numbers.

Zien recalls a gambler named Ngow Hapalong being shot and killed behind him in the stands at Lumpinee. The ensuing gunfight between the killer and Hapalong’s bodyguard cleared the stadium. More recently, a boxer named Sangmanee Sor Tienpo collapsed following a fight and was later found to have near lethal amounts of benzodiazepine sedatives in his system, according to Champ Boxing.

a gambler counts his Thai baht at the old Lumpinee stadium
Gold fingers: a gambler counts his Thai baht at the old Lumpinee stadium. Photo: Paul Lukin

Champ Boxing and other media outlets speculated that the drugs were slipped into Sangmanee’s water before the fight and, according to Pong Pinit, although such occurrences are rare, the media’s coverage of them has alienated casual fans.

“A lot of people from outside [the boxing community] are scared to come to Lumpinee,” said Cox. “They think it’s going to be full of tough guys, gangsters, all that… Not many regular Thais go to watch boxing nowadays.”

Just a few days after Saenchai’s headlining bout, the old Lumpinee stadium’s demolition was already well underway. The new, ultra-modern Lumpinee, with its massive air conditioning units, smoke machines and LED screens, opened 11 February 2015. Its location 9km from the nearest underground station, a journey that can take up to an hour by taxi depending on traffic, has certainly not helped Thailand’s national sport recapture its dwindling fanbase. Siamsport TV, a key player in the broadcasting of and reporting on Muay Thai, has reported a 60-70% drop in attendances by foreigners and a 20-30% drop by Thais since the new stadium opened. “Without the gamblers, the sport would pretty much be dead,” said Cox. “They’re killing it off, but they’re also keeping it alive.”

One of the world’s most influential combat sports seems to have fought itself into a desperate corner

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