Our group squeezed to the front of a small open-air gym and sat down in our reserved plastic lawn chairs—I could literally lean forward a few feet and touch the ropes. I took my chair and scooted forward eagerly. Del had mentioned that he didn’t care if we were late because the lower weight fights were “boring.” “Lower weight” would be an exaggeration—these were two children in the ring! A boy and girl, neither one of them older than 11 or 12 years, were dancing around the ring. Hypnotizing music blared out of a stereo in the corner, and the two did a rhythmic sort of dance in every corner. I watched the girl—she got down on both knees in a lunging position, then rocked back and forth to the music while rolling her gloved fists rhythmically in the air slowly, as if she were hitting a speed bag in slow motion. I turned around to Del, who, in response to my raised eyebrows, explained, “they are honoring their trainers with this dance. Every fighter does this to respect their coach before the match begins.” Things like this make me realize how shallow American culture is sometimes, as I reflected on our version of this sport, which typically takes place in a no-rules, cage fighting sort of arena where competitors pummel each other into unconsciousness much to the delight of drunken spectators.
After the pair had completed their routine dance and faced each of the four corners (an activity that conveniently doubled as their pre-match stretching), the coaches removed the ceremonial band from each competitor’s head (the woven silk braid is worn for luck before the match), and the two started jumping around waiting for the match to start. It was immediately evident that Mui Thai boxing is a traditional sport rooted in honor, tradition, and custom. The sound of the bell broke my hypnotized gaze, and I yelled to anyone who would listen that I was “going for” the girl. The group of 25 or so local men thought they would place their bets—a sea of hands gripping bills waved through the ropes, and I didn’t have to speak Thai to get the gist of the what they were saying. Del mentioned casually that gambling is illegal in Thailand, but apparently, that, too, is a law not strictly enforced.
And indeed the matches increased in excitement as the weight classes went up. The young men slammed their sweaty knees into each other’s bodies, and we had to lean backward as the ropes bowed against their weight as they were punched or kicked backwards. I snuck up close and actually stuck my camera through the ropes, videoing the exhausted competitors fighting nonstop. The last match featured a fighter from Australia. By American standards he was not large at all. At around 160 lbs, he dwarfed the Thai heavyweights in comparison. His demeanor and attitude were different from those of the rest of the competitors. All the Thai fighters, no matter whether they won or lost, never once changed their expression—which even in the children was stoic. The Australian however, danced around the ring, gloves high in the air, when announced the winner. Del, along with the rest of the locals, thought it was bad sportsmanship, but that didn’t stop the rest of the women and me from knocking our chairs over to get a picture with him!