The world of Muay Thai is often one of spectacle. Looks, stylistically in the ring, or physically will play a big part in any boxer’s journey. This is especially true for female fighters. Zaza Sor Aree, a part time model, actress, and boxer knows this all too well.

Zaza’s beginning as an internationally acclaimed Muay Thai fighter started off small. Growing up as a tomboy she loved playing sports. She participated in football, volleyball, badminton, and golf— as well as competitive horse riding.

“It was my dream when I was very young to ride horses. They look so elegant and strong,” the former 48 kg WPMF world champion said.

“Doing it was very expensive and my parents asked me to do something else.”

Her father, an avid Muay Thai fan, had fought upcountry in his younger years. He began to train Zaza at home with literally nothing. Her father was excited when she showed potential, and showed up daily to train in their makeshift gym.

“We trained on the ground. We just skipped rope and jumped on the tire. It was classic,” Zaza said.

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Three months later Zaza was in the ring for the very first time. At just thirteen years of age, Zaza was victorious in her Muay Thai debut. She trained for another twenty fights with her father, and has since amassed nearly fifty bouts.

Despite her relative lack of experience when compared to other Thais, Zaza is a four time world champion, who represented her country at IFMA, bringing home the gold.

Her father wisely sent her out into the world to gain experience, encouraging her to train at other camps.

“When you train only at your gym you don’t get better. If you train with the same person every day you don’t get better,” Zaza said.

Much more than just a fighter, Zaza has released successful Thai hit singles and is a professional actress as well. Her latest film project involves Samson Sor. Siriporn, an ex-con turned professional boxer. Samson Sor. Siriporn was released from prison early after winning at WBC World Boxing Title.

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Zaza poses for a photo in front of Pinto Fight Studio. Photo by Jirakon “Bobbie” Kaewpanya.

Zaza’s ability to speak fluent English is an incredible asset to her career. She is able to present herself to an international audience and commands a respectable Instagram following of 34,000. This opens up new opportunities for the boxer on an international market. She is sponsored by SKS Empire, and now trains alongside the Pinto brothers at their gym in Bangkok.

Zaza attended Ramkamhaeng University where she majored in the Humanities. While her education has giving her a competitive edge when it comes to her ability of manage herself, it did slow her career down. After her three years of college the fights weren’t as plentiful. Zaza believes it is due to her age and the talent pool being very small at her level of competition.

“If you are the promoter would you choose the older fighter or the younger, fresher fighter? Me I’m kind of classic – something like that. They are interested in new ones.”

The other issue is an economic one. While fights in rural Thailand are plentiful, the pay is low. Additionally, there is a real economic disparity for female fighters. For high level fighters like Zaza, they can often be paid less than half of what their male counterparts receive.

“If I fight upcountry who will go? I have to spend my own money,” Zaza told ROUGH.

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When fighting upcountry fighters usually travel with their gym. The gym will cover the expenses, but will book multiple fighters to help offset costs.

In Zaza’s case however, the Nak Muay Ying manages herself. While she receives her full purse, there are still people she must pay out. She must give money to her trainers, cornermen, and the promoter that found the bout.

Managing herself could arguably hinder her development as well. It can be difficult as it involves price and rule negotiations. “I’ve learned a lot this way. It’s hard to deny something when I negotiate myself,” Zaza said. “It’s difficult to say things. If you say something wrong even a little bit the other side can change their mind.”

“If people are going to watch fights they watch popular fighters, guy fighters,” she said.

Managers are also able to network in ways that fighters can not. A fighter must focus on the task at hand, a single performance can make or break their careers. While fighters are doing their job in the ring, management is always backstage working with the promoter, making connections for future fights.

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Zaza’s training regime is much more diverse than your average Thai fighter. Photo by Matt Lucas.

Zaza is standing on the stage independent of others creating an aesthetic of independence. Her ability to command is clear. Zaza receives a hefty purse of over $3000 USD for international bouts. Most female Muay Thai fighters will never achieve that level of salary.

It testament to both Zaza’s commitment to the sport and her ability to manage herself. She has also been wise in parlaying her abilities into other areas such as acting.  In Thailand a lot of fighters are left with no viable career options when their careers as fighters end,  but that won’t be the case for Zaza.

Fight fans and promoters know that Zaza shows up ready to work. The Muay Dern, or forward fighter, always gives it her all in the ring.

“When I fight I put all of me into the fight. Even if I have to kill myself. When I go to the ring I’m nervous, but I don’t panic. I’m excited to be in the ring. I can’t wait anymore. I just want to fight.”

Late last year Zaza debuted with international kickboxing promotion, GLORY. The change of fighting styles coincided with her residency at Pinto Studios in the RCA district of Bangkok.

“I adjusted my training and style for Glory for three months before my fight. I adapted. I learned from the Pintos as well.”

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Zaza cares about her life outside of business too. She doesn’t want to just be regulated to the stage, and makes an effort to connect with her fans. She is an avid cook with a penchant for steak. In her spare time she loves to read and watch TV series.

“I’m watching Lost and Game of Thrones now. I’m on Season seven.”

Zaza plans on continuing with her Muay Thai career for two to three more years. Afterwards she will still be involved in the sport, most likely working public relations.

“I love Muay Thai so much. It’s given me so many things,” she told ROUGH.

Fighters like Zaza have a platform to stand on. One they built, fight by fight, day by day. There are no shortcuts in Muay Thai, something Zaza’s more than a decade in the sport has shown us.

Her longevity can be attributed to smart and careful negotiation. The type that considers future career goals in and out of the sport rather than simply purse size.

Zaza is next set to fight in Hong Kong on 29 June.