In 1872 the English played Scotland in what was the first ever professional international football match. Before then, the sport of football as we know it today was mostly played between public schools in England.
The sport had hardly been known in Europe, never mind the rest of the world. Today, four billion fans enjoy football, making it the most popular sport in the world.
“We have to be just as open minded when it comes to spreading Muay Thai as the English were with spreading football,” Ohn Somila said.
“Just like the English can’t always win in football, the Thais can’t always win in Muay Thai. We have to create an equal opportunity for both Thai and foreigner fighters so the sport grows.”
If anyone knows how to do such a thing, it’s Ohn.
Ohn is a short, stocky man in his mid-fifties, with dark hair, olive skin, and a baby face. Over the past ten years he’s worked at some of the biggest stadiums and television stations in Thailand as a fight commentator. Four years ago he was picked up by MAX Muay Thai to be the lead Thai commentator and one of almost a dozen promoters.
Ohn speaks about football and Muay Thai enthusiastically, often switching between them like he’s juggling balls and rightfully so. The two sports have threaded themselves through his life.
In 1969, long before he worked at MAX, Ohn clumsily tried to coordinate his footwork in front of a heavy bag in a makeshift boxing camp at his father’s house. “It wasn’t serious training,” Ohn said. “When my friends came to train, I’d train. When they didn’t, neither did I.”
Despite the lack of a strict regime, Ohn kept training until he felt he was ready to fight. For the seven-year-old from Songkla, Thailand, he began what he described as a short-lived career as a Muay Thai fighter.
“I stopped fighting to play football competitively,” Ohn said. “But when I went to university in Bangkok I needed money to pay for tuition, so I started fighting again.” Ohn joined the Por. Chaiwat Thai boxing camp in Bangkok. He fought for the gym to cover his university expenses, but as he said— “I lost a lot.”
The owner of Por. Chaiwat, who’d become like a father to Ohn, saw that Ohn’s heart was in the right place and made an offer. He told the university student from Southern Thailand that if he stayed at his gym and helped train fighters, he’d pay for his tuition. Ohn was grateful and took the offer.
Nowadays, Ohn runs his own gym, Or. Somila, in Northern Pattaya. He gives up-and-coming and seasoned Thais, as well as foreigners, the chance to test their mettle in Muay Thai so long as, they too have the heart.
On most afternoons you can find Ohn in a second floor office labeled PROMOTER ROOM where he labors in front of one of many whiteboards that span the walls.
In this room he works tirelessly with other promoters, all of whom busy themselves with separate tasks. Some of them scribble names onto matchcards. Some of them erase names from matchcards. Some of them argue. A promoter, who’s just lowered his phone down to his chest, yells a name at Ohn who then scribbles it into a blank slot.
“It’s not a one-man show,” Ohn said. “There are ten promoters. And each of us has a pool of about one hundred fighters from different gyms.”
Those numbers shouldn’t come as any surprise. How else could Ohn and the other promoters promote nine shows every week at MAX? With seven fights per nighttime show seven days a week, and five fights per weekend afternoon show, that’s fifty-nine fights per week—more than any other Muay Thai promotion in Thailand, and quite possibly, the world.
But it takes more than scribbling and erasing names on whiteboards to match a fight. Aside from the obvious “experience and heart and mental strength” that promoters look for in fighters, Ohn takes into account a myriad of biometrics.
“They have to be close in weight,” Ohn said. “Even walking weight. If the fighters aren’t close to the same weight they usually walk around at, then we probably wouldn’t match them. And if the fighters are the same weight but contrastingly different heights, then we probably wouldn’t match them either.”
On the surface, these things matter in the fight game. But after appearance there comes into play a more important factor for Ohn: styles. “If you have a fighter who is good with these,” Ohn said as he tapped his knee, “it won’t make sense to put him against a fighter who can’t defend knees.”
Ohn Somila is one of the progressives here in Thailand who see the value in promoting Muay Thai around the world and making it accessible to casual and new fans.
“It doesn’t have to be bigger than football,” Ohn said. “We just have to get it out into the world.”
Special thanks to Rob Cox and Dolruedate Tiamtun for language interpretation.