It’s a long road to Bangkok, one filled with trials and tribulations, a road some fighters don’t even bother taking.
Very few Muay Thai fighters start their careers off in Bangkok, and even if they do, it takes nearly a hundred fights before the opportunity to fight at a stadium arises. In Bangkok there is less opportunity to keep young fighters, not ready for the capital’s major venues, active.
In rural Thailand, where low level fights are plentiful, most fighters start fighting around the tender age of ten. With the weight and age limit imposed in Bangkok at 100 pounds and 15 years old, it will be years before they even get an opportunity to fight there. What can happen between then and now may seem like a lifetime for Thailand’s young nak muay.
Kids first get their start at the matchups— it’s like the wild wild west. Gyms will pile fighters into the back of their pick-up trucks to gather at temples that are hosting fights as part of a local celebration.
Literally fighting for a chance to compete, kids will take off their shirts, climb on to a table, and lineup hoping for someone their same weight and experience level. Down below, gamblers, gym owners, and promoters shout at each other, trying to secure promising matches.
While fighters will hope for the best, there is always the chance of being taken advantage of with an unfair matchup. Luckily the referees in Thailand are quick to stop a fight if they feel there is no potential for a comeback, or an underdog story. There are no heroes here.
In the countryside, particularly Isaan, fighters fight frequently— sometimes as often as eight times in a single month. No one wants to get hurt, and there is no shame in stopping a fight you have no chance of winning. It’s always just on to the next one up here.
After making the rounds through the temple fairs, fighters will start to get booked based on their skill level. Moving from the match-ups to the more established local shows is where they will get the chance to slowly climb the ranks until they are good enough to get called into the stadiums.
At these shows, fighters get paid more, with the possibility of fighting for regional titles. The stakes are higher, with most matchups requiring a side bet, but it’s still not up to the standard of the capital. However, a good performance here can catch the eyes of a scout from one of Bangkok’s major promotions.
Gyms must travel on average two to three hours to the venue, sometimes more. There is no budget for hotel, so once they arrive, fighters will usually nap there.
The fight card is never followed, fighters must simply wait for their name to be called. No warms ups or even mouthguards, just a quick oil massage and some old gauze to wrap hands. That’s it.
Nothing is for sure, fighters drop out, opponents change, and bigger opponents step in last minute. It all must be taken in stride. No complaints, not if you want to go to Bangkok. It takes numerous shows like these to build a fighter.
A win or a loss is the same here. There is no post fight celebration. It’s just into the back of the pickup for the long drive home.
Getting to Bangkok can take upwards of a hundred fights, but often more. Once that moment comes, it’s not so much a relief as a new and more intense focus. In Bangkok all fighters have to cut weight, and weigh in the morning of the fight. For many adolescent fighters it is often their first time cutting weight.
Training changes. What was once fluid and freestyle becomes more regimented. Fighters will start to train twice daily while keeping up with their studies. Some are up for the challenge, others are not.
It’s a long drive from the provinces, and for smaller gyms, one that must be done as cost efficiently as possible. Some gyms take the night bus to Bangkok and arrive just a few hours before the weigh in to sweat off those last few grams. During the day they’ll seek refuge in a short time hotel, cramming as many to a room as possible.
While the gyms always try their hardest to ensure their fighters are ready to perform, they are visitors to a massive metropolis and don’t quite know their way around. Things are kept cheap and easy.
Gyms don’t travel to the capital for money, but for a chance. Fights at the stadium start off at around 7,000 Baht. While the fighter always takes home half, the gym must use their cut to cover all the travel expenses incurred. On trips like these, it’s almost guaranteed the gym will lose money.
But the opportunity to gain a chance for their fighter makes it worth it. The more than seven hour drive home can seem like a lifetime after a hard loss, but with a win the inevitable return can make the trip go by a little faster.
Fighters can compete every 21 days in Bangkok, but sometimes the money isn’t enough and they will go back to the countryside to take fights in between. It’s a difficult situation to be in, but one that almost always backfires.
Showing up to Bangkok tired and overworked is not an option. A few bad performances and you’re back to fighting at two in the morning in someone’s rice field.
Thai fighters are resilient, gyms are too. They’ll keep trying until they get that one big break; a televised show, a decent pay day, a tip out from the gamblers. It’s a long road, but one that is worthwhile in the end.
A loss and your purse goes down, a win and it goes up. Even once a fighter has established themselves in Bangkok, it’s just another long road to the top.
Lord K2 (David Sharabani) is an award winning photographer. He has spent the past three years completely immersed in the sport of Muay Thai, documenting its culture and lifestyle with unrestricted access throughout Thailand.