Rob Cox has been a tireless proponent of Muay Thai for the better part of 20 years.
He first arrived in Thailand in 1991 after training in England when the sport was first popularized in the country.
Muay Thai fighters like Ronnie Green, Rob Kaman and Ramon Dekkers were at the peak of their careers, having fought in both Europe and Thailand.
But for Cox his first introduction to Muay Thai was simple.
“I got into Muay Thai after reading about it in a martial arts magazine,” he told ROUGH.
“I loved it straight away.”
After an initial trip to the sport’s heartland, he returned to England and immersed himself in the Thai language, listening to language cassette tapes to understand the tonal tongue.
He has since developed a fluency in reading, writing and speaking. While most foreigners in the country rarely get beyond remedial Thai, Cox has that rare ability to interpret and translate Thai, especially within the culture of Muay Thai.
With basic language skills in tow he joined powerhouse gym Kaewsamrit in Bangkok over 13 years ago.
Anuwat Kaewsamrit, The Iron Hands of Siam, brought the gym to its crowning point, knocking out opponents left and right. It was there that Cox picked up some of his first contacts as a foreign liaison and also started his ringside photography.
“Around that time Axe Kickboxing Forum was getting popular. They wanted news and I offered reports from Thailand. Everyone really liked it,” Cox says.
“It was natural to take some photos as well.”
As his skills behind the lens progressed so did his love life. During his time at Kaewsamrit, he would often travel to the stadiums to watch Jompop Kiatphontip.
“I met my wife because I kept bumping into her at the fights, she’s Jompop’s sister.”
The relationship would also blossom into a gym. Kiatphonthip was opened nearly a decade ago when Jompop returned from a brief stint working in England. With Jompop nearing the end of his career, the pair, together with Cox’s wife, decided to embark on a new path.
Opening a gym can be a dream for many but Cox was clear about the realities of owning one.
“It’s a lot of hard work. There’s are a few ups but a lot of downs. People think it’s a dream job, but until you done it you just wouldn’t know.”
The downs can take a toll both physically and mentally on the gym owners who must invest both financially and emotionally in the fighters. Muay Thai can be a way out of bad situations for some but it isn’t a cure-all for life’s problems.
“We’ve had Issues with kids, drugs and parents. It’s heartbreaking. It’s like you’re having a falling out with your own family.”
Gyms will house the fighters, nurturing them on their path to greatness. The journey is littered with trials and tribulations but there are those moments of pride and joy.
Once at Rajadamnern Stadium, a high ranking matchmaker grabbed hold of Cox, thrilled by his newest acquisition, “Where the fuck did that boy come from… where the hell did he come from?”
For Cox, getting recognition from the top gamblers or promoters, like Songchai, is a huge accomplishment, one that left him buzzing.
His work at Kaewsamrit earned him press passes to both Rajadamnern and Lumpinee Stadiums, as well as commentating for the likes of Thai Fight and Max Muay Thai.
“When I first got involved it was a huge scene. There were massive crowds and there would only be three or four other foreigners ringside,” Cox says.
“There was probably way more gambling back then, but they didn’t have such a big hold.”
The proliferation of the sport on the internet has increased the desire for English language commentary, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed. The main stadiums are partially being controlled by gamblers. As the ticket buyers, they now have great sway on the outcome of the fight, causing many casual fans to walk away not understanding what happened.
Cox adds that fighters have also adapted their style to appease gamblers and it’s affecting the sport.
These days Cox can be found ringside five days a week at Max Muay Thai Stadium in Pattaya.
His experience adds valuable insight to the company, where he is the head of a small English language commentating team. Like anything there are pros and cons working for the company. While Max provides a regular stable income it does keep him away from his gym and family.
“Lot of promotions disappear quick. The people involved aren’t there to really invest. If you look at Max, they invested a lot of money. They are looking at the long game and the bigger market – the world outside Thailand,” he argues.
Cox has accomplished a lot in his career in the sport. As a gym owner he has brought up many champions both foreign and Thai. His fighters have won, national titles, Rajadamnern Stadium titles and even world titles.
The Muay Thai treasure has also been tapped for his wealth of knowledge. He has appeared in documentaries for National Geographic and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, while his photography has appeared in VICE, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
The Englishman has been a fixture in Muay Thai for years. Despite the changes happening, Cox will remain permanent.
Having pioneered Thai western relations for well over two decades now, Cox has seen the sport change and is well suited to continue along for the ride.