But on a chilly night, in the small, northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, I got my first glimpse of what it meant to be a minor-league professional Thai boxer, coming up the hard way, and dreaming of a pay off that would likely never come.
While foreign boxers are commonplace in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, they are rarely seen in rural Thailand. I was the first foreigner to train in this jungle camp, sixty kilometers north of Chiang Rai. At first glimpse the hill tribe boys here were not much different from the poor kids back home in the United States. They were uneducated and from broken homes. Many of them had brushed up against drug addiction and the law. No one expected them to get any further than their parents, and their parents hadn’t gotten very far at all. Fighting was their only chance of amounting to anything.
My first impression was that they could have been fighters anywhere in the world. But as I learned more, I saw that these disenfranchised youths of the Thai-Burma border faced even more problems. Most of them were officially stateless persons. Having been born in remote villages where illiteracy is the norm, their births had never been recorded, meaning they were never entered into the Thai system. They had no passport, and no identity card. It would most likely be impossible for them to get papers, so they could never take a traditional route out of poverty by becoming policemen or soldiers, or holding a legitimate job. And even if they possessed the relevant skills, the doors of the state universities were closed to them.
The only bright note was that the boys’ world was so small that they didn’t understand they were stateless. They had never needed identity cards, so didn’t feel the loss when it was denied them.
The loss they did feel, however, was the absence of family. The boys living in these types of camps are loosely referred to as orphans. But in the strictest sense of the word, they aren’t orphans at all. Often one or both of their parents are still alive. They are simply unwanted and parents will often deposit discarded sons at the nearest temple or Thai boxing camp.
So aside from the fact that Thai boxing training is infinitely more painful than coaching for Western boxing, by the time these boys even got in the ring they had endured more than their share of hard knocks.
My team was to fight on two consecutive nights, as the main entertainment at a rural fair. On the first night, the promoter noticed me, the only Western face in the crowd, and asked me if I would come back and fight a match the next day. I quickly agreed. He made me strip off my shirt in the cold night air and shadow box in the ring while the crowd cheered. For many of them, mostly farmers from remote villages, it was probably the first time they had seen a foreigner at all, much less seen one box. I was immediately given the fight name “Toni Farang”.
On fight night, I watched my friend and training brother, Payong, decimate his opponent. At twenty-one, Payong was the oldest fighter in the camp. He’d been abandoned by his mother when she remarried but he was the kind of guy who was always laughing. No matter how low my mood, Payong could cheer me up with his antics. But when the bell rang, there was no trace of the comical, good-natured guy who shared a bamboo hut with me. Instead, the once peaceful Payong had been replaced by the most vicious fighter I had ever seen. I have fought in hundreds of matches around the world, yet I’d never witnessed the crude violence that Payong unleashed on his opponent. The fight was stopped in the middle of the second round, when both the referee and the corner felt that Payong’s opponent had had enough.
I couldn’t help wondering if the anger he displayed in the ring was the result of his abandonment. Was there some deep specter of pent up aggression lurking inside him?
Meanwhile, I was quite a spectacle. People were coming up to me, grabbing my calf muscles, and feeling my biceps, discussing which way they were betting in the Toni Farang fight. Small-time fighting is always pretty disorganized. People crowded in on me, making it impossible to breathe. By the time I realized that my name was being called, my opponent was already in the ring waiting. No time for a warm up or a rub down. I just began stripping off my clothes as the crowd pushed and dragged me to my corner.
Luckily, my trainer, Hote, an ex-Thai boxer, was able to fight his way through the crowd, and stick some gloves on my hands, or else I would have had to fight bare-fisted.
The ring announcer was shouting for me to get in or get disqualified. Half the crowd was trying to push me up the steps, the other half was still feeling my muscles and trying to get me to pose for photos.
“No weigh-in?” I shouted to Hote over the din.
“Now boxing,” he cried back, desperately trying to pull me in to the ring.
“What about hand wraps?”
“No time,” he said.
I had visions of nursing broken knuckles the following day. Even after I climbed into the ring, people were still holding on to my legs. Someone else was trying to force something like a huge bathtub underneath me. It nearly knocked me off my feet. After bruising my calves, they gave up and began dumping ice-cold water all over me. Apparently this is something they do in Thailand. But I was so cold to begin with, my muscles began cramping. And the ring was now wet and slippery.
A bell rang. I wasn’t sure if it meant come out fighting or come out and get the instructions. The referee was shouting at me in Thai. The crowd was shouting. There were instructions coming over the loudspeakers. I looked to Hote, asking what to do, but he just shrugged.
“Thanks man,” I said. A good corner man can make or break the fight for you. And in small-time fighting you get small-time corner men.
I tried to take a step, but people had climbed up on the ring apron, and were still holding on to my ankles. I ripped my legs free and walked, warily, to the center. This was the first time I saw my opponent. He was the biggest Thai I had seen. At that moment, he seemed like the biggest man I had ever seen. He was at least a head taller than me, and easily 20 kilograms heavier.
One thing about small-time fighting is that the fighters have been through so much, you don’t usually get an attractive opponent. This guy was no exception. He had a forehead so big that it blocked the sun. He looked like he had just stepped out of Darwin’s walk of man, somewhere between Cro- Magnon and Neanderthal. He wasn’t just ugly, he was circus ugly. Small-timers fight constantly to make a semblance of a living and he had open cuts all over his face when he walked in.
I was intimidated by his battered appearance, until I remembered a scene from the movie The Magnificent Seven, where they are looking to hire good gun fighters. They see a man with scars all over his face, and someone says. “We should hire him. He is very tough.” Yul Brynner says, “No, we should hire the man who gave him those scars.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. My opponent smiled, revealing a mouth devoid of teeth. A mouthpiece is optional in Thailand. I guess they are optional everywhere, if you have no teeth.
The fight went really well for me. I whirled and kicked and punched and hit my opponent about 300 times. He hit me about six times. But the real battle was always in the corner, where people kept grabbing me and yelling at me. Whenever the bell rang to go out and fight I felt relieved. It was all so confusing. At the end, I didn’t know who had won. I just knew that my opponent left, and they asked me to stay in the ring and take pictures with my arms over my head.
Later, lying in our hut, Payong and I talked about our fights, too excited to sleep. “You were great,” I told him, pantomiming all of his excellent kicks and knees.
“Toni was great,” he said, and swung his fists like a mad man.
We joked about my opponent’s lack of teeth and had a good laugh imitating how Payong’s opponent was knocked down twenty-five times.
“Payong is happy,” he told me. “Mother and father happy.” Payong’s parents had shown up at the fights. I had heard that many of the parents did this, coming around to take most of the winnings from their son. In this case, Payong had won 300 baht (less than US$2).
“Mother-father say Payong can go home now,” he told me with boyish delight.
My stomach turned. They kicked him out when they had no use for him. But now that he looked like a moneymaker they wanted him back. I lacked the Thai vocabulary to tell Payong what I was thinking, and wondered if it was right to interfere in the first place.
Suddenly, his face turned sullen. “Is Payong good?” he asked, sounding like a hurt little boy. “Of course Payong is good,” I said. “Payong was fighting like this,” I said, kicking and punching frantically. He became very quiet, and again asked in a timid voice “Is Payong good?”
It hit me what he was asking. He wasn’t asking about the fight. Ultimately, he seemed to be asking me, “Is Payong a good enough person that he deserves better than to be abandoned by his family?”
I cursed my minimal language skills. Hoping my tone would convey what my words could not, I said. “Yes, Payong is good.” He looked at me for a moment, as if deciding whether or not I was telling him the truth. Then a smile spread across his face and he burst out in his usual laughter. “Payong is good,” he chuckled. “Payong is good.”
Antonio Graceffo is the author of The Monk from Brooklyn, Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves, The Desert of Death on Three Wheels, and Adventures in Formosa. Keep track of him at www.speakingadventure.com
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.