Suan Lum night bazaar is located in the heart of Bangkok, “The City of Angels,” and home to one of the most vicious sports on the planet, Muay Thai. The night bazaar, filled with food stalls, clothing shops, massage parlors and restaurants, was where I got a chance to meet Rob Cox. Cox is an internationally known journalist who has written, photographed and been involved in the Muay Thai scene for the last 18 years. With his ability to speak Thai fluently, and to read Thai competently Cox is a force to be reckoned with. Cox is currently operating a gym, Kiatphontip, maintaining a website; Muay Thai Focus, and still engaged in journalism. I got a chance to sit down with the easy going, likable, and gracious English ex-pat for an enjoyable dinner and interview.
Lucas: When did you come out to Thailand?
Cox: I came out here about 18 years ago. I’ve been back and forth between here and London. I’ve been living here consistently for the past three years.
Lucas: What do you do out here?
Cox: I’m a freelance journalist and photographer covering Muay Thai. I work for several magazines. In the past I’ve worked for an English magazine entitled “Fighters.” In the Czech Republic there is a magazine that I’ve worked for, again titled “Fighters.” In Holland a magazine called “Royal Rumble,” another newspaper called “Fight Scene.” A friend of mine, who is a director at Twins, is beginning a newspaper based in Europe that I’ve started to contribute to. The main magazine that I’ve worked for is “International Kick boxer” which is based in Australia. I’ve done the cover photo for “International Kick boxer” once. I’ve done a picture of Stefan Fox, for Blitz publications before. Blitz is the producer of “International Kick boxer.”
Lucas: Is Stefan Fox currently out here in Thailand?
Cox: I was just at the WMC (World Muay Thai Council) and Fox was there, sorting out things for the new season of the contender. The qualifying fights are still going on. I don’t know when the season will actually begin.
Lucas: How long have you been doing Muay Thai journalism for?
Cox: I’ve been doing journalism for about five years now.
Lucas: How did you get into it?
Cox: When I first was out here training I looked on the web at a site called axekickboxing. An American ran it although it is more of an English site. The site producer said that he wanted to put on news. He asked people from around the world to contribute. I told him that I was in Thailand and asked if he would be interested in news from Thailand. He said he’d love it. I started writing a few fight reports. It really started from there. A lot of people liked what I was doing. It was really difficult to get news about what was happening in Thailand.
I went to Kaewsamrit to do a report on them about them winning the “gym of the year” award. The owner invited me to work for him. Once I started working for the gym I was introduced to promoters, and was helped out with getting press passes. It went off from there. People started to contact me to do work from them after that.
Lucas: Where do you do fight reports out of?
Cox: I do reports on bouts at Lumpinee, and Rajamadern. If there is a tournament such as “Five Star” in Khorat, I’ll cover that. If there are big tournaments I’ll go out to them.
Lucas: Do you do any writing for the daily, Thai language based, Muay Thai newspaper, “Muay Siam?”
Cox: I don’t do any writing for them. The number two of the newspaper approached me about doing a weekly column in Thai. It would take me a fair amount of work for me to produce a column in Thai that people would actually like to read. I’m going to have to work on it. All the guys there are good mates so we’ll share things. For instance, if they need a picture of a certain fighter that they haven’t managed to get to but I have. I’ll email them over. Sometimes if something happens I’ll do a little report. When I took Sanchai Sor Kingstar to Fight in England against Liam Harrison I did a special report. “Rob Cox took Sanchai to England, Sanchai weighed in fine etc.” I’ll send in a few pictures for “Muay Siam.” I sent in a really great knock out picture once, it was of a high kick. It got on the back cover in gloss. They put my name on it.
I could probably write for them but I’d have to work on my Thai language writing ability. They asked me before, as I mentioned.
Lucas: A lot of the newspaper is written in Thai slang correct?
Cox: Yeah. Written Thai is a lot different from what you say every day. In the paper they go over the same information two or three times. They’ll write it out very elaborately. They’ll say “So and so did a press conference blah, blah, blah, blah,” and repeat that three or four times. It looks like a big article but there are hardly any facts in it.
Lucas: What did you think of Sanchai’s recent fight with Liam Harrison?
Cox: I thought it was a good fight. I thought Liam fought very well. It was a huge fight for him. It was a no lose fight for him. He was in there with the best pound for pound fighter in the world. If he had managed to pull off an upset, which is not to degrade Liam, but Sanchai is very good. If he had managed to pull it off he’d create a legacy for himself. If he lost, he lost to Sanchai. He didn’t go in there just to fight, he went into the ring believing that he would win. He fought a hard fight. In the first round Sanchai threw a cartwheel kick at him, it missed so Sanchai threw a push kick into Liam. Liam caught the push kick and cut out Sanchai’s leg from under him. That’s when Sanchai knew he was in for a real fight. So I thought Liam did really well. It might not have been Sanchai’s greatest performance with his jet lag and the trouble getting him to England but it was still quite a show. The crowd loved it. It was nice to be a part of it.
Lucas: Did you get to see any of the other fights that night?
Cox: Yeah I saw a couple. I was a little busy with Sanchai, taking him where he needed to go, getting pictures of him with the promoter etc. I’m originally from England so there were a lot of mates of mine to catch up with as well. I got to see some of the bout between Andy Howsen and Damien Trainer. That was the best fight of the night for me. I’ve seen Damien fight loads of times but have never seen Abby but had heard good things about him. It was a beautiful fight. Both had great technique. The bout was very stylish. They ended up going toe to toe for five rounds.
Lucas: How do you feel foreigners are changing Muay Thai here in Thailand and abroad?
Cox: I don’t think they’re changing it here. I think it’s changing in the west compared to how originally it was brought up. More and more people are coming here, watching the Thais fight, and learning how to fight for the Thai judges. There’s more of a chance for a westerner to beat a Thai on points now. Before you’d have to knock them out, like Ramon Dekkers. You get a lot of people saying how Dekkers was robbed in Thailand, but he didn’t get robbed. He didn’t know how to fight to Thai rules. More westerners know how to beat Thais on points. More kicking clinch work, not going mad in the first two rounds trying to knock your opponent out, building a pace to the fight, that sort of thing.
Lucas: What are the recent rule changes at Lumpinee?
Cox: There was a site that posted the rule changes at Lumpinee. They translated the rules from Thai to English and the way they put it across made it sound like Lumpinee was stopping the clinch all together. It was giving people the wrong impression. It showed up on K-1 fans and other sites. All these people were saying ‘Oh this is disgraceful, I’ll never go to Lumpinee again!’
Basically, the rules were put in to make the fights more exciting again, to keep the action going. Rather than having fighters lock each other around the waist and smother each other in the clinch the rules were brought up to bring the action back. In my opinion the rules did the right thing.
Lucas: Why do fighters have a tendency to smother each other?
Cox: In the West the influence comes from people coming to Thailand, learning the rules, and bringing Muay Thai home. Here, in Thailand, the influence comes from the gamblers. The gamblers have gotten to the point where they’ve taken over how the fights should be scored. The fights have moved away from the art of Muay Thai where the fighters will knee, kick, and punch, and have become a glorified wrestling. A fighter will come out with beautiful technique for three rounds with kicks and punches then in round four their opponent gets him in the clinch throws him down three or four times and wins the fight. Gambling is killing off the art of Muay Thai.
Lucas: Are the gamblers paying off the fighters?
Cox: It’s not so much that the fighters are being paid off. Every time there’s a fight the gamblers will make a demonstration about the scoring. The promoters need to please the gamblers because the promoters are afraid that without them attending (the gamblers) they (the promoters) won’t make any money. It’s a vicious cycle.
Lucas: Do you think the situation with the gamblers will change?
Cox: It could change but it would be very difficult. Muay Thai is competing with globalization. In some ways globalization is helping spread Muay Thai but in other ways its giving Thais more options of ways to spend their free time; Internet, football. Football is extremely popular. Your average Thai is far more interested in betting on the English cups than on Muay Thai.
Lucas: Do you think Muay Thai will gain popularity abroad?
Cox: Yeah, I don’t see it slowing down. With MMA, a lot of people are saying that its going to kill off Muay Thai, but a lot of people like the stand up side of MMA. They like to watch the fighter’s punch, elbow and knee so I think that’s helping Muay Thai. I think that MMA has slowed down the growth of Muay Thai in some areas but is still helping Muay Thai gain popularity.
Lucas: Is Muay Thai here in Thailand still popular?
Cox: When I first came out here 18 years ago, Muay Thai was much more popular. It’s becoming less popular. The Thais are realizing it can’t continue to decline. I think that’s why there have been rule changes at Lumpinee. The Thais are realizing that there’s a market in the West. They’re looking into that market. It will take some more forward thinking people in the sport to help it. Unfortunately the gambling influence is pretty negative. It’s not just the spectators that are involved in the gambling but a lot of the promoters as well. The promoters aren’t going out of there away to get a different audience because they’re gamblers themselves. Its part of their industry.
Lucas: Do the class aspects of Muay Thai make it less popular as Muay Thai is seen as a working class sport?
Cox: Absolutely. Muay Thai is seen as a low class sport. Fairtex has done a lot about that image. Fairtex has tried to really attract a different market, more of a MTV audience. The owner of Fairtex’s son was dating a Thai pop star for a while. Every time the pop star would go to Lumpinee the guys from Muay Siam would take tons of photos. There was a real buzz for a while. We need more people like that in the sport.
A lot of people knock Fairtex for being a bit too commercial but on the other hand they’re opening up the market.
Lucas: Who do you see as upcoming talent out here in Thailand?
Cox: Oh, there’s loads, and loads. There are still lots of young fighters coming up. While the scene in Bangkok is a bit stagnant, upcountry the scene is booming. Down south there are huge shows. It’s not unheard of for a show to take in 2 million baht (approximately $700,000), which is more than what’s being made at Lumpinee and Rajamadern. There are some big players in Phuket in the boxing scene. They aren’t associated with the foreigners down there. A lot of the promoters up here in Bangkok have businesses down south as well. At least once a month the promoters will have a huge show outside of Bangkok so there’s a lot of talent outside of Bangkok.
Lucas: Why do you think there’s so much talent outside of Bangkok?
Cox: In Bangkok there is too many distractions and there isn’t the same grinding poverty in the south or the northeast. There’s nothing to do, there aren’t many choices for people to better their living situations. A lot of young kids are supporting their families through Muay Thai.
Lucas: What do you see your involvement with Muay Thai being in the future?
Cox: Well I’m helping run my gym, Kiatphontip. I want to strengthen things there. I’m not in it to make money and to get tons of foreigners in. My vision is to have some foreigners there but to also develop some Thai champions, to win “Gym of the Year,” or “Boxer of the Year.” I’m a big fan of the sport so that’s my goal. I don’t want to build another falang gym for foreigners and not Thais. To be honest, running a gym wasn’t on my top ten lists of priorities. I’ve helped out other gyms, like Kaewsamrit, before and its hard work. It is hard to make money with the Thais. You have to use the foreign side of the gym to support the Thai side, and the infrastructure.
Lucas: Why is it hard to support a camp off the Thais?
Cox: Things are just not as good as they were. The cost of living has risen. Unless you have several big name fighters you won’t make enough to support the fighters. At Kaewsamrit, they have several big names, Anuwat and a couple others; probably four or five guys all together are supporting the gym. With the foreigners coming in the gym is making a nice income. We, at our gym, have some young guys coming up, but they’re only making 5,000 or 6,000 baht a purse. That’s not enough to support the gym. That’s why you have foreigners’ help with basic costs, the electric bill and what not. Our gym doesn’t have a huge space for foreigners anyways.
We do have a young boy from the south who is doing pretty well. He’s a three-time champion down south but you can never tell how they’ll end up. He might find girls or other distractions. You never know. If he does make it he has potential to become a big name.
Lucas: Is there still a migration into Bangkok for Muay Thai because that’s where the money is?
Cox: Yes. Lumpinee and Rajamadern are still the top stadiums. If a fighter gets to the top level the fighter can make 100,000 baht a fight. Split two ways, that is 50,000 baht for the fighter. That’s not bad. A worker at a 7-11 makes 5,000 baht a month. If they can get to the point where they’re traveling abroad like Buakaw, Yodsanklai, or Kaoklai, they can hit the jackpot. Hopefully they’ll be in a camp where the gym owner isn’t too greedy and gives them their share of the purse.
I want to thank Rob Cox again for taking the time out to answer my questions and for being such a generous personality. If you see this man out here, buy him a beer!