With the rise of globalization muaythai has traversed oceans and land masses and has found a home on almost every continent the world over. But muaythai isn’t your average sport. It can’t be compared to football or baseball, basketball or hockey. Muaythai has baggage; cultural baggage. And it is deeply rooted in Thai tradition. It is because of these traditions, however, that some of the harsher realities of the sport often get overshadowed. For every Saenchai or Buakaw there are thousands of young fighters who will never make it out of poverty.
In Thailand, muaythai gyms can sometimes resemble orphanages for the lost and forgotten. They are safe-houses which guard poverty stricken children from the prevailing evils found on the lower rungs of Thailand’s socioeconomic ladder. When you look at the options for children born into poverty it puts fighting for a living into perspective. Inside a muaythai gym there is community; a family unit that provides enough structure in a child’s life to keep them on path for at least the duration of their fight careers. But even inside the gym a fighter isn’t safe, as they are prone to the cyclical struggle that most who’ve come before them have endured. It makes you wonder whether the mongkon is crown of hope, or a crown of thorns.
I am reminded of Jep, and eight year old boy from a gym in Bangkok. As for family, he has his drunken father, and both of them sleep inside the boxing ring every night, covered only by a mosquito net and comforted with just a pillow and small electric fan. Jep wears the same clothes to school everyday; most of the time his shorts and shirt are covered in dirt marks. But when Jep smiles it erases any sorrow you feel for the kid. His is a smile of true happiness. In my home country I work with people from every demographic and from all walks of life, and I have yet to see a smile that rivals Jep’s, not even on the face of the wealthiest person I know.
Jep, despite his position, is a teacher. Though, he doesn’t teach anyone how to throw a kick or a knee. What he teaches is that although having nothing to his name, he has happiness, for now. The only problem is that, like so many other young fighters in Thailand, there is a good chance that he too will get pulled into a cycle of despair. It is not out of the ordinary for a fighter to retire and fall back on the bottle because they have no outlets to channel their energy through. Because they start fighting at such a young age, rarely do they have a proper education or technical ability to rely on. I wonder if Jep will be handed the same fate.
The muaythai gym can be a haven for young children who have few options in life. It keeps them away from drugs and keeps them disciplined. But the same place that makes a fighter can break a fighter.
Over the next few months I’ll be writing a series of blogs discussing the social dynamics of muaythai, while adding stories from personal experience and observation to bring life to the paradoxical and, at times, perplex culture that is muaythai. These stories will be based off of discussions, interviews, and notes that I scribbled down in notebooks, on napkins, or punched into a computer over the last 6 years.