After 18 months in Thailand, a visit to the Muay Thai boxing ring was unquestionably well overdue, particularly since Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, one of the two local venues, is just one mile from the apartment (point A on map below). Matches are held every day at one of Bangkok’s two stadiums — Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday at Lumpinee (point B) and Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at Ratchadamnoen Stadium (point C).
Lumpinee Stadium opened in 1956, and it and Ratchadamnoen are run by the Royal Thai Army. On the night that I went, there were eight matches on the card: two Mini Flyweight bouts (fighters weighing under 105 pounds) and these boxers all looked to still be in their mid-teens; two Junior Flyweight bouts (under 108 pounds); one Flyweight (under 112) — the main event for the evening; one Bantamweight (under 118); one Junior Featherweight (under 122); and one Junior Lightweight (under 130 pounds). There are fifteen weight classes in all with the Heavyweights tipping the scale at 175 pounds or more. While there are foreign fighters in Thailand, all the bouts that I witnessed were among Thai. There are female boxers, too, but they are not allowed to fight at the army-controlled Lumpinee or Ratchadamnoen stadiums.
I arrived at Lumpinee around 7:40 p.m. for what I thought was an 8:15 p.m. start but that turned out to be instead at 8:30 p.m. As I exited my taxi, a young lady came up to me to give me the evening’s program and to sell me a ticket. I bought a ringside seat (as apparently did all the other farang). Since I could not enter the arena until 8 p.m., I had time to visit several of the nearby stores that sell Muay Thai equipment — colorful shorts, gloves, shirts, socks, and headgear as well as heavy bags and mitts for training.
Unlike western boxing that only permits punching with fists above the waist, Thai boxing allows the fighters to kick, clinch, and strike with their fists, elbows, legs, and knees both above and below the waist. Kicking is used when the fighters are apart with the attacking fighter typically directing a roundhouse kick to the ribs or underarm, and the defender often using his shin to block the more fragile foot. Elbow and knee strikes are used when the fighters are in a clinch where punches are not possible or effective. The knee strikes looked to be aimed at the opponents thighs, kidneys, and back.
The standard bout consists of five 3 minute rounds with 2 minute breaks between rounds; the young Mini Flyweights, however, only had four 2 minute rounds. A single referee is in the ring with the fighters and three judges watch, each from a different side of the ring. Boxers can win by a knock-out (KO), a technical knock-out (TKO), or on points. A fighter will win by a KO if his opponent is unable to get up after a 10 count. He will win by TKO if his opponent is injured and cannot continue, if the opponent is unable to fight after a break between rounds, or if he knocks down his opponent three times in a round. Only the judges, not the referee, score the fight, and each judge must give the winner of a round 5 points and the loser gets anywhere from 3 to 4 1/2.
Although gambling is generally prohibited in Thailand (and that, of course, means that there are casinos right across the border in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar — will governments ever learn?), wagers on the bouts are permitted in Lumpinee. The gamblers occupy the second-level of the arena, and bets are placed and accepted with hand signals.
The fighters are assigned to either the red corner or the blue corner. Unlike the highly colorful shorts seen in the nearby sporting good stores, each combatant wears white trunks trimmed with the color of his corner as well as a color-coordinated advertisement for the Toyota Vigo pickup truck! Each fighter’s gloves and socks — stirrup-style like those that baseball players wear — are also in the color of his corner. With the exception of the socks, the boxers fight barefoot. Most of the fighters also wear small arm bands, called Pra Jiat, around their biceps to help protect them from injury.
My seat was on the aisle near the red fighter’s corner. The arena is not air-conditioned but there were plenty of ceiling fans, so it was quite comfortable. Vendors frequently came around selling chips and popcorn (about $1 per bag) and taking drink orders. If you want a beer ($2.00 to $2.65, depending on brand) or soft drink (price unknown — this is a boxing match!), a server would take your order and retrieve the beverage from the concession stand.
Before each match, each fighter performs a choreographed, ritual in which he shows respect to his trainer (Wai Khru), asks Buddha to protect himself and his opponent during the fight, and then does a routine called Ram Muay (dance boxing) through which he demonstrates his skills to the audience. During this pre-match ceremony, the fighters wear colorful headbands, called a Mongkhon, and garlands of flowers. A small orchestra — one musician playing a wood and brass oboe, two drummers, and one playing tiny finger cymbals — provides musical accompaniment during this ceremony as well as throughout the fight.
After the fighters perform their Ram Muay, each goes to his corner and prays with his teacher. At the end of the prayer, the teacher removes the Mongkhon and flower garland from the boxer and the fighter heads to the center of the ring. The referee gives some instructions and then begins the bout by saying “Chok Dee!”, which means Good Luck. The referee’s job is to ensure a fair fight and to stop the match if a boxer is injured or otherwise unable to continue.
Each fighter has two corner men, or seconds, who provide advice to him between rounds, spray his body down with water, give him water to drink, and massage his limbs and trunk. By the time the fighters are ready for the next round, they are absolutely drenched in water. Not surprisingly, these athletes are incredibly muscular and lean.
Five of the eight bouts were decided on points and three were TKOs, including the main event which ended during the second round. After the main event, the winning fighter went back toward his dressing room and posed for pictures with anyone from the crowd who wanted one. Perhaps not the same as a snapshot with the Super Bowl MVP, but really how could I resist?
23 Days to Go
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.