On his latest adventure, roving FIGHT! reporter T.R. Foley visits the tourist destination Lumpini Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, to watch the blood splatter and bid farewell to the epicenter of Muay Thai.
In a hotel room designed in the absence of tact, it was the watermelon-sized boxing glove pillows wrapped in gold sequins and bedazzled with the words “LIGHTS” and “OUT” that captured the tawdriness best. In third, behind the Scarface-inspired black-and-white marble walls, were glove-wearing dragons dotting the silk blanket across the bed.
These decorative missteps might seem like the trappings of a rundown one-star motel in Las Vegas, but this monument to the gaudy is actually the Bangkok W, the newest—and for the moment, hottest—hotel in Thailand.
As the country’s tourism industry continues to boom, it is hotels like the W that now greet visitors to Thailand. For almost 30 years, since the movie Bloodsport first turned Farangs (white people) on to Muay Thai, every tourist—backpackers on Koh San Road to hotel-goers on Sukhumvit—wants to visit Lumpini Stadium, the blood-soaked Thai boxing ring in downtown Bangkok. But now, after countless fights and more than 40,0000 events, the tourists, who pushed the stadium from quixotic sideshow to main event, have inadvertently helped prompt its shuddering.
Personal journeys into the face-smashing underworld of the Muay Thai are by now as ubiquitous and formulaic as an episode of American Idol. Although the esteemed managing editor of this magazine asked, nay begged, me to absorb the kidney-lacerating blows of a Thai shin, I declined. Call it tight scheduling, the lack of adequate healthcare options, or the companionship of old friends, but I felt immune to his journalistic guilt trip. My goal was to watch the fights, not have my midsection tenderized by a random Thai teenager.
Muay Thai, with an unabashed lust for spilt plasma, is predictably popular among the throngs of British boys backpacking through Thailand to drink Chang beer and purchase flesh. They’ve read the tales and seen the movies, and they want to either throw hands or watch the carnage from the arm of a Thai girlfriend.
Dolts aside, there has been a growing concern among sports conservationists that the corrupting influence of money might have a negative impact on Lumpini and the sport of Thai boxing. The fear was that as the crowds graduated from poor backpackers to high-class vacationers, the needs of the fan would change so significantly that it would prompt fights featuring foreigners, increased ticket prices, and eventually doom Lumpini itself. By demolishing their most popular landmark, Thai boxers would, in essence, lose a part of their history and identity.
In 2012, that fear became a reality when Lumpini sold its land to developers and moved the stadium 20 miles from the center of town. Ironic, since it’s now far away from the backpackers whose money and willingness to share tales built the name and stadium to the level of recognition it now enjoys.
Like a National Park, popularity leveraged correctly can ensure preservation. However, when done in a manner that prioritizes outsized financial benefit, that same popularity can bastardize the very thing it wishes to safeguard. Lumpini, primed by the general financial boom in southeast Asia and the spike of MMA outfits, became it’s own enemy.
Despite my misgivings about the cultural impact of Lumpini’s destruction, my appetite for fisticuffs was piqued by the kitschy décor of the W, and I decided to attend this relic of traditional combat sports to see what, if anything, it still offered the casual fight fan.
There are nine fights on the night’s marquee, highlighted by a young Thai boxer whose camp name is “Bansawan Sport Center,” a mouthful that, for the sake of brevity, is reconciled down to “SportsCenter.” Another fighter has the given name “Extra,” and quickly joins SportsCenter in becoming the chosen fighters for the night. Although excited by the names—and the impending spectacle—the marquee also includes the event’s first stench of corrupted capitalism and British boyism. The headliner is a traveling Brazilian and, of course, an eager-to-impress Englishman.
Lumpini’s ticketing process is as tourist-fucking as an operation can get. The local Thais who show up to bet the fights are charged 200 Bahts, or about $7, while the visitors are given the white-guy rate of 1,500 Bahts, or $50. That rate, as with sex, drugs, and t-shirts is expected to be bargained down, and as I take up the case. I feel the hard bottom closing in.
“No, this is impossible. No. Impossible,” says the first “tour” operator standing outside the ticket window. “You pay full-price. 1,200 is best offer. Best for you.”
My friends, an expatriated duo living in Asia with foreign girlfriends, insist on not being exploited and demand the Thai rate. Some pronouncements are made, the word “bullshit” is tossed around with ease, but we finally pay the 1,200 Bahts ($40) each for the VIP tickets. The tickets include a standard-issue “This Is Muay Thai” guidebook and a piece of paper with the names of each fighter, an underwhelming delivery when selling “VIP” anything.
The hallway leading to the ring is lined with paintings of Thai boxers making a series of perfect shin-to-face, shin-to-ribs, shin-to-thigh connections. Some of the photos are staged in fields or by rivers, an easing aesthetic probably meant to balance the violence of seeing a man taking toes to the jaw line.
Lumpini, built in 1956, doesn’t have air conditioning, and the 50-plus years of sweat gives the room the overwhelming scent of jockstraps baking in the sun. That odor is spread democratically by 200 household variety fans whirling overhead, accompanied by a few eye-level oscillating fans last seen on the back of swamp boats.
Our seats, folding chairs set 20 feet from the base of the cage, are plastic. There are two other sides dedicated to such VIPs that are filled mostly with Japanese tourists, Chinese girls, and the Brits—including one with a well-dressed Thai hooker sitting nearby.
The most interesting, vocal, and rowdy crowd is to our right—Thai men with knapsacks and fanny packs who paid the Thai rate to bet on the fights. After the first round (scouting round), these murse-carrying dozens turn into a hand-waving crowd that looks like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
We sit and order five Changs to help us cool down and acclimate to the scene. First up: SportsCenter.
Weighing 110 pounds, Thai fighters might look like your 12-year-old brother after the flu, but these leg-whippers can generate enough force with their hips to split open a coconut with their big toe. We love SportsCenter, and as he launches his first combination, it’s clear he’s a highlight reel of femur-splintering power. His armbands dance with each punch, and his shorts—shiny with polyester shine and the glistening mixture of blood, water, and sweat—make him appear like some type of ass-kicking deity.
SportsCenter uses a repeated right leg kick to back up his opponent and locks him into the corner, launching knee after knee to the body. His opponent gradually withers and drops his head, forcing the referee to stop the fight.
SportsCenter does a quick Way Khru Ram (traditional dance seen before—and sometimes after—Muay Thai fights) in recognition of his victory, then heads to the corner and gives one last knees-to-chest, head-to-floor prayer.
A few more fights pass all with the same single-set mentality of violence. Punch, kick, elbow.
Getting tagged? Stand there and take the abuse. Thai boxing is as much a combat sport as a pissing contest, with fighters winning points with the crowd and trainers by proving they can take a punch or kick. The sport of eight limbs is about blocking emotion. Break the mold, and you risk showing weakness.
Extra is up. Another innocent-faced Thai kid with a whipping kick and powerful jabs. The gamblers stream down from the stands and pile into the corners of their preferred fighter. Since the fights typically end on the scorecard, the gamblers accentuate each connection with a hip-thrust and loud, in-unison “Yeaaohh!
Extra is taking abuse through three rounds, but turns it up in the fourth and fifth to win the decision, making his supporters, both technical and financial, exceedingly happy. As he exits, a Thai bettor with sun-scorched skin slips him several thousand Bahts, a nice supplemental bounty for the typically impoverished fighters.
The Englishman and the Brazilian are the ninth fight on the card, but as they enter the ring and do their respective traditional dances, Lumpini clears of Thais. The photographers leave, and the gamblers who remain sit back, drink juice boxes, and smoke cigarettes. It seems few people care about Whitey’s Vision Quest.
The Brazilian pushes the Englishman around the ring for three rounds. By the fourth, when it becomes obvious that the Brit is outmatched, his corner yells for to him to “Kick! Kick! Kick!” as though he wasn’t already attempting this cornerstone of Muay Thai.
Accumulating damage and with a knockout nearing, the Englishman plods forward. He covers up to avoid haymakers, but otherwise seems content to stand upright, bleeding and catching the Brazilian’s jabs with his jaw. The crowd that remains cheers the abuse and revels in the blood.
The fifth round starts and there is a back-and-forth exchange that favors the Brit. Emboldened, he marches directly into the sharp corner of the Brazilian’s hard-thrown elbow. The blow morphs the Brits pointy nose into the loopy side of a question mark. I break character and yelp in triumphant approval.
The Brazilian is announced the winner and dances his Way Khru Ram. As my friends and I make our way to the street to hail a taxi, we run into some of the 8 o’clock revelers. They’re burned, wearing tank tops, and waddling like frat boys into the arena. “Good times, Mates?”
I can’t muster the energy to match their douchery.
“Worth every Baht, brother,” I say. “All 1,500.”