Bare Knuckle Mauy Thai fighting in Mae Sot, Thailand

June 4, 2006

Mae Sot, young muay Thai kids thump the shit out of each otherMae Sot, ThailandIn a pivotal scene in Fight Club, Tyler puts it to Jack. "How much can you really know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?"

Ritdech Sitwanoi, 15, is about to find out. He's tough as nails. And though bare-knuckle kick boxing doesn't pay much, he's keen to get in the ring in a few days and test his mettle. The purse is 500 baht for a Thai winner, 400 for a Burmese and 100 each for a draw: he is obviously not doing it for the money.

Thousands of miles from the glitzy screens of Hollywood, Thai and Burmese fighters challenge each other to gruelling hemp-fisted, knuckle crunching fights in the border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province, where the term Fight Club takes on its own visceral meaning.

Last year, Master Toddy, UK's number one Thai trainer and promoter of kickboxing brought over fighters from Las Vegas. The American fighters ran rings around the locals which made for great TV but soured the spirit of the event that prompted the local organiser to keep the fights between Thais and Burmese for the future.

"It was disgusting," said one Canadian photographer who witnessed last year's carnage. "These steroid beef cakes were bashing the shit out of the Burmese and Thais. It wasn't fair. They are trained to the max in the States, while many of the local contestants are not professionally trained or have financial backing like their western counterparts."

Somdej Kamsuk, the promoter who's been running this tournament for the past 16 years says the real meaning of this competition is for great fighting and less injuries during the Songkran festivities. "That's why we decided to keep the tournament local," he says.

Somdej says he first witnessed bare knuckle fighting in Burma's Mywaddy district in 1974, which in Burma is called leth wei. "They wrap their hands in hemp rope or gauze cloth. No gloves," he says. "I was really impressed and thought this would really take off in Thailand." He set up the first showdown between the two border countries on Thai soil in 1986. Since then this event has been attracting visitors from around the globe who come here to observe this rough and ready street fighting that incorporates elements of Thai and Burmese kick boxing.

Traditionally, the two countries have been at it for centuries. Battles were fought between boxers from as early as 1411 when unarmed combat between Thai and Burmese fighters were recorded. Fights were such an integral part of the culture that they sometimes made an impact in history; such as the legend of Nai Khanom Tom, who, during capture in Burma in 1774, defeated ten Burmese fighters and returned home a hero. Diehard martial art aficionados rank Thai kickboxing as the ultimate in hand to hand fighting due to its combination of lethal kicks and punches.

Bare-knuckle boxing has been outlawed in Thailand since 1923 as many men have been known to never regain consciousness after being knocked out. But here in Mae Sot – a border town containing a tom yum of Thai soldiers, KNLA rebels, jade smugglers and NGOs – anything goes, and boxing gloves are replaced by hemp cloth bound across the palm making it much more deadly for all fighters.

After a few photo ops at a hole-in-the-wall gym, Ritdech's father sits down to a game of Chinese checkers with his son. "It strengthens their minds, helps them to think tactically," he explains. In bare knuckle fighting stealth and street savvy are integral ingredients for success.

Supoj Worasaen, the owner of the gym, is hopeful that Ritdech will win. "He's got 15 fights under his belt with hemp and 45 in the ring with gloves," says the force behind this scruffy gym. Three of his fighters won convincingly the first day of the tournament. And Supoj doesn't hide the fact that Ritdech is his diamond in the rough. "He'll be fighting in Bangkok soon." This will translate as dividends for the gym owner and his parents, who will receive their rightful cut.

The day before we arrived a bomb went off on the Burmese side killing six people. This happened only a stone's throw from the main stadium. So it was no surprise that the place was beefed up with security. Humvees patrolled the streets. This didn't, however, stop thousands of Burmese from wading across the Moei River from Myawadi to Mae Sot to watch the tournament and join in the Thai songkran celebrations. This probably accounted for the heightened tension that would ensure one hell of a showdown between the two countries in the fighting ring.

 The ringside consisted of a makeshift stadium set in a forest clearing near the Friendship Bridge. Firstly, the referees ordered the fighters from both camps to get up in the ring to ensure that fighters were well matched. The Burmese team were a motley bunch, and the Thai referee had to lift up their shirts to see if they had any meat under their baggy shorts and sarongs.

It's obvious that this is a big day out for the Burmese. Most of the audience are sloshed out of their heads. Before the fight begins, a Thai soldier stands nearby with a wooden stick. "Get back," he'd say repeatedly to the enthusiastic crowd. But when the Burmese were wall to wall around the stadium, the soldier wisely disappeared and left them to their testosterone frenzy.

Rules of engagement out here in Scrapperville mean that punches, head-butting, elbowing and kneeing in the balls are all permissible. But they draw the line at eye gouging and Tyson-style biting. There are only two ways to lose – give up or get knocked out. There isn't much work for the referee but to keep the winners from over aggression against those already fallen.

At ringside, the bell goes off. The Thai fighter makes contact. A little shout goes up from the audience. The Burmese fighter makes contact. The crowd goes wild. Then the promoter tells the Burmese fighter to leave the ring after the first round even though he's got the upper hand. The crowd boos when the Thai fighter points his finger accusingly at the Burmese corner. Then the Burmese fighter is escorted out of the stadium.

It's hard to make out what's happened until a Burmese sitting beside me explains that the fighter hadn't registered his name. Other Burmese villagers jump in to the ring as a token gesture of solidarity. The Karen referee is diplomatic and does funny stage antics to lighten the mood that's almost approaching riot mode. This is a wild place. An Englishman in the crowd sums up the pressure cooker atmosphere. "Its f**king nuts out there. I've never seen anything like it before."

Now young Ritdech gets into the ring. Each fight has two gruelling rounds where the objective is to belt the daylights out of your opponent. He's almost booed off the stage. His mother and father are near the red corner, looking on grimly. But dad takes a swig of his whisky, and gives his son a look of encouragement. Adjectives like 'piston punches' and 'killer kicks' don't come close to describing the physical points of contact.

Once the fight is underway Ritdech is all form. A left hook connected brutally jolts the jaw of the Burmese. His kicks are not even making contact. It's embarrassing actually. Two rounds later, Ritdech has floored him. Blood shot eyes are rolling to confirm this knockout. Pay dirt. His mother is crying in elation. And she should be, because in the space of another half hour, he's back in the ring for his second victory.

It looks like the Thais are stealing the limelight, until the Karen brothers get in the ring for some serious fight clubbing. Lin Nhay, 26, and his younger brother, Lin Tant, 17, both students, are the exception to the rule. They have been training daily for the past four years under their father's tutelage – a professional boxer himself, having fought in Rangoon in the 60's. "We train every day," explains Lin Nhay. "When we are in the ring," continues his younger brother, "we are there to win."

Between the two of them, they won four fights. And it wasn't a pretty sight. They were responsible for the carnage at the local emergency room, where their Thai opponents were being treated for a broken finger, dislodged teeth and a nasty wound that required ten stitches. Whether the fighters are Mon, Karen, or Shan, the crowd goes wild if they defeat the Thais. They love the underdogs. For a brief moment which would draw tears from Burma watchers' eyes, they all became Burmese, despite their ethnic backgrounds.

 Out of 16 bouts today, only four Burmese won. Most of them are circus boxers, earning a buck where they can from village to village. "They just don't have the resources of Thais," said one local Burmese businessman. "They can't afford to take care of their families and train twice a day." But this didn't dampen the day's festivities by a long shot.

Outside the ring as the day's fighting unwinds, Burmese ladies are hawking fresh products from across the border. And their children are collecting plastic bottles and beer cans littered around the tents to earn a few extra baht. But unlike other Muay Thai tournaments, there isn't any gambling here amongst the Burmese. "They are too poor for that," said one NGO who works with refugees in a nearby border camp. "The reality is that they simply can't afford to lose."

Tant and Nhay are well aware of this. Today they walked away with the equivalent of a month's salary.

We go down to the river and watch the crowd wade back to Burma. A voice greets me from one of the little shacks dotted along the banks of the Moei. "Did you enjoy the boxing?" it asked in perfect English. "Yes," I replied. "Are you Burmese?"

"No, I'm dust in the wind." He responded. That's Mae Sot for you. It's as surreal and gritty as any border town, especially when April comes around and the Thais and Burmese, long time antagonists, get back to basics in a one on one combat that is as old as history.

Text by Thomas Brecelic

Image by Julian D. Bound

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