Ready to Rumble
Watching prisoners practice their Muay Thai skills in a makeshift boxing arena inside Bangkok’s notorious high-security Klong Prem Central Prison is a spectacle to behold. Moo, a convicted drug runner, and Pod, a debt collector in the Thai capital’s notorious Nana Plaza red-light district, who is serving a life sentence for murder, were relaxed and humorous a few minutes ago when we spoke to them ringside. Now they burn with intensity — their hooded eyes fixed on their sparring partners, as they rain vicious blows with feet, knees and fists upon the bag.
“Most of them will be here until their hair grows grey,” says Surawuth Rungrueng, the guard largely responsible for encouraging the development of boxing in Klong Prem. “Muay Thai and the respect it affords them is one of the things they can hold onto.”
Like many young boys in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region, Moo’s childhood was punctuated with dreams of becoming a champion fighter. In the Southeast Asian nation, football teams such as Manchester United, Barcelona and Liverpool are widely revered. Nothing, however, ignites passions quite like Muay Thai, or Thai boxing.
Boxing might have been Moo’s first love, but it was his skills at the wheel, not in the ring, that fuelled the 23-year-old’s playboy lifestyle. For two years, he lived the high life as a driver for a drugs gang. However, his precarious career ended more than a year ago when he was nabbed piloting a carload of yaba pills, a methamphetamine derivative that translates literally as “madness drug”.
With his clean-cut looks, perfect teeth, broad shoulders and completely tattoo-free body, Moo hardly fits the profile of the typical Thai bad boy. “He was a complete ladies’ man,” says Nikki, our fixer, with a glint in her eye that suggests she wouldn’t be immune to his charms either. “You can see why.”
Moo won’t be working his magic anytime soon, however. Instead of living the carefree life of a young bachelor, he now spends his nights confined, along with four other men, to a 1.5m x 3.5m cell in Klong Prem. With 22 years of a 24-year sentence left to serve, you could forgive Moo for feeling pangs of self-pity. Yet, he and other prisoners blessed with potent pugilistic chops have been offered a shot at redemption due to a unique quirk in the Thai correctional system that allows them to shave years off their sentences by using their boxing skills.
Muay Thai tournaments have been a fixture of prison regimes in Thailand for centuries. The tradition of holding bouts behind bars began in 1767, when the Burmese imprisoned thousands of Thai soldiers after the downfall of Thailand’s then-capital Ayutthaya. While incarcerated, the best Thai boxers had to fight against Burmese boxing champions. The ultimate champion, as legend tells it, was a Thai fighter named Nai Khanomtom, who was granted his freedom by the Burmese king after shocking one of Burma’s best fighters.
This eccentric, not to mention controversial, tradition of favouring prisoners who are a bit handy in the ring is alive and well in Klong Prem and other Thai prisons. These days, however, the foreigners whom the inmates fight, as they eye their freedom, aren’t Burmese. They are international Muay Thai fighters drawn to Thailand by the unique opportunity to pit their skills against the boxing stars of the Thai correctional system.
The incorporation of foreigners has been spearheaded by Prison Fight, an independent organisation that bills itself as a charity. It wants to alleviate the drudgery of prison life for inmates by staging fight events behind bars, as well as providing sports equipment, modest financial rewards (inmates’ winnings are squirrelled away in a prison account and used to provide for families), and, most importantly, a realistic chance at having their sentences reduced. The first prison fight was on January 6, 2013, at Pak Chong Prison, and several events have been held since.
“We do this to give the [foreign] fighters an experience,” says Kiril Sokur, the Estonian businessman behind the Prison Fight enterprise. “But the events are also in keeping with Thai Buddhist beliefs. Karma is very important here, and giving these guys [the prisoners] the opportunity to prove their talents is important. They might be criminals, but they’re also human beings.”
Alexis Barateau, a 20-year-old from Lyon in France who was narrowly beaten in Klong Prem last year, adds: “If you’re a foreigner with a passion for Muay Thai, there’s something pretty appealing about taking on native boxers inside a prison,” he says. “You could say that it’s the ultimate test of manhood to go into the lion’s den and try to beat these guys at something they have held dear since they were young. The fact that this is one of the only outlets for their aggression also makes it very special and a real challenge.”
We visit Klong Prem not long after a Prison Fight meeting has taken place there. Although not as fearsome as Bang Kwang Prison (dubbed the “Bangkok Hilton” by overseas residents), Klong Prem is no picnic. Prisoners sleep up to six to a room in miniscule cells; decent medical treatment is scarce, meaning that infections spread like wildfire; and prisoners spend 13 hours every night confined to their quarters.
Before we enter to conduct our interviews, we are tense and not a little apprehensive at the prospect of meeting hardened felons in one of Thailand’s most feared facilities. However, once inside, we encounter an atmosphere that’s surprisingly convivial. In fact, the mood among the men in Section 5, the unofficial Muay Thai wing of the prison, could only be described as buoyant. This levity is due to Thais coming out on top in all but one of the nine matches at the Prison Fight event.
As training takes place in the ring set up in the prison yard, prisoners clown around with each other, shadow boxing and dishing out playful slaps. One inmate, a wiry fellow with intricate tattoos covering his entire torso like an ink T-shirt, is a particularly energetic presence, bounding around the yard with a permanent grin plastered across his face. “That’s Chui,” Nikki tells us. “He’s a hitman.”
Section 5 is for Klong Prem’s lifers. It is also the prison’s hive of boxing talent. Criminals with previous boxing experience like Moo, his cellmates, and other Prison Fight participants, are placed here upon entering Klong Prem. Guards, meanwhile, scout out candidates from other wings for a possible transfer. A long, wide central corridor that separates the cells is used for twice-daily, hour-long running sessions. Meanwhile, the boxing ring along with some rudimentary training equipment, like weight benches, dominate the outside yard.
We find Moo taking a break from training with his cellmate Pod at the side of the ring. The friends are regarded as two of the best fighters in Klong Prem, and both wiped the floor with their foreign opponents at the Prison Fight event. “I wouldn’t say it was easy,” Moo says of his recent triumph. “Those guys came all the way to Thailand, so they were determined to put on a show, and they made it difficult for us. Muay Thai is in our blood, though. We understand the techniques and we understand the mentality.”
Pod, who has now served eight years of a life sentence for murder, adds: “It helps us focus our minds. Life isn’t so very bad in here, but it’s really boring. The days are long and always the same,” the 35-year-old says. “Boxing provides a distraction, and there’s also the chance of getting your time shortened if you become a champion.”
Sentence reduction is undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of the prison fights. Healthy distraction in the prison yard is one thing, but why should convicted drug criminals, murderers and hitmen have a path to freedom through their fists?
“Muay Thai fighters command a lot of respect in Thailand,” Surawuth says. “It encourages discipline and focus, which is something that most of these guys lost somewhere on the outside. Sentence reduction isn’t automatic. If a prisoner behaves badly, he won’t be put forward for the privilege —doesn’t matter how good a fighter he is. But, if a prisoner shows real commitment to improving himself and his life, then we’re willing to give him some incentives.”
As the late afternoon sun casts long shadows on the prison yard, training is beginning to wind down for the day. At the side of the ring, Moo is taking a breather. He stares contemplatively towards the high prison walls, which are topped with thick rings of barbed wire and broken glass. Soon, he will be forced back behind thick, locked doors for another long evening and night of nothingness.
“I made a huge mistake,” he tells us. “And I’ve paid the price for what I did. From now on, I only want to do things that will enhance my existence, like using my boxing skills.” And, in Thailand at least, such skills can mean the difference between a life behind bars and, to put it simply, a life.
by Duncan Forgan