PHETCHABUN – Jakkrit Matha – who only turned 16 in May – has battled to overcome the hardships of life. His mother was only recently released from prison after serving time on drug charges. His 70-year-old grandfather still drives a bus to earn a living, while his grandmother looks after his two siblings in Phetchabun province, 300km from Bangkok, after his father left the family.
Today, Jakkrit fights to support himself and his grandparents financially, quite literally – through Muay Thai, or Thai kick-boxing. He takes part in about a match a month, and has been training at Jitmuangnon Muay Thai Gym, about an hour from central Bangkok, run by Suntaree Lohapued, 35, a camp manager whom he calls a second mother. His goal is to gain “many championships and earn millions”.
Jakkrit goes to school on weekdays after morning training, which begins at 4am. After school, he trains for another three hours, starting at 4pm. He admits his school performance is not all that impressive, but he wants to earn a degree in accountancy after he finishes high school in two years, using the money he earns from kick-boxing.
“I like kick-boxing. I can’t say why,” Jakkrit said. “A man I know has an accounting degree and has a good job. I also want to be a kick-boxing coach.”
Trainer Suntaree’s job is to make sure Jakkrit and the camp’s 30 or so young fighters aged between 12 and 28 can follow their dreams and be financially independent.
“Many parents brought their children here because they cannot afford education for them,” she said. “One of our most successful fighters, Petchkarat, has trained here since he weighed only 28kg. Now he is 25 years old, runs a cafe and clothing businesses, and still boxes.”
Across Thailand,kids who receive kick-boxing training don’t just aspire to money, fame and career opportunities – they are trying to escape poverty and hardship. Kick-boxing is not just sport or entertainment, it is a huge part of Thai society. It has also become one of the kingdom’s best-known cultural commodities, one that caters to fans the world over who are captivated by the mesmerising, deadly moves delivered through the use of elbows and knees.
But the dark side of the industry was laid bare last November in a viral video clip showing the death of 13-year-old boxer Anucha Tasako. It shows Anucha fighting without a helmet, and how it took merely a few strong punches from his 14-year-old opponent to render him unconscious. The young orphan, who had boxed since the age of eight, was later pronounced dead from a brain hemorrhage.
After his death, the Thai Tourism and Sports Ministry pushed for the revision of the 1999 Boxing Act to ban the involvement of children aged 12 and under.
But not all those involved in kick-boxing agree with this move. Chanchai Yomdit – dean of Muay Thai College, an academic institution dedicated to the martial art – says that without an incentive to fight, fewer youths will train, which in turn will affect the industry.
“To be a professional, you have to begin young. By the time you are 15, you’re already too old to begin training,” said Suntaree from the Jitmuangnon Muay Thai Gym, adding that she would never send a child to fight if they were not physically and mentally ready.
But child boxers are more vulnerable to injuries in the ring, said Dr Adisak Palitponkarnpim, director of the Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Research Centre at Ramathibodi Hospital.
“We scanned the brains of 200 to 300 child boxers and found accumulated iron as a result of prolonged damage of brain tissues and blood vessels, which is harmful to their IQ and memories in the long-run,” he said. “The [government’s] Child Protection Act prevents children engaging in sporting activities that disrupt their growth and development, whether or not the child consents.”
Suntaree points out that “if you have to constantly meet the weight requirement to fight, it affects your growth, but it depends on food and other factors too”.
Still, the lure of future success makes Muay Thai worth it for many. Thailand’s kick-boxing industry has grown in recent years partly from an influx of international fighters who come to train at major camps around the country.
Local kick-boxers can coach them, charging between 500 and 15,000 baht (US$16 and US$477) per hour, depending on their reputation and the number of championships they hold, according to Chanchai from Muay Thai College.
He adds that many of his students have gone on to become trainers in major cities around the world, as well as referees. “They all came with just one piece of luggage,” he said.
In the Bangkok suburb of Min Buri, the Yoohanngoh family remain major advocates of child kick-boxing. For 30 years, patriarch Nopparit Yoohanngoh, who owns the Looksaikongdin camp, has trained all of his 16 children – now aged between 31 and seven – to box professionally.
One of his older children is now a kick-boxing trainer in China. His daughter, 29, has quit the sport and works at a bank. “If my children do not box, do you want them to visit shopping malls every time they are free instead?” asked Nopparit, 52.
Yoohanngoh’s children are taught that training is important. As Pavita, 17, sparred with her father in the ring at their home, her mother Somsamorn watched and delivered criticism. “Good, very good,” she said, with an occasional: “Can you focus more please?”
Said Pavita: “If we are well prepared, we can protect ourselves in the fight. The less we train, the more we get injured in the ring.”
Nearby, her 19-year-old sister Alisa, brother Sang-Atit, 14, and sister Saifita, seven, were also practicing with punchbags and doing push-ups to maintain their stamina.
Parents Nopparit and Somsamorn laud kick-boxing for giving their children the strength, patience and discipline needed to succeed in life. The Yoohanngohs acknowledge that the sport is tough for young fighters, although they say it is a respectable and controllable affair. They sneer at gambling, a prevalent element of the industry, for leading kick-boxers to be abused and exploited.
“After the match was over, a boy had a ringside match with and instigated by his own father,” Somsamorn said, recalling a recent incident she witnessed at a kick-boxing stadium. “I heard his father had put down 20,000 baht [on his son’s earlier match] and lost it all.”
Nopparit said: “Integrity is hard to come by in Muay Thai these days. Everybody wants money and fame. I train my children here at my camp. At other camps, it is someone else’s children they train.”
By Jitsiree Thongnoi
South China Morning Post