Sunday, 9 October 2011

Blood lust on the border

Photo: Palani Mohan 
It’s only halfway through round three, but the fighters are nearly spent. ‘Super Op’, the Thai, sucks at the searing air, wipes blood from his eyes with his forearm, then launches a vicious assault, swinging haymakers with both hemp-wrapped hands. One connects, and as his Burmese opponent crumples, the Thai brings a lightning knee up into his face, pulling the other man’s head down to maximise the impact.

There’s a sickening crack of bone on bone, a geyser of blood, then a slow-motion teeter to the canvas. As the Burmese twitches, prone, a pool of bright vermillion spreads from his shattered nose, subsuming the older rust-coloured stains on the canvas. It’s a palate of carnage; the grisly record of an animosity that has spanned millennia. Super Op runs to his opponent’s corner, eyes clouded with red mist, and screams at the crowd. His primal howl is the sound any man might make, having just prevailed in one of the oldest and rawest forms of unarmed combat - Muay Haad Chuak, the ancient bareknuckle version of modern Thai kickboxing.

The Burmese segment of the crowd, half-mad with heat and cheap whiskey, press closer to the makeshift ring and scream back. A blistering sun beats down on the corrugated iron roof, making it so hot it’s hard to breathe. The larger throng of Thais send up puffs of dust as they dance victory jigs. Money furtively changes hands as bets are settled. Super Op runs back to his corner, then his legs buckle and he drops to his stool. The adrenalin overload begins to subside. Claret drips from a gaping gash above his left eye into a circular steel tray under his stool, blending with the water and ice. The sight of this gory soup stirs something in those pressed closest to the ring; they too begin to bay with demented bloodlust. The Burmese fighter is dragged from the ring by his irate handlers. ‘You stupid donkey,’ someone shouts. His head lolls, he’s missing a tooth, and his eyes seem dangerously glazed. The leakage from his shattered nose mingles with sweat and coconut oil, lending his teakwood torso an infernal sheen.  

Photo: Palani Mohan
Bareknuckle boxing has been banned in Thailand for almost 90 years, but that doesn't seem to bother anyone in the wild border town of Mae Sot in Tak Province, a stone’s throw across a shallow river from the equally lawless Burmese settlement of Myawaddy. The inhabitants of these freewheeling twin towns include illegal loggers, drug barons, human traffickers, gem smugglers, rebels, pimps, drifters, over-stayers and assorted other flotsam, all with a healthy appetite for blood sport. And so each April, during the Thai New Year festival of Songkran, authorities look the other way as fighters from the feuding nations take off their gloves and climb into the ring to settle old scores.

Photo: Palani Mohan
In 1774, after being captured by the Burmese during the sacking of the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthya, the legendary kickboxer Nai Khanom Tom won his freedom by stomping a dozen of the invader's top fighters in a row. ‘Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom,’ pronounced King Mangra, as he watched his men drop like ninepins. The story of Nai Khanom Tom dispatching the bogeymen from Burma is one of the first history lessons taught to every young Thai. The ancient Burmese armies would pass close to Mae Sot on their various incursions on their way to the famous Three Pagoda Pass, which perhaps explains why the sport – and the fierce cross-border rivalry – still thrives here.

The rules have changed a little - now there are rounds and referees, and the ring ropes and knuckles are not sprinkled with broken glass - but the fights are still nasty, brutish and short. Eye gouges and groin strikes are forbidden (if not unknown) but pretty much anything else goes. Head butts are popular. Gloves are discarded for tightly wrapped strips of hemp, which makes the knuckles rock hard. Bouts are scheduled for five rounds, but seldom go the distance. Victory is by knockout or awarded when one fighter can’t continue. If both men remain standing after five rounds, a draw is declared.

It’s a hard way to make a living, considering the very real risk to life and limb: winners take home about US$200. Losers get jeers and pain. The organisers, a coterie of Mae Sot businessmen, soldiers and police, refuse to comment on deaths in the ring, but one veteran of the sport says at least five fighters have died in the past decade. ‘Maybe more,’ he says. ‘They take a beating, but seem OK. Then they go back home and a few days later their livers or kidneys give out. It’s not something people here talk about, because a lot of money gets wagered on these fights.’

Photo: Palani Mohan
A day earlier, in a professional-standard ring by the main road, surrounded by sponsors’ banners and television cameras, seven bareknuckle bouts between more polished and experienced fighters are scheduled. There’s an expectant buzz in the crowd, who have just learned that for the first time four foreigners will be fighting alongside the Thais and Burmese. This introduces a new dynamic, as neither the Thais or Burmese want these upstarts from America to win. In the preceding weeks, the White House has been particularly vocal in its criticism of Burma’s regime, and some sections of the Burmese crowd are shouting about arrogant Americans and demanding a butt whooping. The visiting Americans train with Master Toddy, a burly chap with faded movie star looks, who left Thailand 20 years ago and now runs one of the biggest Muay Thai gyms in the United States, amidst the bright lights of Las Vegas.

‘This is a great test of courage for my men, to come here to the very home of bareknuckle fighting and prove themselves,’ says Master Toddy. His fighters – Kit Cope, Ben Garcia, Anthony Brown and Sol Mitchell – are battle-hardened veterans of American bloodsport contests like Ultimate Fighting and King of the Cage. Cope and Garcia have both been world champions in their weight classes. They’re accompanied by an MTV crew, who are filming a piece on mixed martial arts.

Not everyone is happy, though. Chavalit Kitsakdaparp, who runs Mae Sot’s Tuptimtong training camp, scours Burma for talented fighters to come and fight for him, and is complaining to anyone who’ll listen that two of his fighters are seriously outweighed by the Americans they’ve been matched with. ‘My men are tough,’ he says. ‘But this is not fair.’ Even here, it seems a good big man will beat a good little man. It’s touch and go for a few hours as to whether the fights will go ahead, but eventually Chavalit relents. ‘Everyone wants to see the farang fight,’ he grumbles, ‘so let them fight.’

Photo: Palani Mohan
Before the Americans get in the ring, there are three Thai versus Burma bouts, the first featuring Super Op’s older brother, ‘Super O’. The fighting ‘Supers’ are the sons of Chanchay Oranorong, a local legend, who fought bareknuckle for nearly 15 years and remained undefeated. Both brothers are short, nugget types with legs like tree trunks. Super O’s fight is a gruelling affair that lasts the full five rounds, an out-and-out slugfest in which he gets the better of his Burmese opponent, Jeleong Pagan, but can’t deliver the knock-out blow.

Cope is first of the Americans up, and he dances through the crowd in a bright red robe, waving and shaking his fists. He’s up against a tall, rangy Burmese named Mojo Myawaddy, and the first round is close. Not long into the second round, however, Cope delivers a lightning uppercut followed by a scything elbow strike, and it’s all over. The Burmese crumples to the canvas, dazed. The American does a back-flip for good measure, and dances back to the dressing room.

Photo: Palani Mohan
‘That was incredible,’ he exalts. ‘Did you hear the crowd? I kicked ass out there.’ The crowd has gone strangely silent, however, by the time the tall, wiry Ben Garcia emerges. It’s clear no one was expecting an American victory. When the bell sounds, the shouts and screams begin again, louder than ever. Garcia takes a beating for three rounds from a ferocious looking fellow named Josoor Rangoon. He looks to be done, when he unleashes an elbow strike seemingly from nowhere. Josoor falls twitching to the floor in the corner nearest where I’m standing, spattering my notebook with blood.

Local pride is only somewhat salvaged in the last fight of the day. Sol Mitchell is the least impressive physically of the Americans, but at 64kg, at least he’s exactly the same weight as his opponent, Tonton Rangoon. The bell sounds, as the musicians wind up into their familiar demented fugue, snake charmers on speed. Tonton leaps in with sweeping low kicks and a flurry of blows. Mitchell tries to defend, but with seconds left in the round, and gouts of blood issuing from his nose, he goes down and doesn’t bother getting back up. He peers into the lens of an MTV camera, and gives a twisted red smile.

The fighting finished, I follow Chanchay and his super sons back to his house. His mouth is bright red – from chewing betel, not blood – and he’s downing shots of whiskey like there’s no tomorrow. It’s been a good two days for his family. Two victories, $400 in prizemoney, and at least five times that in gambling winnings. It’s clear this toughest of sports has been kind to him. He has all his faculties and barely a mark on his broad, flat face. He lives in what passes for high style in Mae Sot, in a big rough-hewn teak house, with a St Bernard dog, a shiny new pickup truck and a glistening chrome hog.

Photo: Palani Mohan
‘Good boys,’ he says to his sons. Both are sporting black eyes and shy smiles. Both are preening in front of the mirror, getting ready for a night on the tiles. I ask Super O if his father makes him fight. ‘No, it’s my choice,’ he says. ‘What else would I do around here?’ Super Op smiles through fat lips and says it’s fun. ‘Winning is the greatest feeling in the world. And it doesn’t hurt when you go looking for girls.’ The brothers, too, are undefeated, having inherited their father’s lightning speed, vicious kicks and ring savvy. They’ll get a week off training now as their bruises and cuts heal. Then it will be back into it.

In a dusty ring next to the house, the fighters of tomorrow are going through their paces. Terrible tykes smashing legs into heavy bags and peppering each other with kicks and slaps. Chanchay takes another pull of whiskey, and looks out the window at the action. ‘Some talent there, I think.’ He spits a stream of betel juice out the window, and in the glow of whiskey and victory, waxes philosophical. ‘It’s a funny thing about fighting,’ he says. ‘It never hurts as long as you win.’

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