BANGKOK — Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, and for tourists no trip to the kingdom would be complete without a night spent at either Rajadamnern or Lumpinee, the iconic Bangkok stadiums where the best fighters go head to head.
Holidaymakers might struggle to understand the sport's somewhat unique etiquette and scoring system but over the course of a 10-fight card, they are bound to see moments of speed, power or sheer bravery that simply take their breath away.
The fighters put their body on the line for the benefit of the fans at ringside as well as the gamblers in the audience, who have an increasingly pervasive influence on the sport. However they do not always receive their just rewards as one former fighter explains.
Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn was the recipient of the most coveted recognition available to a Muay Thai practitioner, the "Sports Writer's Fighter of the Year" award. He was a long term Lumpinee champion but despite his prowess in the ring the Surat Thani native was being shamelessly exploited by his manager.
"The camp I was training at said they would look after all the money I earned from fighting and take care of it for me until it came time to retire," he said. "But when I finally decided to leave they gave me nothing, they would not even let me have the trophies and titles I had won for them during my career."
Despite having earned around 150,000 baht (about USD$4,200) per fight during the peak of his career Namsaknoi was broke and ended up back in his hometown of Chaiya mending fishing nets for a couple of dollars a day. It's a sad story but one which is played out year after year by Thai fighters too focused on being at their best in the ring to worry about financial affairs.
Historically the options for retired Muay Thai fighters have been extremely limited. Age catches up with all athletes and the process is much quicker when the sport in question requires almost superhuman levels of stamina and speed. For Namsaknoi the future looked bleak but after a surprise phone call he found himself earning the sort of money he could only have dreamed of as an active fighter,
"I got a call from a friend who was a trainer at Evolve MMA in Singapore and he invited me to work there. At the time I was earning around 10,000 baht (USD$280) a month working as a trainer in Thailand but in Singapore I can earn as much as 400,000 baht (USD$11,200) a month through training classes and giving private lessons to students."
Namsaknoi grew up in poverty, with him and his six brothers and sisters all staying in a shed in their uncle's garden. With the income he receives in Singapore he has been able to save enough money to build a brand new house for his family and this is a common theme among the Thai trainers at Evolve MMA.
Working alongside Namsaknoi at Evolve MMA is another former Lumpinee champion called Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke. He grew up in stifling poverty in a small village in the Southern province of Trang and enjoyed a glittering career as a fighter but despite this success his lifestyle was extremely modest,
"At the gym I trained in in Bangkok all the fighters would sleep together in one room and it was by the canal so the smell was sometimes very bad. The most money I ever got for a fight was 80,000 baht but in Singapore I earn a salary of 125,000 baht every month and get more money through giving private lessons."
The majority of Dejamdrong's money is sent back to Trang and he has singlehandedly dragged his entire family out of the poverty trap,
"My room in Singapore is paid for by Evolve MMA so I don't spend much money. I built my family a house in Thailand and bought a car. Unfortunately my Father passed away, but I am able to take care of my mother and my grandmother, and my brother who is disabled."
Traditionally Muay Thai practitioners come from poverty stricken corners of Thailand, with the northeast the most fertile breeding ground for elite fighters. The sport offers young men an escape from the monotony of rural life and an opportunity to earn the sort of money which their parents could only have dreamed of.
However Muay Thai fighters have never previously been able to achieve anything like financial parity with successful people from the worlds of business or commerce. At best they have become comparatively wealthy, better off than they started out, rather than rich by any usual definition.
That is all changing thanks to the globalization of Muay Thai and the popularity of camps like Evolve MMA, where people from all walks of life will pay to be trained in the "science of the eight limbs" by a former champion. It means that Namsaknoi and Dejdamrong have finally found the financial security which eluded them during their competitive careers.
In total there are 12 former Lumpinee champions currently employed by Evolve MMA. They hail from corners of Thailand as far flung as Maha Sarakham, Suphan Buri, Phattalung and Sakon Nakhon and between them they are sending tens of thousands of dollars home every month boosting the economy of some of the country's most impoverished regions.