Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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July 14-16, 2000

Weekend Journal: Thailand's Boxing Babes
Women Make Their Way Back into the Ring

By Jennifer Gampell

Rung Petch casually hoists up her sleeveless jersey while a boxing coach adjusts her azure vinyl padded bra and crotch guard (the color complements the electric blue of her satin trunks) and a local TV cameraman captures the moment on video. She is preparing for a kick boxding match, which explains why she exhibits none of the prudishness most 16 year-old Thai girls have about their bodies. With so many men milling about modesty would be futile anyhow. In the cramped changing room at Rangsit boxing stadium, as in the world of Thai kick boxing (Muay Thai) in general, men vastly outnumber women.

Rows of concrete bleachers line both sides of the 2,000-seat stadium which occupies the ground floor of the Muay Thai Institute (MTI) on the outskirts of Bangkok. Women's fights are held here twice a month, but on this rainy Saturday evening in June the bleachers are empty apart from three musicians who create the sport's distinctive rhythmic beat on drum, Thai flute and finger cymbals. An audience of about 50 people sits on plastic chairs set up haphazardly around the ring. (Only seven of them actually bought tickets to tonight's six-match event; the rest are family and friends of the boxers.)

The almost deserted stadium hardly seems like ground zero of a Muay Thai revolution in Thailand, yet as the only venue in the country that offers separate boxing rings for men and women fighters it is. Amnuay Kesbumrung, president of Rangsit stadium and the MTI explains that Thai females kick boxed in the late 1960s. Back then Mr. Amnuay, a former fighter himself, spent three years trying promote the female matches but ultimately abandoned the idea because the predominantly male Thai fans refused to watch--or more crucially bet on--women's matches.

However, foreigners have created the second coming of kick boxing for Thai women. Over the past decade, women throughout Europe, Australia, the U.S. and Japan have taken up the sport for exercise and self-defense. Coming here to test out their skills, they encountered a dearth of qualified opponents. "Thai women weren't being properly trained and the foreigners basically destroyed them," recounts Niamh--pronounced Neve--Griffin, a 26 year-old junior featherweight champion from Ireland who first learned the sport in Bangkok two years ago. "It was humiliating for the Thais."

Superstition and prejudice color the Thai attitude toward female boxers. Let women anywhere near a boxing ring and supposedly they'll jinx it. Until Mr. Amnuay built Rangsit's second ring and launched a women's training program at MTI in late 1998, the only place to watch women fighting was at provincial temple fairs and festivals. Even though videotaped segments of the female fights are now televised nationally every Monday night, boxers like Rung Petch still cannot climb into the rings at their local training camps.

Six teenage girls live and train at Rangsit, among them the country's hottest Muay Thai star Rung-arun Sor Fongnam. The lanky 16 year-old has already won 22 of her 23 fights and defeated several European champions, including Niamh. Having bested all the Thais in her weight class, she's become a victim of her own success and has been sidelined for several months. Tonight Mr. Amnuay wanted to pit her against a novice male opponent--the first ever male/female match--but the World Muay Thai Council nixed the idea at the last minute.

Muay Thai is not about standing still. Except when boxers get backed into a corner or clinch together with their red-gloved hands around each other's necks, they're constantly in motion. A good Muay Thai fighter never throws just one kick and stops; she immediately follows through with a knee, elbow or fist thrust at any part of her opponent's anatomy.

In the first bout of the evening, a greenhorn Japanese and a Thai rookie move about the ring but lack the requisite style and technique to get a rise out of the tiny audience. Coming on strong in the second fight, Rung Petch attacks her opponent's head like a punching bag. The music reflects the fighters' energy and the beat quickens. "Oy, Oy, Oy," yells the crowd. After five grueling two-minute rounds, Rung Petch is declared the winner on points.

The resident Rangsit girls only emerge from their doll- and poster-adorned upstairs bedrooms for the final bout, between their own Fah Sathan and Arsako from Japan. Rung-arun shrieks encouragement from the sidelines as the two barefoot women trade an endless barrage of punches and kicks. By the last round Fah's nose is bleeding and she appears utterly exhausted. Yet she kicks on (kicks garner more points than punches) and ultimately wins the fight.

Barely five minutes after the end of the fights the spotlights are turned off and the plastic chairs stacked up. Sporting two-inch high platform sneakers, trendy jeans with rolled up cuffs and a sleeveless "Celebrating the Pooh Meaning of Friendship" T-shirt, Rung Petch minces off into the rainy night.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer

Copyright 2002 Jennifer Gampell