More than 12,000 Thai and foreign fight fans flocked to the northwest of the island for the gratuitous, inaugural Phuket event boasting 10 fights, each between a Thai and a foreign fighter, broadcast live on Thai national television.
The decision to hold the milestone event on Phuket comes as the dust settles on the city’s recent negative press around its tourism industry. The Phoenix tour boat disaster that killed 47 Chinese tourists off Phuket in July last year spurred a wave of tourism-boosting initiatives, with Thai Fight Phuket and January’s All Star Fight event in Patong putting the island under the spotlight among national and international fight fans alike.
Saturday’s main attraction was, without a doubt, Saenchai. The 38-year-old veteran won the first of his five Lumpinee Stadium championship belts – the most prestigious prize in Muay Thai – at the mere age of 16. A multi-time world champion, Saenchai is a star attraction at Muay Thai events when he isn’t flying around the globe holding seminars in halls filled with budding fighters and enthusiasts.
One unique feature of Thai Fight’s three-by-three-minute-round fights is the ‘kard chuek’ – the traditional use of rope instead of gloves. Although the history of Muay Thai in various forms is said to date back to more than a thousand years, its first known practice as a sport came about in the reign of King Naresuan the Great (1590-1605) who was a proficient fighter himself and made the art a compulsory part of military training.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that the sport was codified, with official rules and regulations being created and introduced into the sporting world.
Traditionally, fighters wrapped their hands and forearms in rope, reminiscent of the Ancient Greek Himantes, to make attacks and defences more effective. This practice is relatively scarce in modern day Muay Thai however, since the sport’s adoption of certain Marquess of Queensberry boxing rules in the 1920s, introducing rings and gloves to replace courtyards and ropes respectively.
Thai Fight’s choice of hand protection however, differs from the traditional ‘kard chuek’ in that ropes are replaced with cloth to dampen the impact – a welcomed modification by the receiver, no doubt. Nonetheless, the difference between the World Muaythai Council’s regulatory 6-10 ounce gloves (depending on the weight category of the fighters) and a fist wrapped in cloth, is significant, as was seen on Saturday.
The scale of the production on the night did not disappoint, as expectations were high of a promotion whose stakeholders include a former prime minister and the CEO of the country’s largest beverage company.
The action took place in a vast outdoor area on Phuket’s finest land lit up by huge LED screens and plenty of fireworks. A long walkway led fighters to the open-air ring where they would begin their ritualistic Wai Kru Ram Muay.
The musicians begin playing Sarama (the traditional rhythmic music that accompanies fights) whilst fighters begin the ritual. They start by sealing off the four corners of the ring to block out evil spirits and negative forces. Fighters pray at each corner, touching it with one hand and moving onto the next in an anti-clockwise direction before kneeling down to commence their individual dance. Although some of the foreign fighters opted not to perform a dance after sealing the ring, every Thai fighter did in his own style as Thai Fight insists on preserving and promoting traditional aspects of Thailand’s national sport.
Ring sealed, the first two fighters walked to the centre to kick-off the event. Brazil’s Felipe Gois faced Thailand’s Ratchasing Rongraenkeela-Korat in an enthralling three-round battle that ended in a devastating flurry of punches from Gois that Ratchasing could not get up from.
Suddenly the effect of the kard chuek was evident as the quickly captivated crowd were now fully focussed on the centre stage.
For the foreign patriots in the audience, that would be their only cause for celebration as the next nine fights ended very differently. Eight of the nine ended with knockout victories for the Thais, five of which came in round one.
The fifth fight of the night saw half-Thai, half-British actor and model, Peter Denman, make his professional debut against Estonian, Rainer Salajev, in a novelty bout. Much to the delight of Denman’s many female fans, his fight was one of two in which gloves were worn. The next several minutes sounded more like a Bieber concert than a bare fisted Thai boxing event as fans cheered on the heartthrob to a first round knock-out of his Estonian counterpart.
Denman spoke with The Phuket News before the event at the official weigh-ins on Friday.
“I’ve been training on and off since I was 15. I’ve never had the opportunity to take it seriously until now because I was acting and it was an obligation not to fight whilst shooting,” he said.
Now I’ve finished the soap, it’s a great opportunity. A dream come true.”
Four knock-outs later and the main event was upon us. Following a long, extolling introduction, Saenchai danced to the ring in typical Saenchai fashion. A charming, humorous man in and out of the ring, he never turns down an opportunity to fan out his feathers in front of an audience.
True to form, Saenchai displayed a barrage of acrobatics, trick shots and sweeps, putting his young Uzbek opponent, Firdavs Boynazarov, on the canvas numerous times in each round.
A veteran of the art, Saenchai is a prize fighter and no longer fights for titles, having already won everything worth winning over a long, illustrious career. This bout was the only other bout in which the fighters wore gloves, and as expected, the 38-year-old dominated the fight from start to finish, winning by unanimous decision.
In January of this year, Patong welcomed Muay Thai promotion, All Star Fight, in a star-studded event led by superstar fighter, Buakaw, drawing thousands of fight fans to Phuket’s tourism hub. The event was a success and paved the way for a second on March 31 in which Buakaw will once again grace the island’s shores.
Whether Phuket will one day be nationally recognised as a fighting town remains to be seen. But one thing is certain; the island definitely has the fan base.