Petchrungruang specializes in raising young Thai boys to be Bangkok Stadium fighters. It’s a small, family style gym that grows champions, rather than purchasing them for a stable of elite fighters like some of the bigger-name gyms. It’s just a different business. Head trainer Kru Nu is very proud of his fighters and never over- or under-sells them. He knows everyone is on a different road and he is patient in figuring out what each fighter wants out of his own path. This is especially challenging with his own son, Bank, who fights with the name Thongchai and has been steadily building his career at Lumpinee and Omnoi in Bangkok.
This past Saturday Thongchai fought on TV at Omnoi stadium. He faced a strong opponent who appeared to be a slow starter in the fight, not taking out his very well-timed throws until the third round. Thongchai, on the other hand, started out strong and perhaps erred in bringing out his weapons too early, showing good punches and kicks in the first two rounds and then facing greater difficulty in round three. Lots of fights show reversals in round 3, which is the first real “scoring round” of a fight. After a very dominant turn in the clinch which landed Thongchai in the ropes, his opponent took a lead and Thongchai became more hesitant in the clinch, choosing a waist grab that doesn’t score well but is more stable. Watching from home on the TV, there was a definite shift in how Thongchai approached the fight in rounds 3 and 4, but it wasn’t difficult to explain. He just wasn’t making good choices.
Kru Nu, Thongchai, and Peter – disappointed after the fight
With one minute left in the 4th round the referee suddenly stopped the fight, sent the two opponents to their corners and then took a microphone at the corner of the ring and announced he was ending the fight. He said that the red corner (Thongchai) was throwing the fight and he was officially canceling the match. Thongchai looked totally confused as he heard this; then he climbed out of the ring, as did his opponent, while the crowd murmured and moaned. This happens sometimes; in some cases, a fighter is, indeed, intentionally losing a fight for gambling purposes and a referee is trained to identify it and call the fight a “no contest,” in which case all gambling is also nulled. In Thai it’s called “lom,” in English we say “throwing a fight,” or “taking a fall.” There was no further discussion or explanation. The broadcast cut to commercial and when it came back two different fighters were climbing into the ring.
What happened off-camera was that Kru Nu and Alim (Royal Thai Residence owner and patron of many of Petchrungruang’s fighters) waited in the conference room to speak with the promoter. If Thongchai was found to be throwing a fight, “muay lom,” he could be arrested, fined, and suspended or banned from fighting in Bangkok. It’s a very serious accusation, and a very serious transgression. But the promoter walked in and said that everyone could leave, implying that the claim made in the ring was not being upheld as an official accusation. In many ways that’s good, because Thongchai was not, in fact, throwing the fight. But in many ways this is also very bad, because despite the referee having made an error and a mistaken call in ending the fight, he was never put at fault for it. The only part that was broadcast was Thongchai being accused of cheating. There was no public apology or correction. On the records, Thongchai – a 16-year-old fighter at the beginning of his career in the big pool of Bangkok stadium fighting – remains at fault, although he did nothing wrong.
A clipping from Muay Siam the day after the fight, a statement by Witsanuchai (Kru Nu)
Anyone who knows Kru Nu is well-aware of how ridiculous the idea is that his own son would be throwing a fight for money. “We don’t do this for money,” Kru Nu explains, “we do this because we love Muay Thai. I love Muay Thai, it is my life. All my life.” The national publication Muay Siam printed a short statement from Kru Nu, fight name “Witsanuchai Petchrungruang”, where he says that if anyone shows him proof that his son was throwing a fight, he’ll shut the doors to his gym immediately. The Muay Thai community in Bangkok and in Pattaya know Kru Nu and admire him; he has a good reputation and that has been earned through 30 years of real Muay Thai. The difficulty is that this error on public broadcast television reaches many people who don’t know Kru Nu, and this accusation – even though it is false – is an unjustified blemish on the Petchrungruang name. Thongchai is still developing as a fighter and at times he can be slow, but because he is so physically strong, his physicality carries with it a kind of promise for affect that just might not play out in his current fighting style. That’s just part of the growing pains of becoming a good fighter. But the consequences of that style have been thrown out of context with this unfortunate call from the referee on Saturday. There are countless imaginable reasons why this call could have been made, ranging from the innocent: a referee just misinterpreting a “bad day at the office,” to the more nefarious complaints, which are floated frequently to explain any unusual moment in officiating Muay Thai, that gambling and big money is involved in influencing stadium fights; those possibilities are also baseless, so to make them against the referee is as unfair and unfounded as it was to make them against Thongchai.
The purpose of this post is to lay clear the events of what happened on Saturday. Many people watching on TV, or those westerners in the audience who do not speak Thai and therefore didn’t understand what the referee was accusing Thongchai of, have no context for what happened in that moment, why that call was made, or what happened after. This post is for explanation and clarification. Thongchai was not wrong. He absolutely was not throwing the fight – “for what?” Kru Nu shakes his head when he thinks about it; he doesn’t even gamble himself – and while a public apology may not be in the cards for how these things are handled, at the very least what Kru Nu wants laid out clearly is that the blame does not belong to Thongchai. It was a bad call, an unfortunate mistake by the referee. The honor and prestige of fighting in the big stadia of Bangkok means a lot to young fighters, but it also means high-stakes. The consequences for this bad call could have been very serious and the aftermath has been a solemn face on Bank back home and frustration and disbelief from Kru Nu. Training continues, the sweat and sounds of shins hitting pads fill the gym. A few of the nakmuay wear Petchrungruang T-shirts, on the back is written “We Are Muay Thai.” As the air clears, that’s the message that remains.
Another clipping from Muay Siam, disputing the call made against Thongchai yesterday