If you're just joining us, welcome to 'The Beginners Guide to Muay Thai'. Not so much an introduction to the basic techniques, but more an entry level series designed to integrate you into the scene and allow you to become a fan of the sport.
In part one we looked at aspects of Muay Thai that make it a hard sell to the uninitiated. In part two we looked at social factors that give Muay Thai a deep and ferocious talent pool, as well as the Mecca of Muay Thai in Bangkok.
In this installment, I will take a look at the purses a top fighter in Bangkok can make, as well as further delving in to the darker side of Muay Thai.
First and foremost, you should know that there are only four well known, mainstream fighters in Thailand. And by that, I mean those that can make a living outside of fighting because of their reputation as fighters.
Samart Payakaroon, widely renowned as the best Thai fighter of all time with Lumpinee title in four weight classes and one time WBC super bantamweight boxing champion, is the most successful Nak Muay Thai of all time. He was a model in his '80s heyday, as well as a pop star, actor, and general television personality. Although he now has his own training camp to pass on his tricks, he pops up in the Thai media all the time.
Khaosai Galaxy is still revered in his homeland for his long string of 115lb title defenses as a heavy handed boxer in the '80s and early '90s. With albums to his name, and as a regular on the karaoke circuit, Khaosai is also on Thai soap operas (usually as a thug type character) and television commercials.
Somrak Khamsing is maybe mostly known to Western fight fans as the fighter Jean-Claude Van Damme was training to fight a few years back. I can assure you, Somrak might well have murdered Van Damme inside a few minutes. A top class Muay Thai fighter, Somrak was so good he couldn't get a title fight as the gamblers could never get good odds on him. Frozen out, he went to the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, where he won the Gold medal, in the same weight class that Floyd Mayweather only managed a bronze. Being the first ever Gold medalist from Thailand, Somrak was adorned with gifts both physical and monetary, and like the aforementioned fighters, pops up on Thai television and sings. Somrak (or Somluck depending on the Romanisation) is known for his arrogance and abrasiveness, and generally larger than life personality. He is synonymous with his catchphrase, 'medi moo', which translates as 'I'm not bullshitting'!
The best Thai to never win a stadium championship, his Olympic Gold medal has seen his star soar regardless. This highlight video shows what a phenomenal talent he was, a master of spinning attacks, reflexive defence and the all-round skills of Muay Thai.
These three are without a doubt the only fighters you will see on television on Thailand, at least outside of boxing programs. They are the only people making money after their careers out of something other than training boxers.To perfectly illustrate my point, here is a beer commercial featuring all three!
One fighter that has entered this class as of late, but still not quite to the success of the aforementioned trio, is Buakaw. Well recognized for bringing prestige to Thailand internationally, Buakaw has been on Singha beer cans, makes appearances on chat shows, and has the best chance out of the last generation of fighters to make himself a living after fighting with something other than holding the pads for the next generation.
You may keep wondering why I keep making references to becoming trainers. Sadly in Thailand, most fighters end up on the Evander Holyfield side of things.
The Purses & Training Fees
In part two I wrote about Bangkok being the dream destination for any Thai looking to prove his worth and make big money. Big money in Thailand isn't big money in the West, and even accounting for the lower cost of living in the Far East, you may be shocked to find out how little a fighter can make and what it means for their standard of living in the future.
If you scour the internet for any MMA-related tidbit (and seeing as how you're on Bloody Elbow I'd say it's safe to assure you do) you will no doubt have come across criticism and fan opinion on fighter pay and contracts. TUF contestant 'Bubba' McDaniel lamented that he'd only made $33,200 fighting for the UFC in a single year, and looking at the easily available disclosed figures his pay was $8,000 to show up to fight, with a win doubling that. Eddie Alvarez has been in a long-running dispute with Bellator over his contract and how it is akin to slavery.
The reaction online has been mixed. Some were outraged that anyone risking life and limb for our entertainment could be so shortchanged. On the flip side, others thought that it was a reasonable sum for someone not at the pinnacle of their sport. Support for Eddie Alvarez has been generally unanimously positive.
In Thailand, this is the way they do business. To make a comparison with Muay Thai, I will look at the take a few examples of purses earned by some of the very best fighters in the sport today, and some of the contractual disputes that can occur.
One of the main complaints from MMA fighters is that a lot of their purse covers their training fees. C.B Dolloway recently revealed he would be making a loss by fighting Francis Carmont in Germany.
In Thailand, a lot of fighters live at their camp. Even as grown men they can spend a lot of time in shared accommodation with other fighters, and live and eat on the camps premises. In turn, the training camp takes a fee, which usually ends up around fifty percent of their purse.
A decent example of someone who has a decent chance of prospering past his ring career in Sangmanee Sor Tienpo. Still a teenager, he is a golden boy of Thai boxing.
In part two, I showed you how young they start fighting in Thailand. Because of this, education can fall by the wayside at the expense of gym time. Ergo, some fighters can end up with a naivety that translates into mismanagement of money, and a lack of prospects after they hang up the gloves.
Young Sangmanee doesn't have this problem. With a supportive family, he has balanced his fighting career and his education well. Like the aforementioned Samart Payakaroon, he has the boyish good looks that have seen him gain modelling work, which has given him a large fan base with teenage girls and the gay community.
Sangmanee knows the importance of good investments and saving the money he makes, as he told Siam Fight Mag:
"I have already gained 800,000 Baht. As I am only 16 years old it is my father who manages my money. But I have to put some money aside because (a) boxer's career does not last a long time"
Thinking differently to this is not necessarily a mistake on a fighters part, it is an unavoidable reality. They send most of their money to their families, as well as having to pay their camps.
The money Sangmanee has stashed really isn't that much either. As of today, 800,000 Baht is $24,653 US dollars. Not a bad sum considering Sangmanee's age and the lower cost of living in the Far East, but the kind of amount that will carry him through the rest of his life, in a country that has an average life expectancy of 74.19 years?
Another thing that needs to be addressed. Although Sangmanee is a huge star (in the Muay Thai world at least) and very marketable, he doesn't make a huge amount of money to fight. Also in the interview with Siam Fight Mag, he revealed his purse to be 100,000 baht a fight (around $3,000 USD) He has fought well over twenty times in the last two years alone to make that money!
To put things into perspective, for his bout with unranked Carlo Molina on the Mayweather-Maidana undercard, Adrien Broner, coming off a loss, made the equivalent of forty million baht.
Sangmanee has a chance to make decent money though. Another shrewd decision he has made is to throw his hat into the sport of amateur boxing, which is where the most lucrative figures for combat sports are to be found in Thailand.
Just as the aforementioned Somrak, Sangmanee will be set for life should he bring home a gold medal from the Rio 2016 games. Anyone who does has been promised one hundred million baht, which at a little over three million dollars is just about enough to put Adrien Broner's purse in the shade.
In Muay Thai, there is no 'bad'. It's either good, or at least decent, or very, very ugly.
The example I will be using for this is Wanchalong. As a two weight Lumpinee Stadium champion, as well as a two-weight Channel 7 Stadium champion, you would think that Wanchalong would be able to command a decent wage as a proven top level fighter with television exposure.
In 2013, he was not only judged to have been in the 'Fight of the Year' but he fought no less than ten times!
Speaking to Siam Fight Mag Wanchalong revealed his purse to be 85,000 baht a fight, which as of today works out at a little over $2,619 USD. And for last year, would've set him up at $26,194 or thereabout.
Known as Wanchalong Sitsornong for many years, he is now known by the surname Saenchaimuaythaigym, as he has moved to the 13 Coins Gym primarily associated with Muay Thai star Saenchai Sor Kingstar.
This interview, with English subtitles, is very informative. In it, Wanchalong admits there were issues with his previous contract. In the event that you do not choose to watch this, I will summarize the important points.
First, Wanchalong is asked why he has changed his name. He replies:
"So many reasons and also the owners of 13 Coins Gym agreed to buy me."
Although he doesn't delve into the reasons straight away, he touches on an important point. When a fighter is dissatisfied with their contract, they are powerless. Another gym or promoter will have to come to an understanding with his current owner (and owner is the correct noun is this instance) and pay compensation to get said fighter out of their contract.
Later on, Wanchalong elaborates on his contractual woes, confirming he went to the Sports Authority of Thailand for assistance:
"It was about the contract. I had five years contract with the previous owner which had already finished and everything was cleared under the agreement."
It seems that Wanchalong was not granted release from his contract despite fulfilling its terms. 13 Coins Gym had to pay 500,000 baht to get him out of his previous deal.
He goes on to say that at some stages of his career he was making just 30,000 ($924) and 15,000 Baht ($462) a fight. Even with the lower cost of living in Thailand, this is criminal, but sadly an all too common case.
Wanchalong seems sadly resigned to the bad treatment the fighters get in Thailand. When asked on how he wants to be treated by his camp:
"You have to just concentrate on what you do. Each camp treats their boxers differently so as a boxer you just have to do your best."
It gets worse. Unlike Sangmanee Sor Tienpo, Wanchalong hasn't been so lucky with his money.
"I made a mistake trusting a woman. She took all my money, over a million baht...so I'm telling other boxer be careful, don't let the woman woman keep all your money and stuff."
This is another common occurrence, not just in Muay Thai, but in all walks of life, be it a woman, a man or a greedy relative. But it's even sadder when you take into account the short shelf live of a Nak Muay Thai and the limited options available to him when his career is all said and done.
A pro' since he was eight years old and a veteran of 200 fights, Wanchalong is past the expiry date of Muay Thai fighters. Since he doesn't have much in the way of savings however, he has no choice but to keep on going. As he says in the interview when asked when he will retire:
"I think until my body can't take it anymore."
When asked by Siam Fight Mag what his occupation will be upon his retirement from fighting, he said:
"I don't know...maybe a trainer"
As per normal. There are few options outside of passing on their tricks to the next generation. Some fighters find employment in security, or if they were particularly well known (or lucky) as policemen.
Whilst he's still engaging in 'The Science of Eight Limbs' there is another way Wanchalong, and other similarly shafted fighters, can add to their savings.
The rising popularity of Premier League football and more easily accessible internet in the Far East has seen only sporadically high attendances to Muay Thai fights in the big mango. Therefore purses are lower than they were in the Muay Thai ‘Golden Age' of the 1980s, despite good fights being made regularly just as they were then.
Rob Cox, photographer, journalist, commentator, fight camp owner and the Western authority on Muay Thai (and the only non-Thai allowed on the ring apron at the big stadiums) explains gambling, as well as giving a true insiders look into the sport as a whole, in this informative interview (section on gambling starts at 00:40)
Not essential to the average fan, but sometimes pivotal to the fighter himself, gambling is where a fighter can make his money.
With legal gambling off-limits for most of Thailand (but illegal gambling not impossible to find by any means) the two safe havens for those wanting to make the most of their baht are the major boxing stadiums in Bangkok, where gambling is permitted.
Looking up from ringside to the higher tiers of seating reserved for the gamblers may make you think you've walked into Wall Street in the 1980s. The gamblers are often frantic, splitting bets and placing new ones depending on how the fight is going, using hand gestures to indicate where they want to place their stake. It's all very complicated to the outsider, and while not essential to the spectator in understanding the fight it can make for a spectacle in itself.
It's not uncommon to see a gambler offer his own instructions to a fighter from outside the ring, and even offer him a cash incentive to try harder. This is something which is totally alien to a Western fight fan, but there are only restrictions on how many corner men are allowed inside the ring.
Not only that but in a major stadium fight with high stakes there can be winner-takes-all side bets between the camps of a million baht (as of today a little under $31,000 USD) and then some.
At hasn't always been like this though. In part four, we'll look at the history of Muay Thai, starting with it's mythical beginnings, and working our way back to the present day for part five, which is the culmination of this series.