Twelve-year-old Supattra “Pancake” Inthirat fights at a small ring in rural Thailand.

Ben C. Solomon/The New York Times


‘Fighting for Their Lives’

In Thailand’s brutal national pastime, young kids try to kickbox their way out of poverty. Is it sport or child abuse?

Jim McMahon

Sprawled on a bamboo mat, Supattra Inthirat closed her eyes as her father massaged her hard arms with oil and menthol. In preparation for her 15th muay Thai bout, her father whispered a prayer into her ear.

When Supattra, a 12-year-old fighter known as Pancake, faced her rival and 400 fans under halogen lights in northeastern Thailand, she would be fighting for a purpose: $60, almost half a month’s salary for Thai families in this region.

“She will be a champion,” her father said. “She must train early to build up her boxing bones.”

Across Thailand, muay Thai (moy tie) is a hallowed style of kickboxing fostered by both rich and poor. For the poor, it can be a form of social mobility, a means for muscled young boxers to fight their families’ way into the burgeoning middle class (see “Thailand’s Economy,” below). For the rich, it’s a brutal gambling form in which tens of thousands of dollars can be won and lost each night.

Lying across a bamboo mat, Supattra Inthirat closed her eyes as her father massaged her hard arms with oil and menthol. In preparation for her 15th muay Thai bout, her father whispered a prayer into her ear.

Supattra, known as Pancake, is a 12-year-old fighter. She was about to face her rival and 400 fans under halogen lights in northeastern Thailand. She would be fighting for a purpose: $60, almost half a month’s salary for Thai families in this region.

“She will be a champion,” her father said. “She must train early to build up her boxing bones.”

Across Thailand, muay Thai (moy tie) is a revered style of kickboxing fostered by both rich and poor. For the poor, it can be a form of social mobility. It’s a means for muscled young boxers to fight their families’ way into the budding middle class (see “Thailand’s Economy,” below). For the rich, it’s a brutal gambling form in which tens of thousands of dollars can be won and lost each night.

In November, those worlds collided just south of Bangkok, when Anucha Tasako, 13, died of a brain hemorrhage after being knocked out in a muay Thai fight. He had fought an astonishing 174 bouts since the age of 8.

Now Thailand has been left to reconsider the brutality of a sport involving underage fighters and the shadowy gambling economy built around it.

“It’s child labor and child abuse,” says Dr. Jiraporn Laothamatas, a neuroradiologist leading the charge to ban boxing by children. Last year, she released a seven-year study on the effect of muay Thai on children’s brains, showing a steady drop in IQ and brain function for those who fight. “These kids earn,” Jiraporn says. “They feed their families and their promoters with their winning. We are destroying our children for sport.”

In November, those worlds collided just south of Bangkok. That month, Anucha Tasako, 13, died of a brain hemorrhage after being knocked out in a muay Thai fight. He had fought an astonishing 174 bouts since the age of 8.

Now Thailand has been left to reconsider the brutality of a sport involving underage fighters and the shadowy gambling economy built around it.

“It’s child labor and child abuse,” says Dr. Jiraporn Laothamatas, a neuroradiologist leading the charge to ban boxing by children. Last year, she released a seven-year study on the effect of muay Thai on children’s brains. Her findings showed a steady drop in IQ and brain function for those who fight. “These kids earn,” Jiraporn says. “They feed their families and their promoters with their winning. We are destroying our children for sport.”

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Young fighters compete in muay Thai, which mixes punching, kicking, kneeing, and elbowing.

‘It’s in Our Blood to Fight’

Anucha’s death stirred a wave of shock and anger across the nation, leading Thai lawmakers to propose a measure that could put stringent limits on fights and bar children younger than 12 from competitive boxing. But not everyone agrees with the proposal.

“This will destroy muay Thai,” says Dr. Sudhichai Chokekijchai, a doctor for professional boxers in Bangkok and a fight enthusiast. “We should be focused on prevention instead of pushing kids away. They are fighting for their lives.”

The national rules state that boxers 15 and older are required to register to fight officially. For competitors under that age, the rules are vague, requiring only parental permission and offering little guidance on gambling and safety.

Most fights happen off the books, though. A Thai investigative journalism center reported that a little more than 10,000 child fighters had registered from 2010 to 2017, while according to boxing officials nearly 200,000 children under 15 regularly compete.

“It’s in our blood to fight,” Sudhichai says. “These laws will only push people away from doing it safely. These kids are healthy, they stay away from drugs and crimes. How will the government support them if they take fighting away?”

In Thailand, muay Thai competitions have managed to stay outside the child protection and labor laws, which designate that only salaried children are considered workers. Money won in muay Thai fights is considered an award and is legal.

Anucha’s death stirred a wave of shock and anger across the nation. In the aftermath, Thai lawmakers proposed a measure that could put strict limits on fights. It recommends banning children younger than 12 from competitive boxing. But not everyone agrees with the proposal.

“This will destroy muay Thai,” says Dr. Sudhichai Chokekijchai, a doctor for professional boxers in Bangkok and a fight enthusiast. “We should be focused on prevention instead of pushing kids away. They are fighting for their lives.”

The national rules state that boxers 15 and older must register to fight officially. For competitors under that age, the rules are unclear. All that’s required for younger fighters is parental permission. The rules also offer little guidance on how to handle gambling and safety.

Most fights happen off the books, though. A Thai investigative journalism center reported that a little more than 10,000 child fighters had registered from 2010 to 2017. But according to boxing officials nearly 200,000 children under 15 regularly compete.

“It’s in our blood to fight,” Sudhichai says. “These laws will only push people away from doing it safely. These kids are healthy, they stay away from drugs and crimes. How will the government support them if they take fighting away?”

In Thailand, muay Thai competitions have managed to stay outside the child protection and labor laws. These laws specify that only salaried children are considered workers. Money won in muay Thai fights is considered an award and is legal.

‘We are destroying our children for sport.’

In the poorer and more rural regions of Thailand, where child boxing has its strongest following, that money can be an important boost. Compared with families that may earn an average of $200 a month working farms and rice paddies, a budding child fighter can bring in $60 to $600 for a victory—or even more for a knockout.

For fighters, a life of discipline and dedication begins early. In small, makeshift training camps in rural parts of Thailand, children punch with rotting gloves and donated bags, working their way up the ranks as they grow.

The best of them are recruited by Bangkok fight gyms. These act as makeshift boarding schools, where the elite young fighters live away from their families, sleeping piled together on tiny mattresses. They follow a rigorous training routine. At 4:30 a.m., a six-mile run in the dark. Boxing from 5:30 to 7:00. School until the afternoon, then another training session until the sun goes down. The dream is to go pro.

Pancake’s career has had a promising start. Girls are relatively new to muay Thai but make up a growing sector. Coming from a middle-class family, Pancake is one of the luckier boxers, able to train with her father, a former fighter himself, in their makeshift home gym. Pancake had won 12 competitions going into her 15th fight.

That night, she climbed into the ring to face another 12-year-old girl. After five rounds of flailing arms and legs, the two girls walked off, faces sweaty and battered. The judges’ unanimous decision: Pancake had lost. Her father gathered her things.

“She’ll need to train harder,” he said.

Child boxing has its strongest fan base in the poorer and more rural regions of Thailand. Money can be an important boost in those parts of the country. Families in these regions may earn an average of $200 a month working farms and rice paddies. A budding child fighter can bring in $60 to $600 for a victory or even more for a knockout.

For fighters, a life of discipline and dedication begins early. They start off in small, makeshift training camps in rural parts of Thailand. These children punch with rotting gloves and donated bags. They work their way up the ranks as they grow.

The best of them are recruited by Bangkok fight gyms. These act as makeshift boarding schools. The elite young fighters live away from their families. They sleep piled together on tiny mattresses. And they follow a rigorous training routine. At 4:30 a.m., a six-mile run in the dark. Boxing from 5:30 to 7:00. School until the afternoon, then another training session until the sun goes down. The dream is to go pro. 

Pancake’s career has had a promising start. Girls are relatively new to muay Thai but make up a growing sector. Coming from a middle-class family, Pancake is one of the luckier boxers. She’s able to train with her father, a former fighter himself, in their makeshift home gym. Pancake had won 12 competitions going into her 15th fight.

That night, she climbed into the ring to face another 12-year-old girl. After five rounds of swinging arms and legs, the two girls walked off, faces sweaty and battered. The judges’ unanimous decision: Pancake had lost. Her father gathered her things.

“She’ll need to train harder,” he said.

Ben C. Solomon covers Southeast Asia for The New York Times. Additional reporting by Navaon Siradapuvadol.

Ben C. Solomon covers Southeast Asia for The New York Times. Additional reporting by Navaon Siradapuvadol.

Thailand’s Economy

Anirut Thailand/Shutterstock

Thailand is widely considered an economic success story. Over the past few decades, the nation’s economy has boomed, thanks largely to increases in tourism, manufacturing, and foreign investment. The poverty rate among Thailand’s 69 million people declined to 7 percent in 2015 from 67 percent in 1986.

However, most of the economic growth has been limited to the area around Bangkok, the capital, while many people in rural areas, especially those not visited by tourists, continue to struggle. More than 80 percent of the country’s 7.1 million poor people were living in rural areas as of 2014, according to the World Bank. In these places, many children have to work on farms, in factories, or in fisheries to help out their families. Some turn to other pursuits, such as muay Thai, to fight their way out of poverty.  

“Even though Thailand has been a development success story,” says Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, “there has been enormous inequality.”  —Joe Bubar

Thailand is widely considered an economic success story. Over the past few decades, the nation’s economy has boomed, thanks largely to increases in tourism, manufacturing, and foreign investment. The poverty rate among Thailand’s 69 million people declined to 7 percent in 2015 from 67 percent in 1986.

However, most of the economic growth has been limited to the area around Bangkok, the capital, while many people in rural areas, especially those not visited by tourists, continue to struggle. More than 80 percent of the country’s 7.1 million poor people were living in rural areas as of 2014, according to the World Bank. In these places, many children have to work on farms, in factories, or in fisheries to help out their families. Some turn to other pursuits, such as muay Thai, to fight their way out of poverty.  

“Even though Thailand has been a development success story,” says Josh Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, “there has been enormous inequality.”  —Joe Bubar

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