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.