October 16, 2012 by Melissa Ray
October 4th saw a huge card at Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium and a huge crowd—with a reported 8,000 spectators crammed into ringside seats and the stands. Despite the stellar line up (which included Saenchai vs. Singdam and Petchboonchu vs. Nong O), the match that generated most interest in the days and weeks preceding the show was the fight between the two older boxers—Somrak Thor Thepsutin (39) and Yodwanpadet Gaiyanghaadao (51). The reason for the fervour was its side bet—eventually standing at an unprecedented and not too paltry 5.77 million baht.
It is said that the idea for the bout came from Yodwanpadet himself, a Rajadamnern promoter. Both he and Somrak had not competed for some time and are perhaps past their peak ages for fighting. However, the big wager was sure to maintain Muay Thai aficionados’ interest and draw new fans to the stadium. Somrak is no stranger to the side bet, having made a series of wagers on fighters from his own stable—notably stakes in a 3.9 million baht side bet on Jaisoo Thor Thepsutin vs. Yodkhunpol Sitmonchai last July—a record value at that time.
In a gambling fight, equal stakes are placed by both camps (gambling syndicates may also contribute to the pot) with the winning boxer’s team taking all. This type of fight happens on a regular basis all over Thailand, not just in the stadiums in Bangkok, and tends to generate another level of excitement for Thai boxing enthusiasts.
The Thais, more so than Westerners, are crazy about gambling—be it casinos in Poipet in Cambodia, Government or underground lotteries, cock fights in the countryside, or “hi-lo” card games in the home—and the bigger the risk or potential gain, the more it seems to get their juices flowing. It is interesting that gambling is so ingrained in Thai culture because it is in fact illegal—except at certain permitted venues, of which boxing stadiums represent one type. Gambling is therefore inherently and inextricably linked to Muay Thai, and some believe Muay Thai could not survive as a spectator sport without it.
“There can’t be a ban on betting on Muay Thai, no way,” says Mr Somboon Niruttimetee—owner of Eminent Air Boxing Gym—in National Geographic Channel’s “Fight Club Asia” documentary. Filmed in the stands during a Saturday afternoon program at Lumpini Boxing Stadium, he explains: “People who regard Muay Thai as a sport and entertainment will watch it on TV at home. For those who come here, more than 90% are involved in gambling. Few people come here to watch Muay Thai for entertainment.” Gesticulating towards ringside, he says: “These people are here for entertainment but those,” pointing at the men in the stands, “are not. They are all betting.”
Mr Somboon is well-known in the Muay Thai community as a successful gym owner, Lumpini promoter, and keen gambler. In the past, he has made several large wagers on the Eminent Air boxers, including 500,000 baht on Chok (vs. Ikiwsang Kor Rungthanakiat), 475,000 baht on Satanfaa (vs. Petchmorakot Tided 99), and 100,000 baht on yours truly.
My “derm pan” or gambling fight took place in December, 2008 as part of the King’s Birthday celebrations at Sanam Luang, Bangkok. My opponent was Thailand’s Praewa Sor Penprapa. Praewa was coming off a string of wins and was considered the number one Thai lady at my weight at that time. The 126lb WPMF title was at stake—as was 200,000 baht (approximately US$ 6,500 or £4,000)—our respective managers gambling 100,000 baht apiece.
In the lead up to the bout, I remember hearing whispers that Mr Somboon would be betting; but the value of the wager only became apparent when I attended the press photo at Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium about three weeks before the fight. That day I had been training as usual when I was told I had to leave immediately and go to Rajadamnern for a photo. Maen Bpaetriw—who organizes the fights for the Eminent Air boxers and works closely with the Kiatpetch team (you often see him standing with the boxers at Channel 7 when they receive their tips from the sponsors the week after fighting)—drove me through congested Bangkok traffic to Rajadamnern, where we were ushered into a side room at the front of the building upon arrival to wait for Praewa and the photographer.
Once everyone was present, after some cursory greetings, Maen produced a thick stack of 1000 baht notes, as did one of Praewa’s representatives. That was the moment it dawned on me how much money was riding on my fighting success. I tried not to stare at the wad of notes and to appear unphased by it. We were arranged around Mr Srimuang Singsuanngern (founder of Kaewsamrit Gym and WPMF promoter) for the photograph. The shot was published in Muay Siam (the leading Muay Thai newspaper in Thailand) the following day.
Three weeks later—on fight day—I and the Eminent Air team made the journey across Bangkok to Rattanakosin (the Old City), where the Grand Palace, several famous temples, and the royal grounds Sanam Luang are situated. As we drove down Rajadamnern Klang Road (the road leading to Sanam Luang) I observed the heaving crowds—each year tens of thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Rattanakosin to celebrate the birth of their revered King. The road was stunning—adorned with decorative lights and images of Thailand’s monarch. I took in the surroundings, trying not to consider the wager and to focus only on enjoying the moment.
In Thailand, to fight at Sanam Luang on a King or Queen’s Birthday event is, in my opinion, the highest accolade for a female boxer. Some restrictions exist on venues at which women are allowed to compete because of traditional concepts that we are unlucky and forbidden from touching the ring. Women are still banned from fighting at several venues, including Rajadamnern, Lumpini, Omnoi, and Channel 7 stadiums. Thankfully, no such restrictions exist at Sanam Luang, where we are allowed to perform in the same ring as male fighters and can even have high billing on the fight programs there.
It was late in the night when I was eventually called into the ring—close to 1 am and at the back end of the TV broadcast. I looked over to Praewa’s corner to see her wearing a royal blue Thailand vest and blue shorts—confusingly with “Eminent Air” emblazoned across the front. We sealed the ring but had been instructed not perform the ritual “wai kru” dance because of time limitations. Without the wai kru to settle myself, I felt a little rushed but could not dwell on that sentiment—the fight was on!
The way I remember, it was a fast-paced bout. That fight was the fittest I think I have ever been during my fight career and Praewa was evidently in great condition too. She was undoubtedly a better kicker than me but I blocked and countered with knees, pressing forwards at all times. As the bell went at the end of the fifth round I held my hands aloft in celebration, convinced I had the win.
We were centred in the ring at either side of the referee for the announcement of the result. I don’t remember hearing the scores—just Praewa’s arm being raised and a loud jeer erupting from the crowd, which increased in volume as the belt was strapped around her waist. Then, several plastic bottles and drinking cans landed into the ring—presumably lobbed by disgruntled gamblers in protest at the result. We all turned and looked behind, in the direction from which the missiles were being thrown. The officials looked flustered for moment; then tried to collect some of the bottles before ushering everyone out of the ring.
It was a disappointing night for me and—with 100,000 baht down the drain—an expensive one for Mr Somboon.
The story was reported in Muay Siam the following day and the gambling odds were quoted as 10-1 in my favour. Although I was convinced I had won the fight I would not be as arrogant as to suggest I was fully aware of the intricacies of the Thai scoring system at the time (or even now)—it takes years to gain full understanding of the scoring in Thailand. However, the (predominantly Thai) crowd’s reaction and the journalist’s report assured me I had been the victor in most people’s—though unfortunately not the judges’—eyes.
I never looked for a video of the fight but know that the TV broadcast ended during round one; so I assume there was no recorded evidence. I have always preferred not to watch videos of myself fighting—perhaps that would have been the one fight I would have been interested in viewing retrospectively. Was the fight as I remembered? Did the judges show bias towards the Thai fighter, and is it possible the large wager had an influence on the result?
The positive and detrimental effects of gambling on Muay Thai will continue to be debated. Its supporters say that Muay Thai could not survive as a spectator sport without the gamblers’ presence in the stadiums. Its opponents claim these same gamblers have too much power over promoters and that betting breeds corruption and encourages match-fixing. Whatever the viewpoint, it is indisputable that gambling generates huge income within Muay Thai. In the future it is likely that the sizes of side bets on fights will only continue to increase. How long until Somrak and Yodwanpadet’s 5.77 million baht record has been broken?