After the fights: Two retired Muay Thai champs beat the odds

After the fights: Two retired Muay Thai champs beat the odds

The crowds stopped cheering years ago, but these former boxers haven't given up the fight
Muay Thai
Muay Thai
Muay Thai
Muay Thai
Muay Thai
Muay Thai
Then and now: On the left, a large, framed black-and-white photograph hanging on a wall in Rangsit Stadium shows Amnuay Kesbumrung practicing in his younger days.

When a Muay Thai kickboxer's brain is battered by the star-twinkling impact from too many hits and the fighter becomes spaced-out and forgetful, retirement can mean a dismal life far from the maddening crowd of cheering and jeering fans at sweaty boxing arenas.

The elderly Amnuay Kesbumrung and his aged colleague, Sompong Janpatrak, however, are defying those black-and-blue odds as they continue to enjoy Thailand's most popular sport.

Muay ThaiGloves and other protective gear were introduced into professional kickboxing in the early 1900s.Muay Thai allows fists, elbows, feet, shins, knees and jumps to be used in attacks. During Thailand's history, several kings became great boxers or patrons, and kickboxing was also taught to their security forces. Early competitive boxers often wrapped rope around their fists, resulting in brutal injuries, until gloves were introduced in the early 1900s.

"I was born December 14, 1935, and am now 73 years old," Amnuay said in Thai during an interview. "I boxed for about 10 years, beginning when I was 12 years old. After I quit, I had different jobs, including selling automobiles. But I have also been president of the Muay Thai Institute for the past 22 years."

The institute includes Rangsit Stadium, which Amnuay owns, located on Phahonyothin Road in Pathumthani, just beyond Bangkok's northern outskirts, past Don Muang airport.

Amnuay is also on the World Muay Thai Council and oversees a school at his stadium, which teaches Muay Thai boxing to Thais and foreigners.

"I stopped professional boxing because I suffered a broken heart after I lost a championship match," he said. "So then I opened a gym for boxers."

That loss came in the late 1950s when he was fighting to be in the Asian Games. A win might have led to representing Thailand at the Olympics. But his opponent beat him, and broke Amnuay's competitive spirit.

Collateral damage

Most old kickboxers do not enjoy their senior years, because Muay Thai can cause irreparable damage.

Muay ThaiA kickboxing student's foot, resting on a Rangsit Stadium's ringside rope, is protected by a typical sock-like covering."There have been no medical problems for me, but for other boxers, they can have problems with their brain, especially if they are fighting for a long time," Amnuay said.

"If you are attacked too many times at your head it will be too easy for you forget things, like forgetting names, or forgetting where you live," he continued. "Ninety percent of old Muay Thai boxers have that problem, if they have boxed for 15 or 20 years.

"For example, when they are talking and talking, they will suddenly forget what they are talking about. Or they will be walking like they are drunk, wobbling without balance."

Despite the risks, many Thai male children like to casually challenge each other, and spontaneously show off their kicking ability.

"I love Muay Thai," Amnuay said. "Normally, when we are young, and with our friends, we will fight to see who is better. It is fun."

Even though he is elderly, the heavy-set Amnuay still flings his fists and feet to demonstrate the most efficient way to clobber an opponent.

"I have four wives because women like me. Especially when I was a champion -- I was quite famous and handsome.

— Sompong Janpatrak

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

Read more about Richard S. Ehrlich