Knocking out foes - and stereotypes

Young Thai women take on boxing as a way to modest prosperity

September 16, 2007|By New York Times News Service

NERN MAPRANG, Thailand -- "To be a good girl," says Pannipa Chaiyated, demure at 13, "you must have manners, speak politely and help with the housework."

That is when she is not slugging her opponents in the ring.

In a country where femininity is highly prized and girls are often told by their parents to be discreet, obedient and gracious, female boxing is a surprise hit.

Chanin Preechakul, founder of the Women's Thai Boxing Club of Thailand, estimates that more than 100 boxing camps around the country train girls, with a high concentration of them in Thailand's poor, rice-farming heartland.

"Ten or 20 years ago, there was a saying that any female boxer who had three matches in one year was very lucky," Chanin said. "Now there are matches every weekend."

With its roots in military training, Thai boxing, or muay Thai, is a rough sport that can make Western boxing look courteous. The goal of the sport, which for decades has drawn boys as young as 9, is to wear down and ultimately knock out an opponent with kicks and punches.

The sport was once known as nawa arwut, literally "nine weapons," because soldiers were taught that even if they had no knives or guns they could use two hands, two elbows, two knees, two feet and their head to battle their enemies.

The rules have evolved: Boxers are no longer allowed to head-butt their opponents and are barred from biting, spitting, pulling hair, poking at eyes and sticking out their tongues. But a well-placed knee to the kidney or a kick to the head or neck is fair game, and encouraged.

Muay Thai has been popular for years among martial arts enthusiasts worldwide, women and men, as well as those looking for a disciplined workout regimen. But it has only been in the past few years that the sport has taken off for girls and women in Thailand, partly because poor girls see it as a path toward modest prosperity if they reach the sport's highest levels. The small paychecks that even younger girls earn also help families in a struggling economy.

The sport is also being promoted more aggressively. At the Bangkok Boxing Stadium, one of the three main sites for muay Thai in the capital, girls and women fight every Saturday afternoon.

"People come to see the fight - the lovely face is a bonus," said Pariyakorn Ratanasuban, who promotes female boxing at the stadium. The daughter of the country's leading muay Thai promoter, Songchai Ratanasuban, she estimates that Thailand has 5,000 amateur female boxers. But many Thais have not accepted the idea.

"Parents don't want their children to even train because they will get blood on their face," she said. "We have to change the perception of the sport."

Maintaining femininity is a serious concern for many of the Thai girls who fight, says Pariyakorn, a bejeweled and delicately built woman. Often, she says, they drop out before they reach 20.

Younger fighters say they are teased by boys in school and try to keep their fighting careers low-profile.

"In the ring I have to fight and do my best as a boxer: I kick, I punch, use my elbows and knees like a boy," said Pannipa, the 13-year-old boxer, after a fight in which she gave her opponent a bloody nose but got a fat lip in return. "Once I get down from the ring I become who I am, a girl."

That means, she says, helping with housework. And her manner shows that she is traditional in other ways as well. She fills a visitor's glass during mealtime, speaks softly and bows while clasping her hands together in a traditional Thai gesture of respect several times during an interview.

The superstitions against female boxers have faded as more girls and women take up muay Thai. But as a concession to tradition, girls enter the ring by crawling under the bottom of four ropes. Boys climb through the ropes any way they want.

Each day girls do 30 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 10 pull-ups and 200 dumbbell curls. They skip rope 1,000 times and run a few miles on dirt and pavement barefoot because they cannot afford good sneakers.

"If they fight and their legs are not strong enough, they jump rope 2,000 times," said Tanawat Somnet, 47, their trainer. "If they lower their guard during a fight, 20 push-ups. Punishment."

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