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    COOL HEART (New Yorker article on Muay Thai)

    COOL HEART The lethal art of Muay Thai.

    The New Yorker
    January 16, 2006
    The Sporting Scene; Pg. 58

    Bunkerd Faphimai, a three-time world champion in Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, has a gym called Fight and Fitness, on Bryant Street in San Francisco, across from Dad's "No Collateral OK" Bail Bonds, on the tail end of bail-bond row. In the evening, the street is dark and deserted, the warehouses locked for the night; inside, the gym has the mesmerizing aura of a beehive, all yellow light and subsuming, languageless activity.

    I first went there for a trial class last winter. Electronic music was droning from a set of speakers. An electric bell was beeping at thirty-second intervals, jump ropes ticked clocklike against the mats, and the movement of the speed bags produced a hypnotic triplet rhythm. I remembered a Turkish expression, "The bear knows forty stories, but all of them are about pears," which is used to describe someone who is always harping on the same subject. The boxers at the speed bags had a dogged eloquence that reminded me of that bear. On a high shelf near the entrance sat a green enamel Buddha with a glass of Gatorade.

    I didn't notice Bunkerd until he was standing in front of me: a diminutive man in his early forties whose nose clearly had been broken several times. He instructed me to hold out my left hand, which he proceeded to bind in boxer's hand wraps. When he had finished both hands and closed the Velcro around my wrists, he patted my arm. I had never met anyone who so manifestly radiated good will.

    After a week or two, I was hooked-I invested in my own hand wraps and a pair of beautiful red fourteen-ounce boxing gloves with "Bunkerd Sportswear" printed on them in white. (Bunkerd has his own line of gear, manufactured in Bangkok.) I started spending all my free time at the gym-drawn by the universal pleasure of kicking and punching one's fellow-man, and also by Bunkerd's personal magnetism. Every day, I was increasingly impressed by his gentle and lively demeanor, pedagogic skill, and volubility. It was difficult to label him. He couldn't be the "boxer with a heart of gold," because that is a fundamentally conflicted, ironic figure, and Bunkerd didn't seem to be in conflict about anything. He was more like a small person made entirely of gold. (He often wore a tiny hoop earring, a big gold watch, and a gold ring.) Although his English was limited, he spoke with an air of sincerity and persuasiveness, and didn't seem bothered by the thought that people might not understand him. His teachings were devoid of any tormented, get-inside-the-other-guy's-head rhetoric. A move either worked ("Easy knockout") or it didn't ("No fun"). "No fun," he said flatly, demonstrating an incorrect stance. "Lose balance."

    One day soon after I started, I was having trouble with high kicks, and Bunkerd came over and began explaining something in a heartfelt, meaningful tone. "||| || ||||!" he said, an utterance that I pictured as a row of vertical lines, like Woodstock talking to Snoopy. "|||| ||||| ||| kick," he added, pointing at my leg.

    As I stepped back to try another kick, my partner called, "Look out! I think he's going to grab your leg."

    Sure enough, Bunkerd seized my leg, rotated it ninety degrees, moved my arm back, and executed the entire kick for me, as if I were a puppet. "That's right!" he said, beaming. "Perfect!"

    I started to get the hang of it, and toward the end of class Bunkerd approached me from a distance. "|||| || ||||," he declared, raising one hand.

    "Ah, thanks," I said, when it became clear that he was expecting some response.

    "|||| || ||||!" he repeated, his boxing glove still aloft.

    Finally, I understood what he was saying: "Give me five!"

    Muay Thai is known as the Science of Eight Limbs, because fighters use their fists, feet, elbows, and knees. The basic movements include punches, high and low kicks, elbow strikes, and a wide variety of knee kicks. Of all the "eight limbs," Thai boxers are most partial to elbows and knees. Elbow strikes, which typically result in deep gashes to the face, are prohibited in most American fights.

    Muay Thai was brought to the United States in 1968 by a retired Thai fighter named Surachai Sirisute. He opened a training camp in his back yard in Pomona, California, where his pupils included several Hell's Angels. Sirisute became a guru in the martial-arts community, worked with members of the Dallas Cowboys, the F.B.I., and the C.I.A., and was instrumental in the rise of Muay Thai in America throughout the seventies and eighties.

    The first professional American Muay Thai championship was held in Los Angeles in 1974, under the designation of "full-contact karate." The main American sanctioning organizations-the International Sport Kickboxing Association (I.S.K.A.) and the U.S. Muay Thai Association (U.S.M.T.A.)-were established in the eighties and nineties. Today, there are four or five hundred fighters on the professional Muay Thai circuit in the United States-about ten per cent of them women-and thousands of amateurs.

    In Thailand, there are hundreds of thousands of professional boxers and tens of millions of fans, many of them gamblers. Thais love to bet, and will bet on almost anything. (When the former Muay Thai champion Somluck Khamsing won a gold medal in Western-style boxing at the 1996 Olympics, people all over Thailand started buying lottery tickets corresponding to his license-plate number.) At the two most prestigious stadiums in Thailand, Lumpini and Rajadamnern, nearly every audience member has some money on the fights. Bookies and professional "prognosticators" offer odds not just on who will win each match but on the type of win (K.O. or T.K.O., unanimous or split decision), on the outcome of individual rounds, on whether the first blow will be struck by foot or by hand, and even on whether said blow will come from the left or the right. Thai politicians regularly endorse boxers as a means of gaining publicity. The King, the Prime Minister, the Mafia-everyone cares about Muay Thai. Boxing in Thailand is what poetry was in Soviet Russia: an aesthetic form treated as a vital affair of state.

    Muay Thai is a ring sport, and low on philosophical rhetoric. The point is not to achieve Zen but to knock out your opponent. In tae kwon do, the motions are choreographed according to dense non-pugilistic narratives: one set of moves, known as Heaven and Earth, is supposed to suggest the creation of the world, while another, Dosan, is a twenty-four-step pantomime of the life and achievements of Changho (Dosan) Ahn, an educational reformer from the Korean independence movement of the nineteen-twenties and thirties. An example of a metaphor used in Muay Thai is "extinguish the lamps," which means "punch your opponent in the eye."

    Little is known about the history of Muay Thai. Bunkerd says that it has been around as long as the Thai people; the earliest existing reference dates from 1411. Whereas tae kwon do, kung fu, and jujitsu are believed to have been invented by monks in order to defend their temples from marauders, Muay Thai is believed to have been invented by the Thai Army in order to defend the country from invaders. (It was, however, taught in temples until the turn of the twentieth century.) Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized by Europeans, and although it hasn't been established that Muay Thai played a significant role in Thai independence, nearly every Thai king is associated with some legend of boxing prowess. The national mythology holds that to be independent is to be Thai, and to be Thai is to box.

    In the early days of Muay Thai, rounds were either untimed or timed in only an approximate fashion-for example, by floating a pierced coconut shell in a tank of water. (When the shell sank to the bottom, the round wasover.) Biting and eye-gouging were allowed, as was the practice of dipping hand wraps in resin and ground glass. The number of rounds was potentially unlimited: a match ended only when one fighter was unconscious. There were a great number of deaths in the ring-one reason, perhaps, for the introduction of the Queensberry rules, in the nineteen-thirties. The rules were not fully standardized until after the Second World War. Bouts now consist of five three-minute rounds, and fighters are required to wear protective gear and Western-style boxing gloves.

    Most professional boxers in Thailand are between fifteen and twenty years old, and are welterweights or lighter. When you watch a Western boxing match, you can often follow the course of the fight just by observing the boxers' expressions: relief, calculation, defiance. You can tell from the boxer's face whether he has just pulled off a successful fake or delivered a righteous counterstrike. This transparency seems naive and touching in comparison with the opacity of the Thais, who hone their poker faces from early childhood. In Thai fights, counterstrike succeeds strike quickly and mechanically, and no feeling is betrayed. The boxers fly at each other relentlessly, dispassionately, unceasingly, their bodies buffeted to and fro as if on an invisible sea.

    Some of the fighters move so fast that they seem to violate the laws of physics. Panya Kraitus, the author of "Muay Thai: The Most Distinguished Art of Fighting"-the definitive Englishlanguage source on Muay Thai-writes of "great jumpers, capable of boosting themselves with a foot on the waistband of an opponent's boxing shorts and delivering a stunning kick to the head." In Thailand, fights are accompanied by the music of the pi, or Javanese clarinet, an instrument prized for its eerie timbre. The music escalates in rhythm and pitch throughout the fight-"to increase the adrenaline of the fighters," Kraitus writes.

    Muay Thai, like much of Thai culture, is subject to the Buddhist emotional ideal of jai yen, or "cool heart." (Physicians at the Phuket International Hospital recommend jai yen as a strategy to maintain health: "Adopt what Thais call a 'cool heart' . . . and just walk away from troublesome situations.") Kraitus writes that a boxer must always be able to "replace hot, volatile and murky emotions with those that are cool and rational." Outside the ring, he should "act as if [he] were not well versed in the lethal art of Thai boxing."

    Muay Thai is also associated with magic and rituals. Before a fight, each boxer circumambulates the ring, gliding one hand along the ropes; according to the anthropologist Peter Vail, this is meant to "seal the ring against outside influences." Traditionally, the boxer then recites a secret incantation, called kata, imparted to him in private by a trainer or manager. Vail describes one popular kata, "four-faced Brahma," which is said to have the double function of making the opponent see four faces instead of one and causing the boxer himself to radiate extra metta ("loving-kindness"), so that nobody can bear to hit him too hard. During these pre-fight ceremonies, all fighters wear a protective headband called the mongkon, which is approximately the same shape as a tennis racquet, and is worn with the handle sticking out in the back. Rolled up inside are talismanic items-usually paper inscribed with magical letters and numbers, though boxers have also been said to include clippings of their fathers' hair or scraps from their mothers' robes, dried pieces of venomous snakes, and even fragments of their ancestors' bones. Kraitus's book includes an entire chapter about such charms; he also mentions boxers who recite spells in graveyards, particularly seeking out those which are "reputed to be very much haunted."

    Nowadays, Muay Thai instruction takes place in boxing camps, which are run for profit by entrepreneurs and businessmen. Still, as Vail has written, the analogies between Muay Thai fighters and Buddhist monks persist. Monks live in monasteries, for example, and boxers live in secluded camps; monks are celibate, and boxers aren't allowed to have sexual relations in the twenty days leading up to a fight. Boxers and monks change their names when they take on their new vocation, suffer physical mortifications, possess charismatic powers, and wear special clothing. But, unlike monks, boxers have close ties to the nakleng-the criminal underworld-and must negotiate with thugs and bet-fixers; they sometimes make extra money by working as leg-breakers and bodyguards.

    Rajadamnern Stadium opened in 1941, and Lumpini in 1956. A story is frequently told about one of the first female television announcers, in the nineteen-seventies, who allegedly climbed under the ropes at Rajadamnern and walked around the ring in front of the cameras. That night, every fight ended in a bloody T.K.O. owing to cuts. The female announcer was held responsible, on the strength of a murky associative link between women, menstrual blood, and T.K.O.s, and women were banned from entering a boxing ring. Today, women do fight professionally, but not at Lumpini or Rajadamnern.

    In 1998, the celebrity boxer Parinya Kiatbusaba-he was one of Thailand's numerous transvestites-refused to take off his underwear for a weigh-in at Lumpini. Since Kiatbusaba made weight even in his underwear, the management eventually let him into the ring. Wearing his trademark red lipstick, Kiatbusaba easily defeated his opponent and then kissed him on the cheek. Kiatbusaba had become a boxer because it was the only way that he could earn enough money to achieve his lifelong dream: sex-reassignment surgery. After the surgery was performed, in 1999, he, too, was banned from the major stadiums.

    Kiatbusaba's situation reminded me a bit of Bunkerd's. From earliest childhood, Kiatbusaba wanted to be a woman, despite his body; from earliest childhood, Bunkerd wanted to be a boxer, and this, too, was despite his body.

    Bunkerd's physique resembles not that of a lion but that of a lion statue, with a large head and a compact body. This is the wrong build for Muay Thai, the ideal being that of the retired champion Diesel Noi, who is six feet tall and fought at a hundred and thirty-five pounds. Bunkerd, who is five feet three and looks healthy and well proportioned at his non-fighting weight of a hundred and forty pounds, had to starve himself in order to become a champion.

    Throughout Bunkerd's career, most of his opponents have been taller than he. One afternoon at the gym, I saw him sparring with five of his larger students, one by one, three rounds each. It was astounding to see these enormous men, in protective helmets and mouth guards and shin guards, flying to all corners like discarded robots while Bunkerd stood in the middle of the ring, cheerfully wiping blood from his nose and displaying no sign of fatigue or ill humor.

    Later, Bunkerd lent me a videotape of his three consecutive matches against the Moroccan-Belgian fighter Bilam Nesradine. The first fight, for the I.S.K.A. Intercontinental title, took place in August of 1995, at Table Mountain Casino, near Fresno. Bilam, like many European fighters, favored fancy, karate-style high kicks and spins. For the first round-known by Thais as "garbage time," because it is typically used for observation rather than action-Bunkerd made no offensive moves, dodging kicks, hopping from one foot to the other, and hiking up his little white trunks. When Bilam managed to land a blow, Bunkerd nodded approvingly. In the second round, when Bilam came at him with a high right kick, Bunkerd seized his leg midair and knocked the standing leg out from under him. He repeated this sequence several times, blocking, evading, or grabbing Bilam's kick, and landing a low kick or knee. Bilam was taller than Bunkerd, with longer arms, and more skilled as a boxer, but Bunkerd was better at kicking. Bilam began dancing backward, stalling for time. Bunkerd trotted after him, chased him into every corner of the ring, and kicked him in the leg. Bunkerd won the title by majority decision.

    The rematch took place two months later, again at Table Mountain. In the second round, Bilam landed a textbook uppercut to Bunkerd's chin. Bunkerd's head flipped backward in an undignified posture-which, however, he promptly turned to his advantage. Lowering his gloves, Bunkerd gestured at his own head, moving his lips. "Go ahead!" he was saying. Bilam pummelled Bunkerd with two uppercuts and several hooks; Bunkerd's head bobbed eerily to and fro, his face wearing a vacant expression. Suddenly, Bunkerd sprang back into action, leaping at his opponent with a flying knee to the chest. The audience went wild. "Wherever he goes, Bunkerd is an instant cult hero," the announcer said. Bunkerd lost a point for an illegal knee to the head ("I think he just forgets," the announcer opined), and the match was scored a draw.

    "One more! One more!" Bunkerd cried, holding up one finger, meaning that there would have to be another rematch. He threw his arms around Bilam's neck, reached up to pat his head, and then, from an excess of joy, kneed him in the ribs. Bilam smiled gamely but looked as if he didn't really want another rematch.

    But Bunkerd got his way, and the third fight took place in San Jose in the spring of 1997. Early in the fourth round, Bilam landed an almost comically effective right cross to Bunkerd's head: one moment Bunkerd was standing, the next he was flat on his stomach. He got up immediately, but seemed dazed for the rest of the round. When the bell rang, his three cornermen leaped into the ring like attendants at some strange car wash: one sprayed water into Bunkerd's face, another polished him with an enormous sponge, and a third propped his legs on his shoulders and rubbed them with a big, round ice bag. Throughout these ministrations, Bunkerd stared straight ahead, maintaining a philosophical expression. He went on to dominate the fifth round, with a barrage of low kicks and knees. When the last bell rang, both Bilam and Bunkerd knew that they had put on a topnotch show: they marched arm in arm around the ring, and Bilam leaned down and kissed Bunkerd on the cheek. The decision was announced, to the apparent delight of both fighters: another draw.

    After I'd been taking classes for about six months, I asked Bunkerd to tell me more about himself. "O.K.," he said. "Tomorrow after class, I tell you about my life."

    But when I came out of the locker room the next day he was nowhere to be seen. Finally, I found him in a corner near the weight machines, peering at himself in the mirror. He was wearing only his shorts, and holding a pair of tweezers.

    "Hello," I said.

    "Hello," he replied, glancing at me in the mirror.

    "Is now a good time for us to talk?"

    "Yes," he said, and, with great concentration, plucked a hair from his chin.

    "Have you had lunch?" I asked, after a brief pause.


    "May I invite you for lunch?"

    "No," he said. "I'm O.K." Then, removing another hair: "Thank you."

    It was shaping up like one of those investigations on "Law & Order," where all the people in New York are so busy that they can talk to the detectives only while operating jackhammers or restoring Renaissance paintings.

    "Maybe we can go to a coffee shop?" I suggested.

    "We can talk here," Bunkerd said.

    I went to the front desk and pulled up two chairs. Bunkerd appeared a minute later, now wearing a shirt, and sat across from me, setting his tweezers on the desk.

    "Yes," he said. "I'm ready."

    Bunkerd told me that he was born in December, 1962, on the Khorat Plateau, in a provincial city in the northeast called Nakhon Ratchasima. Like many up-country Thais, he was brought up speaking both Lao and Thai. When he was six years old, his family moved to a rice farm in the northeastern province of Chaiyaphum; they travelled on foot, through a jungle inhabited by tigers and snakes. Bunkerd carried his baby brother in one arm and "some pots and pans" in the other. He attended a Chaiyaphum elementary school for four years, until, at the age of eleven, his parents sent him to work at a neighboring farm.

    "I go to somebody's farm. The somebody tell me, 'Bunkerd do this, Bunkerd do that.' I have to do everything-I babysit for him, farming, everything. For one year. And he give me fifty baskets rice." He looked at me expectantly.

    "Wow," I said.

    "Fifty baskets, that's it," he said. "Five zero. For one year!"

    "That's not very much," I hazarded.

    "No!" he said emphatically.

    Bunkerd knew that he wanted to be a boxer from the moment he heard a Muay Thai fight announced on the radio.

    "I thought, Oh, wow, this guy is good! I love the fight," Bunkerd said. Though he hadn't yet had any formal instruction, he apparently spent the winter months in an uninterrupted brawl with his brothers. "After the rice harvest, we have no work, we do nothing," he said. "We're farmers, bad kids. We're sparring all the time!" They had no headgear, so they wore rice baskets on their heads and used towels for gloves.


    Bunkerd nodded. "Like this." He removed his shirt and wrapped it around his hand. We both regarded his wrapped hand.

    "I'm cold," he said after a moment. He unwrapped his hand and put his shirt back on.

    As a child, Bunkerd saw real Muay Thai fights only once a year, at a festival after the rice harvest. During the festival, his family ate "good food," meat and chicken; the rest of the year they ate sticky rice. The festival featured Thai folk theatre, puppets, acrobats, Muay Thai bouts, and cowboy movies, of which Bunkerd was particularly fond. When I asked which movie was his favorite, he looked regretful and said that he didn't remember the name. "But look what I can do," he said, and, sitting up straight in his chair, he began to whistle a spooky yet buoyant melody: the theme from Sergio Leone's "For a Few Dollars More." (Later, I burned the track onto a CD for him. The next time I walked into the gym, he jumped up and hugged me. "Thank you for the song! When I hear it, I think I am in my home town!")

    Bunkerd's first professional fight took place in a neighboring village when he was thirteen. He entered the fight without his mother's knowledge; she did not support his boxing aspirations. As soon as the fight began, Bunkerd knew that he could win; he felt stronger and faster than his opponent. But he was careful not to knock him out: boxers got paid ten baht per round, so he hit not so much to cause damage as to score points. At the end of the fifth round, his brother and their friends ran down to congratulate him-only to have the judges score the match in favor of the local fighter. Bunkerd and his friends narrowly escaped a fight with the entire village, and had to walk the five miles back to Chaiyaphum in the dark.

    "I learned knockout is best," Bunkerd said. He challenged the boy to a rematch, and knocked him out in the second round.

    Six years and thirty-one professional bouts later, Bunkerd left home and set out to make his fortune in Bangkok. At the time, the twohundred-mile journey from Chaiyaphum entailed a dangerous tenhour bus ride through the mountains. ("Sometimes the bus falls down the mountain," Bunkerd said.) In Bangkok, Bunkerd found a trainer who put him on a program of remedial drills: all day, every day, for an entire week, Bunkerd stood in front of a mirror repeating a simple jab-cross sequence. He lived in the gym, and ran for an hour every day in a nearby stadium.

    The trainer introduced Bunkerd to a manager, but a month passed, and Bunkerd still hadn't got a fight. The manager, it turned out, wasn't exerting himself on Bunkerd's behalf, because he thought that Bunkerd's arms and legs were too short. Bunkerd refused to be discouraged: "In my heart I say, 'One day I win.' " Bunkerd told both his trainer and his manager that he was going to go back north to work on the rice farm. He packed his bag and set out in the direction of the bus station, but instead he went to Fairtex, a big new Bangkok gym that was starting to produce champions in impressive numbers. Fairtex belonged to a wealthy Bangkok entrepreneur and Muay Thai aficionado, Khun Bunjong Busarakamwongse, better known as Philip Wong, who had made his fortune in T-shirts. (Today, Fairtex is a major manufacturer of Muay Thai gear.) In 1978, Wong became a promoter for Lumpini Stadium, fashioning himself as Muay Thai's ambassador to the West. He recruited European fighters to train and compete in Thailand, and helped get ESPN coverage of Lumpini title fights.

    Bunkerd joined the gym and, deferring to tradition, surrendered his last name. Twenty-five days later, as Bunkerd Fairtex, and weighing a hundred and four pounds, he won the title at Rajadamnern. Even in a sport whose champions are primarily underdogs, Bunkerd stands out as an underdog's underdog. He barely went to school, learned Muay Thai on his own, and didn't undergo a day's formal training until he came to Bangkok, at nineteen-an age when most Thai boxers are already thinking about retirement. Muay Thai champions often retire after about five years (or as soon as they can afford to). As Wijarn Ponlid, a gold medallist at the 2000 Olympics, announced in 2003, "Now I do not need to leave my family to attend the camp and suffer unbearable pain for money." Bunkerd, however, fought at Lumpini Stadium with visible relish for ten straight years, and travelled by bus all over Thailand to fight in local tournaments-an unheard-of practice on the part of a champion. Bunkerd was a "good boy": he prayed to the Buddha and thanked his parents before every fight, saved all his money, and, until he was twenty-nine, never drank a drop of alcohol. Because of his great modesty and his love of fighting, Bunkerd became a popular hero in Thailand. His rise to fame is recounted in a short essay on the Fight and Fitness Web site: "Because of Bunkerd's humble disposition and fierce fighting style, he became known as 'the People's Champion.' "

    One day in class, we were jumping rope to the usual "ill" vocals and "sick" grooves when Bunkerd went to the stereo and put on a new record, and the room was filled with the beautiful cascading waves of a nineteen-eighties synthesizer, interrupted by a gentle human voice. It was impossible not to recognize Bunkerd. He sounded exactly like himself, only singing. (He had made the recording in a California karaoke bar.) Next came a reggae-inflected chorus. I looked around the room, half expecting the boxers to drop their jump ropes and start break-dancing. But everybody was just stolidly hopping up and down, the same as always.

    In 1984, Bunkerd met and married a young Bangkok woman named Noi Duangdon-something of an achievement for a country boy who spoke in the northeastern dialect. Their son, Arphit, nicknamed Boy, was born in 1985. Noi went into labor while Bunkerd was fighting at Lumpini. "On Friday, I win the big fight," he recalled. "On Saturday, I have Boy." They lived at the Fairtex boxing camp, where there was a pet tiger and a tame falcon. Boy says that Bunkerd also kept a rice-field mouse, which used to follow him when he went jogging.

    Today, Boy is a twenty-year-old amateur fighter, known for his talent and his artistic temperament: he is said to be more interested in technique than in winning, and has had mixed success in the ring. (Owing to a foot injury, he took the past year off and worked as a cook at a pub a few blocks from the gym.) Boy is three inches taller than his father, with an equally infectious smile, and a taste for baggy cargo pants, which he wears slung impossibly low over his boxing trunks, the waist at his knees. Boy began studying Muay Thai with his father at the age of three, and fought his first amateur fight when he was five, against a much larger boy, who was nine.

    When, in 1993, Philip Wong decided to open a Fairtex camp in America, he chose a suburb of Phoenix as the location, and recruited Bunkerd as the head trainer. At the time, Bunkerd had an English vocabulary of three words: "yes," "O.K.," and "hello." Bunkerd's first American student was Chris Cariaso, a twelve-year-old sports fanatic who lived in the area. It was Cariaso who, while doing situps, first taught Bunkerd to count in English. The two became "very close, like father and son." Cariaso slept in the gym and paid his tuition by cleaning the bathrooms.

    By 1995, Bunkerd had saved enough money to bring his wife and son to Arizona. But the camp was losing money, and soon failed. After Fairtex Arizona closed, Wong sent Bunkerd to Carmel, Indiana, near Indianapolis, to teach Muay Thai at a local martial-arts gym. (Noi and Boy stayed behind in Arizona.) Bunkerd says that he was the only Thai person in all Carmel, and he was lonely and bored. There was nobody to train with, and in the winter he resorted to kicking snow banks for practice.

    The following year, a new Fairtex gym opened in San Francisco, under the direction of a champion middleweight, Alex Gong, who also held a business degree from San Francisco State University. Bunkerd was hired as the head trainer, and in 1998 he won the I.S.K.A. world championship. He retired officially in 2001, at the age of thirty-nine, with a World Muay Thai Association Lifetime Achievement Award and about three hundred and fifty professional fights to his credit-he says that he stopped counting at three hundred. Bunkerd and Noi divorced shortly after their arrival in California, and two years later Bunkerd married one of his students, a hair stylist named Maureen McGrath. They have two sons: Louie, who is four, and Wilson, who is three.

    Fairtex San Francisco prospered, until one afternoon in August, 2003, when a driver hit Gong's parked car outside the gym. Gong ran outside to confront the man, who turned out to be a paroled felon. He pulled out a gun and shot Gong through the heart. In the ensuing administrative turmoil, Bunkerd decided to realize his dream of opening his own gym, and brought in Cariaso as his partner. It was difficult for Bunkerd to break ranks-as Maureen puts it, there is "sort of a caste system in Thailand, and Bunkerd thought of himself as a worker." But Cariaso and Maureen backed him up, and Fight and Fitness opened in the spring of 2004. The gym, which, according to the Web site, possesses "a feeling of positivism," has flourished, and an eighthundred-square-foot expansion has just been completed -the second in a little more than a year. There are six instructors and about three hundred students.

    Cariaso is just an inch taller than Bunkerd, with big, serious eyes. He is twenty-four but looks younger, and has the solemn boyishness of an orphan in an old movie. (I once overheard him debating whether to enter a fight at a hundred and thirty or a hundred and thirty-five pounds-"If I fight at a hundred and thirty-five pounds, I can go to the weigh-in eating a sandwich," he said, his tone implying that this would be the height of decadence.) Cariaso owns two rehabilitated pit bulls, and volunteers for an organization called One at a Time Pet Rescue. Every month, he e-mails all the gym members, urging them to adopt some beleaguered mutt. In his fight poster, he resembles one of his animal proteges: he looks out with raccoonlike eyes; his raised hands, in wraps but no gloves, resemble bandaged paws.

    Cariaso also teaches standard boxing five days a week, along with a retired pro named Paris Alexander. During his classes, Alexander blasts Marvin Gaye on the stereo, stomps in circles, waves his fists, and shouts laryngitically: "One, two! We're all sensitive people! I said jab!" In the course of his professional career, he fought six world champions, including Oscar De La Hoya. "I didn't win, but I fought them all," he told me reflectively. "Yeah, I'm oh-for-six with those guys."

    In March, when Bunkerd and Cariaso threw a party to celebrate the gym's first anniversary, the positivism was so thick you could cut it with a knife. The boxers had brought some of their favorite things: several pounds of raw cauliflower, Michael Jackson's "Ultimate Collection," a strobe light, a keg of beer, a big white dog (one of Cariaso's rescues), and a vat each of lemon cupcakes and barbecued spare ribs. Bunkerd, who was wearing a black beret and an earring, started a line dance: we were all supposed to shimmy closer and closer to the floor. He spent most of the evening a few inches from the floor-perhaps, I thought, to get a better quad workout. A bit later, Alexander started to dance, going lower and lower, until he, too, was barely hovering above the floor. It was as in the old days of Thai boxing, when each fighter would perform a ceremonial dance called a ram muay, and you could tell from the style of the ram muay which region and camp he came from.

    Not long after the party, I saw Cariaso fight in the livestock pavilion of a disused fairground in Fresno. When his entrance music started playing, he appeared, but instead of marching to the ring he just stood there in the aisle holding up one bandaged hand.

    "Gloves, gloves," people began murmuring, and in fact Cariaso didn't have any-he ended up using the gloves from the previous fight.

    During the fight, Bunkerd hung off the ropes, as if the ring were a boat and he didn't have a ticket. He was wearing a beret and expressionlessly chewing gum. Cariaso was a good six inches shorter than his opponent, whom he nevertheless managed to kick in the jaw early in the second round. The opponent looked sheepish and started spitting blood into a bucket: his jaw was broken, a T.K.O. for Cariaso. Bunkerd's face lit up, and he jumped into the ring and picked Cariaso up and waved him around.

    In June, Cariaso went professional. He won his first fight, at the HP Pavilion, in San Jose, among flashing L.E.D. signs announcing the upcoming 50 Cent "Anger Management Tour."

    Shortly after Cariaso's professional debut, Bunkerd made a surprising announcement: he was coming out of retirement. On August 20th, in New York, he would fight the flyweight championship against a thirty-two-year-old Polish boxer named Mariusz Cieslinski.

    "Where in New York?" I asked.

    "Man. Hat. Tan," Bunkerd replied.

    When I asked what had prompted this, Bunkerd exclaimed, "Because I love to fight!"

    On the evening of the fight, I took a bus to Penn Station and made my way to the Hammerstein Ballroom. The event had been dismally publicized and the place was less than half full, with maybe a thousand people in attendance. Demographic groups represented in the audience included hip-hop-influenced, text-messaging Hispanic and Asian couples; middle-aged Thai men; white couples in sweatshirts and jeans; black men in dark glasses and silk shirts; Russians from Borodin's Gym, in Brooklyn; and Cieslinski fans from Poland.

    The preliminary rounds featured local amateur fighters; perhaps the most charitable thing you could say about them was that they were good at looking as if they were not well versed in the lethal art of Thai boxing. The first fight that seemed to generate any audience interest was between the two-hundred-and-thirty-pound Jarrell (the Gorilla) Miller and the twohundred-pound Zadie Morris. The Gorilla looked like a turn-of-the-century circus strongman, in a tight sleeveless jersey and short shorts that exposed his quivering thighs. Morris danced in circles around the Gorilla; he was faster and more skilled, and won the first round, but, through sheer perseverance, the Gorilla prevailed. When the judges announced their decision, the Gorilla got so excited that he burst into applause, bowed, and hopped up and down.

    Soon, the m.c. announced the first professional match: Mohamad (Moe) Fawzy versus Moti (the Hebrew Hammer) Horenstein. The Hebrew Hammer was something of a cult figure: a three-year veteran of the Israeli Special Forces, a fighter, and the proprietor of a martial-arts academy in Miami, specializing in a variant of the Israeli self-defense technique known as Krav Maga.

    The fight began, and Horenstein's cornermen yelled at him in Hebrew and English: "Hisardut! Hisardut!" Then: "Think, Moti! Think, think!" He did appear to be thinking: he kept clinching Fawzy and absently punching him in the head, ejecting and reabsorbing his own mouth guard with a disaffected expression. At some point, Fawzy managed to knock Horenstein down, then he tripped over him and fell out of the ring. He briefly hung over the judges' table, suspended by the ropes, like a drunk in a hammock. Finally, two of the judges got up and pushed him back in. Horenstein went in for a clinch and was visibly drooling on Fawzy's shoulder. The judges called a tie.

    When the sweeping, beautiful cascade of electric synthesizers filled the hall, I realized that Bunkerd had chosen his karaoke recording as his entrance music. A hundred-and-twenty-eight-pound, hollow-cheeked Bunkerd appeared in a cloud of blue smoke. He wore a green mongkon and a tense smile. Then Cieslinski made his entrance, in a droopy red satin robe and droopy red shorts. He was four inches taller than Bunkerd and weighed a hundred and twenty-nine pounds, with a sullen and anxious, though not unsympathetic, expression. He took off his robe and jogged in place. Bunkerd stood facing his corner post, palms together and hands raised, silently moving his lips.

    The bell rang, and Cieslinski assumed the conservative posture of one who has decided to do the bare minimum in order to win on points. He kept backing off, beyond Bunkerd's reach, firing an occasional punch. Bunkerd tried to move in for a clinch; twice, Cieslinski tripped him and he fell to the mat. The only lively moment in the entire first round was when Cieslinski was backing away from Bunkerd, and Bunkerd ran after him and kicked him in the leg.

    I was horrified when the first bell rang: Bunkerd had done next to nothing, and Cieslinski, who had done next to next to nothing, was ahead. A bikini-clad, breast-enhanced ring girl announced the second round, and the fight continued with a kind of grim inexorability. During a clinch in the second round, the fighters' heads collided. Bunkerd broke his nose, and Cieslinski got a cut on his head. Soon, both fighters were covered with blood. The audience was full of Cieslinski fans, who began to chant, "Mariusz, Mariusz." Bunkerd's fans, for the most part, regarded the ring with silent, heavy-hearted fixity, like the audience at a play with an unhappy ending. The only exceptions were a tall man in a powder-blue shirt and powder-blue pants, who was shouting advice in Portuguese, and a woman in boots and a miniskirt, with hawklike features and waist-length hair. "Bun-kerd!" she yelled over and over, in a hoarse, abject voice.

    "What is this Bunkerd?" a boy behind me said. "**** Bunkerd. It's over, finished."

    The rest of the match went by in clinches, with Cieslinski getting in some punches and Bunkerd getting in some knees. They grappled, and grabbed each other's head, and there was blood on their faces, their bodies, their gloves, the canvas. The fight dragged on for the full five rounds, and the decision went to the judges. One of them scored it a tie, but the other two ruled in favor of Cieslinski.

    Bunkerd hopped down from the ring and was hugged by a great number of people; every now and then you could see his stunned, mournful face over someone's shoulder.

    I didn't get back to the gym until one sunny day late in September. Bunkerd was sitting at the computer playing solitaire, round-faced and cheerful. He explained that the problem had been weight loss. The week before the fight, he'd had to lose seventeen pounds. The fight was on a Saturday, and at Thursday's weigh-in he didn't make weight. He didn't eat anything on Friday, and spent most of the day in the sauna, and on Saturday he woke up dizzy and weak. Could there be a more melancholy scene: Bunkerd all alone in a sauna in New York City, trying to become even smaller?

    At the fight, I had taken a photograph of Bunkerd's ring entrance. In it, he is walking with a light, purposeful step, and appears to be about to skip right out of the picture. You can almost tell that his recording is playing in the background. When I gave him a copy of the photograph, he accepted it cautiously and held it up to his eyes.

    "Thank you," he said. A smile lit up his face: "Oh-it's me."

  2. #2

    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    San Antonio, TX
    MT (no, not "empty")
    Yes, i realize that article was long as **** (6733 words according to Lexis/Nexis-damn verbose east cost elitists) but MT fans should find it pretty interesting.

  3. #3
    Judah Maccabee's Avatar
    Join Date
    Sep 2004
    Krav / (Kick)Boxing / BJJ
    Muay Thai was brought to the United States in 1968 by a retired Thai fighter named Surachai Sirisute. He opened a training camp in his back yard in Pomona, California, where his pupils included several Hell's Angels. Sirisute became a guru in the martial-arts community, worked with members of the Dallas Cowboys, the F.B.I., and the C.I.A., and was instrumental in the rise of Muay Thai in America throughout the seventies and eighties.

    The first professional American Muay Thai championship was held in Los Angeles in 1974, under the designation of "full-contact karate." The main American sanctioning organizations-the International Sport Kickboxing Association (I.S.K.A.) and the U.S. Muay Thai Association (U.S.M.T.A.)-were established in the eighties and nineties. Today, there are four or five hundred fighters on the professional Muay Thai circuit in the United States-about ten per cent of them women-and thousands of amateurs.
    I never knew that.

    Thank you.

    *reps you*

  4. #4
    Sophist's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Judo, BJJ
    Thank you. That was an interesting article.

  5. #5

    Join Date
    May 2003
    I remember seeing the second ISKA fight wth the Belgian. Bunkerd was was all business in the ring, but he was also polite and gracious before and after the fight. Quite a refreshing change from the "attitude" that shows up in a lot of sports nowadays.

    It's good to know he's doing pretty well for himself at his own gym.

  6. #6

    Join Date
    Nov 2005
    Austin, TX
    Very interesting read. Thanks.


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