How Thailand's Jails Became Fight Clubs
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Credit: Photograph by Patrick Brown

The October afternoon before he is to fight the American, Thub Hong-Mo sits cross-legged on the floor of his Bangkok prison cell, watching soap operas on an old Chinese TV set. It is a rare moment of respite for the 30-year-old, who has spent the past two months – seven days a week, six hours a day – working out relentlessly in the prison boxing gym. His lanky frame is nothing but raw muscle and sinew; his shins are knotted with scar tissue. Across his chest is a vibrant tapestry of tattoos: shimmering fish scales, a pair of demons, and a leering dragon. The dragon, he explains through a translator, is a recent addition, commemorating what he calls his "long journey" in one of the most notorious prisons in Thailand.

Four years ago, Hong-Mo was found guilty of stabbing a man to death in a Bangkok nightclub. He is now serving 35 years at Klong Prem prison. Most inmates here are career criminals, with sentences of at least a decade – rapists, gangsters, murderers. It's where you go, as one lifer puts it, "when they've decided that they never want to see you again."

Hong-Mo had no reason to think he'd leave this place until he was well into middle age. Then last July, prison authorities approached him with a proposal: Fight against a Western professional in a martial-arts match, to be held in the yard at Klong Prem, and they promised to put 5,000 baht, or $150, in his commissary account. If he acquits himself admirably, they suggested, they may even cut a few years off his sentence.

The discipline: Muay Thai, a balletic but bloody commercial sport that blends the basics of boxing – jab, cross, uppercut – with kicks, knees, elbows, and clinches. The event is being organized and recorded by a brash young Estonian promoter with a Barnum-ish flair for spectacle, who hopes to cash in on the growing international market for fight DVDs. Billed as the Battle for Freedom, it is to consist of seven matches, each pitting a Klong Prem inmate against a Westerner. (That the competitors will come from Europe and the U.S. – where Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC] pros like Anderson Silva have popularized the sport and most major cities have muay Thai gyms – will only add to the spectacle.) Although the crowd will consist solely of fellow inmates, the promoter hopes to eventually reach a much larger audience through DVD sales.

Like many inmates, Hong-Mo grew up practicing muay Thai; for a time, he even fought semiprofessionally. He eagerly agreed to participate, as did one of his cell mates, a drug trafficker named Wuttipong Korsanthiet, 27, who goes by the nickname Moo, or "pig." "In prison you can lose something of yourself if you're not careful," Hong-Mo says. "For me, the fight is about proving to myself that I'm still a person. That I still have pride."

Hong-Mo is preparing to face Mark Sayer, a 32-year-old brawler from the suburbs of Houston who'll be fighting for the first time in Thailand – the epicenter of muay Thai. Moo is matched against Stephen Meleady, an unranked Dubliner with a professional record of 43 wins and 31 losses.

"Tomorrow I will win," Moo says. "It's in my blood." As if to prove it, he drops into his fighting stance, executes a flurry of rabbit punches, and then spins his body and knocks an elbow into his imaginary opponent's face.

Still seated on the cell floor, Hong-Mo shakes his head. "I will let the victory speak for me," he says.