How Thailand's Jails Became Fight Clubs
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Credit: Photograph by Patrick Brown
From the outside, the whole thing seems a bit outlandish. But the Thai penal system has a long history of organizing sporting events, from soccer and basketball tournaments to weightlifting competitions, and – in a process that is as seemingly arbitrary as it is opaque – of occasionally dishing out sentence reductions to the athletes viewed as bringing honor to their country. In the 1980s, when Thai authorities, as part of an effort to modernize the penal system, introduced a program called Sports Behind Bars, muay Thai – "Thai boxing" – was one of the first activities offered. Since then, a handful of prisoners have managed to parlay their skill into an early release. In 2007, the imprisoned drug dealer Siriporn Taweesuk beat a Japanese boxer for the World Boxing Council light-flyweight title in a match held at Klong Prem. Not long afterward, she was released, having achieved, in the words of one Thai official, "glory for Thailand." And that same year, Amnat Ruenroeng, a muay Thai veteran and convicted robber serving 15 years at Bangkok's Thonburi prison, was pardoned after winning a national title in boxing. Ruenroeng later went on to compete for Thailand's boxing squad in the Beijing Olympics.

In 2012, Kirill Sokur, a 35-year-old Estonian émigré and fight promoter, helped devise a new breed of behind-bars event: one that would match up, for the first time, Thai inmates and Western pros. He called his event Prison Fight and came up with the suitably catchy Battle for Freedom slogan. Sokur offered prison officials a deal: He'd provide the ring and the Western fighters and drum up attention from local newspapers and TV stations. The matches would be dubbed "charity events" – a nod to the fact that rehabilitated prisoners could earn their freedom through battle – which would make the prison brass look good. In return, Sokur would film the fights with an eye toward eventually selling DVDs or perhaps producing some kind of reality show. Working with funding from an undisclosed source, Sokur has poured thousands of dollars into his venture in the hopes of finding a ready audience: Buoyed by the UFC's worldwide success, the international market for fight videos has soared in recent years to become an annual multimillion-dollar industry.

"I thought, You could have a murderer on one side and a professional on the other," Sokur explains. "I knew it would be exciting for people. If a man is a killer outside the ring – if he's learned to kill – think about what might happen inside the ring!"

The first three Prison Fights were held in early 2013 at Klong Pai prison, a medium-security complex in the Nakhon Ratchasima province, 100 miles north of Bangkok. Although two-time boxing champion Oh Singwancha won his freedom at a Prison Fight muay Thai bout, the events did not generate the kind of media coverage Sokur had hoped for. He decided to aim bigger: a fight at Klong Prem, in the capital, with several camera crews on hand, as well as a punk rock band and at least one well-known Thai socialite. "This will be our breakthrough," Sokur says the day before the fight. "The biggest show, the biggest stage."