How Thailand's Jails Became Fight Clubs
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Credit: Photograph by Patrick Brown
For Mark Sayer, the American scheduled to fight Hong-Mo, the journey to Klong Prem began almost two decades ago, in the bedroom of his Texas home. It was there that Sayer stumbled across an advertisement in the back pages of Black Belt magazine for a book called Thai Boxing Dynamite: The Explosive Art of Muay Thai. Sayer, then a freshman in high school, bought the book and devoured it in a day.

He had tried boxing and tae kwon do, but now he made up his mind that his future lay in muay Thai. "I was drawn to the grittiness of it," says Sayer, who has the buzzed hair and unyielding gaze of a soldier. "The full-contact nature. And the fact that there was this whole culture surrounding the sport."

Muay Thai is known as the "science of eight limbs," a reference to the legal contact points: feet, knees, elbows, fists. As in traditional boxing, the action takes place in a square canvas ring, bounded by extra-strong rope, which the wiliest fighters learn to use to their advantage, drawing their opponents back into it as if it were a spiderweb or bouncing off it to launch a counterattack. Eye-gouging, head-butting, and crotch shots aren't allowed. Just about everything else is.

With the help of his father, a former Navy sailor and an amateur boxer, Sayer found a local gym run by a French émigré who taught muay Thai. Sayer was the youngest member there by several years. Most of the other guys, he recalls, were "bar fighters and rough dudes"; one of them once showed up with a prison tracking device on his ankle.

His first fight took place at a Thai temple in Houston. His opponent had 10 years on him, but Sayer soundly beat him. Afterward, bruised and bleeding but exhilarated, he was pulled aside by the referee. "Someday," said the ref, who owned a nearby Thai restaurant, "when you're 18, you'll come to Thailand and then you will really fight."

It took a little longer than that. After high school, Sayer spent five years at the United States Merchant Marine Academy in New York. He graduated in 2006 and spent the next seven years with various companies crisscrossing the globe: Brazil, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Ghana. During his off-weeks, he lifted weights and trained at gyms. He was getting older, but he was still strong and his reflexes hadn't dulled. Along the way, he fought in amateur muay Thai bouts and won most of them.

In 2013, after becoming certified to oversee a large commercial vessel, Sayer decided it was time to pause his career and pursue his dream. Last June, he hopped a flight to Bangkok, the muay Thai capital of the world, in order to fight as a professional. "I'm 32," he says. "I figure that, for a little while, my career can wait. For me, there's a short window of opportunity left to do muay Thai. This is about proving something to myself."

Thailand is full of gyms that cater to Western journeymen, but Sayer had his heart set on the well-respected Sitsongpeenong boxing gym, in the eastern suburbs of Bangkok. Most of the guys at Sitsongpeenong are Thai, but there are some farang, or foreigners, too – Westerners determined to make a name in the sport. In mid-September, his trainer relayed the good news: Sayer had been offered a fight – his first in Thailand. The purse was 5,000 baht, the same amount inmates were offered.

It was only when Sayer showed up at the prison for the press conference, a week before the fight, that he realized this was no ordinary match. "I remember following these prison guards out into the main yard and just trying to keep my game face on," Sayer recalls. By the time he was introduced to Hong-Mo, Sayer had decided that no matter how ludicrous the whole scenario was, it was too late to back out.

Sayer didn't ask what crime his opponent had committed. "When you fight someone, even if you don't actually know him, a type of bond is formed," he says. "For all I know, this guy could be a rapist. He could be using this fight to get out of prison. Maybe he's a gang leader. Maybe he's pulling strings from the inside. It's better not to know."

That night, Sayer fired up his laptop and posted a message to his Facebook wall. "We've all got our definitions of success," he wrote. "My friends back home are having kids, making money. Me? I'm participating in live blood sport in a Bangkok prison."