How Thailand's Jails Became Fight Clubs
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Credit: Photograph by Patrick Brown
Thub Hong-Mo grew up more than 9,000 miles from Mark Sayer, in one of the low-slung, impoverished suburbs that ring Bangkok. Like many poor boys in Thailand, he found solace in the sport of muay Thai. He was an explosive fighter, with strong hands and a stronger clinch, and he cultivated a trademark leer, which he wore even when he was being knocked around the ring. He found that it unnerved his opponents.

By the time he was 18, he'd racked up a decent record. He debated pursuing a pro career but instead accepted an offer to work as a debt collector for a gang in the Nana Plaza section of Bangkok, a hive of brothels and go-go clubs with the densest concentration of sex workers in the world. One evening in 2009, Hong-Mo was out with a few friends at a Bangkok nightclub. A scuffle turned into a melee, and Hong-Mo pulled a knife with a six-inch blade from his jacket pocket. "It was self-defense," he says, running his hand through his high pompadour. "I knew that if I didn't do it, he would do it to me."

The judge didn't buy that argument, and a few weeks after the stabbing, Hong-Mo reported to Klong Prem. He spent his first few months adapting to the indignities of prison life. He shares a 5-by-10-foot cell with four other inmates. There are no beds. They sleep on the floor, on blue foam mats. Space is so tight that Hong-Mo can feel their breath on his neck as he lies awake at night, listening to the cockroaches cascade down the walls in platoons. Every morning at 6 am, the cell door swings open; every afternoon at five it rolls shut.

The Prison Fight offer came as a relief. "It gave me something to look forward to, to put my mind on," Hong-Mo says.

Under the tutelage of Nikon Jangthinpha, a retired gangster imprisoned for triple homicide, Hong-Mo spent six hours a day in the prison's makeshift gym, which is fitted out with an old canvas ring and two leather heavy bags. In the mornings, he jumped rope, jogged, and shadowboxed; in the afternoons, he hit the bags and sparred with other inmates.

"I watched the transformation myself," says Jangthinpha. "Maybe at first he loses his breath, he has a little extra flesh around his stomach. Now he is ready, he is focused, he is strong."

Hong-Mo pauses when asked what he thought about the possibility of a pardon: "I try not to think about that. I think only about the fight." He shrugs and looks skyward, as if it is out of his hands.