How Thailand's Jails Became Fight Clubs
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Credit: Photograph by Patrick Brown
Fight day dawns clammy and gray, with a low cloud cover that hangs over Klong Prem, sealing the humidity inside. Mark Sayer has a plan, and it is to not get reckless or overeager. "Of course," he allows, "if I see the kill, I'm going to go for it." When Hong-Mo enters the ring, his eyes remain fixed on Sayer. He looks hungry. He looks possessed.

The first round goes poorly for Sayer. Hong-Mo manages to tie him up in a clinch. Using his waist for torque, the Thai drops Sayer hard onto the canvas. While they're both down there, he grinds his knee into Sayer's solar plexus. It's a classic cheap shot – but the judges, from down at their table, aren't the wiser for it. Two minutes in, Hong-Mo connects with a kick to Sayer's left side. The bruise rises quickly, the shade of an overripe eggplant.

The bell rings, and Sayer slowly totters back to his corner for water and an ice compress. He knows that the fight is slipping away. "I need to find a way to win," he says. "That's all."

As soon as the second round commences, Hong-Mo seems to sense that something has changed in Sayer. Instead of peppering him with punches and kicks, Hong-Mo slides backward in stutter steps. The first good punch from Sayer is a jab, and it catches Hong-Mo on the side of the head. Next, a cross that slaps into his chin. A thin line of blood trickles down Hong-Mo's face toward his neck. Sayer's growing confidence is palpable – in the number of punches he throws, in the way he is wielding his weight to his advantage.

In the third round, with just a minute left in the fight, Hong-Mo drops his guard – this time not to tease Sayer but because he is clearly fatigued. Sayer pounces. His right hand sinks deep into Hong-Mo's cheek, smushing his face into a cartoon mask of surprise. Hong-Mo has enough instinct to clinch. Sayer steers him back into the ropes and, steadying his opponent with one hand, nails him in the face with the other.

The referee darts between the fighters, disentangling them, and the match is over. To Sayer's surprise, the decision is unanimous: All three judges score the fight in favor of Hong-Mo. Standing ringside, Sayer claims the ref snatched Hong-Mo from the jaws of ignominious defeat: Typically, fighters are separated only when all movement has stopped. "I was punching him," Sayer says. "I think that's movement."

Despite the loss, which he chalks up to "home field advantage," Sayer is gleeful. He believes that he gave out more punches than he took, and in his heart, that's enough to make him a winner.

Hong-Mo stands next to the referee, his nose swollen to the shape and hue of a cherry; a sheen of blood coats his teeth. He sways uneasily. "It was a big challenge," he admits. "But I fought like a warrior."

A prison guard arrives to march Hong-Mo back to his cellblock. A jubilant knot of fellow inmates awaits him there – he is the closest thing the prison has to a genuine celebrity. But the victory party is short-lived. That night, he is again slumped on the tiled floor of his tiny cell.

In past Prison Fights, news of sentence reductions has come quickly – Chalernpol Sawangsuk, an inmate competitor in the third event, was released shortly after his July victory over British professional muay Thai fighter Arran Burton. This time around, the process takes longer, due in part to the wave of violent anti-government protests that begins sweeping over Thailand in November. Hong-Mo's and Moo's sentence reviews are pushed back to April. In the meantime, the two prisoners must wait.

A few days after the fight, Mark Sayer sits in a sparsely decorated room he rents at the Sitsongpeenong gym. Against one wall is his sparring gear – shin guards, headgear – and on his bedside table, a book by Bill Bryson. Nearby is a grid of Post-its inscribed with various English phrases – "Could you please shut the door for me?" and "Speak more slowly, please" – and on the back, the Thai equivalents.

Despite his initial joy, he now finds the Klong Prem experience troubling. "I was enjoying the admiration of the crowd," Sayer says. "But I'm in this sea of convicts, who are patting me on the back and saying, 'Good job.' Some of them probably deserve to be where they are. And I was fighting someone who was fighting for his last shred of dignity. As a competitor, you kind of block that stuff out. But as a man, you have empathy."

In late December, Sayer is coming off his second fight in Thailand, at an arena in Pattaya. He's won by knockout – "Left hook to the jaw, overhand right to the back of the skull," he writes in an email – and he's in a contemplative mood. "I was thinking about the moment I passed my chief mate/captain's exams. I was like, 'OK, you accomplished this; now it's time to win a fight before you're too old....' I quit a six-figure job, gave up my awesome apartment, and now I've done exactly what I said I would do. It feels good." Now it is time to come home.