MMA in the Land of Muay Thai

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It seems only appropriate to move forward from the last post on child boxing into the Mixed Martial Arts fights happening in and around the Thai capital. I got to spend some time with a few MMA champions and upcoming Thai fighters, as well as attend some Muay Thai training and other martial arts disciplines over the course of a few days while on assignment with The New York Times. These MMA fights mean a bit more in Thailand, as the country has always been over-protective of traditional Muay Thai fighting. And for a while, there was fear that an MMA invasion would cripple the homegrown sport. Of course, it turns out that fear was completely unfounded. If anything, the two will exist in total and complete harmony. Muay Thai is an integral part of MMA fighting, and locals in Bangkok and other areas of the country seem proud to see these Thai fighters competing on a more international stage. As well they should be. Anyway. It was a great shoot. Here are a few images and outtakes. Until next time.

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Child Boxing in Thailand

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This was a tough assignment, photographing child boxers in the poor outskirts of Bangkok. Not tough because of access or subject matter or anything like that. Tough in a different way. Tough showing what it was really like without falling into classic cliches of poor youths quite literally fighting to survive in a harsh unforgiving environment. Because while it was certainly that to a certain extent, it was also so much more. Muay Thai is for all intents and purposes a sacred sport and art in Thailand: graceful and disciplined and beautiful and savage, much like the country itself. It’s an honor to fight, and while it attracts poor youths much more so than those born with gilded golden spoons in their mouths, it isn’t only for their dreams of making it big and getting out and all those other big words and phrases that have captured the world’s imagination on more than just a few occasions. It’s also done out of the pure love, the sheer joy, the absolute simplicity of it all. Muay Thai is Thailand as much as anything else. From youths onwards. And so really, this is just the beginning.

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A portrait of Boonsong Samrong outside of his home and gym in Rayong, Thailand.
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The crowd and gamblers at Thepprasit Boxing Stadium in Pattaya, Thailand.
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Tearsheets | Child Boxing in Thailand

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This past month, I was contacted by Esquire in Singapore to shoot a feature on child boxing in the countryside outside of Bangkok, Thailand. The writer and I spent two days following different families a few hours outside of the capital. We watched as the kids trained and fought, but also as they just hung out with their relatives, all of whom lived in poor rural communities, and were simply trying to make ends meet in whatever ways they could. But there was pride there as well. In these kids, in these families. Muay Thai, the national sport of Thailand, can be everything to some of these children. It’s not fighting. It’s more than that. Much more. It’s an escape, mentally and physically. It’s growth. It’s beauty. It’s intellect. And above all else, it’s discipline. And everything else.

Muay Thai in Klong Prem Prison

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Legend has it that in 1767 when Thailand’s then-capital of Ayutaya was captured by the Burmese and thousands of Thai soldiers were incarcerated, the prisoners were made to fight against Burmese boxing champions for the entertainment of the king. One Thai soldier fought his way to the top and so impressed the Burmese king that he was granted his freedom.

Now the Prison Fight organization, working with Thailand’s Department of Corrections, is taking this fighting spirit and applying it in a modern context—allowing Thai inmates a chance to fight for their freedom. Literally. Through an ongoing series of planned events, the charity organization is giving Thai prisoners a go at redemption through this traditional martial art. There are cash prizes and a chance for reduced sentencing for even those convicted of violent crimes.

Of course, to be eligible for the program you need to meet several prior qualifications and be in good standing within the penitentiary. So really the reduced sentencing comes down to good old good behavior. But there are other benefits as well. The prisoners get a chance to train and stay healthy and alleviate the inevitable, crushing boredom of a life behind bars.

I had the opportunity to visit Klong Prem prison in Bangkok, Thailand for an afternoon last week. The prison is one of a handful participating in the program. I was shown around the cells and allowed to speak with some inmates about Prison Fight and Muay Thai in general. It’s a fascinating if convoluted story. And one that I’m only beginning to explore. Here are just a few photos from within the prison walls.

To see a larger edit of the images, please visit my WEBSITE.

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