In A Nutshell
Muay thai is the national sport of Thailand, but it’s not just adults who duke it out in the ring. Children boxers are a big draw and attract huge crowds of gamblers. While these matches are hard on their bodies, the kids use their winnings to support their families and pay the bills. Needless to say, it’s pretty controversial.
The Whole Bushel
Ever seen a Tony Jaa movie or an MMA match? Then you’re probably familiar with muay thai, the brutally effective combat sport that utilizes elbows, knees, punches, and kicks. Originating in Thailand, “the art of eight limbs” has been around since the 12th century. When practiced by mature martial artists, it’s a graceful display of fluidity, explosiveness, and power. However, the national sport of Thailand has a dark side that involves possibly up to 100,000 of the country’s poorest kids.
Child boxers are wildly popular in the Land of Smiles. These boys and girls are all under 15, many as young as seven. Despite their youth, they follow an intense training regimen, running in the morning and exercising during the day. Their matches are often held at events like temple fairs and fundraisers, and they take place nearly every night of the week. Unlike taekwondo or karate sparring matches, these kids don’t wear any kind of protective gear other than gloves. For five three-minute rounds, these juvenile gladiators land kicks and throw elbows, all while the crowd shouts, cheers, and bets on the winners. Just like adults, kids fight until the time is up or their opponent is unconscious on the canvas. The matches might be pint-sized, but they’re unbelievably intense. Not only are these kids fighting for the honor of their gyms, they’re fighting for their families and their futures.
Most of these children come from impoverished families that have barely enough money for food and clothing. The muay thai matches offer a way for these kids to support their loved ones. They can win $25 to $50 per fight, and their families can win even more by betting on the winners. These kids use their prize money to put themselves and their siblings through school and pay the monthly bills. In some households, they’re the real breadwinners. Not only that, these boxing matches offer escape from poverty into the world of professional sports. Bangkok trainers regularly attend these events, scouting for kids with talent. If fighters can prove they have what it takes, they can make it to the big time and earn up to $40,000 a year. It’s every little boxer’s dream.
However, all those fists to the face take their toll. It’s not unknown for kids to have seizures in the middle of the ring or vomit in the middle of a fight. Sometimes, they’re forced to keep on going even if they’re begging their coaches to throw in the towel. Worried about their health, a team of researchers recently did a study on Thailand’s child boxers, giving brain scans to 100 young pugilists. To their horror, scientists noted the brains looked like they belonged to car accident victims. They also observed large amounts of iron, indicative of cerebral hemorrhages. However, there isn’t a lot they can do other than offer treatment. In 1999, the Foundation for Child Rights Protection Centre in Bangkok demanded the Thai government outlaw these events, but the government refused. Proponents of child boxing argued the economies of poor communities across Thailand would crumble if kids couldn’t bring home prize money for their families. These matches also keep children out of gangs, sweat shops or, even worse, Bangkok’s red light district. It’s a bad situation. On one hand, these fights provide a chance for a better life. On the other, these little boys and girls are still developing physically. One too many knees to the face could destroy their futures. There’s no easy answer, and while human rights groups protest, families place bets, and the government stands idle, the kids keep slugging it out in the ring.
Show Me The Proof
NPR: As Gamblers Gather, Thailand’s Child Boxers Slug It Out
ABC News: Thailand’s Child Boxers Compete in Brutal Fights for Money, Better Future
Die Kampfkinder — Sandra Hoyn (photo gallery of Thai child fighters and lifestyle)