BANGKOK • Training in masks and standing 2m apart, Thailand’s professional Muay Thai fighters are battling a new reality – shuttered gyms and cancelled events after the coronavirus pandemic left them suddenly out of work.
Muay Thai is a no-holds barred combat sport that employs striking techniques via shins, knees and elbows.
But with strict social distancing rules in place to stem the spread of Covid-19, former world champion Sarawut Prohmsut can now only feint while a sparring partner jabs at him from distance during training.
“How can you box in these conditions? We no longer have any strong sensations, no adrenaline,” he told Agence France-Presse at the Luktupfah Muay Thai gym.
The 23-year-old used to earn 20,000 to 30,000 baht (S$1,300) a month from tournaments, with most of it being remitted home to support his family.
The crisis has, however, hit the sport hard, with stadiums the first to close after a cluster of infections was discovered at one large-scale event in early March.
Without any income and bouts cancelled, many fighters have returned to their home provinces where training has stalled.
“Overnight, everything stopped,” says Somiong, a 24-year-old ethnic Karen boxer who returned to Kanchanaburi after the stadium ban.
He and Sarawut have joined millions who are out of work because of the virus, which has ravaged the country’s tourism, entertainment, and food and beverage industries.
While the Thai government has promised a monthly cash handout of 5,000 baht to affected workers, boxers without a specific licence are not eligible for the aid.
On the uncertainty the contagion has wrought, Jade Sisisompan, who works for the World Muay Thai Organisation and is also the co-owner of Luktupfah gym, added: “It can quickly become catastrophic.
“Most have been fighting since they were children and can do nothing else.”
Tournaments in Bangkok are often high-stakes spectacles, drawing hundreds to cheer – and bet – on prospective winners fighting in brightly lit rings.
However, since hundreds of infections were traced back to a bout at Lumpinee Stadium – a celebrity host, politicians and army officials were among high-profile attendees to test positive for Covid-19 – the sport has ground to a halt.
The impact of the shutdown was immediate for Somiong, who used to train seven hours a day. Like most professional fighters in Thailand, the ring has served as a way out of poverty for him and his family since he started training at 11.
Somiong, however, does not have Thai citizenship and will not qualify for government assistance.
“Now I can’t help my parents with money,” he told AFP as he helped his mother harvest coriander back home. “It plays a lot on my mind.”
There have been some fighters in the community who are attempting to help their peers through a difficult time.
Former world champion Samart Payakaroon has been offering free online Muay Thai lessons for the past two weeks, not only to fill the void but also to prevent fighters from “regressing in their training”.
Yet more needs to be done. Thailand reported over 2,700 cases up to yesterday – a figure considered low in relation to neighbours Singapore and Indonesia.
But with no end to the outbreak, Samart has conceded that “it will take time before Thais return to the stadium”.