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Fight Night in the Far East

When I ask Thomson how he ended up running a muay thai camp in northern Thailand, he laughs. "I really don't know—I was working as an engineer in oil fields in India for years," he says. He later moved to Thailand, where he started the camp in his spare time. "I felt at home right away," he says. "Maybe I was Thai in a past life. A psychic once looked at me and said the first thing she saw was an old Oriental man dressed in black."

Of course, Thomson didn't just jump into the ring on a whim. "I'd done eight years of tukido"—an obscure martial art—"but I'd never really been hit. Within five minutes of trying muay thai, I was hooked. It's the simplest, hardest, fastest fighting art in the world."

Over the past 12 years, Thomson has trained a fistful of northern Thai champions. He introduces me to a couple of boxers who will be fighting that night. One is Manat Yingwittayakun, a 13-year-old whose two brothers are training alongside him; the elder one is a former champion in two weight classes. "I'm from around here," Manat says, indicating the hills surrounding Chiang Mai, where his parents are farmers. Manat is a wiry kid with a cowlick that hangs over his forehead. His dark eyes jump around anxiously, perhaps because he lost his first fight to the same opponent he's scheduled to step in against later on.

Working up a sweat in one of the training rings is the fighter who has been featured on the yellow fliers taped up all around town, Mel Bellissimo, a beefy 27-year-old from Toronto. Bellissimo was teaching English at a Chiang Mai grade school—in fact, Manat is one of his students—when he decided to start training.

He takes a breather and confesses that he's embarrassed to be the evening's star attraction: "I'm a farang [a foreigner], and Thais love to see a farang get his ass kicked." I ask how he's feeling. "Well, I'm pretty nervous," he replies candidly. "I'm sure I'll outweigh the guy I'm fighting—I don't think they make Thais as big as me—but he's probably had a hundred fights and I've had one."

My conversation with Thomson turns to the most talked-about kickboxer of recent times, Parinya Charoenphol, who trained here at the Lanna/Kiat Busaba Boxing Camp. Parinya, a.k.a. Nong Toom, was a strong fighter with fast feet, but that's not the reason he became the most famous muay thai boxer in the world. Parinya was a katoey, a transvestite, who wore eyeliner and makeup in the ring. Even in a sport that has none of the macho posturing of Western boxing, this made him a sensation.

"Nong Toom first came to us when he was thirteen," Thomson says. "He lived in the hills within walking distance of here. In three and a half years, he won about thirty fights. A Bangkok promoter heard we had a katoey fighter and couldn't believe it. He booked Nong Toom in Bangkok, and he had a great fight. Then he just blew up—everybody wanted to book him."

Inevitably, perhaps, success eventually led to a falling out between Thomson and Parinya. "As he got more famous," Thomson says, "he didn't want to train. And he wanted to have the [sex change] operation." He finally did, and soon afterward, he, now she, retired from the ring to cash in on her celebrity, singing at a beach resort club in Pattaya, appearing in ads, and starring in a Thai soap opera, as herself. When a Thai film company announced that it was casting a biopic of Parinya's life, more than 300 hopefuls tried out for the part, from boxers to transvestites to roti vendors. The boy who landed it, Assani Suwan, also trained at the Lanna/Kiat Busaba Boxing Camp.

That evening the air is hot and dense in Kawilla Stadium, which looks more like a big cowshed than a sports arena. It has a concrete floor, a corrugated tin roof, and a locker room that is just an open pen blocked off by sawhorses. Inside, Manat looks nervous—even his cowlick is quivering. In fact, he has already thrown up. When he starts making his way to the ring, his 23-year-old brother, the champion, follows in blue jeans and a white T-shirt, massaging the boy's shoulders, whispering in his ear.

The champ's advice doesn't seem to help. In an incredibly inauspicious moment, Manat trips over the top rope of the ring on his way in. Worse, when the fight begins, he slips trying to deliver his first kick and lands on the canvas. His opponent moves in confidently. But Manat recovers, skillfully blocking kicks and punches, and by the second round he's giving as good as he's getting. He pours it all on in the last round, fighting with every ounce of his heart. When it's over, the judges declare him the winner. He goes to his opponent's corner and bows to him, and then bows to his teachers. Only then does his big brother lift him in a bear hug.

As the headliner, Bellissimo has to wait until the last fight. By this time he's a jangle of nerves. He manages the pre-fight rituals, but once the music starts it becomes clear why this is still a Thai sport. He trudges forward repeatedly into a blizzard of kicks and punches, yet never surrenders. He is determined to be carried out on his shield.

When the referee mercifully stops the bout in the third round, Bellissimo bows to his opponent and to his teacher. He is bleeding from a cut above one eye, but he is smiling. "Now," he says, "I am a muay thai fighter."

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