Prawit Thue-yoo trained a number of Muaythai champions at his Bangkok gym, but he’s never been in it for fame or money.
Muaythai, called Thai boxing by foreigners, is one of the most popular sports in the Kingdom and some of its success should be credited to Prawit Thue-yoo. Prawit is the owner of the Luk Barn Yai training camp, which he established 21 years ago. The training camp is located at Soi Inthamara 45 off Suthisarn Road in an old part of central Bangkok that consists mainly of shop houses, cheap hotels and apartment buildings.
Despite his contributions to Muaythai and to its recognition internationally, Prawit is not well-known to the general public because he has never sought publicity. He isn’t in the boxing game for fame or money, but for love of the sport. That, along with his character and achievements, is what makes him so popular and highly respected within the boxing community, where he is known by the nickname ‘Pa Joe’ (Father Joe).
“The love and passion for the sport goes back to my teenage years when I was boxing merely because it was a good exercise to keep fit and it was fun,” the 62-year-old Prawit revealed as he kept an eye on his sparring boxers. The interview was interspersed with his yelling out directions to the boxers and suddenly running up to give them a personal demonstration of proper technique.
Before a tour of the training camp, Prawit gave a few introductory comments about the sport: “The history of Muaythai is closely connected with the history of the Thai people who had to defend themselves and their land from aggressive powers. Way back in medieval ages, wars were fought with bows, arrows, swords and pikes. And in handto- hand combat arms, legs, knees and elbows were also used as weapons.”
The compound where the Thai boxers are trained and where they live is sparse and not particularly flashy. All facets of the facilities and the equipment – the boxing ring, gloves, punching bags and all types of the protection sparring gear – are there to serve a specific purpose. The fact that the gym has created a long list of boxing champions speaks for itself. Prawit is now training 22 Thai boxers and few foreigners in Muaythai and internationalstyle boxing who are, without exception, subject to strict rules and life-style.
“Everyone wakes up at exactly 5.30am and runs about 12 km, then practices from 8-10am. A break follows, so that they can take a shower, have lunch and take a rest. At 3.30pm they will run another 5-6 km, then exercise, sparring and learn boxing techniques until about 8pm and go to bed around 10pm. The routine also applies to the foreign boxers who live in apartments nearby,” Prawit explained.
“The popularity of Muaythai is on the increase. The sport is passionately followed in the country, and there are over 100 training camps in Bangkok and many more in the provinces. The sport has developed a great deal – in positive ways – since the time I opened this training camp,” he said.
Most provincial towns in Thailand have a boxing ring, but Bangkok is where the action is. The two biggest and most famous venues in the country, where every boxer dreams to step in the ring, are Lumpini and Ratchadamnoen stadiums, which have a fight programme almost every night.
Prawit explained some rules: “Muaythai is fought in five three-minute rounds with two-minute breaks in between. The fight is preceded by a wai khru dance in which each boxer pays homage to his teachers. The match is decided by a knockout or by points. The average age for boxers depends on their physical condition, but normally it is around 30.”
A well-built 19-year-old French boxer, Yoann Gouaida, has been training with Prawit for the past four years. Yoann, like all of Prawit’s fighters, takes the sport seriously. “Muaythai is a very exciting contact sport because you can use arms, elbows, legs and knees.
“There are associations, training facilities formed and tournaments conducted in many countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. People like it because it is exciting to watch and maybe because it is a little bit violent.”
The scar under Yoann’s left eye and the bruises on his body give emphasis to his remarks. In fact, the trauma on his face is a result of his last Muaythai bout at Koh Samui, a couple of days earlier, which he won on points over a Thai boxer. The sport is very popular with foreign tourists. Muaythai is becoming increasingly popular with females, both Thai and foreign. For someone not used to Thai boxing, the ferocity and the determination of the boxers come as a bit of a surprise. Even when they are only sparring, each punch or kick is accompanied by a scream. It is an awesome experience.
Prawit has developed a number of champions, including transvestite boxer Prinya Kiatbusaba, known as ‘Nong Toom’, whose story was told in the internationally acclaimed movie Beautiful Boxer (2003), directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham. At the height of his career in 1998, Prinya attracted sell-out crowds by mauling his opponents mercilessly, only to kiss and hug them after the fight. His fierce style prompted many to wonder whether his effeminate manner outside the ring was genuine or just a promotional trick. On December 5, 1999, Prinya quietly left a Bangkok hospital as a woman, putting an end to all the questions.
Prawit admitted that in the old days Muaythai was pretty dangerous. “But it is now safer because the quality of training has improved. This is one of my main objectives. Of course, as in any other sport, boxers sometimes get injured, but usually nothing serious. Over the years, the rules of Muaythai have been revised in some areas to comply with international boxing regulations,” Pravit said.
Prawit doesn’t regard his training camp as a business venture, even though money of course is needed to look after the boxers and the gym. He said he has never expected to make money and to become rich from the boxing business. He looks at it as his contribution to the country and the sport itself.
Prawit also admitted to sometimes placing a small bet, for extra excitement, but only inside the stadium where betting is allowed. As for match-fixing or other criminal activities, Prawit categorically dismissed the notion that any corruption in the sport exists at the present time. He also said that no one had ever approached him to do anything illegal.
I wanted to meet Prawit at his camp to find out what was really going behind the scenes in professional Muaythai boxing. Rumors of corruption, match-fixing, violence and even killings were rife. However, Prawit painted a very different picture during my two-hour visit.
A top notch foreign promoter arranged the interview, and this is probably a reason why nothing negative was said about the sport. I left the interview disappointed even though Prawit told me a lot of interesting things. Lumpini Boxing Stadium was established in 1956 on Rama IV Road and demolished in 2014. I visited the place a few times after the interview just to do some fact-checking, observe the action, and the betting done mostly by taxi drivers. On my last visit I saw Prawit there but we didn’t speak. Everybody knew his name, but when I asked about him I got bad vibes and told to stop asking questions.