Wednesday, November 26, 1997

Bangkok, Thailand II

But all the responsible adults were busy placing bets in the surrounding bleachers. A dozen pudgy Thai men, heavily ballasted with gold jewelry and each with a sweat-soaked towel around his neck, yelled into cell phones and offered odds on the outcome. Those making the wagers were a hungrier, poorer crowd, betting the food money and hoping, sometimes praying for a big score.

Each fight began with the same ritualized offerings of prayer as boxers worked themselves into a trance-like state, swaying and bobbing with the music. A motley four-man band barely rested through three hours, as what sounded like a snake charmer's horn joined two drummers and a guy with hand chimes, playing a monotonous, mesmerizing song that rose and fell in tempo with the action inside the ring.

Fighters prayed in the center of the mat, then in each of the four corners, then finally with their trainer. They met in the middle of the ring, touched their thin, hard gloves together once, then set at it. Rules are few. You can punch, elbow, kick or knee your opponent anywhere. Head butting is out, but a swift kick to the groin isn't. When fighters clench, they swing knees up and into opponent's ribs. If you're tripped or knocked to the mat, expect a merciless kick to the kidneys or skull before the referee steps in.

The audience swells to more than a thousand people and the overhead fan barely stirs the fetid night air. The crowd is almost all male, predominantly Thai. Only ringside do you find many western men, and a few women as well. There are a couple of beery Aussies sitting up in the second tier bleachers with only the resident broken-tailed cats for company. The hard-core locals cram together in a standing-room-only mass on the far side of the ring, seething like a single screaming, sweating mob.

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