Wednesday, November 26, 1997

Bangkok, Thailand III

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.

Rounds last about three minutes, and in between fighters seek whatever comfort and rest they can as coaches yell instruction and encouragement. As trainers perform the ritual ministrations of wiping sweat, dumping buckets of ice, forcing down water and flapping towels, coaches pantomime various lethal punch-kick combinations. The corner men work up as much of a sweat as the fighters.

During the fight, all hell breaks loose as trainers, coaches, gym-mates and even one mom in a fire-engine red, skin-tight dress screams their support. A chorus of "OH!"'s go up with a cleanly delivered combination. Silent, flinching grimaces when their boy's on the receiving end.

One stony faced cop stands by, idly checking the line-up card and eyeing the throng. With his impenetrable black shades, ancient leather face and tribal tattoos covering wrists, neck and what I suspect to be the balance of his torso, he's the meanest looking bandito in the joint. The loosely holstered, pearl-handled 9 mm semi-automatic doesn't hurt.

But in all this mayhem there is almost no anger. Brutal combinations of sucker punches, low blows, kicks and elbows are delivered without malice. At the end of each fight, boxers embrace, receive the blessing of opposition trainers and adjourn to a common locker room. Which also happens to be the men's john, I discover. So as you relieve yourself of your third Singha beer of the night, you can eye fighters warming up for upcoming bouts. And once you're done, you can wander over and have your snapshot made with the sweaty victor. Try that at the next Tyson-Holyfield fight.

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