Convicted drug trafficker Wuttipong Korsanthiet fights an Irish adversary in Klom Prem prison on October 4, 2013.
A Katoey ("lady boy') seves as a card girl.
How Thailand's Most Notorious Prison Became a Fight Club
By Matthew Shaer
Killers, armed robbers, and drug dealers in Thailand's notorious Klong Prem prison have one shot at honor, money, and maybe even freedom – fighting Western pros in jail-yard matches.
The October afternoon before he is to fight the American, Thub Hong-Mo sits cross-legged on the floor of his Bangkok prison cell, watching soap operas on an old Chinese TV set. It is a rare moment of respite for the 30-year-old, who has spent the past two months – seven days a week, six hours a day – working out relentlessly in the prison boxing gym. His lanky frame is nothing but raw muscle and sinew; his shins are knotted with scar tissue. Across his chest is a vibrant tapestry of tattoos: shimmering fish scales, a pair of demons, and a leering dragon.
The dragon, he explains through a translator, is a recent addition, commemorating what he calls his "long journey" in one of the most notorious prisons in Thailand.
Four years ago, Hong-Mo was found guilty of stabbing a man to death in a Bangkok nightclub. He is now serving 35 years at Klong Prem prison. Most inmates here are career criminals, with sentences of at least a decade – rapists, gangsters, murderers. It's where you go, as one lifer puts it, "when they've decided that they never want to see you again."
Hong-Mo had no reason to think he'd leave this place until he was well into middle age. Then last July, prison authorities approached him with a proposal: Fight against a Western professional in a martial-arts match, to be held in the yard at Klong Prem, and they promised to put 5,000 baht, or $150, in his commissary account. If he acquits himself admirably, they suggested, they may even cut a few years off his sentence.
The discipline: Muay Thai, a balletic but bloody commercial sport that blends the basics of boxing – jab, cross, uppercut – with kicks, knees, elbows, and clinches.
The event is being organized and recorded by a brash young Estonian promoter with a Barnum-ish flair for spectacle, who hopes to cash in on the growing international market for fight DVDs. Billed as the Battle for Freedom, it is to consist of seven matches, each pitting a Klong Prem inmate against a Westerner. (That the competitors will come from Europe and the U.S. – where Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC] pros like Anderson Silva have popularized the sport and most major cities have muay Thai gyms – will only add to the spectacle.) Although the crowd will consist solely of fellow inmates, the promoter hopes to eventually reach a much larger audience through DVD sales.
Like many inmates, Hong-Mo grew up practicing muay Thai; for a time, he even fought semiprofessionally. He eagerly agreed to participate, as did one of his cell mates, a drug trafficker named Wuttipong Korsanthiet, 27, who goes by the nickname Moo, or "pig."
"In prison you can lose something of yourself if you're not careful," Hong-Mo says. "For me, the fight is about proving to myself that I'm still a person. That I still have pride."
Hong-Mo is preparing to face Mark Sayer, a 32-year-old brawler from the suburbs of Houston who'll be fighting for the first time in Thailand – the epicenter of Muay Thai. Moo is matched against Stephen Meleady, an unranked Dubliner with a professional record of 43 wins and 31 losses.
"Tomorrow I will win," Moo says. "It's in my blood." As if to prove it, he drops into his fighting stance, executes a flurry of rabbit punches, and then spins his body and knocks an elbow into his imaginary opponent's face.
Still seated on the cell floor, Hong-Mo shakes his head. "I will let the victory speak for me," he says. From the outside, the whole thing seems a bit outlandish. But the Thai penal system has a long history of organizing sporting events, from soccer and basketball tournaments to weightlifting competitions, and – in a process that is as seemingly arbitrary as it is opaque – of occasionally dishing out sentence reductions to the athletes viewed as bringing honor to their country.
In the 1980s, when Thai authorities, as part of an effort to modernize the penal system, introduced a program called Sports Behind Bars, Muay Thai – "Thai boxing" – was one of the first activities offered. Since then, a handful of prisoners have managed to parlay their skill into an early release.
In 2007, the imprisoned drug dealer Siriporn Taweesuk beat a Japanese boxer for the World Boxing Council light-flyweight title in a match held at Klong Prem. Not long afterward, she was released, having achieved, in the words of one Thai official, "glory for Thailand." And that same year, Amnat Ruenroeng, a muay Thai veteran and convicted robber serving 15 years at Bangkok's Thonburi prison, was pardoned after winning a national title in boxing. Ruenroeng later went on to compete for Thailand's boxing squad in the Beijing Olympics.
In 2012, Kirill Sokur, a 35-year-old Estonian émigré and fight promoter, helped devise a new breed of behind-bars event: one that would match up, for the first time, Thai inmates and Western pros.
He called his event Prison Fight and came up with the suitably catchy Battle for Freedom slogan. Sokur offered prison officials a deal: He'd provide the ring and the Western fighters and drum up attention from local newspapers and TV stations. The matches would be dubbed "charity events" – a nod to the fact that rehabilitated prisoners could earn their freedom through battle – which would make the prison brass look good.
In return, Sokur would film the fights with an eye toward eventually selling DVDs or perhaps producing some kind of reality show. Working with funding from an undisclosed source, Sokur has poured thousands of dollars into his venture in the hopes of finding a ready audience: Buoyed by the UFC's worldwide success, the international market for fight videos has soared in recent years to become an annual multimillion-dollar industry.
Muay Thai is known as the "science of eight limbs," a reference to the legal contact points: feet, knees, elbows, fists. As in traditional boxing, the action takes place in a square canvas ring, bounded by extra-strong rope, which the wiliest fighters learn to use to their advantage, drawing their opponents back into it as if it were a spiderweb or bouncing off it to launch a counterattack. Eye-gouging, head-butting, and crotch shots aren't allowed. Just about everything else is.
The judge didn't buy his argument, and a few weeks after the stabbing, Hong-Mo reported to Klong Prem. He spent his first few months adapting to the indignities of prison life.
He shares a 5-by-10-foot cell with four other inmates. There are no beds. They sleep on the floor, on blue foam mats. Space is so tight that Hong-Mo can feel their breath on his neck as he lies awake at night, listening to the cockroaches cascade down the walls in platoons. Every morning at 6 am, the cell door swings open; every afternoon at five it rolls shut.
The Prison Fight offer came as a relief. "It gave me something to look forward to, to put my mind on," Hong-Mo says.
Under the tutelage of Nikon Jangthinpha, a retired gangster imprisoned for triple homicide, Hong-Mo spent six hours a day in the prison's makeshift gym, which is fitted out with an old canvas ring and two leather heavy bags. In the mornings, he jumped rope, jogged, and shadowboxed; in the afternoons, he hit the bags and sparred with other inmates.
Mark Sayer has a plan, and it is to not get reckless or overeager. When Hong-Mo enters the ring, his eyes remain fixed on Sayer. He looks hungry. He looks possessed.
The referee darts between the fighters, disentangling them, and the match is over. To Sayer's surprise, the decision is unanimous: All three judges score the fight in favor of Hong-Mo.
Despite the loss, which he chalks up to "home field advantage," Sayer is gleeful. He believes that he gave out more punches than he took, and in his heart, that's enough to make him a winner.
Hong-Mo stands next to the referee, his nose swollen to the shape and hue of a cherry; a sheen of blood coats his teeth. He sways uneasily.
A prison guard arrives to march Hong-Mo back to his cellblock. A jubilant knot of fellow inmates awaits him there – he is the closest thing the prison has to a genuine celebrity.