Prison fighters prize future over freedom

Portrayed as a way for inmates to battle their way to an early release, a Corrections Department muay Thai project is instead teaching inmates the skills needed to build a future career

It’s billed by promoters as a “Battle for Freedom”, but inmates who take part in the Prison Fight programme have little chance of securing an early release, regardless of their success or failure in the ring.

CAGED FIGHTER: An inmate warms up prior to a fight with a foreign boxer at the dedicated boxing gym inside Klongpai Central Prison.

Still, those behind the project insist that’s not the point. Rather than offering prisoners freedom in a traditional sense, Prison Fight is meant to provide convicts a chance at a better future.

The project’s mastermind and president, Aree Chaleaysuk, said the fights allow former professional fighters to hone their skills behind bars, ensuring they have the chance to continue their careers after being released.

The bouts, overseen by the Corrections Department, were launched in January last year, pitting hardened criminals against foreign amateur boxers in organised muay Thai events.

The concept has quickly captured the attention — and imagination — of both the public and international media. Now with seven events to its name, Prison Fight has become popular among foreigners who are lining up to volunteer for the chance to test their skills against prison inmates.

And the success of the programme has Mr Aree eyeing more ambitious global designs — the creation of a Prison Fight World Association which would bring convicts from overseas to fight Thai prisoners. But it seems Mr Aree may be ahead of himself. At a bout Spectrum witnessed, the canvas bore the seal of the "World Prison Fight Association" and the boxers fought in trunks and gloves embossed with the words "Prison Fight".

ENTERING THE RING

Prison boxing matches between inmates have been staged every year since 2003 as part of the Corrections Department’s policy of using sport to help rehabilitate inmates.

According to the department, there are at least 2,000 former professional athletes currently being held in the country’s prison system, including top-level representatives in boxing, football, petanque, futsal and sepak takraw.

Mr Aree, who is also the warden at Klongpai Central Prison in Nakhon Ratchasima, told Spectrum there is also a prison system boxing association which sends inmates to fight outside in professional tournaments.

on the ropes: Above and top, a fight between an inmate and Masood Izadi, an Iranian muay Thai fighter who oversees the foreign volunteers and enters the ring himself.

But his pride and joy remains the Prison Fight project. He said that far from being a free-for-all chance for felons to fight their way to freedom, as portrayed by many foreign media outlets, Prison Fight has been designed to build the skills of inmates who already have a strong background in professional fighting.

“There are many former regional and national champions locked up in the prison system. We want them to continue practising all year round while they are in prison so that they can continue their careers when they are released,” Mr Aree explained.

Renowned fight promoters such as Kokiet Group and Sing Wancha have also jumped on board, collaborating with the Corrections Department to bring inmate boxers outside the prison to compete in professional fights. The Prison Fight concept is drawn from the story of legendary Thai warrior Nai Khanomtom, who in the 18th century found himself in a Burmese [Myanmar] prison after being captured during the seige of Ayutthaya. Nai Khanomtom was challenged to go head-to-head with nine of the top Burmese boxing champions. When he defeated all of them, the Burmese king was supposedly so impressed he granted Nai Khanomtom freedom.

Mr Aree explained that the idea to give the legend a more modern twist developed after he got in touch with a contact who owned a boxing gym in Pattaya. He suggested they should organise a boxing match between Thai inmates at Klongpai prison and foreign fighters at the Pattaya boxing camp.

When the project was launched, eight foreigners applied for the first bout. It was held in Klongpai Central Prison under the name Anti-drug Corrections Championship, since renamed to the slightly catchier Prison Fight.

Most of the money made from the fights — raised through donations — is put towards buying sporting equipment for the country’s prisons, and some is spent to pay trainers from outside who are drafted in to help train the inmates. Any leftover funds are put aside to help stage the next fight.

CHASING A WORLD TITLE

“The reason I chose foreign fighters to fight with the Thai inmates is because I want them to get used to fighting with foreigners, which they will have to do one day if they want to fight at the international level,” Mr Aree said. He emphasised that the greatest expectation of the Prison Fight programme is for inmates who are released back into society to have have a career behind them, whether it be as a fighter or as a trainer.

captive audience: Inmates sit with members of the foreign media to watch a fight. So far, not one of the Thai boxers has lost a bout with a foreign fighter. photos: Thanarak Khunton

With the popular response to the Prison Fight among many international media outlets, the Corrections Department and Mr Aree have set their sights on bigger plans.

“We are in the process of establishing the Prison Fight World Association,” Mr Aree said. He wants to encourage other prisons around the world to use sport as a means to rehabilitate prisoners, particularly by using various forms of martial art. The association is still in the process of being established, but Mr Aree said many other jails have expressed interest.

If the plan goes ahead, it would see Thai prisoners who are released from jail travel to other countries to take part in Prison Fight bouts. For countries that allow prisoners to travel abroad under the supervision of prison guards, they could send their convicts to fight with Thai inmates, Mr Aree said.

WHY WE FIGHT

Tanya Bunglao, 33, originally from Nakhon Ratchasima's Phimai district, has spent the past three years behind bars. He was a professional boxer before he was sentenced to jail, fighting under the name Jomwo Kietyongyut on the Bangkok muay Thai circuit.

Tanya trained as a boxer from the age of eight, and has continued to fight professionally since, chalking up more than 100 victories. He said at the peak of his career, he was earning 50,000 baht per bout and competing in two fights per month.

After being convicted of attempted murder, Tanya was originally sent to Nakhon Ratchasima Central Prison, but was later transferred to Klongpai Central Prison once the warden realised he was a skilled boxer. Since the transfer, he has been allowed to train daily in a fully equipped boxing gym.

Tanya has fought in four Prison Fight events and has not lost a single bout. From each victory he earns 4,000 baht, which goes directly into his personal account in the prison.

all mod cons: Klongpai Central Prison has facilities just like boxing gyms outside the prison for fighters to prepare, practise and get themselves physically ready before a fight.

After taking on hundreds of fighters in his life, Tanya said he can tell the difference between fighting a Thai and a foreigner. He said the foreign fighters lack refined muay Thai skills and proper technique, but “their body strength is much greater than Thai fighters I ever fought with”.

The boxers inside the prison are allowed to train twice a day: in the morning and in the late afternoon. The rest of the day they must follow regular prison routine. Tanya stressed that those inmates who are fighters have no privileges over any other prisoners; they all live, eat and sleep under the same conditions.

Tanya will continue to fight while serving his time in the prison. When asked if he wanted to continue his career in the ring when he is released, he said his age would make it impossible. Instead he wants to train others and contribute back to society.

IN THE OPPOSING CORNER

It’s not only the inmates who have something to gain inside the ring. For the foreign fighters who volunteer, the prospect of fighting hardened criminals offers both a test of skill and a chance to boost their image.

Eager to enter the ring is 22-year-old Dave Leduc from Quebec, Canada, who started his muay Thai journey just over a year ago when he came here to train at a Phuket gym. A stylised tattoo of Hanuman, the ape-like Hindu god known for his agility, stretches across his shoulder blades.

His discovery of the prison fights was, much like anyone else’s, through the media and Leduc, hungry for ringside fame, didn’t need anyone to sell him on the thrill of boxing inmates.

“I saw it on Vice and I thought, ‘Shit, that’s f***ed up. I want to do that,’ ” said Leduc, who has a 9-1 win record on the popular Phuket muay Thai circuit. “I had to come here.”

The fight will give him a new audience, he said, different from the mostly Australian crowds filling Phuket’s arenas. It’s also another building block in his new-found career, one more highlight before he returns to Quebec soon to run a popular martial arts training franchise.

“I’ve fought in the stadium, but this is different,” he said. “I wanted to perfect my game.”

In the week before a prison fight, the foreign boxers train together. The gym they use is a mostly ad hoc affair — tucked away in a row of dilapidated market stalls in Bangkok's Udom Suk area, the boxers attack stacks of tyres dangling from the ceiling, blow after blow, pausing only to splash water across their face or take a swig of Krating Daeng. Posters promoting the fights, proudly bearing Corrections Department seals, face the spartan encampment, where a single boxing ring serves as a centrepiece.

Masood Izadi, who runs the operation from the side of the foreign fighters, is a top nak muay farang (foreign boxer) himself, having gone head-to-head with muay Thai legend Saenchai. It’s his love of muay Thai, he says, that keeps him involved.

The training period is brief, and foreign boxers use the period to fine-tune their moves. But the frenetic pace of training is nothing for Izadi, who says the real fun begins the day of the match, when he too will square off against a jailed opponent.

When it comes to boxing convicts, Leduc said he wouldn’t feel bad if he wins and his rival’s sentence isn’t reduced. But if his opponent comes out on top, then clemency is warranted.

“They deserve to get my 100%,” he said. “If he wins, then he earns it.”

FIGHT FOR ‘FREEDOM’

One of the main reasons the Prison Fight programme has captivated foreign media is the slogan: “Fight for Freedom”. Many believe the fights were organised as a way for prisoners to fight to secure a pardon.

photos: Thanarak Khunton

Spectrum checked last year with the Corrections Department and learned that the slogan was not only misleading, it was simply false. The department confirmed that the prisoners who win their fights remain in prison even if they win, saying the slogan was simply designed to gain more attention.

However, when Spectrum talked to Mr Aree at Klongpai Central Prison again during the latest fight last week, he insisted the slogan is “almost accurate”.

“The Corrections Department has a policy that any inmate who can bring fame and boost the reputation of the prison or the country is eligible for a pardon,” Mr Aree said.

Fighting in the programme is unlikely to be enough, but it can open the door for prisoners to engage in professional fights beyond the prison walls. If they succeed at a high enough level, such as securing a title belt, the prospect for a pardon or sentence reduction is there.

Still, the inmates must satisfy three criteria: being an A-grade prisoner, never breaking the prison rules and having served one third of their prison sentence.

Those who fit all those criteria are eligible to apply for a pardon, which will be approved on a case-by-case basis. Having participated in Prison Fight would count as a mark towards good behaviour, but on its own would not be enough to secure release.

LIFE IN THE BALANCE

Nantawat Khaopan is a 29-year-old professional fighter and a native of Nakhon Ratchasima province. Like fellow inmate Tanya, Nantawat was also transferred to Klongpai Central Prison from Nakhon Ratchasima Central Prison after his boxing skills were discovered.

Nantawat has trained as a muay Thai fighter since the age of nine, fighting in Bangkok under the name Chock Wor Petchpoon.

He has served more than two years in prison for being an accomplice to murder, but still has more than eight years of his sentence left.

divine protection: Canadian Dave Leduc started training in a Phuket gym and hopes to return to Quebec soon to run a martial arts training centre.

He said the prison’s boxing programme has helped keep him focused, and his experience in Klongpai has helped him understand why other boxers from this prison have such a good reputation.

“We are more disciplined here. We train, sleep and eat at the same time. We have no other temptations such as drinking or going out late at night like boxers who are outside and live carelessly,” he said.

Nantawat has fought in four Prison Fight tournaments and holds a perfect record. Klongpai prison has also given him the opportunity to showcase his skills by bringing him out to fight in matches outside the prison. He went to fight in Lop Buri twice and has fought many times in Bangkok against other professional boxers.

He recently brought back a bronze medal from a tournament in Lop Buri, providing a welcome boost to the image of the Prison Fight boxing association.

Nantawat is now counting down the time until he will be released. With the awards, medals and fame he has brought to the prison, he hopes to receive a pardon, or at least a sentence reduction, some time in the near future.

“From what I heard, I only have one more year to go, but I still have to hear confirmation from the prison chief,” he said.

He told Spectrum if he is not too old and his body can still handle the abuse, he would like to continue being a professional boxer. But if he is no longer physically fit, his backup plan is to go back to help his parents run their grocery store in Nakhon Ratchasima.

The prison warden, however, says an early release is unlikely unless Nantawat is able to claim a greater victory — perhaps a world championship would suffice, he said.

About the author

Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai & John Arterbury