The dark side of the violent art of muay Thai draws kids into arenas to entertain the masses and take hard hits that are sometimes deadly
In Thailand, the recent death of a 13-year-old boy who was knocked out during a boxing match has inflamed debate about whether children should be allowed to participate in the dangerous sport.
The boy engaged in several rounds of muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing, on Saturday 10 November, and was knocked out by his opponent. He died of a brain hemorrhage two days later at a hospital outside Bangkok.
Local news outlets reported that the boy suffered brain damage when his unprotected head slammed into the ground. Footage of the boy’s last fight posted on social media shows him being punched repeatedly in the head before passing out.
The local news reported that the boy had begun his boxing career at the age of eight. His family does not intend to press charges.
Jiraporn Laothamatas, director of Thailand’s Advanced Diagnostic Imaging Center, has spent the past five years studying patterns of accumulated brain damage and memory loss in child boxers.
“This is such an unnecessary death, as there was no medical attention provided on site,” she said. Her research has helped fuel the proposal of new laws the government is considering to better protect young fighters.
There are currently few rules for organised boxing matches. Children of any age are allowed to participate, and protective gear is not customarily worn. The combat sport allows the use of punches, kicks, knees and elbows.
It is difficult to ban children because muay Thai is a celebrated national sport in Thailand, and mastery of it is viewed as one of few opportunities for poor kids to provide for their families.
“These kids come from impoverished families. It’s their way of making a living,” said Jiraporn. “[But] if I had my way, the minimum age [for participating in the sport] would be 18.”
Legislators have been considering a new law that would ban children under 12 from professional bouts and require children 12 to 15 to be formally registered, get permission from their parents and wear protective gear.
But the boxing community is fighting back against the proposed law.
Somchart Charoenwatcharawit, president of the Professional Boxing Association of Thailand, told Reuters that there are more than 300,000 child boxers under the age of 15 in the country.
“The new rule… will hurt the children and their parents who earn tens of thousands of baht from boxing in what is a national sport,” he said.
The boxing association wants the minimum age for boys set at 10 rather than 12.
Somchart noted that referees are supposed to end matches when fighters appear groggy, and said the boy’s recent death might have been avoided if the referee had stepped in.
According to Jiraporn, the boxing association’s discomfort with the proposed law is about revenue.
“The change in the law is being delayed because the industry makes a lot of money from child boxing,” she told Reuters. “It will take some guts for the government to push it through.”