A fighter’s chance

Documentary peeks into the backstory of the boys who become Muay Thai champions

Jawee Sukantha
Photos by Elizabeth Miller

Colorado native Tate Zandstra has chased martial arts training and reporting as far as Brazil, to study Jiu Jitsu, and Thailand, to study Muay Thai, so it comes as no surprise, really, that when a Burmese maid in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, started telling him about a Burmese style of boxing, he’d follow that lead wherever it took him.

“She said if I wanted to learn more I needed to visit this monk who had been a fighter in Bangkok and when he retired got” — he says with a laugh — “got visions from the Buddha that he had to go to this mountain in the north and open a defunct monastery and teach orphans how to be Thai boxers.”

So he followed vague answers to his many questions and hitched rides where he could, finally riding in a hay cart with a group of farmers who dropped him off at the base of a mountain and pointed toward the summit. He hiked uphill until he could follow the noise of people to a boxing ring, where he found the monk and his novices.

“I told them what I wanted to do and he said, ‘OK, well, you can stay here and hang out and just watch us and see what we do, but only if you’re willing to fight right now — get in the ring and fight right now,’” Zandstra recounts. One of the orphans the monk had trained was matched with Zandstra and they were sent in to the ring to fight.

“When we get into the clinch in the corner on the ropes and stuff, he kept trying to head butt me, and I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t fair, this isn’t Muay Thai.’”

And it wasn’t Muay Thai — it was the Burmese style of boxing.

“That was what he thought the match was,” Zandstra explains. “So he went to do that one time in the third round and I was sick of it, so I put him into what we call a guillotine choke, and choked him out. … The monk was acting as the referee, he’s trying to get me to let go of the guy, and I said, ‘Nah,’” Zandstra recalls, a wry smile at the occasion.

He held the fighter until he lost consciousness, lowered him to the ring, and then, since he won the match, the monk honored his deal and let Zandstra stay. For a few weeks, he lived in a small concrete shed with a barrel of water for a bath facility, studied what the monk had to teach and met the pilgrims who traveled there to receive the fighting monk’s blessing. Among them was Jawee Sukantha, who runs a Muay Thai training camp that also takes in orphans to train them to become fighters. Jawee happened to also be one of the leading promoters of the more obscure offshoot of Muay Thai, kaad chiek, in which the robust boxing gloves are replaced with strips of cloth wrapped around the fighters’ knuckles. Onto another lead, Zandstra would eventually travel even farther north to the border towns where Burmese fighters would walk across the line between their country and Thailand to fight kaad chiek.

At Jawee Sukantha’s gym, Zandstra encountered fighters as young as 6.

Zandstra, a freelance writer and photographer who has written about martial arts for publications across the world, including this one, wrote a story on the martial art, and returned home to Colorado. But when another opportunity arose to go to Thailand, this time to shoot an instructional video for Victory Belt Publishing, which prints health and fitness books, and he found himself in the country with video equipment and a little financial backing, he started taking trips north again to document kaad chiek, this time shooting video — with no real idea where it would go.

What has come of that video, and the months, in the end, that Zandstra spent at Jawee’s camp filming Jawee and the half a dozen boys who live and train there, is the documentary Torn Cloth, which will screen at the Starz Denver Film Festival on Nov. 9 and 14.

In the early renditions of the documentary Zandstra started making, much of the history of the sport filled the 80-minute run time. He’s since pared it down.

“People just want to see them fight, they want to see how they live,” he says. “Anybody that watched it, they just want to know about the kids. … ‘Are they all right? Is this ethical? Is it good for the kids?’”

The question comes to a difference in perspective. A childhood in Thailand can’t really be compared to a childhood in America.

“We have the luxury to let kids be kids for this long period of their lives and not really have to work,” Zandstra says. “Even if you’re just a poor rural kid in Thailand, you have to work. You’re out there harvesting rice and all that — that’s if you are with your parents.”

Many of the boys at Sukantha’s gym are orphans.

One of the boys there started his fighting career by, in a move of desperation, walking into a temple and asking to fight.

“He would have been 9 at the time he was doing this — going to the temple at the nearest town to his village and just turning up and saying, ‘I want to fight,’” Zandstra says. “He’s not even represented by a camp, he doesn’t have training, he just says, ‘I want to fight.’”

And some adult, treating a boy without a family to care for him as sovereign, set up the fight and paid him about 100 bhat for it — the equivalent of just over $3, but enough to eat for another day.

Two brothers in the camp who do have families are the other classic Thai boxing story: Their family grew too large to be fed by their own rice field and orchard alone, and so the two brothers were sent to the Muay Thai camp to become fighters and win money they would send home to their families.

“They don’t have anything to fall back on,” Zandstra says. “When they’re older and they have a chance to think about it, will they decide that it’s worth while…?

They’ll probably know, first of all, if they have the potential to become a superstar because fighting is one of those things that tells you, really, if you do it enough, you know one way or another definitely if you have what it takes.”

Sukantha teaches his students both Muay Thai and a variant of it, kaad chiek, which originated in Myanmar.

One of those boys has gone to Bangkok to fight since Zandstra finished filming with them two years ago.

His brother, who is just a couple years younger, will decide in the next year or two whether to follow his brother or pursue a career in the military.

“They have to make the choice at some point, do they either continue to be boxers, and you know that unless you’re the luckiest of the lucky and you become a superstar and make so much money, probably that’s not going to happen,” Zandstra says. “So you’re going to retire, definitely by the time you’re 30, and you’re going to be beat up and you’re going to have no skills and you’re going to be, like, a tuktuk driver — or you can go into the army, and that sucks too.”

Modern Bangkok is home to gyms where Muay Thai fighters prep and home to the stadiums Lumpinee and Rajadamnern that host boxing matches where fighters go to win their way to glory. The historic Lumpinee is iconic because of how rough it is, Zandstra tells me, and paints a scene of corrugated steel that’s hot, leaky when it rains and roaring loud with the sounds of stands full of gamblers, screaming and stomping on the bleachers.

Compared to that noise, the sounds of the rural gyms where the fighters begin their training — and even fighting — as young as 5 or 6 must seem relatively quiet.

It’s from the friction over borders that Muay Thai was born — the martial art dates to the battlefield a thousand years ago and was honed in the 1700s in an attack from the Burmese army that drove Thais from their stunning capital city of Ayutthaya into the swamps to hide. Even after a folk hero fought their freedom back from the Burmese ruler in a bare-fisted fight that sets the legacy of Muay Thai as a sport for heroes, the Thais stayed in the swamp they had made their home and built Krung Thep, the “city of angels” we now know as the river delta-straddling city of Bangkok.

In the spirit of Muay Thai — a tough sport long fought on a gritty backdrop — Zandstra’s documentary comes with its own share of grit.

“I thought, I should just be honest — it was just me, a $1,000 camera, alone except for the two days that I had [a friend] to do interviews, and then I didn’t have the chance to get the interviews translated and then go, ‘OK, what did they tell me and what do I want to ask them next, how do I want to evolve this?’” Zandstra recounts. “It was just two days to have [that friend] talk to them and get the interviews — and then that’s all we have to work with to make the story come to life. So the way that we’re editing it now, it’s obvious that it’s just me, super low budget — almost no budget — and it’s told completely through the interviews. … I think that it will be better for it. I think that it will have a more honest feel.

“I hope it works.”

Torn Cloth is screening at 11:45 a.m. Saturday, on Nov. 9, and 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14, at United Artists Pavilions, 500 16th St., Denver. A complete line up of films at the festival and tickets are available at www.denverfilm.org.

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