Death of a 13-year-old has sparked a debate over children’s participation in Muay Thai, but Olympic gold medallist and champion kickboxer Wijan Ponlid believes the national sport of Thailand remains a crucial rite of passage. “There should be no sanctions on Muay Thai. It is part of our culture and gives poor kids a way out,” said Ponlid, who won the 51kg boxing gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. “It is an unfortunate episode, but also thousands of children participate in properly-regulated bouts. Their safety should be looked after.”
Muay Thai or Thai kickboxing is referred to as the ‘art of eight limbs’ for allowing the use of knees and elbows in combat. The style has evolved into an important discipline for modern Mixed Martial Arts but has been under the scanner for inconsistent safety measures. The resistance gathered momentum after Anucha Tasako died from a brain haemorrhage after the 13-year-old’s opponent struck landed multiple blows to the head on Saturday. A bill has been presented before Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly to ban boxers younger than 12 from competing in professional matches and set punishments for organizers who break that rule. Changes being mulled include requiring head gear, elbow and knee pads be worn by boxers younger than 15.
Ponlid, who took up Muay Thai before turning 13, was known by the fighting name of Si Satchanalay Taxi Meter. He headlined Bangkok’s iconic Rajadamnern stadium and won the title in 1995, a year after elder brother ‘Sukhothai Taxi Meter’ won it. Ponlid was inspired to take up amateur boxing after watching fellow kickboxer Somrak Kamsing win the 54kg category at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics to bring Thailand its first individual gold medal.
“I remember the commotion it caused, and I realised I could do it because Somrak was a top Thai kickboxer as well,” says Ponlid, who retired shortly after the Sydney Olympics. “I had 21 amateur boxing bouts. But I became the Olympic champion because I had experience of over 100 Muay Thai bouts. It makes you tougher, more aware in the ring, but it is still a different sport altogether.”
Amateur boxing’s woes
Juan Fontanils, who coached both Kamsing and Ponlid to Olympic glory and accounted for three gold medals, one silver and three bronze in total, returned to Thailand earlier this year and roped in Ponlid as the assistant coach. “Not many people see boxing now. It is all about Muay Thai,” said the Cuban. “There has been no good result in amateur. But when Wijan and Somrak were fighting, it was very close in popularity.”
Fontanils remembers the procession for both boxers as well as Manus Boonjumnong, who won gold in 2004. “For Ponlod, they had 49 elephants for him, a house, a job and the King received him. The amateur boxing gold was huge, but because they were such celebrated kickboxers, it made a difference,” said the Cuban. “Boonjumnong did the opposite later, becoming a kickboxer after the gold and silver (in 2008).”
With the entire contingent, including Asian Games bronze medallist Sudaporn Seesondee well-experienced in kickboxing, Fontanils believes there is room for early Muay Thai training for a boxer.
“They were all Muay Thai fighters first,” said Fontanils. “You see a number of major injuries and deaths in professional boxing as well. Children have been fighting for years in Thailand, but they are well trained and safe. So yes, I agree that you need to esbalish guidelines and have proper safety measures in place.”