A Series of Stadiums

Temples of Triumph and Sorrow Part 2: Old Lumpinee Stadium

I still remember the first time I met him. We were introduced by a mutual friend. He was as wide as he was tall, a strong figure who looked to have been through a thing or two in his day. His exterior was rough and characteristic of Bangkok: weathered, dirty, and rigid. And he stood with a quiet demeanor. But despite the cold feeling he gave off everyone in the muay thai community wanted to be around him, myself included.

When in his presence he treated me no different than the hundreds of other muay thai enthusiasts that gathered around him. He was indifferent even toward the greatest fighters. But that was part of his allure. It didn’t matter how much you respected him, his reputation, or his history in the sport. It always felt like you were just an observer of his life.

And so it went. As excited as I always was to see him again, it didn’t matter how many months or years passed before our next meeting, my excitement was always met with an equal amount of apathy on his part. Nonetheless, over the years I made sure to check in with him anytime I was in Bangkok because he always made me step back and reconsider my own purpose and what it meant to struggle and overcome adversity.

Our last meeting was when I was filming the Muaythai Journal series. I finally had a chance to get inside his mind when no one else was around. I turned on the cameras in order to capture what I could of him, with the hopes that he’d show me something so that I could better understand his place in greater Thai society. But by this time he was just a shell of who he’d been in his prime. He didn’t say much. He sat in silence, surrounded by garbage and other rubble.

I continued shooting though. I wanted to capture as much as I could of this extraordinary figure, still appearing so very strong even in his last days. But my time ended all too soon. The only caretaker, his janitor, told me I had to leave after just ten minutes with him. I gathered my belongings and headed out. And as I stepped out on to the empty lot on Rama IV Road I heard the sounds of a giant chain clanking, and then a click of a lock. I turned around and knew it’d be the last time visiting my old friend, Lumpinee Stadium.

Old Lumpinee Stadium was one of those places that can never be replaced, even if they’ve constructed a new building and transplanted the same name. It’s hard to transport its character and soul, what made Lumpinee so special. It was a place comparable to the Roman Coliseum, where on any given fight night the sounds of gamblers would spill out over the top and come crashing down on the pavement outside and onto the street with an energy that pulled you closer and closer to its core. It was also a place where Thai fighters took to its stage to fight their way up the rankings and fight their way out of poverty. And at the same time a place where foreign fighters fought their way in, even when rankings didn’t apply.

Mark Deluca, muay thai instructor at Yamasaki Academy, is one of those fighters who experienced first hand what it was like fighting at Old Lumpinee among some of the best Thais:

“It was quite surreal to be able to share even a glimpse of what they went through,” said Deluca. “There was an aura that you could feel in the air [while] warming up, walking out, sitting on the bench waiting for the fight and finally climbing over the top rope when it was your turn.”

It was those ropes that Deluca is referring to, those four cables that stretched across and connected the corners of the ring, one to the next, that were responsible for containing the aura of Old Lumpinee. If the stadium itself was the body then the ring was the heart, the place of convergence for all energy that flowed to and from its center. But just like the fighters who warred within it, it wasn’t built to last forever. Time outlives everything and everyone. And Old Lumpinee had its time, about 58 years worth.

Whenever I’m driving on Rama IV Road and pass the place where my old friend used to hang out I become a bit nostalgic. I always get this feeling that I’ll pass by and see him there once again, that old worn out body standing among the modern skyscrapers and offices and malls of an emerging city. But he’s never there. It’s just an empty lot now. A field of rubble. The last remains Old Lumpinee Stadium.

Temples of Triumph and Sorrow Part 1: Rajadamnern Stadium

The sun sets on downtown Bangkok. Its rays leave a layer of gold and red on everything they touch. It’s a colorful contrast to the concrete and corrugated steel that stretches through most of the cityscape. But it’s only a temporary exposition. For soon enough night will fall and it will be the lights of the city that illuminate the masses. And if one so happens to be on Rajadamnern Nok Road, and follows the straight line of lights from the Parliament just southwest, they will eventually come to a building whose history spans almost 70 years.

But despite being centered in Bangkok’s government district, the constantly evolving and devolving political sphere of Thailand, it has remained relatively unchanged save for an added rooftop and outside shops. It’s a tough and weathered structure, full of beauty and brutality, an iconic landmark that has seen just as much action outside as it has inside. Reds and Yellows are in a continuous power struggle out front. While on the inside Blues and Reds battle for supremacy of the squared stage. It’s Bangkok’s last remaining muay thai relic of times past: Rajadamnern Stadium.

Rajadamnern Stadium opened its doors in December of 1945. Since that time it’s had quite a run in the history books. It’s where Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn proved to the martial arts world that muay thai was the king of the ring after dismantling a spastic Taekwondo fighter with his trademark knees. It’s where Coban Lookchaomaesaithong made his stadium debut at just 15 years old. It’s where greats such as Boonlai and Superlek forged their legacies.

Its history doesn’t stop there, though. Rajadamnern Stadium continues to play an integral role in showcasing both the beauty and brutality of muay thai. It’s paradoxical that these two elements, which lie on opposite ends of the spectrum, can coexist. But inside the belly of this great building there is a place for both of them.

Timo Ruge, fight documentarian for Muay Ties, has captured over 500 fights at Rajadamnern. When asked about the beauty and brutality of its fights, he immediately recalls two that stand out the most.

Ruge remembers a tactical rematch in 2013 between the vicious left-kicker, Kongsak PK Saenchaimuaythaigym (formerly Sitboonmee) and mae muay specialist, Saenchai PK Saenchaimuaythaigym. “Kongsak versus Saenchai was almost like a symphony…they even fought with a smile while kicking each other,” Ruge said.

And on the other end, Ruge brings up a banger from late 2014 between the always exciting Pornsanae Sitmonchai and E.T. PTT Thongthavi. “Pornsanae coming back from being knocked down and being cut was a different thrill,” Ruge said. “It was like a punk rock concert.”

Though Rajadamnern Stadium was originally built to carry on a pastime of Thai culture, it has become a Mecca for foreign fighters as well. But most will be surprised of the vast differences between fighting at Rajadamnern and back west. In the warm-up areas fighters don’t hit pads, they don’t get lost in music, they don’t yell or find other ways to pump themselves up.

Ognjen Topic, the American based fighter who now lives and trains and fights in Thailand, and who has fought at Rajadamnern, spoke of these variances. “In Thailand fighting is considered a job, rarely are there emotions attached to a fight or an opponent you are fighting.”

Once in the ring he noticed other subtleties as well.

“The biggest difference between fighting at Rajadamnern Stadium as opposed to a venue back home is the crowd,” Topic said. “The chanting of the crowd will quickly persuade you to fight your best fight.”

Topic is referring to the large mass of gamblers that stand atop the stadium seating and shoot hand signals like they work for the New York Stock Exchange. They hold no banners in support of the fighters. They do not cheer upon a fighter’s entrance. It’s only the fight they are here to see, the chance to double or triple their wages while taking in some of the greatest muay thai fights of modern history.

It is a different take from the group of foreigners who watch in awe from ringside. They’re not here to gamble on red or blue or who they think will dominate round four. They are here simply to observe a culture’s rite of passage, the pugilistic path that poverty-stricken youth take to transcend the hardships of rural Thai life, and to take in an exciting part of the culture that’s often frowned upon by Thai middles and elites.

Just as two fighters leave the ring, two more are about to make their way out. But if not for the scratchy voice being amplified over an archaic sound system, no one would even know. There is no walk out music, no grand entrances, no fanfare. Just the hint of color off in the distance. It’s the glowing color of gold and red reflecting off a fighter’s robe and mongkon. And then they appear, from within the shadows of this concrete colossus, two more fighters who are about to leave their mark in the history books of Rajadamnern.