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.

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