THE THAPAE BOXING STADIUM in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, looks nothing like your standard sporting arena.
It doesn't have the distinct architecture that typical indoor stadiums have, announcing their presence to the world. Nor does it have the ascending rows of seats that accentuate the gravity of the action taking place at the centre. In fact, a wary tourist walking down the market could easily overlook its small door and humble ticket counter smaller than that of a travel agency, flanked by nondescript bars and restaurants.
Inside, the boxing ring is surrounded by a number of pubs and snack restaurants. The chairs in the arena are placed next to long tables where spectators (Mostly western tourists) can enjoy a full serving of dinner and cockltails (500 baht for a bucket of sangsom, gin, vodka & mojito) and have loud conversations while enjoying a full card of professional Muay Thai bouts, with its violent striking exchanges and concussional knockouts performed mostly by entry-level athletes looking for experience, presented in full traditional flair with music and customarily dramatic announcers.
Arjun Aj, sitting in one corner of the dressing room, took in the smell of booze and cooked seafood that was to accompany his professional debut in the sport of Muay Thai. He had travelled a long way from his home state of Karnataka, India, to take part in the riskiest endeavour of his life on a short notice. His dream of making a career in professional Muay Thai depended heavily on how he fared in this brutal trial by fire in a back-alley building.
When his turn to walk out to the ring came near, his gym comrades from Team Quest, Chiang Mai stood around him as a 'Ruesi' (monk) blessed him and prayed for his health. Quietly, his trainers dressed him in the traditional attire of a Muay Thai fighter - a 'Monkol' or head band and 'Prajioud' or armbands made of cloth. At the gym, Arjun had heard stories about the origins of these traditions. In ancient times, when young men went to battle, their mothers used to tie a piece of cloth torn from their skirt (Surong) around their arms for good luck. As his coach taped up his boxing gloves, Arjun thought of his family & friends back home.
It had been over a year since he had quit the job that was proving to be too taxing to continue along with training twice a day and taking time off for competing. He had made a name for himself in the burgeoning Kerala state circuit, expanded into other forms of combat including grappling and made his way to Kimura Martial Arts & Fitness gym in Mysore, before joining Superhuman Gym in Manipal, all in search of opportunities to test himself as a professional fighter.
Yet, to get himself started on the right path, he had to make another move, his furthest yet, to the country where his preferred combat sport originated,
"Somebody at Kimura, a judo black-belt from New Zealand, told me about Team Quest from Chiang Mai. He said there was an opportunity for new fighters like me to go over there and get cutting-edge training, and if they liked me they'd sponsor me to train and fight. I contacted the gym through him. I thought amateur experience in India would count there too but that wasn't the case. They said they'd make a one-time exception from me but I'd have to come over on my own initiative and prove myself from ground-up. They'd look at my skill level first and then decide whether to sponsor me or not."
So thus it was that Arjun Aj arrived at Chiang Mai, regional cultural & commercial hub in Northern Thailand, with a two month visa and a borderline reckless plan,
"Usually it takes 10-15 days to see if a fighter is ready for a bout. You take a one month membership and they assess where you are technically. Essentially it's all about whether you're strong enough for competition or not. If you've got a bit of technique and in decent condition, they encourage you to take up a fight. They'll come to you and ask if you'd like a fight."
Except, Arjun didn't intend to wait around for them to bring him an opportunity,
"I asked for a fight at the earliest opportunity. I wanted to get into the deep end, wasting time was not an option."
Arjun had reasons to be optimistic. At Team Quest, he was feeling right at home going through their rigorous training schedule,
"Different gyms have different approaches to training. For example, there's Santai Muay Thai. Over there they do padwork twice a day. Five rounds, five minutes per round. At Team Quest, however, there is a lot of running. Twice a day, in the morning and then in the evening before workout. The pace they prescribe is relaxed, but not too relaxed. It's a bit beginner-friendly. At the workout we did shadowboxing beforehand, and then strength and conditioning. Then there's sparring, every day."
It was in sparring that Arjun convinced his trainers at Team Quest that he was indeed ready to take a professional bout. And it wasn't long before they entered him in a fight card being held at the Thapae Stadium; the dingy arena flanked by pubs, reastaurants and Seven-Elevens, where Arjun was to make his professional Muay Thai debut just about three weeks after he had arrived at Team Quest.
He was paired up with a local youngster; a promising athlete hungry to gain respect for himself in the professional arena just like Arjun. And his intention was to assert dominance from the first second of the bout. Arjun had little option but to reciprocate this aggressive style.
The moment the bell rang, Arjun's opponent came out swinging, trying to overwhelm him. For the first few seconds, both men were engaged in a full-on striking battle from range. They matched each other kick for kick, knee for knee. Soon they were up against the rope and clinched. As they held each other tightly they used quick movements to create space to land knee strikes on the kidney and the ribs. After a few seconds of that, the referee stepped in and separated them.
When the referee ordered for action to resume, Arjun's opponent charged in towards him again. Arjun moved backwards to maintain some distance and threw jabs to check his progress. But by now, he was settling into the fight and had started to pick up his opponent's timing. Sure enough, one of the jabs he threw at his oncoming opponent clipped the chin.
It all unfolded in a split second. Arjun saw his opponent momentarily freeze on the spot from the blow. By instinct, he leaned back his body to create the perfect range for a head kick, and landed it perfectly against his opponent's skull. His opponent grimaced, and for a moment, wobbled on his feet as he hurried to move away from striking range. Now, Arjun was the one doing the chasing.
The two collided again by the rope. This time, Arjun was pursuing a wounded prey, looking to finish the jab. His opponent tried to clinch, hoping to freeze the action for a few seconds and use that time to recover. But as he got close, Arjun feinted with a jab and followed it up with a brutal elbow.
His opponent recoiled, instinctively lifting his arm to protect his face, leaving his body wide open. Arjun leapt to his toes to land a devastating, decisive knee.
The referee leapt between the two fighters, his arms waving high and wide. It was over. Arjun had won his professional Muay Thai debut via a spectacular knockout.
As Arjun's gloved fist was raised by the referee in the ceremonial announcement of his victory, he took a few seconds to process what had just happened,
"After the adrenaline rush, there was relief that it was over and then just happiness. I had managed to prove a point. I was confident that I had the necessary skill-set and experience, but demonstrating that in the ring, the real one in pro Muay Thai, felt great."
The win - a dominant one at that - was validation not only for Arjun's decision to give up a stable job to pursue combat sports full time and travel to Thailand at great personal monetary and career-risk to test himself on a short notice, but it also helped establish a precedent that could help other Indian fighters in the future. It demonstrated that the skills & achievements picked up in the amateur circuits of Kerala could bring success in the toughest professional circuits the sport of Muay Thai had to offer. It was a step, however big or small small, towards establishing Indian Muay Thai on the world map.
It wasn't long before he got offered a second fight. Arjun was on a roll, so he wanted to keep the momentum going. This time, the bout would not be held at an entry-level venue like the Thapae Stadium. He was included in a card at the famous Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium: a proper combat sports arena with modern facilities, a state-of-the-art circular lighting grid over its ring, and spectator ramps all around that go sold out on most fight nights, many of whom are televised.
Arjun, evidently, had a preference for the kind of arenas he wanted to perform in, and he visualised himself fighting at the Mecca of Muay Thai,
"A Muay Thai fighter will only be happy when he fights at Rajadamnern Stadium or Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok. When that happens, one can say he made it to the pinnacle of his career as a Muay Thai fighter."
Nevertheless, the Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium was a considerable upgrade. On top of that, as a foreign fighter, he was given a featured bout on the card. His opponent, Mamnuaibet, was expected to be a tougher challenge. And Arjun was ready.
For two rounds it was an intense blow-for-blow contest. In the third round, Arjun finally cornered his opponent by the ropes and knocked him straight out.
With a professional record of 2-0 now, both by knockout, Arjun was being seen as a rising contender in the Northern Thailand circuits. His trainers wanted him to get another fight under his belt as soon as possible,
"After my second bout they said I'd get another fight a week later. I was up for it. But then before that they came up with this festival event where Paul Beanasiak was also fighting. He was in the main event, I was in co-main event. It was going to happen just four days after the second fight. It seemed like a good opportunity so I said yes."
Although it's not unheard of for Muay Thai fighters to take two pro bouts within a few days, it wasn't something Arjun was accustomed to. And this third fight was going to put him in an environment that he had never experienced before; something that would be more alien to him than the booze and fast food filled buzz of the Thapae Stadium.
The bout was going to take place at a fair ground in a village called Lampang. A Muay Thai card was being put on as a side attraction at the Loi Krathong festival; a common occurrence in Thai culture. So on the day of the event, Arjun and his trainers and gym colleagues drove three and a half hours to reach the venue.
Even though Arjun had heard a lot about the festival atmosphere, it still surprised him a little,
"It was a big social event and the whole village was there. There were so many things happening all over the place. All sorts of music playing, restaurants, games everything. On one side there was a boxing ring and those who loved fights were gathered around to see it."
Arjun was booked for a five round bout, each round being three minutes. Having just fought three rounds a few days prior, plus the long road trip that he had just taken, he was going to have to control his energy expenditure to avoid early fatigue. With a number of situational disadvantages, he stepped into the ring, and the result was less than satisfactory,
"It was a very tough fight. We went at each other all 15 minutes and I lost by unanimous decision. It became tough to keep up the pace towards the end of the bout, but people were saying they thought I won the first three rounds and therefore should have won the fight. But these things happen, judges' decisions aren't always going to be the way you want."
To add to Arjun's frustration, a shin injury he sustained during the fight proved to be a bother and he had to pull out of the bout he was originally booked into after his second win. The injury also meant that for the remainder of his two month visa he would not be able to fight again. And he didn't have the money to extend his stay on his own expenses.
He was hoping to get sponsored by Team Quest for a prolonged stay free of cost - a facility available to select fighters who represent the gym in competitions - but the trainers weren't ready to offer that yet,
"I think they wanted me to stay for 4-5 months longer on my own expenses before they took a final decision to sponsor me long term... I completely understand their decision on that front and respect that. But my visa was only for 60 days so I didn't go through with that."
Arjun's maiden Muay Thai adventure in Thailand would thus end with three bouts, held in three wildly different arenas and atmospheres, with increasing levels of difficulty. Given everything, two wins by knockout and one loss by decision in a close fight wasn't the worst outcome,
"I'm really glad that I got to spend time there, training, experiencing the culture and taking valuable lessons. I've made some great friends and I still stay in touch with them. I'd love the chance to go back and get more fights if I find the right sponsorship. Right now all I can do is make the most of the opportunities I get."
It was late 2019 when Arjun returned to India. He went back to Superhuman Gym in Manipal, where he trained as well as worked as a Muay Thai, Kickboxing and Jiu Jiutsu coach.
His intention was to participate in multiple combat sports in 2020. Superhuman Gym owner Somesh Kamra was looking for opportunities to get him his debut fight in Mixed Martial Arts. But right when certain offers started to line up, the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a halt.
Arjun disliked the lockdown-induced inertia,
"The first month was kind of tough. For the first few days, I was able to train a little bit. For a while I was training myself and I manage to get some other stuff in as well. First week was okay, then on the second week I had a scooter accident. That was rought. I had to stay in the house for 10 days doing nothing, just recovering from the injuries. Once the wounds healed, I got back to training. By training I mean a more relaxed routine. I live with two or three other colleagues so it's easy to train. Training on the balcony, going to the nearby lake to get runs in, mostly shadow boxing and running throughout the lockdown. After lockdown relaxed, a few friends would sometimes come over and work out. That's all I have for now, just waiting for the world to get back to normal."
The past year has taken its toll on most martial artists, especially those who depend on a gym for a living. The pressure was eased a bit when Arjun got the opportunity to take part in a professional Muay Thai bout in Roar Championship, held recently at the Superhuman Gym. He won the fight by unanimous decision.
But the situation is still far from ideal for Arjun to pursue his career,
"There are very few opportunities in Martial Arts right now, and there won't be as long as the pandemic is still here. I'm ready, I need to gain experience and prove myself. I intend to fight in Muay Thai, Kickboxing as well as MMA. With a little more experience I want to get into ONE Championship. That's an ideal organization for me because they have all three of these combat sports. Their divisions in Muay Thai and Kickboxing, they excite me so much. The fights there are just great, to be honest."
So as of now, with a professional Muay Thai record of 3 wins and 1 loss, Arjun is awaiting some normalcy and the opportunity to reach his next big aim of stepping into the ring at Asia's biggest Martial Arts promotion. Being a rare Indian athlete with experience in international Muay Thai circuits, he understands the challenges that lie ahead, but for now he has something that wasn't on his side during his spell with Team Quest: time,
"At times you have to take risks, you have to put yourself out there whether it's an opportunity to train somewhere great or fight at a short notice. No matter what happens, you'll gain some valuable lessons. There will always be time later on to use that knowledge to improve yourself as an athlete. What's improtant is that you take those chances, and don't be afraid to aim high."