Training in masks and standing 2m apart, Thailand’s professional Muay Thai fighters are battling a replacement reality – shuttered gyms and cancelled events after the coronavirus pandemic left them suddenly out of labour.
Muay Thai could be a no-holds-barred combat sport that employs striking techniques via shins, knees and elbows.
But with strict social distancing rules in situ to stem the spread of COVID-19, former world champion Sarawut Prohmsut can now only faint while a sparring mate jabs at him from distance during training.
“How are you able to enclose these conditions? We do not have any strong sensations, no adrenaline,” he told Agence France-Presse at the Luktupfah Muay Thai gym.
The 23-year-old accustomed earn 20,000 to 30,000 baht (S$1,300) a month from tournaments, with most of it being remitted home to support his family.
The crisis has, however, hit the game hard, with stadiums the primary to shut after a cluster of infections was discovered at one large-scale event in early March.
Without any income and bouts cancelled, many fighters have returned to their home provinces where training has stalled.
“Overnight, everything stopped,” says Somiong, a 24-year-old ethnic Karen boxer who returned to Kanchanaburi after the stadium ban.
He and Sarawut have joined millions who are out of labour due to the virus, which has ravaged the country’s tourism, entertainment, and food and beverage industries.
While the Thai government has promised a monthly cash handout of 5,000 baht to affected workers, boxers without a selected licence don’t seem to be eligible for the help.
On the uncertainty the contagion has wrought, Jade Sisisompan, who works for the planet Muay Thai Organisation and is additionally the co-owner of Luktupfah gym, added: “It can quickly become catastrophic.
“Most are fighting since they were children and might do nothing else.”
Tournaments in Bangkok are often high-stakes spectacles, drawing hundreds to cheer – and bet – on prospective winners fighting in brightly lit rings.
However, since many infections were traced back to about at Lumpinee Stadium – a star host, politicians and armed forces officials were among high-profile attendees to check positive for COVID-19 – the game has ground to a halt.
The impact of the shutdown was immediate for somebody, who accustomed train seven hours daily. Like most professional fighters in Thailand, the ring has served as the simplest way out of poverty for him and his family since he started training at 11.
Someone, however, doesn’t have Thai citizenship and can not qualify for state assistance.
“Now I can not help my parents with money,” he told AFP as he helped his mother harvest coriander back home. “It plays plenty on my mind.”
There are some fighters within the community who are trying to assist their peers through a difficult time.
Former world champion Samart Payakaroon has been offering free online Muay Thai lessons for the past fortnight, not only to fill the void but also to stop fighters from “regressing in their training”.
Yet more has to be done. Thailand reported over 2,700 cases up to yesterday – a figure considered low in reference to neighbours Singapore and Indonesia.
But with without stopping to the outbreak, Samart has conceded that “it will take time before Thais return to the stadium”.