A fighting chance: Bangkok gym turns zeroes into heroes
Former prison inmates among those given a shot at redemption in the boxing ring with an innovative program that is producing impressive results
“Any young fighter who has the drive and determination to learn boxing, come to our gym; you will be fed, you will be trained, you can sleep here and, if you are hungry and develop, we’ll get behind you.”
These were the words of an unusual advertising campaign that coaxed an unlikely band of Muay Thai fighters, former prisoners and even a holidaying Englishman to a Bangkok boxing gym with the promise of turning sweat into dreams.
In 2011, Thai promoter Jimmy Chaichotchuang launched the Zero to Hero program through a series of adverts in Thailand’s leading newspapers. This left-field strategy encouraged future IBF flyweight champion Amnat Ruenroeng as well as reformed inmates from the notoriously tough Thai prison system to join the stable – with impressive results.
At the Kiatkreerin Gym in Bangkok, boxers are provided room and board with their additional salary stemming from slots on regular fight cards across Thailand as well as title assignments in China, Japan and the Philippines.
“I wanted to do something where I could give boxers who are poor an opportunity. Many want to start boxing, but there is no space for them,” Chaichotchuang, 44, says during a recent visit to the baking hot gym in the capital’s Samphanthawong district. “Most of our boxers don’t come from Bangkok but the provinces. That’s why we installed rooms in our gym for them to live in.”
The Zero to Hero program also delivered English trainer Rian Munton to the Kiatkreerin Gym. A former product of the Woking Amateur Boxing Club in the south of England, Munton had settled in Australia before the ad piqued his interest during a holiday in Thailand. Munton has brought western boxing methodology eastwards, rapidly improving fighters such as Eaktawan BTU Ruaviking (22-3, 15 KOs) who challenges crack Filipino Donnie Nietes for the vacant IBF 112-pound title in Cebu City, Philippines on April 29.
Pro boxers in Thailand usually learn their fighting fundamentals from the national sport of Muay Thai, which leaves them ill-prepared for the new discipline. Muay Thai fighters trade on strength and toughness and therefore do not generally employ the necessary head movement, defense and mobility required to reach the pinnacle of pro boxing. Here, Munton has been able to make welcome adjustments.
“Eaktawan has been at the gym for about 10 months, but he’s really taken to the camp,” Munton says. “He was originally training at Thonburi University gym, as part of a sponsorship. They had a nice set-up, but it was more of a Muay Thai training environment. You could tell. When he came here he was very stiff and rigid coming forward. Now he is using his legs, moving his head, slipping and rolling punches more.
“In his last bout, he fought a Filipino kid [Jeny Boy Boca] and I was worried. The opponent was only 12-3 [10 KOs], but I had no video of him, a nightmare scenario. But Eaktawan was so relaxed and sharp. The kid turned out to be limited but he was a banger, a good puncher, wide shoulders. He came to win, but Eaktawan stopped him in six with a lovely body shot. I am hopeful against Nietes. It could be timing, luck, all the right ingredients.”
Former jailbird Amnat, an ex-Muay Thai champion who had been granted early release after winning a prison boxing tournament, exceeded all expectations by winning the self-same IBF title and defending it against a slew of highly rated contenders. He left the gym in 2016 after losing his crown in a rematch against Filipino puncher Johnriel Casimero and then taking advantage of AIBA’s controversial new rule allowing professional fighters to compete in the Rio Olympics [losing in the round of 16 to eventual lightweight silver medalist Sofiane Oumiha].
Now it’s the turn of a new crop of Kiatkreerin Gym hopefuls including rising junior welterweight Downua Ruaviking, who took down a shell-shocked Yuto Marouka in one round to win the IBF Pan-Pacific title in February.
“Downua is 6-0 [4 KOs]. He’s only been with us eight months, but Jimmy has been fast-tracking him. He has ability and is big for the weight. Tall, rangy, long arms,” trainer Munton says after Downua had sparred with visiting Irishman John “The Buncrana Banger” Hutchinson. “That’s the hardest thing in Thailand – finding good sparring. You don’t get any variety in the training regime. It’s the same guy sparring over and over, even if he’s good you know what he’s going to do. You get so comfortable with them you don’t grow, but if you get someone new come in, like John, it challenges them a little bit.”
With veteran Amnat moving back to the Muay Thai circuit, Chaichotchuang hopes Thailand’s next major boxing draw will be nurtured in the same gym. “My boxers don’t speak English, but they can communicate with Rian in boxing language,” says Chaichotchuang, who took on the family boxing business at the age of 23 and later promoted with Don King in America.
“It’s a good opportunity for Eaktawan to fight with Nietes. But, if he wins, it’s a big thing for Thailand, our people and the new king. Boxing here now is not like the past. We have a lot of competition from other sports like soccer and badminton. It’s not an easy business, but I’m always looking for young, talented boxers who might become the next Thai boxing superstar.”