BANGKOK, Thailand -- When a Muay Thai kickboxer's brain is battered by the star-twinkling impact from too many hits, and the fighter becomes spaced-out and forgetful, retirement can mean a dismal life far from the maddening crowd of cheering and jeering fans at sweaty boxing arenas.

The elderly Amnuay Kesbumrung and his aged colleague, Sompong Janpatrak, however, are defying those black-and-blue odds and they continue to enjoy Thailand's most popular sport.

Muay Thai allows fists, elbows, feet, shins, knees and jumps to be used.

During Thailand's history, several kings became great boxers or patrons, and kickboxing was also taught to their security forces. Early competitive boxers often wrapped rope around their fists, resulting in brutal injuries, until gloves were introduced in the early 1900s.

"I was born December 14, 1935, and am now 73 years old," Amnuay said in Thai language during an interview.

"I boxed for about 10 years, beginning when I was 12 years old. After I quit, I had different jobs, including selling automobiles. But I have also been president of the Muay Thai Institute for the past 22 years."

The institute includes Rangsit Stadium, which Amnuay owns, located on Phahonyothin Road in Pathumthani, just beyond Bangkok's northern outskirts, past Don Muang airport.

Amnuay is also on the World Muay Thai Council, and oversees a school at his stadium which teaches Muay Thai boxing to Thais and foreigners.

"I stopped professional boxing because I suffered a broken heart after I lost a championship match. So then I opened a gym for boxers."

That loss came when in the late 1950s when he was fighting to be in the Asian Games, which could have led to his appearance representing Thailand at the Olympics. But his opponent beat him, and broke Amnuay's competitive spirit.

Most old kickboxers do not enjoy their senior years, because Muay Thai can cause irreparable damage, he said.

"There have been no medical problems for me, but for other boxers, they can have problems with their brain, especially if they are fighting for a long time.

"If you are attacked too many times at your head, it will be too easy for you forget things, like forgetting names, or forgetting where you live. Ninety percent of old Muay Thai boxers have that problem, if they have boxed for 15 or 20 years.

"For example, when they are talking and talking, they will suddenly forget what they are talking about. Or they will be walking like they are drunk, wobbling without balance."

Despite the risks, many Thai male children like to casually challenge each other, and spontaneously show off their kicking ability.

"I love Muay Thai," Amnuay said. "Normally, when we are young, and with our friends, we will fight to see who is better. It is fun."

Even though he is elderly, the heavy-set Amnuay still flings his fists and feet to demonstrate the most efficient way to clobber an opponent.

"Sometimes, when I am training students, I box a little bit, just to teach the techniques. My specialty is that I have lots of detailed techniques, because I have lots of experience from many years of training."

He also tries to stay in touch with his graying colleagues, though most have drifted from the padded square ring.

"I know more than 100,000 Muay Thai kickboxers, all of them old and retired. About 10 percent of them, after retiring, opened a gym or teach a boxing course. But about 90 percent of them just relax in their old age, and have no connection with boxing. Normally an old boxer has a family, and relaxes and enjoys life."

Muay Thai, meanwhile, now enjoys a worldwide reputation, with classes and competitions in many countries.

"It is different than other sports, because Muay Thai is a hard sport. You attack and are attacked. In other sports, you don't have to use so much energy. We teach step-by-step, especially in the beginning. If you love fighting, it doesn't matter how old you are," Amnuay said.

Sompong Janptrak, whose professional name was Rawee Dechachai, also continues to spar with youngsters who want to learn, even though he is now 67 years old.

"I was a middle-weight champion," Sompong said in Thai language during an interview at the Rangsit Stadium. "I began boxing when I was 18 years old, and I boxed for 30 years. Then I had some problems.

"I actually don't think that I suffer any problems because of Muay Thai, but many people say I am very forgetful.

"I don't have any medical problems with my kidneys or anything else from being kicked, and I can walk fine, so I think I am fine."

Boxers who faced Sompong in his heyday usually regretted swapping hits with the still-stocky dynamo, who displays a faded blue dragon tattoo on his upper right arm.

"After fighting with me, other boxers had mental problems, especially some of the boxers who I hit with my elbows, because I am famous in Thailand for hitting with my elbows," Sompong said, making the sound as if his pointy elbow bone was repeatedly smacking into someone's head: "Bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp, bomp!"

"After that, their brains became blurred, and their memory was no longer so good. They could not control themselves, after they became blurred. Maybe some of them suffered for only a short time, or maybe they suffered for many years. I don't know, because I never saw them again.

"I don't punch with my fists," Sompong said, grinning proudly. "I just use my elbows."

His bent arm created a sensational slicer, tipped with his toughened elbow. But his career eventually came to a halt.

"I became old, or at least I thought I was becoming old. When I was about 33, I stopped professional boxing. Then I became a boxing teacher. Since then, I never had any other work, just teaching. I come here to Rangsit Stadium every day at about 9 a.m., and go home at about 5 p.m. My monthly salary is 10,000 baht.

"I like Muay Thai because it is good for your body, and it makes you healthy," he said, avoiding the irony of his mental state.

"Boxing in competitions is a good job to make money. And it is also fun."

Sompong said his kickboxing also attracted groupies.

"I now have four wives. With my first wife, I have two daughters. With my second wife, one son and one daughter. No children with my third and forth wives. Today, I am legally married to the second wife, but all four of my wives live in my house together.

"I have four wives because women like me. Especially when I was a champion, I was quite famous and handsome."


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)