Boxing is a sport most people either love or hate. It’s a love affair of sorts and like any love affair you’re bound to have your ups and downs, your periodic tiffs; at times you may feel like packing it in and giving up on her, other times you feel you can’t live without her. Boxing journalists have a symbiotic, love-hate relationship with the sport and I’m no different. While I love the brutal artistry of the combat in the ring – I despise the politics of the sport outside of it.
The story below is a true story and an example of what a boxing journalist goes through for his love of the sport and to deliver the punch to the reader.
Veeraphol Sahaprom vs. Joel Bauya took place on August 25, 2005.
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In early 2005, Veeraphol Sahaprom lost the bantamweight crown to a young Japanese fighter, Hozumi Hasegawa. The title had been Sahaprom’s for nearly seven years, the loss was a dramatic moment in the aging veteran’s career. Two fights later, in August of 2005, Sahaprom was scheduled to fight Joel Bauya of the Philippines in Chainart, Thailand. Eager to see what the 36-year-old ex-champion had left in his tank, I decided to take the three hour bus ride to the little-known town of Chainart.
Fights in Thailand are often put on a day or two in advance, and in some cases the only promotion for the show might be a truck with thunderous loudspeakers cruising through the city and outlying villages. Somehow, with or without promotion, fans and journalists always seem to sniff out the whereabouts of the fight.
The Sahaprom – Bauya fight would be easy to find. At the town’s bus station, I’d be able to find out exactly where the fight was being held. Any motorcycle taxi driver worth his salt would know the location, so I set my alarm and began preparing myself for the trip the following morning.I grabbed a daypack, stuffed it full of necessities and then checked and rechecked to make certain nothing was missing; camera, two lenses, four batteries, three memory cards, a change of clothes, one large bottle of Evian, and one extremely long, F.B.T. (1) hand towel to wipe away the sweat.
At 9 AM I hit the road – on foot. It takes me about 15 minutes to get from my home, to the main road, to catch a taxi. I normally stop in at the local 7’11 for some water and a Red Bull before hailing a cab. The 7’11 employees know I’m a boxing journalist and always ask where I’m going, how I’m getting there and, of course, why my wife isn’t going. I always ignore the last question. Stopping in at 7’11 for a Red Bull is some sort of weird, pre-fight ritual I have – or it could be because here in Thailand there’s a 7’11 every 100 yards.
By 9:30 I’m in a cab and on my way to the bus station. Bangkok traffic is miserable at best and it takes another hour to get to the Mor Chit station. I step up to the window, pay the 160 baht ($4.00) for a ticket, and wait 30 minutes for the 11 o’clock bus. Fifteen minutes before eleven, the driver opens the door and starts letting passengers in. The bus is air-conditioned, clean, and halfway through the journey, the bus steward passes out free Pepsi to the passengers. The bus ride is more like a boat on the high seas, but an hour into the trip and despite the nausea-inducing ride; I settle in and doze off.
Getting to the fight early is a must, especially when the show involves someone as well-known in Thailand as Veeraphol Sahaprom. Arriving an hour or two before TV airtime affords ample opportunity to set up, and secure the best position on the ring apron. I arrive at the Chainart bus station at 2 PM on the dot, plenty of time before the scheduled start of 3:30. There’s always a plethora of motorcycle taxis and tuk-tuks (2) waiting for the weary, so with a quick nod and a ten-second negotiation, I have my transportation and learn the locale of the fight is thirty minutes away at an elementary school. The tuk-tuk sped along the narrow road running adjacent to the rice paddies. Entire villages whiz by in seconds and fight time closes in quickly. We turn off the main road and on to a thin, dirt road. Friendly Thai country-folk wave enthusiastically, children playing near the edge of the road laugh and scream, “farang, farang (3),” as a crowd walks in unison towards the mass of lights ahead in the distance.
A policeman directs traffic; the small town isn’t prepared for the droves of boxing fans. The silhouette of a boxing ring emerges from behind the clutter, sitting on a field of grass. The bright lights above the ring glow in the heat of the sun. They seem out of place and unnecessary. At this moment I realize – I’ve made it to one more show; this is what I’m here for. I get a surge of adrenaline and jump out of the tuk-tuk. I thank the driver for delivering me alive, pay him his 160 baht, and glance at my watch; 2:30 now, perfect timing. The cool breeze in the tuk-tuk has given way to the searing Thai heat. The air is motionless and it cooks me from the inside-out. I am already drenched with sweat and feel like a fried egg. Thirsty, I grab a can of Sponsor (4) from a nearby booth and head over to the ring. Spectators make their way towards the ring, slowly and in no particular hurry. I nod a hello to the judges who have already arrived; then take a look around for the TV camera, gauging where I need to be. I clean my camera lens, carefully, give the camera a quick once-over and put the soft, cloth back in my camera bag before taking a few test shots. A few minor adjustments and I’m ready. The music has started and my adrenaline is pumping. An announcer mumbles something unintelligible, but I do manage to hear, “The show will begin at 3:30…3:30!”
Huge, steel fans surrounding the ring spray a fine mist of cool water out into the crowd in an effort to keep them cook, but it’s far short of what is needed to provide sufficient relief.By fight time, the field surrounding the ring is packed with boxing fans eagerly waiting to see “their” champion. The ring fills quickly; trainers, officials, journalists, photographers, sponsors, the ring announcer and all the boxers fighting in the show cram in to the ring to hear how wonderful the show will be and how many important people are attending. Finally the exodus begins.
To be continued…
1. F.B.T. – Football Thailand; one of the largest sporting goods companies in Thailand.
2. Tuk-tuk – Thailand's ubiquitous form of transportation. A three-wheeled, auto rickshaw, a cross between a small car and a motorcycle.
3. Farang – Foreigner; Thai’s generally refer to light-skinned, or white-skinned, non-Thais as Farang.
4. Sponsor – Gatorade-like, sports drink, popular in Thailand