(Read Part 1 of Scott Mallon's feature on Chartchai Chionoi)
The morning after I arrived I was told the water pump was out and I’d have to use the creek to bathe in. The family seemed to think it might create a bit of a hardship for me but I actually thought it would be pleasant bathing outdoors. Chionoi Creek is a hundred yards or so away from the home, hidden by a row of huge trees. The water is clear and cool and was perfect for bathing. Later in the day though, a new pump was installed and all was back to normal.
Chionoi’s wife, Oot, apologized for not having water but explained they had just returned from their daughter’s in Bangkok and hadn’t yet had time to replace the pump. She also apologized for the grassy area surrounding the house on three sides which was waist high and desperately in need of a trim.
The majority of the following interview was done in Thai and English at Chionoi’s home in Chiang Mai. Chionoi and his wife both speak decent English so we mixed our conversations with English and Thai. Chartchai and I sat on the sofa in the front room side-by-side for the majority of three days, only periodically taking breaks. The conversation below is but a fraction of the time we spent together.
Mallon / TSS: So – how’s everything going?
Chartchai Chionoi: Good but I’ve got a bad toothache and it really hurts.
Mallon / TSS: A toothache? Why don’t you go to the dentist?
Chartchai Chionoi: No….no dentist. I don’t like dentists.
Chionoi’s wife Oot steps in and tells me “He won’t go because he’s scared of dentists.”
At the same time, I’m offered some Thai chocolate wafers by Chartchai’s son, Boi. They are similar to Kit-Kat bars but lighter and come one wafer to a package, around fifty to a bag. The bag is full and I take a few. Chionoi smiles as he eagerly grabs a handful. He quickly opens one and begins eating it. They are like potato chips, once you start eating them it’s hard to stop and Chionoi doesn’t stop for quite awhile. Somehow he has managed to stay fit though, even with his obsession with chocolate wafers and after being out of the ring for more than 30 years.
Oot: He eats these all day. If I give him the whole bag, he’ll eat all of them so I hide them and give them to him a few at a time.
Chionoi is chomping away non-stop on the chocolate wafers. There are three or four of the bars lying in front of him on the coffee table and his pockets are stuffed full with them.
When Oot walks away he puts his finger to his mouth and looks over at me.
Chartchai: Ssshhhhhhhh….don’t tell her.
Mallon / TSS: I won’t tell her but did you ever think that eating all of these might be the reason you’ve got such a toothache?
He just shakes his head as if he can’t believe he has such a toothache.
Note – This interaction with Chartchai was on the first day after I arrived in Chiang Mai. My initial thoughts of him were that he reminded me of a kindly grandfather, not of a champion fighter. When he spoke of boxing though I could sense he still had the competitive fire burning in him.
I told him he should just break down and see a dentist but had no success in convincing him. A visit to the dentist might have made a world of difference in how he felt but he wasn’t going no matter how much he hurt.
Whenever I travel, I always bring a small pharmacy – just in case. In my first aid kit I carry an assortment of pills for anything from bruises to diarrhea to pain. I asked Chionoi if he wanted a couple of pills for pain and he quickly replied, “Yes. Why, do you have some?!” I handed him two codeine tablets, 60 mgs each, figuring this would be enough to give him some much-needed relief.
Soon thereafter he fell asleep on the sofa in the front room. Shortly after awakening I asked if he felt better and to my surprise I was told “No, I feel the same. The pills didn’t help. I still hurt!”
Two 60 mg tablets of codeine should have been enough to not only take away the pain of his throbbing toothache but also to make him feel a whole lot better. He was clearly in excruciating pain though and they didn’t make a dent.
Mallon / TSS: Besides your toothache, how are you doing?
Chartchai Chionoi: I’m ok – I’m happy. Are you happy? I’m glad you’re here.
Mallon / TSS: I’m glad to be here. You’ve got a beautiful place here, you must really like it.
Chartchai Chionoi: My house is not so big, not so nice, but it’s quiet and I feel better when I’m here. In the morning I sit outside and listen to the birds, it’s nice.
Mallon / TSS: So you live here all the time or do you have somewhere else you stay?
Chartchai Chionoi: We go to my daughter’s Bee’s house in Bangkok once a month and stay for a few weeks. After one of the McGowan fights, I was invited to see the King. He asked me, “If you could have anything, anything at all, what would you want.” So I asked him to give my baby daughter her name and he named her “Bee.”
Mallon / TSS: So I know you get headaches all the time. What’s going on? Do you know?
Chartchai Chionoi: I get headaches all the time.
Mallon / TSS: Maybe because of your toothache?
Chartchai Chionoi: No…I’ve had headaches for a long time, the toothache is only the last two or three months. Sometimes I get dizzy and feel like my head is spinning. When that happens I need quiet and rest.
During my stay, Chionoi would take frequent naps during the day or retire to his bedroom whenever he needed to.
Mallon / TSS: How long have you lived here?
Chartchai Chionoi: Around 3 years. We’ve had the land for about fourteen though.
Mallon / TSS: Your house is full of boxing mementos. What got you into the sport?
Chartchai Chionoi: When I was a little boy I used to watch Chamroen Songkitrat and wanted to be just like him. So I started boxing in school and since I was good at it, I continued.
On May the 2nd, 1954 in the National Stadium of Bangkok, Songkitrat challenged Australian Jimmy Carruthers unsuccessfully for the bantamweight title. The fight took place in the pouring rain and Songkitrat fought barefoot. The bout was viewed by Ring Magazine’s Nat Fleischer and because of the rain was changed from fifteen rounds to twelve.
Chionoi started boxing professionally when he was only 14 years of age and fought for eighteen years.
Mallon / TSS: Did you fight in Muay Thai before boxing?
Chartchai Chionoi: No, never. After I started boxing in grade school I stuck with it.
Mallon / TSS: That’s unusual. Most Thai fighters start out in Muay Thai.
Chartchai Chionoi: When I started fighting I was so young and after I met my wife and we got married, I had to grow up fast. When you have a family to support you do what you need to do. All I knew how to do was fight. My wife…she is the only woman I have ever been with. Promoters would send girls to my room, girls would come to the gym to watch me train – but my wife was the only one for me.
Mallon / TSS: That’s unusual too. Is there any one fight that stands out for you?
Chartchai Chionoi: The fights with Efren Torres, all of them. Miranda, he was tough because he never wanted to fight, he only wanted to dance. I hated fighting him. Walter McGowan – he had such a big heart. He was very polite also.
Oot: And he always dressed so nicely!
Speaking of dressing sharply, during the ‘60s teenagers wanting to copy Chionoi’s hair style would go into their local barbershop and ask for “The Chionoi.”
Mallon / TSS: Was there any one punch you remember? Any one fighter who hit you so hard you still remember his punches?
Chartchai Chionoi: They all hurt and I still remember them all. Sometimes I have dreams and I hear my manager telling me, “left – right – left, go forward, don’t go backwards, move your head!”
Mallon / TSS: What made you stop boxing and what did you do after you stopped boxing?
Chartchai Chionoi: It was just time. I had been boxing for more than half my life and just knew it was time. I had nothing left to prove. After I retired I’ve just relaxed and raised my children.
Mallon / TSS: So what are you doing nowadays?
Chartchai Chionoi: I don’t do much other than relax! I like the quiet here in Chiang Mai. Sometimes we go in to the town and go shopping; sometimes we go to the waterfall on our land to relax.
About fifteen minutes from Chionoi’s house, on the edge of a national park, he has a piece of land with several waterfalls.
Mallon / TSS: This place isn’t relaxing enough?!
Chartchai Chionoi: It is but we get bored so need other places to go.
Mallon / TSS: Tell me about your fight with Ohba. You were knocked out in the twelfth, what happened?
Chartchai Chionoi: It was a mess from the start. I knocked him down in the first or second round and the referee was shaking him as he counted! Not only that, he counted very slowly. Later in the fight, he caught me and knocked me out.
Chionoi’s son Boi enters the conversation, “Chartchai wasn’t right for the fight because someone put something in his drink. We think it was LSD because of the way he was acting. He definitely wasn’t right when the fight started.”
Mallon / TSS: So he was high on LSD while fighting?
Boi: Yes, we think so.
Mallon / TSS: Chartchai, your English is actually pretty good. Where did you learn to speak it?
Chartchai Chionoi: I learned a little here, a little there. I’ve been all over the world; to the U.S., Mexico, England, Panama, Japan and Switzerland so the traveling helped.
Oot: And Nicaragua…
Mallon / TSS: Which of the places did you like best?
Chartchai Chionoi: Switzerland…and Japan.
Mallon / TSS: Do you watch much boxing nowadays?
Chartchai Chionoi: No, not anymore. I did just after I retired but not anymore. I don’t know any of the fighters these days.
Chionoi secretly confided in me that he didn’t think a lot of the fighters who are champions these days would have been champions back in his day or before.
“Too many champions now, “he whispered.
Mallon / TSS: How do you compare boxing today with boxing from your era?
Chartchai Chionoi: Boxing used to be about the sport. Now it seems like it’s all about the money. Money is important of course but boxing is a sport.
Mallon / TSS: Who do you rate as the greatest boxer from Thailand? Was it you? Maybe Khaosai Galaxy? Pone Kingpetch?
Chartchai Chionoi: Pone Kingpetch. When Pone and I fought, we didn’t get the same exposure as when Khaosai fought. Most Thais didn’t have TVs in the ‘60s and ‘70s!
Later I spoke with a taxi driver who told me when he was a little boy he would listen to Kingpetch’s and Chionoi’s fights on the radio. His family didn’t have the money for a TV.
Mallon / TSS: Is he your favorite Thai fighter?
Chartchai Chionoi: Yes.
Mallon / TSS: What about fighters from outside Thailand?
Chartchai Chionoi: Rocky Marciano…and what’s his name? Roberto Duran! I like Duran a lot. He can really fight and was an animal in the ring. I like Marciano’s overhand right though. I used to throw an overhand right and I got it from watching him fight.
Mallon / TSS: Nowadays, even fighters in the lower weight divisions are making $10,000-$20,000 and upwards of $100,000. What was the most you made for any fight in your career?
Chartchai Chionoi: When I fought Fritz Chervet in Switzerland I made around $75,000. I used to walk around with a thick roll of money in my pocket, always handing some out to my wife or my children; now I don’t. I was able to buy some land and put my children through school with what I made and I did well enough during my career to take care of my family and that’s what was most important.
On August 11th, Petchyindee Boxing Promotions of Thailand won the purse bid for the WBC Flyweight title fight between Pongsaklek Wonjongkam and Monelisi Myekeni of South Africa. Petchyindee put forth a bid for $176,999 while Branco Sports Productions (BSP) bid $151,000. The WBC has yet to issue a press release confirming the bout as the contract for the match-up has yet to be delivered. The deadline for the WBC to approve the fight is August 25th.
Wonjongkam has until November 11th to defend his title.