Location: Bangkok, Thailand

There’s something intensely beautiful about watching a professional fighter perform. Maybe it’s his physical perfection: the strong, lean body with rippling muscles and thick skin. Maybe it’s the pointed determination in his eyes, the way he embraces the physical combat before him without fear or hesitation. Maybe it’s the fierce devotion he demonstrates as a product of years of training, sacrifice, and discipline — all for such long-awaited, short bursts of sharp movements and unpredictable outcomes. Maybe it’s the understanding that I can’t do what he does, and the respect that that humbling knowledge releases in me. Or maybe I just like the sanctioned violence of these brawls and the bloodthirsty energy of the crowds that follow them. Maybe it’s a little bit of all of this.

I just know that when I see two boxers in a ring, I can’t look away. I close my eyes during gory movies, I become nauseous at the sight of any wound leaking more than a few drops of blood, and I develop nervous sweats even in verbal confrontations. But nothing frightens me about an old fashioned fight, as dangerous as it can be. I’m hooked on the adrenaline rush, the vicarious thrill of watching two professionals punch the shit out of each other.

And ever since I booked my bus ticket to Bangkok, I’ve been determined not to leave Thailand without witnessing at least one serious Muay Thai match. My first day in the city I Googled where I could watch a fight and was disheartened to find out it would cost me at least $30 for admittance, more than I’d spent on groceries for the week. I’d passed a couple Muay Thai gyms in Lat Phrao and debated just showing up and hoping the they’d let me sit in a corner and watch them practice. 

But the martial arts gods were smiling upon me and on my second day in Bangkok. My friends and I had been at MBK all afternoon, and after several excruciating hours, we had finally bought the SIM cards we needed for our stay in Thailand. The mall’s florescent lights, cold, stale air, and twisting mazes of stalls had left me exhausted and hungry and I was relieved when we finally left.

We were climbing the thin, concrete staircase over the main street and up to the nearest train station when I noticed people lined up against the railing, which overlooked the concrete square in front of MBK. I could hear cheering and shouts in the background. When I peeked between shoulders I saw a large boxing ring set up in the middle of a densely packed crowd. Two men in shiny shorts circled each other in the middle of the brightly lit stage. And above them a tacky, orange banner read, “SIANG PURE, PROUD SUPPORTER OF THAI BOXING.”

I called my friends back and we rushed down the steps, ran by the endless stream of shoppers drifting from MBK’s sliding doors. We passed a white tent where two women were massaging a young boxer’s back while another fighter in rolled, red shorts had oil rubbed onto his shoulders and arms, bringing out the definition of his lean muscles. He looked young; maybe early twenties at most. 

The crowd around the ring reached the edge of the street and we shoved our way into the masses of hooting, middle-aged Thai men. The fight was already in its fifth round and the two boxers were gleaming with sweat, their eyes dimming from fatigue. It ended just as we got settled, the stockier boxer knocking out his opponent with a heavy right hook that thudded thickly against his left temple. The winner leaned over the thick red cords of the ring, grinning, and raised a glove in the air in triumph. The crowd cheered. Both fighters were escorted out of the ring, and a few minutes passed, but no one in the crowd moved. We waited, hoping there was more to come.

An announcer’s voice came over the speakers, shouting a new welcome in Thai. Models in stilettos, tight black spandex shorts and matching, stuffed bandeau tops sauntered down a runway leading from the white tent we’d passed earlier into the ring. They held up cards with large, black “1’s” printed on them. Two lightweight, bareknuckled boxers marched out after, their hands, wrists, and forearms wrapped in only thick, white tape. One of them was the fighter in red shorts I’d seen earlier in the tent. He moved slowly and his face was expressionless, but you could sense he was nervous; he wouldn’t look at the crowd, just at the ground. His opponent wore navy, and though he was just as wiry and about the same height, his full chest and back tattoos made him appear older and much more dangerous.

The two walked to their corners and a tinny, flute-heavy song punctuated by sharp drums floated from the speakers. It sounded like a proper war tune, one to energize an army before battle. And the men in the ring began to move in rhythm to the music as it began to play, dancing around the edges, raising their legs and arms in turn and bobbing their heads when the synth clanged. They got on their knees and bowed to the crowd, raised their arms above their heads and rolled their legs out. They looked like true warriors stretching before a death match.

The crowd murmured and bustled during the display. People held up one or two fingers and began passing money to several men to my left that stood below a man with a fanny pack standing on a plastic chair (he had a perfect view of the ring). In one hand he held a slip of paper and a pen. Cody lifted me up onto his shoulders so I could get a better view and several men in the crowd asked me to take photos of them, their fingers held up in peace signs (or v’s for victory). 

The music faded and the fighters walked to the center of the ring, faced each other, and when the referee motioned, bowed, touching foreheads. Then they raised their clenched fists up to protect their chests and touched the ground with opposite feet several times. The tattooed fighter kicked out and his opponent leapt back, dodging it. They repeated this, lightly kicking at each other, testing out possible weaknesses.

Then the tattooed fighter looked up, locked eyes with his opponent and swung his body forward, pulling back his left arm for force, and threw a straight punch with his right fist. Red shorts saw it, but swung to block too late, and the first fighter’s fist caught him on the jaw below his right ear. Hard and fast. He was flung backwards, stumbling on one foot before he hit the ring’s ropes. He fell forward on his hands and feet and took half a step as if he meant to get up before collapsing flat on his stomach. He lay still. 

It was so fast that if you’d blinked, you would have missed the whole thing. The tattooed fighter must have known that his opponent wouldn’t get up; he turned away after the hit, adjusted his shorts, and just watched, not bothering to lift his arms to a defensive position. The crowd went wild, shouting and howling in shock and awe as the referee ran over to the downed man, counted to three, and pointed out the winner. It was a one-hit KO, a rare occurrence in any professional fight. 

The man on the ground lay there for a long time, his eyes open in slits, and a doctor checked his pulse before they were finally able to get him to sit up and hobble over to the side of the ring. He looked like a zombie. When the referee raised the winner’s arm in the air and walked him in a circle so the crowd could see, the fighter barely smiled. He stared seriously into the crowd, bowed, and quietly left the ring.