In some of Thailand's toughest prisons, where murderers and rapists rub shoulder with career criminals of all stripes, an ancient combat sport has become an unusual means of encouraging inmates to reform themselves, potentially working toward an early release. They have to fight in improvised rings under the close watch of wardens and judges. They don't, however, fight each other. Instead, pro fighters from outside take part in the bouts to practice their skills and make small amounts of money. And the fight adheres to the rules of Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, a combat sport originating in the 16th century as a martial art which came to prominence in Thailand in the 19th century, thereafter spreading across the world. Initially practiced by soldiers in the royal army, it has developed into an international sport that formally applied to be recognised as an Olympic sport in 2012. It all grew out of the 'Sports Behind Bars' programme brought in by the Thai authorities in the 1980s in an attempt to reform the penal system. Amongst other activities Muay Thai became a popular sport among prisoners. The sport is officially patronised by Thailand's widely adored royal family and allows inmates to train within the confines of their prisons and gain respect through excelling in what is deemed to be both a physical and a mental discipline. Students of 'the Art of Eight Limbs', as Muay Thai is known due to its concentration on the use of fists, elbows, knees, shins and feet, use a number of moves such as punching, elbowing, kicking and neck wrestling to score points over their opponents. In recent years a number of convicted criminals who have fought professional sportsmen and women from abroad have been granted early release since they were deemed to have achieved 'glory for Thailand'.
More recently, the prison sport was propelled to international attention in 2012 when Kirill Sokur, an Estonian fight promoter, decided to take the event to a wider audience by inviting Western Muay Thai professionals to fight prisoners in Thai jails. His company,'Prison Fight', bills the events as 'Battles for Freedom'. Sokur got prison administrations on board by selling the bouts as 'charity events' and providing all the logistics including the ring and the foreign fighters. In addition he managed the PR for the events, getting local newspapers and TV stations interested while recording the events with a view to later selling the DVDs. In 2013, three bouts were held at Khlong Phai medium security prison 100 miles from Bangkok and two-time boxing champion Oh Singwancha won his freedom at one of these. The next bout was put on at Bangkok's high security Klong Prem prison with several camera crews and a punk rock band on hand of entertainment.
While critics of the Prison Fight programme point out that it allows some of the most dangerous men in the prisons to fight for early release, its proponents counter that it gives long-serving prisoners a sense of purpose and pride and draws in other inmates as coaches, sparring partners and masseurs into a purposeful activity that relieves the monotony of prison life. Patrick Brown visited a number of prisons and witnessed the raw bouts between convicted killers and Western enthusiasts.