Elephant’s Leg

The infamous "bear pit" inside Lumpinee Stadium

The infamous “bear pit” atmosphere inside Lumpinee Stadium

One of the world’s most iconic sports venues closed last Friday, with the ringing of the final bell for Bangkok’s Lumpinee Boxing Stadium.

It was to muay Thai what Madison Square Garden is to boxing and wrestling – a venue steeped in history that fans would make pilgrimages to and competitors would dream of fighting in.

Opened in 1956, Lumpinee would go on to rival the older Rajadamnern Stadium in terms of prestige, both as a venue and a championship (the championships of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums are among the most respected in the sport).  However, I always preferred Lumpinee. My first visit there remains one of the most vivid cultural memories I have had.

Back in 2005, while backpacking with my step-brother Andy, we attended a Lumpinee fight card just days into our two-month stint in Thailand. On a budget, we opted for the cheapest tickets, the so-called third-class section, and we were so glad we did.

A year prior, I had made my inaugural visit to Thailand, a more traditional two-week, city-then-beach affair, with my friend Liam. We watched muay Thai at Rajadamnern and splashed out on the comfort of ringside seats. It was fine, but the difference between ringside and the upper tier experience is as stark as that between the First World and Third World.

Down at ringside, you sit on comfy chairs, have beer brought to you (at three times the price) and watch the action up close mostly in the company of fellow tourists, who are mostly there to watch out of curiosity or to tick one of the to-do boxes on a Thailand itinerary. Few of them actually follow the sport, so have no emotional investment in it, and apart from the occasional gasp at particularly hard blows or flamboyant manouevres, it’s a rather tame crowd.

As in many places in Thailand, though, it’s upstairs where the truly eye-opening stuff goes on.

Upstairs held the best crowd action

Upstairs held the best crowd action

In Lumpinee, the third-class “seats” were either haphazardly arranged wooden planks or unforgiving concrete blocks. The plank seats had to clambered over and along to get where you wanted to go, and negotiating them was precarious, sometimes with precipitous drops. If you sat right at the back of the tier, chances are that the gaps beneath your feet would look down into the boxers’ dressing room, so you could watch the pre-fight routines or have the aroma of tiger balm waft up from post-match massages.

Above you, ceiling fans would oscillate dizzily, seemingly hanging by a thread, their breeze being insufficient to deter the mosquitoes. Stray cats, having made a comfortable home in the nooks and crannies of the dilapidated building, would occasionally come out for a stroll, and housed in the ceiling were even a few bats, which now and then would set off on their trademark giddy flight patterns towards the ring lights.

On the night Andy and I went, this same ceiling was leaking as a tropical monsoon thundered down on the rusty iron roof. We had to reposition ourselves several times to avoid the dripping rainwater, and the noise was tremendous. The storm lasted a good two hours, and several times we remarked “it’s actually raining harder!” as the elements thrashed the stadium with such force that even the crowd and the screeching drum and flute fight music was at times drowned out.

Come main event time, though, and nothing would exceed the noise levels of the crowd. Away from the sterile ringside section, the locals yelled bets at each other as the action tipped one way, then the other, the prices changing by the minute. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, but you wouldn’t think it when seeing men with fistfuls of 1,000-baht bills and waving raised digits openly and vociferously placing stakes with one another. Even those without money riding on the outcome made a racket, chanting names, yelling along with the impacts of the blows, stamping their feet and banging on the steel cage material that separated the ticket classes and added to the bear-pit feel of the place.

I returned to Lumpinee several times since I moved here, especially when I had visitors, and always impressed on them why it was better to opt for the cheap seats. Some of them were initially discomfited at the ramshackle sight presented to them upon ascending the stairs to the upper tier, but by the end of the night they had invariably been excited, fascinated and absorbed by the authentic cultural experience they had witnessed.



It was a must that I attended the last-ever show at Lumpinee. On top of the unfolding history, it was a cracker of a card. Modern legend Saenchai  PK Saenchaimuaythaigym (formerly, and best, known as Saenchai Sor Kingstar) was a fitting main-event star, even if he is starting to show the wear and tear of more than 300 contests and dropped a close decision to WBC top-ranked lightweight Petchboonchu Porplaboonchu. Saenchai was nevertheless a consummate showman and naturally the crowd favourite.

Speaking of crowd favourites, the audience got firmly behind huge underdog Singtongnoi Por Telakul as he pulled out of a big upset against Petmorakot Vor Sangprapai. There was barely a pundit in the land predicting a win for Singhtongnoi, but he built momentum as the fight wore on and, with chants of “Singtong! Singtong” shaking the building and the weight of history pushing him on, he charged to a famous decision win.

In the walk-out bout of the 12-fight showcase, Chanachai Nuantongsnooker scored a third-round TKO over Yod ET PTT Tongtavee. Lumpinee nights usually end with a contest between young, relatively unknown novices that normally would be of relatively little significance, but what a feather in the cap of young Chanachai to be able to say that not only did he fight and win in the last ever bout held in Lumpinee Stadium, but that he scored a stoppage.

While the nearly 58-year-old stadium is to be demolished, the name and the championship lineage will continue at the new Lumpinee Boxing Stadium Ram Intra, in suburban Bang Khen district.

The new venue looks clean, modern and orderly, which will be welcomed by some. For me, though, I will always associate the Lumpinee name with wild nights of leaking ceilings, haphazard seating, cats, bats and cages. A wonderfully atmospheric part of “old Thailand” is gone, but I’m glad I was there at the final bell.

NB: The Bangkok Post has further coverage, and a poignant video, at http://www.bangkokpost.com/lifestyle/interview/394516/farewell-fights

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