In a small village in the Isaan region of northern Thailand, Rossland native Frances Watthanaya (nee Pettit), a wife, mother, Muay Thai fighter and trainer, has a new challenge on her hands as she and her Thai husband, Boom, are in the process of building a Muay Thai gym for the village’s most vulnerable.
“My husband and I, we never intended to actually start this gym,” said Frances who was back in Rossland for a visit last week. She was living in her husbands home village of Phutthaisong and training for a January fight when the task of starting a gym was unexpectedly thrust upon her.
“I was training in my husband’s yard, in the dirt with one of my trainers. All these kids started showing up, 15 kids and asked if they could train with me and I said sure, of course you can train with me, it’s no big deal.”
Some of her young, new fighters traveled miles to train with Watthanaya and workout in the rustic environment with a watered-down dirt floor, single heavy bag, a few mats, and sticks for training tools.
“I posted this video up on youtube of me and the kids training in the dirt, and it went viral,” said Frances. “I had all these people from around the world contact me and say, ‘I want to help. You need to get a roof over these kids heads, you need to have proper training facilities, what can we do to help?”
At the time, Frances was working as an English teacher and Boom was training Muay Thai fighters in Malaysia, so building a gym in Boom’s home village was not on the agenda, but the response to the video and interest from generous private investors persuaded the couple to set up a GoFundMe site.
“There are lots of GoFundMe in Thailand related to Muay Thai,” said Frances. “We really didn’t know what would happen and we really weren’t holding our breath . . . Here I am in Isaan training in this extremely isolated and extremely under-developed village . . . and we start this GoFundMe and it just took off. We were completely floored by the support we received.”
Frances had been training in Mixed Martial Arts and Muay Thai since she was 14 in Trail with Glen Kalesniko’s Pride Gym. In 2006, at age 19, the adventurous spirit moved on to train in Bangkok, Thailand where she met her husband “Boom” Thanit Watthanaya. The couple would become three with the birth of their daughter, Sita, and eventually move to Canada so Frances could study at UBC in Vancouver and Boom continue training.
The talented fighter beat three-time world champion Andy Howson in December 2012, before contending for the WBC Muay Thai International title in September, 2013 against Rami Ibrahim. Boom lost the fight by a close decision.
The family eventually moved back to Isaan where the Wor. Watthana Gym would grow literally out of the dust.
The kids at Frances’ gym call her mom or aunt, as is the custom in a Thai gym. The gym is a fighter’s extended family, but, in Isaan, it is even more challenging because of the abject poverty, gangs, rampant drug abuse, and alcoholism. Frances and Boom are trying hard to help young fighters emerge from the debilitating cycle and give them a leg up on life, restore hope, and find the ability to help others.
“The big thing in Isaan where my husband’s from, is the kids are really poor. They don’t have opportunities to play you know tennis, volleyball, soccer. So Muay Thai is like the poor man’s sport where the poorest kid in the entire village, this can change his life.”
Frances’ youngest fighter is seven years old, but many start as young as five, and will fight into their 20s or early 30s, depending on their success and longevity.
A young fighter can take home a minimum 300 Bat (about $10 US) for winning a fight, more than a labourer makes in a day, so the Muay Thai fight game can be self sustaining if not relatively lucrative. However, most gym owners are permitted to take a steep percentage of the fighter’s purse, up to 50 per cent, and, in some cases, appropriate all of their fighter’s winnings. But not at Wor. Watthana.
“Our gym is possibly the only gym in Thailand where kids can train for free, and if they want to fight they are supported and if they don’t want to fight they are still given attention. We never ask for any money, it’s like a big community centre.”
The Wor. Watthana gym has begun to take shape. There is a ring and superstructure covering the training area, it has the latest gear provided by corporate sponsor Booster Fight Gear and a large contingent of fighters. Traveling is the biggest expense now for Watthanaya’s fighters who fight up to six times per month in various provinces. And in most cases, fighters live at the gyms, something Frances is hoping to implement in the future.
“Gyms in Thailand, generally speaking, house the fighters. It’s a really important aspect, because in Isaan it’s the best of the best. If you’re not serious, if you’re not focused, you’re not going to make it. So when you house the fighters you can control their diet, you can push them a little harder, and obviously still send them to school.”
The 28-year-old female with blond hair and light skin is a very visible minority, but she has immersed herself in Isaan culture and speaks the local dialect fluently. Frances has worked in the fields, fought in many venues, and learned the intricate and often delicate politics of local gym fights and its gambling controllers, not to mention village officials and contractors.
“It’s really challenging and you have to be strong,” she said. “But I’ve paid my dues, I’m really respected in the Muay Thai community in Isaan . . . I know how things work, I don’t push western values on the kids or onto the gym. I’m very aware and respectful of the local cultures, and I think that’s why I command the respect I do, because I don’t force any western ideologies on these people.”
Frances intends to play less of a part in the training aspect of the gym, and more in managing, as Boom plans to return to Isaan from Malaysia to take over the gym, and add his years of experience to the fighters workouts, and perhaps more importantly to show the young fighters that there is life after fighting.
“My husband is such an amazing role model for these kids, and we decided it would be best for the gym to bring him home.”
To keep the gym viable the Watthanayas rely on support from sponsors and donations to provide food, education, and travel expenses.
“We want to give opportunities to all our kids, we want to keep them away from drugs, we want to take care of them, we want to teach them accountability, we want to teach them discipline, we want them to have fun. Even if they don’t become great amazing fighters, this is going to help their families . . . We really just want to create a better quality of life for these kids.”
“We’re extremely happy and extremely humbled by this whole experience,” said Frances. “For my husband just coming from this village and having no opportunities . . . It was a real difficult upbringing, so for him to give back to his community on such a large scale, it’s kind of like a dream come true.
“And for us, we really couldn’t do it, if it wasn’t for the people who contributed to the GoFundMe campaign and now our monthly sponsors.”
Those interested in sponsoring or donating funds can contact Frances at firstname.lastname@example.org.