This is the sixth in a series of interviews with the major players in the fight scene on the island of Phuket, Thailand. These are the stories of survival during the Covid pandemic and its rippling effects.
The past two years haven’t been kind to Phuket, Thailand’s premier tourism hot-spot, and its extensive network of MMA and Muay Thai gyms.
In 2019, international travel filtered $62 billion to the economy, providing countless jobs and business opportunities to the local community. Not so now, thanks to Covid-19.
The island has clearly suffered, as has its fight industry, amid stringent restrictions and plunging visitor numbers. With competition being banned altogether for a period, countless prizefighters have been left with little to no income, and many gyms and local promotions have been forced to shut their doors due to lack of business and strict regulations.
Leonardo ‘Elias’ Sessegolo, head coach of MMA and Muay Thai at Phuket Fight Club, fears that things will never be the same.
“It was a really hard two years,” he admitted to The AllStar in late 2021. The wide-ranging interview included a sobering assessment of the state of Muay Thai in the country, a call for more support for his beloved sport, and his gym’s plans for the future.
Elias, who has now retired from Muay Thai, began competing in combat sports as a young teen in his home country of Brazil. He migrated to Thailand in 2010 in pursuit of more frequent, and higher-level competition.
After an estimated 40 fights in the sport’s birthplace, the veteran practitioner assumed his role at Phuket Fight Club, helping the gym establish a horde of elite talent to compete at the highest level.
As a long-time Thai resident, the 35-year-old Elias is an eyewitness to the havoc that the global pandemic has wreaked across the developing nation’s most popular sport.
On top of the economy-crippling international travel restrictions, the government banned Muay Thai events across the country after the nation’s first coronavirus case was traced back to Lumpinee Stadium, the symbolic home of Thai martial arts.
The sudden nature of this hiatus left untold numbers of professional practitioners without any income for the duration of the 20-month ban. The Thai government failed to offer any financial assistance for affected athletes.
“For Thai people, Muay Thai is work – it’s a sport, but first it’s [a job]. It’s a way they make money.”
“[it’s] getting better [now],” Elias said, “but it’s still a hard time.”
With major events slowly beginning to return in late 2021 – albeit with a severely reduced spectator capacity – things seem to be moving in the right direction to restore the sport to its former glory. Elias noted it wasn’t simply the pandemic alone that has crippled the sport.
A lack of sponsors and financial support for the industry as a whole, he said, has made it tough to survive as a professional fighter in Thailand. The recent ban on gambling at Lumpinee, which is run and maintained by the Thai army, is a dangerous precedent to set, he added.
“To be honest… What supports Muay Thai is gambling right now – more than everything [else],” Elias said. “I’m not saying [that because I like it] – it’s the truth.”
“We only have Muay Thai right now in Thailand because of the gambling. If we don’t have gambling, we don’t have Muay Thai anymore.”
From Elias’ experience, having a crowd is essential to the spirit of Muay Thai competition. With fewer pundits enticed into stadiums by the allure of hitting it big on a winning ticket, crowds and spending at events will likely dwindle – leaving the already poor sport in an even more dire situation at home.
“We need more support,” he said. “In other sports, you can survive and make money in some way – but in Muay Thai it’s hard – really hard to [survive]… if you’re not really high level.”
It’s ironic that on an international scale, the sport’s popularity seems to be at an all-time high. In July 2021, the 138th General Assembly Of the International Olympic Committee voted in favor of Muay Thai becoming fully recognized by the IOC.
Contributing even further to the sport’s surge in global popularity is its use as a tool in mixed martial arts.
Many of the techniques and strategies (the use of elbows and knees in particular) are being adopted on an international level to a high degree of success. As such, it’s becoming more commonplace to see professional mixed martial artists including a trip to the sports’ spiritual homeland as a part of their training camp regime.
Now, with international travel to Thailand beginning to see a resurgence, global students are once again returning to the island to sharpen their skills – and Phuket Fight Club, along with the other remaining gyms in the area, are traveling slowly along the road to recovery.
Plans for the future
It’s been roughly half a year since vaccinated foreign visitors were given the green light to cross back into Thai borders. Government-sponsored initiatives such as the Phuket Sandbox project, along with other similar programs, have begun to help reinvigorate local economies.
With a semblance of normalcy finally on the horizon for Elias and his team, the veteran coach has his eyes set on re-establishing his gym as a top-tier, one-stop shop for combat sport athletes.
An expansion to the training facility was completed during the forced down-time throughout the pandemic, and the Phuket Fight Club now not only offers elite Muay Thai training but has added a slew of world-class martial arts instructors to their roster, with the dream of one day establishing a world-class MMA team.
“It’s a good team, [but] everything is new and I just want to go slowly… I don’t want to rush. The thing is not to bring someone to [compete] in the big show, the thing is to bring someone that can stay in the big show.”
Given the struggles of the Muay Thai industry, the undercurrent of the interview is a wistful lament for happier times in his beloved sport:
“Things change a lot with the times. Not only with Covid, before Covid,” Elias said. “But with Covid, everything got even worse. I don’t know if it will be the same.”