In eight years of living in Thailand, I’d never heard of a local wrestling scene until a couple of months ago. I was at a women’s stand-up comedy night when someone mentioned a local promotion named Gatoh Move. Having recently binged the first two seasons of Glow, I’d become enamoured with the drama and athleticism of wrestling. I jumped at the chance to see what Thailand had to offer its wrestling fans, arranging to attend the next show and interview some of the people behind it.
Gatoh Move Pro Wrestling is spearheaded by die-hard wrestling fan Prachapoom ‘Pumi’ Boonyatud. With no wrestling scene to speak of in Thailand, he turned to Japanese promotions to get his fix, watching every show and tweeting his favourite wrestlers. In a bid to draw these shows to Thailand, he contacted them to ask how much it would cost to broadcast them, then went to local TV stations to sell them. This led him to become a commentator for Japanese wrestling promotions in Thailand while he was completing his political science degree. It also prompted his working relationship with Japanese female wrestling superstar Emi Sakura, who noticed that while Thailand had a significant wrestling fan base, the country didn’t have any wrestlers of its own. Together, they formed Gatoh Move in 2012 in order to bridge the gap.
Originally, Gatoh Move was envisioned as an all-female promotion, like the many found in Japan. However, with no wrestlers to begin with, it was difficult to attract any women at all, let alone the numbers required to fill an entire roster. So, they opened up applications to men, hoping that women would follow.
Women weren’t the only thing Gatoh Move lacked in the beginning. “At first, we didn’t even have anywhere to do a show”, Pumi told me. “So, we just did a free one at the dojo at our faculty”. At their Sukhumvit 33/1 university campus, they put on free shows for anyone who would turn up, often performing for just 5 or 6 people at a time. Now, Gatoh Move regularly sells out shows for audiences of over a hundred fans, who have formed a cult following. I attended one such show at the Siam Square One Pic-Ganesha Theater in the center of Bangkok. Pumi kindly met with me before the show, suited and booted to host the evening as the emcee.
When I asked Pumi about the challenges of promoting wrestling in Thailand, he said the main problem was that “it seems to be a very violent sport in most people’s eyes”. To overcome this, he decided that he had to emphasize the performance aspect. “That way, we can guarantee a combination of sports and entertainment”. He believes this gives wrestling an advantage over other combat sports. “Even a boxing match can be boring, but if you want us to jump from ladders and hit people with chairs, we can make that happen”.
He also mentioned the challenge of attracting wrestlers. “Nowadays, people can make money being YouTubers or influencers, so they may wonder why they should have to get hurt in order to make money”. Gatoh Move runs try-outs four times a year to train and recruit new wrestlers. During this process, they have to weed out the dreamers who expect to become WWE superstars without putting in the work.
“They think that wrestling is fake, so see no reason why they can’t be like The Rock and do the big finishers”, Pumi shrugs. “If they can’t do back flips or front flips within a few weeks, they always give up”. He estimates that the success rate of his wrestling applicants is about 1 in 100. “When they join, we ask them — do you want to be a wrestler or a superstar?”
Even once he’s recruited a wrestler, retaining them can be a struggle. This is because of the nature of the sport, which Pumi describes as “not about your skill level, but how you present your character”. “You can be a terrible wrestler, but if you give people a reason to buy a ticket, you can be a hit”, he explains. The most important thing is having an engaging storyline. He says that this can cause problems sometimes. “For example, a small guy might train for years without getting any matches, then see a heavyweight walk in and get a match after one week. Sometimes, people leave us for that reason”. He made a comparison to Muay Thai. “If a promoter has a female fighter who’s cute and has a lot of selling points, they’re going to push her first”.
Pumi has made waves with Gatoh Move, even attracting the attention of the WWE, which had sent talent scouts to attend the show that evening. Canyon Ceyman, WWE’s Talent Director; and Matt Bloom, head trainer of the WWE Performance Centre; were both waiting to see what Gatoh Move had to offer. For this reason, Pumi had to make an abrupt exit from our interview. Before he sped off to meet with them, he told me “I can assure you, our show is not what you expect”.
He was right.
As I walked in, I was surprised to see that there wasn’t a ring. Instead, there was a 2×4-meter mat in the center of the floor. It was graced by a host of international wrestlers that evening, including flamboyant Thai tag team Elegance Boys, Singaporean wrestlers Dr. Gore and The Butcher, Indian-born Shivam, and the current Thai favourite, EK Baki.
Then, there was a pair of guest Japanese wrestlers. One of them was Chinsuke Nakamura, who electrified the crowd with his dramatic entrance.
The stand-out act was Blue Lotus, Thailand’s very first female wrestler. When I got a chance to talk to her after the show, she described her character as “just a cheerful, friendly girl with a fighting spirit”. She started wrestling in 2013, falling in love with the performance aspect. “It’s not just about fighting, but also storytelling”, she told me. “It’s like you’re watching a soap opera, but with fighting”. Her only athletic background was in running, so she found it challenging to take on the rigorous training schedule of gymnastics and weightlifting as well as wrestling practice. Those weren’t the only difficulties, though. “I was the first and only woman in the dojo, so I had to train with the men”, she said. For three years, she’d previously stopped wrestling to go to college. When she returned to the dojo, she was met by a new female teammate, Jibzy. As the only two women on the Thai wrestling scene, they were frequently matched up against each other. This night was no different.
Jibzy wasn’t Blue Lotus’ only opponent that night. She also took on several male wrestlers in the main event – ‘Songkran Battle Royale’. Before it began, spectators were draped in plastic sheets so that they could stay dry as wrestlers added water guns to their artillery. As well as the playfulness of Songkran, there was also the technique and power of Muay Thai, with wrestlers showing off knees, elbows and kicks that wouldn’t look out of place in the ring. Speaking of which, the fact that Gatoh Move lacked one seemed to be a strength rather than a weakness, as it brought the audience even closer to the action. In this format, everyone in the room could be a part of the show. On multiple occasions, wrestlers moved spectators out of their seats so that they could slam their opponents down on the benches, and they happily obliged. The crowd’s infectiously positive energy made the experience all the more enjoyable. At the end of the night, Blue Lotus emerged as the victor, and as her hand was raised, they congratulated her with chants of “you deserve it!” “This is awesome” was also frequently chanted throughout the evening.
It wasn’t just me who was impressed by the show. At one point, I noticed WWE Talent Director Canyon Ceyman turn to his colleague and say “this is better than I expected!” The result of their visit remains to be seen, but the Thai wrestlers certainly made an impression.
Pumi is proud of how far Gatoh Move has come in its seven years of operation. “We didn’t start from zero, we started from minus”, he said. The wrestlers have full-time jobs and embrace their alter-egos after work, training from 7-10pm. He said that for them, wrestling is a hobby, not a business. “At least we can give them a chance to perform, maybe even for WWE”, he smiles. “If you’re good enough, you can make it to the world stage”. Perhaps Gatoh Move is paving the way for a future Thai WWE star.