On Saturday 13th November, two women fought inside the Lumpini Stadium ring for the first time.
It was a groundbreaking event, since this prestigious ring has historically been a male-only space. Until recently, women were forbidden from even touching the ring. Welcoming women into this space signified a sea change for all female fighters. What was previously an impossible dream could now be within reach.
Yet somehow, it didn’t feel as momentous as it ought to. There was little to no fanfare after the event, and the road leading up to it was paved with confusion.
History Being Made in Increments
While this was the first women’s match in the Lumpini ring, it wasn’t the first on a Lumpini promotion.
This is because the very first ‘Lumpini’ women’s match had been held around two months earlier. A WBC title fight was held between two Thai women, Baukaw Mor Kor Chor Chaiyaphum and Sanaejan Sor Jor Tongprajin (with Sanaejan winning by decision). Unfortunately, COVID restrictions meant that this fight couldn’t take place inside the stadium itself. Due to restrictions on indoor events, the show was held in a studio located in the parking structure of the stadium.
This distinction is key.
This fight was certainly historic, but many of the reports surrounding it didn’t provide this crucial context.
To understand why women fighting at Lumpini is so radical, we have to talk about why they were banned in the first place. It stems from the belief that menstruating bodies would pollute the space, somehow bringing bad luck. Origin stories for the ban itself vary, but according to editor-in-chief of Muay Champ magazine Suwanna Srisongkram, a female nurse once entered the ring to assist a fighter, and her presence in the ring was perceived as disrupting the spirits of that space, making her responsible for all the subsequent bloody KOs on the night. She discussed this is an interview with Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu in 2015.
While having two women fight on a Lumpini promotion was groundbreaking, it didn’t carry the weight of breaking these long-held traditions and superstitions. Women were still yet to set foot in that ring.
Even after this fight took place, doubts were cast on whether women would be welcomed into the ring itself. For women who hadn’t been able to even dream of the possibility, it seemed almost cruel to get our hopes up. We’d only believe it when we finally saw it.
A Shroud of Uncertainty
The lack of buildup can’t have been helped by the surrounding confusion. Leading up to the day of the event, there had been so many changes that it was unclear if the first women’s fight in the Lumpini ring would go ahead at all, and if it did, what rules and regulations would apply.
The amount of rounds seemed to fluctuate, not just from fight to fight, but also within individual fights. On October 2nd, Fah Chiangrai fought Mongkutpet of Rawai Muay Thai gym at the Lumpini Go Sport studio. Like Buakaw vs Sanaejan, this bout was five rounds, but there was no title as stake. Later, Celest Hansen of Phuket Singha Muay Thai vs Nong Nuk Rongrien Gila Korat was set to be the first women’s fight to take place in the Lumpini ring. Originally, this was also scheduled for five rounds. After being postponed, it was then advertised as a three-round match.
It ended up being a five-round fight, but the fighters didn’t know that before it started. According to an Instagram comment by Celest, it wasn’t until after the third round was over and the fight kept going that she realised. Whether it was a last-minute decision or a lack of communication, it was a relief for it to be a full rules, traditional five-round fight. Anything else would have taken the shine off.
This was far from the first time the promotion had flip-flopped on details. Six weeks earlier, when Souris Manfredi was scheduled to fight, the waters were even muddier. She was originally said to be matched with Dangkongfah for a WBC superflyweight world title. Her opponent changed twice before the fight — First to Phetkanya Por. Phuangthong and then to Aomsin Srithong gym, with both being immediately switched into the WBC rankings when the announcements were made. As the fight drew closer, all posts referring to a title were removed from social media. In the end, there was no title on the line and the rounds were dropped from five to three. Souris later described the chaos of the entire experience in a post on her Facebook page. There, she revealed that the title had been pulled because WBC had not signed a new contract for that fight. It seemed that the WBC had pulled out from Lumpini altogether.
For Souris, what was meant to be one of the greatest milestones of her career, becoming the first foreign woman to fight on a Lumpini show and possibly winning a WBC world title, ended up leaving a bad taste in her mouth. She later got her title fight with Dangkongfah on a very different promotion, Full Metal Dojo. It was held in the ring of Pattaya’s Fairtex Training Center, and Dangkongfah won by decision. Souris’ coach has since announced her departure from Muay Thai to focus on bare knuckle boxing.
This is not the only time Lumpini has put titles up for grabs on these women’s matches only to quietly take them off the table. Originally, the inaugural Buakaew vs Sanaejan match was advertised as having two belts on the line — A WBC world title and a Lumpini title, as well as a 1 million baht prize. However, the Lumpini belt never materialised, and hasn’t been mentioned since.
The Prestige of Lumpini and the Hypocrisy of Misogyny
The term ‘mecca of Muay Thai’ is overused, but it’s not inaccurate.
However, while it’s still a stadium that fighters from the provinces and abroad aspire to, it’s not far out of reach in the way that it once was.
It’s no exaggeration to say that almost any male foreign fighter can fight at Lumpini these days. Now, there are men having some of the first fights of their careers there. Yet, a woman, no matter how skilled, experienced or decorated, was never allowed to fight there until now. For decades, it was completely out of the question.
Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu spoke about this in the latest episode of her Muay Thai Bones Podcast, becoming emotional as she told a story of once visiting the stadium to support a fighter from her gym, wishing she could have the same opportunity. “I want to fight here like I want to breathe”, she said, holding back tears. The podcast episode goes into great detail about the changes happening at Lumpini, including the introduction of women’s fights.
It wasn’t just women who hoped to see female fights at Lumpini. Jaru Rumdecha, managing director of the now-defunct Muay Thai Angels promotion, aspired to hold an all-female fight show at Lumpini. When I worked for him as a consultant for the promotion in 2016, he told me of his plans to not only host women’s fights there, but to have the fighters go over the top rope. He also spoke of wanting to adorn the ring with a pink canvas and for fighters to wear a monkol covered in diamantes, but given the aesthetics of Muay Thai Angels (in which fighters did glamorous promotional shoots and had to fight in full make up), this wasn’t out of the ordinary for him. It was all too drastic for Lumpini. He met with the stadium’s committee to pitch his vision, but was plainly told that it would never happen — Women would never be allowed to fight there. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to witness at least part of his vision come to life. He passed away in 2018.
Back in 2014, when the mere question was raised about whether women should be able to fight in Lumpini by a provocative meme, it sparked heated online debate. The meme, which featured Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu being tended to by a ring doctor with the words ‘can bleed like a man, still can’t fight at Lumpini’, garnered some support, while also prompting harsh criticism from some Muay Thai fans.
Many commenters said that even questioning the rule was disrespectful to Thai culture and tradition. As well as being ignorant of what those traditions are, they also failed to consider the possibility that there are Thais of all genders who would like to see Lumpini host female fights. One comment said that allowing women to fight there would not only break tradition, but also “devalue the importance of a Lumpini title”. Another said “tradition is tradition. If you don’t like it, take up kickboxing”. None of this outrage was to be seen this year, at least not publicly, when the possibility of female fights became a reality.
Since Lumpini stadium moved to a new location in 2014, perceptions have changed. The original stadium had a rich and romanticized history that the modernized one struggles to live up to, and the previous prime location on Rama 4 has been replaced with an awkward, out of the way one on Ramintra Road. While the development is positive in many aspects, many in the Muay Thai community lament the loss of the original stadium, and feel that the new one just doesn’t have the same heart and soul.
Much has changed in the female Muay Thai scene in recent years, and while attitudes may be more welcoming than they once were, this may not be the only reason for the lack of media buzz or debate over the newfound presence of female fighters at Lumpini. Could it also be to a difference in the perception of Lumpini Stadium itself? With everything that’s changed, some might doubt whether a Lumpini fight means what it used to.
Another facet to consider is that the ban of women from some of Thailand’s stadium isn’t actually common knowledge. Plenty of people in Thailand, certainly outside the Muay Thai community but even within it, were never aware of this rule. They never had to be because it didn’t affect them. So, while for women in the sport this feels momentous, that’s not the case for everyone.
A New Era for Lumpini
Hosting women’s fights at Lumpini is just one of many radical changes that have been made to the stadium.
In March 2021, it was announced that tickets would only be sold to foreigners in an effort to end ringside gambling. This came as part of an overhaul of the stadium’s management and image. According to Royal Thai army chief Gen Narongphan Jitkaewtae, the stadium’s committee members from the army welfare department will be replaced with “knowledgeable and expert people”. He also stated that the stadium’s name would be changed to Royal Thai Sports Center (Muay Thai Lumpinee).
Reports even began to circulate that the stadium would stop hosting Muay Thai fights, open up to multiple sports as a sports development centre, or shut down completely.
The introduction of three-round fights has undeniably been influenced by the success of entertainment Muay Thai promotions like Max Muay Thai, Muay Hardcore and Super Champ, which rely heavily on foreign fighters and spectators. Lumpini’s promoters are clearly trying to appeal to a similar audience, with announcers now speaking English and Chinese as well as Thai. Now that there’s no longer the anchor of WBC, we could see the stadium lean even further towards the entertainment Muay Thai model. Without their sanctioning rules, it remains to be seen what format the stadium will settle on.
Lumpini Go Sport is a new promotion which is still finding its feet. The first show, which hosted Buakaw vs Sanaejan, was riddled with production issues. The fights took place against the backdrop of a green screen, which inexplicably showed the grid of an unrelated Zoom call during the broadcast. When the green WBC belt was strapped around Sanaejan’s waist as she was declared the victor of this historical bout, it all but disappeared against the pixelated background. And these were just some of the issues. As a result, the promotion announced in early October that they would halt the shows in order to iron out production issues before relaunching with fights in the stadium itself. Thankfully, the first stadium show was more polished.
The Future of Female Fights at Lumpini
With things constantly changing, it’s unclear whether the scheduling of female fights will be permanent, or a mere experiment. We’ve seen this before. Max Muay Thai played with the idea of women’s fights at its inception, hosting only a few before cutting female fighters out of the rosters permanently. Now, it’s rarely acknowledged that these fights ever took place.
Speaking of experiments, another radical change to Lumpini has just been announced. This week, Fairtex managing director Prem Busarabavonwongs announced that Fairtex will be holding MMA fights at Lumpini, calling for fighters of all genders to take part. The first show has been confirmed for 16th January, 2022. So, by that time we can expect to have seen women fight in both Muay Thai and MMA at the stadium. That’s if all goes to plan, which, as we’ve seen, is rarely the case in Thailand.
While the shake-ups being made, both at Lumpini and in the sport as a whole, may not be to everyone’s taste, there’s no doubt that they’ve paved the way for women to fight at Lumpini. If nothing had changed, we wouldn’t be seeing these new opportunities. It’s unfortunate that progress for women has had to come at the cost of so many extra difficulties, uncertainties, and missteps (a sentiment I also expressed in a 2015 article on beauty-focused promotion of women’s Muay Thai in Thailand). But that progress is still worth celebrating. Doors that have been closed to women for decades are now starting to open. Let’s hope they stay that way.
Lumpini Go Sport has yet to prove its staying power, but whether it does or doesn’t last, it’s broken new ground. Until recently, we couldn’t imagine women fighting at Lumpini at all. Now, we can dare to picture what monthly or even weekly women’s fights there could look like.