Hurts Like Hell: Netflix’s Muay Thai Series Reviewed & Explained

Hurts Like Hell is a Thai four-part series based on corruption in the Muay Thai industry, released today on Netflix.

The series is a drama based on real scandals in Muay Thai, and those stories are woven into the storyline, along with commentary from real people who were involved. This includes referees, promoters, gamblers, fighters and ring doctors. In that sense, parts are filmed in the style of a docuseries.

Hurts Like Hell promises to tell the story not only of the sacrifices that fighters make, but of the ‘seedy underworld’ of the sport. Today, I watched the entire series in one sitting, frantically taking notes throughout. Here’s my take, as well as extra details of the true stories behind the series that weren’t shown.

Hurts Like Hell Review

SPOILERS AHEAD

Read on to discover the storylines of the series, context for the true events behind them, and the opinions of those who were interviewed.

Gamblers and ‘Sian Muay

In the opening of episode one, we meet Phat, a young gambler with a pregnant girlfriend and dreams to open his own gym. We watch him navigate the gambling scene as real-life Muay Thai experts, including legendary commentator Samingkhao and gym owner and veteran gambler Boom Dek Sian, talk us through the workings of the Muay Thai gambling world.

“People in Muay Thai usually aren’t called by their names, they’re called ‘sian muay‘ (translated as ‘boxing guru’), whether you go to the stadium just to watch or to bet on the fights”, says Soros Charoenkitcha, a sian muay himself. “A sian muay, who is like the heart of each stadium, who always turns up, and is respected by those in the boxing business, is known as a ‘Sian Yai'”.

Phat placing a risky bet for 50,000 baht

“Most of them are well-known and wealthy”, adds Vichai Yasala, boxing promoter and gym owner. “But even if you’re not well-known and you make big bets, you can be called a sian yai”, he says. “People don’t usually dare to challenge the sian yai”, Samingkhao adds. Vichai describes how bettors can get ‘trapped’. “For example, if a sian yai bets on red, then all the minor gurus also bet on red, while blue is going strong. Then, when blue kicks, the odds don’t change. That’s called ‘trapping’, he says.

In Hurts Like Hell’s storyline, Phat gets in too deep with a high-rolling sian yai, and the episode culminates in a deadly scene reminiscent of a tragic story that took place outside Lumpini Stadium in 2018.

Kom, the villainous ‘sian yai’ of the story.

Referees and Throwing Fights

The ending of the first episode leaves us questioning the integrity of the referee of the main event that night, and wondering how referees can become involved in fight scandals. The next episode shows the contributing factors that lead to this event.

Episode two begins by revealing that Phat had asked a fighter to throw the fight in exchange for 200,000 baht.

It also shows how a referee named Wirat’s entaglement with gamblers has affected his personal life, driving a wedge between him and his family. After receiving a bribe from sian yai Kom, he offers a large sum to his daughter to pay for her tuition fees and her mother’s rent. She refuses, saying she doesn’t want his ‘dirty money’, which is the source of all their family’s problems. This offering was his attempt at a reconciliation.

Wirat isn’t in it just for the money, it’s more complicated than that. He’s under immense pressure to comply after being threatened by the sian yai. Hurts Like Hell tells us that referees like him who get caught up in gambling can find themselves under the thumb of a sian yai for months or even years.

Referee Wirat giving a count in a dubious fight

In this episode, we meet Sia Boat, head of Petchyindee Gym and promotions.

He says that while gambling has been an integral part of Muay Thai for generations, keeping the sport alive until this day, he believes that this is also the downfall of the sport. He says that the sport won’t last while its reliant on gamblers, and that gambling makes the sport susceptible to corruption in various ways.

Former promoter Suraphon Naratreekun describes how promoters have to take care of their own to in order to be successful, and this can mean taking advantage of others. “They must have some degree of ruthlessness in their hearts”, he says. Later, we see some of the ways this can happen.

Poisoning Boxers to Sabotage Fights

Lt. Col. Sudhichai Chokekijchai, MD is former CEO of Thonburi Hospital Bangkok, and former Senior Director of Medical Services Development at Bumrungrad. He describes having an interest in Muay Thai since medical school, which led him to also become a ringside doctor. He introduces viewers to a dangerous practice that can often occur as a result of gambling.

Sometimes, fighters are unwittingly poisoned in order to throw a match.

During his time in the industry, Dr. Sudhichai has learned to spot the signs that something is amiss during a fight. These signs usually become apparent before the match, but not necessarily in the ring, he says. The most common is frequent urination, which causes dehydration and loss of strength. The aim is to give the fighter just enough of a dosage to affect their performance, but not enough to stop them from fighting. In many cases, fighters have passed out after coming out of the ring.

This cruel practice, which can be fatal, is undoubtedly caused by gambling. While it can come down to pure greed, those who are in debt or under pressure can be forced to play dirty. In some cases, even child fighters have been targeted.

A 2015 Vice article, ‘Muay Thai Fighters are Intentionally Being Poisoned‘ tells stories of multiple fighters being poisoned, including Nong Rose and Kem Sitsongpeenong. The series’ closing credits also mention a famous case involving Sangmanee Sor. Tiempo.

On December 2nd 2014, Sangmanee went into shock, passed out, and was rushed to hospital after a match against Thanonchai at Rajadamnern. He later tested positive for soporific substances, which cause drowsiness. “Boxing gurus believe that he was drugged by someone in his crew”, the credits say. They also state that “around 80-90% of the time, boxers are drugged by someone close to them”.

Dr Sudhichai says that because the people who are most likely to commit such an act are those closest to the fighters, corruption can come from within a fighter’s own camp. Samingkhao describes how those within a gym can conspire with sian yai to drug fighters and circulate rumours to trick less experienced gamblers into placing higher bets. According to Sia Boat, corruption can come from every angle in Muay Thai, as fighters, judges, gamblers and gym owners all stand to gain.

In the second episode’s fictional fight, Hurts Like Hell combines multiple scandals into one storyline, asking what would happen if one boxer was poisoned while his opponent was bribed to throw the fight. We watch as the poisoned fighter suffers the effects, having no choice but to urinate through his shorts while in his corner between rounds. The referee, noticing this symptom and his waning performance, takes matters into his own hands in an attempt to give him a fair fight. As the episode comes to a close, we’re left with the question of what justice and fairness mean in fights that are complicated by matters such as this. Justice for the audience, gamblers, fighters and referees may all look different.

Child Muay Thai Fighters

Episode 3 opens by stating that 6 is the youngest age that fighters can legally compete at Thailand’s stadiums. However, younger fighters commonly compete in temple fairs and fights in rural areas.

We’re introduced to a 14-year old named Chian, short for Wichian. He’s played by Phuripat Poonsuk, a fighter whose real-life story was covered by a 2019 Al Jazeera documentary, Thailand’s Child Fighters (listed in my directory of Muay Thai documentaries and TV shows). Phuripat has been fighting since age 9, and both his father and his grandfather were fighters. In the Al Jazeera documentary, Phuripat’s grandfather says that neither he nor his son were able to make a living as fighters, but young Phuripat is making them proud with his successful fighting career, winning titles and gaining such a reputation that it became difficult for him to find opponents. Hurts Like Hell is his acting debut.

Chian, played by Phuripat Poonsuk

“99.9% of child boxers come from poverty, me included”, says referee Wanchai Pongsiri. He began boxing at the age of 10 to help his parents make money. His father was a taxi driver and his mother was a maid, and his earnings were a much-needed supplement to their income.

Somjit Jongjohor, a former Olympic boxer who won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, describes how Muay Thai can give disadvantaged youth a future and an opportunity to support their families. Former world champion Khaosai Galaxy also talks about how hard his training was as a child.

Chian follows the same path, taking his first fight in the hopes of using his earnings to help his mother. She’s unable to watch her son’s fights as she can’t afford to skip work and lose a portion of her meager income. She’s also abused by Chian’s father.

Representation of Women in Hurts Like Hell, and an Obligatory Rape Scene

There are no female fighters, promoters, gym owners or referees in Hurts Like Hell. The series is inspired by famous scandals in Muay Thai, which have involved male figures. Here, there is no room for the depiction of women in the sport. Even in the gym scenes, no women or girls are seen training in the background.

Women are shown only as the family members who suffer the consequences of men’s involvement in the dark side of the sport. There’s Wirat’s daughter, who pleads with him to get out of the industry and bring their family back together; Phat’s girlfriend, who witnesses his death and is left to deal with an unwanted pregnancy alone; and Chian’s downtrodden and abused mother, who faces physical and sexual violence at the hands of his seemingly alcoholic father.

Early in Chian’s story, he’s woken in the night by the sound of struggling. Peeking through a crack in his mother’s bedroom door, he witnesses her being raped by his father.

Rape has been used as a plot point in Thai dramas for decades, and this has been a point of debate for many years. Still, it seems as though the creators of Hurts Like Hell couldn’t help themselves from adding such a scene.

While this case differs from lakorn (Thai soap opera) rape scenes, which often depict rape as either a punishment or a way of beginning a relationship, it’s still completely unneccesary. It was disappointing to see it depicted in this series, where it added nothing to the plotline. The struggle of Chian as a child fighter living in poverty and an abusive home could have been depicted without the use of rape to add to the ‘scandalous’ theme of the series. His mother’s shirt is ripped to expose her bare breast during the assault, a detail that surely never would have been included if the female gaze had been considered in the making of this plotpoint. Like the cheesy sound effects during each of the fight scenes, it cheapened the series.

Abuse by Muay Thai Trainers

During Chian’s fight, he experiences flashbacks to the rape of his mother. Unable to shake the scene from his mind, he struggles to listen to his corner between rounds. He’s underperforming, and his coach threatens him. If he doesn’t start fighting better, he’ll face the consequences back at the gym. Finally, Chian wins, but when he returns home, his father snatches his earnings and kicks him out of the house. With nowhere else to go, he spends the night at the gym. Home is not safe for him.

Later, he tells his mother that he has a big match coming up, with a chance to win more money if he wins. “If I win, can we go and live somewhere else?”, he asks her.

Chian in the corner with his trainer

Throughout a training montage for Chian’s big fight, we see his trainer taunting him, urging him to train harder if he wants to earn money for his mother. “Is that all you’ve got?”, he asks. “Is that all you can do to help your mother?” Later, the trainer slaps an older fighter named Tan in front of the whole gym, making an example out of him for losing a fight by knockout in the first round. The rest of the fighters are warned not to embarrass the gym like he did. If Chian wins, he’ll get 10,000 baht. If he loses, he’ll face the same punishment as Tan.

Den Chaomoengpet, the fighter who was bribed to throw the first fight of the series, also suffers physical abuse at his camp. Den loses by way of a supicious knockout after dominating the earlier rounds, and when the head of his camp realises what has happened, he orders Den to meet him back at the gym. There, Den’s trainers restrain him while the head beats him repeatedly with a belt.

A real-life case was documented on social media just two weeks ago. Hia Dtee, head of T-Det 99 gym, was shown in a video hitting one of his fighters twice and berating him for losing a fight. The fighter, Yodduangjai T-Det 99, had barely stepped out of the ring and was getting his handwraps removed in the locker room. Onlookers bowed their heads to avert their gaze as Hia Dtee hurled abuse at him. He’d lost an Omnoi Stadium title match to Ognjen Topic. Hia Dtee was dissatisfied with the fighter’s performance and had lost money on the match.

A Death in Muay Thai

Throughout this episode, we also see snippets of an interview with Fahmai Wor. Sudprasert, a young fighter who was thrust into the spotlight by a tragic match in 2018. In November that year, he fought 13-year old Petchmongkol Sor. Vilaithong (Anucha Tasako) in a temporary boxing ring in Samut Prakarn. In round 3, Anucha was knocked out by a barrage of punches, and his head hit the canvas before the referee was able to break his fall. He later died as a result of a brain hemmorhage.

Chian’s opponent faces a similar fate, and is rushed away by medics immediately after the fight. As Chian watches the ambulance speed away, he’s handed an envelope of money by Phat, the gambler from episode 1. It’s his share of the winnings. He uses this money to move into a new house with his mother. His abusive father is seen alone in the former familial home.

We delve into the backstory of Arnon, Chian’s opponent. In stark contrast to Chian, he has a large, comfortable home and a doting father with a white collar job. He’s told that at an upcoming show, there will be scouts for the national boxing team. His father is eager for him to fight there for the opportunity to be scouted, and the owner of Arnon’s gym uses this to his advantage. He tells the boy’s father that if he wants his son to have this opportunity over other fighters, he’ll have to pay 50,000 baht to cover ‘expenses’. To give his son this chance, he’ll have to pay the price. He agrees, and later struggles with the guilt and pain of losing him after it all went wrong.

While telling the true story that inspired this plotline, Fahmai says that although he fought according to the rules, he still feels responsible for his opponent’s death. “If I hadn’t been in that match, it wouldn’t have happened”, he said. Anucha’s uncle and trainer, Damrong Tasako, is also interviewed. He says that he recommended that Fahmai be ordained as a monk, to make merit and appease and vengeful spirits that may have caused this tragedy to happen. He says that it could have been caused by karma from a past life.

I was interviewed by BBC Radio’s Outside Source for this story in 2018 (unfortunately, there is no recording available). I described how Anucha’s death had reignited the controversy around child fighters in Muay Thai, and proposals had been made to make professional child fighting illegal.

A Change.org petition to outlaw professional bouts with fighters under the age of 15 garnered over 8,000 signatures. It was proposed that 13-15 year-olds could fight, but not with full impact. They would fight for points rather than knockouts. For 9-12 year-olds, it was proposed that they could fight without headshots. If the petition was successful, those aged under 9 would be able to display ram muay and ‘mae mai’ Muay Thai techniques, but not to fight.  The national legislative assembly has pushed for an amendment to the 1999 Boxing Act to make these changes, while figures from stadiums and gyms have opposed the bill.

In the BBC interview, I described these proposals, as well as the claims that fighting poses a risk of brain injury. This includes a study by neuro-radiologist Dr. Jiraporn Laothamatas, which involved brain scans of child fighters. However, I emphasized that child fighting is often sensationalised by the media, while child deaths in other sports are not treated in the same way. “Here, children compete in Muay Thai the same way they do in soccer or American football in the West”, I said. I also told interviewer Ben Davis that Muay Thai is not only a source of national pride, but also a source of livelihood for many in the country. Stopping children from fighting won’t do anything to help these children out of poverty, but it will remove their source of income. The topic of child Muay Thai fighters can’t be meaningfully discussed without addressing the underlying reasons that can cause them to go into the sport.

Sia Boat expressed his opinion on the matter. “No one actually wants to be a boxer because its such a violent sport”, he said. “But they choose to fight because it costs them nothing but themselves. So if you ban children from boxing, how will they make a living?”

“Of course, we care about their safety. Yes, it’s dangerous, and I’m sure their parents worry about them even more than we do. But why do they still let their children fight? Because they think it’s the only way they can survive.”

Sia Boat Petchyindee

Referee Wirat leaves the industry and begins working as a taxi driver instead. One night, he finds an unlikely passenger in sian yai Kom, who’d previously bribed him. He orders him to drive to Rangsit Stadium, and on the way there, asks the why the former referee he doesn’t show his face there anymore. “The gamblers are the only ones who go there now”, Wirat replies. “Everything is up to the bettors these days, so sometimes the results don’t come out as they should”. His departure from the stadium isn’t enough for him to escape the wrath of the gambling gangsters, and he suffers a grisly fate later that night.

Despite these dark stories that taint the sport, Muay Thai is not doomed, Somjit Jongjohor explains.

“Muay Thai still has a future as our national sport, we can’t forget how far we’ve come because of this sport. It’s given us a way to make a living, built our spirit and character. New boxers take up the sport every day, and there’s a future for all of them. They may start out just to survive, but go on to thrive professionally in their careers. I believe that Muay Thai will be a part of Thai people’s lives for thousands of years to come.”

Somjit Jongjohor, Olympic boxing gold medalist

The True Stories that Inspired Hurts Like Hell

Hurts Like Hell ends with a dedication to the bravery and passion of the Muay Thai community, and a disclaimer that names and places in the series are unrelated to real events. It then provides details and footage of the true stories that inspired the series.

As well as the death of Anucha Tasako, it also tells the story of a murder that took place at Lumpinee Stadium.

On March 24th 2018, Udom Dekrachang, chair of Lumpinee Stadium’s referee committee, was attacked by two men. Fifty-year-old security guard Anucha Prathumma was shot dead while trying to intervene (he was not named in Hurts Like Hell’s telling of this story). One of the assailants, Jirapan Koisap, who was later arrested, claimed that the attack was revenge for a gambling loss of 20,000 baht on a match that Mr. Dekrachang refereed. He claimed that he’d only intended to “teach him a lesson”, but when the security guard tried to help, his getaway driver Yuthana Kularpmoung fired the fatal shot. Police were convinced that there was more to the story.

Later, it transpired that gym owner Suriyadit “Sek Donmuang” Charaschitnarong had hired the two men to carry out the attack. Suriyadit turned himself in to police.

News footage of drugged fighters was shown, as well as coverage of a fight that was famously thrown. At Rajadamnern Stadium on December 20th 2018, Roichoeng Singmawin fought against a lesser-known fighter, Dao K. Kampanat. During the fourth and fifrth rounds, he held back, refusing to strike. He lost on points, severely disappointing the bettors. A police investigation found that Roichoeng threw the match after being bribed by a gambler with the offer of 60,000 baht. Roichoeng was arrested and charged after handing himself in to police.

The final frame of Hurt Like Hell reads:

“Between 2012 and the release of this series, there have been at least 30 incidents of boxers throwing fights or being drugged. And now there is a saying that goes, “there will always be fixed fights as long as gambling is involved””. 

Hurts Like Hell is available now on Netflix. Watch the trailer.

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