Bare-knuckle kickboxing doesn't pay much: at fights outside the Thai border town of Mae Sot, the purse is $22 for a Thai winner, $11 for a Burmese, $4 each for a drawŚlosers get nothing. And the rules are brutally simple. Head-butting, elbowing, kneeing as well as kicking and punching are allowed. Victory is by surrender or straight knockout. If both fighters are still standing after five rounds (or two for kickboxers under 14), it's a draw. There's no count: the two referees' chief purpose is to protect a floored fighter from being stomped on by an opponent. Poking in the eyes is not allowed, nor is biting. Boxers wear no shoes, as is the tradition in Muay Thai (kickboxing). Less traditional in this illegal version: boxing gloves are dispensed with, replaced by hands bound across the palm with thin strips of hemp to make the fights as savage as possible.
The area around Mae Sot in Thailand's wild west is a tense mix of Thai soldiers, Burmese rebels and smugglers of jade, gemstones, heroin and amphetamines. A boxer calling himself Thai may have been born in a Burmese refugee camp and speak the language of the Karen guerrillas or the Mon tribesmen over the frontier. Crowds flock from Burma for the fights, some crossing legally at the checkpoint but most just wade across the parched Moei river. In this town of mixed allegiances and sliding identities, boxing alone provides a little certaintyŚwithout exception, every match is Thailand vs. Burma.
The high point of the season is in April when Thai promoters hold a series of tournaments in makeshift rings set up in sheds or forest clearings. The contests feature up to 16 fights a day between boxers who have traveled from villages on either side of the border. Many are professional journeymen, living day-to-day and bout-to-bout from the tiny purses they earn. These matches seem a million miles from the gloved superstar kickboxing bouts held in stadiums in Bangkok. On the border, fighters simply cannot afford to lose. Many share their meager wages with managers and trainers. That financial pressure only intensifies the violence.
Bare-knuckle boxing has been outlawed in Thailand since 1923: too many fighters never awoke from that conclusive knockout, often delivered by a fist of hemp rubbed in ground glass. Nevertheless, tournaments are tolerated, partly because Muay Thai has a place in the country's history. Siamese soldiers perfected the martial art in the 16th century, and Thais have been flooring Burmese since as long ago as the 18th century, when soldier Nai Khanom won his freedom from captors by defeating 12 top Burmese fighters. To this day, many Thais ascribe their status as the sole unconquered Asian nation to Muay Thai.
Back in Mae Sot, Chinaka's career could be over. By night he is back on his side of the border trying to recover, and doesn't show for the next day's tournament. Whether he will fight again any time soon is unsure, but by age 24, boxers are often approaching career's end in the gloveless ring. Chinaka's manager and trainer know it: they're busying themselves with a new crop of fighters to replace him. Chinaka's battles may be coming to a finish, but the fights go on.