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Brokedown Boxing

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST: OK, so when I was growing up there wasn't any cursing allowed. You couldn't say the S word. You couldn't say the A word. None of the words. We got around it. What the heck is going on? You mother duck clucker. Spit no, I didn't slap her on the ba-donka-donk. Heck, if you did it right, it was almost better than cussing. Fun. Until one day at church, Pastor hit the pulpit fire in his eyes. Brethren, today's topic is euphemism. People started looking around and stuff like what's a euphemism? What's that supposed to mean? A euphemism is when you use one word in place of another. Huh? Like when you say holy crack, we know from the world the common expression isn't crack. There's another word. It rhymes with fit. Happens when you sit. And goes easier for you if you have some grit in your diet. Brethren of the Lord knows what that word is. And there is nothing holy about it. You might as well say what you mean and mean what you say. I was recently thinking about that because in this modern, antiseptic, sterile, NPR ivory tower, clean hands, rubberized playground, organic vantage point, people don't say what they mean. Is that what we've become? Or are there people left in the world who when they say they are going to kick your ass, they're not speaking metaphorically. Today on SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, we set out to answer that question. SNAP JUDGMENT proudly presents Striker. Amazing stories from real people who are not playing around. Lace up your boxing gloves, big talker, or go sit in the bleachers because this is SNAP JUDGMENT.

Now then, different people want different things. And I'll be honest, I'm a lover, not a fighter. But Mark Sayer - Mark had a different set of priorities.

JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Mark Sayer doesn't remember a time when he wasn't fighting. As a little kid, he watched Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. He tried out all kinds of martial arts like Tae Kwon Do. But then he found his real calling - Thai boxing, Muay Thai.

MARK SAYER: You know, not taking anything away from Tae Kwon Do, but Muay Thai, you know, it's basically like a sanctioned street fight. I'm not trying to say it's like the same realm as having a sword or a gun and going to kill someone. But it's in the ballpark.

ROSENBERG: This is what Mark liked about it. It was low on rules and high on danger. So if you won in Muay Thai, it meant you won for real. And so when he discovered it, he went hard to work getting good at it. He fought his first adult fight when he was 15, against a guy 10 years older. And he won.

SAYER: You know, my coach was really proud. He was saying, he's only 15, he's only 15, after I had won the fight. And, you know, the referee, Pong (ph), was raising my hands. And he said, someday, you know, when you're 18, I take you to Thailand, and we make money. And I just remember, like, being pretty happy to hear him say that. You know, to have him offer me that kind of respect meant a lot.

ROSENBERG: For Mark, Thailand was the magic word. It was where you went when you were done fighting in the bush leagues, and you wanted to compete against the greatest fighters on earth.

SAYER: It just - it seems like a self-evident thing. Like, of course you want to fight in Thailand, you know. If someone was like, hey, do you want to go climb Mt. Everest? I'm like, of course I want to climb Mt. Everest. Let's go do it. It just grants you this certain level of legitimacy as a martial artist that no other endeavor does.

ROSENBERG: There was just one problem.

SAYER: Kickboxing doesn't pay the bills. Even the guys you see on TV, most of them are working one or two more jobs in addition to fighting.

ROSENBERG: So Mark didn't go to Thailand when he was 18. Instead, after graduating from high school, he joined the Merchant Marines. And he found he was good at that, too. Soon, he was making great money. But it left him less and less time for training and fighting. And after a while, he wasn't the youngest guy at the gym anymore. He was 30.

SAYER: And then it was just around, like, 2012 when I was like, you know, I'm not getting any younger. I want to go and just do at least one fight over in Thailand before I'm, you know, too old - and go just live my dream.

ROSENBERG: After passing his chief mate's exam, Mark told his employer that he wouldn't be renewing his contract. Instead, he got on a flight to Bangkok. Once there, he spent two months looking for the perfect trainer and the perfect gym - one that he knew would book him in a reputable fight.

SAYER: Because more and more these days, there's a lot of bogus fights. And there are certain stadiums that are just kind of synonymous with a foreigner knocking out a taxi driver. And then they go back to their home country and they say, like, I won a fight in Thailand. But they have some of the biggest travesties, like honor.

ROSENBERG: Eventually, though, he found a great gym on the outskirts of the city. It was near a big park that was perfect for cardio - a rarity in Bangkok. But it also had a reputation for booking evenly matched fights at respective venues. Mark told them he would be ready to fight in six weeks. The gym's managers would take care of the rest.

SAYER: So about a week away from when I had my fight scheduled, I still didn't have any real, set details on where it was going to be or who I was going to fight, which is pretty typical for a low-level pro fight in Thailand. But what wasn't typical was after my morning training session that day, one of the assistant managers, a woman, came up to me and told me that there would be a little press conference for the fight I was going to be in. And this seemed kind of strange to everybody I told at breakfast. And some of the more experienced fighters, they definitely had a look on their faces like, that seems really odd. And then I asked the assistant manager on the drive over there, several times, so where are we going? What kind of place is this? And she was kind of - she never really flat-out lied, but she did kind of a typical - in Southeast Asia - sort of misdirection if someone has news, they think, that might upset you and just sort of said, like, I'm not really sure. It's near Don Muang airport. It's near the University, which, you know, really still gave no details on, like, where we were actually going. Once we got to the building, it looks like it just could be a university building or something like that. And she told me to go ahead and go talk to the promoter and that she was going to go park the car. And it wasn't until I saw the huge, wrought iron gate, once I saw her driving away, and then, you know, I started piecing things together when I saw the guards coming up to me, smiling, with nightsticks, like, patting me on the shoulder like, oh, you know, here's our foreign fighter for the fight. And I asked the fight promoter - I'm like, where are we? Like, what is this place? And he's like, this is a prison. And I'm like, you know, oh, I'm going to fight just another foreigner? He was like, no, no, no. And he kind of, like, made like a handcuff kind of sign with his hands. He's like, you fight prisoner.

ROSENBERG: The prison Mark was entering was called Klong Prem. It was Bangkok's maximum-security penitentiary. Most of the inmates were serving sentences of over 10 years.

SAYER: And I actually read, years before, a book that's about Klong Prem called "Welcome To Hell." So I was like, this is pretty serious business. And the whole edifice of the prison kind of has an element of intimidation to it that I'm sure is intentional by design. I mean, you walk about 100 meters to where the courtyard is where we were going to have the press conference through this, like, chain-link tunnel where there's a whole row of about 100 new arrivals who are kind of being broken in, who were in kind of a squat position and manacled, who were not allowed to take their eyes off the concrete. And so I'm walking by this row of prisoners. And then just one guy with a full face of gang tattoos breaks from staring at the concrete and kind of looks up at me and stares daggers at me with his eyes. And that definitely, you know, contributed to the ambience.

ROSENBERG: The press conference in the courtyard was mostly in Thai, but there was a Western press contingent there too. So Mark was finally able to piece together what was going on. Apparently this was the brainchild of an Estonian promoter who wanted to leverage the prison's long tradition of intramural boxing by filming the matches for DVD. The only difference, now, is that the prisoners were to be pitted against foreign fighters like Mark.

SAYER: You know, then I started to think about my opponent. And I - normally, I'm not the kind of guys who usually gets the softballs, you know, or, like, easy fights. So just whenever I figured out that we were going to fight these prisoners, you know, they were kind of, like, sort of checking us out from, like, way across the other end of the yard. And I just sort of, like, picked out the biggest, toughest looking one. He's even taller - a little bit taller than me. And I'm just like, OK, just plan on I'm going to fight that guy. And then, like, you know, sure enough, like, yeah, that's who I'm fighting.

ROSENBERG: Mark's opponent was Thub Hong-Mo. He was 30 years old, a former semi-professional fighter and currently serving his fourth year of a 35-year sentence. We'll get to his crime a bit later. He had expected to serve every one of those 35 years. But then the prison officials made him an offer - fight a Westerner in a film boxing match. Fight well, and he could get his sentence reduced. Fight really well, they hinted, and he could be released. This is what made the spectacle of the prison fight so appealing to the promoters, but even more so to Thub Hong-Mo. It's why, every morning, he was marched from his tiny, bedless cell to a prison gym to train and spar for six hours a day, every day, for the past year. It's why his four cellmates had seen him transform from the typically apathetic prisoner into the prison's toughest and most determined fighter. And it's why when Thub Hong-Mo looked at Mark, in addition to seeing a fellow fighter, he saw something much more important - a chance at freedom. At the press conference, though, Mark only had a short time to process all of this.

SAYER: I definitely was uncomfortable. And I think I deserve an Oscar for how I was able to play off that, like, I knew the whole time. That I was like, of course, you know, I'm going to go fight in a prison. But, you know, if I had known ahead of time, I probably wouldn't have, just because I'm not really certain I support the whole concept. And, you know, if they do help these guys get freedom, I don't necessarily see them opening up a noodle shop if they get out. But earlier I said that having fought in Thailand grants you a certain level of legitimacy that nothing else does. And I knew that if I went back to the states and I said, you know, I fought and won in a fight in Thai prison, no one's going to doubt the legitimacy of that. So the week leading up to the fight, I'm having the dialogue in my head about it. And one day at breakfast, I was talking to some of the guys. And, you know, it was about two or three days away from the actual fight. And my friend Jay (ph), who's a successful professional fighter from New York, said, hey, man, at the end of the day, it's still just a fight. And that made a lot of sense to me that, you know, at the end of the day, all these other factors are involved. But it's still just you and him getting in a fist fight.

ROSENBERG: After that, Mark stopped worrying, in part because he'd already made another decision - this one, about his opponent.

SAYER: I didn't want to pursue finding out what he did to be put in prison. I could've found out. But the crime he committed, or was accused of committing, had no relevance on the fight itself. And at that moment, that's all I was focused on.

ROSENBERG: That next week went by fast. Mark trained nonstop. And before he knew it, he was back at the wrought iron gate in front of the prison on fight day.

SAYER: I spent a lot of hours in the preceding week visualizing this moment - going back into the prison, passing through the metal detectors and then going through the chain-link tunnel again, what I would do, where I would warm up, how I would warm up, getting my hands wrapped, which, you know, in Thailand in pro fight, they go ahead and they put tape over the knuckles. And, you know, that's really when you kind of start focusing. Like, I mean, you're always slowly bringing your focus to a crescendo. But that's, you know, the moment when, like, you really - you feel the wraps and, like, the gauze going over your fist. And you feel your fist even becoming more of this weapon. And then you go ahead and you do the walk to the ring. It had a really weird, carnival-esque atmosphere. I mean, like, there was, like, bands playing, like, a six-foot tall, transvestite ring girl. And then this time there was really no segregation between us and the prisoners once we got in there. And there was a couple of people who I recognized from the press conference. But other than that, the crowd was entirely prisoners, maybe 300, 350 of them. And I'm fairly certain that they weren't there to root for me. And I definitely did get the sense that my opponent was kind of their go-to, like, number one guy. And when he got to my corner, he stomped his foot as a symbol of challenge. And I heard the prisoner spectators; I heard them cheer. And I remember my Thai trainer. When he saw my opponent, I could tell he was visibly concerned. Usually his English is really good, but then he just started speaking in kind of block phrases, like, you punch - you punch - you low-kick - you punch - you low-kick. And I was like - I remember kind of looking at him like, hey, you really don't have much of a poker face, do you? And I got over to my opponent's corner, and I looked his trainer in the eye. And then I stomped as hard as I could - twice as loud, on his corner, than he did on mine. And then I heard the prisoners cheer even louder. I knew that he knew, at that moment, he was in a real fight.

ROSENBERG: That didn't mean, though, that the odds were in Mark's favor. There was a rule, an unspoken one, that when a foreigner fought a local, if the foreigner couldn't knock him out by the end of the match, the decision would almost always go to the Thai fighter. And unlike the normal five rounds, this fight was only going to be three. Three rounds - that's how long Mark had to knock out Thub Hong-Mo.

SAYER: The fight began. And I saw him look at me. And he landed an elbow strike right to my lip. And I remember pressing my tongue up to the top of my lip 'cause my whole area there had gone numb and looking at him and just smiling. I pivoted, and I threw a really solid kick. I thought my shinbone was just going to come outside the other side of his leg. And I just saw him wince in pain. And for all I know, the crowd could've been roaring. But at that moment in time, I was completely focused on the fight. And I mean, it really is true, like, whatever he said in that movie "Fight Club," where he's like, when you're fighting, like, everything else in life just gets the volume turned down on it.

ROSENBERG: Mark was in the zone. And this obviously went over really well with his trainer.

SAYER: After the first round was over, like, I saw, like, that concerned look on his face was gone. And he was just like, OK, man, you punch more, man. Like, you know, boxing is doing good. And I remember, like, hitting him with, like, really solid punches and seeing his head snap back. But I knew that if I didn't knock him out, I wouldn't get the win. And then, late in the third, he was draped over the ropes. And I thought that was my chance.

ROSENBERG: Holding Thub Hong-Mo against the ropes, Mark delivered one final, devastating punch to his head.

SAYER: These are thin gloves - just, you know, 10 ounces. I could feel the thudding of my knuckles going into his skull and just, like, you know - I knew that, like, a good chance I could put him away. And then I saw the referee come, and then - to break us up. And I was like, oh, man, I'm going to win because it was only three rounds, you're going to have to give it to me. And then I saw the referee just kind of brushed him off and made sure he was OK and then put him back in there. Then, maybe, like, 10 or 15 seconds later, the fight was over.

ROSENBERG: And just as Mark suspected, even though he knew he had fought the better fight, the referee held up Thub Hong-Mo's hand and, to the cheers of his fellow inmates, the judges unanimously declared him the victor.

SAYER: I knew I wasn't going to get a decision, but I'd fought what I thought was a great fight. And I felt like we had earned each other's respect in a lot of ways. And I was going to go have some ice cream and call my parents and watch TV. And he was going to have to go back to prison. So maybe, if it was a close fight, maybe he needed that decision a little bit more than I did.

ROSENBERG: Thub Hong-Mo couldn't disagree. After the fight, he was surrounded by cheering inmates - king for a day. But it's not like he was going to be released on the spot. Instead, he was going to be marched back to his cell, where he would have to sit and wait for sentencing hearing. And when that would be was anyone's guess.

SAYER: But, you know, I looked at him. I was like, hey, man. I hope you get your freedom someday. And he said, you know, thank you, thank you so much. And we, you know, kind of hugged and took a picture for the camera. And then I went back and thought about it. I'm like, did I really mean that? And I'm like, is this somebody I really want to see on the street? And for all I knew, you know, he, like, was a murderer or, you know, a rapist or, you know, who knows what. And at that point, I just wanted to get my paycheck and get out.

ROSENBERG: Did you ever find out what he did to be put in prison?

SAYER: Yes, I did, months, months later.

ROSENBERG: What did he do?

SAYER: He killed somebody in a fight in a nightclub, which he said was self-defense. And before that, he was working as a hired muscle for organized crime in the red light district of Bangkok. And, you know, apparently he had been using the same skills he'd used as a professional fighter as a mafia enforcer.

ROSENBERG: Would you have still said I hope you get your freedom if you had known?

SAYER: I don't know. That's an interesting question. I'm not sure I would've. You're still taking violent people, who are in there for being violent, and you're going to reward them by putting them back into a society for how well they're able to act violently?

ROSENBERG: If his paperwork kind of manages to make its way through, and you were - you know, by providing him the opportunity to fight and get the technical decision - you're responsible for letting this guy loose, how would you feel about that?

SAYER: I don't know. I mean, I just can't say that I really take ownership of his fate either way. You know, at the end of the day, a fight's still just a fight.

ROSENBERG: Mark actually fought one more fight in Thailand after that, this time in a real stadium. And he won. Even though he'd lost the technical decision at Klong Prem, he lived his dream. And Thub Hong-Mo, the man who won that same technical decision - he didn't. Due to the recent coup in Thailand, his promised sentence reduction has been invalidated. He's still in prison waiting for hearing.

WASHINGTON: Mark Sayer currently lives in the Gulf of Mexico. And that story was informed by Matt Shaer's article on Thai prison fights in Men's Journal. We'll have a link at snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Joe Rosenberg, with sound design by Renzo Gorrio. Now, did you just fight your way out of a Thai prison and are looking for something to do? Well, come to Snap Judgment Live, August 1 and 2. Information, tickets available right now, at snapjudgment.org. When we return, the birth of a modern-day legend and what to do if you're bigger and stronger than all the rest of the boys, when SNAP JUDGMENT, the Striker episode, continues. Stay tuned.

From Snap Judgment's 'Striker' episode. 

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