After wrapping her thumbs and wrists in cloth, the 19-year-old with cornrows slid her tightened fists into black and red gloves. She stood up and, within moments, fired a few punches before quickly shifting into a guarded stance to block incoming blows.
The teen fighter is Kullanat Yoohanngoh, aka Aida Looksaikongdin, who just shattered nearly a century of tradition by becoming the first Thai woman to step into the ring at Thai boxing’s most historic institution – Rajadamnern Stadium. On Friday, the world’s first Muay Thai stadium saw change more significant if less obvious than its snazzy makeover when it ended a 77-year prohibition on women boxers.
“This fight means so much to me,” she said with a grin about 10 minutes before making history. “It shows the world that I don’t have to be a man to box Muay Thai at this stadium. Anyone can, regardless of their gender.”
Prior to Friday, women were not allowed to enter or even touch the ring.
As a part of its Rajadamnern World Series, the venue on Friday hosted six bouts by male boxers, but the highlight of the night came at the end when the female athletes battled.
Aida’s match was the first, and she fought Iranian fighter Zahra Shokouhi. The pair set foot into the ring to loud cheers from the audience. Aida stepped out of the ring hailed as “the first Thai woman to win at Rajadamnern” in Thai-language media.
“I feel so proud and honored,” Aida said. “I’ve been at this stadium so many times to see men fight. But I never imagined that I would be boxing myself here today.”
Aida’s disbelief was shared by peers such as Ranee Klinratree, who fights as The Star Sitcho.
“I’ve heard that Rajadamnern was so strict no women could go in and fight. That is changing today, and I still can’t believe it,” said the 23-year-old from the beachside city of Pattaya.
The ring that had been off-limits to women now welcomes fighters from around the world. So far, those have included Milagros Andrea Lopez, a 26-year-old Argentinian, who battled The Star Sitcho on Friday.
Only six years after she took up Muay Thai back home, Lopez said she “felt a calling” and followed it to Thailand.
“I can’t believe it. I just arrived at the stadium and I feel so excited, like it’s a dream,” Lopez said through a translator.
Unlike other boxing arenas that allow women to fight, Rajadamnern Stadium has never hosted a women’s match since it opened in 1945.
For decades, conservative belief – deeply rooted in patriarchal norms – said the boxing venue was “sacred” and thus should not be “contaminated” by women who menstruate, a persistent taboo and superstition that to this day is considered a sign of their “impurity” in parts of Asia.
But now’s the time to call out gender bias and discrimination against women, says the stadium’s new management team.
“It’s 2022, and the world has changed a lot,” said Thainchai Pisitwuttinan, CEO of Global Sports Ventures. “There are female boxers out there who are as competent as the male fighters. It’s time to adapt and allow women to enter the ring.”
And it’s about time, said a Canadian woman with decades of experience in the industry who has trained young female fighters at the northeastern gym she runs with her husband.
“Seeing them compete at the mecca of Muay Thai and get paid adequately is satisfying and creates a rippling effect in the community,” Frances Watthanaya said. “The young girls at my gym who get to watch them now can aspire to compete at Rajadamnern Stadium.
Still, Frances said more needs to be done to support and create a pipeline of women fighters at the local level.
“The young girls in the country still struggle to book fights and lack adequate equipment and attire required for training,” she said. “Despite this, they continue to fight. Their grit and determination are mind-blowing.”
Gender parity is just one of the changes at Rajadamnern Stadium, a run-down and sweat-stained facility past its prime that clung to a vintage appeal.
Earlier this year, Global Sports Ventures announced that it would “revolutionize” the stadium for a new generation and global fans by updating it for the times. Some of the upgrades included a renovated exterior, modern branding, ringside cocktails, a new sound system, and the kind of dazzling lighting tech you’d expect at an MMA show.
The musicians who careen through traditional music during each fight have been supplemented by a ringside DJ spinning trap, techno, house, and more during breaks.
“We moved on with some adaptations, but at the same time we kept the core spirit of Rajadamnern: Muay Thai,” Thainchai said.
Rajadamnern allowed female bouts less than a year after another prestigious stadium. This past November, Lumpini Boxing Stadium hosted a women’s mini flyweight championship – the first time female fighters entered the ring since it opened at another location in 1956.
Same rules, same rounds, same prize
The Rajadamnern World Series carries a THB1 million (US$28,000) purse for champions of each weight class.
The 112-pound women’s category counted eight fighters – four Thais and four foreigners – vying for the belt and cash prize.
Unlike traditional Muay Thai matches of five rounds, the tournament encompasses three rounds scored on a 10-point system. The ring is also reduced to 6×6 meters. The new ruleset applies to both male and female fighters.
“It’s a good baby step for women to be able to fight under the same rules, same rounds, and same prize,” Aida said. “I’m not asking for any favors. I just want the same rights [as the men].”
Growing up in a family of boxers – her dad and 16 siblings all fight – Aida started training when she was seven. Not only did she struggle with finding a girl of the same age to spar with, Aida often met insults and disrespect.
“People say we’re weaker, and we can’t fight like the men. That’s not true,” she said. “We have the same patience, discipline, and ability that they do. And I believe that we can make the fights just as fun and enjoyable.”
Since she first heard that she would be fighting at Rajadamnern, Aida said she rescheduled her training to start at 5am with 10-kilometer runs. The routine continued in the evening with training from 4pm until 6pm. She said she’s has kept it up every day since.
On Friday night, Aida triumphed over Shokouhi, scoring 29-28 from the three judges.
Asked about her future, she said that she would like to go global and challenge opponents around the world. She also dreams of women’s Muay Thai growing as popular as the men’s.
“This tournament is so important to me and my family, because it shows female boxers that they can dare dream big, just like I do,” Aida said.
The Rajadamnern World Series will take place every Friday through September.