Billy Moore's first Muay Thai "Fight Night" in Thailand

His knees and elbows rained down on me ferociously, forcing me to defend myself

By Billy Moore

Published August 11, 2018 7:30PM (EDT)

Billy Moore (Getty/Anne-Christine Poujoulat)
Billy Moore (Getty/Anne-Christine Poujoulat)

Excerpted with permission from "A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare in Thailand’s Prisons" by Billy Moore. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

The following passages are excerpted from "A Prayer Before Dawn," the true story of Billy Moore’s time spent in the notorious Klong Prem “Bangkok Hilton” prison in Thailand, where overcrowded cells are a breeding ground for disease and where drugs, murder, rape, and corruption run rampant. In order to survive his brutal environment and inner demons, Moore fights in the prison’s Muay Thai boxing team, makes strategic friends, and even converts to Islam. "A Prayer Before Dawn" is now a major motion picture by A24 and starring Joe Cole, set to release in U.S. cinemas on August 10.

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Probably the most famous Muay Thai kickboxer of all time was Nai Khanom Tom. He was one of thirty thousand Thais taken prisoner by the Burmese in 1767 during an attack on Ayudhya—then the capital of Siam. At a large Buddhist festival held in Yangon (Rangoon) the following year, the Siamese pugilist was invited to represent his fellow prisoners of war in a round of public boxing matches. Before a crowd of hundreds, Khanom Tom unleashed a barrage of bare fists, feet, knees and elbows, and defeated ten Burmese fighters in succession (some say it was a dozen), earning the respect of the royal court and winning his freedom. He returned to Siam a national hero. After Khanom Tom’s famous bouts, a member of the Burmese royal court is said to have remarked, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom. Even with his bare hands, he can fell nine or ten opponents!”

Many of Thailand’s national archives, including the Chupphasaht, a detailed Thai martial arts manual, were destroyed during a mid-eighteenth century Burmese invasion. The earliest known Thai written reference, found in chronicles written in Chiang Mai during the earlier Lan Na era (1296–1558), mentions a ferocious style of unarmed combat that decided the fate of the Thai kings. During these early days, combatants’ hands were wrapped in thick horsehide for maximum impact and minimum knuckle damage. In grudge matches, the hands were bound with glue-soaked cotton or hemp and then dipped in ground glass to inflict maximum injury and pain. Thais are true warriors and on one famous occasion in the 1970s, Hong Kong’s top five kung fu masters travelled to Thailand to compete against Thai boxers. The Chinese were all knocked out in less than six and a half minutes, earning Muay Thai the right to be called the most devastating martial art in the world.

Months passed by and I was alone again. Nina had gone back to her husband. There was nothing back in England for me but painful memories, lonely nights and cold weather, so I decided to stay on in Thailand. I came back to the Muay Thai boxing camp wanting to learn, appreciate and endure this ancient art of fighting. I was introduced to Mama and Papa who were and still are the owners of the gym. The pair were then quite old, their skin wrinkled from a lifetime of exposure to a sweltering sun. Their boxers put on staged fights and collected tips that would help them support their families. I was short on money so couldn’t afford the extortionate prices that other Muay Thai schools charged.

They agreed to allow the other boxers to mentor me in the art of Muay Thai, and in return I would use my English language skills to help the fighters by collecting tips from the tourists. I was the only foreigner crazy enough to be in this dusty, rundown gym. But I knew I belonged in the ring; it was the only place I felt alive and where mentally I was never hurt. It was out there in the real world that the pain was, the emotional stuff that always hurt me. Every night I would get into the ring and put on staged shows with the other boxers. It was a fast way to learn. The guys showed me how to perform and execute all kinds of moves from defence to attack using my knees, elbows and feet. My existing boxing skills enabled me to learn pretty quickly and I was soon show-fighting regularly with the other boxers for tips which paid my bills. To fight like a Thai, I had to learn to live like a Thai and survive on these tips. I lived comfortably because the cost of living in Chiang Mai was low. It was cheaper to eat out than to cook in my apartment—and going out allowed me to experience more of the excitement of this culture that I craved.

The boxing arena in Loi Kroi Road was surrounded by girlie bars, thick with cigarette smoke, and visited by many tourists during the peak season, which is around November through until February. It was now mid-December so most nights we would collect good tips. This pleased Mama and Papa, who would usually give me a small share of the money they collected. I spent most of my time at the arena. I trained hard and was at my physical peak. I’m built like a pit bull terrier, with incredible hand speed and more power than most Thai boxers. When sparring, I had to make more of an effort to catch my prey, but this kept me fit. Nimdam and his friend Yut, a small guy with most of his front teeth missing, would lounge around the gym, sharing cigarettes and drinking Sangsom whiskey from the 7-Eleven store.

“Farang, why you no drink?” Yut wanted to know.

“He cheap Charlie, number one,” Nimdam teased.

How could I explain to them that if I started drinking again, I’d be on the same old journey? The same obsessions with the demons of alcohol and drug abuse would overwhelm me, and I would revert back to a life of crime and violence, wreaking havoc upon everybody around me again. “Yeah, cheap Charlie, number one,” I said, smiling back at them both. For Mama and Papa, their whole being revolved around making money. It totally dominated their lives. Show boxing just wasn’t enough to pay the bills. The audience wanted real fights. So, each Monday night was “Fight Night.” Papa would promote eleven championship bouts to a crowd of at least four hundred people.

These fights would have me sitting on the edge of my seat. Watching the superb technique of the fighters going to war amazed me. I wanted to be in that ring. I felt ready. I had been boxing for tips and green curries for over a year, and had beaten all of the eight show boxers in the camp. Even Nimdam would scream “Billy, bao bao krap” (go easy) every time we fought. I hated the staged fights in which I was always made the winner to please the punters. I felt like a fraud. It was time for the real deal. One day I plucked up courage and asked Papa to let me fight in one of the real shows. I told him I would split the money I earned with him if he allowed me to fight. No doubt influenced by the offer of money, he agreed to let me compete in one of the Monday night fights. He set up a match between me and a guy named Kemphla, from a gym in Lampang, a small city just outside Chiang Mai. The fight was due to take place in two weeks, during which time I was to carry on fighting in the show bouts.

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This is what I wanted, to battle with a seasoned boxer of equal size and weight, but not necessarily with the same skills that I possessed. It would be a real, hard-fought contest, an opportunity for me to prove myself as a proper Muay Thai fighter. On the day of the fight I was alone in my room. As I lay on my bed and stared up at the huge propeller fan spinning above my head, I mentally prepared myself for what lay ahead that evening. OK, what do I need to avoid? The holds? The knees? The elbows? I just needed to avoid him altogether. I was feeling nervous the whole day and fought the fight a million times in my head, playing and replaying every move I had been taught.

I arrived at the arena early. My fight was last on the card. Nimdam and Yut helped me to get ready, and rubbed boxing liniment all over my body. I only wished it was Kevlar, because it was surely only body armour that could protect me from a possible beating. They were talking to me all the while, but I wasn’t listening. I was watching the only other foreigner besides me who was fighting that night. He was a man called Johnson, from the Isle of Man, and entered the ring at number seven on the bill. I watched as this man got systematically destroyed within two rounds. He had been caught with a powerful forward elbow above his right eye, which knocked him out cold, his blood splattering the canvas. Nimdam and Yut both looked at me. I could see concern etched on both of their young faces. “Billy, you number one,” Yut whispered in my left ear. “Jai yen yen,” (have a cool heart) said Nimdam, while squeezing my neck.

Mama came over to me with one of the flyers advertising the fights that night. “Kor tort, Kuhn Billy,” (sorry, Mr. Billy) she said, handing me the flyer. I could see my name next to a picture of a Chinese man, and my country of origin was given as Sweden. I laughed out loud. Now I was Chinese Billy from Sweden! Number eleven on the bill—cheap Charlie! My name was called, and I entered the ring to the hypnotic beat of the traditional Muay Thai music. I eyed my opponent Kemphla from across the ring and watched as he performed the “ram muay,” a ritual dance. He stretched and swayed as he paid his respects to spirits unseen. I was totally focused and ready for combat against this Thai master.

The smoke-filled arena was filled to capacity. The bell sounded. It was time! Kemphla came out strongly; he struck the back of my leg with a powerful roundhouse kick. He repeated the same kick only to have it blocked by my shin. Agony! My right leg went numb from the bone-on- bone impact. We circled each other, both searching for weaknesses; we were like two lions trapped in a cage. When he attacked, the crowd were up on their feet and screaming. He teeped me (front kick), forcing me into a corner. His knees and elbows rained down on me ferociously, forcing me to defend myself. All I could do was cover up for protection. The bell sounded, ending the first round. Papa was waiting for me in the corner, shadow boxing.

“OK, good!” Papa shouted above the roar of the excited crowd, who were baying for my blood. Nimdam removed my gumshield and squirted water in my mouth and over my head and body to cool me down, while Yut rubbed frantically at my now red and bruising legs. The bell sounded for the second round.

“Now fight. Box, farang, box!” roared Papa. I charged out and switched from Muay Thai to boxing. I jabbed fast, connecting with my opponent’s face, and stepped back when he attacked with a solid kick. Quickly I moved back in and, seeing an opening, smashed a right I cross, square on his chin, knocking him off his feet. He hit the canvas hard. The crowd were standing again and screaming. Their allegiance was changing as they sensed my victory over their fallen hero. Kemphla stayed down. He was hurt but conscious. I got down on my knees, held my hands together and waied (bowed) to show my respect for a great fighter. “Geng mahk,” (very good) he said, obviously impressed with my boxing skills.

It was over. I had won.

Papa and the other fighters from my camp were pleased and were all cheering and celebrating my first victory as a Muay Thai combatant. Both Nimdam and Yut hugged me tightly.

“Billy, good, very good,” said Mama. As she kissed me on the forehead, I felt myself become a part of the camp at last. At that moment, I knew this is where I belonged—in an old, battered, run-down gym with a blood-splattered canvas covering an uneven boxing ring. This was now my home.

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