Sat, Feb 04, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Below the belt?

Kickboxing is usually thought of as a man's sport, but some Thai women are getting into the fight game


It's fight night at Rajadamnoen kickboxing stadium in downtown Bangkok, but if promoter Pariyakorn Ratanasuban's fighters win, she won't be able to climb into the ring to present them with the winner's belts.

"Because of Thai traditions, people still think that women should not do sport like this," the 25-year-old explains in a boardroom near the ring, where women are barred from entering when men compete.

"Some people think that women should be in the house to be housewives, not doing strong sports like this."

For the last two years, Pariyakorn has run muay Thai fights, as this brand of kickboxing is called in Thailand, and muay ying, the women's version.

Although the fights are usually on the same bill, the men fight first. Women are allowed into the arena to watch, but they are forbidden to enter the ring of two main stadiums in Bangkok.

Ultimately Pariyakorn wants to shake-up the system so that women can make careers from one of the country's biggest sports, both as fighters and as promoters.

If anyone has the credentials to transform one of the most macho parts of Thai society, Pariyakorn does.

She was born into a muay Thai dynasty as the daughter of Songchai Ratanasuban -- Thailand's answer to Don King -- who has dominated the sport for 27 years.

Sport savvy

But she also brings the marketing and media savvy of modern corporate Thailand to a sport steeped in the country's ancient traditions.

Before joining the family business, Pariyakorn received a bachelor's degree in social administration. Then she took a job as an account executive with Thai petrochemical giant PTT, because she wanted to learn how major companies worked so she could apply those methods to her business.

She then studied at night for a master's in general administration.

Those lessons led her to computerize the business, creating a database of the more than 5,000 fighters nationwide Pariyakorn represents, and improving the company's Web site.

She also expanded video sales of famous fights. The company now ships some 8,000 video compact discs a month, mostly overseas to France and Australia. DVDs are planned from February.

Her father still heads the company, although in practice she runs about 80 percent of the business while her mother Saowanee does the accounting and her brother Siraphop handles the international side.

Yet all her talent has not been enough to overcome media and sponsor skepticism over whether women belong inside boxing rings. Men's sports like football and golf dominate Thai media, with some coverage of women's golf and tennis.

Women's fight

Some of the roughly 1,000 female boxers represented by the OneSongchai company have appeared on television as talk show guests and helped increase the sport's exposure, but not as fighters during prime time slots.

"We have on occasions carried items on women's kick-boxing, but more for novelty value than anything else," Bangkok Post sports editor Roger Crutchley says.

Pariyakorn says she meets similar reluctance from sponsors, who aren't sure who would watch muay ying.

"I also would like to give a chance to female boxers," she says.

Muay Thai is frequently a route out of poverty for male fighters, many of whom leave their impoverished villages for Bangkok, where they earn at least 10,000 baht (about US$250) per fight -- more than the average monthly salary back home.

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