Bell tolls for legendary Thai boxing stadium

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Every muscle of Sattan Muanglek's body glistened as he was rubbed down by his trainer with liniment, its herbal odour permeating the dank corridors of Bangkok's legendary Lumpinee Boxing Stadium before a historic fight.

For once the Thai fighter was not focused on the prize. Friday's match was his last in one of Bangkok's oldest boxing venues, which will be demolished after 57 years to make way for high-rise urban development.

"Lumpinee closing has left me speechless. I could barely concentrate the first time I boxed here I was so excited. This is where every young boy dreams of fighting," said Sattan.

Like many men who choose the rigorous life of a Thai boxer, 21-year-old Sattan came from a poor background and saw the national sport as a means to support his extended family.

"Muay Thai", a violent sport that can make western boxing look tame, is said to be 2,000 years old.

Known as "The Art of Eight Limbs" for its extensive use of hands, elbows, feet and knees, it also mixes religious beliefs with traditional cultural practices.

Lumpinee's circular structure, with an ageing tin roof that lets in rain and sunlight, is a stone's throw from the central oasis of Lumpini Park and had avoided Bangkok's frenetic building boom. The stadium harks back to the capital's golden days before the invasion of skyscrapers that now soar above it.

But it stands on prime real estate and its lease was not renewed by the Crown Property Bureau, one of Bangkok's biggest landlords and the fund that supports Thailand's monarchy.

That is forcing the stadium to move to a new venue on the outer fringes of the sprawling city - a logistical hassle for tourists and Thais who have flocked to Lumpinee for decades.

CROWD HOOKED

The fund plans to build condominiums near the old stadium.

"Nothing will be left in this spot. The stadium will be completely dismantled. But change is necessary," said Surakai Chuttumart, director of Lumpinee Boxing Stadium.

He reminisced about a particularly memorable match between "Rambo" Ponsiri and Paluhadlek Sitchungtong that brought more than 10,000 fans to the stadium, pushing its capacity of 9,000 to bursting point.

"They had the crowd hooked every minute," said Surakai. "This stadium will be gone but the memory of legends that have fought here will remain."

For the fans, it's the crowd at Lumpinee that makes the stadium a cut above grander venues.

"Even if the boxing is outstanding, if the crowd isn't good it means nothing - and the crowd here is one of a kind," said Thotspol Kunapermsiri, who postponed a business trip to Vietnam to be at Lumpinee for the last big fight on Friday.

"This is the mothership of Thai boxing. The atmosphere is electric," said Thotspol, who would like to see the stadium preserved as a "national treasure".

Proving his point, the transfixed crowd screamed with every blow Sattan dealt his opponent. On one side of the ring, gamblers made animated hand-signals and shouted into mobile phones in a scene reminiscent of a stock trading floor.

The stadium was one of the few places in Thailand where gambling was permitted, adding to the raucous mood.

"Round five! Final round!" the master of ceremonies announced. The crowd rose from creaky wooden benches and craned towards the ring as Sattan came out of his corner to the sound of rhythmic drums and wood instruments.

His fans were to be disappointed, though, with Sattan losing the fight.

Veteran trainers who came to watch the final bouts bemoaned the end of the "authentic experience" of Muay Thai, a sport with roots in rudimentary boxing rings in the rural heartlands.

"When I brought young talent to Bangkok I wanted to bring them to Lumpinee first," said Chart Phonchai, 73, a former Muay Thai trainer, letting out a hearty laugh. "It is intimate and makes them feel less nervous when they get knocked out."

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