History was made in Thailand last week, when Nong Rose Barnjaroensuk became the first transgender Muay Thai fighter to compete at one of the country's most revered fighting stadiums, the Rajadamnern. On June 7, Nong Rose, who is from Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, fought Sua Yai Chor. She beat him via judge's decision.
Nong Rose's journey to Rajadamnern, and the fight with Sua Yai, was profiled in a VICE Sports article by Frances Watthanya. "The atmosphere of the stadium really changed in the lead up to the fight. People kept going into the back to get a photo with Nong Rose," said Rob Cox — the event's commentator who spoke VICE Sports about the fight.
Muay Thai, a form of boxing known for its use of elbow and knee strikes, is Thailand's national sport. The sport is ever-present throughout the country with contests held daily (and gambled on fervently). To Muay Thai fighters, promoters, and spectators, no two places on earth are as significant to the sport as Lumpinee Boxing Stadium and Rajadamnern Stadium. These temples of Muay Thai deliver the grandest events, the most famous fighters, and some of the largest prizes.
Nong Rose's debut at Rajadamnern is special because that stadium has long observed house rules that have previously prevented fighters like her, from stepping foot into the ring. One of these regulations was that all fighters at Rajadamnern were to abide by a strict dress code, which forbade fighters from wearing shirts.
Unlike many other venues Rajadamnern does not stage female Muay Thai fights — women aren't even allowed to touch the ring at Rajadamnern. Because she would have had to fight topless, Nong Rose had previously rejected the possibility of ever fighting at this revered stadium.
However, Rajadamnern bent their rules on June 7; though it's unclear if this was a sign of things to come or merely a one-time event. The reason for the rule change — to allow Nong Rose to compete — was likely due to the attention and recognition she had received as of late, while fighting on ThaiRat TV (where she defeated fighters who identified as male).
Nong Rose's previous fights had been promoted by Onesongchai, one of the sport's most powerful organizations. VICE Sports suggests that Onesongchai opened the doors for her to fight at Rajadamnern as a show of power; in order for the promotion to prove they could do something people previously said was impossible.
For the fight itself, Nong Rose had a 2-pound advantage over her opponent Sua Yai (a stipulation agreed upon prior to the contest). In the lead-up to the fight Sua Yai said of Nong Rose, "I can't look at her, she is so beautiful that I will fall in love." In interviews Sua Yai also speculated about Nong Rose's bra-size.
During the beginning of the fight Sua Yai didn't have time to focus on his opponent's chest, due to the barrage of punches and knees that landed about his face. In the second round Nong Rose floored Sua Yai with a right cross, in the third she landed a head kick that sent him down again.
But Sua Yai recovered and out punched Nong Rose in the fourth, as she began to tire. With Sua Yai doing all he could to knock her out, Nong Rose withstood the attacks and survived to the final bell, after which she was declared the winner by the ringside judges.
After winning, Nong Rose celebrated with her twin brother, who had been in her corner for the entire fight. She ran around the ring, ecstatic with her win. Sharing in her joy was the crowd at Rajadamnern, who had been whooping in excitement at every hard strike she landed on Sua Yai. The win earned Nong Rose international attention, but also 100,000 baht ($3,000). Nong Rose would have almost certainly earned more money for the victory through side-bets which were made by her team on the outcome of the contest (which is very common in Thailand).
Nong Rose is not the first transgender fighter to compete in Muay Thai. Parinya Charoenphol aka Nong Toom used to fight at Lumpinee stadium before she opened up her own gym in Pranburi.
It's unknown whether more transgender fighters will be welcomed into Rajadamnern as Nong Rose eventually was. However, one thing is certain; thanks to her poise and performance on the grandest stage she has stepped foot on, Nong Rose proved she's capable of being a star in the sport, and perhaps Thailand as a whole.
You can learn more about Nong Rose's story by reading Lindsey Newhall's piece “Fighting for Identity” on VICE's Fightland.