If, like me, you are involved in boxing without actually climbing through the ropes and taking punches and if, like me, you occasionally find yourself questioning your attraction and wondering what purpose boxing can really serve in the modern world, then probably, like me, you are often seeking forms of justification. How can I tell myself and others that watching two men punch each other in the head repeatedly is OK? Let’s be real – boxing is a bloodsport which can exact a terrible toll on its competitors.
Some people reading this may know that when not writing about boxing, I work with young people who have been excluded from school or found themselves in trouble with the law. Most of them have chaotic home lives and come from dysfunctional communities where gangs, drugs and street-crime tempt them, then trap them, like insects in honey. Boxing is one of the few solutions I have seen work with these youths. While many other sports turn them off and schoolwork repels them, they like the idea of learning to fight. The street-cachet of being a boxer can draw them in and before they know it they are hooked. Then the discipline literally saves their lives – at least temporarily.
Yet one of the things that has always saddened me is that although there are many schemes focused on getting troubled kids into boxing – I can think of several running around London, my home city, (Fight for Peace, The Boxing Academy etc) – there is little of a similar nature for those who are slightly older. Perhaps the feeling is that by the time young men have reached their mid-twenties there is nothing that can be done, paths are set and the cycle of offending / sentence / release / re-offending can never be broken. Yet there are so many examples of inmates, no longer children, who turned to boxing relatively late in their lives as a result of a stint inside. For some it had a deeply positive impact on their lives. Bernard Hopkins is the most obvious example, or for those familiar with the UK scene, hilarious journeyman Jody Meikle.
Meikle has now actually had four spells behind bars and is completely honest about the role the sport has played in his life. “If it wasn’t for boxing god knows what would have happened to me” he told me. “I’d probably have ended up killing someone and going down for life.”
This is where the redemptive side of boxing lies. The sport’s ability to save those who need it desperately is the side of the game everyone involved should champion. Yet I’ve always felt there’s a lot more potential there. The link between training, competing and prisoner rehabilitation is one that is worth investigating. So it was with great interest that I recently learnt of the story of IBF world flyweight champion, Amnat Ruenroeng, from Thailand.
Like most boys growing up in that part of the world, Ruenroeng trained in Muay Thai from a young age. Considered by many the most potent of the upright, striking martial arts, through its utilisation of knees, elbows and shins as well as fists and feet, Muay Thai is known by its practitioners as ‘the art of eight limbs’. Culturally, it is far more embedded into the Thai way of life than boxing is here.
Despite his early baptism in Muay Thai, Ruenroeng’s early life was tough. He didn’t know his father and grew up hustling on the streets. He had some success in full-contact tournaments but became a heavy drug user and in 2006 was sentenced to 15 years for the armed robbery of tourists. He was 26 and it was his third custodial sentence.
Had he served the full term, as initially looked likely, he would not have been released until early middle age and the chances of recidivism would have been very high. What does a 41 year old convict with gang connections and no qualifications or realistic chance of employment do on release? You don’t need a degree in criminology to guess the answer.
Yet Ruenroeng’s life was completely turned around due to a Thai government scheme that is either wonderfully progressive or insanely barbaric, depending on your point of view. Due to a quirk in Thai law that dates back to the 18th century, prisoners who bring ‘glory to Thailand through sport’ can be acquitted. As a result most prisons in Thailand, which have primitive conditions compared to UK jails, (many do not even have beds and expect inmates to sleep on the floor) participate in the ‘Prison Fight’ system. This policy, fully endorsed and supported by the Thai department of corrections allows prisons to run a gym and develop their own squads of fighters. More often than not this is in Muay Thai, but some run boxing programmes.
Fighters selected for the programmes get to leave the cramped conditions of their cells and train for up to 6 hours a day. Anyone from novice level to pro can be accepted. If they show dedication and work hard, then acquit themselves well when they fight, they can be accorded various privileges, including time off their sentences. In extreme cases, where performance is truly exceptional, complete pardons can even be offered.
Many people instinctively balk at such an idea. Encouraging prisoners to fight each other would not be something entertained by those with supposedly liberal or progressive views of prisoner treatment in the UK. Additionally the notion that someone serving a long sentence for a serious crime, such as 20-25 years for murder, could be let out after only a fraction of that, purely by training and competing in combat, riles those who say ‘life should mean life’, ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ and other similar platitudes. Yet we have to ask ourselves what the purpose of prison is. If as many believe, it is to give prisoners the opportunity to reflect on their mistakes and choose another path, then it could just be that the Thais are onto something.
“It is not just about the fighting.” A Thai government spokesman said. “To be treated favourably the prisoners also have to show improved behaviour. But the discipline of training helps with this.”
Amnat Ruenroeng was one beneficiary of this scheme. He started boxing on one of these programmes shortly after beginning his third spell inside. Such was his natural aptitude for the sport that he blasted his way through his prison matches and was quickly put into regional, then national competitions. Within a year he was Thai amateur champion, whereupon he was released from jail. On the outside his new focus kept him away from the temptations which had seen him imprisoned and in 2008 he represented his country in the Beijing Olympics. He turned pro four years later and by early 2014 had won the vacant IBF world title. Currently 16-0, he is now in a position to seek big money unification matches and secure a financial future for himself and his young family without selling drugs or mugging students on gap-years.
Not everybody has the talent to be a world champion, but Amnat Ruenroeng is living proof of boxing’s ability to turn lives around.
“If I wasn’t a boxer I’d still be in jail.” He said, simply. “That makes me try very hard.”
He is fortunate to be from a society which allowed him to.
Listen to my interview on the Hawksby and Jacobs show on TalkSport (1089 MW) at 1.40 today.