Thousands of Muay Thai fighters have been left out of work by the coronavirus.
KANCHANABURI: Training in masks, two metres apart, Thailand's professional fighters are battling a new reality -- shuttered gyms and cancelled tournaments after the coronavirus pandemic left them suddenly out of work.
Thailand's strict social-distancing rules mean former world champion Sarawut Prohmsut can only mime arm-blocks to a sparring partner jabbing at him from a "safe distance" as they train in Bangkok.
"How can you box in these conditions? We no longer have any strong sensations, no adrenaline," the 23-year-old Sarawut said when interviewed at the Luktupfah Muay Thai gym.
Sarawut is used to earning 20,000-30,000 baht a monthfrom tournaments, with most of it being sent sent home to support his family.
But the pandemic has hit Muay Thai hard, with tournaments and stadiums closed due to a cluster of infections discovered at one crowded event in Lumpinee Stadium in early March.
"Overnight, everything stopped," said Somiong, a 24-year-old ethnic Karen boxer who returned to Kanchanaburi province after the stadium ban.
Somiong, top centre, a professional Muay Thai fighter of Karen ethnicity without official Thai citizenship, sorts produce with his mother and cousins at his family's farm in Kanchanaburi province on April 13.
He and Sarawut have joined millions who are out of work because of the virus, which has ravaged Thailand's tourism, entertainment and restaurant industries.
The government promised a monthly cash handout of 5,000 baht to affected workers.
But boxers without a specific licence are not eligible for the aid, said Jade Sisisompan of the World Muay Thai Organisation, a co-owner of Luktupfah gym.
"It can quickly become catastrophic," she said. "Most have been fighting since they were children and can do nothing else."
- 'They are afraid' -
Muay Thai tournaments in Bangkok are high-stakes spectacles, drawing hundreds to cheer, and bet, on prospective winners fighting in brightly lit rings.
A bout in early March at Bangkok's military-owned Lumpinee stadium was no different.
But the packed-out arena led to hundreds of infections, including a celebrity host, stadium staff, politicians and army officials.
The impact of the shutdown was immediate for Somiong, who was used to training seven hours a day and earning up to 20,000 baht a month.
Like most pro fighters in Thailand, the ring had served as a way out of poverty for him and his family since he started training at 11.
But Somiong has no valid Thai ID and will not qualify for government assistance.
"Now I can't help my parents with money," he told AFP as he helped his mother harvest coriander in Kanchanaburi. "It plays a lot on my mind."
The boxing community must band together to help the most financially vulnerable fighters, said Youssef Boughanem, Muay Thai's world middleweight champion and the owner of a Pattaya-based gym.
"Boxers strive for excellence every day -- not having a goal may lead to deep depressions," said the Belgo-Moroccan fighter, nicknamed the "Terminator" for his more than 120 wins by knockout.
They could also regress in their training, said former champion Samart Payakaroon, who has been offering free online lessons for the past two weeks to fill the void.
Thailand currently has more than 2,600 cases of the coronavirus, and the death toll was at 46 -- considered low in relation to neighbours such as Malaysia and Indonesia.
But even as the health situation improves, "it will take time before Thais return to the stadium", said Samart.
"They are afraid."