BANGKOK (Sep. 27)
The night before the opening day of fights, the three Israelis slip into their silver-colored tracksuits, which shimmer with a dim metallic sheen under neon-lighted Chinese ideograms. As they jog through Bangkok’s Chinatown, the Israelis look like waylaid Star Trek astronauts. Diners slurping bird-nest and shark-fin soups at curbside eateries watch them bemusedly.
For weeks, the Israelis have started their day at 8 a.m. with a five -mile run, followed by three hours of intense Muay Thai boxing training — skipping ropes, pounding pads, pummeling punching bags and doing countless push-ups.
To make their weight categories they’ve been subsisting on a spartan diet of boiled eggs, canned tuna and cornflakes.
"It doesn’t matter who you are and what you do," explains Liron Markovitch, 24, a Web designer from Petah Tikva, "Inside the ring you’ve got six minutes to prove yourself."
From Sept. 10-15 during the Prince’s Cup, a prestigious international amateur tournament held by the World Muay Thai Federation at Bangkok’s National Stadium, the Israelis have plenty of chances to prove themselves.
After a thorough rubdown before his fight against a hard-hitting opponent in the lightweight category, Markovitch is ready to rumble.
"If I win, I win. If I lose, I lose. But after the fight I want to look in the mirror and tell myself I’ve done my best," he says.
Muay Thai is full-contact combat that aficionados consider the ultimate fighting sport. Unlike kickboxing, with which it’s frequently confused, not only fists and feet are allowed in Muay Thai but also elbows and knees — often to gory effect.
A hallowed tradition still shrouds the sport. Before fights begin, boxers call on ancient guardian spirits. Markovitch dons a sacred mongkhon headband — a thick, braided cord inscribed with magical symbols — and performs the ram muay ritual, a slow-motion Siamese boxer ballet.
The referee then claps and exclaims "Chok!" or "Fight!"
The Israeli charges his Thai opponent, Fomsri Akekarach. Akekarach is a far more experienced boxer with more than 60 professional fights under his belt, almost 10 times the Israeli’s tally.
Shoulders hunched, Markovitch goes on the offensive. Fomsri deflects a right-handed punch and elbows Markovitch in the left temple. The Israeli’s knees buckle. He goes down in the first round.
"What can I say? I have a broken ego," Markovitch comments after the fight. A middle-aged Thai khruu, or master trainer, with deeply scarred eyebrows embraces him.
"Never mind," he tells him. "You’ll do better next time!"
Markovitch and the other two Israeli fighters — Moshe David-Pur and Eran Dov, both from Jerusalem — paid for their own trips to Thailand: Thai boxing isn’t a high priority for sponsors back home, they lament.
"In Israel, Muay Thai isn’t seen as a glamorous sport, although recently it has been generating some buzz," says David-Pur, 27, an engineering student. "Here in Thailand, we fight not just for ourselves and each other; we fight for our country. We want to put Israel on the map not only in basketball but also in Thai boxing."
The next day, it’s David-Pur’s turn to enter the ring. With his lean physique, close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed spectacles, he looks more like an academic than a pugilist.
"Many boxers like to relax and meditate before fights," says David-Pur, a welterweight who made the switch from Taekwondo six years ago. "Me? I need to get my pulse up so I can get out there and tear into my opponent."
He does just that. For the three rounds of the bout, he hounds Kritsana Saratham, showering him with cuffs and hooks. In the third round, David-Pur pummels the high-kicking Thai in the head with several fierce pile drivers. Only the bell saves Kritsana from a knockout.
David-Pur’s Thai opponent still wins on points — his flying kicks, though less damaging than the Israeli’s punches, earn points from the judges.
"I tried to knock him down, but he just stood there and took it," David-Pur comments. He receives a bronze medal for his efforts.
It falls to the third member of the Israeli trio to try to attain golden glory.
Eran Dov, 24, who started training in Thai boxing a decade ago, is the sport’s undisputed champion in Israel. He hasn’t lost a fight at home since 1998, when he first claimed the title of national champion at age 17.
Back then, he was a 125-pound featherweight; now he is competing as a 140-pound light welterweight. Last year, Dov won silver in the European Muay Thai Championship in Prague.
His opponent is a muscle-bound South Korean, Kim Ngun Jong, who the day before made mincemeat of a bouncy Filipino fighter. Dov ducks and feigns rhythmically to the piping, adrenalin-churning ringside tunes produced by an oboist, a drummer, and a cymbalist. The Israeli is sizing up the Korean as a mongoose does a cobra.
Suddenly, the Korean lunges and lets fly a vicious head kick. Dov weaves away and sweeps Kim’s supporting leg out under from him. The Korean plunges to the floor with a resounding thud. The spectators, who have been greeting every punch, kick, and knee-thrust with collective yelps, cheer and jeer.
Enraged, the Korean throws caution to the wind and rushes the Israeli. Dov anticipates another high-kick, and Kim finds himself flat on his back again.
"Eran can read your mind!" David-Pur enthuses from ringside. "His nickname in Israel is Hakosem, the Wizard."
Dov certainly has cast a spell over the spectators. A Thai cheerleader in a Batman suit grabs the Israeli flag from a delegation of Israelis from the local embassy and leads local Thais in an improvised chorus of "Is-ra-el! Is-ra-el! Is-ra-el!"
Dov breezes past the Korean to the light-welterweight final. There, Rungrat Mosom, a fierce fighter, is waiting. Renowned for his devastating kicks and withering blows, he reigns supreme nationally in his category.
Yet Dov pays back the Thai’s murderous kicks and punches with interest. Rungrat is soon reduced to clinching and clasping Dov to catch his breath during Dov’s onslaught.
Halfway through the second round, the Thai releases a lethal midriff kick. Almost nonchalantly, Dov steps away, and the Thai collapses in a tumble of limbs.
The third round is wholly the Israeli’s: He plays cat-and-mouse with his opponent. When the ringside judges pronounce Rungrat the winner, even some of the Thai spectators boo.
"Short of a clear knockout, Eran had no chance to win this fight," commiserates a veteran Israeli boxer now working as a security guard for El Al. "Thai judges would never let their own fighters go down to a foreigner."
Not one for sour grapes, Dov himself is far more charitable.
"I wish I’d had one more round," is all he allows. "I hope to meet him again in a rematch next year."
As the Israeli stands on the second step of the podium watching his nation’s flag make its way up a pole above his head, Mojtaba Reface, an Iranian heavyweight, grins and gives him a thumbs-up sign.
Dov may have won something more precious than gold — the respect of his adversaries.