When people talk about Thais getting involved in the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), they are normally interested in seeing famous former Muay Thai fighters start to learn wrestling and the ground game. There is also a new generation of educated young Thai men who are getting into the sport not for the payday, but because they are passionate about it.
One of them is 23 year-old Shannon Wiratchai, a university graduate who made his professional debut at DARE Championship 2/12 last year. He has already won titles as an amateur and will be fighting this weekend with a spot in the DARE featherweight tournament semifinals at stake.
There is a significant amount of prize money on offer to the tournament winner but there will also be plenty of pride at stake at the Insomnia Night Club on March 17 because Wiratchai is up against the brother of DK Panjabutra, the man he beat to book his spot in the quarterfinals.
Tondamrong Panjabutra has a black belt in Judo and will be looking to gain a bit of vengeance for his brother who was on the receiving end of a one sided three round beatdown from Wiratchai. It is a contest which could get pretty personal but Wiratchai says he has respect for his opponent's ability.
"Tondamrong's last fight was impressive and he showed a lot of ground fighting skill. Although he is not a famous Judoka in Thailand that fight showed that he is a lot better in no gi and MMA. It will definitely be about revenge because I beat his brother and he also beat a good friend of mine in an amateur match but afterwards I am sure we will be friends."
Wiratchai works a freelance English teacher and translator but is focusing more on training MMA. One of the obstacles he has to overcome is opposition from his family who are concerned he might get hurt, something which prevents many young Thai men from competing in MMA, but he says despite some reluctance they remain supportive.
He has been training regularly since his last fight at a variety of camps in Bangkok and Phuket but is still frustrated by how much he feels he has to learn.
"I have been training all the time since my last fight but because I'm very new in MMA, my training schedule still not good enough and I still not satisfied with my progress. I train in many camps such as Phuket Top Team, 13 Coins, Q23, Jitti Gym and TUFF Camp and also my own BurnShell Team in Bangkok. I am still not satisfied with my progress but I think I have improve a lot because of a lot of training, this fight should show whether I am right or not."
Thailand is an interesting market for MMA. Combat sports such as Muay Thai are very popular here and in excess of 7,000 fans will squeeze into Lumpini Stadium to see the sport's stars o the potential for growth is there but Muay Thai is so well established that is it impossible for MMA to even attempt to compete with it.
DARE Championship was only formed last year but has already carved out a niche and gained a real cult following in Bangkok. While the crowd consists of a lot of foreigners there are also plenty of Thais, many of whom have come to cheer on their friends.
Wiratchai says that a lot of people are starting to follow his career and he can see the sport of MMA growing and is happy to be a part of that growth.
"I can feel that MMA is growing up in Bangkok and also Thailand. A lot of Thai fighers are aware of it and DARE is a great MMA event in Thailand, I always feel exciting every time when I step into the event even if I am not fighting but if I can contribute to making it more exciting it is even better, I want everybody to love my fights."
DARE CHampionship 2/12 is taking place in Bangkok on March 17th and will be headlined by a welterweight match between Krysztof Hajtalowicz and Arnaud Lepont. For more information visit: www.darefightsports.com.