02 Jun California Smokers . . . Gone, But Not Forgotten.
Gym fights or Smokers in Southern California started its rise in popularity in the 90’s and impacted the growth and development of the sport of Muay Thai throughout the country. Although the martial arts movement in the US emerged after World War II, underground bare-knuckle Prizefights and Smokers have been around for eons in the sport of Boxing. The term “Smokers” referred to the days when clouds of cigar and cigarette smoke filled the area where the fights would took place.
The epi center of the SoCal Smokers was at the Muay Thai Academy in North Hollywood. The Muay Thai Academy or MTA is the oldest and one of the most revered Muay Thai gyms in America. It was known as the training grounds for Thai Champions coming to the US from Thailand. It was also where many US Muay Thai Champions and Coaches got their start. Kru Puk held monthly Smokers for many years setting the standard on how they were run.
Another influential Muay Thai Coach that helped find middle ground with the state regulators was Kru Vut Kamnark. Kru Vut was an instructor, a promoter and a successful businessman. He was instrumental in helping formulate the rules and regulations of Smokers in Southern California that kept the State Athletic Commission at bay for almost 2 decades. To fighters, coaches, gym owners and supporters the fights were known as Smokers. However, having the events advertised as a Kickboxing or Muay Thai “Tournament” was the verbiage used to suffice CSAC.
Considering that Smokers were unregulated, they were run by gym owners who were experienced fighters and or coaches who certainly were not new to the sport. Since the fights were considered beginner level, the atmosphere was laid back when it came to pre-match ups. Consequently, the fights would typically start an hour or two late. Today, when a show starts late, in most instances, the promoter is waiting to fill seats. Back then, the majority of the fights were put together “the evening of.” Smokers were so popular there were fights almost every weekend, sometimes 2 on the same night in the same county.
Since Kickboxing and Muay Thai gyms competed against one another, fighters would have to agree whether clinching and knees would be allowed. In October of 2003 Sityodtong Los Angeles, open just one month, threw their first Smoker. When the issue of allowing knees came up, Kru Walter exclaimed, “We are a Muay Thai gym, if you wanna fight here, you’re gonna fight with knees.” Soon after, all Smoker Fights in Southern California included clinching and kneeing.
Despite what state regulators would have you believe, for a combat sport, the Smokers were relatively safe. The bouts were matched up by weight and experience and if the weight spread was too big or if a fighter had more experience, coaches could agree to an exhibition bout. Each fight was 3, 2-minute rounds and fighters wore protective equipment including 14 and 16oz. gloves (depending on their weight), shin pads and headgear. There was no betting, no alcohol was served and many Smokers had a medical professional at ringside.
Where there squabbles and fights in the parking lot? Truthfully, never saw or even heard of such a thing at a Muay Thai Smoker. Some bad judgments and bad decisions, but that’s part of the fight game. Although emotions can run high with an unexpected loss, most would take it in stride. Although, one time a father was so upset that his son lost he jumped into the ring and slapped the referee. The father was quickly subdued, kicked out of the gym and the next bout got started.
It was not out of the norm if the weight and experience matched up and coaches agreed, a 16-year-old could get matched up against an adult. The common thread of Smoker Fights was for a fighter to get work, experience and put in valuable ring time. Quite often a fighter would have 5 or 6 Smoker Fights before competing in their first sanctioned bout. That kind of experience cannot be replicated in the gym, unless fighters are competing against other gyms. Also, that 16-year-old who fought against grown men is now the current WBC Muay Thai Middle Weight Champion, Josh Aragon.
After Smokers became illegal in the state of California the sport took a big hit. Coaches were at a loss on how their fighters could get the necessary experience. It was a bust for everyone not just for coaches, fighters or the gym owners who threw Smoker Fights. The fighter pool got slim and Promoters produced low quality “Smoker Level” fights. As a result , fight fans were subjected to paying $40-$60 to watch “low quality” Smoker Level fights, as compared to $10-$15 donation at a Smoker.
Fast forward 5 years, the CA State Athletic Commission appoints a long awaiting sanctioning body, the International Kickboxing Federation, headed by Steve Fossum. The IKF sanctions all amateur Muay Thai, Kickboxing, Semi Contact Point Kickboxing and “In Gym Training Events.” An “In Gym Training Event” can be best described as a regulated Smoker imposed but the state and set forth by the sanctioning body. Did this mean Gym Fights or Smokers were back? Yes and no. “Regulated” meaning there’s a promoter’s fee, an event fee, insurance fee, licensing fees, medical fees and official fees. Fighters must obtain complete medical exams, there’s an Event Doctor at Ringside ($$$) and an Ambulance with Paramedics on hand at an average cost of $150 per hour. Whew! Long gone are the days when gym owners just printed out flyers, rented chairs, bought snacks for a concession table and had 2 or 3 sets of red and blue corner lace up boxing gloves.
The “In Gym Training Events” admittedly is a work in progress. The “no declared winners” policy doesn’t sit too well with many coaches and fighters. However, what would be the alternative, have no “in gym” fights, travel to another state to get your fighters experience or fight in underground Smokers and risk losing your license making it impossible to fight or corner in the state of California? If the bottom line is that “In Gym Training Events” give fighters the much-needed work and experience, then so be it.
There’s also added benefits to the structured regulations including the event must be held at a legitimate gym. That alone weeds out the rinky-dink, fight club type gatherings. Also, all bouts are pre-matched, so the event doesn’t start an hour or two late. In addition, the professionalism that Steve Fossum and IKF organization bring to the table is welcome change from Smokers going till 12 midnight with just 12 bouts.
On Saturday, June 4, 2016 Warrior Pride Promotions, is hosting its third IKF sanctioned “In Gym Training Event” at Sityodtong Los Angeles’s new location at the Edgewood Shopping Center in Azusa. Fighter Gyms from within LA County, to Chatsworth, Riverside and as far south as Irvine to as far north as Fresno and Sacramento will be attending. There will also be a Charity Raffle benefitting the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept. K-9 Unit. The Grand Prize is a weekend trip for two to Las Vegas. Many of the match ups are first timers, come on out and support the fighters and the sport of Muay Thai.