Boxing fever grips Thailand's boys but doctors raise health concerns

BURIRAM, Thailand (Reuters) - Loud cheers erupt as two boys trade punches at a boxing ring in Thailand's northeastern province of Buriram.

After dominating five rounds, the winner is declared; 11-year-old Nanthawat Promsod, who is better known by his boxing name - "Super Big Saksandee".

He earned 3,000 baht ($94.34) for winning the fight, and earns 1,500 baht ($47.17) for each match-up that he takes part in.

He is one of at least 10 boxers aged 15 or less in the district of Satuk, where nearly every village has a boxing camp.

18 PHOTOS
Boxing fever grips children in Thailand
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Boxing fever grips children in Thailand
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2016/12/15: Children from age of 5-18 attending a Thai boxing school in central Bangkok. Thai boxing known as Muay Thai is a traditional and national sport for Thailand. Many parents encourage their children to pick up Muay Thai training program from young age. (Photo by Alda Tsang/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Methas Charojram (C), 7, who is a child boxer, prepares for his Thai boxing match at a temple in Buriram province, Thailand, February 2, 2018. Picture taken February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Prapan Chankeaw
Nanthawat Pomsod (C), 11, who is a child boxer, fights Kritthonglek Sitkritthongkam (L) during a boxing match at a temple in Buriram province, Thailand, February 2, 2018. Picture taken February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Prapan Chankeaw
Wutthichai Inthawimon (R), 9, who is a child boxer, prepares for his Thai boxing match at a temple in Buriram province, Thailand, February 2, 2018. Picture taken February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Prapan Chankeaw
Nanthawat Pomsod, 11, who is a child boxer, fights Kritthonglek Sitkritthongkam during a boxing match at a temple in Buriram province, Thailand, February 2, 2018. Picture taken February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Prapan Chankeaw
Wutthichai Inthawimon, 9, who is a child boxer, prepares for his Thai boxing match at a temple in Buriram province, Thailand, February 2, 2018. Picture taken February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Prapan Chankeaw
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2016/12/15: Children from age of 5-18 attending a Thai boxing school in central Bangkok. Thai boxing known as Muay Thai is a traditional and national sport for Thailand. Many parents encourage their children to pick up Muay Thai training program from young age. (Photo by Alda Tsang/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2016/12/15: Children from age of 5-18 attending a Thai boxing school in central Bangkok. Thai boxing known as Muay Thai is a traditional and national sport for Thailand. Many parents encourage their children to pick up Muay Thai training program from young age. (Photo by Alda Tsang/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Thai boys take part in a boxing match over a pool of water during Children's Day in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat on January 13, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / MADAREE TOHLALA (Photo credit should read MADAREE TOHLALA/AFP/Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2016/12/15: Children from age of 5-18 attending a Thai boxing school in central Bangkok. Thai boxing known as Muay Thai is a traditional and national sport for Thailand. Many parents encourage their children to pick up Muay Thai training program from young age. (Photo by Alda Tsang/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Thai boys take part in a boxing match over a pool of water during Children's Day in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat on January 13, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / MADAREE TOHLALA (Photo credit should read MADAREE TOHLALA/AFP/Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2016/12/15: Children from age of 5-18 attending a Thai boxing school in central Bangkok. Thai boxing known as Muay Thai is a traditional and national sport for Thailand. Many parents encourage their children to pick up Muay Thai training program from young age. (Photo by Alda Tsang/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2016/12/15: Children from age of 5-18 attending a Thai boxing school in central Bangkok. Thai boxing known as Muay Thai is a traditional and national sport for Thailand. Many parents encourage their children to pick up Muay Thai training program from young age. (Photo by Alda Tsang/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2016/12/15: Children from age of 5-18 attending a Thai boxing school in central Bangkok. Thai boxing known as Muay Thai is a traditional and national sport for Thailand. Many parents encourage their children to pick up Muay Thai training program from young age. (Photo by Alda Tsang/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2016/12/15: Children from age of 5-18 attending a Thai boxing school in central Bangkok. Thai boxing known as Muay Thai is a traditional and national sport for Thailand. Many parents encourage their children to pick up Muay Thai training program from young age. (Photo by Alda Tsang/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2014/12/28: A young Muay Thai boxers warm up before a fight at king Taksin's birthday celebration in Bangkok. (Photo by Piti A Sahakorn/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2014/12/28: A young Muay Thai boxers prepares before a fight at king Taksin's birthday celebration in Bangkok. (Photo by Piti A Sahakorn/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BANGKOK, THAILAND - 2014/12/28: A young Muay Thai boxer resting and getting coached between rounds in his corner during a fight at king Taksin's birthday celebration in Bangkok. (Photo by Piti A Sahakorn/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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"Muay Thai", or Thai boxing, is said to be 2,000 years old. Known as "The Art of Eight Limbs", it makes extensive use of elbows, hands, knees and feet.

Thailand's national sport is increasingly popular overseas too but in this Southeast Asian country it can provide a way out of poverty, as those who climb to the top of the sport can earn a lot of money.

The country's rural northeast is home to most star boxers who have gone on to win international recognition, such as welterweight Buakaw Banchamek, a two-time K-1 World MAX champion.

Hailing from Surin province, Buakaw, 35, started fighting when he was eight years old, and won his first international kickboxing tournament in 2004 in Tokyo.

Nanthawat wants to follow in his footsteps.

"I want to become a champion," said Nanthawat, who has had 40 fights over a two-year career and in recent months has won more than 10 consecutive fights. "I will be proud if I win at least one championship belt."

But as more Thai children, even some preschoolers, flock to Muay Thai, physicians and children's rights bodies warn the sport could cause chronic health problems, such as neurological disorders.

Jiraporn Laothamatas, a neuroradiologist and director of Thailand's Advanced Diagnostic Imaging Center (AIMC), said a five-year study she conducted showed patterns of brain damage and memory loss in young fighters, compared to non-boxing peers.

"There's no safe boxing, because you can see that when even adult boxers get old, they also get Parkinson's disease because of the brain damage caused," Jiraporn said.

More than 10,000 Muay Thai fighters are younger than 15, the Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT) said last year. But experts say that figure could be 20 times higher because not all child boxers are registered.

Still, some parents and trainers argue that Muay Thai teaches children discipline and is a valuable source of income.

"The money Nanthawat earns from boxing, we save for him," said his father and trainer, Ong-arj Promsod, 36. "Whenever we are short of money, I give him that money as daily allowance for school."

31 PHOTOS
Thai transgender boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk
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Thai transgender boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, prepares for her boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017.

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk (R), 21, who is transgender, kicks Priewpak Sorjor Wichit-Padrew during a boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, waits before her boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, trains at a gym in Buriram province, Thailand, July 4, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk (C), who is transgender, reacts after winning a boxing match against Priewpak Sorjor Wichit-Padrew at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, prays at a shrine near the Baan Charoensuk gym in Chachoengsao province, Thailand, July 12, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, is massaged by her boyfriend Beer at the Baan Charoensuk gym in Chachoengsao province, Thailand, July 12, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, trains near a gym in Buriram province, Thailand, July 3, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, sings at a karaoke room in Phimai district in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand, July 18, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, changes her shirt as her boyfriend Beer rests on a bed, in a room at the Baan Charoensuk gym in Chachoengsao province, Thailand, July 12, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, spends times with her boyfriend Beer at the Baan Charoensuk gym in Chachoengsao province, Thailand, July 12, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk (R), 21, who is transgender, kicks Priewpak Sorjor Wichit-Padrew during a boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017.

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, is massaged by her trainers before her boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017.

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, who is transgender, trains at a gym in Buriram province, Thailand, July 3, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk (R), 21, who is transgender, prepares to be weighed before her boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017.

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk (L), 21, who is transgender, and Priewpak Sorjor Wichit-Padrew perform the Muay Thai traditional dance before their boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, who is transgender, receives a massage during a training session at a gym in Buriram province, Thailand, July 4, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, shaves her legs at the Baan Charoensuk gym in Chachoengsao province, Thailand, July 12, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, trains at a gym in Buriram province, Thailand, July 3, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, who is transgender, kicks Priewpak Sorjor Wichit-Padrew during a boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk (R), 21, who is transgender, spends time with her friend after a training session at a gym in Buriram province, Thailand, July 3, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk (R), 21, who is transgender, fights Priewpak Sorjor Wichit-Padrew during a boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017.

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, who is transgender, trains at a gym in Buriram province, Thailand, July 4, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, irons clothes at her house in Phimai district in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand, July 18, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, spends time with her family at her house in Phimai district in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand, July 18, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, shops at a market in Phimai district in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand, July 18, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, gets dressed at her house in Phimai district in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand, July 18, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, walks next to her trophies at her house in Phimai district in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand, July 18, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, shops at a market in Phimai district in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand, July 18, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, eats dinner with her family members at her home in Phimai district in Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand, July 18, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

Muay Thai boxer Nong Rose Baan Charoensuk, 21, who is transgender, poses for a photograph with her fans before her boxing match at the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, July 13, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

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(Reporting by Prapan Chankaew; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Clarence Fernandez and Neil Fullick)

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