Fighting To Survive

Harun Bin Shaari is shadow-boxing, awaiting his turn in the ring. The 22-year-old Malaysian kickboxer feigns a look of toughness--but his match is approaching and he can't help noticing the young boy who fared poorly in the previous contest. The teenager was pummeled, and now sits half-conscious in a small tented area near a makeshift ring. A large red welt is rising on his forehead. Outside, in the northern Malaysian town of Besut, a crowd of several hundred villagers is yelling for more blood. Bin Shaari ties a talisman containing an Arabic scroll to his arm for good luck. If he wins his match, the $130 prize money will allow his parents--poor plantation workers--to buy fish and vegetables to supplement their regular diet of rice. But victory is by no means assured: his opponent, a Thai kickboxing champion, is taller, stronger and more experienced.

The Malaysian version of Thai kickboxing was once so dangerous that competitors were sometimes killed in the ring. For that reason, the "sport" was banned in northern Malaysia decades ago. Though still technically illegal, the bouts have re-emerged in recent years in rural, poverty-stricken Malaysian states near the Thai border. Growing numbers of young men are signing up to compete because, they believe, there are no other ways to earn a living. "I fight for money to survive," says Bin Shaari.

It's not difficult to set up a match. In farmer's fields, with the tacit complicity of local authorities, crude rings are erected, surrounded by walls of sugar sacks sewn together. Poor farmers and businessmen make bets on matches that range from $10 to $1,300. "It is all in secret, from friend to friend," says one kickboxing trainer. The fights exist in a world far removed from that of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where young people sip lattes in Starbucks. The number of kickboxers is small--under a thousand--but is nevertheless a conspicuous symbol of the poverty, illiteracy and lack of opportunity in Malaysia's rural regions. "We've had a country that for 30 years has claimed it is doing everything it can to uplift Malays," says a leading Malaysian sociologist. "But the return of kickboxing shows we have failed." Bin Shaari's mother and father are destitute. Bin Shaari didn't make it past grade school and has never found a conventional job. Despite movie-star looks, he has never had a girlfriend, either. "Maybe," he says, "if I can win enough in the next two years, I can get married."

Inside the sugar-sack walls, the crowd is baying for action. On an elevated platform, Bin Shaari and his Thai opponent begin to fight. Soon, the Thai pins Bin Shaari against the ropes and repeatedly slams his knees into the Malaysian's midsection. Musicians play the suonah, a reed instrument, and beat on drums. The Thai kicks Bin Shaari's legs out from under him, and both men tumble to the ground. But in the fifth round, Bin Shaari becomes aggressive, and lands several solid punches to the Thai's head. The match ends in a draw. The crowd is disappointed. But the exhausted fighters seem satisfied. They'll split the prize money. In rural Malaysia, that is a victory of sorts.