A Life Less Ordinary: Arjan Gae Sor KeawSuek
Update 28 April 2020: Trainer Gae now works at Sasiprapa Gym in Bangkapi (Bangkok).
There is a Chinese saying, “Life unfolds like a drama, drama imitates life”.
Ask any Nak Muay from Thailand about his beginnings, and chances are that dire circumstances in life led him into the world of fight sports. Children in the poor rural regions of Thailand, many as young as 4 or 5, are often left to fight for their survival. Literally. Pummeling and bleeding in order to have a little food on their plate at the end of the day. As was the case of this story’s protagonist: Ajarn Gae Sor Keawsuek, or as he’s commonly known by his online moniker, Trainer Gae. He’s got quite a story to tell.
Born Suthat Muangmun, in the province of Nakhon Sawan 200km north of Bangkok, Gae spent much of his childhood living in the local temple. Like many families in poverty, Gae’s family was unable to provide him with even basis sustenance. Thankfully, the local temple was his sanctuary. He had at least, a roof over his head and a safe place to rest at night.
As fate would have it, Gae stumbled into the world of Muay Thai at the age of 8. There wasn’t really any training involved in the beginning – he simply showed up at temple fairs, got in the ring and swung his hands around at his opponents. For his first fight, he received a princely sum of 20 baht. Princely by his standards. He was also rewarded with clothes and food. There and then, he felt like he had found his calling.
For a while, he fought in all the local temple fairs in his untrained style. Some days, he even fought 2 bouts in a day if he felt he was up to it. This continued until he was talent spotted by a gym at the age of 9. He began his formal Muay Thai training where he was first made to do/learn the Muay Thai footwork for whole 8 months – 8 months of walking.
“I went to the gym knowing nothing about fighting. I just knew how to swing my arms. So they made me practise Muay Thai footwork for 8 months. Just walking. That’s how they used to do it. Drilling and drilling every simple technique until it becomes second nature. We were caned as kids when our technique was incorrect or if we made mistakes. Most people nowadays would have quit by the first week but there was no other choice for us back then.”
After he rose up the ranks in Northern Thailand circuit, Gae was poached and he moved to fight in the capital. Training at the now-defunct Kiatsingnoi camp, one of the best during the Golden Era, he met many champion fighters of the time. It was there that he befriended a young Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn, who would end up as one of the Muay Thai greats of this era. Namsaknoi holds one of the highest winning percentages (95% wins in 300 fights), and one of the longest reigns as a Lumpinee Stadium Champion in history. It was a friendship that remained till this day.
“Back in those days, trainers did not always receive a salary. The only payout they received was a cut of their fighters’ purse money. So the trainers worked the fighters very hard because they had a vested interest in the success of their fighters.
There were around 30 of us sleeping in the same room, all sharing the same toilet. We were like a family. But training was always tough for everybody. Namsaknoi trained harder than anyone, and our trainer pushed him very hard too. Sometimes while we ate, he would still be drilling on the bag or working on the pads. You need a lot of heart and self-motivation to be a champion. This is why Namsaknoi is such a great fighter.”
Gae continued to speak fondly of his former camp mate but I diverted the attention back to him and asked about his own fight career in Bangkok. Turns out that just as things were looking up for the young fighter, he broke his leg in a fight that ended his fight career quite prematurely. But what was a fighter to do when he can no longer fight? The bulk of retired fighters end up holding pads as trainers but just as many turned to jobs like cab drivers, street hawkers, construction workers and other less glamorous options. Gae’s choice of career, however, was less ordinary – he became a monk.
Some may call it a divine affinity. After all, he did grow up in the temple and his earliest Muay Thais fights were at local temple fairs. “When I showed up at the temple, I only intended to enter monk-hood for 7 days. As a monk, you did little except for morning alms, partaking of food, temple chores and the rest of the time was spent in meditation. I experienced a lot of peace and so days turned into weeks, weeks turn into months. Before you know it, 10 years had passed.”
10 years. From being a Thai fighter to a Thai monk, this was a lifestyle transition that couldn’t be anymore drastic.
There were some details lost in translation, but Gae eventually found himself back in secular life again after 10 years of divine life. His chief concern was to find employment but having never attended school or possessing any skills, he eventually found himself back at the one and only thing he knew best: Muay Thai. The problem was, he never had any experience as a trainer, and after 10 years of leading a sedentary lifestyle, he wasn’t the most employable person in the job market. By chance, he found a camp who was willing to take him in.
“The owner threw a pair of pads on the floor and commanded me to get started. I began training the children, in the same way I was taught by my trainers when I was young. When I began to have some success, I also started to train the professional fighters.”
Not long after, Gae got a job offer from Lamai Gym on Koh Samui. He moved there without hesitation and so began his reputation as a favored trainer of the farangs.
“I never went to school and could speak no English at that time but I took up the job nonetheless. There, I met some of my old camp mates including Namsaknoi, whom I haven’t met for more than 15 years. He taught me English and I also learned the language from my students and farang girlfriend(s)”. I believe it was a plural.
In 2011, Ajarn Gae joined Elite Fight Club and has remained as the head trainer for the last 6 years. These days, he is one of the most well-known and popular trainer in the Muay Thai circuit, especially among the international community. He has trained a number of top foreign fighters, notably Dzhabar Askerov and Ramazan Ramazanov. Besides a natural charisma, Gae’s well-deserved reputation as a sought-after trainer stems from his effective/unique training style and a dynamic padwork style that mimics the intensity of a real fight. He also adapts his training according to each of his student/fighter’s level and style, with a genuine interest for their improvement and success.
As his reputation grows, Gae now finds himself traveling to countries all around the world to conduct Muay Thai seminars. As I type this article, he’s in my home country of Singapore conducting a 3-day seminar. Not bad for a man who once had nothing to his name.
Life does unfold like drama for Ajarn Gae Sor KeawSuek. Only that I can conclude.
(Special thanks for Cedric Gautier from Elite Fight Club)