OFTEN – and particularly in developing countries – people who fight do so because they have little other option.
Chisakan Ariphipat, though, had more options than most – all of them more lucrative than boxing (so far, anyway). She was raised firmly middle class in Thailand, a country where the class divide is pronounced and ensures those born on the more fortunate side of it a comfortable existence, and where punching for pay is an almost exclusively working class pursuit.
Over the course of two decades, her family had built up the P. Guest House and Country Resort, a sprawling lakeside hotel and restaurant in Sangkhla Buri, a verdant idyll in Thailand’s picturesque west. It was a successful venture, and it paid for Chisakan to attend private schools, to study abroad, to achieve fluency in English, and finally to go to Thailand’s top-ranking higher education institute, Mahidol University in Bangkok, where she read hospitality – the idea being that she would eventually take over the resort.
It was all going according to plan – until Chisakan discovered boxing.
“There was a group of students training in boxing, just as an after-class activity,” she says. “We’d also spend time together, not just boxing, but having fun.
“I never even thought about fighting, but one day Peter [Denman, then her fellow student and now her pro boxing coach and manager] said he’d heard about a charity boxing event raising money for stray dogs. That [helping stray dogs] was something that was already close to my heart, so I thought I’d give it a try. I didn’t really apply myself; it was just to have fun and do something for charity. The commitment came afterwards.”
Chisakan lost her 2018 charity fight, but this “just for fun” experiment would have serious ramifications for her family and the career they had invested large amounts of money and decades’ worth of time in – for this heiress to a hospitality fortune had found what she now insists is her true vocation: fighting for a living.
“I fell in love with boxing,” she says. “I kept training and had a second fight. I won that one. I took more amateur fights and started to get better, and my goals increased. I graduated [in 2020] and I had to choose between going back to the resort or boxing.”
For most people, the choice between being handed a lucrative existing business, or being punched in the face – especially for low pay on small promotions – would not be a difficult one. And for Chisakan, it wasn’t: boxing was the easy winner. She turned down the keys to the resort and applied for a professional boxing licence, making her debut in September 2020.
“My parents were against it, not just because they wanted me to run the resort, but also because I’m a female, they thought I shouldn’t enter the ring and risk my looks,” she says. “I had to fight the stereotypes, not just as a woman but also as I’d just graduated, people couldn’t understand why I was doing it. They thought people only fought because they had to, not because they wanted to.”
A standoff ensued. Chisakan’s parents would under no circumstances endorse her decision, and issued an ultimatum: if she pursued her boxing dream, they would sell the resort, meaning she wouldn’t have it as a backup if her ring exploits failed, and they would no longer support her financially.
She didn’t flinch. They didn’t either. P. Guest House and Country Resort is now in new hands, and Chisakan’s parents have retired off the back of its sale. But in standing her ground, Chisakan earned her parent’s respect, if not their support.
“They understand now that I love it,” the 25-year-old says. “I’m doing it my own way. I downgraded to a cheaper apartment and spent many months grinding [without their money] with a part-time job [as a veganism advocate for an NGO]. It’s just pocket money but it has to be part-time because I train five to seven hours a day.”
Grinding is an integral part to the fighter’s experience, whatever their background, because in this line of work there are no shortcuts – and that’s exactly how Chisakan wants it.
“Yes, the resort was beautiful, and it was successful, but I would have been bored,” she says. “I didn’t want to live a life without goals.”
And what are her goals?
“To become one of the best boxers, pound for pound.”
A lofty ambition, yes, but one that is at least heading in the right direction. Chisakan sports a 16-1-1 (5) pro boxing record, following “10 or 15” amateur bouts, and bolstered by further experience in the worlds of muay Thai (in which she claims an 8-1 record), kickboxing (3-0), bareknuckle boxing (2-0) and even a win in leth wei, a Burmese martial art which is best described as “bareknuckle muay Thai plus headbutts”.
The image of Chisakan, an elegant, slender super-flyweight, trading kicks, elbows, knees, butts and ungloved fists is even more incongruous than the thought of her fighting under Queensberry Rules, but she and Peter Denman – her former classmate and now coach and manager – say it’s a means to an end.
“We want to have one fight a month,” says Denman. “The major promoters here in Thailand aren’t interested in women’s boxing, so we take fights in other sports if need be. We want to build experience and gain exposure. The ultimate goal is to get signed by Matchroom. Tell Eddie Hearn we’ll even fight for free!”
That’s not to say they’ll take just any fight, though.
“It’s not about the money,” says Denman, who himself has put a decent earner on hold as he pursues his own passion for boxing, albeit on the other side of the ropes. The Thai-British dual citizen had, since also graduating from Mahidol University, been carving out a solid career as an actor, but is now fully immersed in steering Chisakan towards boxing glory.
“I turned down a major role in China because we’re focusing on boxing now, and I’ve turned down big offers [for Chisakan] to box abroad after what happened in [South] Korea. We’re not looking for paydays and to be a journeywoman, we want fights that will further her career.”
What happened in Korea was Chisakan challenged Hee Jung-yuh for an international belt in Gimhae in November last year. She made light of the experience differential, coming in as a eight-fight pro against a world-ranked, 15-year veteran, outboxing Hee for stretches but eventually coming up short on points.
Chisakan and Denman felt aggrieved by the decision but do not want to dwell on any perceived injustices, for there were positives aplenty even so.
“My confidence skyrocketed after Korea,” she says. “I realised, oh, I’m at that level – I could beat someone in world class.
“On the flight back, we talked about the future and I said to Peter, ‘let’s go for it, reach for the top – no matter what it takes’.”
It’s already taken away a potential career, and Chisakan has not replaced it with sporting riches.
“We’re making very little money,” says Denman, who also coaches and manages 15-0 male lightweight Watcharin Saebe.
“In fact, we’re paying out more than we’re making. But it’s all about building for the future.
“I wouldn’t even say [the financial outlay] is an investment – boxing itself is the reward.”
Chisakan concurs: “I love and respect boxing. Money can’t buy this.”