Thailand loves a good fight: Thais flock to watch kick-boxing, Olympic boxing (the first sport in which the Kingdom struck gold at the Games) and even transvestite boxing one of the country's biggest celebrities is champion pugilist Parinya Charoenphol, who fought like a man to earn enough money to become a woman. Now, Thais have a new champion to celebrate: In April, a pint-sized woman named Siriporn Taweesuk, a.k.a. the Black Rose, did her homeland proud by pummeling her feisty Japanese opponent to capture the World Boxing Council light-flyweight title. The only catch? Siriporn is currently doing 10 years in a Bangkok jail for drug dealing, and her title bout had to be staged in a prison compound. She appears to be the first fighter to win a world title while behind bars.
Thailand's sports-mad Corrections Department rewarded Siriporn's feat by shaving three years off her sentence. That means that on June 13, the Black Rose will sashay out of the high-security Women's Correctional Institution for Drug Addicts, where she first learned boxing three years ago in part to protect herself from more aggressive jail-mates. (Siriporn also took prison courses in cooking, hairdressing and sewing, but none captured her imagination as much as boxing did.)
"She has won glory for Thailand," director-general of the Corrections Department Nathi Jisawang told the press, by way of explanation for her early parole. And giddy prison officials have promised to hold a going-away party for their most famous inmate.
Supporters of Siriporn's beaten Japanese opponent, Ayaka Miyano, have complained that the Thai fighter profited from a home-ring advantage. Certainly, the crowd assembled at the Klong Prem Prison, affectionately known as the "Bangkok Hilton," was on Siriporn's side. Between rounds, transvestite inmates performed a saucy fashion show, while a prison band serenaded the audience with Thai folk songs. But the claim of home-crowd advantage will soon be tested when the Black Rose, now a free woman, defends her title against the winner of an upcoming matchup between a Mexican and a German.
Siriporn is not the first Thai to box her way out of jail. Two years ago, fellow inmate Wannee Chaisena faced another Japanese, Nanako Kikuchi, in the 2005 world straw-weight title bout. Like Siriporn, Wannee was in prison for dealing methamphetamine, or "crazy drug" as it's known in Thai. Unlike Siriporn, Wannee suffered a technical knockout. But the beaten fighter still managed an early exit from prison the following year, when Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej pardoned her, along with three other female prison pugilists.
It's no coincidence that Thai women's prisons are producing such a steady stream of boxing contenders both Siriporn and Wannee are products of a prison boxing camp started by correction officials hoping to provide women prisoners with a steady source of income after their release. For a country of 65 million, Thailand has a relatively high incarceration rate, with roughly 250,000 people behind bars. Most are locked up on drug convictions. The use of methamphetamine is a particularly pernicious problem among poor, urban Thais, in part because cheap pills flood over the border from Burma, one of the world's largest producers of the drug.
Before winning her world title, Siriporn harbored quiet hopes of opening up a convenience store after getting out of jail. Like many inmates, she must have worried about the threat of relapse. Now, Siriporn has told the press, her need for speed is gone. It has been replaced by the adrenaline rush of getting in the ring, as the Black Rose, and pummeling other women. A true Thai success story.