Trail native Frances Pettit started training at Pride Gym when she was 14, little did she know where her dabbling in the martial arts would lead her.
After training and fighting for Pride Gym for five years Pettit was offered a sholarship to train with Master Suchart at Siam 1 in Toronto, but on the way she made a detour – she took the road less travelled, and that made all the difference.
“Everybody that trains Muai Thai naturally wants to go to Thailand,” said Pettit. “So I did go to Thailand and I went to this really rough, rough gym in the city and I met Boom. I never ended up fulfilling my scholarship, I got distracted pretty quick.”
Pettit and “Boom” Thanit Watthanaya’s relationship began in the Bangkok gym in 2006 where the young fighter soon became comfortable and established.
“In Thai culture, and just how Glen (Kalesniko) brought us up here, your gym is your family, so I just ended up at the gym and I stayed there,” said Pettit. “That was pretty much how it went and they kept me pretty busy and active as a fighter.”
Eventually Pettit accompanied Watthanaya to his village when his mother became ill. The pair kept training and fighting, working to support his family and save for a trip back to Canada.
In the region of Isan where the 28-year-old Watthanaya grew up, Muay Thai fighting is an integral part of local culture.
“I fought in the village and I did really well,” said Pettit. “It’s is where the highest concentration of fighters come from, and the majority of the champions come from Isan as well.”
Isan is the collective name for the 19 provinces in the northeast of Thailand. It is largely a glimpse into the past, where rice fields still run to the horizon, water buffaloes wade in muddy ponds, silk weaving remains a cottage industry, and peddle-rickshaw drivers pull passengers down city streets. Watthanaya’s village was one of the most underdeveloped and poor, and without electricity until he was four years old. Yet even those like Boom who leave to seek work in the city, their hearts and minds remain tied firmly to the village, where people live life on its own terms: slowly, steadily, and with a profound respect for heritage, history, and ceremony of which Muay Thai is forever tied.
So Pettit embraced the opportunity to learn, train, and fight, becoming immersed in the culture and the ebb and flow of day-to-day life.
“We would sit on the floor and eat,” said Pettit. “I did whatever the family did. If we ate rat, I ate rat, if we had snake, I’d have snake, crickets we had crickets. It’s family right, so it’s very normal for them and for me it just felt very normal as well.”
They married, Pettit learned the language, but her desire to continue her education brought the young family back to Canada and Pettit to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Three years ago they had a daughter Sita, and Watthanaya continued to fight in North America starting with Pride Gym, and eventually bouts with Romie Adanza and most recently three-time world champion and British fighter Andy Howson.
The Dec. 1 bout between Watthanaya, a sizeable underdog, and Howson turned into a surprising and dramatic fifth-round knockout victory for Boom. Howson had knocked the Thai fighter down in the fourth round, but somehow Watthanaya got up and ended it with a knockout in the final round.
“He’s a really good fighter, so it was a pretty big deal for me win the fight,” said Watthanaya. “They brought me in to lose the fight for sure, but I won the fight.”
Watthanaya parried a kick from Howson and then dropped him with a thunderous overhand right, stunning the crowd as much as Howson.
“I was looking for a knockout for sure, just the good timing and a punch to the head. I saw the opening and just caught him.”
It was a big card, in front of thousands, televised, the victory critical, accolades rolled in, the fight named the North American Fight of the Year.
“Andy Howson is not just respected in North America, but he’s a world champion that’s respected world wide,” said Pettit. “People know about him in North America, people know about him in Europe, and in Thailand so it was a huge, huge thing.”
The victory seemed to justify the struggle and sacrifice the couple have made to continue fighting. For Pettit it meant putting her own fighting career on hold to raise a family in Vancouver while going to University, and Watthanaya working full time to support his families in Canada and Thailand and still find time to train sufficiently to face the world’s best.
“For Boom to fight Andy he was working 50 hours a week manual labour, and Andy’s a great fighter and he’s worked very hard but he has a strong team of professionals – he’s a full-time fighter – it’s very hard to step in the ring against a full-time fighter, so he overcame a lot of obstacles to get that win.”
The victory also landed Boom a shot at the WBC Muay Thai International title against Rami Ibrahim Sept. 7 in New Jersey.
“He’s a good fighter, he’s bigger than me, a lot bigger, but for the title fight, I take it for the family,” said Watthanaya. “If I win this fight, it will be a big deal for me because its for the WBC title, so it will be a lot easier for me to get a fight for the next time.”
The World Boxing Council title fight is a big step for Watthanaya. A win will help establish the 42-12 fighter as world-class, but the sport does not reward its fighters with the sums boxing or the UFC dish out.
“We’re hoping that there will be a payoff,” said Pettit. “The title itself is worth a payday, we’re excited for that, for the prestige. We’re hoping once Boom gets the title we’ll get much more exposure.”
The couple has had to work hard for their opportunities, but things slowly seem to be turning around.
K1 recently expressed interest in Watthanaya, and a win in the WBC title fight should make the politics of fighting and securing cards in North America a little less daunting.
“If that all goes through, I think Boom will be set as a fighter. We had to really struggle to get fights, it’s really hard. Boom’s the kind of person who he really wants to give it his all or wants to give something else his all, right now our family has dedicated everything so that Boom can give this his all . . . We’re just hoping it pays off in the end.”