“Can violent men redeem themselves through violent acts?” That is the question asked in the new SHOWTIME documentary “Prison Fighters: 5 Rounds to Freedom.” The film, directed by Micah Brown, written by Mark Kriegel and produced by Jason Bowers, takes an in-depth look at Thailand’s criminal justice system and how inmates can be granted a royal pardon by winning Muay Thai fights under a program called Prison Fight.
The story focuses on Noy Khaopan, who is five years into an 11-year sentence for committing murder. Noy has a seven-year-old son named Don that he hasn’t seen in over two years. Don lives with Noy’s parents–who run a chicken shop and are still deeply saddened by their son’s incarceration–and he believes his father is away for training, and unaware of his imprisonment.
Noy has won seven straight fights inside Khao Prik prison, which holds over 4,000 prisoners and has nearly doubled in population during the last decade. He resides in sector A-1, which narrator Ron Pearlman reveals, “houses Khao Prik’s most dangerous criminals: rapists, drug lords, killers–and also the elite Muay Thai fighters.” Fighters like Chalermpol “M” Singwancha, who was charged with nine murders, earned his release through “Prison Fight” after serving 13 years.
If Noy wins his next fight against the American fighter Cody Moberly–who is not a criminal but one of several fighters who compete against the inmates–he will receive his royal pardon and return home to his family.
Noy may have killed a man, but he is charming and you see and understand how much he wants to earn his freedom and make up for lost time with his son and family. Part of you wants to see him gain his freedom, but as the viewer you immediately become conflicted when being introduced to the parents of Anirut Vanichyaron, the man Noy murdered. “As well you should be,” says Kriegel.
“After you talk to the victims family you start to see that there are two sides to every story,” said Brown. “And you start to really empathize with the victim. But you also empathize with this fighter that you’ve gotten to know over the last couple of months and it can be kind of confusing in some ways.
“For me, I’m a kid from Kansas. My faith is Christianity so there is that whole mix into it. How does forgiveness tie into this. How do people’s socio-economic standings fit into is and all their different cultures and all of that stuff as well.”
Prison Fight shows Thai culture views Muay Thai much differently than Americans view any sport
The documentary also touches on the famous Muay Thai fable of Nai Khanomtom, who when held prisoner in Burma in 1767, defeated 10 Burmese soldiers in one day and was granted freedom from King Mangra. Now, over 200 years later, Thai fighters can follow in his footsteps in Prison Fight.
“Muay Thai is a violent sport, but it is also a great way of rehabilitation for a lot of different people,” said Brown, who after months of trying to begin the documentary, flew to Thailand on a whim to meet with the officials behind Prison Fight to reach a deal. “It teaches you the disciplines of hard work and I don’t know if those disciplines should necessarily erase what you’ve done, but it is something that is really special for the Thai people and I think it’s something that is kind of counter-cultural to us here in America.”
“The way that Thai culture looks at Muay Thai is different than the way Americans consider any sport,” says Kriegel, who has authored two New York Times best sellers and written for The New York Post, Miami Herald and New York Daily News. “It’s the National pastime and it’s also tethered to the country’s Buddhist culture and sense of right and wrong. So that makes it more dramatic and gives it weight.”
Noy, Brown said, was picked for the documentary because “he had the most to lose and everything he needed–desperation-wise–to get out.” After nearly two years, Noy meets with his son before the important showdown against Moberly, which will either shine the light to his freedom or send him back into general population to finish the remaining six years of his sentence. And it’s in those scenes that you see the innocence of a child, who loves his father unconditionally; scenes, Kriegel says, which are the “most beautiful and most heart wrenching” to watch.
“Years ago I did a book about Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini,” Kriegel said. “I went to Korea and I found the son of the guy [Duk Koo Kim], who had died fighting Mancini. For years he had been told that his father was in America boxing. Noy’s son Don was told that his father was away training in boxing. I was taken by the eerie similarity of those two figures.”
Just as Brown thought Noy was the most fitting protagonist to focus on for “Prison Fighters: 5 Rounds to Freedom,” Kriegel felt Moberly was the perfect opponent.
“There is this whole class of ex-patriot fighters in Thailand from Marcay, or Australia and we wind up with a kid from Wichita, Kansas–the heartland of America–to fight Noy,” Kriegel said. “When Moberly came over to Thailand he was admittedly a mess and you can see that he found something in himself through fighting and it’s made him if not whole, than a whole lot better than he was.
“The way he prays now is Buddhist. The way he thinks about his fight with Noy is Buddhist and highly ethical. What struck me with what Cody said was ‘if this guy killed someone and he’s fighting me for his freedom, well, I can’t make it easy.’ You see the growth in his character as well.”
Dana White meets Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’
Kriegel covers boxing on a regular basis for SHOWTIME Sports and has also covered MMA as well. He’s done plenty of unique stories throughout his career, but the veteran sports writer has never come across a narrative quite like Prison Fight.
“I’ve always been drawn to the combat sports because of the same reasons that generations of writers are drawn to them: it accentuates combat,” he said. “What you had here, for my purposes was almost the perfect dramatic construct. You have Dana White and [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky, ‘Crime and Punishment’. So the first time I saw the stuff I was like, ‘wow, I gotta do this’. It got me to reconsider certain ideas about fighting sports. I think that my initial take was correct and it’s what motivated me and what drew me to the material and made me passionate about it.
“The reason why some of us are drawn to combat sports is because they are really not sports at all. Most combat sports are really about the male fear of humiliation. It’s not like playing soccer or checkers or baseball or basketball. At some level you are dealing with violence. Ultimately the question this movie poses is can violent men redeem themselves through violent acts. That’s the line I am most proud of here because I think it goes to the core question. I’m not offering an opinion. I can go either way on it depending on which part of the movie that I’ve seen. But the question itself is stark and it is jarring because you are not allowing guys to go free because they taught other prisoners to read or to write. It’s an entirely different proposition.”
Brown sought out the theme of “forgiveness” when he began searching for documentary ideas a couple of years ago, and once he discovered Prison Fight, he was relentless in his pursuit to make a documentary on the subject become a reality. “Persistence paid off,” said Brown, who mentioned that filming behind prison walls was “really overwhelming” and at times felt “unsafe.” When he, Kriegel and Bowers pitched the idea to Executive Vice President and General Manager of SHOWTIME Sports, Stephen Espinoza, Brown says, “It was one of those rare moments when they signed on the dotted line right away.”
The film should assuredly become a polarizing one due to a murderer having a chance to become a free man, which would never occur in America or many other countries for that matter. The film will undoubtedly spark plenty of conversation among viewers and raise numerous questions on morality, forgiveness and redemption.
In closing, Brown revealed the two points of conversation that he hopes are initiated while watching his eye-opening documentary on the very controversial program known as Prison Fight.
“I wanted somebody to ask the question: Are their unpardonable sins? That was a big question I wanted the audience to ask themselves. And what does it mean to grant forgiveness? Those two things. Who deserves it and who should give it? In my faith I believe that everybody deserves forgiveness. Do we have certain acts that are unpardonable? When you are faced with looking at it, how do you reconcile it? I think this film will change the way you look at those things because everyone has to answer that for themselves.”