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Thanit Watthanaya

After Overcoming Poverty, Muay Thai Prodigy Loma Lookboonmee Sets Sights on MMA

Frances Watthanaya

The Isaan native will soon fight for the first time in the United States. Can she pave the way for future Thai nationals in MMA?

Thanit Watthanaya

The noodle vendor wanted to know how Loma Lookboonmee found herself on the famous Soi-Taied street in Phuket, Thailand.

After all, Loma, like the vendor, is a native of Isaan—the poorest and most underdeveloped region in the country. How could Loma afford to be here?

“I’m just a farmer’s daughter,” Loma said. But the truth is, Loma, 21, is far more than that.

Loma’s father Boonmee has run a Muay Thai gym for two decades. Loma grew up there. She began training when she was just seven years old. In the beginning, her father's gym was nothing: no ring, no roof, not even a bag. Instead she trained in the dirt. And it was there on her family's farm in Buriram that Loma learned the art of eight limbs. She traveled the countryside through the rough trails of temple fairs and festival fights looking for matchups. It didn’t take long before she ran out of opponents and began fighting boys.

She has been beating up boys in Thailand for practically her entire life. Now she trains at Tiger Muay Thai, one of the biggest and most well-equipped MMA gyms in the world—home to UFC fighters like Mark Hunt and Valentina Shevchenko. It was her Tiger gear that caught the noodle vendor's attention. Soon, it may catch the world's attention. Loma is slated to make her pro MMA debut with Invicta Fighting Championships on January 13 in Kansas City, Missouri. When she does, she will be the first ever Thai National to fight for the promotion.

Courtesy: Lookboonmee Muay Thai Gym

Loma’s aptitude for Muay Thai is nothing short of extraordinary. At 12 years old she was called into fight local superstar Petchdam Petchkiatpetch, who in adulthood became a Channel 7 Stadium champion. Gamblers drove from all across the region to put money on Petchdam. In a matter of minutes, 200,000 Baht in cash was collected for Petchdam’s side-bet. Loma’s family and fellow villagers broke their piggy banks and emptied their pockets but were only able to match 85,000 Baht. The crowd erupted with cheers. It was a lot of money for Isaan, even more for a girl. Bets were placed on the outside as well, with Petchdam the heavy favorite to win.

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Petchdam did not win.

“Loma beat him like she was beating a bag,” her mother recalled. “He didn’t have nothing on her.”

Those who believed in Loma tripled their money that night. No pictures or video exist from the fight, but no one in the Muay Thai community has forgotten. Now, Loma and the other fighters from her generation at Lookboonmee look after the up and coming fighters at her gym. Teaching and drilling technique into them so they can achieve success now and when they grow up. Lookboonmee houses more than fifteen active fighters but almost all the trophies at the gym belong to Loma. And even with that impressive trophy hoard, she's missing all the belts she's earned as a nine time Muay Thai Champion. In Thailand, gyms and champions must buy their championship belts as promoters only keep a few on hand for fight photos and ceremonial purposes. She’s won the stadium titles at Rangsit and Assawindam as well as the prestigious S-1 Championship from OneSongchai. That’s in addition to the six other regional titles she won. Fortunately, she’s been able to keep her gold medals from IFMA and the Asian Games.

Courtesy: Lookboonmee Muay Thai Gym

In grade 11, Loma was recruited for the Thai national team and since then has split her time training between her home gym Lookboonmee and flagship gym for the national team, Dejrat gym in Bangkok.

As fate would have it, while training at Dejrat, Loma was introduced to a female fighter from America. This single meeting changed the course of Loma’s fighting career forever. The American fighter had come to Dejrat gym with her Thai coach to prepare for a fight in Northeast Thailand. Loma had heard that this woman had fought MMA prior and reached out asking if she could help her get a fight. As Loma did not speak any English she required the efforts of one of her teammates to translate. Little did Loma know that she had just asked Kaitlin Young, matchmaker for Invicta Championships, to get her an MMA fight.

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A seed was planted for Loma but, having no prior MMA experience, she wasn’t sure how to make the seed grow. She called her parents who, through contacts in the Muay Thai community, were able to land her a coveted spot as a sponsored fighter at Tiger Muay Thai.

Those in the Muay Thai community in Thailand are always there for each other. Fighters and gym owners are often people of limited means who partake in the sport as a true labor of love. They don’t have the resources to provide much for their fighters. But they work together to help each and every fighter to reach their highest potential; no one is held back. So when Loma’s father, who has dedicated his life to the sport, and the past twenty years to his gym, needed help, people were more than willing to help him get his daughter to where she needed to be.

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It only took 21 days of training for George Hickman, head coach of MMA at Tiger, to put her in for amateur competition. Loma won the fight by rear naked choke in the second round. Hickman knew then that his charge was ready turn to pro.

“It’s exciting times for Thai MMA,” he told VICE Sports. “Thailand had seen many foreigners come to learn the art of Thai fighting for MMA, but now we are going to see a small Isaan girl who has trained for less than 8 months go and shock the MMA world! I truly believe she will do incredible things in this sport and lead the way for other Thais.”

Loma has made a habit of catching the eyes of trainers, coaches, gamblers, and matchmakers from the world over. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to find success in Muay Thai. Now as Loma readies herself to tread through the uncharted waters of MMA, she goes forward with support of her village and the entire Muay Thai community in Thailand. She is on the threshold of opening doors for fellow Thais in MMA.

Not bad for a farmer’s daughter.

Courtesy: Lookboonmee Muay Thai Gym
Thanit Watthanaya