Tucked away from the bustling neon streets of downtown Bangkok, a thickly muscled but increasingly exhausted man who goes only by the name Battery hurls his opponent to the cage floor and unloads one last flurry with everything he can muster. An intimate collection of less than 200 people jostle for position in the audience, some boorish, some drunk, all rowdily surging back an forth in a dim, smoky warehouse simply referred to as ‘The Underground.' No one quite knows where they are, though if they do, they surely won't tell.
"It's not really illegal," the ringleader for this scene, Jussi Saloranta, emphasizes for what could be the fourth time. "Things are not that black and white."
Saloranta says it with confidence, though if this isn't illegal, it certainly feels like it. But maybe that's the point. A old-school fight fan and native of Finland who saw a gaping hole in a burgeoning market, Saloranta is now one of the top executives of DARE Championship, Thailand's biggest, and only, mixed martial arts promotion.
Things started out simple enough. Saloranta and a few partners introduced DARE to the MMA-starved masses in June of 2011. A stylish, in-your-face show with sleek promos targeted at the new generation of Thai youth, within a year DARE successfully held four major events, selling out three, the last of which landed the boys a glowing headline on the front page of one of Thailand's biggest newspapers, the Bangkok Post. The column oozed positivity, heralding the new sport as the next big opportunity for the country's vast collection of Thai boxers, new and old alike. DARE, it seemed, had carved out its niche in the landscape of Asian MMA overnight.
But that was back when things were simple. Before one announcement came down and changed everything. "We read about it from the papers, just like everybody else," Saloranta sighs.
To understand what happened next, one must understand a certain aspect of Thai culture, where Muay Thai is not only the national sport, but also big business. Prospective fighters as young as six years old are indoctrinated into the violence, and a steady flow of backroom gambling ensures the matches stay bloody and the profits stay rolling.
Due to its instant success, DARE, and by association MMA, had unwittingly become a threat to those profits, and Saloranta would soon suffer the result.
Citing an archaic and largely unrelated law, the Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT) wiped out the burgeoning sport with one improbable stroke, announcing a countrywide ban on mixed martial arts effective immediately. Incredulous headlines spread quickly across the world, and the ensuing explanation from SAT Deputy Governor Sakol Wannapong did little to calm the furor.
"Organizing a MMA event here would hurt the image of Muay Thai," Wannapong commented. "If you want to do this kind of business, you should do it in another country.
"Organizing MMA here could mislead the public into believing that Muay Thai is brutal."
Rarely do politicians offer honestly to this degree. This wasn't some false sense of bureaucratic ethics. It wasn't a misguided attempt to maintain public safety. Muay Thai, and its shadowy handlers, felt the creep of mixed martial arts, and wanted to nip a potential threat in the bud before it could become something more.
"In every other country, it's all been about MMA being dangerous," Saloranta wearily says. "But that was never the issue with the ban, that MMA is dangerous. Because it's not. Thai boxing is a much more dangerous sport. That's just a fact. But the issue for the ban was more that MMA in Thailand makes Thai boxing look dangerous and brutal. And that was the official quote from the Sports Authority.
"[It's] hard to understand. How can you go out and ban mixed martial arts, when all around the country you have six-year-old kids fighting full contact Muay Thai every weekend?"
This would seem like the end of the story. Cast into such a unwinnable situation, no one would've batted an eye if DARE folded, another causality of the bureaucratic beast. Yet Saloranta and his partners weren't willing to go so quietly. "We love Thailand and we love Bangkok. That's our home, that's where DARE was born. That's where DARE belongs," he thickly states.
And so the team laid low, gathered their lawyers, and starting digging. They dug deep into the legal framework of the announcement, pouring over every minor detail. To put it mildly, what they found surprised them. The ban, at least for the moment, was premature; an old-fashioned scare tactic from the powers that be. "There's no legislation," Saloranta marvels. "People are saying MMA is illegal. No, it's not illegal. Show me the law. There's no law. There's no resolution, even about the ban.
"When people ask what's the legality of it, well, to me, it's not illegal and it's not legal," he continues. "There's no official legislation done. There's no official ban done. And that's where we stand."
Saloranta and his partners were both shocked and amused. With no fear of by-the-books legal persecution, DARE could resume operations. Though with the promotion clearly in the Sport Authority's crosshairs, some minor tweaking would be in order.
By now DARE had cultivated something of an old-school, lawless image for itself. Events were rowdy. Girls were flashy. Promos were cut with booming dubstep. Fighters were marketed only by nickname, leading DARE's roster to read like the cast of a video game. So like the born and bred promoter he is, it didn't take long for Saloranta to grasp the golden gift of being christened outlaws. "After the announcement came out, our popularity just exploded," he recollects, almost gleefully. "You know what happens if you tell someone, ‘No, you cannot have this.' People who were not interested in MMA suddenly became interested because it was banned.
"Every MMA website and news was talking about MMA in Thailand being banned, and there's only one MMA organization in Thailand. That's us."
With whispers of the "banned" sport spreading like wildfire, and DARE proudly wearing the term like a badge of honor, Saloranta plotted the promotion's next move. Rebranding his product under the guise of a game show -- appropriately titled The Most Dangerous Gameshow -- Saloranta pieced together a secret six-fight card to be held at DARE's new home, ‘The Underground,' the location of which would not be revealed until fight night, when shuttles arrived in downtown Bangkok to pick up a hand-chosen collective of fight fans who would witness DARE's defiant return.
According to Saloranta, the show went off without a hitch. Over the course of six weeks, each fight was released as a weekly episode of The Most Dangerous Gameshow on YouTube, to a generally positive reception. Most importantly though, Saloranta claims he received zero complaints from the Sports Authority regarding DARE's reemergence.
"At that moment it seems like things are moving forward in the right way," he says. "If it would be illegal, we wouldn't be doing it. I'm not promoting anything that's against the law. But as long it's not against the law, yeah, let's play with the rules that are there."
Two additional seasons of The Most Dangerous Gameshow have been commissioned for early 2013, and depending how everything goes, DARE is hoping to stage a live arena event in downtown Bangkok after the conclusion of season two. But with those plans in mind, Saloranta knows the promotion still hangs on a precarious ledge. If official legislation is ever enacted, DARE's actions would go from fun to illegal in the blink of an eye. That fact looms over every step the promotion takes.
Maintaining an open stream of dialogue between DARE and the Sports Authority remains a priority of the utmost importance, Saloranta vows. It is exactly why members of DARE's executive branch recently established the MMA Association of Thailand, in the hopes of reaching a compromise with SAT and regulating mixed martial arts in Thailand. "Even if we totally respect the standpoints and opinions of the Sports Authority, we don't 100-percent agree with them on this matter. And that's why we're working now with them, in order to get this thing sorted out and get the sport of MMA finally licensed in the country."
If that time comes, DARE will be thrilled to have emerged from a potentially fatal situation unscathed and victorious. But for now, the boys are more than content with their outlaw status. After all, as Saloranta so aptly puts it, "how many MMA promotions in the f**king world get to be banned?"