WASHINGTON - Andre Soukhamthath, the Lao-American MMA fighter with a big match in Las Vegas this weekend, stumbled into fighting. He’d dreamed of playing soccer and even had college scholarships based on his potential as a goalkeeper.
But his then girlfriend, now his wife Jamie, got pregnant and Soukhamthath decided he needed to work rather than study. A gym down the street from his job beckoned, and a friend suggested he might enjoy boxing.
From the first session, “I was addicted to it,” Soukhamthath said. “I didn’t miss a day.”
Boxing led to Mixed Martial Arts, and when Jamie gave birth to the couple’s first son, LeAndre, in 2007, training helped Soukhamthath process his son’s diagnosis of epidermolysis bullosa, a rare skin disease that causes extremely fragile skin and blistering.
?When the child died after nine months, Soukhamthath got serious about MMA, which incorporates techniques from boxing, wrestling, judo, jujitsu, karate, Muay Thai, and other disciplines.
“(LeAndre’s) the reason I started (MMA),” said Soukhamthath, who wants to go to Laos to teach MMA techniques to kids.
“If it wasn’t him being born I would never even known about Mixed Martial Arts. I would never even tried it, I was so into soccer,” Soukhamthath said.
“When I decided not to go to school, and decided just to work, then I found MMA, that’s because of him,” he said.
?Las Vegas bout
On March 3, Soukhamthath is scheduled to go into the octagon cage at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to fight Sean O’Malley, who has won all of his last nine contests.
A fight in Vegas “is a big deal,” said Adam Hill, a sportswriter with the Las Vegas Review who covers MMA.
Soukhamthath “is coming onto the scene right now,” Hill said. “He’s not a guy who people have their eye on as a potential star, but he was a champion on the regional scene and has made a pretty quick impact on the UFC.”
After losing two fights in split decisions, Soukhamthath volunteered to fight Luke Sanders in Fresno, California, after his scheduled opponent was injured. At the time, Soukhamthath faced the loss of his UFC contract, his first, signed in early 2017, but he defeated Sanders “a guy who was supposed to beat him … in a very impressive manner,” Hill said.
That win earned Soukhamthath a new UFC contract and the March 3 match is the first of five under the new agreement. But O’Malley is “a guy the UFC would like to see do well. They discovered him on one of their side project TV shows, and they’re putting a lot of money behind him. So if you beat him, you get that shine for yourself,” Hill said.
Immigrants in the ring
It’s that shine, or something like it, that attracts immigrants to the ring.
“You really can trace social mobility among ethnic and racial groups in the United States through boxing. It starts in the 19th century with the Irish. They pretty much monopolized boxing,” Gerald Gems, professor of kinesiology emeritus at North Central Illinois College, told VOA.
Then came Jewish boxers, Italian boxers, African-American boxers, Hispanic and Latino boxers. Now there are Asians “who have controlled the lower weight classes and have for some time,” said Gems, the author of Boxing: A Concise History of Sweet Science.
Immigrants and people in the working class often have “less money and less education, so they tend to see things in a physical way,” Gems said. Status comes “through physical ability.”
Gems, who grew up working class, said “the first sport my father taught us was boxing. He knew we were going to have to fight. … Middle-class kids hire a lawyer, working-class kids fight it out.”
Any time a fighter steps into the ring, death is a possible outcome “and any fan understands that,” Gems said. “So whether they win or lose, they gain status among those who appreciate their psychological and physical courage.”
Today, “boxing seems to be a dying sport, except in Mexico and Asia,” Gems said. “MMA is much more popular.”
With fights that last three quick rounds, he said, “there’s a lot of action, and it permits different types of attacks that were involved in early boxing before more restricted rules … you can kick somebody, you can throw someone down. MMA is kind of like a rock concert … there’s a wildness aspect.”
There’s also money. MMA, according to Gems, draws a global audience with “ethnic and racial heroes. It all leads into selling more products.”
?Laos, American roots
Soukhamthath, 29, who was born in Providence, Rhode Island, is the son of two Lao immigrants, William and Chanthalangsy Soukhamthath. During the Vietnam War, his father escaped to Thailand where he took up muay Lao (Lao boxing) in a refugee camp. Soukhamthath’s mother moved to the United States with her foster family when she was a girl, leaving her parents behind and never meeting them again.
Soukhamthath is married to Jamie Soukhamthath, a Lao-American and former Miss Teen Rhode Island. They have been together for 11 years and are the parents of two children.
His MMA career is something of a family business that “started as a hobby,” said Jamie Soukhamthath, who pitches in with managerial and logistical chores.
“I know that when Andre is determined, it becomes something bigger,” she said. “But at the time I didn’t really realize that it was going to turn into his career.”
The couple is intent on raising $50,000 to build a school in Laos, “and to give back to Laos, especially the children and Lao-American children in the United States,” Andre Soukhamthath said.
It hasn’t been easy, she said, balancing the roles of wife, mother and financial manager for her MMA fighter.
“I definitely wear multiple hats,” said Jamie Soukhamthath, adding “I have always worked in a professional settings, so it’s easy for me to negotiate on his behalf. I don’t want him to get taken advantage of.”
Is she scared to see him in the ring?
“No” she said. “I am very proud of him.”