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Thailand’s ‘science of 8 limbs’

Gloved fists. Bare feet. Lightning-fast knees and elbows. These are the weapons behind “the science of eight limbs.”

That’s the nickname for Muay Thai, a martial art that has captivated Thailand’s culture in some form or another for centuries. It has evolved into an international sensation, with fighters competing in crowded arenas for championship belts and thousands of dollars.

But for a small number of fighters also serving time in Thai prisons, much more is at stake: namely, their freedom. Success in a Muay Thai ring against foreign challengers can knock a few years off their sentences.

Photographer Jean-Michel Clajot gained access to these prison fights as part of a photo project focusing on the world of Muay Thai.

“For me, the experience of photographing the fights in prison was the most memorable,” he told CNN by e-mail. “For most of the fighters, the main goal is not only to win but to participate in their own rehabilitation.”

A Muay Thai program in Bangkok’s Klong Prem prison began last year and has received praise from inmates and prison officials, Clajot said.

Recently, a handful of prison fighters serving short sentences were released early because of their success in the ring, including a world champion named Amnat Ruenroeng, said James Goyder, a journalist from England who has been covering Muay Thai since he moved to the country about seven years ago.

The prison program reflects the national popularity of the sport. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon nationwide, fans gather around TVs to enjoy regularly broadcast matches.

“Anywhere you are in Thailand, you’ll hear people cheering right about lunchtime,” Goyder said.

Goyder paints a colorful picture of the atmosphere inside Bangkok’s Muay Thai stadiums: The gambling. The constantly shifting odds. The music that changes pace with the rhythm of the fight.

“I’ve grown to love the sport,” he said. “There’s something very unique about it.”

For the unfamiliar, a Muay Thai match is similar to kickboxing or mixed martial arts (MMA). Each fight is made up of five three-minute rounds overseen by a referee.

Fighters are allowed to kick, punch and use their elbows and knees. But unlike in MMA, where one can attack a grounded opponent, a fallen fighter in Muay Thai is given the chance to recover and stand up.A three-judge panel decides the winner.

For his project, Clajot photographed families who pin their hopes on Muay Thai as a way to earn more money and improve their lives.

One photograph in particular shows two teen fighters in the ring.

“It was an intense moment,” Clajot said, “because their families were around them, and you could feel the motivation of these young people and their willingness to fight for their family honor.”

Clajot also photographed Nopparith Yoonanngoh, who has trained his 16 children in Muay Thai fighting.

“His main concern is that his children are occupied by the sport and do not hang out in the street,” Clajot said. “When they turn 21, they have options to enter professional boxing or go to university.”

During the past 10 years, the sport has gained increased international popularity, Goyder said.

“It’s not as popular as boxing or MMA, but a lot of Westerners are now becoming interested and wanting to learn,” he said.

- Thom Patterson, CNN