Muay Thai star Malaipet, 25, will be stepping into a cage for his fourth MMA fight tonight.
The fighter, who resides in Upland, Calif., and fights on the Elite Challenger Series on Showtime, has been a professional fighter for 17 years.
You read that right -- 17 years. Malaipet turned pro at age 8, when he earned about a dollar to fight in a small Muay Thai club show near his hometown of Gajapuri in rural Thailand.
The plan wasn't originally for little Malaipet to fight for money on days off from school.
His family had a midsized rice and potato farm, and his mother, father, four brothers and sister had enough to get by, and then some. There was no electricity in the village, so Malaipet had to do without services we take for granted, such as electric alarm clocks. Actually, they didn't do without an alarm clock; they relied on Somai, their friendly elephant who would bellow a wake-up call when the sun rose.
Sometimes a rooster, a cow or a buffalo would stand in for Somai, and get the family up and runnning.
But the simple, serene life changed abruptly one day. Malaipet's mother died when he was six. The land and farm had come from her side of the family, and in Thai custom, the property reverted back to her family.
Malaipet's dad rented a smaller bit of land and began planting, but their standard of living was reduced drastically.
One of Malaipet's older brothers had been fighting Muay Thai in Bangkok, and Malaipet had been fighting informally on the schoolyard with his pals.
He was encouraged to hone his obvious skill, and at the ripe old age of eight he was asked to appear in a show at a local temple.
"Want to make money for your dad?" a promoter asked him.
The 75-pound boy promptly agreed to his first paid match. He's been fighting ever since.
At 11, Malaipet moved to Bangkok with his brother and immersed himself fully in Thai boxing. From ages 12 to 15, he didn't even see his father. Initially, he was homesick ("I cried all the time"), and he even ran away from the training camp for six months at the beginning ("I was so hungry, I came back"), but he knew he wanted to stick with the fighting life, and the crying soon ceased.
When Malaipet went back to his father, he had grown so sturdy from eating well and training obsessively that his own father didn't recognize him. Their father looked at his sons and addressed the elder: "Is that your friend from fighting camp?"
The transition from Muay Thai to MMA hasn't been totally seamless for the gregarious battler, who came to the U.S. in 2001 and now teaches at Team Diamond martial arts school in Upland.
People talked trash, some in good fun, some with more of an edge, telling Malaipet that a Muay Thai fighter was no match for a well-rounded MMA fighter. He took in some UFC and King of the Cage action and liked what he saw -- though he admits the ground-grappling is less exciting to watch than typical standup action he was used to seeing. He decided to give it a whirl.
"I respect both Muay Thai and MMA and I want to know how I'd do," he explains. "But someone told me, 'MMA the best, Muay Thai not the best,' and I say nothing. If I lose, I lose, I don't care."
The time was right for a new challenge. Malaipet, with a 136-26 record in Muay Thai, had grown a tiny bit bored with the routine. He'd saved up a nice nest egg, making the equivalent to $3,500 per fight.
He still wasn't rich, even by Thai standards. But for comparison's sake, he says, you could buy a house in Thailand for $2,000.
By 2000, Malaipet was having difficulty finding worthy foes, waiting long periods in between matches. He even considered stepping away from the sport and going back to his father's farm to help him make a living. But a trainer cajoled him to come to the U.S. and try the Muay Thai circuit there.
At that point, the timing was right. The MMA scene was exploding and the leap into the new realm of fighting made sense.
So, can Malaipet make up ground, and learn a ground game for that matter, so he doesn't get tossed to the mat and get submitted?
MMA expert analyst Stephen Quadros thinks it's too early to say.
"Malaipet comes from a substantial Thai boxing background but in this case, and with pro wrestlers and kickboxers involved in MMA, it's a case-by-case basis," Quadros says. "Can he fit into the mold of a CroCop, a kickboxer who succeeded?"
The jury on Malaipet in MMA may still be out, even after his fight Friday night with Kaleo Kwan. Kwan is unlikely to take the fight to the floor, where Malaipet is most vulnerable.
"It's likely to be a situation where you have an MMA bout and a kickboxing match breaks out," Quadros says.
However it turns out, we'll be watching.
Michael Woods, the managing editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and The New York Observer.