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Nothing is better than a good, old fashioned redemption story and
no genre of entertainment supplies as many of them as professional
sports. A once mighty champion who is knocked off his perch and
fallen onto hard times, only to resurrect himself back into the
king of his division is something Hollywood makes legends of.

With Showtime’s controversial new documentary that airs Friday
night (8:30 p.m. ET/PT), the cable giant and director Micah Brown
toed the line between heart string-tugging redemption and
fist-pounding resentment and disgust. The 90-minute film is
narrated by the iconic Ron Perlman (Hell Boy, Sons of Anarchy) and
it’s an intriguing look into the criminal justice system of another
country that is polar opposite to the one in the U.S.

Prison Fighters: 5 Rounds to Freedom is overflowing of action,
emotion and reflection into oneself. The genesis of the documentary
is an unconventional criminal justice system in Thailand where
prisoners can earn their freedom through winning muay Thai fights.
The state-sponsored rehab program is not reserved for just petty
criminals, though. Instead, violent criminals have been freed
through their participation in “Prison Fights.”

“This story is unlike anything we’ve ever encountered,” said
Stephen Espinoza, Executive Vice President and General Manager,
Showtime Sports, prior to the film’s debut. “Redemption is a common
metaphor in sports stories, but this is a story about actual
redemption and rehabilitation, with prisoners literally fighting
for their release from prison. This film brings viewers inside a
personal story of crime and punishment, set against a societal
debate about the meaning of justice, rehabilitation and the
opportunity for a second chance.”

After several minutes of explaining the history and importance of
muay Thai in the country, Brown gets right down to business by
showing dozens of hardened prisoners spending unknown amounts of
years behind bars. Rapists, murderers and drug lords are lumped
into Khao Prik Prison and anybody who knows how to fight has the
ability at some point to earn his freedom back if he is able to win
a number of Thai boxing matches.

“Boxing has always been a way out of the ghetto for people who
weren’t lucky enough to find another path out,” Perlman told
Sherdog.com in a recent interview. “But the recidivism rate here is
about (60 percent) but Thailand has this incredibly rich history of
muay Thai and this program they have been using has that rate down
to five percent. Not only is it uplifting, but it’s really
effective and that’s the goal, to get these guys a way out. It’s a
true rehabilitation.”

The bulk of Prison Fighters centers around Noy Khaopan, a
once-promising fighter who got drunk at a bar one night and
allegedly stabbed Anirut Vanichyaron in the neck out of cold blood.
Vanichyaron, a model citizen with a bright future, died from the
attack and before long, Khaopan was apprehended and sentenced to
prison.

The parents of Khaopan lament the fact that their son, who was once
a fun-loving boy, would devolve into the life of a street thug who
would eventually murder an innocent man. They mourn the fact that
he’s been locked away and have the added burden of raising
Khaopan’s young son, who has been abandoned by his mother as well.
The parents want Khaopan to somehow be allowed out of prison
because they believe it was just a momentary lapse of judgment,
that he can turn his life around, that he’s really a good
person.

Naturally, Vanichyaron’s mother is grief-stricken beyond repair and
is mystified that her country’s justice system has figured out a
way to earn additional money and recognition by exploiting not only
Thailand’s national pastime, but that a heartless killer can be set
free as long as he wins a muay Thai fight. There aren’t nearly
enough tears this poor woman can shed as no amount of mercy or
money can bring her son back.

Throughout the documentary, Brown introduces former bantamweight
and super featherweight world champion Sirimongkol Singwangcha, one
of the country’s greatest boxers, who flushed his career down the
toilet thanks to drugs. Another role player in the film is
Chalermpol “M” Singwancha, a former hitman who had murdered at
least nine people and then stabbed three inmates while
incarcerated. He has since won his release from the prison and
apparently has turned his life around, though the real focus is on
Khaopan and if he can win his freedom.

American muay Thai fighter Cody Moberly, who has fought for Lion
Fight, among other promotions, is brought in as the foreigner for
Khaopan to fight. Moberly reveals that he has had a difficult
upbringing as well and he had gotten into trouble in the past, but
he is in no way sympathetic for his upcoming foe, who committed
murder. Moberly is ready to fight for Vanichyaron and his family
and he believes it’s his duty to uphold justice by defeating
Khaopan.

After quite a bit of build-up, the documentary concludes with the
battle, where Khaopan wins by the skin of his teeth with official
judges’ scores of 49-48. Naturally, it’s an emotional time for
Khaopan and his family and for a few seconds it’s heartwarming to
see him reunited with his son, who still has no idea that his
father was in prison for killing someone. But once the positive
emotions linger for a short while, one can’t help but feel terrible
for Vanichyaron’s mother, who not only lost her son but now must
live with the fact that his killer has been set free after spending
a few short years in prison because he won a muay Thai bout.

“Everybody has been so desensitized and it’s really hard to find a
story that truly moves the needle in terms of being uplifting and
hope-inspiring,” Perlman said. “But even on old cynic like me — a
guy who doesn’t believe in anything anymore — is blown away by the
cause and effect of giving somebody a channel through which to send
all of their energy. You can’t do it halfway because the finish
line is freedom.

“Do you believe in redemption or do you believe in capital
punishment?” Perlman added. “This film asks us to dig down deep and
articulate what our own values are and that’s what it did. It’s
going to be different for everybody and it’s going to provoke a
response.”

In all, “Prison Fighters” is an absolute treat to watch. It’s
engrossing from the start and the videography grips the viewer
immediately. Whether someone loves muay Thai or knows nothing about
it, Brown has done a tremendous job in bringing everything to
light. And whether someone vehemently disagrees with the notion of
letting a convicted murder loose into civilization just because he
won a Muay Thai fight is irrelevant; Prison Fighters is a
borderline masterpiece.


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