Muay Thai Kickboxing
By Eli Zwillenberg
Ask the average farang tourist in Thailand what they believe is the spirit of the country and you’ll probably get an answer such as, “Friendliness,” or, “Generosity,” or if the tourist is more well versed, “Sanook,” the Thai idea that fun should be incorporated into every aspect of life. The answer would probably not be “Aggression,” or, “Combat,” yet these are the essence of Thailand’s most enduring popular sport and possibly it’s most popular non-culinary export: Muay Thai Kickboxing
On any given day, all across Thailand, men and boys will be preparing to, recovering from or engaging in serious hand to hand combat. They will kick banana trees in half with their shins. They will hold one another by the neck with their gloved fists while striking with their elbows and knees and attempting to throw one another to the ground. They will stoically stand and trade kicks to the ribs and kidneys without flinching or attempting to block. They will exercise for hours and hours only to end the day strengthening their bones for when they will inevitably block a potentially deadly blow with the bones of their forearms or shins. And yet the kind spirit of friendliness still pervades this deadly serious combat sport - the fighters train together, spar together and after matches and even between rounds you can often see the fighters hug, smile and compliment one another. Try finding that in western boxing.
Muay Thai origins from China
The spirit of camaraderie and sportsmanship one finds in muay Thai may have as much to do with its history as it does with the communal training camps where the boxers are raised as a family and learn their craft. The ancient origins of this now hugely popular sport were lost to the mists of time after the sacking of the 14th century Thai capital by a Burmese invasion force, but the legendary origins are quite similar to that of many martial arts, and even begin in the same place: China. First introduced by migrants from the southern Chinese steppes, muay boran, or ‘ancient boxing’, is a group of regional boxing forms that are collectively the spiritual ancestors to muay Thai. Each area had its own style, but when competitions were held they all had the same, frankly frightening, rules: No hair pulling, eye gouging, grappling or hitting while the opponent is down. If these rules sound a bit brutal consider that muay boran was a martial art in the truest sense of the term: It was a method of waging war and a crucial component of Thai military training meant to condition the practitioner’s body into an actual weapon.
King Petch was a Muay Thai boxer
Over time the sport became more codified and less brutal. Bare knuckle boxing gave way first to hemp rope bindings and eventually to western gloves. The sport grew in popularity not only with the common people but with royalty as well, with one king, Sri Saan Petch, earning the moniker The Tiger King for his habit of disguising himself with a tiger mask so that his subjects would not shy away from combat with him. Over the centuries Thai boxing has grown from an art of self preservation to a spectacle of sports exhibition to the striking art that virtually all modern mixed martial arts competitors must learn. And to think, the first modern boxing ring wasn’t built in Thailand until the 1920s.
Legal to gamble on Muay Thai matches
If you’re watching on television you’ll see the fighter's vital statistics: Fights fought, won and lost. Height, weight, age, and name. In person you’ll see a thronging crowd carefully considering each fighter, analyzing their bodies and their pre-fight dance: The wai khru ram muay. It may seem strange to a westerner to see a man dance in the four corners of a ring he is about to spill sweat and maybe blood in, but to a Thai boxer it is a way to pay respect to his trainers as well as the audience and, in older times, to apologize to any royalty present for the brutality that is a boxing match. A fighter’s wai khru can tell the savvy observer much about his fitness, his style and even who his trainers have been. And why does the audience pay such close attention? Because they want to know on whom and how much to wager. The outcome of a boxing match is one of the few events a punter can legally gamble on in Thailand. Gambling is an integral part of the muay thai experience with usually small but not uncommonly very large sums of money being wagered on either blue or red. It is no wonder that the pregame and opening rounds of a match are so closely scrutinized.
Five rounds of furious kickboxing
The fight lasts five rounds of three minutes each and most fights go the full five rounds. Unless there is a knock-out, which is uncommon, or a surrender, which is incredibly rare, the fighters are in it for the long haul and so they tend to take it slow in the first round, circling, measuring one another, throwing testing punches and trying to tempt one another into an aggressive mistake. In the second round you can expect more blows to be exchanged and the rhythmic drum music you might not have noticed in the first round to build in tempo and volume. This is a trend that will continue, the music simultaneously matching and driving the furiousity of the boxers.
By the end of the second round you can expect most of the wagers to be placed and the crowd to really start cheering for their chosen fighter. With the intensity of the crowd, the music and the pressure to win by points or knock-out growing with each passing second the third round is one of serious excitement and often marks the turning point of the match.
Muay Thai boxers have incredible stamina
If the fighter who is ahead in the third round is behind at the end of the fourth it can be considered a real upset, and both fighters know it, so you can expect the underdog to really provoke a brawl. There will be heated exchanges, knock-downs, throw-downs and tight grappling with knees and elbows searching for soft points at every moment. It’s often in the middle of the third round that one fighter will emerge as the obvious favourite and that punters who bet on the underdog will desperately try to make a counter bet to recoup their potential loss. It’s not hard to imagine they rarely get any takers.
By the middle of the fourth round the fighters will have begun to tire, but they will still be making their trainers proud. Truly, muay thai boxers have incredible stamina, but it is difficult not to when you have a stadium full of fans throwing their fists in the air and howling with every kick or punch landed and the spirits of your ancestors watching you from the afterlife. If both fighters are standing at the end of the fifth round the four judges, seated on the four sides of the ring, will choose a winner who will thank the crowd, pose for the cameras and make way for the next pair of pugilists.
Muay Thai match shows you the real Thais
To visit a muay Thai match is to experience the pride of Thailand and to see a side of the Thai people it's incredibly easy to overlook. Reserved and – dare I say? - sweet in public, a packed boxing stadium is one of the very few places where you can be pushed around by a crowd of hollering Thais or hear the deafening exultation following a knock-down punch. While there is no comparison to the workout the fighters are getting, it is impossible not to be energized by the experience and to leave a feeling that you've truly taken part.