Friday, April 15, 2011

Thailand 2011 - Muay Thai

I have always taken pride in the fact that I am a very level-headed person. Sure, I get passionate and worked up about things. Everyone does. But I have never physically wanted to hurt another person or lost it to the point where I wasn't in control. I understand on a social level why we as humans, and especially as males, have the urge to fight. It's something immediate that we can do to alleviate a situation, and the competition becomes survival of the fittest. The stronger man (or woman) wins, and they take the spoils.

So when I learned that the documentary we're doing in Thailand was based around the fighting culture of Muay Thai, I wasn't exactly emotionally invested in the project at first. I never watch UFC, and I often don't understand the need to fight. As it turns out, it was a simple case of not understanding the other side, and once I immersed myself into that culture I learned to respect and even love the sport and spectacle of Muay Thai Boxing. 

As this is a documentary on fighters, an integral part of our time here in Thailand is spent at boxing stadium. Where we are at, there are two stadium: Patong Boxing Stadium and Bangla Boxing Stadium. I have yet to go to Bangla, but we'll be going there for Championship Night tonight. For the purpose of this blog, I'll be talking about my experience at Patong.

The Stadium

We arrive via Tuk Tuk (an open taxi) about 20 minutes or so before the fights begins. The trip to Patong Boxing Stadium is not for the skittish, as the 'stadium' is well off the beaten path. You drive through narrow alleys and unlit roads to a place that looks like a refurbished warehouse. The parking lot is packed with Tuk Tuks and scooters, and a congregation of Thai's and Westerner's are outside the stadium smoking cigarettes and drinking.

Most of the people are in line for tickets. There are 3 sections in the stadium: Ringside, VIP, and Stadium. The prices are 2000, 1500, and 1300 Baht respectively (our exchange rate is 30:1, so the VIP section runs about $50). We had a bit of an inside-track, so we got our tickets with ease and into the stadium ahead of the crowds.

When you enter the stadium, you realize why it looks like a warehouse from the outside. All the 'stadium' consists of is bleacher seats, recliners, a ring, and some lights. I felt like we were part of some secret society, and that for some reason all of this was illegal. It stunk of sweat and beer, and the 'air conditioning' was a series of fans drilled to the pillars holding up the roof. We're sitting in a comfortable 85F, enough to sweat but not hot enough to dry off. 

The stadium hasn't filled up since we've been there, but the seats are generally full. About 400 or so people can fit into the place, often segregated with the Westerners sitting on the ground and the Thai's in the stadium. This isn't out of class as much as the Westerners tend to book tickets with agents, and those agents set them up with ground seats. It is an intimate space that allows everyone in the stadium to take part in the fight, so the stadium isn't at any disadvantage. 

The Fights

Every night of the week the gyms in Phuket switch off between Patong and Bangla, and when I mean there's a fight every day of the week I really mean it. Every day in town there are new posters with the line-up for the night's fights, and there's a truck with giant billboards that drives the beach with a megaphone screaming 'Fight Tonight at *insert location here*'. 

A standard ticket usually has 7-10 fights, with the main event saved for last. The one that frightens most people is that the first 3 or 4 fights are children.

When I say children, I really mean children. The youngest are the first to fight, which are usually 7-8 year olds. Instead of playing soccer or swimming, these kids fight. Here's the kicker: they earn money for these fights as well. Don't worry, I'll touch on the morality of all of this later on in the post.

Every fight begins with a ceremonial dance, where the fighters 'rid the demons and bad energy' from the ring. Traditional music is played live via some mix between an oboe and clarinet and a series of drums. Both fighters are in the ring performing the ceremony together, and so that stereotypical pre-fight animosity rarely exists in Muay Thai.

After the dance, they wipe gloves and fight. Each round is a couple minutes, with 5 rounds in a fight. In between rounds the stadium is flooded with American music. In one night, I noted the following artists on their playlist: Black Eyed Peas, Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Usher, Eminem, and Metallica. During the fight, however, traditional music is played.

A winner is determined either by KO or to decision, then immediately after the next fight is prepped. There are no stretchers or carts, and there is no intermission. If a guy is KO'd, they revive him as best they can and walk him out. See the video below for a fine example of the brutality of this sport.

The Culture

After watching two nights of these fights, I started to understand the mentality behind this sport. It isn't a 'let's kill the other guy' kind of sport. Every fight ends with the opponents embracing (to a degree), and in between rounds they smile and touch gloves as a symbol of respect. Everything they do is deliberate, from the bows to the audience to stepping over the top rope: everything means something. It is a very symbolic ritual to fight.

This is also why I was ok with seeing these children fight. They weren't breeding mindless warriors who despise each other. They were teaching them that fighting is a privilege and honor, and that respect for one's opponent is critical. It's a rough sport, but even during training these kids are getting knocked around. But they always get right back up and jump in that ring again. That strength is a lifeskill, and these kids are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet. There is no hate or anger in them, and they aren't being exploited or forced to fight. This is an honor for them, and there is bond between fellow fighters because of it.

It all comes back to that respect for competition and each other. Is this a brutal sport? You betcha. That's why you can't afford egos and that UFC mentality here: people will get killed. They don't know how to pull back punches when a guy's already out. Muay Thai uses knees, elbows, and take downs extensively, and this sport is very violent. The majesty in it all, however, is something to marvel.

This sport does have it's problems creeping in. Betting is extensive on these fights, even with the kid fights. Money is consistently flowing, and anytime that money is involved with a fight the credibility is questioned. These fighters do get paid, and so there is an incentive to win. That money often goes to their families, however, because training for these fights is a full time gig. Western culture is capitalizing on all of this, and I hope that this sport doesn't get exported to America or Europe for the sake of preserving the respect of this culture and the Thai people's bond with fighting.

There is one fight that stood out in my mind that put most of this into perspective for me. An older guy and a young, big fighter were in the 4th round of an amazing fight.  The older guy was a bit stocky, but he was holding his own against the onslaught of kicks and punches from the younger guy. Every time we thought he would go down, he would hold his own and land some more punches. By the 4th round the  entire crowd was emotionally invested in the fight, and the cheers started to grow as the fight progressed. The younger guy finally landed a perfect strike to the older guy's head, and he was out before he hit the mat.

The ref rushed to him as well as his trainers. We all applauded the young guy for the win, but the concern grew as the older guy didn't get up. His leg twitched, and the crowd quieted down a bit. Once his gloved moved, we knew he was alright. His trainers started to move him out of the ring, but before he stepped out of the ropes he returned to the center of the ring and paid respect to the audience in center ring. He was welcomed by a thunderous applause before he left towards the locker room. The 4th round of the fight is in the video blog below.

These fighters are people, and very respectful and honorable people at that. They fight for more than just themselves, and it's that reverence that validated our documentary's hypothesis: that Muay Thai and the culture of Thailand are deeply interwoven, and that modern fighting cultures could learn more from authentic Muay Thai culture. 


  1. Mmmm, this reminds me of when I was dating the cage fighter. Muay thai is sexy.

  2. lol you'd be in heaven here Aly. Everyone, and I mean everyone, fights.