Muay Thai Grading in Korea Explained
“They are ready for their first grading test,” my fiancé, owner and Head Trainer of K Club, Okbae Moon says in a decisive low voice, cocking his head towards the group of teenage boys trading playful punches at one another in the gym.
Standing next to Okbae outside the training area, where he is observing his protégés carefully, I am temporarily befuddled. My confusion must have been written on my face, because Okbae proceeds to explain what grading entails.
“It’s a test of Muay Thai ability. You demonstrate to the judges a set of prescribed moves. If you pass, you get promoted to a higher dan level.”
“That sounds a lot like the Taekwondo I used to do,” I quip, my interest piqued. “Do you think I am ready for grading too?”
“Of course,” Okbae replies breezily. “It should be a piece of cake for you since you’ve trained in Thailand. The first dan is pretty easy. You just have to demonstrate proficiency of the basic Muay Thai techniques to the judges. You know, punches, kicks, elbows and knees. And maybe a bit of blocking as well. Nothing too fancy, really. The sparring segment starts from the second dan. Moves of higher difficulty, like the clinch, are tested further up the levels.”
It sounds easy enough, and I make a mental note to sign myself up for the grading session. It is the first time I have heard of testing in Muay Thai, and the concept is foreign to me. I am not sure if grading exists in other countries, but neither in my native Singapore nor in Thailand have I encountered grading as a benchmark for proficiency in Muay Thai. I figure that getting tested in Korea would be an interesting experience, and having something to show (i.e. a dan level) for years of Muay Thai practice would be worth the time and effort.
Later, I find out that grading is administered by both WAKO (Korea) and Korea Muay Thai Association (KMTA), two of the most prominent Muay Thai sports associations locally. Which certification you get is dependent on which association your gym is affiliated with. The testing format is similar for both associations, but the WAKO test has more ‘showy’ segments. A quick search on Youtube revealed videos of WAKO Korea candidates demolishing wooden sticks with their kicks, bringing to mind the plank-breaking that Taekwondo is well known for. However, neither association recognizes the dan results of the other. Suppose you hold a third dan from WAKO, and move to train out of a KMTA-affiliated gym. You will be made to take the KMTA first dan from scratch.
Over dinner that day, Okbae tells me that he currently holds a fourth dan in Muay Thai. “I should get my fifth dan soon,” he says, “Now that I run a gym, it’s time to ‘upgrade’ myself.” It is technically legal and permissible for anyone to open their own Muay Thai gym in Korea. However, unspoken rules exist. Any Muay Thai gym owner worth his/her salt here holds at least a third dan. Nobody wants to be disrespected, or worse, be exiled from the Muay Thai associations for not having the skill level considered appropriate to operate a gym and teach. Having the associations turn their backs on you would mean an inability to compete in local fights, attend seminars or promote your fighters.
There are a total of ten dans available to attain in theory, but Okbae tells me that levels from the sixth dan onwards are really honorary in nature. “The current President of our Association can’t do Muay Thai to save his life, but he holds a tenth dan. The guy who runs our city’s Sports Community Club is a sixth. It’s quite an admirable feat if a regular person manages to pass the test for the fourth dan, really. Perhaps the Association will award me a tenth dan if I manage to defeat Seanchai someday,” he says, chuckling at his own joke between mouthfuls of soup.
There is a waiting period between each dan test. After you attain the first dan, you have to wait for a year before you are eligible to take the test for the second. A two-year wait separates you from the third dan, and so on. A quick calculation reveals that it would take a good ten years to get to the fourth dan. During the waiting period, candidates are expected to better themselves and sharpen their Muay Thai techniques in preparation for the next test. The longer waiting periods at the higher dan levels signify the depth of humility and patience that a practitioner must cultivate in his/her journey in Muay Thai. The longer time periods also reflect the belief that knowledge is ever expanding; as one progresses, there is increasingly more to discover and learn. There are definitely some influences imported to Korea’s brand of Muay Thai from the national sport Taekwondo, which practices this set of core beliefs as well.
After a flurry of phone calls to the Korea Muay Thai Association, under which our gym is registered, a date is soon fixed for our gym’s grading session. We mark 20th December on the gym calendar, and begin preparations in earnest.
Preparing for Muay Thai Grading
Okbae has shortlisted about forty candidates eligible for the grading test after pouring over our gym member list. He has selected members who have turned up to train regularly for at least the past six months, and whose Muay Thai competencies he has deemed adequate to pass the test. I learn that candidates are recommended for testing only at the gym owner’s recommendation.
I ask Okbae why the grading system is such an integral part of Muay Thai in Korea. He ponders over my question, and reveals the following. Firstly and most significantly, the national sport, Taekwondo, has had far-reaching influences on Muay Thai locally. Most Koreans have had experience in the former, and are thus familiar with working up the colored belt levels. Furthermore, the grading system reflects Korean society’s need for structure and practicality. Grading allows Muay Thai students to focus on a tangible outcome of their training, the dan. The clearly defined set of test items also helps students to structure their own training. Official test certifications are valuable assets in college and job applications here.
A Muay Thai dan would benefit an applicant for a college sports science course, or a job position that emphasizes physical fitness.
Grading also ensures that students can be ranked by the dan level they hold. Still deeply influenced by centuries of Confucian thought, Korea embraces grading because it allows the concepts of seniority and actual ability to be expressed. It also helps cultivate an atmosphere of respect and knowing one’s place in the gym. Only members who hold dan levels are allowed to lead warm-ups, hold pads and instruct other members.
Okbae tells me that once you hold a dan, you are part of the gym family. There is always someone looking out for you. This further cultivates closeness and a sense of kinship in the gym, as Koreans value the collective unity of a community over the individual. There are discounts off gym membership fees for members who hold dans, and members of a higher dan level enjoy a bigger discount. Grading also serves administrative functions. Only people who hold dan levels are allowed to compete in fights, attend seminars and participate in events organized by the Muay Thai associations.
There are also mercenary reasons why grading is administered in Korea. It seems that testing sessions are opportunities for the Muay Thai associations and gym owners to profit. There is a visible markup in grading fees, between what is actually payable to the associations in administrative costs, and the amount collected by gym owners from candidates. I learn with surprise that the associations recommend, and even encourage this. Okbae tells me that the associations protect their affiliated gyms in this way. The profit pocketed by gym owners is a reward and security net of sorts for registering under their respective associations. There seems to be measures in place to prevent abuse though; there are specified test dates to adhere to, and too-frequent testing by a gym is a no-no. It is also a must for candidates to wear Muay Thai trunks during the test, and regular sports attire is disallowed. This translates into more sales for gyms, which usually sell Muay Thai apparel to supplement income.
“People usually become more dedicated after they pass their first grading. They don’t want to be just the average person, signing up for one month and then leaving. They begin to want to stay, and work towards the second, third, fourth dan,” says Okbae. “It’s good for me – I retain more members – and good for the overall skill level of the gym. I can teach them more things. And then I can start building up a fight team that can compete. Women who pass their grading say they feel more empowered and accomplished too.”
All the test candidates are expected to train for at least two hours daily, which is a significant amount of time for the students and employees that make up the bulk of the members in our urban gym. The number of confirmed candidates has been whittled down to twenty-two. Some candidates cite cost as a factor preventing them from taking the test. Others do not feel confident enough yet. And some are told to take the test at a later date after Okbae assesses them during lessons.
It is a frustrating two weeks for me as I prepare for the grading test. It is the first time I am made to memorize set combinations for Muay Thai, and I wonder frequently how all this memory work will aid in my future training. As someone who gave up Taekwondo because I simply could not commit the prescribed forms to memory, I find myself missing the formless and free beauty of Muay Thai while simultaneously dreading the regimented practice sessions. I am also bothered by the need to quickly relearn techniques that I have picked up from various teachers in Thailand and Singapore, so I can perform them according to the way the Korea Muay Thai Association states they should be. As the test date draws nearer, I start to get testy and nervous whenever Okbae picks apart details in my technique.
After beating myself up for not getting parts of my footwork ‘right’ at the end of a particularly trying lesson, I call my best friend and tell him all about my grading woes. He is as befuddled as I am.
“A grading system for Muay Thai? I know about colored belts in other martial arts, but the only belt I know in Muay Thai is a championship belt.”
I laugh, feeling slightly better. At least someone agrees with me that proficiency in Muay Thai is better gauged by how well one performs in a fight.
Muay Thai Testing: D-Day and the Aftermath
Testing day creeps up slowly upon us. On the Big Day, which turns out to be an icy Saturday morning, I wake up with a start before my alarm goes off. For some reason, although I keep telling myself that the test is not a big deal, I start to feel nervous. Some teenage boys have arrived early at the gym, and Okbae is supervising them as they wipe the mirrors clean and clear away miscellaneous clutter. There is a whirlwind of activity everywhere.
It is 10.30am, and candidates are starting to mill around the gym, waiting for the test which is slated to begin at 11am. Some of them fret and commiserate in little huddles as they wrap their hands. One of the ladies, Nari, fears she will fail. She tells us that prior to starting Muay Thai at our gym, she had had zero experience with sports of any kind. Seung-Hwan, a big burly man, shakes visibly and tells me that he has not felt this nervous since his college entrance exams two decades ago.
At Okbae’s instruction, I get candidates to fill in the application forms, and collect passport photographs from them. Candidates also receive score sheets, which lists the test segments and scoring criteria. Candidates from another gym belonging to the same association have also turned up. Okbae tells me that due to the sheer number of candidates from our gym, the association has decided to make our gym a testing center for the day. If we had had fewer candidates, we would have to travel to a centralized testing location in another city to take the test.
I am almost done warming up when the two judges arrive. They are highly respected gym owners and board members of the Korea Muay Thai Association (KMTA). We quickly assemble ourselves in neat rows in front of them, and bow deeply. The judges then lead us in reciting the National Pledge, and then the core values of the KMTA. There is a moment of solemn silence before Okbae motions for us to go sit at the perimeter of the training area to await our turns. “Remember to acknowledge the judges verbally when your name is called!” Okbae whispers encouragingly before going back to stand beside the judges. We feel like lambs being led to the slaughter as we watch his retreating figure.
The judges shuffle our registration forms and score sheets, and begin to call out eight names at random. I barely have time to relax when I hear my name being called. “Here!” I respond with all the bravery I can muster, and stumble forwards while pulling my gloves on. The judges have us arranged into two rows of four, and begin a hushed dialogue. From what I manage to pick out, they are selecting the candidates that they will each be assessing.
After another prerequisite bow, we stand facing the mirrors. The judges announce that they will first assess our Muay Thai stance and boxing in a three-minute shadowboxing round. We are free to show all the techniques we know in any order we prefer. Combinations, the ones we have memorized and practiced during lessons, score higher marks. I am surprised to find that I am not nervous anymore, and I tune out my surroundings. As the timer starts, I concentrate on my reflection in the mirror, and let the moves flow out of me.
Several more three-minute shadowboxing rounds follow without any breaks in between. The judges require the following for each round: kick and block techniques, elbow strikes, and finally knee strikes. We end off this segment of the grading with a freestyle shadowboxing round, in which we are encouraged to demonstrate everything we know. I focus on demonstrating combinations and the desired technique. Remembering Okbae’s tips for a higher test score, I make sure to include a vocal, guttural exhalation with every move.
Before we are split into two groups for the next part of the test, the judges put us through a grilling calisthenics routine to assess our fitness levels. With virtually no time to catch our breaths, we are made to do jumping jacks, planks, push-ups, squats and sit-ups. When the judges are satisfied, they wave one group of us towards the bags. Simultaneously, the other group does their padwork test, slamming out elaborate combinations with the trainers.
We switch after three minutes are over, with another round of calisthenics in between. It is somehow more exhausting than usual, and I am relieved when the allotted thirty minutes are over. The judges give us feedback on our performance, and we nod reverently before going back to sit down at our places. In this manner, the test is conducted for the remaining candidates, with an additional sparring segment for those testing for the second dan.
After everyone has been graded, we assemble again in front of the judges, who put the finishing touches on the event with a short speech. They praise us for taking up the challenge, and our “excellent performances”. Special mention is given to a fifty-year-old housewife, and she beams with pride. The judges emphasize on the importance of testing, and remind us that we are now part of a big family. One of the candidates mentions that he is already feeling sore, and the judges laugh heartily. They tell us to prepare for grading as if we were preparing for a fight in future. After the obligatory photos are taken, there is a palpable sense of camaraderie among us. We feel bonded in the way only people who have gone through a tough time together can feel.
Nearly a month later, a thick manila envelope arrives at our gym. We slice through the duct tape used to secure the envelope, and a stack of glossy certificates and cards issued by the KMTA spill out. Like a proud father, Okbae arranges the documents neatly on the gym floor and takes a photograph of them. For the next few days, Okbae hands out the documents to their eager recipients amidst congratulatory applause at the end of every class. He also puts up a board near the gym entrance with the successful candidates’ photographs on it. There is indeed a marked difference in the atmosphere of our gym with the emergence of these senior members.
And as for Okbae’s plans for the gym? He is in the midst of generating a list of members who will be taking the next grading test in March.
Rachel Lee first came to South Korea in 2011, intending only to visit a Korean fighter she had met at a Muay Thai gym in Thailand earlier that year. With her month-long visit sprawling into a four-year sojourn, she has since gotten engaged to the Korean fighter, and is currently running a Muay Thai gym with him in Seoul. A traveler and explorer at heart, she frequently finds herself treading precariously between ambition and reality.