Running a Muay Thai gym is no mean feat. Depending on where you are located in the world, you will be confronted with your own unique set of issues and challenges. Here are some of the most common difficulties faced by gym owners in South Korea.
General Public’s Perception Of Muay Thai
Apart from those who have come across Muay Thai-specific TV programmes like K-1, most Koreans have never heard of Muay Thai before. The sport’s entry into Korea is relatively recent, compared to Western boxing, or the national sport Taekwondo.
People enquire not because they are actively searching for a gym; they are truly curious and have no idea what Muay Thai on our signboard means. We have to introduce Muay Thai to 9 out of 10 people who come to enquire at our gym, and it is the same with other gyms elsewhere in the country. Even then, most of them still think Muay Thai is an exotic and brutal martial art.
The current climate of Korea’s gender expectations comes into play here. It is considered unladylike for a female to participate in martial arts that are deemed “violent”. Ladies shy away from Muay Thai gyms because they face parental disapproval, and/or derision and taunting from their peers.
Some feel that Muay Thai is a man’s sport and there is no place for them in the gym. They also worry about being unable to keep up with training. Facial injuries and scarring are also common worries among the beauty-conscious Korean ladies. However, those who can be persuaded, eventually find Muay Thai a rewarding and enjoyable sport.
Challenges In Advertising
Muay Thai gyms here generate awareness and sign-ups mainly via traditional advertising. Flyers are handed out to passers-by on the streets, and banners are hung up in areas with high human traffic.
However, advertising in this manner is not allowed for weeks leading up to national holidays, and during the months of December to April. City and town councils slap offending businesses with hefty fines for “creating litter and obstructing clean-up efforts”. There is no choice but to stop advertising for a good part of the year.
Competition for eyeballs among other martial arts gyms and fitness clubs is intense. Employees from other businesses in the industry have no qualms about destroying the banners and flyers of their competitors, so that their own advertisements get more views. This results in higher costs in terms of replacing the lost banners (which are relatively expensive at about 8 USD apiece), and hiring extra labor to patrol and remove the advertisements when necessary.
Muay Thai gyms here have recently taken to strengthening their online presence via social media in order to mitigate these challenges. However, managing a Facebook page, writing blog posts and creating media content all at the same time is relatively new territory for most gym owners here.
Some Korean Muay Thai gyms have taken a more creative approach; they put up sparring and padwork demonstrations on the streets, and the visual spectacle does generate interest and enquiries from the crowd.
South Korea has one of the most intense and stressful academic systems in the world. To cope with these pressures, almost every student attends cram school after official school hours. These lessons can end way past midnight, and students head home to do their homework into the wee hours of the morning. Rinse and repeat on a daily basis for the rest of the academic year.
With the fixation on stellar transcripts, few students (and their parents) are willing to sacrifice a couple of hours in the Muay Thai gym.
Social conformity is a big part of Korean culture; sacrificing one’s studies, and by extrapolation, giving up a stable well-paying job, to become a Muay Thai fighter is virtually unthinkable.
All these have several major impacts for the Muay Thai community in Korea: fewer promising talents, an alarming decline in the quality of local fighters, a lack of manpower in terms of trainers and coaches, and the complete absence of fight teams or youth divisions in certain gyms and associations.
Recently in the youth division, the number of fights with full Muay Thai rules has declined rapidly. These days, kids are declared “fighters” as long as they demonstrate a couple of rounds of padwork in the ring with their trainers.
At the end of it, everyone is given a “winner’s certificate” because such documents help in course and job applications in future. Who really wins?
The Rise Of MMA In South Korea
The growing popularity of MMA and its corresponding impacts are being felt in the local Muay Thai circle. Tune in to the local sports channels on any given night and be spoilt for choice. An array of UFC, One FC and Road FC fights have found their way onto free-for-air channels, extensively dubbed in Korean, with detailed fight analyses and commentaries.
The increasing number of televised MMA programmes have exposed curious viewers to the plethora of different martial arts styles. The brash testosterone-driven appeal of MMA attracts many males, who are enticed by the idea of becoming an “all-round fighter”. Hence, more people are gravitating towards MMA gyms, which provide instruction in both the striking and ground arts.
Many promising young fighters are also drawn to the more lucrative MMA fights, which promises them more fame, exposure and bigger paychecks. Well-established Muay Thai champions are also tempted by career opportunities in the MMA circuit; Korea’s top Muay Thai female champion Sujeong “Beautiful Fighter” Lim has stated her interest to compete in MMA, among many other elite male fighters.
Cost and Manpower Factors
One feature unique perhaps only to Korea is the shuttle bus service for school-going children. Influenced by the practices of cram schools and Taekwondo dojangs,
Muay Thai gyms here are now finding it necessary to provide transport to and from the gym for young students.
Parents see this as a prerequisite feature before signing up their children at the gym, citing convenience, time saved and safety as key reasons. Running a bus route, fuel costs, vehicle maintenance fees and employing a certified driver adds to the daily operation costs of local gyms.
Because of the geographical distance between Thailand and South Korea, it is considerably costlier to import good quality training equipment such as mitts and sandbags. From our own experience, we have also found that Thai trainers are more reluctant to work in countries far away from their homeland, despite the possibility of a short-term contract. A higher salary is usually required to make up for this.
These are the biggest challenges that gym owners in Korea are contending with presently. As the Muay Thai landscape in South Korea morphs and evolves over time, new challenges will present themselves.
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.