MBSB community member Artemis sent in the following:
I would like to ask for your opinion in regards to codes of conduct that promote decency and sportsmanship in the art of Muay Thai.
A friend of mine who is a fighter uses an aggressive fighting style that unsettles me. When he fights he aims to KO his opponent in the first round causing significant pain and injury. This has become his trademark and there are usually a group of Western spectators who are there in support of him who go wild and praise him as a good fighter. The spectators change from month to month as they are tourists passing through, profits are made from selling the tickets to the tourists with a small percentage going to the fighter. He is not connected to any of the gyms rather the tickets are sold through the resort where he works.
I have not seen the same style of fighting from any others, if the opponents are unmatched usually the better fighter will earn his/her points and the fight will end without any drama or significant injuries. Having seen one of his opponents post fight with multiple stitches that will surely cause long term scarring it made me question the sport and wonder what is taught in training as acceptable. In another example an opponent of his was a young boy who was clearly no match for him in experience or weight. The young boy hobbled off the ring in agony after a deathly kick.
I know that he views himself as too old to be fighting and he does not train so his fitness levels are questionable. To be fair to him I’m not sure if he feels that he cannot say no to the fights in the first place and is simply protecting himself from injuries as he is not training. I can’t help but wonder are the few minutes of glory worth it? Or do I just not get it? I would just like to ask your opinion as this is something that has bothered me for some time, thank you for taking the time to read this.
I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my thoughts and also to open up the discussion to other nak muays who have spent time in Muay Thai gyms in Thailand.
I’ll begin with stating that the following is reflective of both my teachings and my experiences in Muay Thai in Thailand. Others may have been taught and experienced otherwise, but here it is, (in general) –
As a nak muay I was taught that respect is fundamental in the sport as is adherence to the established hierarchy. In terms of hierarchy within a gym, in order:
- the owner,
- the trainers
- and the fighters.
Within that, there may be other people who are given a higher esteem than others, for example, if there is a promoter (who is neither the owner nor a trainer), or a matchmaker, and frankly, there was one guy in a gym that I spent significant time in whose role I never quite understood. I saw him as an enforcer. The man who kept people in line….he fit in somewhere above the trainers.
Gyms are also reflective of general Thai hierarchies (the older fighters are given more esteem than the younger, etc.). In regards to respect between fighters from competing gyms there is no mean mugging, bullying, or disrespectful antics that is completely commonplace if not encouraged in fight sports in the West. It doesn’t mean everyone likes one another, but overt aggression between fighters outside of the ring is frowned upon if not grounds for dismissal. Nak muays are also taught humility (generally).
That being said, Muay Thai in the ring is a war.
As long as fighters work within the rules of the sport, they’re there to devastate their opponent. To give you an example, one of my trainers taught me two different types of elbows, one was a fast, slicing elbow meant to cut across someone’s forehead, ideally to blind them with their own blood and the other to knock them out. Some people get stitches and some are pulled out of the ring on a stretcher.
A huge component of Muay Thai is the gambling. Outside of tourist areas (and perhaps inside as well), gambling has kept the sport alive and thus has effected the game. The first round is generally a time for fighters to feel one another out and for gamblers to check out what is going on and start placing their bets. Some fighters do become aggressive in the first round looking for a KO but from my experience, it isn’t remotely the norm.
Exciting fights where anything can happen make the gamblers happy, which makes the promoter happy, which makes the gyms and the fighters happy because they get to come back. The relationship is symbiotic. It’s not uncommon for gamblers to tell fighters if they knock someone out in a specific round they’ll receive a substantial tip.
Thais generally experience the sport as spectators differently than foreign, particularly Western audiences.
Where Western audiences are apt to find aggression exciting, Thais appreciate ring intelligence and beautiful technique in ways a lot of Western audiences don’t get. It’s one of the reasons Westerners who are new to Muay Thai become baffled at who wins a Muay Thai fight on points. Fighters who throw the most weapons and who look dominant to Western eyes don’t always win. Aggressive doesn’t always equate to best.
My experience with fights for the tourist market occurred in Chiang Mai. It was mentioned to me on more than one occasion from Thai fighters that if the main audience was tourists (i.e. in beer bars), often fighters who found themselves in the ring with friends as opponents wouldn’t fight at full capacity. They knew and respected that the other fighter may have to fight again soon, so although they were there to win, they weren’t there to devastate. Tourists got their Muay Thai, the Thais got paid and everyone left happy.
I highly suspect your friend is there to keep the tourists happy. If he can deliver a fighting style that caters to the Western eye, promote the resort and get paid well….I can see the draw in that, particularly if he can walk out of the ring with little to no damage. I also don’t doubt your thoughts that he feels he can’t say no to the fights.
Although I don’t know his relationship with the resort, there can easily be a hierarchy within it which is reflective of Thai society as a whole. Note, the main motivation behind Muay Thai in Thailand is money. Most Thai fighters make at most, enough money to get by over the course of their careers and sustain a lot of damage, including long-term damage in the process. In addition, most tend to have few job prospects once their Muay Thai careers are over. If he makes decent money in these fights and gets additional perks (i.e. tourists treating him like a rock star because he’s knocking people out so quickly, etc.) without having to train at all and maintain a good relationship with his employers at the resort…it may beat his other options.
Thanks Artemis for writing in. If you have anything to add or if any of this resonates with you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
How about the rest of you?
Are there any nak muays who have trained in Thailand who want to add to this?
What’s your take on sportsmanship in Muay Thai?