July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
A trip to Thailand would not be complete without experiencing the national sport live, up close and personal, complete with an appearance by Thailand’s most celebrated fighter of recent years. I had the opportunity to watch Muay Thai fights from ringside seats in Patong Boxing Stadium, in a memorable night of kicks, punches, music, and entertainment of all varieties during and after the fights.
Making our way to the stadium was an adventure in itself, through the narrow streets, dodging scooters (or motorbikes as they are known here) winding along the maze and mystery of Patong at night time like a caravan of explorers with a trusted local guide. Once we found parking in a muddy lot by the stadium, we started walking toward the arena where the action had already begun. The noise of the crowd with the occasional roars of approval and cheers, as well as the music that plays constantly throughout the fights, became increasingly more loud as we approached the epicenter of excitement and revelry surrounding the display of skill and violence of an ancient art that still draws practitioners and fans not just from Thailand, but from all parts of the globe. Guided by signs printed in broken English, and relying on the inside connections of our friend and local guide, we proceeded toward the entrance with tickets in hand, and a great deal of anticipation. The ushers guided us toward our seats, past the displays of Thai pads, gloves, souvenirs, through the crowd standing on their feet, toward the large, cushioned, movie-theater style seats complete with cup-holders. As the waitress took our drink orders, we settled in to experience the show.
To the uninitiated, Muay Thai may seem a bit peculiar. It is part traditional martial art focusing on striking with the feet, knees, hands, and elbows, and part modern-day sports entertainment. The fighters prepare with ritualistic dances prior to the start of the bout, to the sounds of traditional Thai music that is something like a mix of all the noise-makers you would find at a soccer stadium. There is the continuous high-pitched screeching sound that seems to dominate, as well as the drum and cymbal-like percussion instruments, played by a live band of about 4 musicians. Unlike western combat sports, this music plays during the fights, and it is intertwined with the bout in that it is meant to regulate its tempo. Between rounds, the speakers blast western style upbeat pop or rock music, as one would expect at fights in the U.S. In this way, the music itself represents somewhat of a mixture of western and traditional values combined in the combat sport of Muay Thai.
The fight itself is a delicate balance of skill with intermittent bursts of violence. The first several rounds are not scored. They operate as somewhat of a warmup. The fighters square off and size each other up. Movements are not as dramatic as western fight fans might be used to, especially with the popularity of mixed-martial-arts. The head-movement and footwork of boxing is nowhere to be found, as the use of kicks and knees renders this dangerous in Muay Thai. Instead, the fighters face each other, bouncing and feinting with subtle movements, looking to counter and land a big kick or knee at a decisive moment. The focus is on kicks, since the punches rarely get through the defense and distance appropriate to Muay Thai. After each exchange, there appears to be a slight break where the fighters sort of step back to assess the damage and show each other respect. Then, they re-engage and perhaps try a different way to get through the other’s defense or land a significant blow. It appears to be a much more subtle and calculated duel, not as dependent on continuous activity as proper timing and execution.
The night of fights was especially memorable due to the appearance of a fan favorite Muay Thai practitioner who had made a name for himself internationally by representing Thailand in competitions such as K-1. Buakaw is not imposing in stature standing only 5’8″ and weighing in at around 155 pounds. However, he has accomplished much in the sport and the fans adore him. They rushed to take his picture at every opportunity as he entered the ring for an exhibition wearing traditional makeshift gloves made of rope, against two opponents. The exhibition was somewhat like a pro-wrestling match. It was a display of skill and athleticism, but not a legitimate contest. Afterward, he walked through the crowd and was practically assaulted by overly-eager fans vying for the chance to take a picture with this legend of the ring.
As a final note, although some of the western fighters appeared to out-point and out-work their Thai counterparts, not one was awarded victory against a Thai fighter. Arguably, this is due to a different scoring system not well understood by westerners, but it is more likely due to discrimination, plain and simple. Be that as it may, the night was an experience I will likely remember for years to come, and the beauty of Muay Thai is not in the least diminished by the protectionism of misguided traditionalist attitudes.
The festivities were followed up by a walk through the nearby red light district, and some legitimate clubs where we nonetheless had to play the game of ‘man or hooker’… but that is a story for another time.