For nearly a century, Thailand has cultivated their national form of combat, molding what was unarmed military self defense into a viable professional sport, and proving along the way that their style of stand-up fighting is one of the most durable and enduring forms of violence.
A cultural phenomenon and high at the list of things to see for the discerning tourist visiting Thailand, Muay Thai has caught on around the globe, with many organizations purporting to have ‘World' champions and various variations of the sport staging bouts every week and a good level of competition in the United States and Europe.
And yet, there is only one place to see the crème de la crème compete, and that is Bangkok, recently found to be the most visited capital city in the World.
So even with Muay Thai being seen by many international visitors to Thailand why hasn't the buzz been carried home with them? Admittedly Muay Thai isn't the easiest sport to follow for the Westerner for a number of reasons.
Lack of TV broadcasting in the West? Check.
Seemingly unpronounceable names of which the spelling changes depending on who's in charge of the Romanisation? Check.
A scoring system that seems completely alien to anyone raised on Western boxing? Check.
Dominated by one nation to the point it appears a minor regional sport? Check.
Annoying music playing through the fight? Check.
While the fights themselves don't generate as much online traffic as boxing and mixed martial arts do, there is no problem Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing, lacking name recognition.
With new attention being diverted towards the East with the incorporation of Thai techniques into the regimen of any MMA fighter worth his salt, it can be sensibly argued that Muay Thai is the second most successful home grown export after rice.
But this has happened before, and foreigners learning and using Muay Thai didn't bring much international attention to the Bangkok fight scene itself.
The First Invasion & Kickboxing Boom
The outward expansion started nearly thirty years ago, when Jean Claude Van Damme's cult 'classic' movie 'Kickboxer', shot in Thailand, made the quintessentially Thai style more visible to the wider World.
An international boom followed in the late 80s and early 90s, and saw a migration of nasty French and Dutchman to the Far East to test their mettle and further their ability to dish out bone crunching savagery.
However, the Japanese had got there first, sending their best Karetekas to Thailand in the 60s, with mixed results (there is talk of some Japanese beating Thai's but aren't much in the way of concrete sources, and videos show the Japanese being badly outmatched)
Learning what was needed to turn their rigid kata based martial art into a sport, the Japanese developed Kyokushin, a full-contact Karate sport, and sent their men back, culminating in Toshio Fujiwara becoming the first non-Thai to win a major title.
At the start of the 90s, K-1, a professional kickboxing organization which came out of Kyokushin, was big business in Japan and internationally but focusing on larger fighters and within the confines of a rule set that was much easier for the Western fight fan to grasp.
At the start of the new millennium, K-1 branched out into promoting warriors on the lower end of the scale with their 'MAX' imprint, and made a bona fide Thai superstar out of Buakaw Por Pramuk when he won the K-1 title.
Buakaw Banchamek/Por Pramuk via wikimedia
With K-1 dissolving with financial woes, kickboxing needed a big player to carry the torch, and as of late GLORY has been just that. Seeing a huge upsurge in interest in it's product, GLORY has signed a long term deal with Spike TV, which is where the UFC started its journey to mainstream success and now where Bellator Fighting Championships calls its home.
Then why hasn't Muay Thai lit a fire among insatiable fight fans as a spectator sport whereas kickboxing has?
Why pay for midgets?
What pushed both K-1 and GLORY closer to the mainstream was its emphasis on bigger fighters, which, like it or not, is easier to sell. Even the aforementioned Buakaw Por Pramuk was at the top end of Thai weight classes, and had the requisite size to cross over with foreign audiences. To give you an idea of Buakaw's crossover popularity, the highest viewed Buakaw video on youtube has over four millions views, and the next four highest rated clips all have over two million, whereas the highest views for a video featuring Muay Thai superstar Saenchai Sor Kingstar has only five hundred thousand. There is one video with Saenchai that has nearly hit two millions, but that is a jovial spar with Buakaw!
With the UFC's smaller weight classes still yet to truly break through with the masses and see large PPV numbers (Urijah Faber excluded) you'd be forgiven for not haven given Muay Thai your time thus far. Bloody Elbow's own Mookie Alexander touched on this recently when discussing UFC flyweight Demetrious Johnson:
It all goes back to not liking small people. We're a big country with big people and big beliefs and big food and a big penis of a state. We see Johnson and think "I could crush him" because he's so tiny and unassuming.
But it can't just be because they're small? Michael Carbajal and Humberto ‘Chiquita' Gonzalez raked in millions fighting for boxings light flyweight titles, and Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera were as popular as anyone on HBO at super bantamweight. In recent years, Israel Vasquez and Rafael Marquez received a huge amount of buzz for their wars and got the high production values of Showtime for a documentary about their trilogy.
This should prove that action and talent can overcome a perceived weakness with smaller fighters, but it's not that simple.
Mexican fighters have a huge following not just in their native countries but with the large Mexican-American audience in the U.S. They've also showed over the years to be synonymous with action, and are therefore an easy sell. Secondary to the Latino fanbase, the Filipino-American contingent has been important to Manny Pacquiao's rise to stardom in the last decade, although he piggy backed off demolition jobs on the aforementioned Mexican stars.
But no one's asking you to put down your hard-earned green to see Bangkok's finest wage war. With YouTube being the primary viewing source for many a fight fan in our time, Muay Thai has never been so accessible. Both Muay Ties and Live Muay Thai Guy bring the fights to you for free, and with the best fighting the best week in, week out (reminiscent of the golden age of pugilism) there are many reasons to start following the sport.
This series of articles will break the sport down bit by bit, and by the end of it will hopefully allow a new combat sport into your life.
Before we can delve into the sport and the fighters that make it the great spectacle it is, it's necessary to know just what's at stake. In the second part of this series we will look at the landscape of Muay Thai and the path a fighter must take to reach the big stage in Bangkok.
Until then, here is the very best fights of this year so far. Technical? Yes. Dramatic? Yes. Balls to the wall violence? Yes. I implore anyone who's read this far to check this scrap out, as it will make a believer out of you. Go in blind, you don't need to know the intricacies of the rules just yet, a war such as this transcends cultures and language.