If you've just joined us, welcome to 'The Beginners Guide to Muay Thai'. Less an exploration of the basic techniques, more an entry-level series designed to make you less intimidated at becoming a fan of the sport.
In part one we looked at the culturally-specific aspects of Muay Thai that might make it a hard sell to the uninitiated. In this part, we look at the social factors that make the talent pool as deep as it is, as well as what it takes to reach the top of the game.
It's a cliché that fighting can save someone's life or is their only avenue out of a life of poverty. It's an oft-used sound bite that once lent pathos to prize fighting but now elicits a groan from even the least cynical fight fan.
In Thailand, it still rings true.
There is a stigma in Thailand that the darker your skin, the poorer you are, due to working outside in labour-heavy, low-income jobs such as rice farming. It's not a race issue, but a perception of class.
In the North East, separated from central Thailand by the Phetchabun Mountains, you will find Isan, an area around the size of Great Britain. Comprised mainly of ethnic Laotian and Khmer-Thai people, this population have darker skin than the Thai-Chinese majority in central Thailand.
While the Isan people are considered part of Thailand by the government, they speak their own language and have their own culture. While there are many cities in this region, some more modern than others, this is also the most rural part of Thailand.
Isan Region of Thailand marked in Red via upload.wikimedia.org
For the Isan people, there are not many occupations that can bring a steady wage. Working in the rice fields offers very low pay, which is why many children learn Muay Thai from a very young age. It's a tough environment that breeds tough people, and at gyms all over Isan there are toddlers taking their baby steps whilst wearing bag gloves.
Isan is not the only region that yields fighting talent. To keep things as simple as possible, the North East (Issan) and South of Thailand have produced the majority of great Muay Thai fighters. Within those areas, Buriram and Surin are just a few of the hotbeds producing hardened warriors in Isan, while Nakhon Si Tammarat and Trang are just two examples of the fervent scene in the South.
Seeing a full blooded prize fight of a high technical level between warriors of eight years old never gets any less jarring no matter how many you see, but fighting is standard practice for Thai's, and they have hundreds of pro bouts before they've even left their teens.
From their rural provinces, where there is a big demand for prize fights but not much in the way of large purses, children fight in order to get the attention of bigger camps. The talent pool is deep in every part of the country, and only the best of the prospects have a chance to break out and impress the Bangkok faithful.
If scouted it is not out of the ordinary for a boy to move away from their family in their teens to further their training, sending their prize money home. If their mettle is tested and the camp is not impressed, there's a good chance the fighter will be released, and their chance of providing a more stable life for their family gone with it. There is little in the way of soft matchups, and training is played out at a high intensity.
The training camps
To anyone who has visited Thailand to try out a training session, the strenuous schedule is noticeable right away, even though the fighters have a fairly relaxed view on fighting itself.
Having to drill so many different techniques in order to be proficient in all aspects of the game, there are rarely rest days, and toughness is embedded in the Thais by removing the niceties you see in training sessions in the West (for example, you will rarely see shin pads worn in Thailand.) Coupled with a prolific fight output most Thais are ready for the best competition in their teens and past prime by the time they've hit their early to mid twenties.
See this training footage of the all time great Singdam, at Kiatmuu9 Gym in Isan. Despite being one of the very best Muay Thai gyms in the World, take note of the modest set-up.
Muay Thai Monikers
The training camps aren't just where the fighters hone their technique. They are also a way of identifying them. You will see a lot of Thai's that share similar surnames. Far from being the Thai equivalent of Smith or Johnson, they are names of gyms, or sponsors, that the fighter takes on as his surname. Their forename is usually a nickname as well, staying constant throughout their career, with the surname changing to accommodate the change of gym or sponsor.
An example to demonstrate this would be Sam-A Thor Ratonakiat, one of the modern masters of Muay Thai. At the present time, he is known as Sam-A Kaiyanghadao, which translates as ‘Five Star Chicken', the name of a popular chain of street vendors selling ‘Gai Yang', a roast chicken dish from Isan, North East Thailand.
Another example to further illustrate this would be the current best fighter in the sport, Petchboonchu. Previously taking the name of his gym as his surname, Borblaboonchu, he is now identified with the name F.A Group, a food additive company in Thailand who sponsor the gym.
This may seem hard to grasp at first (what's an easier way of identifying someone by their name?) but once you've seen the fighters once or twice it's easy enough to identify them by their first name and their fighting style.
And if you've seen them on a few Bangkok fight cards, they're worth paying attention to!
There are exceptions to the rule, but by and large the biggest stage of Muay Thai is comprised of great fighters that have fought their way inwards from the aforementioned regions of Thailand to Bangkok, the nations capital.
There are four important stadiums exclusively for Muay Thai in Bangkok, and with tens of thousands of hungry pro's plying their trade it is likely that a prospect reaching the big city for the first time will have to fight in one of BKK's less historically significant stadiums in order to gain entry to the VIP room.
Omnoi & TV7 Stadiums
Omnoi Stadium is the home of Saturday morning broadcasts. A great place to see the superstars of tomorrow proving their worth against the warriors of yesterday, any fighter holding an Omnoi belt is likely heading to the big stage. Watch the below video to see the kind of action you can see there; these two lads must not be older than fifteen!
The TV7 Stadium runs its shows on a Sunday, and, as its name suggests, broadcasts fights on its own television channel. Winning a TV7 championship is not to be sniffed at, and any Thai earning an appearance here is guaranteed good exposure.
'The Big Two'
Winning a title from one of the ‘big two' stadiums in Bangkok is what every Thai who puts on the gloves and Mongkon strives for. Accept no substitutes; if any organisation outside of these stadiums is touting a ‘World' Muay Thai championship in any weight class that Bangkok stages bouts in, it's phony and not worth the faux leather it's made from.
Up until recently the most iconic stadium in all of Thailand was Lumpinee Stadium, which like a lot of important things in Thailand was operated by the Thai army. Located in the heart of Bangkok, this ramshackle venue was short on luxuries and big on atmosphere.
Shielded from the sun by a tin roof but not keeping out the heat, Lumpinee was not a place for the feint hearted spectator. It was tightly packed and crammed with as many spectators as they could squeeze in, with cats and rats sharing the space and running through the legs of tourists, gamblers and fighters alike!
The Old Lumpinee Stadium (via Wikimedia Commons)
Holding title fights from 105 to 154lbs, the sheer heat made Lumpinee a true test for any young Thai looking to prove themselves worthy of the big city in the preliminaries, as well as the perfect battle ground for the greats to go at it with one of the sport's biggest prizes on the line.
Earlier this year Lumpinee moved to a state of the art modern complex away from the centre of Bangkok. In scaling down the mayhem it has lost some of the unique atmosphere, but not the high standard of matchmaking.
Often phonetically spelled Ratchadamnern this is the other (equally) illustrious stadium in Bangkok.
A short tuk-tuk or motorcycle ride from the centre of Bangkok, Raja (as it's often shortened) was the first major boxing stadium built in Bangkok, and was a larger and more hospitable older brother to Lumpinee, which arrived a decade later. Filled to capacity it holds around 5,000 people. Raja goes one further than Lumpinee, and also stages title bouts in the 160lb division.
Thai spectators at Rajadamnern Stadium (via Wikimedia Commons)
Both Raja' and Lumpinee host fights for the Thailand championship, which brings great pride and respect to the winner, and is more sought after than the Omnoi and TV7 titles. Plenty of elite fighters have worn the Thailand title at some stage of their careers, and often between stadium championships.
As big as the fight scene is in the capital city, this isn't to say Bangkok offers the glamour of the Las Vegas strip.
In part three I will look at the darker side of Muay Thai: the gamblers, low purses, and promoters.
Hopefully you've got more of a feel of what the journey to the big show is like in old Siam. Should you have any further questions about any aspect of part two, please leave a comment and I will answer if I can.