The rise of women’s muaythai is just the latest in a series of developments that are changing the face of Thailand’s increasingly popular martial art.
Angular, interval-leaping melodies from a lone wood-and-brass Javanese oboe echo from the high-domed stadium walls, conjuring up images of a snake-charming John Coltrane. The metallic ring of tiny finger cymbals punctuates a steady hand-drum tattoo, as all eyes turn and fix themselves on the brightly lit, triple-cordoned square enclosure perched altar-like at stadium centre.
But hang on, are those two women squaring off with hunched shoulders? The men have taken centre stage for ages, hitting especially high profiles recently with such highly rated TV series as Emmy-nominated The Challenger Muaythai. Even the Dalai Lama recently gave his blessings to muaythai when the International Federation of Muaythai Amateurs (IFMA) presented the Buddhist leader with a mongkhon – the braided headband worn by muaythai fighters when first entering the ring – which His Holiness in turn placed upon the head of Mexico’s Elisa Salinas, Latin America’s ‘Queen of Reality TV’.
Salinas herself travelled to Thailand in 2012 for intensive training in the ancient Siamese martial art, providing a very high-profile role model for aspiring female fighters everywhere.
Recently the World Muaythai Council (WMC) organised a women-only tournament known as World Muaythai Angels in Bangkok. During the tournament, held between October and December, 16 girls from 15 countries have been facing each other toe-to-toe at three different locations in Bangkok.
The first qualifying round saw intense competition between Thai and Polish champs, among others, at Bangkok Convention Center in October. The second round took place last month at CentralPlaza Chaengwattana. As at the first, the arena was packed with muaythai fans from all over the world. Each fight in the tournament features three rounds of two minutes each, with a two-minute break between rounds. The finals will be held on December 25 at CentralWorld.
Stephan Fox, IFMA General Secretary and WMC vice-president, and on-camera host of The Challenger Muaythai, says the Muaythai Angels represents “a new area for muaythai, and it is important to take the girls to the centre as they have truly earned their spot and it will show that the sport is truly for everybody”.
The gender ratio at international championships nowadays tends to be 70-30 percent male-female, with female participation growing steadily.
The Thai word muay translates loosely into English as ‘boxing’ or ‘martial art’ but the term actually derives from Sanskrit mavya, meaning ‘bind’: a reference to the binding of the fists with hemp – replaced by padded boxing gloves – as well as the ceremonial binding of the head and arm.
Thailand’s ancient martial art is arguably one of the kingdom’s most striking national icons. Overflowing with colour and ceremony as well as exhilarating moments of clenched-teeth action, the best matches serve up a blend of such skill and tenacity that one is tempted to view the spectacle as emblematic of Thailand’s centuries-old devotion to independence in a region where most other countries fell under the European colonial yoke.
Yet the world of muaythai is undergoing significant transformation today, changes that have as much to do with international interest in the art as it does with changing fashion in Thailand.
Samart Payakaroon, muaythai’s biggest superstar, started training in his native Chachoengsao when he was 11 years old. By the time he was 16, the highly gifted fighter entered Lumpini Boxing Stadium, Bangkok’s most important professional muaythai venue. He soon became well-known for exemplary form and finesse, combined with intelligent ring planning and ferocious punches. Between 1980 and 1981, Samart won four national championships in four weight classes. After clocking 150 muaythai and international boxing matches – and winning 90 percent of them – Samart launched Poptheeratham Gym, a muaythai training facility in the northern outskirts of Bangkok near the Royal Thai Air Force base in Sai Mai.
With his extensive experience both inside the ring as a fighter and in the gym as a trainer, Samart speaks authoritatively about the direction muaythai is heading.
“On the professional side, muaythai is losing ground among the Thais nowadays,” he says without a hint of regret. “Younger Thais aren’t so interested in preserving the art and they’ve discovered other martial arts, like taekwondo.
“On the other hand, we see a lot of interest coming from outside Thailand. I’d say about 70 percent of people competing in muaythai rings these days are foreigners.”
Fox says the martial art is expanding steadily worldwide, including in Thailand, but that growth is taking place in the amateur, rather than the professional, sphere.
In the amateur world, fitness training and the general health benefits of muaythai occupy centre stage. Thailand’s IMFA serves as a standard-bearer for national muaythai federations in countries all over the world, organising international competitions and ceaselessly promoting the martial art.
Fox, who hails from Germany and fought in muaythai rings professionally for many years, says the sport has expanded well beyond its origins in Thailand.
“Muaythai is huge in Europe, North America, Central Asia, Russia and Australia,” he says. “In fact there are 80 countries where muaythai is recognised and supported by the government. In Sweden a muaythai night might attract 15,000 spectators. The amateur side of muaythai is taking the sport to a much higher level.
“We see businesspeople, lawyers and people in the entertainment world getting hooked. They love the intensity of the workouts. When you’re on an exercise machine, you still have time to play with your smartphone or watch TV. But with muaythai, your instructor is right in front of you, pushing you and encouraging you. A lot of folks in high-income, high-pressure jobs do muaythai to relieve stress. After a hard hour’s workout, they go back to the office refreshed.”
In 2013, the IFMA launched a successful campaign for muaythai to become recognised by the International Olympic Committee for possible Olympic status.
Meanwhile Thailand’s professional world is still strong, especially outside Bangkok. The nation counts roughly 60,000 full-time boxers, only a fraction of whom make it into the Bangkok stadiums. In fact, Thai boxing aficionados insist that, however exciting the Bangkok stadium fights are, the heart of muaythai resides in the provinces, especially on the temple fair (ngaan wat) circuit. A strong sense of community binds these temple fair venues with the rural Thai boxing camps. While the big Bangkok promoters reap substantial compensation from staging muaythai, provincial promoters tend to stay involved out of sheer love for the martial art.