Muay Thai in the USA: an Organizational Timeline
Many of my readers outside of the United States ask me how Muay Thai grew in the United States. What follows is my broad answer of Muay Thai’s maturation through organized efforts.
Muay Thai’s first true successful effort at a unified organization came in the form of Surachai Sirisute’s 1968 founding of the Thai Boxing Association of the USA (TBA-USA). In the formative years of the TBA-USA Sirisute would come under fire from established schools of karate and kung fu in the United States. Surachai Sirisute would engage in challenge matches from ‘masters’ of these styles. In the early days of Sirisute’s teaching often classes were taught in backyards as part of his grass roots efforts to build Muay Thai in America. In 1982 Sirisute would lead the first American Team to the World Muay Thai Championships held in Thailand made up of Sirisute’s students.
Under Sirisute’s direction the TBA-USA continues to this day as the longest established Muay Thai organization and one of the biggest in the USA. The TBA-USA would go on to instruct students from backgrounds as diverse as the Hells Angels to the Federal Bureau of Investigations (F.B.I.) and Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) Sirisute has established chapters of TBA-USA throughout the USA and has spread his methods of Muay Thai teaching.There is little doubt that without Surachai Sirisute’s early contributions it’d be quite likely that Muay Thai would never have become a part of the American martial arts awareness at all much less practiced by as many Americans as currently do.
In 1970 Kumron Vatiayanon would travel to New York from Thailand under assignment as a public relations student for his Thai employer. During his initial two-year stay Vatiayanon would give Muay Thai demonstrations in New Jersey and in New York. Vatiayanon would return to Thailand after two years but returned to the United States to continue teaching Muay Thai. This would make the earliest and most felt influence for Muay Thai in the east coast of the United States. Eventually Vatiayanon would start the Suriyasak Muay Thai school in Virginia and train four instructors throughout the Washington DC metro area.
Vladimir Borodin has been a fixture in New York’s Muay Thai scene since moving to the United States in 1991. Borodin came from an eclectic background suited for Muay Thai instruction having been a student of Thom Harnick from Holland’s famous Chakuriki gym in 1989. Borodin also trained with Tony Moore of the British Thai Boxing Council (BTBC), Marco De Cesaris of Italy and Hadj Bettahar of France. He continued his studying in Thailand at several camps. One of the famous camps for Muay Thai is internationally known for its instruction in krabi krabong in Bangkok, Thailand.
Beginning in 1994 Borodin would be one the key trainers of the United States Muay Thai Association (USMTA) beginning with their national team’s first trip to Thailand. Under Borodin’s coaching the USMTA team would go to Australia, Japan, Holland, England, and France.
After opening his Gym in Brooklyn, New York Borodin trained National, International and World Champions in kickboxing and Muaythai divisions. In the year 2000 one of Vladimir’s protegé Andrei Dudko became USA K-1 Champion. Under Borodin’s tutelage in 2001 “Big Diesel” Jeff Ford became the ISKA Super Heavy weight Champion of the World in Moscow, Russia.
Also, Borodin was appointed as international representative in three European Associations: IMA (International Mixfight Association) – Netherlands, PSA (Professional Sports Association) – Russia, and French Thaiboxing Federation – France. Nowadays Borodin continues working to promote Muay Thai and kickboxing in the USA.
For the modern era of Muay Thai in the United States there is no doubt the most influential efforts must be credited to Fairtex USA. In 1993 Phillip Wong, Chairman and founder of Fairtex decided to establish a Fairtex Muay Thai camp in the United States and settled on Chandler, Arizona as its first site. It must be noted also this first facility was built at a very high cost to Fairtex who had the foresight to view this as an investment in their future in the United States. Unquestionably, it paid off.
The Chandler, Arizona facility included Bunkerd Fairtex, Sakasem Fairtex, and Ganyou Fairtex as trainers who would go on to establish what would become a very large following among Muay Thai students in the USA. Fairtex could boast of genuine Thaiboxing champions of the stadiums of Thailand and the world among their teaching staff, which at the time of Fairtex USA’s founding was an exceedingly rare thing in the United States. Fairtex still continues bring in some of their best known champion boxers to the USA to teach students.
In 1996 Fairtex relocated their camp from Arizona to San Fransisco, California. Under Alex Gong‘s influence the United States enjoyed unprecedented recognition and growth. Alex Gong possessed unique qualities in being an astute degree-holding business man, a world champion fighter, and an ardent fan of Muay Thai. Because of Gong’s dual role as CEO of Fairtex USA and as a professional Thaiboxer Gong was able to raise an initial student body of 50 to a brand known well throughout the United States that would become synonymous with Muay Thai. Gong also established the model which American Muay Thai gyms would base their smokers on.
In 2000 Alex Gong would establish a second Fairtex USA camp in Daly City (since then closed) furthering the Fairtex brand and Muay Thai’s overall presence in America. Known as a fierce competitor, Gong won an array of championships in the middleweight and welterweight classes and appeared regularly on HBO and ESPN in a time when full contact kickboxing and leg kick rules fights were higher in the American consciousness. The best known title Gong held was the world championship title of ISKA which at the time was perhaps the best known and held the highest prestige at the time. In a real way Alex Gong shaped Muay Thai into a sport that American fans wanted to see.
Alex Gong has since passed on but his legacy lives on in the lasting impact he had both in United States public awareness of Muay Thai and its continued steady growth. Alex Gong’s role in furthering United States Muay Thai with Fairtex is both pivotal and one of the most important.
As of this date Stephen Strotmeyer with the USMTA works to build unified rules of Muay Thai. Though the 12 month mark has yet to be reached it could truly mean the first adoption of unified rules in the United States for Muay Thai finally. What could result would be a higher degree of standards for the entire United States and a degree of uniformity from state to state in Muay Thai that has never existed.
This is my best attempt to reconstruct an overview timeline of Muay Thai in the United States. By no means is this an all-encompassing or comprehensive history of all the events or even persons contributing to Muay Thai’s growth in the United States. My intent is to cover the organizations most responsible for growth of Muay Thai in the United States. If there are any obvious omissions of meaningful events or persons it’s not intentional by any means. Though I am sure there could very well be much debate over ‘true first’ and ‘true best’ I covered what is the best documented and therefore the best verifiable facts of events. To be fair to all parties described in this article I have foregone referring to anyone as ‘Master’, ‘Arjan’ or ‘Kru’ not because I do not respect anyone described here but to avoid the language of preference or bias. And plainly to be fair. Thanks for reading.