Muay Thai Fading in Thailand

By Mike LNg

Muay Thai has enjoyed some thing of a renaissance in the west.  At a grass roots level Muay Thai seems to have a growth in interest most likely in part due to the developing vocabulary of MMA fans and the growing use of Muay Thai in MMA as the de facto striking style of choice. An argument could accurately be made that perhaps the knowledge of Muay Thai among MMA fans or even its practitioners is still at a low ebb. Still the word is out and some of the more curious fans are finding real Muay Thai. Now it seems Muay Thai is on the lips of everyone with even the most general understanding of fight sports. Globally, Muay Thai has never enjoyed a bigger presence.

The ring

In Thailand however it seems to be shrinking. I can remember when I first started viewing the famous Songchai video compilations of fights from the stadiums of Bangkok.  The crowds were literally elbow to elbow and hugely popular among Thais in general. Things have however changed with the audience.  Traditionally ‘punters’ or gamblers were lined in the stadiums and although gambling is technically illegal this form of betting lives on.  One could even go so far as to say that the vast majority of Thais in attendance at Muay Thai in the stadiums aren’t so much ardent sports fans as they are ardent gamblers. So what has reduced Thai attendance at Muay Thai events in Bangkok? Simply put, better gambling opportunities and public perception.

During the late 80s and early 90s Muay Thai was in what has been termed the ‘golden’ era of Muay Thai. During this time gamblers had little option but to be at fights in order to gamble more than a few even earn their livings with gambling. Now in the present era though gambling is now possible with the touch of a phone button. One need never be present to lay a single wager.  The other factor is that football is now the premier choice in gambling and with 24-7 coverage on virtually every cable network in Thailand the interest has shifted largely away from Muay Thai to football for gambling needs.

Football also has one advantage in terms of public reception among Thais that Muay Thai doesn’t: a solid reputation.  Muay Thai is commonly associated with poverty and criminal activity. It isn’t viewed as an activity that normal, well-respected citizens engaged in.  Football is viewed as the more glamorous, more acceptable sport choice.

What keeps Muay Thai alive though not thriving is foreigners.  Nowadays it is not uncommon to see more foreigners than Thais at some stadium cards. The difference is most foreigners are there to watch the sport and not to gamble. It would seem that a lot of Thais have recognized the decline in popularity with Muay Thai and the dangers that come from it.  And some adjustments have been made such as the change in the clinch rule to encourage more engagement among fighters by Lumpini Stadium.

But for the most part the same audience is catered to: the gamblers. Maybe out of fear of perhaps losing interest among Muay Thai’s core audience or maybe because of force of habit the same audience is paid the most attention to.

Lately there has been much happily released press releases from the like of the  World Muay Thai Council (WMC) promising (for years now) that Muay Thai will become an Olympic sport. To this end WMC has altered the name of Muay Thai to ‘muaythai’ in the hopes that will some how bypass the International Olympic Committee’s clear standing on no sport including any term denoting nationality. Its an effort almost certainly destined to failure. And all of this effort is towards what end?  The broad presumption that is made that as an Olympic sport with helmet and TKD styled padding Muay Thai will some how have a higher profile and hence greater acceptance.  While this approach acknowledges the importance of global acceptance it overlooks the problem in Muay Thai’s home country.

In order for Muay Thai to reverse the tide against its own decline in Thailand it will take bold and intelligent moves by the promoters into Thailand on a multi-level approach.  The first thing they need to do is demonstrate through integrity that Muay Thai is not a low-class, dirty sport.  That means among self-regulation effort to stop gambling on your own events. Instead of being tied completely to the gamblers whims, they needs to broaden the appeal to sports fans. Yet repeatedly promoters cater to the desires of gamblers above all else.

With increased foreign interest in Muay Tha growing a truly meaningful and authoritative independent sanction needs to be established.  That has not yet occurred with the exception of WBC. In order for an independent to operate as it should perhaps the government’s role needs to be changed.  In Thailand the commission of the culture encourages its promotion, the education of Muay Thai depends on the Ministry of Education and the army manages the sport. While the Thai government doesn’t seem too involved beyond the granting of right to sanction with their authority perhaps they too should be bypassed.  For example in international boxing no independent sanction has ties to the national government of any nation. Despite the myriad of issues international boxing sanctions struggle with there is overall a better sense of ranking and authority in the sport.

In any scenario nothing will change unless promoters start learning to market to a different audience other than gamblers who are fading in numbers and finding other sports more desirable for gambling. It will take a bold move to from dependence on the old audience while building a new one. I hope Thailand and its Muay Thai promoters are up to the challenge.

Thanks for reading and for more on punters and their role in Muay Thai see the excellent Siam Fight Mag site.

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~ by fatsoking on May 6, 2010.

10 Responses to “Muay Thai Fading in Thailand”

  1. GREAT read mate. Agree on it all as you know!

  2. I don’t know if letting the WBC meddle with the sport is a good thing…

    • To be honest I don’t either given WBC’s fun and games in boxing but thus far they are the ones doing things most right for international Muay Thai.

  3. BIG INTERNATIONAL (NON-Thai) investor like Zuffa with the UFC and WEC then we are on the right track. This is the only way. I could write about it for days!

  4. I’m going to quote and reply the article as if it was a post from this forum:

    [quote]The other factor is that football is now the premier choice in gambling and with 24-7 coverage on virtually every cable network in Thailand the interest has shifted largely away from Muay Thai to football for gambling needs.[/quote]

    Yes. My last trainer, Ole Kiet Oneway, was lazy training me because he no longer needed to do Muay Thai for money. He run an illegal bookies for football fights and was making a killing from it. Football is becoming popular and stealing the Muay Thai audience.

    [quote]Football also has one advantage in terms of public reception among Thais that Muay Thai doesn’t: a solid reputation. Muay Thai is commonly associated with poverty and criminal activity. It isn’t viewed as an activity that normal, well-respected citizens engaged in. Football is viewed as the more glamorous, more acceptable sport choice.[/quote]

    I don’t agree about the crime thing – it’s not illegal to gamble in a Muay Thai stadium, yet he refers to criminal activity attracted by association regardless. Though I know what he’s touching on and yet failing to figure it out himself. What he means is Muay Thai is a poor mans sport. Those looking to climb socially in Thailand may shy away from Muay Thai due to the fact most decent fighters have black skin and eat with their hands. If you see martial arts in a Thai drama (which constantly spews out middle/upper class racist nationalist Yellow propaganda), it’s not uncommon for it to be Tae Kwon Do, as Korea is seen as better than nigger skinned Thailand because they have more money and white skin.

    [quote=]What keeps Muay Thai alive though not thriving is foreigners.[/quote]

    This is where you realize he has never stepped out of Bangkok/Chiang Mai/Phuket/Koh Samui/Pattaya in his life. The foreigner’s role in Muay Thai inside of Thailand is, at a guess, less than 2% or so. Just because it encompasses about 80% of the English media, it does not mean it’s all there is. Try and find a seat at the stadium in Nakhon. Hauling my fat ass and beer through the horde of Thais to get to the top of the stand to make a video is a difficult and embarrassing task that can take up to 5 minutes. I’m often the only farang there. Most stadiums are like this in Thailand. Hat Yai, Surat Thani, Thung Song, to name a few of my more local favorites.

    [quote]But for the most part the same audience is catered to: the gamblers. Maybe out of fear of perhaps losing interest among Muay Thai’s core audience or maybe because of force of habit the same audience is paid the most attention to[/quote]

    By being crammed up the front of the ring where you can’t see shit along with all the other ripped off “VIP” farang whilst the genuine Thai gets a good view from the top of the stand? Whatever. Perhaps he’s never gone to the top of the stand to see how clear and good the view is, confining himself instead to his “kick ass” VIP seat surrounded by gamblers and bar girls.

    [quote]Lately there has been much happily released press releases from the like of the World Muay Thai Council (WMC) promising (for years now) that Muay Thai will become an Olympic sport. To this end WMC has altered the name of Muay Thai to ‘muaythai’ in the hopes that will some how bypass the International Olympic Committee’s clear standing on no sport including any term denoting nationality. Its an effort almost certainly destined to failure. And all of this effort is towards what end? The broad presumption that is made that as an Olympic sport with helmet and TKD styled padding Muay Thai will some how have a higher profile and hence greater acceptance. While this approach acknowledges the importance of global acceptance it overlooks the problem in Muay Thai’s home country.[/quote]

    Pessimistic view.

    That it’s going to the Olympics whilst Bokator can’t even make it out of the local pub is a good thing, I think.

    If the name is rejected, I’m sure the Thai Generals will concede it’s time to try something like “Muay Kick Boxing” that will pass. May take longer to get around Thai nationalism, but does not mean it won’t happen.

    Western Boxing in the Olympics also uses homosexual fashion clothing to pass as a civilized sport. I’m going to be pushing females in my gym down the amateur Olympic Boxing road for Thai team. I think it’s a great idea. Once the kids are finished screwing around in the Olympics, they’ve then got a better chance at K-1.

    [quote]In order for Muay Thai to reverse the tide against its own decline in Thailand it will take bold and intelligent moves by the promoters into Thailand on a multi-level approach. The first thing they need to do is demonstrate through integrity that Muay Thai is not a low-class, dirty sport. That means among self-regulation effort to stop gambling on your own events. Instead of being tied completely to the gamblers whims, they needs to broaden the appeal to sports fans. Yet repeatedly promoters cater to the desires of gamblers above all else.

    With increased foreign interest in Muay Thai growing a truly meaningful and authoritative independent sanction needs to be established. That has not yet occurred with the exception of WBC. In order for an independent to operate as it should perhaps the government’s role needs to be changed. In Thailand the commission of the culture encourages its promotion, the education of Muay Thai depends on the Ministry of Education and the army manages the sport. While the Thai government doesn’t seem too involved beyond the granting of right to sanction with their authority perhaps they too should be bypassed. For example in international boxing no independent sanction has ties to the national government of any nation. Despite the myriad of issues international boxing sanctions struggle with there is overall a better sense of ranking and authority in the sport.[/quote]

    Well reading on, it seems he has taken class into account.

    A new gym dubbing as a stadium has just opened in my home town. The first fight event had no one over 45 kilo fighting. What does this mean? An entire new generation of fighters is being raised.

    Muay Thai may or may not be on the decline. It is in some areas, regarding football, yet a lot of new gyms are opening at the same time. He also fails to take into account many of these gyms are founded by heavy gamblers – eliminating gambling will damage the sport.

    Gambling may be connected to low class stereo types and crime but a compromise needs to be made.

    Another mistake is trying to liberate Muay Thai to a middle class sport – the middle classes do not need Muay Thai as an income because it pays low. Thus they’ll not pursue it like poor people do and they’ll make the style weak, watered down and ineffective due to lack of serious training that only comes about by the need to feed your daughter.

    It may be a good idea to inject middle class Muay Thai money into the sport. The fear is attracting wealthier people will change a lot. Not only may ticket prices rise because a lot of people can pay more for them, turning away regular Thai fans, gyms may also start to cater for part time middle class Muay Thai “enthusiasts” (rather than professionals). Given an enthusiasts does not fight for money, gyms will only find the money to train these useless sacks by charging them directly fo training. I.e. goodbye functional Muay Thai career.

    [quote]In any scenario nothing will change unless promoters start learning to market to a different audience other than gamblers who are fading in numbers and finding other sports more desirable for gambling. It will take a bold move to from dependence on the old audience while building a new one. I hope Thailand and its Muay Thai promoters are up to the challenge.[/quote]

    I think we need more incentive for gamblers to attend Muay Thai event. Perhaps everyone needs to be given a free bottle of Chang with their ticket. In exchange, Chang can have its logo on the canvas nice and clear. That ought to draw back a few pisshead gamblers.

  5. And again as I said the Thais will NEVER be able to make Muaythai a globally recognized SPORT. They are not even capable of running their own country without having the military interfere on a regular basis.

    • Pretty much covers it. And no one cares about Bokator. Of course there is no logical counter except I’ve never been out of Bangkok (not true) and Bangkok is the hub of MT like it or not.

  6. Larsenator, you’re delusional. Muay Thai is a globally recognized sport already. It just depends o which organization you talk to. Since the Olympics onl accept mild versions of all martial arts, they’re not the body to quote. Political problems have little to do with this.

    fatsoking, Bangkok is the hub of everything in Thailand. It’s where all things end up, but not where they start. The scene in Bangkok is the smaller portion of Muay Thai. Going by athletes living, training and fighting outside of Bangkok, the larger scene is definately not in the city. That’s just where the biggest fighters end up.

    • Bangkok is the hub of everything including Muay Thai and going by the money, the athletes, and the level of activity Bangkok is still (and likely always will be) the hub. Politics have everything to do with a government run organization. Deny it however you like but its immutable truth. How does it depend on what organization you talk to? You cited boxing and the Olympics and pretty much anyone who knows anything about boxing can agree the Olympics have pretty well defiled western boxing into tag with dumb shits who click like trained chimps for a fresh banana instead of scoring objectively with boxing criteria. Why? Because simply put they don’t know how and no one wants a farce as bad as RJJ’s raping at the hands of the IOC during Seoul’s term. Remind me again how a wholly corrupt IOC with Fox and company spearheading the bid into the Olympics helps Muay Thai? And yes no one gives a damn about Bokator. Still.

      The biggest fighters ‘just’ end up in Bangkok because thats where the money, the best camps and the best competition is. No matter how much denial you heap on it and how much overheated rhetoric anyone cares to air one way or the other it remains true.

      Lastly Muay Thai is far from globally recognized contrary to what the hype masters and snake oil salesmen would care to tell you. It struggles for minimal acceptance globally. Or are you discounting this thing on the map we have fondly come to know as the western hemisphere? Don’t get me wrong your hyperbole is pretty amusing and entertaining given the heat you obviously feel from this topic but you haven’t got fact one straight and you cite topics with nothing in the way of statistical measure or a standard means of deviation. Don’t get me wrong you don’t have to agree with my assessment of Muay Thai’s apparent decline in Thailand. It’s for sure your right but a lot of people still think the world is flat too.

    • You are a good representative of the people who actually think they can carry Muaythai into being a recognized sport – it’s very obvious by the attitude you display and how easily you were rocked by my facts (calling me names and taking a defensive stance).

      One will never better himself if he does not have a clear and honest insight of his own personality and mind and the same goes for an organisation hence Muaythai is not going ANYWHERE with ANY of the current organisation – history, not me, has already shown this. Some turn the blind eye and keep on grinding whilst others accept the facts and openly speak about how different approaches can possibly be the solution.

      Muaythai is a massive mess all over the world – just like Thailand itself – you should do your research before calling people names as a result of your own poor lack of knowledge OR self imposed blindness for whatever reason (money, power, fear etc.)

      The definition of “scene” has to be established before your discussion about whether Muaythai evolves around Bangkok or not. I know that Thailand has camps all over the country and that most fighters aspire to go to Bangkok as this is where the big, according to Thai standards NOT western standards, money is. To some this would be called “the scene” – just like Vegas when it comes to MMA.

      If people involved in the spreading of the Muaythai sport is going to continue to be incompetent within the areas of communication, research, lobbying, marketing, finance, management, politics etc. it will never be more than what it is today: Obscure. Sad but true.

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