I attended my first muaythai match January 2012 at the decaying Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand. Also known as Thai boxing, muaythai is a form of kickboxing that combines martial arts with traditional hand-to-hand boxing and is the national sport of Thailand. Many kickboxing enthusiasts consider muaythai the "King of the Ring," with fights that feature punches, kicks, elbows, knees, grappling, and head-butts intended to wear down and knock out opponents. Fighters use power, speed, and endurance to defeat their opponents.
The origins of muaythai are unclear, although tradition has it that the sport emerged centuries ago from the hand-to-hand (sword and baton) battlefield tactics of the Thai army. The Thailand-based World Muaythai Council suggests that muaythai developed in rural Thailand as a way for Thais to defend their lands from invaders or settlers.
The sport came into its own during the reign of King Naresuan the Great (1590-1605) of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. In 1584, the then-Crown Prince called upon Thai soldiers to learn muaythai in order to improve their combat skills. According to the Thai Boxing Association of the USA, early bouts pitted Thai army units against one another with few rules, no weight divisions, and no time limits. The matches were very popular throughout the kingdom.
Thais generally consider muaythai an essential aspect of Thai culture. During the Ayutthaya Period, the sport became a favorite pastime among Thais, who went to muaythai training camps to watch bouts and learn it. A betting culture developed around the sport that persists today. The reign of King Rama V (1868-1910) was a golden age for the sport as fighters from around the kingdom competed in Royal Command matches for the chance to earn fame, glory, and a military title bestowed by the king.
Muaythai adapted to changes in Thai culture. For centuries, matches were held wherever space was available until the standard boxing ring with ropes was adopted during the reign of King Rama VI (1910-1925). Muaythai was part of the curriculum in Thai schools until the 1920s, when it was discontinued because of the high number of injuries sustained by students. Stadiums replaced makeshift rings during the reign of King Rama VII (1925-35). In the 1930s, a uniform set of rules, time limits, and weight classes were introduced, and fighters began to use boxing gloves instead of rope bindings on their fists. After World War II, television introduced the sport to a larger audience, and the sport gained an international following. It is now practiced by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.
Muaythai fighters wear a combination of boxing and martial arts equipment with some ceremonial accessories. Where fighters once wore strips of horse hair, and in some cases, hemp ropes or strips of cotton with ground glass on their fists and feet, they now wear boxing gloves and cloth strips wrapped around their upper arms. Fighters used to wear groin guards made from tree bark, sea shells, or coconut shell held in place by a strip of cloth. Later, they wore a triangular-shaped red or blue pillow, and later still, a groin box. In the 1930s, kicking or kneeing the groin was banned, and fighters donned the colorful red and blue boxing shorts worn today.
Each muaythai bout begins with a short ceremony with Buddhist rituals. Fighters remove their bright red or blue ceremonial robes and bow, pray, and walk around the ring, kissing and bowing to the posts in each corner. They walk to the center of the ring, remove their neck wreath and ceremonial headband, and begin to stretch with dance-like movements. When the bout begins, the fighters wear only boxing gloves, shorts, shoes, socks, mouth guard, and the cloth strips on their arms.
Muaythai bouts feature five three-minute rounds with two-minute breaks in between. During bouts, live musicians perform traditional Thai music, a cacophony of sound dominated by the taphon drum, finger cymbals, and an oboe-like instrument called a pi. Judges determine the winner based on how well fighters attack their opponents and defend themselves. Winners are awarded a trophy.
Traditional Thai music performed during muaythai matches.
I enjoyed my first live muaythai match. I saw amateur bouts between teen-aged fighters, who went four rounds instead of five, and some professional fighters in the lightweight divisions. I was fascinating by the traditional muaythai demonstration during intermission. Prices for the Saturday night fights cost 2,000 Thai baht (about $65) for ringside seats and 1,500 baht ($50) for general admission (standing or sitting on the concrete floor only). Getting unsuspecting customers, mostly foreigners, to upgrade to ringside seats was a trick the box office used to fill seats. Those in general admission used chairs and had fine views of the ring. The crowd was small but lively; more spectators poured in later for the professional matches that were broadcast live on national television.
Although most muaythai fighters are male, women also participate in the sport. Tradition stipulates that women and men fight separately. The ring in Lumpinee Boxing Stadium had a sign that read, "Ladies Please Don’t Touch the Stage."
If you’re visiting Thailand for more than a week, you might find watching a muaythai match an interesting alternative to the usual tourist activities. Thai boxing is an entertaining way to experience an event ingrained in Thai culture.
Happy New Year! How did you enjoy ringing in the new year? Did you wake up feeling great or with a literal or proverbial hangover? Now that the celebrating has subsided, are you ready for 2012?
This year may be a momentous one with some major milestones on the calendar, from the Chinese Year of the Dragon to the end of the Mayan calendar. Some dates are already set, such as the Expo in Yeosu, South Korea (May 12-August 12), the Summer Olympics in London (July 27-August 12), not to mention the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars in August, and, barring a new framework agreement, the end of the Kyoto Protocol on December 31. Some major events this year are already known, while others are not. No one really knows what will happen in places such as North Korea, where newly-installed “supreme commander” Kim Jong Un takes over as leader; possible sanctions and threats to blockade the Strait of Hormuz; unrest in Syria and other protests sparked by the Arab Spring; the European financial crisis; protests in Russia; potential economic slowdown in China; general elections in the United States and in dozens of other countries worldwide. No one knows what will happen. On December 21, 2012, when the Mayans purportedly predicted the end of the world will occur, we’ll look back at the year 2012, analyze the fall out, and, hopefully, be around to tell about it on December 22. Until then, we can only speculate about the future.
There’s no reason to worry about 2012. We can only control what falls in our own sphere of influence, which for most people amounts to whatever affects us directly. What do you have planned for yourself this year? Have you considered making some life changes? I believe in making and achieving goals, and I consider New Year’s resolutions worthwhile. Realistic resolutions can help frame a goal and give you a specific objective to achieve. You may not achieve everything you set out to do in a given year, but if you achieve at least one resolution or make progress toward one, you’re better off than you were. I met half the resolutions I set for myself in 2011 and set some new targets to achieve in 2012. The ones I did not achieve will be carried over to this year. They range from publishing a new book to losing weight to strengthening my faith to learning the guitar. Some will be easier than others, but I resolve to tackle them all in the next 12 months.
Even if you’re not the type of person to make New Year’s resolutions, there’s one goal you can resolve to achieve this year. Make this year a better year than 2011. Make it the best it can be. It doesn’t matter if you had a good or bad year last year. Life can always be better. Resolve to make 2012 a great year.