Thailand's Fight Club

Inside the little-known, action-packed world of Muay Thai boxing

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Dow's fight, in the 116-pound weight division, was third on the night's card. I sat down in a plastic chair near the ring to watch the first two fights, both in the 103-pound weight class. (On some nights the heaviest weight class at Rajadamnern is 145 pounds.) The boxers looked no older than 14-years-old. They had rail-thin upper bodies and disproportionately solid legs.

A Muay Thai fight is five rounds of three minutes each, with breaks of two minutes in between. In Thailand and most professional fights internationally, the only protective equipment worn by the fighters is a groin cup, a mouthpiece and either six-, eight- or ten-ounce gloves, depending on their weight class.

Unlike some martial arts that emphasize self-defense, Muay Thai fighting is a furious and unrelenting attack. Fighters are required, not merely encouraged, to always be advancing towards their opponents. A typical Western boxing strategy of "stick-and-move," where a fighter lands a blow and then retreats before being counter-punched, can be penalized in Muay Thai. When a fighter retreats for too long, the referee loudly instructs him to re-engage. If Muay Thai is for self-defense, then it's the pre-emptive kind.

Every blow in Muay Thai is meant to stop the opponent or knock him out. The base of power comes from rotating the hips and letting the limbs follow. Always on his toes, a boxer throws a right kick, for example, by rotating his entire body to the left, violently thrusting his right arm in the opposite direction, like pulling on a lever, as his right leg straightens completely just before the shin strikes its target—"like a swinging a baseball bat," Marte said.

The punching style resembles traditional boxing, and the knee and elbow strikes each have several variations. Otherwise, there are two basic kinds of kicks: a roundhouse and a straight "teep," or a "push" kick. This simplicity is also the root of Muay Thai's effectiveness. All strikes have a high probability of actually landing, with the emphasis on attacking the body (an obviously bigger target than the head).

When it was Dow's turn to fight, he entered the ring wearing a collection of traditional amulets and bodily adornments. On his head was the monkon, described by Muay Thai authors Prayukvong and Junlakan as a "circlet worn on the head as a charm to bring prosperity and to protect the wearer from danger." Dow took off his robe and got down on his knees in the middle of the ring.

He and his opponent then began the wai kru ram muay, a prayerful dance performed before every fight that pays homage to the boxer's teacher and training camp. The dance is performed to music, played by four musicians in the stadium's rear corner, which sounds like a snake-charming song with a heavy drumbeat. The same rhythmic music is also played during the fight, the beat increasing in intensity during each round.

The first round was uneventful; boxers generally use this round to size up an opponent. But starting in the second round, Dow repeatedly forced his opponent to clinch with him and kneed him in the chest. His opponent never found any way to defend against this. By the fifth round both fighters were exhausted, and Dow was so far ahead on points that the last round didn't really matter; he won by decision.

When Nestor Marte came to Bangkok in December 1989, he brought with him a letter written in Thai by the fluent relative of a friend that said, simply, "Hello, my name is Nestor Marte. I would like to learn Muay Thai." He hired a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled open-air taxi, to drive him around Bangkok in search of Thai boxing camps.

"Everybody I met in Thailand thought I was crazy," he said. "At the time it was unheard of for foreigners to come to Thailand and train in Muay Thai."


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