Muay Thai

Natalie returned back to the States a couple days ago, arriving safely and soundly in DC.  As much as I like the sound of a toilet-seat-up August, it’s  been incredibly difficult being apart, especially given that we have to go the whole month on opposite ends of the globe.  Being away from her is nothing but downsides.  There’s the moping.  And of course the potential for a serious lapse in judgment.  So, to keep myself busy outside of work, I’ve been reading, working out, and now, keeping up my end of our blogging bargain.

A couple weeks ago, Nat and I went to watch some muay thai, or Thai boxing.  Having enjoyed the beauty and friendliness of Thailand nearly everywhere we went, I was interested to see the most famous component of Thai culture’s tough side.  Muay thai is a martial art known as the “art of eight limbs” because fighters, typically clad in gaudy boxing shorts, employ a series of moves involving all fists, elbows, knees, and feet–and because, I imagine, that’s all you can see when getting pummeled by a muay thai fighter.

The photography’s not that bad, they’re just so fast…

For those UFC and MMA fans out there, muay thai is a favorite stand-up fighting style among fighters. During the off-season, dozens of UFC pros and wannabe champions flock to the beaches of Western Thailand to train with some of the best Thai boxers in the world.  There they learn a series of kicks, knees, and punches that, if executed properly, can devastate an opponent.

Tickets were pricey, but they know we farang will pay it.  We went to nearby Lumpini Stadium, one of two major muay thai arenas in the city.  The stadium was ramshackle by American standards.  Under a corrugated tin roof, a ring was surrounded by prop chairs and a few rows of stadium benches.  Ads overhead featured promotions for the ubiquitous Singha and Chang beers (worth about $1 on a hot day, but costing over $3 at the stadium…but that still pales in comparison to the $6-$8 drinks at American arenas).

The event was organized into programs of nine matches.  Because we went to the afternoon program, the matches were mostly between younger fighters.  None were older than 20 (though many looked nigh on 14).  During one match, a fighter’s mother was even present, rooting her son on from his corner.  Except for the main event, no fighter tipped the scales past 100 pounds.  That said, across the board, all 100 of those pounds were lean, ropey muscle—trained and tailored to be lightning quick and powerful.

Each match consisted of five total rounds of approximately three minutes each.  Each match had a soundtrack provided by the stadium’s house band, four elder Thais playing traditional Thai instruments.  The music helped instill the fight with a certain beat and flow, a battle rhythm to which the fighters timed their strikes.  Prior to a match, each fighter made his obligatory bows to the ring’s four corners and then engaged in a traditional dance around their half of the ring.  The dance typically follows the form of the fighting itself with the fighter raising a high knee in time with the music, bouncing from one side of the ring to the other.  A few, however, displayed a bit more flair with twirls, shuffles, and maybe even a fight-hardened pirouette or two.  Then it was to the business at hand.

You have “Eye of the Tiger”? We have “Nattadon Sawataporn and the Muay Thai Minstrels.”

Due to the fighters’ ages, we got to see great displays of fundamental muay thai—front kicks, curved knee strikes aimed for the opponent’s floating ribs, and punches along the ropes—but nothing too advanced.  I would have liked to see the infamous flying knee attack, but those are apparently reserved for the top rankings of fighters and Street Fighter video games.

That’s not to say the matches weren’t without their drama.  The fifth match of the program didn’t last past thirty seconds.  Following the bell signaling the start of the first round, the fighter in red shorts took quick stock of his opponent (dressed in blue) and unleashed a whipcrack of a right side kick.  It’s impossible to say for sure where the kick landed.  I maintain that if it was Blue’s left leg, raised and bent in defense, it probably just hurt like hell.  If it was his left leg, planted and exposed, Red’s kick may have very well broken it.  In any event, Blue went down immediately and only got up by way of a stretcher.

Therein lies the strange dichotomy of authentic muay thai: the form can be very aesthetic at times, but never far off from brutal.  Natalie and I felt for the fallen Blue, his possibly-broken leg, and his undoubtedly shattered pride.

It wasn’t until the main event that we got to see some more experienced thai boxing.  Two “heavyweights” (a Canadian and a Portuguese with not more than 270 pounds between them) squared off and, true to billing, it was the closest and most exciting fight of the day.  The bout went all five rounds, with the Canadian winning by judgment after his stronger performance.

To the victor go the silly tourist pictures.

When I return to DC, I would like to look into some muay thai training.  Aside from the martial art aspect, it is unquestionably one of the stronger workout regimens I’ve ever seen.  A walk around Lumpini Park brings you across outdoor weight rooms where muay thai fighters lift medicine balls for hours, practice roundhouse kicks ad nauseam, and build bone strength by beating on their shins with sticks and other people’s shins.  Somewhat unfortunately, the popularity of UFC in the US has diluted some of what is so appealing about muay thai.  Few gyms I looked into go a whole lesson without bringing in the mixed martial arts approach.  As a consequence, the training appears less comprehensive and more focused on fast-tracking fighters to a handful of the most damaging moves.  Plus, I feel kind of goofy training at schools with cheesy names like Xtreme Training Center and Body Efficient Tactical Arts (or “BETA”, as in the fish).  But even if I don’t end up a participant, muay thai has certainly won at least one more enthusiastic spectator.

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