Thai kickboxing evolves on international circuit
JOHN KRICH, Contributing writer
PHUKET, Thailand -- Amr, as he calls himself, is a different kind of Syrian refugee. This successful importer-exporter says he found escape from his homeland's "culture of confrontation and violence" ironically through a more focused form of kicking and punching. He has been drawn to an ancient form of warfare which offers intense, fat-trimming workouts and teaches what he sums up as "great self-control, respect for your opponent, giving up anger."
Kay Fitzpatrick is a San Francisco financial litigator on a three-month sabbatical because the same fighting art was on her self-improvement bucket list. She said she felt comfortable in laidback, tropical gyms "where they don't treat you any differently if you are a woman."
Kathy Saber is an Egyptian-born structural engineer escaping life in Dubai's indoor malls for a "paradise" where she can also lose weight. "I won't say how many pounds," she adds. And Jayson Sonto, a Dutch-Moroccan living in Chicago, says he followed an older brother to seek out "a holiday that isn't a waste of time."
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, a ritualized martial art performed to music, prayers and frantic wagering, was known mostly as a means for poor farm boys to earn small amounts of money. It now has become a significant part of the global craze in extreme sports. Previously packaged for tourists as an exotic night out to a grimy, smoke-filled arena, the sport is now marketed as the newest of Thailand's many lures -- a main attraction for holidaymakers looking to sharpen their skills in the game of life.
General interest and foreign participation in Muay Thai is now growing exponentially, said Will Elliott, an aficionado who gave up property management on Cape Cod in the U.S. to help manage the Tiger Muay Thai gym on the southwestern resort island of Phuket. He is now head of business development for the sports-based Thanyapura Hotel there.
"Six years ago, Chalong's Soi Tatied on Phuket was a path through rubber trees to a small dock," Elliott told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Now it's lined with at least eight training centers, 30 hotels, restaurants and bars, and equipment stores. It has become a global mecca for fitness."
Diana Campillo, the Mexican-British wife of famed fighter and coach Tuk, so named because he was born in a tuk-tuk -- a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi -- said they were witnessing a similar trend. "When we began Rawai Muay Thai in 2003, we had one student. Today we have more than 60 each day and business is always increasing."
She added that her business was the first to launch full-day camps that combine training with lunch and a trip to the beach. She now helps run a new center in Khao Lak, an hour north of Phuket, that has its own rooms and facilities in what is perhaps a harbinger of full-fledged Muay Thai resorts to come.
One oft-cited factor in the sport's new popularity is Thailand itself. "The weather, the food, the massages, the friendly people, that's all part of it, and comes so cheaply that the main cost of a Muay Thai experience is the air fare," said Elliott. A growing concern for health and wellness among stressed-out Westerners has also led them to seek more exotic pursuits to supplement crash diets and quick detox cures.
THE MMA FACTOR
Yet what really put Muay Thai on the map of global exercise consciousness was not any growing appreciation for Asian culture, but the quick rise of a competing pastime -- Mixed Martial Arts. A free-for-all combination of many forms of striking and grappling combat moves, MMA reached huge audiences with its televised "Ultimate Fighting Championship" that started in 1993. Here was a way to determine the fiercest fighters on the planet and the most lethal fighting means. Muay Thai -- combined with Brazilian jiujitsu -- has come to dominate these gladiatorial contests.
"Combat sports grow other combat sports," said Jon Nutt, head of Full Metal Dojo, an events promoter focused on staging MMA contests in Southeast Asia. "There's no doubt this proved the value of Muay Thai."
"After MMA, people saw that karate and judo were just like striking nice poses compared with Muay Thai," said Amr, a lifelong practitioner of martial arts. "Though you may never use it, it only takes a few days to learn how to defend yourself much more effectively."
The self-defense aspect has driven a sharp increase in the number of women wanting to learn the basics of Muay Thai, debunking the stereotype of super-macho, testosterone-fueled ex-marines fighting Asian-style. More and more, women are also requesting actual fight experiences, which can be arranged after two months' training.
Tiger Muay Thai, Chalong's biggest gym, is a sprawling complex of roofed outdoor gyms filled with punching bags and rings, along with yoga rooms, wrestling mats, sports shops and restaurants. At an afternoon training session, it is mainly younger and overweight women who dominate the jogging and sparring courses.
"We make sure this place is friendly to solo female travelers who can see an impact on their fitness in a short time," says Tiger's Jolen Sheldon. "They want an active holiday, not just going to the beach and eating a lot."
"The emphasis on knees and elbows is well-suited to women," said Elliott explaining Muay Thai's form. "It's actually much safer than regular boxing where the blows are mainly to the head."
Maria Arminen, a Finnish intern at the United Nations, says she took a Muay Thai class in Bangkok "just to challenge myself and experience something I never could back in Finland." Campillo noted that parents and their children sometimes take classes together.
The steady increase in foreign interest is reflecting in Muay Thai's professional fights. Westerners are appearing more frequently on the lower cards of the main Thai boxing tournaments, sometimes dominating staged exhibition matches. But only one fighter from Holland, the late Ramon Dekkers, became a consistent world champion in Muay Thai. Many foreigners simply cannot qualify for local bouts as they tend to be heavier than the 70kg weight limit.
Nearly all the instructors are former or current Thai boxers, and a small number train alongside the tourists. Most locals generally do not pay to train but fight instead, to promote the reputations of their sponsoring gyms.
BOXING GOES UPMARKET
In another sign of boom times, the sport that was once dismissed because it was dominated by the rural poor now attracts the Thai elite. "At my Thonglor gym [in Bangkok's vibrant Soi Thonglor area], the Ranger Rovers and BMWs pull up every night," said Amr.
"It's not like the old days where a hardcore [group] of fighters ran 20km a day and slept on the floor," said Campillo. Now, the appeal of the sport includes "interacting with Thai people on a different level, getting a taste of a life unlike anything in Hong Kong or New York."
With so much of its economy focused on tourism, Thai authorities are likely to climb aboard the Muay Thai bandwagon. "The government is just approaching us, just beginning to see the potential 10 years too late. I think it's too much a part of the local scene for them to appreciate," said Nutt.
Meanwhile, the scene at Chalong's Soi Tatied keeps growing, its juice bars and gyms becoming more crowded with visitors from Australia, the U.K., Ireland, Holland and Russia. For most, it is a great workout at a great bargain price on a lush island by the sea. For Amr, who settled in Thailand after he tried Muay Thai during his honeymoon in 2006, it is part of a spiritual transformation.
"Today, thanks to Muay Thai, I can walk with confidence, I can compose myself under great pressure. I've found heaven inside me," he said.