Martial arts are fighting systems born from physical combat. Combat sports are fighting systems born from martial arts.
Most combat sports let competitors use traditional techniques while playing by the rules and regulations of the sport. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo are two examples. Their techniques are all directly transferable to competition. But there is one combat sport whose art is suffering by the hands of gamblers: Muay Thai.
Muay Thai as a martial art dates back to the 14th century when Thailand was defending itself from neighboring invaders. There were no rules or regulations and no rings or rounds. Soldiers either used Muay Thai on the battlefields at times of war or during festivals at times of peace. But in the early-to-mid 1900s Muay Thai was shaped into a sport. Progressives ushered in safety equipment, rings, and eventually, stadiums. Despite the changes, though, the art of Muay Thai was still an integral part of the sport.
And so it went for decades. Fighters and trainers turned the martial art of Muay Thai into a finely tuned combat sport. Most of the ground fighting was removed and styles began to emerge as gyms favored certain techniques over others. Enthusiasm for Muay Thai grew and it was eventually labeled the National Sport of Thailand. In the 1990s Muay Thai was at its peak. Stadiums were packed with spectators. Legends were made. Foreigner interest grew. It looked like the sport of Muay Thai was on the right track. And then gambling took over.
It’s hard to say how and when gambling was originally introduced into Muay Thai. Oral accounts trace gambling back to a time when local disputes were settled through Muay Thai fights. Others say it was brought over by Western sailors. But these are both speculations. It would be more accurate to say that Muay Thai and gambling grew together. As the sport grew in popularity, managers and gym owners saw how much money could be made off gambling. Muay Thai became more about the business and less about preserving the art.
Gamblers aren’t always concerned about the art of Muay Thai. The big money movers put a lot down on the fights. They can sway the judges and the fighters. Gamblers expect fighters to use safe, powerful techniques that will earn both the fighter and the gambler the win. They’d rather fighters not make any unnecessary sacrifices, sacrifices that usually come with using traditional Muay Thai techniques. If fighters want to win the fights and the hearts of the gamblers they’re forced to play by these rules whether they like it or not.
Pittisan Tanatchua, the veteran Omnoi Stadium boxer who fought under the name Danchiangkwan Lanthonganpeat, had to make a career as a clinch fighter in order to win at the stadiums. But he realizes it wasn’t good for the sport. “Gambling really affects the judging. And the judging affects the art,” Lanthonganpeat says. “We are losing the traditional style little-by-little because we don’t use the art of Muay Thai anymore.” But Tanatchua isn’t the only fighter who sees gambling as a necessary evil.
Former Muay Thai champion Petch-eak Sitjaopho feels that without gambling no one would come to watch Muay Thai or show any interest in the sport. But he feels on the other hand it diminishes the art. “Gamblers can control the fight game,” he says. “They look for the fighter who has the power and not the technique or art of Muay Thai.” Since retiring, Petch-eak and his twin brother, Petch-tho, have made it their life’s work to pass along the art of Muay Thai, mostly to Westerns eager to soak up their knowledge.
It’s this very knowledge that the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization believes comes from passing along traditions like martial arts. Muay Thai can teach newer Thai generations about their country’s heritage. But because of the negative stigma attached to Muay Thai, training in the sport is often reserved for those looking for a way out of poverty. Middle and upper-class parents would rather send their children to learn Tae Kwon Do.
There is no doubt that gambling has affected the art of Muay Thai. The sport has drastically changed in only a few decades. What was once a blend of technical prowess and raw power, Muay Thai is now at the mercy of gamblers. But there is still hope for the Thai heritage, because despite the disinterest coming from its own people, the world has grown fond of this beautiful art. One way or another it will survive. One way or another the art will be preserved, long after the last wage is placed. You can bet on that.