I love Muay Thai, because Muay Thai shows me all of my flaws. And I am flawed. But I love Muay Thai even more because it, too, is flawed.
But I didn’t always see it this way.
I was raised on Muay Thai in America and my view of the sport was ideal. I had this idea that all trainers in Thailand were like the trainers I knew back home. And all fighters in Thailand were like the fighters I admired in America. Being raised on westernized martial arts films didn’t help either. With all of the amulets and customs specific to Thailand, the imagery of Muay Thai made me a romantic.
I’m not saying Thailand doesn’t have great trainers and admirable fighters. Thais are number one in the world of Muay Thai. What I mean is that I chose to ignore the darker parts of the sport. When a friend, a Thai police officer, told me he arrested a fighter who I trained with at the gym for drugs, I didn’t believe him. When I saw a trainer whip the backs of three boys for staying out past curfew, and then force the boys to share the details with him while he sat back amused, I summed it up to me not understanding the situation due to cultural differences. Even after these cases and more, I only saw the good side.
Until one night my view was changed forever.
I was at Rajadamnern Stadium watching two fighters from the gym I was training at in Bangkok. One fighter was an up-and-coming youngster. The other, an aging veteran known for his wars at Lumpinee Stadium. In between rounds of the up-and-comer’s main event fight, the owner of the gym which I’d been training at came up to me and asked if I wanted to take off the mongkon from the veteran fighter’s head later in the night. I was ecstatic. It was a once in a lifetime chance. Not only would I be taking off the mongkon at the ring of Rajadamnern, but it would be from the head of a well-known fighter. I waited for this moment since my first trip to Thailand.
I couldn’t focus on the rest of the main event. I kept thinking about taking off the mongkon. I’d done it a dozen times in America and a few times in rural Thailand. But this was the big house. What if I messed up? Thousands of Thai eyes would be on me in the corner, or so I thought. There’s no room for error. I buzzed with excitement. And then I remembered.
A few hours before we left for the fights, in an alley dividing the gym from one of the main roads of downtown Bangkok, this veteran warhorse was washing away his aches and pains with a bottle of whiskey. In his defense, he wasn’t scheduled to fight. But being a fighter, and the promoter needing a last-minute stand in, he jumped at the chance to earn extra money.
At Rajadamnern Stadium he entered the ring to do the wai kru. I stood at the bottom of the steps leading up to the corner of the ring, waiting for him to finish. When he was done I walked up the stairs and he made his way toward me. His eyes were red and glassy. I could see he wanted to get the fight over with, collect his pay, and get back to the gym.
I looked up at the crowd of gamblers. Despite what I first thought, they couldn’t care less about the lone farang at the corner of the ring fumbling through the motions. In fact, they couldn’t care less about the Thai fighter either, who stood inside the ring, hurting from years of fighting, fidgeting under the lights of the stadium, nearly drunk. As long as they won, all was well. This bothered me.
This was the fighter who’d out-train all the younger fighters at the gym despite being 10 years older than them, in some cases. He was the fighter I saw cry after losing one big fight, showing me that not everything in Thailand is always mai bpen rai. He was the fighter who’d pick up the pads and train the little kids and foreigners, leaving his own training to wait. But despite his traits and potential and despite being inspirational, he was stuck in a cycle that a majority of pugilists can’t escape.
The aging fighter and I raised our hands and I tried to recall a prayer. But I’m not a devout man and the devotions of my youth escaped me. I didn’t know what was going on in his mind, but my mind was empty. Clear of all thoughts. Back in America, I would’ve asked that my fighter stay safe in the ring and come out unharmed. Now, I wasn’t sure what to ask. How long should I stand here and pretend, I wondered.
I removed the mongkon and phuwang malai from the fighter and put them around the corner post. “Chok dee,” I said,—the only words that made sense—and walked down the ring stairs.
The first round opened and the gamblers started setting the odds. Their words echoed little emotion for the fighter. They had little relation to him other than the money they bet on him. I saw the owner of the gym running around, hands waving about, placing wages too. I wondered if he cared for his fighter’s future. My friends from the gym watched the fight in excitement. I tried to take part in their joy, but I’d been let down.
That night I realized that the traditions of Muay Thai can be like the fanciful window-dressing someone uses to disguise a broken window. I let the imagery of the sport hide the reality that Muay Thai is not the perfect martial art. It is flawed, not because of it. But because of us. It is an extension of who we are as people. And when we extend ourselves toward anything, our strengths and shortcomings follow.
I’ve since let go of my romantic view of Muay Thai. I enjoy it more now. I don’t put too much value on the good side, or put too much fault on the bad. I accept both equally. In order for Muay Thai to exist it must balance itself between two worlds, without teetering too much to one side or the other.
As for the veteran fighter, I’m happy to say he’s one of the few to have escaped the dispiriting cycle of a fighter in Thailand. I haven’t seen him in a few years. He’s made a life for himself in Japan as a trainer, where I’m sure he’s still inspiring and outworking his fighters. And, of course, rewarding himself with occasional whiskey.