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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Muay Thai is Not Growing in Popularity - Some Data

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As a digital marketer and consultant I deal with broad data pictures a lot. I'm attracted to these things. I wrote a post a while ago about how Ronda Rousey had indeed passed Serena Williams as the "most talked about female athlete" if you use Google Trends as a measure. The MTG Charlie Hustle article on the importance of the "casual fan", discussed on the Roundtable here, got me thinking about the current state of Muay Thai in terms of reach and whether or not it is actually growing. Is it?

So I thought I'd run some Google Trends for search related search terms and get rough data pictures for how much these keyword concepts are at the fingertips of internet users. Now, keep in mind, things like Google Trends are very broad data pictures. They do present valid data, but the challenge is in how to interpret it. From the looks of it though, Muay Thai is not growing in popularity.

Muay Thai as Parasitic on MMA

To start off with I ran world wide data for the search terms "Muay Thai", "MMA" and "UFC". It is generally assumed that Muay Thai's popularity has been strongly parasitic on the popularity of both MMA and UFC, and one can see here just how flat Muay Thai interest has been compared to these dominant terms:

Muay-Thai-UFC-MMA-world-wide.png

The potentially alarming thing here is that both MMA and UFC have already peaked (2009-2012) in general popularity as a search term. If indeed the fate of Muay Thai relevance is depended on both MMA and UFC interest, Muay Thai has something of a problem here.

A note on the data: my guess is that because search terms like these are often more widely used in times of discovery, searches like "What is MMA?" or "UFC fighters" may flourish when a sport is growing and new people are exploring it. The widest band of growth indeed occurred between 2009-2012. Of the demographic which fighting arts may more naturally find appeal, these kinds of searches are no longer happening as frequently. This isn't to say that once converted MMA or the UFC isn't bringing in more dollars than ever, or that marketing of them to the coverted isn't thriving. But what it does suggest is that the bubble of growth may have already occurred. Now MMA/UFC interests are more focused on maturing its audience, and less able to grow it. Short term this may be great. Long term, though non-ideal.

If MMA/UFC is not steadily growing in its sphere of influence, and Muay Thai is truly parasitic on these, Muay Thai has a natural ceiling here. And in fact it seems that Muay Thai world wide has already experienced it's own bubble of discovery interest and now is somewhat on the decline. For those of us who love Muay Thai, we may be experiencing Muay Thai as growing, because the viewership is maturing. But, at least by these data pictures, the discovery of Muay Thai is slowed.

 

Muay Thai and Kickboxing

martial-arts-muay-thai-popularity-world-

There is a secondary avenue toward Muay Thai and that is interest in Martial Arts, as a somewhat exotic self-development discipline. There has always been the possibility that Muay Thai could flourish much in the way that Kung Fu (and then TKD) did through martial art interest, particularly through the influence of film. In terms of film exposure movie's like Ong Bak (and sadly much earlier, Kickboxer) have helped expose Muay Thai to the world, and now you have everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Jason Statham teeping and elbowing their way through fight scenes, showing that Muay Thai has incorporated itself into the vocabulary of cinema violence. But (above, blue) the keyword/concept of "martial arts" has been on the fast decline since 2004, world wide. In the world "muay thai" has crept above "kickboxing", but this remains incremental really ("kickboxing" does not include "kick boxing" a substantial variation). The decline of "martial arts" as a search interest suggests that the secondary avenue for Muay Thai popularity, that of Asian martial self-improvement is somewhat on the wane.

Muay-Thai-MMA-kickboxing-in-the-United-S

In the United States (above), "kickboxing" (yellow) has a stronger presence than "muay thai" (blue) and "MMA" (red) has been on the decline since 2008.

Country By Country Muay Thai Popularity

Below are the search term popularity indices by country. As can be seen only Brazil shows a strong increase in the popularity of the term quite apart from the general 2009-2013 MMA bell...slightly so in Italy. Every other country shows the index of the term in decline:

Muay-Thai-Popularity-in-the-World.png

Muay-Thai-popularity-in-the-United-State

Muay-Thai-popularity-in-the-UK.png

Muay-Thai-popularity-in-Italy.png

Muay-Thai-popularity-in-Germany.png

Muay-Thai-popularity-in-France.png

 

Muay-Thai-popularity-in-Brazil.png

Muay-Thai-Popularity-in-Australia.png

The most optimistic way to read this data is that indeed Muay Thai has flourished under a parasitic relationship to MMA and the UFC. And as those elements grew so did Muay Thai. As each of these larger phenomena decline in terms of growth rate (which I suspect is what is expressed in discovery uses of Search), Muay Thai also has suffered. For those of us who are the converted we are experiencing an increase in Muay Thai relevance. The relationship between itself and it's small western demographic is maturing. There is greater understanding of the sport and its scoring, more reach of its Thai stars and their fights, but there remains a very difficult growth curve problem - for those of us cheering it on.

I suspect that the real avenues for Muay Thai growth do not remain with MMA and the UFC who themselves are undergoing their own growth issues, and whose current WWE style story lines do not seem amenable to Muay Thai discovery anyways (see the kind of non-coverage of Muay Thai legend Jongsanan in TUF 20 for instance). Instead Muay Thai must fight for it's own branding, something that emphasizes its Thai-ness to the west. Muay Thai cannot just be: left-right-lowkick, or "the Thai plumb" two-hands-locked-behind-the-neck. We say this as Thailand tries to export its stars to non-Thai rule events, and tries to internationalize its sport (un-Thai it) so that the IOC will find it acceptable for the Olympics. Long term though, the "Thai" of Muay Thai is what gives it its unique character and expression, the strength of its adherence. Ultimately, the future of Muay Thai resides in Thailand itself, and with how effectively Thailand can communicate that Thainess to the west. 

An interesting anecdotal picture perhaps comes from the search popularity pictures of "muay thai" and "BJJ" in the United States. BJJ, I think it fair to say, has certainly grown out of the popularity of MMA, but it also has managed to maintain its own identity to some degree, an art quite apart from MMA, an art that needs to be learned in depth if it is to be of use. In the United States, and the UK as well, "BJJ" has surpassed "Muay Thai" and does not bear the same discovery arc pattern that MMA/UFC shows (below). Brazilian jiu-jitsu is both for the serious MMA fan and practitioner, and composes an art of it's own.

BJJ-vs-Muay-Thai-in-the-United-States.pn

Muay-Thai-vs-Thailand-vs-UFC.png

Of course these are just wide-view concepts drawing on search behavior phenomena which may have very diverse influences. This is something like a measurement of memes. I do think though that there are worthy, prospective conclusions to be drawn, but real marketing aims of real events, cultural campaigns and real fighters must take a great deal into consideration. Just something to think about. Now that Muay Thai has received it's one-time bump from MMA and the UFC (2009-2012) I do think it must set its own unique course.

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Two more relevant search pictures:

In terms of iconic personae who represent Muay Thai world wide: Saenchai is dwarfed by Buakaw, Buakaw dwarfed by Tony Jaa:

Buakaw-Saenchai-Tony-Jaa.png

 

And speaking of iconic brands or figures: Fairtex (yellow) is on the decline since 2009 and Lumpinee (blue) fairs a little better than Saenchai (red). Buakaw in green. The dotted graph lines below are "topic" data and not search terms.

Buakaw-Saenchai-Lumpinee-Fairtex1.png

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Hello Kevin,

 

Interesting research. I would just like to make a few comments:

Isnt it a tragic that a sport hundreds of years old( as is Muay Tha)i is dependant upon a sport 20 years old( MMA) to have its right to exist?

Before internet coverage at least KI kick-boxing was very popular in Europe because of Eurosport on cable TV. Also shown were Muay-Thai bouts from a TV studio in Bangkok.  What ruined the Muay-Thai reputation were the first UFC events which showed that BJJ was superior to MuayThai, or in more general terms- grappling was superior to striking. Lately this has been partially refuted by the rise of Jose Aldo, Cowboy Cerrone, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk,.but in general to succeed in MMA you need a solid BJJ and wrestling base.

When K1 went bankrupt in 2010 alot of careers were cut short. Here is a great documentary about the rise and fall of kickboxing: http://www.damientrainor.com/2014/shin-on-shin-kickboxing-documentary-series

I think one reason Muay Thai never caught on in USA were the leg kicks, the clinch, and elbows. The elbows were a source of contention for years in Germany. The MTBD( formed in 1984) wouldnt allow elbows for years in competition because of the danger of cuts and bad concussions. The Americans had their PKA Karate going, and low kicks were considered the height of dirty fighting!!

Now in 2015, because of years of MMA (Formerly known as fighting without rules) exposure,  the threshold for violence has fallen so much, that bloody cut up faces and brutal KOs, and broken arms mean nothing anymore and are considered normal.

I would guess that the rise of interest in Italy for Muay Thai is due to Stefanie Picelli and her Yokkao branding which includes her promotions, fight gear and her seminars with Senchai and Pakorn.

In Brazil I would guess it is the popularity of Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo that spark interest in Muay Thai in the land of the Jui-Jitsu masters.

My theory for the stagnation of Muay-Thai would include career possibilities as a hindrance to growth. As Sylvie has pointed out most Thai women give up fighting in their 20s because their is no path to abundance. For the men in Thailand it is probably not much better.

In the West because of the dominance of  MMA the only way that promises financial reward is UFC, Bellator, and for women Invicta. For MuayThai you have Lion Fight or Glory for Kickboxing which I am sure, do not pay well since they are small organizations still establishing themselves.

Another problem with the olympic acceptance of Muay-Thai is the inability to organize all the South East Asian fighting styles under one banner. Burma has Lethwei, Cambodia has Pradal Serey, Laos has Muay Lao, and Malaysia has Tomoi etc. These fighting styles are all similiar and sometimes indistinguishable from Muay-Thai but are not recognized as such by Thailand, or the international community due to politics and nationalism.

The key to more growth for Muay-Thai world wide is "More Money" for fighters, more televised shows in the West, a magazine comparable to the high gloss "Fighters Only" for the MuayThai community and olympic recognition. 

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Someone on Facebook suggested that this data is misleading because it does not include alternate language terms of "Muay Thai", and at the face of it it does seem like a good point. This is what they said, in part:

This doesn't represents reality. Here's why :1. no matter which country you're in mma is always called "mma "whereas people looking for muay thai will search for thai boxing translated into their language ( for example in france people say "boxe thai " or "boxe thailandaise " as much or more than " muay thai "

The truth is that I did some cross-checking of alternate language terms and found the very same patterns of diminishment, but did not include them in the post because it would all get too technical. Here for instance though is the search data for alternate French terminology:

France-same-data-pattern.png

 

My thought is that even if this wasn't the case (and it is) in many ways "Muay Thai" is an excellent temperature taking term because it represents the official term of the Internationalization of the sport, and thus it's largest curve of potential growth. The point is somewhat moot though because alternate language terms - at least those I checked - show the same slow down.

The poster also suggests that the data is incomplete because it does not involve other search engines like Russia's Yandex and China's Baidu, or even things like the West's Yahoo/Bing, etc. Very true. We can only talk about Google data. But given that the countries discussed here are not Russia or China, and that Google is dominant in search in the West, these are still very valid data pictures of what might be taken to be a general trend of interest in a term or concept.

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Some discussion on Reddit got me thinking about location searches of Muay Thai which lead me to take a look at how Muay Thai is faring in Thailand itself. This produced a pretty interesting world wide graph:

Muay-Thai-in-Thailand.png

"Muay Thai" in Thai has pretty much exploded as a world wide search, in fact so strongly that it now approaches index level that the anglo "Muay Thai" itself has. This surely has to do with the rapid increase in internet and mobile ability in Thailand (the preponderance of these searches occur in Thailand...and notably Laos). So while Muay Thai may have slumped a little in world wide growth, it has reached a whole new level of digital dissemination among Thai speakers. This would suggest the groundwork for growth of the sport in Thailand, at least in terms of interaction, where it has been notoriously ailing and otherwise locked into an aging demographic.

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Interesting approach. Two years ago Google Trends rolled out a search by "topic" function in the trend tool, which provides a better picture of overall interest.

When you analyze by topic, rather than search query, you see a near doubling in real data and a predicted 2x+ in their forecast for "Muay Thai" as a topic globally over the past ten years.


 

post-239-0-91441700-1437069390_thumb.png

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Interesting approach. Two years ago Google Trends rolled out a search by "topic" function in the trend tool, which provides a better picture of overall interest.

When you analyze by topic, rather than search query, you see a near doubling in real data and a predicted 2x+ in their forecast for "Muay Thai" as a topic globally over the past ten years.

 

Hey Gregory, great to see you here, always love your pov. This is my thinking on the Topic data. Yes, I used the Topic feature in my last graph involving Fairtex and Lumpinee in the OP. I used it there because Lumpinee is also a park in Bangkok, and involves names of hotels as well, but honestly there aren't good reasons for using it here, in this data. My first reason is just personal experience. As a digital marketer, with lots of experience with AdWords, I find specific keywords to be telling, even in the broad sense. I know what I'm looking at. The Topic algorithm on the other hand draws on factors that are completely unknown, and is designed to be - I'm guessing - fairly wide-reaching. In cases like "Lumpinee" it makes some sense to weed out obvious divergences, but in terms like these much less so - simply because we don't know what is being measured.

As I suggested "muay thai" likely flourished in the UFC bubble as a discovery term, so at least to my eye it makes a good data point for what I'm trying to measure here, which is the outer edge of interest growth: Is Muay Thai growing in popularity? If the elementary keyword data picture says it isn't, in rather strong way, but an "topic" algorithm is saying something else, I need to understand why, especially because the trend algo is unknown.

This leads to a big inclusion problem with the Topic feature specifically with Muay Thai: it blends together the international term "Muay Thai" with the Thai language term for Muay Thai "มวยไทย". In my last post in the thread I show that there has been an explosion in Muay Thai Thai language searches in Thailand, mostly due to the spread of internet access through mobile, especially in the last two years. It has grown so much so that now there are nearly as many searches for the term in Thailand, by index, as there is in the rest of the world. This artificial growth (so to speak, because due to access) I believe really skews the Trend data, and makes it look like interest is expanding (when it is actually technology spreading). Because I want to look at how Muay Thai is fairing internationally, this isn't great.

You can see the inclusion of Thai language searches in the location and keywords section of the trend, which is heavily loaded by those searches:

topic.png

 

Also, because we don't know what goes into the Topic algorithm, I don't even know if something like related searches also is factored in, as the "Thai Language" topic (on the left, above) is really on the rise. An algorithm might favor it, but I would not. Before I settled on the keyword data I did check the Topic data against their parallel keyword graphs (for instance UFC and Kickboxing) and saw that these graphs pretty much paralleled each other with the same shape (the main difference being volume). They told the same story. Only in the Muay Thai graphs did I find a strong divergence which really ruled out Topics for this quick study. It mixed apples and oranges so to speak.

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Another problem with the olympic acceptance of Muay-Thai is the inability to organize all the South East Asian fighting styles under one banner. Burma has Lethwei, Cambodia has Pradal Serey, Laos has Muay Lao, and Malaysia has Tomoi etc. These fighting styles are all similiar and sometimes indistinguishable from Muay-Thai but are not recognized as such by Thailand, or the international community due to politics and nationalism.

In Malaysia they mostly call it Muay Thai also, they don't really care, Laos call it Muay Lao as they won't call it Muay Thai if they're Lao, it doesn't make sense to them. The real problem honestly is Thailand, they got an offer from Cambodia to unite them all and rename it, but Thailand claims every country has a different style so it wouldn't make sense to unite it, not to mention the fact Thailand are responsible for making it international.

Anyway, the real problem is that Cambodia vs Thailand are always trying to get one over on each other, I'm pretty sure Khmers refuse to fight wherever it's called Muay Thai - although I saw one in Max Muay Thai and I think a couple in Thai fight also, I guess the moneys good.

I think the Burmese have introduced gloves recently, I might be wrong, but in order to get more international recognition they've toned it down a bit, and maybe to also compete against the others? I know the Burmese were saying their boxing is much stronger then the others. Also just like a side note, people should look at some lethwei padwork, it's really interesting.

The thing is Muay/kunkhmer/lethwei is distinguishable despite khmer and thai being quite similar. The khmers are just not as good technically due to the khmer rouge and the burmese have a completely different style because they have to strike with no gloves, they both have a weak clinch game compared to the Thai's. 

 

Anyway Kevin, did you search Thai boxing also? . A lot of gyms particularly mma gyms say they teach thai boxing.

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It's been about a year since I brought up this data and I thought I'd take another look:

 

muay-thai-search-terms-google-trends.jpg

 

The blue dotted line is the search index Topic trend for all things "Muay Thai" and the red line is the search index for the actual term "Muay Thai", in the world on Google. The bad news, for those of us pulling for Muay Thai, is that the topic line has reached the lowest index mark (June 2016) since June 2004. This means that searches for that topic (using various terms) have reached the lowest percent in 12 years. Ouch. And the search term itself ("Muay Thai") has reached the lowest index point since December 2008. I'm not sure why June was such a terrible month for Muay Thai interest, or that March began a steep decline, but not great news.

You can check the data out yourself here.

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How disappointing. Speaking anecdotally and from my cushioned Devonshire existence here in the UK, I can't say I'm surprised. I had never heard of Muay Thai when I started last September and neither had any of my friends or family. I have been on something of a crusade since though and have so far introduced 5 girlfriends to the sport

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I try and show my friends Muay Thai and none of them care. Even the 18-35 y.o. males who love MMA. I can't help but speculate that guys like Sage Northcutt and Wonderboy Thompson are taking some of the wind out of Muay Thai's sails by repopularizing karate-boxing, marketed as "new breed striking." To be optimistic though, Glory is now on Fight Pass so a bunch of MMA fans will hopefully cross over to kick fighting because of it.

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I try and show my friends Muay Thai and none of them care. Even the 18-35 y.o. males who love MMA. I can't help but speculate that guys like Sage Northcutt and Wonderboy Thompson are taking some of the wind out of Muay Thai's sails by repopularizing karate-boxing, marketed as "new breed striking." To be optimistic though, Glory is now on Fight Pass so a bunch of MMA fans will hopefully cross over to kick fighting because of it.

 

Really interesting. Add to that that "Bang" Muay Thai isn't really Muay Thai other than they call it "Muay Thai", UFC audiences are maybe already shifting off the Muay Thai bubble.

There is some MT cross over in Glory now, but I guess what it would really take is a true Muay Thai fighter making waves in the UFC. Most of the Muay Thai seen in the UFC has been fairly limited in development. On a brighter note, maybe Joanna and Valentina will do something for female Muay Thai awareness.

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Really interesting. Add to that that "Bang" Muay Thai isn't really Muay Thai other than they call it "Muay Thai", UFC audiences are maybe already shifting off the Muay Thai bubble.

There is some MT cross over in Glory now, but I guess what it would really take is a true Muay Thai fighter making waves in the UFC. Most of the Muay Thai seen in the UFC has been fairly limited in development. On a brighter note, maybe Joanna and Valentina will do something for female Muay Thai awareness.

There are rumors that Petchboonchu has been training MMA and may go pro. I think if anyone could show the world what Muay Thai has to offer its a guy like him. Maybe some waves will be made!

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I try and show my friends Muay Thai and none of them care. Even the 18-35 y.o. males who love MMA. I can't help but speculate that guys like Sage Northcutt and Wonderboy Thompson are taking some of the wind out of Muay Thai's sails by repopularizing karate-boxing, marketed as "new breed striking." To be optimistic though, Glory is now on Fight Pass so a bunch of MMA fans will hopefully cross over to kick fighting because of it.

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Sorry im getting used to this platform and making a pigs ear out of it. WaffleNinja I think its mainly down to the fact that I am part of a very friendly gym with a great Head Coach who pays equal attention to novices and fighters. He just loves introducing Muay Thai to anyone and everyone. Its also interesting to note who has stuck with the training and who hasn't and girls I thought would love it didn't and vice versa. Theres just no telling. You either get the bug or you don't. I will be taking my first man along in a week or two so that will be exciting.

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There are rumors that Petchboonchu has been training MMA and may go pro. I think if anyone could show the world what Muay Thai has to offer its a guy like him. Maybe some waves will be made!

 

I think all these VERY old (by Thai standards, 300+ fight) names are not really the answer, Saenchai included. I do think Thai clinch at the deepest levels is a profound grappling art, but these guys don't have much tread on the tire. Petchboonchu even lost in the IFMAs against a strong Russian dude, including in the clinch at times, in a very unexciting fight. Not to say that he isn't amazing, but he isn't what he was.

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I think all these VERY old (by Thai standards, 300+ fight) names are not really the answer, Saenchai included. I do think Thai clinch at the deepest levels is a profound grappling art, but these guys don't have much tread on the tire. Petchboonchu even lost in the IFMAs against a strong Russian dude, including in the clinch at times, in a very unexciting fight. Not to say that he isn't amazing, but he isn't what he was.

True, but I dont have much hope for a 20 year old muay Thai phenom suddenly leaving the sport for MMA. As for the Russian guy, the fight was at 65kg I'm pretty sure and that guy had a pretty good size advantage. Petchboonchu would probably compete at 135 if serious about mma. He is pretty worn and I don't see him becoming a superstar, but maybe he would become the champion of ONE C or WSOF.

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True, but I dont have much hope for a 20 year old muay Thai phenom suddenly leaving the sport for MMA.

 

This is what I wonder. I do believe an elite Thai fighter would make a run at the UFC, if the money was there. Already we know of a young fighter who basically refused the Lumpinee and Rajadamnern path (belts, etc), and instead chose to fight for Thai Fight long term, which isn't really real Muay Thai at all, but more circus Muay Thai. Why? Because the financial security and opportunity was much better. IF, and I know that is a big if, but if the UFC money was there there could be the move of an elite, young Thai fighter, to the UFC.

This is the thing, my own opinion. The UFC is getting really stale, and it is only a matter of time before it's momentum dies out. It's core growth occurred under very different fighting set ups. The original thrill of MMA was seeing discipline versus discipline. What art could beat what art. As MMA itself has slowly begun to become it's own fight style, and as fighters who came from specific disciplines work to close the holes in their game, you are losing that specific discipline excitement and intrigue. When a fighter like McGregor comes along, he reignites the fire because he fights with a unique fighting style. But most of the matchups are relatively stale, with "complete" fighter fighting "complete" fighter, each of them staying away from the other (just to generalize).

This is the reason I believe that female MMA has taken off in the UFC, way beyond expectations and beyond Rousey. Female fighting is still relatively undeveloped. Almost all the top fighters are specialized in what they do well, and have fairly big weaknesses too, weaknesses that have to do with their original arts. Female fighting is back where male fighting was when the UFC was growing. It is still discipline vs discipline, to some degree.

Perhaps the UFC will realize that there is a country filled with 10,000 fighters of Muay Thai who fight with a very specific style, a style that is nothing like the Mooey Thai that the UFC has seen. There is a ready made market injection sitting there, true Muay Thai. There is the huge technical hurdle that such fighters would have to have a modicum of takedown defense, and ground defense, but I don't see it as impossible. Yeah, highly unlikely, but not impossible. Perhaps the UFC continues to grow stale with fighters circling each other over and over for 5 minutes at a time. Perhaps it realizes what made it exciting in the first place. Perhaps Thailand becomes a source for unique fighting styles, fighters with lots of ring experience, that re-energizes the sport. I honestly would like to not see it happen, but maybe.

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A year later, just checking the trends. "Muay Thai" (as a sport) in October hit was at the lowest, World Wide, that it's been since 2004, in terms of search percentage interest:

Muay-Thai-November-2017-e1512034305465.p

 

In the United States it also hit the lowest point since 2004:

Muay-Thai-United-States-2017-e1512034421

 

If you want a point of comparison with another sport/art that got a big boost from MMA and the UFC, in the United States you can see the difference between Muay Thai and BJJ:

Muay-Thai-vs-BJJ-United-States-November-

 

If you are thinking seriously about the future Muay Thai, in the world, this is data that should be discussed. The trends continue.

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