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The Game Logic of the Danced Off 5th Round in Thailand's Muay Thai

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I was having a great conversation with Sylvie about the nature of Thailand's Muay Thai this morning, and why when you have the lead in the fight, traditionally, you begin to retreat and defend that lead, instead of marching forward and adding more pressure. You ostensibly "perform your lead" by taking defensive tactics, which to many parts of the world looks like the opposite of "fighting". In a comment on Reddit I was trying to explain this phenomena through how someone like Usain Bolt will ease up and coast into the last 15 meters, in a kind of dominance while everyone else is burning hard, because of a kind of excess, "I don't even have to punch it to beat you". This is a big part of the Muay Thai aesethetic. You can read that comment here: https://www.reddit.com/r/MuayThai/comments/pxtv2x/i_think_people_do_not_understand_how_thailands/hesx7fs/?utm_source=reddit&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

The reason for this is that Thailand's Muay Thai is about dominance, not aggression. Aggression can be a tool toward dominance, but it's only one tool in the tool box. A lot of this stems from the fact that Thailand's Muay Thai evolved to express a Buddhistic culture (and a reason why I'd argue that turning MT promotions into hyper-aggressive shows can contain a hidden cultural betrayal), but as you can see from the Usain Bolt analogy, in the West we can understand this kind of "ease into the tape" signature of superiority. Even in Western boxing we can admire the artful boxer who just toys with his opponent's aggression with an artful jab, evasiveness or movement (think Ali or Mayweather), its not all that far from parts of our own sports values.

It's enough to say this led to a really interesting analogy Sylvie gave me regarding the much derided 5th round dance off in Thailand's Muay Thai. Let's say right off there are admittedly big problems with the 5th round dance off. It's safe to say that it is an aspect of Muay Thai that has become distorted and exaggerated, and not only produces unexciting ends to fights, its become the signature of big name gambling's powerful influence in the sport. This post is really about the underlying logic of the dance off, and besides its current flaws, what positive values it is expressing, helping explain how it is also viewed. Why do two fighters dance off the 5th round at times? Why does a fighter who is behind not keep trying, keep fighting?! When one fighter is signaling an insurmountable lead, why isn't the other fighter "heroically" relentless in pursuit?

Chess Gives A Clue

Sylvie's analogy comes from Chess. In Thailand's Muay Thai there is a definite "Gentleman's Sport" ethic that works to compliment it's absolute violence, so Chess is an interesting parallel. She said to me: In chess once you've gotten to the place in the game where you know by sheer logic you are going to lose you tip your own King over and resign. Masters will resign in positions that casual viewers might not even understand. There are a lot of pieces on the board! What a player is doing when they resign is showing their IQ for the game. If you continue fighting to win from unwinnable positions you can be signaling your inability to even see the board. Yes, your opponent may make an unexpected blunder. Yes, there might be buried in the position of some improbable ability to leverage a draw, but largely what is happening is that you are placing yourself ABOVE this particular game. If you struggled forward, not really realizing your fate, your would be signaling to your audience and your opponent you lack understanding. You can't see. This keys into deeper Thai cultural views that regard sheer aggression as low IQ and somewhat animalistic (non-human). You don't understand Chess.

Now, there are all kinds of Chess players, and some of them may become famous for fighting out of bad positions and stealing draws. This isn't to describe what one should do, it's to explain the logic of why a losing fighter would choose to dance off. They acknowledge the board position, they are above this particular match/game. Thai fighters fight a LOT of fights. The tournament of a career is composed of many games.

Now, once you get the logic you can also see where the problems are. If there are TOO many sprinters coasting into the tape. If there are TOO many fighters touching gloves in the 5th round, the "board" of the game is being influenced by something (or the match making is very poor). In these cases its explained that the chess board of the fight, the position that fighters are responding to, involves the heavy thumb of powerful gamblers. You touch gloves not only because of the "position" of how the fight was fought, but also understanding the powers that shape the fight as well. You can see that the lead in front of you is of a type that you would look stupid if you fought against it. You would look like you didn't understand the game and how it is won.

How the 5th round is fought has changed over the decades, to be sure. It has stretched too far into a direction, but the logic of the danced round remains the same, that of the Chess match.

Taking Ideology Into Context Too

I also think that there are cultural elements that make this hard to read from a Western perspective. In the West we have a big celebration of the Little Guy. In the mythology of the West we have the story of the insignificant man who through "hard work" overcomes all odds against him. There is not only great romance over this ideological story, fighting itself has been an entertainment form that expresses this romance. We see this in the entire Rocky Balboa Working Man franchise. For us a lot of fighting is about this. I do think these stories resonate with Thai storytelling. Great fighters of the past who became champions out of rural provinces, fighters like Samson Isaan (who literally took the name of Isaan), do represent a kind of working class, provincial victory against all odds, but this is in the context of a much less socially mobile society, than say America. The much older cultural stories of Thailand are ones of hierarchy, and layered, group-bound peoples. Part of the "checkmate in waiting" acceptance is probably best understood in this wider lack of mobility, a lack of a more highly Individualistic Self-Destiny mythology (which contains its own social ills). In "seeing the mate" in advance you to some degree transcend your situation by demonstrating that you understand it, you see the position on the board from above, you have that IQ...but you are also trapped by it, you accept THIS loss, in the name of having perhaps a better chance to win the next time.

This isn't to say that dancing off the 5th round is the right thing to do, in any particular fight, or even to say that the practice of the 5th round in today's Muay Thai doesn't need to substantively change, it does. But it's to explain the logic of it. Today's Muay Thai in Thailand is trying to take the big name Gambler's thumb off the scale, not an easy task because gambling itself is woven into the seriousness of matches, a fighter's identity, and the passion for Muay Thai itself. It's instead to try and explain the nature of some of the thinking that is beneath a 5th round performance. It is not just fighters taking a break "because they fight so much". It's locating yourself, positioning yourself socially in the game, a game you are ultimately trying to win.

If interested in my thoughts on what I believe underlies Thailand's Muay Thai can see my article on the "6 Core Aspects" https://8limbsus.com/muay-thai-thailand/essence-muay-thai-6-core-aspects-makes

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