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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

FA Group Asks for Muay Thai Farang Fighter Commitments to Be Regulated | The Changing Culture of Bonds

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Thai language source

This first time I've seen this issue publicly stated, Sylvie's paraphrase of the Thai news:
"Sia Riam" the head of FA Group gym in Bangkok is quoted as being heartbroken by the pattern of international fighters coming to a gym and being welcomed with training, sleeping, eating as a group. They come with "no name" but after gaining some recognition or "fame" other gyms become interested and these fighters are swayed by promises elsewhere. He says he is sure other gyms have experienced this and asks for the Boxing Council to make a decision regarding the problem. (The issue being that Thai fighters are bound by contracts and a fighter changing gyms is a contracted sale, whereas non-Thai fighters have no legal contracts. His call maybe that gyms exercise more respect for another gym.)
 
Opinion and Context
 
This issue of farang gym loyalty in Thailand has been a long running one, wherein westerners seek to find traditional training experiences (and even traditional fight opportunities), but in the quest for authentic Thainess also find themselves outside of the structures of control which hold those traditional forms together. Thais largely are both legally contracted to the gym they train under, but also are often somewhat morally bound to the fatherly figures (or even motherly figures) in those gyms, which traditionally can be adoptive families. You'll recall, there was a very large Thai side dust up over this as Buakaw sought to extricate himself from his Por Pramuk contract which had been passed down from the gym's patriarch who died, to the owner's son. Buakaw was a world famous celebrity of fighting and did not feel still bound by his older, traditional contractual obligation, entered into when he was 9 years old. In the West this battle some years ago was largely portrayed as him breaking out of onerous workcamp ownership of Muay Thai, but in Thailand even though the contract he was under felt quite inequitable, some felt this public move was improper. He won his market freedom of movement. This was a rare, very public dispute.
 
Unlike Thai fighters, Westerners on the other hand often found themselves in a hybrid, nebulous place. More traditional gyms that also were westerner-friendly like famous Sitmonchai or Sangtiennoi's gym gave a strong Thai family gym feel and experience, but westerners were not contractually bound to them. This contractless state is common throughout the country. Technically western fighters exist in a kind of psuedo-commercial arrangement, paying for training (and sometimes room and board), but also experiencing the closeness of family-style bonds that make Thailand's Muay Thai like no other Muay Thai in the world. This can become even more complicated if gyms extend "sponsorship" to a western fighter, providing room and board for exchange of fight percentage fees, and also an (unspoken) tightening of the sense of obligation, something a westerner may not fully feel because it isn't their culture. The western fighter may still remain mentally in the western idea of training wherein a "service" is being provided to them, which they pay for (either in monthly fees, or in terms of sponsorship with fight winnings), and in which they as the customer have ultimate choice and authority. For the Thai, they will see it shaded towards more traditional values and obligations. There is no ultimate "right" or even truth here, because each of these value systems are competing against each other, and are layered on each other somewhat simultaneously. But there is capacity for LOTS of miscommunication. One could romanticly attach oneself to the "traditional" model, but perhaps would also have to ignore the degree to which boys are contracted out at a very young age, often, becoming orphans in Muay Thai. There is harshness in the tradition. Or, one can see in the commercial arrangement where the customer is always right a highly impersonal, detached quid pro quo, the kind of which many come to Thailand to escape or be relieved from. Instead, in the past, westerners have found themselves often floating between the two, improvising respectful compromise and struggling through shared expectation. 
 
What seems to have changed at this point is I suspect the rise of Entertainment Muay Thai. Entertainment Muay Thai is a promotional style of Muay Thai that has become quite popular with tv audiences, and has given a shot in the arm to western-friendly gyms in Thailand. These televised fights had new rulesets that helped favor western fighters to win (forward aggression, shorter non-narrative rounds, reduced clinch, fought in a lower talent pool) and they drew a younger, more casual audience among Thais. Western friendly gyms suddenly had weekly televised promotions in which to showcase their fighters which not only grew the gym name, but also excited the fighters themselves. In the past a western fighter in a Thai gym largely would not be part of the serious business model of making stadium champions or sidebet stars. Instead they might compose a kind of side project, folding westerners into their Thai training. It varied between gyms just how integrated westerners would become, and some gyms would focus on them more than others, even promoting them, arranging belt fights with international organizations, etc., altering their business model to include more and more Muay Thai tourism. But, Entertainment Muay Thai seems to have done something interesting. It has raised the value of the western fighter, within the subculture itself. Gym names can become associated with Entertainment Muay Thai "stars" (promotions like ONE, Superchamp, Muay Hardcore, MAX), and with this rise in value is the absence of the traditional forms of control. The social bonds of fatherly or family control, or the legal bonds of contracts do not exist. What is really interesting about this FA Group statement is that both the shared family space of the gym, and the legal recourse of rules are referenced. It does not seem likely that this is in anyway to change right now, but as western fighters indeed do grow in value in the fight culture the lack of authority can produce conflicts and misunderstandings.
 
It's also important to see that this issue is not just between a prospective fighter and their gym. It also, as its expressed, an issue between gyms themselves, the sense that other gyms can come in and poach the value in a western fighter that the prior gym has worked to build up. This is probably the even more serious issue. In the West we are much more used to thinking of things in terms of individual decisions and freedoms, and sometimes as difficulties between a person and an authority. But in Thailand its much more socially bound. Difficulties reflect power across the community in something of a triangle. This is because face is an important part of Thai culture. It's not just that a gym might lose a fighter of value (negative profit), its also the social consequences, the loss of status, that can happen when something appears to be taken from you. This is one aspect of how the contracting of fighters works. Contracts aren't just used to control the movements and opportunities of Thai fighters (they are of course, but they are more), they are also used to save face when fighters are leveraged to be moved, often beyond the control of the gym. The original gym gains compensation as a modicum of face. This is a pretty regular practice among smaller traditional Thai gyms that will find that their young star that they have built up locally, since a boy, is now being leveraged beyond their control by a powerful Bangkok gym. They have the contract, but perhaps the family of the boy sees much greater opportunity with the famous gym. The contract then gets sold, and a sign of face is given, even though the gym might not have an ultimate social say in the matter. This leveraging of built (youth) talent is what is being referenced here, but in the context of the built (adult) value of western fighters.
 
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This is incredibly interesting. I'm curious to hear what kind of reactions his statement received? Also, is he asking for more formal regulation or is it rather an appeal for mutual respect among gym owners? And can you view this as criticism directed to foreign fighters and lack of gym loyalty?

I heard about a foreign fighter at one of my previous gyms who got fed up with lack of proper training in-between second and third covid wave and simply walked off to a different gym. But he was brought back as the gym owner went to his new gym and told them he was "his" fighter. Just a side note...

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1 hour ago, LengLeng said:

I'm curious to hear what kind of reactions his statement received?

On the post, very little comment other than "you just have to accept this", a kind of resignation of the way it is.

1 hour ago, LengLeng said:

Also, is he asking for more formal regulation or is it rather an appeal for mutual respect among gym owners?

Well, he feels disrespected by another or other gyms, to be sure. But in this relay of his thoughts he is appealing to an authority to step in and regulate these kinds of things, because the problem seems to be growing.

1 hour ago, LengLeng said:

And can you view this as criticism directed to foreign fighters and lack of gym loyalty?

I think so. The problem is being seen as between different gyms, but also between fighters and their gyms. Loyalty is a complex thing here in these cases. As you know, Thai culture is much more hierarchical, concepts of family and inclusion are hierarchical, and this butts up against models of commerce, the freedom of a market, and also in many cases fairness. Also, the traditional "loyalty" conditions have been read as exploitative by the West when it comes to Thai practices some times. Basically once that contract is signed, often at a young age, your entire career is governed by your relationship to your gym owner. There are so many competing values of what is fair, proper, respectful here.

1 hour ago, LengLeng said:

I heard about a foreign fighter at one of my previous gyms who got fed up with lack of proper training in-between second and third covid wave and simply walked off to a different gym. But he was brought back as the gym owner went to his new gym and told them he was "his" fighter.

That is very interesting. That sounds like a case where the community of local gyms contain between themselves rules of engagement. These are often hidden customary agreements, or ways of flexing power in the community that Westerners might not at all see or notice. The appeal to a regulating authority in the above case is likely because he feels he cannot control the situation just through social, or local flex. In either case the value of a western fighter seems to be rising in the subculture. And as it does westerners may find themselves bumping into the otherwise invisible powers of control that reside in the culture.

It's a very complicated thing - especially at this time of COVID - gym owners sometimes stop investing in the training or growth of a fighter who has been with them for a long while. This of course can happen with Thai fighters as well...but they are contracted and locked in.

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Thanks for elaborating. I find this very interesting and hopefully a positive development for foreign fighters, although might get a lot more complex. 

In the case with the guy who walked off, I did not hear it from the guy directly but was told by to other guys who trained with him. That gym owner has a lot of respect within the muay thai communit, so I guess his clout helped. Another fighter at that gym also expressed frustration with the situation, but had -instead of just walking off- tried to talk to the gym owner and get him to introduce him to other gyms where he could get training but still would fight for his old gym. But it did not really seem to work. I feel sorry for them but I guess this are the things you need to accept if you want the traditional experience. 

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1 hour ago, LengLeng said:

I guess this are the things you need to accept if you want the traditional experience. 

This is the thing, right? The problem is - or one would imagine it would be - that westerners are pretty ill-equipped to even understand these kinds of things in the first place. Almost the entire train/fight set up is framed as a commercial enterprise, conditioned under the "customer is always right" value system, and when it evolves into a Sponsorship this is often just seen as more of a commercial bargain for the westerner. They no longer have to pay for training (and the implied compliment that they are so GOOD they are being treated like a Thai)....when in fact you can't possibly be treated "like a Thai" in the real sense, because you don't really see all the bounds of the Thai subculture. To be sure westerners can and do have romanticized notions of respect and hierarchy. You can wai with sincere appreciation everytime you see the gym owner in the gym. You can listen to your padmen, and apply remarkable "work ethic" (in the Western value) which is cross-read quite well in the Thai world, but...you very likely would have no sense of things like: If you are in the 6th grade and your teacher says something that is blatantly wrong in passing, like "Germany won WW2" you would never raise your hand and correct them. Or, more close to home, if your gym owner or lead padman lost interest in you, or stopped finding you fights, this would 100% be on you, and in no way their fault or failing. You would have no idea that this is part of the traditional world you are trying to step in.

There are other things that are complicating. We might think as fighters under a gym name that all you need to do is work hard, fight well, be respectful. That for sure is a good start. But if you fight well and win, and win...and win (bringing shine to the gym), you actually can be creating all kinds of tensions you can't see. The call of attention to your gym actually stimulates gossip and whispering in the community. We hear none of this, but this is a huge world of importance in the Thai Muay Thai online & local community. Anyone who shines invites detractors and lots of counter-whispers. The Thai subculture is extremely gossipy, in a way that really impacts the subjects of gossip. So, even if you do everything right, by the book, you can actually be intensifying the world of those you respect and obey, which means issues of freedom or performance in the future can get really complicated in the hierarchy. To take even a small, but pretty common example. Just asking a trainer other than your lead padman for advice, or worse, requesting to do pads with them, can be a HUGE political shift in the gym, if you are a fighter who has gained some value. For a western fighter this might just be "I just want to get better" or "see something new". I guess I'm saying, I agree, you need to accept some things if you want the "traditional" experience, but very few people are even equipped to imagine what those things might be, just because we bring with us our own value system, and our own sense of what is fair and respectful.

The "REAL" traditional experience, perhaps much less common in Thailand today, is probably what the legend Pudpadnoi told us when we asked him why he left Muay Thai, pretty much at the peak of his career. "Because I couldn't do anything at all, no freedom at all, no control, when you eat, when you sleep, when you do anything." Sylvie said: "It's like a solider." and he said, "It was much worse." Leaving Muay Thai was like leaving the military. Maybe kaimuay are not like they were in the elite camps 1970s...and even if there are some that are close Westerners wouldn't have contact with them, but running through all traditional style camps is this very hard vein of control that we just don't see, or see very rarely.

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I should add, there is also a very odd thing that happens in the hybrid gyms that have a reputation of being "authentic". Where the training of Thais and of Westerners can be quite mixed. They train might regularly against or with each other, etc. But these almost always are TWO different gyms, existing in the same physical space. There is the Thai gym, with its business model and its customs and codes of control and expectation, and there is a Farang gym, that has it's buisness model and customs of practice. As a Westerner you simply can't see that there are actually TWO gyms. You think you are in the same gym, having the same experiences, more or less. But they are different.

What's interesting about this article and interview is that the Western gym is starting to bleed into the Thai gym, more and more, in unexpected ways.

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57 minutes ago, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

This is the thing, right? The problem is - or one would imagine it would be - that westerners are pretty ill-equipped to even understand these kinds of things in the first place. Almost the entire train/fight set up is framed as a commercial enterprise, conditioned under the "customer is always right" value system, and when it evolves into a Sponsorship this is often just seen as more of a commercial bargain for the westerner. They no longer have to pay for training (and the implied compliment that they are so GOOD they are being treated like a Thai)....when in fact you can't possibly be treated "like a Thai" in the real sense, because you don't really see all the bounds of the Thai subculture. To be sure westerners can and do have romanticized notions of respect and hierarchy. You can wai with sincere appreciation everytime you see the gym owner in the gym. You can listen to your padmen, and apply remarkable "work ethic" (in the Western value) which is cross-read quite well in the Thai world, but...you very likely would have no sense of things like: If you are in the 6th grade and your teacher says something that is blatantly wrong in passing, like "Germany won WW2" you would never raise your hand and correct them. Or, more close to home, if your gym owner or lead padman lost interest in you, or stopped finding you fights, this would 100% be on you, and in no way their fault or failing. You would have no idea that this is part of the traditional world you are trying to step in.

 

I find this topic very fascinating as this is something, being on my 14th year abroad, I constantly reflect on. Where do my culture and the local culture intersect? And are there values that can be seen as culturally objective? 

I think, in general, Westerners tend to see their own culture as "objective". Either they are not aware they have a specific culture (subconscious), or they are aware but choose to see their own culture as the "right/more superior" one. As if typical Western values would be neutral somehow, often based on the premise that we are more effective from a capitalist standpoint. The typical individualistic perspective you mention. 

I remember when a friend and fighter complained about their gym that sometimes the trainers would only speak Thai "although most customers were foreigners". This from a person who had chosen to leave their Western country to come to Thailand and build an alternative life. I also remember this British guy who took over a gym I was training at briefly and wanted to turn the gym into a fight gym for both Thais and foreigners. I remember when my teacher called me and asked for help to translate something. It turns out this new owner simply wanted to go to MBK and watch the fights and offer the winners of the fights the opportunity to train at his gym, and he wanted my teacher to help him with the negotiations. Not only did he not have a clue about contractual obligations and gym loyalty bonds, but it did not even cross his mind that there might be a specific local culture to consider before you embark on something like this.  

Those are the people who tend to move physically, but mentally they never leave home. 

As a Western woman, you are often treated as the third gender, you are not a man, but you are also not a local Thai woman. You are something else. And this can be beneficial. You have more space to move. But not completely. I remember a time I went to see gym friends fight at Lumpinee. This was the first (and only time) I went there because it made me so uncomfortable. But I did go. I had to pay almost full farang price but could cheer my friends on. But after the fights were over and we were standing outside chatting and taking selfies, it somehow got decided that I would not follow to celebrate the wins. I was the only female fighter there from the gym. But not the only woman, there was a group of Thai women with the group I had never seen before and were rumoured to be second girlfriends. And before I knew what was going on, the gym guys and the girls took off to eat and drink beer while the gym owner drove me home on his bike. I didn't say anything. But the week after, a foreign fighter asked one of the Thai boys why I had not been allowed to follow to celebrate the wins. I had come all the way to Lumpinee to watch them fight? He got the reply that Arjan had taken care of me, and that was that. 

I obviously understood that somehow it was not appropriate for me to go and celebrate with the guys, and somehow this came from a perspective of respect. But I remember thinking that this is what it means to be part of the traditional experience. And many times, being outside the traditional experience can be beneficial even though it can make you feel like an outsider.

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1 hour ago, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

I should add, there is also a very odd thing that happens in the hybrid gyms that have a reputation of being "authentic". Where the training of Thais and of Westerners can be quite mixed. They train might regularly against or with each other, etc. But these almost always are TWO different gyms, existing in the same physical space. There is the Thai gym, with its business model and its customs and codes of control and expectation, and there is a Farang gym, that has it's buisness model and customs of practice. As a Westerner you simply can't see that there are actually TWO gyms. You think you are in the same gym, having the same experiences, more or less. But they are different.

What's interesting about this article and interview is that the Western gym is starting to bleed into the Thai gym, more and more, in unexpected ways.

I believe my gym was a typical example of that. Took my a while to figure out and I still do not really understand the two business models or everything that happened while I was there. Which is part of the charm I guess :).

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Not exactly the same but there's been a similar thing lately with the 'exploitation' issue in the MMA world, if anyone follows it. Like, it's tough, cause obviously you wanna be on the side of the fighters, and yeah some of them do get screwed over. And with a company like the UFC being worth eye-watering amounts of money, yet only paying 15% of their revenue towards salaries.... yeah it's kinda crazy.

But you hear the weirdest fighter complaints, like they want more money per fight, or are angry they're not allowed to fight for other promotions. It's like....dude....you *signed* a contract... it said exactly how many fights you'll be offered, and exactly how much you'll be paid, and you agreed and you signed it. How is that not the end of the conversation? Well apparently for them it's not. Even talking shit about your boss and your company to the media about financial issues seems like stepping over the line to me. But eh.

Kinda see the Thai issue the same way. Western guys doing it for fun/exercise who pay a monthly membership - fine if they wanna go somewhere else. But if someone is sponsored, free training, has a contract etc? Well that's it, they've made an agreement. Am not nearly on that level personally so never had one, not sure how it works or how formal it is, but even if it's more of a handshake deal it just seems obvious that you need to keep your word. It's business, and if you break your word, why should anyone deal with you ever again.

edit: To caveat this - the example above of the fighter trying to leave during Covid because the gym had no longer had real training or trainers - for sure we can see his side. There's definitely cases with exceptional circumstances

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Possibly another chapter in this evolving discussion of gym owners rights, today Teerawat Chukorn head of Kiatkhamthorn Gym in Bangkok whose fighter is Kongklai AnnyMuayThai Gym, wrote about people trying to book his top fighter for promotions without contacting him, which in Thailand is way out of bounds. One could guess that these are non-Thai promotions? A suspicion is that what may be driving this is a proposed fight between Captain (the ONE Champion) and Kongklai (who is expected to become a Thai Fight tournament champion), basically pitting the two biggest Entertainment (style) Muay Thai champions against each other. His post is basically WE take care of the fighter, we have the contract, we pay all the expenses, you contact us! This may relate a little bit to the OP in the sense that Entertainment Muay Thai may be exerting pressure upon the traditional structures of authority and control.

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https://web.facebook.com/keatkhamtorn/posts/5014932155203263

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This seems like something that would not normally have to be said, let along posted on Facebook about, but it does seem that Entertainment Muay Thai is abutting the traditional power structures in some way.

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