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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Westerners Have Been Frustrated With Thai Backwards Fighting For Over 230 Years

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Woven Into The History - from 1788, the first account of a westerner fighting a Siamese (Thai)

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above, the earliest recorded fight between a Westerner and a Thai (Siamese) - from Peter Vail's work

Over the last few years I've posted the above account sporadically, musing about just how far back the backwards, counter-fighting ethic of Thailand's Muay Thai may go. It's a remarkable keyhole into a time of Muay Thai (then the Boran of Siam) that has very little historical record, so it it tempting to savor every element, every detail, as if a perfectly preserved skeleton of an extinct animal has been found. We just don't know what fighting styles were like back then. This is an event that takes place in 1788, more than 230 years ago. French brothers visit the court and are involved in the very first recorded sport combat fight between farang (farang originally referred to the French) and Thai (Siamese). Engagements - and even influences - with foreign fighters must have been quite regular throughout the previous centuries, going back to when the Kingdom Ayutthaya was a powerful "Venice of the East" trade center in South East Asia (1350 to 1767), filled with mercenary forces rumored to reach even 1,000,000 men, and even before that when mercantile Siam interacted with the 600 year Srivijaya "thalassocratic empire" which spread marital knowledge throughout the trading South reaching all the way back to the 7th century see this thread here: Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian fighting styles surely wove themselves into the development of Thailand's combat treasure chest.

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The account at top though is our fallen dinosaur bit of directly attested report. What may be so interesting about this 1788 account is that it isn't so much an account of a fight as it seems to be of a fundamental misunderstanding and confusion between cultures. It's a likely confusion about what proven masculinity and manhood is. And beneath that, it's a confusion over what retreat and dis-engagement signifies between combatants. The reason the French brother jumps into the ring to stop the retreat of the (likely smaller bodied) Siamese fighter is the feeling that the fight just wasn't fair, or being conducted under the unwritten rules of just what "fighting" is. Looking through our telescope back in time it's hard for me to not feel that today's promotional demand "Just stand and bang!" is not very far from what brought the fighter's brother into the ring. Perhaps he felt the Siamese fighter was somehow clowning his brother, retreating and counter-striking him, elusively evading what perhaps sound like grappling attempts by a large man (intent to break the collarbone in a single smashing blow suggests a size difference).

All hell breaks loose as the French brothers seek to rectify their honor and have a proper fight, and the Siamese guards jump in and give a beat down at the loss of man-on-man decorum. But, it's just fascinating that many of the same forces at work today, attempting to bend Thailand's Muay Thai into a much more aggressive, much more clashing "stand and bang" combat style (for commercial and new generation popularity reasons), were right there when that brother jumped into the ring. When MAX Muay Thai brought the new "entertainment Muay Thai" to Thailand they wrote into the actual fighter instructions in Thai "if you go backwards you will lose" (by my recollection), simply because retreat when you have the lead has been endemic to the grammar of Thailand's Muay Thai for decades now --- and as this historical account temptingly suggests --- perhaps has roots that go back for centuries. The "if you go backwards you will lose" is programmatically the brother jumping into the ring to save the honor of his brother. The MAX Muay Thai entertainment program, which has been copied in new forms in other promotions, was admittedly designed to level the playing field vs Westerners and produce wins by Westerners. It is the brother in the ring, standing behind the retreating fighter. I've seen Thai fighters that we know well with a deft style of retreat and counter struggle both mentally and physically under the new form of entertainment fighting.

It's startling to see the same basic misunderstanding of what a fight is, between two cultures, play out 230 years apart.

The Counter In Retreat

We are in a different combat sport world now than in 1788. Instead of Westerners coming to the South East Asian court attempting to establish trade relations and test out fighting skills, the Western (and really Internationalist/globalist) view of fighting has grown into a vast commercial enterprise, and a dominant cultural art form. MMA - and small in its shadow, Kickboxing - has established "what a fight is" largely under the come-forward model. Thailand's traditional counter-fighting, retreating excellence falls outside of that model. When talking to Arjan Surat of the Thai National Team about the new 3 round entertainment fighting the Old School legendary trainer complained. "There is no timing". It is what Thais call muaymua, confused or clouded fighting. Little is distinct other than the clash. I've written about how the Thai narratively scored shape of the fight involves actually a different Sense of Time, agrarian Time, but what Arjan Surat is of course talking about the much more universally lauded timing of strikes, and the ability to play with and manipulate the fight space. In Thailand when the fighter is retreating, often with the lead, he/she is stretching out the time windows, he/she is playing with the space. Delay is being created and being woven into the tempo of the fight. Delay is the silence between notes (to quote Lisa Simpson). This is part of a much more nuanced and rich awareness of fighting, almost a musicality of striking tempos. Because Thailand's Muay Thai traditionally, as a Buddhistically informed art, is about dominance over the fight space and much less about sheer displays of aggression, the quality of fight awareness, the sophistication of strikes rises amid forced lulls and displacement through defensive tactics drawing time out, so there is room for them to unfold. Retreating and countering makes up a constitutive element in the very grammar of Thailand's Muay Thai. If you take retreat and countering out, as a form of dominance, you might as well also remove adjectives and adverbs from the language of English. It is the texture and quality of the fighting itself, what it is capable of expressing, at least historically so. Go no further than imagining how the much acclaimed GOAT Samart Payakaroon would struggle and show less of himself if he wasn't able to retreat, by rule. If you want a real sense of the sophistication of this look at my study of his defeat of the forward fighting Namphon, a dominance composed almost entirely of knee-shields.

This isn't so much a piece against the new entertainment forms of Muay Thai which bend it toward forward fighting arts. These pressures and changes may very well be necessary to the survival of Muay Thai in the scheme of commercial fighting business in a global market. It's instead to say that as we change elements of Thailand's Muay Thai in this particular direction we are purpose tugging on a rope of struggle that perhaps goes back over 200 years, fundamentally how The West and Thailand perceive what fighting is. The frustration of Westerners in the ring vs retreating Thais has a record that goes that far back. As we change the very form of fighting in contests between Westerners (and others) and Thais, as we put the proverbial brother in the ring and prevent retreat, we should at least be aware that we are touching upon essential elements of what fighting is to Thailand. This isn't to say that Thai fighters only retreat. In fact they have had some of the greatest stalking pressure fighters in the world. (More on this: Why You Can't Take the Boring Out of Muay Thai). The reason why Thai fighters are so very good at stalking and pressuring is because the retreating, countering fighters they have honed their skills against actually have a scorecard advantage. Retreating and countering, clinch (the "boring" parts) make up the vocabulary of its excellence. It's an arms race. In some ways Thai aggression is second to none, but it grows in a context. And yes, past generations of the sport have been more aggressive through rounds, to be sure, and this is something the sport indeed needs to rectify, but it is to at least say, in a broad way, that there is a cultural tug-of-war going on here that goes down into the roots of what Thai fighting is, and has been for perhaps centuries. And if we collapse that timing, we smash those interaction windows of engagement, and place that brother in the ring, we might be unraveling some of the most significant differences that Thailand's Muay Thai presents to the world, as an art of value.

 

 

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Yes, there are arguments for the foward-ization of Thailand's Muay Thai that involve urging that it takes its place in the broader spectrum of what the world wants, commercially. As an art and sport it benefits being loved and appreciated internationally, and to a great degree that does involve becoming readable by those who do not necessarily understand it. Recent unifying responses to Phuket's tourism difficulties during COVID understandably involve the call to make fights much more enjoyable to people who do not know anything about Muay Thai. And this readability is no doubt an essential part of the wider trend to present Muay Thai much more in the vein of International Kickboxing, whether that be IFMA's internationalization of the sport in hope for Olympic inclusion (which would be a huge development it Muay Thai's history) or ONE Championship's powerful marketing of Thai superstars under largely kickboxing aesthetics. The readability of the sport and art indeed is essential to its survive-ability, one would have to embrace. And this necessarily involves to some degree turning it into the familiar, ie, the less sophisticated. This is perhaps the world we live in, the facts on the ground.

But, there is also a much longer view in terms of Muay Thai economics which involves cultural heritage. People come to Thailand because the training and the fighting is like nowhere else in the world. That difference, the ability of others to come to Thailand and experience THAT difference, is a very deep reservoir of cultural importance. It's what brings people from all over the world here. Sylvie writes in "The Art and Psychology of the 5th Round in Thailand" that it took her over 100 fights in the country to even understand how to fight a 5th round properly. This is a historic number of fights in Thailand for a westerner, an almost unheard of 100 fights in the country perhaps achieved by only one other westerner. 100 times, and she was just coming to understand it in all its complexities and skill sets. This sophistication is quite far from a sport that maximizes entertainment value to a tourist who has bought a local stadium ticket because they had heard that Thailand has something called "Muay Thai" and it would be fun to see it. (There is another commercial argument that Muay Thai's differences could present a tourism draw if made readable.) Western fighters have passionately traveled to train and live in Thailand to encounter the very foreignness of Thailand's Muay Thai, but increasingly actually encounter promotions of fighting very much like those they left back home, as Thais are asked to fight in an un-Thai way, shelving skill sets they have developed under a richer grammar and tradition of fighting. If we are talking about the survive-ability of Muay Thai as an economic entity the urge for readability must also be balanced by the deep value of its otherness. It's un-readability: That you encounter things in Thailand that you cannot encounter anywhere else in the world; that you come in contact with ways of doing things, learning things, and fighting, that exist nowhere else; that the passionate commitment of Westerners who have fallen in love with the uniqueness of Thailand's fighting history carries with it also a powerful incentive towards economic value, regarding Thailand as special. It cannot just be that "eyeballs" in a media entertainment space rife with competition constitute the measure of viability and value. Might it be that in five years time when a Westerner comes to train and fight in Thailand for 6 months or a year they only can find 3 round fights which deny retreat and counter tactics, and the full stand up grappling art of clinch? Is not that Westerner coming to Thailand seeing in the mirror him or herself? Is not their brother in the ring?

 

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I think a large part of the problem is westerners just don't really know about Thai boxing. Many people over here tune into muay Thai fights with no knowledge of combat sports outside of boxing and MMA. This is the lens through which they're trying to watch muay Thai, when muay Thai isn't watchable like that. Like you say, many westerners conceptualize a fight as pure forward aggression. I would say the majority of westerners, outside of the ones passionate about martial arts, view fights this way. They don't understand the ruleset or the spirit of muay Thai. Just as many don't even care about the spirit, they just want to see people smashing each other's heads. To be an "eloquent" fighter is almost always met with dissent, it takes someone of a caliber and influence like Floyd Mayweather to gain acceptance as that type of fighter, and even now many people only begrudgingly admit his greatness and just as many insist he only "ran away" in his fights.

As an anecdote, I frequent some MMA communities and one of my favorite fighters right now is Ciryl Gane. Many people complain that Ciryl is boring, and complain that despite being a 6'4, 260lb heavyweight he has no knockouts in his 10 bouts. Even Dana White himself has criticized Ciryl for being 'boring'. Funny enough, Ciryl's background in combat starts with muay Thai. He has a big ol Sak Yant tattoo on the center of his chest. Ciryl has never even lost a round in the UFC and was undefeated in his muay Thai career, yet this is considered boring to the average UFC fan and even the figurative head of the organization. 

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Because Thailand's Muay Thai traditionally, as a Buddhistically informed art, is about dominance over the fight space and much less about sheer displays of aggression, the quality of fight awareness, the sophistication of strikes rises amid forced lulls and displacement through defensive tactics drawing time out, so there is room for them to unfold

I especially love this description of muay Thai. Brevity is the soul of wit and this one sentence here sums up everything muay Thai to me, specifically "dominance over the fight space and much less about sheer displays of aggression". If more people could approach muay Thai under the impression that it's about dominating the fight space and not just smashing each other's skull in I think there would be a much greater appreciation of the sport here in the west. It's not a difficult concept to grasp, it's just one that combat sport fans here don't typically consider. Smashing skulls is just one way of dominating a fight space. I think muay Thai's traditional lack of appeal to westerners comes from a fundamental ignorance of it. I'm not really sure how you reconcile that though. Western fight fans are only becoming more inclined to sheer violence in my opinion, and less likely to go out of their way to learn or appreciate intricacies of another combat sport. There's also the issue of recognition. Many western fight-fans are less fans of the sport and more fans of the personalities. They don't particularly care about how good of a fighter Conor McGregor or Sean O'Malley really is, they just like the guys and will watch them no matter what, and when they watch a muay Thai event all they see is "that skinny asian guy" x10.

That's a separate topic, but it ties into what I think the root of the problem is when we return to the ignorance of the traditional muay Thai spirit: lack of coverage. There's simply a massive lack of educators in terms of muay Thai. Even the people that do expose muay Thai and its intricacies to the west, like the various martial arts YouTube channels, typically cover golden-age legends as opposed to active fighters, and while they do a great job at highlighting their fighting prowess they don't often give that prowess its context within the sport. It's almost kind of funny to me because MMA fans tend to recognize muay Thai as being "the best striking base for MMA" and many love to preach to would-be martial artists that they should take MT classes to learn striking, yet not as many of them preach the same love for its culture and actual THAI FIGHTERS which is in itself inseparable from traditional muay Thai. Like on the muay Thai subreddit, when people are asking for advice and for fighters to watch to learn muay Thai, I always see westerners and UFC fighters being recommended or only the most famous of the Thai as if a beginner is going to be able to learn anything from watching Saenchai of all people or as if they aren't already familiar with someone of that caliber. It's always only the same few passionate people you see that are giving substantial and educated recommendations across Twitter, Reddit, and various forums, and these people can only be stretched so thin on their own. I think the rest of the passionate people don't even bother coming online to discuss the sport and keep it to their gym and real-life cohorts because the general lack of education on the topic can be frustrating and not everyone is even interested in teaching in the first place.

It's hard even as a passionate fan to keep up with the current fighters, especially as someone who doesn't speak or read Thai. I rely entirely on various Twitter and Facebook pages to keep me updated sometimes. If it weren't for you and Sylvie, I'd be as ignorant as anyone else on many aspects of Thailand's muay Thai. It almost feels like Thailand's stadiums and promoters want the western audience and its money without having to interact with the west and its culture (understandable sometimes :P). They're willing to change the way muay Thai fighting works fundamentally to draw in viewers but don't want to change its "political" structure, if you will. It's not just the way the Thai fight that puts off the western audience (because even the more femeu style fights have plenty of display of "dog-ness" and aggression. you can't win a fight without fighting, afterall), it's the lack of structure. That is in my opinion a large reason ONE's muay Thai fights are popular, it's easy to follow the fighters. Not only did they westernize the ruleset, they also westernized the way they serve the ruleset. Its advertising and promoting is very UFC-styled. Everything looks familiar to a westerner even if the fighters are just "skinny asians" as I've heard put by the more meaty-headed of my fellow westerners.

I mean, Channel 7 muay Thai is some of the best muay Thai around and if I want to watch it I have to buy a VPN. Changing the rules instead of changing the coverage to me is putting the cart before the horse and isn't going to solve anything in terms of western engagement, at least in my opinion.

edit: I initially wrote putting the horse before the cart, which is the proper way to do it lmao. Oops

Edited by Tyler from Florida
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12 hours ago, Tyler from Florida said:

I think muay Thai's traditional lack of appeal to westerners comes from a fundamental ignorance of it. I'm not really sure how you reconcile that though. Western fight fans are only becoming more inclined to sheer violence in my opinion, and less likely to go out of their way to learn or appreciate intricacies of another combat sport.

I do see that there is a broad-base smash-em fight audience, but one of the most entrenched and celebrated combat sports is western boxing, and western boxing has had many stars of the sport appreciated for their defense, their style, their superiority over the space (and not just sheer aggression). In fact, western boxing can mirror the same Muay Femeu preference over Muay Khao (forward fighting). Ali, both Sugar Rays, Mayweather, Lomachenko, even Roy Jone Jr, these are not smashers. At the very least western boxing provides a model for this kind of appreciation, it's not like this is some alien planet stuff. Also, BJJ has been pretty widely embraced by the UFC crowd, one of the least "immediately comprehensible" arts there is. Instead, everyone got into understanding it, training in it, learning the chess of it. Sure people complained about lay-and-pray, but the context of Western fight entertainment isn't ALL Rollerball. There are past and present histories of comprehension of many of the things that make the Muay Thai of Thailand special.

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Of course there are fighters who can transcend the general taste for forward hulk-smashing but I think they're the exception, definitely not the rule. It takes people who are borderline one-of-a-kind. Boxing has been on the decline in terms of popularity, at least before the YouTuber boom. All of the fighters you mentioned are dead or retired with the exception of Loma who up until recently was considered a boxer's boxer because he was so technical. And BJJ, sure it exploded in popularity at some point, but not without the help of a massive marketing campaign from the family that invented it. Of course UFC fans like it, the UFC was created as an advertisement for it, and still the live crowds actively boo fighters sometimes when they're on the ground. Maybe muay Thai needs a Gracie family lol.

I don't disagree there's a decent portion of combat sport enthusiasts who appreciate the more technical aspects but I do think they're a minority in the grand scheme. I think a lot of people who appreciate those parts are martial artists themselves. Lots of people only care about technique insofar as it leads to knockouts or submissions, or they need someone so blatantly talented as a Floyd Mayweather or Ray Robinson to beat them over the head with their skill. It's not alien, it's just not what's in favor anymore in my opinion and it's the majority audience everyone's trying to capture because that's where the money's at.

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10 minutes ago, Tyler from Florida said:

I don't disagree there's a decent portion of combat sport enthusiasts who appreciate the more technical aspects but I do think they're a minority in the grand scheme.

I don't think there is any chance at all that Thailand's Muay Thai will ever appeal to the majority, even if it radically changed into kickboxing...which itself is a very minor sport. I think its survivability will always depend on passionate enthusiasts. So the question is: how do we get more enthusiasts with greater passion. If it fundamentally changes what it is, its unique qualities, skill sets and history, the chance of having passionate enthusiasts over time will I suspect will drop. "Just like kickboxing, but with elbows!" isn't going to get Muay Thai very far in this world.

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Absolutely 100% agree with that. Like I said, I think changing the way the muay Thai works fundamentally is putting the cart before the horse, and like you said muay Thai isn't going to appeal to the majority. Combat sports themselves are niche to begin with.

I'm not a marketing expert, far from it, but I think if they really wanted to capture the western audience they would do better to not bother trying to "westernize" the fights themselves and instead westernize the way the fights are served to us. Muay Thai is already high-level and there's plenty there to marvel at without forcing the fighters to run at each other like it's a game of Red Rover. Understandably, it's a lot tougher because of the way Thai gyms work, and the fact that there's multiple stadiums presenting fights from multiple different promoters. But man, if there were some central organization actively working to show us these fights with English text and transliteration for the names, in a centralized location or at least a centralized directory, I think it would go far in terms of western outreach. I mean just look at how many people you and Sylvie reach on your corner of the internet. You guys often function as a lifeline for English speakers into the world of Thailand's muay Thai. Imagine if there were an organization dedicated to purely describing, promoting and informing people about upcoming muay Thai events in a way that westerners are used to. To touch on western boxing again, I often hear people complain that the multitude of promoters and organizations is annoying to keep up with, and that's stuff that's easily available to us. Now imagine it's all in Thai and you can't even make out the names of the fighters 😅

Again, with the way muay Thai functions in Thailand with its plethora of gyms, stadiums and promoters it would definitely be much more of a logistical hurdle. And I know these types of things cost money to do. Maybe it couldn't be done, maybe it could. I don't know! Either way I'm interested in seeing how this all develops further, and I hope the stadiums find a reasonable solution that maintains the integrity of traditional muay Thai.

 

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I do appreciate the How To Save Muay Thai Through Marketing ideas, there are a lot of good points to be thought about. Just to confess, because I'm not connected to the realm of an Elon Musk or even a Chartri and unlikely to be involved in any kind of coordinated marketing initiative I am more interested in the idea that perhaps there is a clash of cultures here, that involves us all, and that some of the threatened aspects of Thailand's Muay Thai may be expressive of some very old differences. The Art of the Retreating Fighter I suspect not only unlocks entirely different levels of fight skill, but also speaks to a different way of fighting, fighting from a different place. The reason why I'm interested in this is that it involves a sense of personal attachment, the ways in which we each, directly, connect up to what we are watching. It's how we view and value things. If we are thinking to ourselves that even today's stadium Muay Thai - an admittedly diluted version of what Muay Thai has been - is still expressing some of these perhaps profound differences in culture and meaningful skill, the way that we watch these fights changes. We are possibly watching the slow extinction of vital differences, and rooting for their survival. And there is also a kind of ethical dimension to it all, if we appeal to analogies of biodiversity. I've made the argument before that the great fighters of Thailand are something like Old Growth forest. They are produced in an ecosystem whose complexity runs out in every direction. Yes, we can chop down Old Growth trees and use them in all sorts of ways. It's marvelous wood. It's grown in ecosystems that exist nowhere else in the world. But...if we just start growing a different sort of tree, we don't tend the Old Growth forest and replant those slow growth trees and nurture the forest, if the market harvests the hardwood and does not regrow it (ONE right now is harvesting the evolved skillsets and reputations of fighters ONE could not produce itself, for instance, to soup up the quality of its product), then we are wading into thoughts and concerns over the preservation of culture, culture through the art of fighting. Is Thailand's Muay Thai slowly being monocropped a bit? Is the brother in the ring? These questions kind of condition our own attachment to the art and sport.

Is there something of a cultural struggle going on here? Something that has gone on for 200 years? To me that's a fascinating question. To return to analogies of botany: Is aggro-fighting something of an invasive species? Does backwards, timing-oriented counter-fighting represent a line in the sand?

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Yeah sorry to kind of skirt the initial topic a bit haha. Apologies

Your wood analogy is amazing to me actually. Highlights the difference between the natural evolution of the sport versus the "overgrowing" of it by way of an 'invasive' species in the bullheaded tendencies of foreign ideas of fighting. Very succinct.

I think Thailand's close relationship with muay Thai as an economic end puts it in a different place than a lot of other martial arts; muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, and it's a large part of the attraction for tourists. I feel this puts more pressure on the sport to "modernize" itself and invite other 'species' into the forest so to speak, both from governmental figures and from civilian viewpoints. The economic motivation to westernize and fight aggressively is at odds with the traditional spirit of dominating the fight space in your way.

There are not a lot of places here in the west where boxing is seen as a career choice. Fighting as a career is generally thought of as something reserved for 'talented' folk, 'gifted athletes' and 'born fighters'. If you're an average fighter, people would tell you it's smarter to get a real job for less CTE and keep it as a hobby. Only the most passionate continue regardless, and monetarily successful boxers often owe their success to what they do outside of the ring as much as inside it. Boxers can get away with being less-appealing in their approach to fighting when it's simply a hobby or when they can charm the public outside of the ring.

In Thailand by contrast, fighters are often born into it. Kids fight as a source of income. Gym owners often raise these fighters under the impression that there will be a return on the investment. For many, it's not just a side-gig, it's dinner. So with the proliferation of these ONE and MAX style promotions and the massive star-appeal of fighters like Rodtang with their "never step backwards" approach it's clear there's incentive to westernize. I guess the question is what is the lineation between muay Thai 'evolving' and muay Thai being 'overgrown', and it seems this is where people tend to disagree. Encouraging more Rodtangs is great, everyone loves a Rodtang. But what happens when there's no room left for the others? Removing rounds and punishing fighters for 'non-engagement' is a slippery slope when avoiding engagement is a valid way to dominate the ring, traditionally. It only makes it that much more important to preserve the legacy or else it runs the risk of becoming an entirely different forest before long. In this way maybe the MTL could be seen as a sort of seedbank.

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Just Adding a Few Related Notes

 

1998791485_Screenshot2021-12-28011323.thumb.png.98ec14266544aedc8b11c0bcdc899a15.png

Ran into my older essay on Shame and Fight Culture and this passage where I note that the knockout can be a kind of cheapened victory. You can read this essay here:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/26074631

 

And also ran into this reference to how the artful boxer was regarded in Hellenic Greece, and the knockout as a form of cowardliness (opting out of the endurance of the test of skills), at least expressed by Dio Chrysostom.

 

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