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Saving What Fighters Have Built With Their Bodies & Ethics of Preserving Traditional Muay Thai

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I'm drawn more and more to the idea that it is the fighters who have built a fighting sport, its art. Yes, arts & sports do not rise unless they are pulled into circles of power and epic centers of cultural focus - just as the great variations of provincial Muay Thai of Thailand were drawn into Bangkok in the early part of the 20th century, with the arrival of railroads (Khorat 1900, Southern Rail 1907, Lampang 1916, Chiang Mai 1921) - and if not shaped by commercial powers, the brilliance of promoters, the patronage of the King or the State - but amid these forces it's the wills of the fighters who performed in the magic squared circle, and their bodies which built it. This is where the bricks are laid...and not just the bricks. It's the living force of these men (and some women), their creative force, which largely gave shape and complexity to a sport, gave it its fabric. It is much less like an architect who tells workers where to put blocks of stone, and much more like an array of weavers who, on looms of the Self, pull strands through and through to create a pattern.

I am well-known as someone who has dug his heels in the sand as Muay Thai is being dragged forward into new, radically different, highly commercialized (and I believe much less capable, more physically illiterate) zones. I was struck by a very fine argument that was sent my way, as I urged Thailand's Muay Thai not to let go of the complexity and immense competency it had developed over the last century, when taking this commercial turn. It was said that I advocate for a distant Muay Thai where fighters are so little paid for their work, harkening back to when fighters were more or less controlled and owned, and fought for so very little. This is a really good point. There are some problems with it, for instance top stars of Thailand's Golden Age Muay Thai, adjusted for the economy, actually were paid quite a bit more money than those of today (in general), and had a stardom in the country that shaped generations. But still, there is a very good point. Ignoring the top earners of the 1990s, there is a real sense in which the Golden Age drew in countless fighters many of which trained and fought in onerous conditions. There is a real sense in which Muay Thai broke backs, and the blood, sweat and tears of the sport did not pay in a way that feels equitable, for the average, hard fighting circuit fighter. The word floating behind this is exploitation. I think it's a complicated word, because it involves us considering what fair recompense is, and recompense is not just baht; but its an important thing to think about.

Is someone like me who holds firm to what Muay Thai has been arguing that we should return to the systems of the past where big promoters steered the sport and gave fighters life or death in the sport in their powerful networks and decision making, often with very little lasting financial reward? Are we to roll the clock back to patronage of OneSongchai and Klaew? Of unbreakable long contracts and the tight networks of gym owners?  I think this is a really good thing to think about when we make decisions on where we stand on the Muay Thai that is being fought. Where are the power centers? And what are the lower-level, circuit fighters experiencing? What is the compensation for their labor?

This is what I'm thinking about. Let's grant that the Muay Thai of the past was in some significant degree exploitative, in the sense that workers were laboring often under great distress to produce a product the windfall of which largely went to promoters and gym owners. If we want to think just in terms of financial reward and labor/cost analysis we can see that. But this is the powerful aspect that is missing from that world view. Firstly, meaning in life does not reduce to income. In fact there are many things much more meaningful to people than the number of zeros in a bank account (though for some this is paramount). When Dieselnoi tells the story of when he was knocked out by lead-handed Kaopong in his lone boxing fight, and how he bounced from rope to rope, staggering to stand before he finally fell, he talks about the fact that the Prince was in attendance. "I could not even stand for the Prince." As he tried with his gigantic heart to straighten up, and failed, he was not thinking of his kadua (fighter pay), or who bet on him. He was thinking of his dignity. His place. The traditional elements of Thailand's Muay Thai have a great deal to do with "place", and much of the reward, in that there was one, is about "place". Many of these fighters came from places in society without much standing, and fought and trained in the sport to gain that standing. And place is not fame. It's related, but it's not. You cannot not forage it.

This is what I'm saying. If we are to mourn the fact that the fighters of the past were not fairly compensated we have to expand our vision to fully see what they were actually compensated with. And a great deal of what they were compensated with was the tremendous and enormous edifice of Muay Thai that they had built. THEY built it, round by round, bell by bell, cut by cut, hand raised by hand raised. It did not stop. It is THEIR artform. They made it. It's like a pyramid made from 100,000 hands. That it stands and that it lasts is part of their compensation, the part they didn't get when the baht was put in their hand. It belongs to them.

This is the fundamental problem with the efforts to radically reduce the complexity, skill sets, traditions and aesthetics of Muay Thai of Thailand. Yes, there might be very good, sensible commercial reasons to do so, especially as market demands have shifted. Yes, it may very well benefit some wonderful fighters who never would have gotten the eye-ball recognition and the financial boon if they had simply stayed in stadium Muay Thai, or just retired as many, many have done. There are good reasons for this, ethical reasons. But as you erase the edifice of Thailand's Muay Thai, to make it more marketable, more readable on the scroll of mobile phones and tiny screens, as you pull into new mechanisms of possible resource extraction, you are actually destroying the one thing all those fighters were paid with, the legacy of the sport itself, as the greatest fighting art on earth. They made that.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu talks about not only financial Capital, but also social Capital, which is your place in a culture, but what I'm talking about goes much deeper than even social Capital. It's about the craftsmanship of 100,000 hands to make something, and for it to have reached a level of incredible capacity. One of the very special things about Thailand's Muay Thai is that it was born both out the cultural traditions & practices which give it a profound (non-commercial) substance, but it was also forged out of probably more than 1,000,000 full contact fights over the last century. In regions styles developed, gym to gym grew specific techniques that won under the aesthetics of the sport, krus, gym owners, fighters all mixed to create an immense vocabulary of fight knowledge - and Amazon-like train forest diversity of it - which made it the most capable fighting art in the world. The fighting IQ and skill display was just eye-wateringly good. This came out of ALL the fighters. Countless fighters you've never heard of. The creation of this was the legacy of all of them. Every run-down village festival ring with gamblers pressed against the apron, every (old) Lumpinee clash of titans. All these fighters had a piece of this, because they made it. It was theirs.

If you take out all those musical notes - too many notes! - change the rules and the scoring (which is the DNA of the living animal of it) and make it something unrecognizable you are erasing their legacy, the one thing they had in compensation beyond the baht put in their hand. When you remove clinch for instance, and your version of the sport comes to supplant the very picture of what Muay Thai is in the eyes of the many, you actively erase Langsuan, Samson, Panomtuanlek, Dieselnoi, Namkabuan and Chamuakpet. You not only will erase their memory (which may exist in nostalgic highlight clips), but you, more painfully so, erase their knowledge, the very thing they put their bodies to work in building, fight by fight, years in the kaimuay. They were technicians, they built something. And, it is not only them. You are erasing the great anti-clincher, the femeu masters like Samart, Silapathai, Hippy, Somrak, Karuhat and Burklerk. The entire vocabulary, a whole species of fight knowledge that has been developed through their contest, and to some degree passed on, is wiped out. It's gone. Not unlike mono-cropping where a old wood forest once stood. And this is just speaking of clinch fighting in the sport. So much more can be said of narrative fight control, contests of ruup signature, dern vs matador dynamics. The elite capacities of Thailand's Muay Thai were not earned by the promoters, or even the gym owners. They were earned by the fighters. They were earned out of the bodies, as artists put to endeavor. I just think we should think long and hard before we erase these kinds of very sophisticated, hard-won, achievements of knowledge, the legacy of which within the living culture, within the living sport is their reward.

It's not just a question of: "How should fighters fight today...to make the most money?" As with all things in life, even things of commercial value, it's about meaningfulness, and in some sense it feels as if we are digging into the cultural pensions of the men who made this sport. The new forms are literally unrecognizable to many of them. They don't even know what they are looking at, so they seldom look...or if they look they look in terms merely as spectacle. There is some element in which we owe these fighters for what they made...even if you want to take what they made and turn it into something else for consumption. We owe them that they can look at the sport, the art, and SEE themselves in it. We owe it to them to to preserve something of the pyramid that has been built by hand. We cannot pull the foundation stones out of what it is and still respect the great feats of knowledge and transformation they created.


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