Jump to content

In Praise of ONE Championship - Muay Thai In the Age of Screens

Recommended Posts

In small circles I've been noted as a critic of ONE Championship, and Entertainment Muay Thai in general, mostly on the grounds that I have real concerns that the market forces at play are going to erase some very hard-won qualities of Thailand's Muay Thai, and the fighters of Thailand, that made it and them unlike any fighters in the world. In fact, the best fighters in the world. As market forces come to bear - whether it be the declining demographics of stadium Muay Thai enthusiasm within the country (crushed by the popularity of football/soccer for instance, or the pressing need for new modes of fight entertainment content, throughout the world - it may very well be that all the things that made the "magical", "untouchable" Thai fighter possible, will fade and eventually be extinguished. The market may make Thai fighters like all the other fighters in the world. And, in the longterm...the longterm, this may undercut not only the specialness of Thailand's Muay Thai, but also its real economic value. That uniqueness is the thing that brings tourists from all over the world...to Thailand. Thais train like nobody else, they fight like nobody else, they perform like nobody else. That's my general position of concern.

But in this piece I'd like to offer arguments on why ONE actually deserves recognition. In part I want to do this because I see this question as complex, and some see my thinking on this as simplistic. As maybe nostalgic. Or idealistic. The problems of Thailand's traditional, stadium Muay Thai have felt intractable, and in some sense doomed to gradual decline that cannot be slowed. In many respects ONE's entrance into Thailand is perhaps the only thing that could have interrupted this erosion. It may have negative unintended consequences, but the insertion of big, organized, global-eyed investment is very significant.

Big Bosses

Part of how I come to see this is just in regards to how power is organized in Thailand, in a systematic sense. What follows is just very broad brush, and not meant to be a reduction of sociability in Thailand. It's a kind of internal logic though, I believe. From street corners, to neighborhoods, to local industries up to governance there is a Big Boss structure to things. A Big Boss is someone who has social alliance formed of a network of people, often tied by deep cultural custom or more, a person with social gravity, but who also takes care of those below him (her). A Big Boss can show his affluence and his blessedness (his due position) through his generosity, or at the very least his capacity to create stability and opportunity. Within their field or sphere Big Bosses are respected by culture. Big Bosses stack all the way down. There are bosses below bosses, and bosses above bosses, and there is a kind agonistic struggle over social territory between bosses, which holds the whole thing together, but also generates innovation or activity. In this sense, the various Big Bosses of Thailand's stadium Muay Thai, as it presently was constituted, as they struggled over the decreasing scraps of Thailand's Muay Thai - with a shrinking demographic and talent pool of fighters - were never going to actually solve the problem of erosion. They instead were going to struggle for position over a declining resource. It was only from outside this agonism that any possibility would come. And that meant the insertion of a VERY Big Boss. That's what ONE has done. It's entered the Big Boss arena with a very big economic stick. Not only did ONE wrap itself with the signatures of Big Boss-ism (important value declarations: we are just trying to take care of poor, neglected fighters; we are just trying to save Muay Thai) it came with an open checkbook. It could pay enormous bonuses, inflated fight pay, and hook fighters up to an already matured advertisement hype machine. It was a very Big boss. It's much more complicated that this, as the State (the military) already had made moves to change Muay Thai by extracting Lumpinee Stadium from Muay Thai promotional culture, with visions of it becoming an international sports venue, and because the State has a powerful mission to develop the "soft power" of Thailand through the celebration of its national sport, I'm leaving that aside. At a certain level what is happening in just an International Big Boss has entered into the local Big Boss fray, and we are seeing an enormous social and political reaction to this. But my view is, it had to happen in this way. The Bosses of Muay Thai would never have been motivated enough to bring the kinds of changes that were necessary to more or less "save" a dwindling resource. A big, deep pockets Boss had to make a splash.

Small Screens

But, there is a much more significant thing happening with ONE that Thailand's Muay Thai was going to have a hard time dealing with, no matter its possible future. And this regards Muay Thai consumption itself. One of the big struggles with trying to preserve Thailand's Muay Thai excellence, its peak beauty (and rarity) is that Muay Thai essentially, is an in-person theatrical event. If you want to create an analogy, historically like a "play" and not like a movie or a tv show. The excellence of the sport, the very high skill-levels that Thai fighters have reached, in particular of the Golden Age, came out of its "theatrical play" nature. And the audience of this play is deeply invested in what the actors of the play are doing because they are betting. And betting, in the history of the culture, goes beyond just trying to get money. It has expressed social bonds and commitments, can have karmic interpretations, can be used to display social power, or personal gravity. It, at least historically, is a rich bond. So, when festival fights are going on, and betters/audience is pressing up against the apron and shouting, this is a full and powerful social dynamic. And the fight itself is an in-person theatrical performance (of skill, qualities, knowledge). A play is going on. Muay Thai excellence, all of its techniques and qualities grew out of this matrix of live (bet-on) performance, from the smallest ring in Isaan all the way up to Lumpinee Stadium in the 1990s. It's all live theatre. Thais were fans of Dieselnoi in the 1980s having never seen him fight, and only having read about him. Everything was a theatrical play you had to come to see. And the fighters developed advanced skills and qualities for that live audience. Like in theatrical acting you needed to be visually distinct, you needed to project and reach the back row with dramatic expression. Principles of ruup, the development of a fighter's silhouette (see Sylvie on the Silhouette Test), a narrative control over oneself and the fight, all of it exacted certain demands upon the skill of the fighter which actually produced excellence. The very theatrical form, in the tug and sway of in-person betters with communal stakes in the polities of the ring produced fighters of immense technique and persona, rich in diversity and uniqueness, the best fighters in the world.

Let's skip through the rise of television, and people in villages gathering to watch fights on a single TV, through the expanding broadcast reach, and to the arrival of the mobile phone. In broadcast Muay Thai, what we are dealing with, is taking a theatrical form and turning it into a tv show...but not only that. It's a show that people no longer sit in front of, they watch it on their mobile phones on screens, maybe jumping in and out of tabs. Something that once was in front of you, and part of a knit sea of betters now is something in your palm, and even as its going on is competing with Facebook messages, or a cat meme. The visual fragmentation of its consumption is radical and profound. Traditional ring Muay Thai is not just rulesets. It was (is?) the actual stage, consumption and participation of performance. So, when new promotions promote endless clashes between fighters (speaking broadly) and pressing for knockouts, it is producing content for the palm of the hand. In a certain sense, it HAS to. It may not even be for people who watch the fight, but who see a clip while they are scrolling. This is just a massive recontextualization of what fighting is. Yes, passionate, knowledgeable but niche followers may still watch a fight in a theatrical performance way, noting how it unfolds, like a play, but the market, the actual meat and potatoes of its consumption is in the palm of the hand, between screens. And, live audience, is no longer socially bonded betters, but rather ir's tourists, who themselves are probably looking down on their own phones as they sit there at the event. It has become a performance for foreigners, something which has significant importance because of tourism's place in Thailand's economy.

This is to say, in the paragraph above, ONE directly has answered the consumption problem, at least at the level of reach and more casual audience. (Mobile phone online betting in traditional stadium fighting solves the consumption problem another way.) At the very least, Muay Thai is going to be torn away from its theatrical play roots, the very thing that gave its form of excellence to begin with. It's going to be pushed through smaller and smaller screens, smaller and smaller attention spans. And ONE has a vision for how to do that. In this sense it should praised.

So Muay Thai has an origin problem. What was once a sport that passed through numerous layers of live performance ascension, performance that grow out of betting and in-person, extremely knowledgeable investment, until it reached the 6,000 better's arena of Lumpinee stadium, and grand live displays of fighting excellence were put on, now will economically be for the casual phone scroller, or perhaps an audience largely made up of bussed-in Chinese tourists (this is a model that has worked very well in Pattaya, for instance, entire stadiums of tour-groups). The reasons for the performance, and the content it is producing are just radically different. So in a certain sense all that quality that was produced, year upon year, decade upon decade, is at risk. Right now Muay Thai is in a suspended state. We can take fighters who have developed more or less in the in-person bettor's "play" culture, and still have very unusual, even elite skills that have come from it, and we can put them into these other kinds of performances, for other kinds of content and consumption...but the very fabric of Muay Thai as a rich, fighting art and sport is strained and is tearing under these market pressures.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

If you would like to read more on the aspects of Muay Thai's theatrical nature, and its relationship to large, hyper-capitalist, globalizing forces, check out this. Heads up, this is more of a Philosophical take on the pornification of enjoyment, changing our concept of time, and how Muay Thai is scored:



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...