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The (In)dignity of The Chase: Important Differences in How Westerners and Traditional Thais View Fighting

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I think there is a fundamental moral divide between Thai fighting and Western fighting.

1. It's undignified to chase.

2. We want to see lots of chasing.  

This is probably buried within the social forms of governance, ideologies of "self" and "individual", mythologies of freedom. In some sense, this is at core why Thailand's traditional Muay Thai is often unreadable and incomprehensible to the West...and why when reformulating it for Western consumption you are cutting to the very bone of the culture that produced it, and which it expresses. The moments of "violence" are very readable, especially when cut into highlights. It is visually one of the more violent appearing combat sports out there, but the very grammar of "chasing" (between the cultures), which makes up the majority of a fight, is radically different. This actually drills down into ideas about social liberty. In traditional culture you don't really have much social mobility. You are more or less confined to your station. Social power consists in creating positive relations to those in local power, not "moving up" radically.

In Western Capitalism there is a glorification of the individual. "You could be anything!" "If you try really hard the market will reward you". There is the (illusion/real promise) that "chasing" will be rewarded. So, in Thailand fighting is "positioning" for control, in the West its a passion play of committed chasing and "striking it rich". There are of course significant Capitalist forces within Thailand, & there have been for some time. These forces are in tension with traditional forms. Traditional stadium Muay Thai, as a hybrid between Capitalism and Tradition, plays out its "dialectic" (not a fan of that word, but, maybe its interface). Tradition (positioning) in some regard holds the Capitalism at bay. The West of course also has traditional forms, which explains why traditional Thailand has meaning to some of the West, but the dramaturgy of a fight, "why we watch", is at least in this core way, antithetical. The appeal to new Entertainment models though, within the country, amid younger demographics, is signaling a new relationship to Capitalism, social mobility and chasing itself.

When Westerners bend back toward traditional Muay Thai, they (and I'm one of them, being self-critical) it is to some degree in response to seeing how the "chase" principle of (Western) Capitalism, esp fueled by pictures of anger, frustration or rage, is not only one of self-determination. The lack of control, as when viewed from traditional postures, ultimately undermines liberty itself. In the fighting ring itself -- and this is the rub -- the lack of control actually makes you a less effective (and skilled) fighter. Fighting becomes a kind of "reality principle" in the struggle of ideologies.

This of course does not prove one ideology right or wrong, each surely is seeded with great flaws. What it takes to successful win fights may not be what it takes to successfully live life, or organize lives. But it does go to the ways in which combat fighting meaningfully speaks to us, critiques our own lives, and expresses our (unconscious and often inculcated) values.

This binocular vision, to chase or not to chase, plays out in the incomprehensibility of the 5th round dance off (to many). Within Thai traditional culture this is just understanding the chess match. When very behind its like a chess player conceding when they comprehend a positional surety. They see the mate, or see the material/positional situation and acknowledge that there is no win. They demonstrate their awareness by conceding. To the Westerner, guided by ideologies of "you can strike it rich!", it makes no sense. You can ALWAYS win.

There are two ways of viewing this. Either the Capitalist chasing subject is relatively blind to his own checkmate, deluded by a sense of control and rage-yness, or the traditional subject is made blind to his own agency, and he really COULD knockout the opponent, but instead gives up. One can see how the affects of "chasing" and the social valuation of chasing (it is undignified vs it is freedom & vital) is played out differently for Western vs (traditional) Thai eyes.



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The above is a kind of rough hypothesis, joining together broad brush issues of social mobility in traditional culture, Buddhistic cultivation of the proper affects, and the aesthetics of meaningful fighting in the culture. Along these same lines one could consider the traditional role of Muay Khao in the Muay Khao vs Muay Femeu dynamic. This could be considered a Bull vs Matador aesthetic, which I've argued expresses a deeper aesthetic dyad (the divinity vs the animality dyad). In thinking about social mobility within the culture, and the socio-economic factor in fighting style, it needs to be noted that the "femeu" fighter is often associated with the sophistication of the Capital of Bangkok (even though some provincial centers like Khon Kaen have produced a great number of Femeu fighters, Karuhat, Somrak, Pudpadnoi, etc), and Muay Khao, a style pridefully expressive of physical endurance, strength and a spirit of persistence, is strongly associated with rural life and the provinces. The classic Muay Khao vs Muay Femeu matchup of the Golden age could be seen as a passion play of the strong-from-work farmer chasing the cultivated artful Bangkok technician. (Some Muay Khao fighters like Dieselnoi chaff against this negative stereotype, emphasizing their femeu-ness when talking about themselves, others like Samson embrace their "unbeautiful" power and endurance, as an identity.)

Within this matchup there is a cultural weighting of the art of fighting toward the sophisticated Bangkok artist. Just thinking in archetypes and clinches, the chasing Muay Khao fighter can be depicted as low "IQ", "just strong" and any number of class related pictures. (We have these same class divisions in America, we often don't think about them. The rough-and-tumble slugger, or the guy who is only "country strong".). Just thinking about the socio-economic realities of Thailand, & even Siam, and questions of social mobility, there has always been a polarity between rural and Capital power. When the Muay Khao fighter wins, and they won quite a bit in the Golden Age of Muay Thai with pretty much half of the FOTYs going to Muay Khao fighters, its that they have overcome the built-in aesthetic bias against the chase in traditional Muay Thai. They had to prove themselves persistent enough and/or artful enough to "catch" the Femeu opponent. Perhaps no fight typified the Muay Khao fighter not catching the Femeu Bangkok Prince of Muay Thai than Namphon vs Samart 2, you can read about it here:


I add this inner picture to the overall concept of Chasing in the first post. It's not that chasing is completely removed from the aesthetic in traditional Muay Thai, in fact in its Golden Age the chase was an essential component of it as many matches, most excitingly, were "chase" matches. But, because the aesthetic was tuned to favor control over chase, chasers had to raise their game. It couldn't just be pure chasing, because buried within traditional Muay Thai was the indignity of the chase. This means one chases to control, one chases in a controlled manner, one develops an ART of chasing, of stalking, so that it doesn't feel and look like chasing. It raises the skill level of the chaser, perhaps bringing more social meaning to fighting as entertainment. I think this is something that is missed in people that think about the bias in traditional Muay Thai scoring. The bias towards "not chasing" actually produced some of the greatest stalking, chasing fighters on the planet.

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