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The End of Female Muay Thai (the Muay of Thailand)?

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Muay Thai of Thailand in the West

When Caley Reece retired I mentioned to her that with her probably passes the last high profile western female fighter who fights in what might be termed a "Thai style" in that she is both a crisp fighter with Thai techniques who also strongly favors clinch and fought professional Muay Thai - at the time it was very hard to think of another female fighter like this. Tiffany van Soest, who carried the torch of Muay Thai stardom in America was really a Karate style fighter who fought under (and succeeded in) Muay Thai rules. In fact I recall that after some difficulty in the ring Tiffany said she had to get back to her Karate roots. Iman Barlow, who also vies for the unspoken title of "best female Muay Thai fighter in the World" doesn't really fight Muay Thai rules any longer (2 Muay Thai fights in the last 2 years), instead fighting very frequently for K1 style Enfusion, along with many other top talents. I'm also not quite sure how "Thai" her style is, in the sense that she prefers not to fight in Thailand, and fights with great pressure and aggression. Anissa Meksen, another top Muay Thai western name, fights from a very heavy Savate background (11 years Savate champion). Jorina Baars is very Dutch in her style. Clinch fighters like Teressa Wintermyr are nearing the end of their careers, and now that Tiffany is moving onto MMA, likely to the UFC (with a brief stop over in Glory/Invicta), and with the UFC absorbing big names like Valentina Shevchenko, or turning Jedrzejczyk into a name, there is a real sense that as much as female Muay Thai seems to be growing, in a strange way the western female Muay Thai of Thailand (Thai-style) is ending.

Yes, women will still come to Thailand to train and pick up techniques, but as fighters are pulled more and more into non-Muay Thai promotions, variations of kickboxing, and "Muay Thai" itself becomes a broad international style, it could be that the Muay of Thailand for women is waning.


The Muay Thai of Thailand, Internationally

This is speaking of the west. But even for Thai female fighters the pressure away from traditional Muay Thai has been happening for several years now. First it seemed to be the draw to go fight in Japan for significant purses that could not be had in Thailand (easily). I'm not an expert on these fights, but of those I've seen it has often involved female Thai fighters being beat on under rules they did not fully understand or were unprepared for (Shoot Box, for instance), or having Japanese Muay Thai champions face Thai opponents who were sometimes not the top tier, or outside of their natural weight class. This felt somewhat Nationalistic to me, as Japan has always had a tension with Thailand ever since it tried to steal (perfect?) Muay Thai as "Kickboxing" in the 1960s, a Muay Thai that challenged the supremacy of Karate in many ways. The Japanese want to beat Thais. Again, I'm no expert, this goes back much further than when I started paying attention, but in watching recent female champions in a few weight classes closely it seems like the best Thai fighters are no longer invited to fight for Muay Thai belts in Japan, and even that Japanese champions sometime come to Thailand somewhat quietly, and fight what they believe to be lower level names. This has left some of the best Thai female fighters without a chance at more international acclaim.

One has to add to this the more recent trend of Thai fighters being more or less "set up" to fight (and lose to) Chinese fighters. The first time we witnessed this was on the Queen's Birthday fights a few years ago. There was a bizarre match up of a very robust, almost hulking Chinese female fighter tossing around a Thai fighter in some of the oddest rules I've seen in Thailand - it was unexpected because this was a National holiday typically celebrating Thai female fighting. The Chinese fighter was basically ragdolling the Thai girl around the ring with hip throws and whatever else, in a part of the broadcast that was being sent to China (I believe). It was pretty stunning. Since then, and probably before, there are similar fights between Chinese and Thai female fighters, in Thailand, with rules designed to benefit the Chinese fighter, televised back to China (I presume). Thai female fighters also gain big purses flying out to China to (sometimes) be bludgeoned, again, under similar rules in what also seem to be unfair weight disadvantages. Again, it feels like Thai female fighters are serving what is essentially a Nationalism of another country.

All of this makes me wonder about the future of the Muay of Thailand for female fighters, even as female Muay Thai in Thailand seems to be receiving its widest reach and appreciation. The growing, looming wealth of China will likely only increase these kinds of Nationalistic matchups, a Wushu nation seeking to dramatize it's potency in real terms. and in the west the expansive pressure of the UFC and all its ripples in the pond (various "stand up MMA" striking promotions), may lead to an Internationalization of Muay Thai that will take "female Muay Thai" further and further from the Muay of Thailand, just as Muay Thai opportunity is expanding for female Thais within their country...and this is not even taking into account the pronounced globalizing success of the IFMA, which is quietly bringing about significant changes in the sport.

It may be as simple as the fact that the Thai-style rule set and scoring aesthetic does not exist outside of Thailand, so it is hard pressed to imagine that the Muay of Thailand could exists in anything outside of pockets of "Purists" who seek to preserve the artform in the west, or the proliferation of techniques and tone from former Thai fighters turned international coaches and therefore ambassadors for the sport. This is something that all of Muay Thai is facing. But, because of the precarious nature of female Muay Thai, the reality that far fewer women fight or train seriously when compared to men, shifts in style, trends in popularity and maybe more importantly opportunity, can have a much more powerful, and perhaps categorical effect on female fighting than they may on male fighting. As the United States loses its one female Muay Thai star to kickboxing, and then inevitably to MMA, a star who herself was perhaps a Karate fighter at core, one has to wonder just what the future of the Muay of Thailand is for female fighting. Will the Muay of Thailand become anything more for female fighters than a collection of techniques (spinning elbows, teeps, knees) added to a style simply known as "striking"?

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Good post Kevin! I agree that the Thai version will only exist in the West among a small group of purists, but it seems like that is how it has always been. Another factor which might have an effect on the Thai style is the (growing?) feeling in Thailand that scoring is too influenced by the gamblers. Samart put out a video on youtube where he said the Thai scoring is set up to benefit gamblers(easy to throw a fight by losing balance, etc) and leads to fights which only show off some of Muay Thai's beautiful weapons(way more kicks and knees than punches and elbows).

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Samart put out a video on youtube where he said the Thai scoring is set up to benefit gamblers(easy to throw a fight by losing balance, etc) and leads to fights which only show off some of Muay Thai's beautiful weapons(way more kicks and knees than punches and elbows).


Regarding the problems of gambling and it ruining Muay Thai in Thailand, I just don't buy it. The reason I don't by it is that in the Golden Age Muay Thai was basically run by huge, powerful mafia. The grip over Muay Thai was so strong that there were assassination attempts (shootings, a bombing) at Lumpinee. Gambling was the promotional bedrock of the greatest Muay Thai we've known, it's not a suddenly strong influence - gambling is likely expressing something within the culture, not artificially imposing something. This is probably a very nuanced history, but great fighters of the Golden Age notoriously lost their careers by throwing fights.

But staying focused on female Muay Thai, female Muay Thai in Thailand has its own short, minor history and sub-culture. One of the things we seemed to glean from the gamblers in female MT matchups, is that gamblers love Sylvie because she fights. And she fights hard. There seems to be a sense from at least some Thais that as female Thai fighters adopt a very "femur" (technical) fighting style, lots of retreat, point-scoring kicks, evasion, that they aren't really fighting. Even though Sylvie is a clinch fighter, some Thais seem to read this as real fighting, forcing the Thai fighter to fight. The technical approach, at least among female fighters, can be read as anti-fighting. If I would guess, this may also be how many Thai female fighters are viewed in Japan (or China), as anti-fighters, fighters who won't fight, in promotions where aggression is esteemed. I think that some of this same thirst for "real fighting" also exists at the level of male Muay Thai too. I think that's why shows like Thai Fight and Max Muay Thai are having wide televised audience success - these are often circus-like shows, but very popular, and their popularity should be telling us something. They are offering "aggression" in contrast to the more controlled fighting style of traditional Muay Thai. This may also be key to why MMA is starting to take a small foothold in younger generations. I'm not saying that this is a good thing, but I really don't think that the economic decline of Muay Thai in Thailand is because there aren't enough techniques being shown at Lumpinee. It may be even the opposite. Technical fighting may not have widespread appeal.

The power vs technique question has been a long running one, and I'm sure it goes much further back than when Samart lost to Dieselnoi who just clinched and kneed, a loss that still probably stings. But this is why I say that in particular to female Muay Thai, the style of Muay Thai in Thailand, for women, may be in a precarious place. It is caught up in this much wider march towards power fighting and aggression, which is really typified by the International populist ethos of MMA, and its various step-child promotions of kickbox striking.

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Just this morning I had an interesting experience with Pi Nu. He was having me do these "sok glap" (reverse elbow) on the pads, which he sees as a "trick" and wants me to do for two reasons: 1) confidence and 2) I'm fighting in a show that will expect this kind of thing. He had me throw a bunch of them, then kind of muttered that because I'm a westerner this move is good. "When Thai do it, everybody yak yak," he said. He uses "yak yak" to mean gossiping or complaining. 

How interesting! We hate-watch Max every weekend and the worst fights have just endless spinning back elbows; off-balance, not landing... total crap. But a lot of them. Westerners do most of them, but the Thai fighters have picked it up as well, as a way to try to win the "super bonus," which is extra cash. Pi Nu gave me no explanation for why people would talk shit about Thai fighters for that elbow. I'd assume it's because they never land, so you look like a tool-bag spinning around and ending up with your back taken or off-balance or whatever. That's what the westerners often look like. But given the major complaint of ex-fighters of Pi Nu's age and a bit older, which is the complaint Samart made, that fighters now days just fight enough to win and don't show any technique... well, clearly the flashy and mostly ineffective reverse elbow isn't one of them.

I wonder if it's that fighters used to have very distinct styles. Dieselnoi's knees, Yodkhunpon's elbows, Apidej's kicks, or Samart's overall finesse but slick boxing and teeps especially... I can pick out some tendencies in modern fighters, but not like these guys. Maybe what people see now is that there's less distinction. Like how the Ram Muay used to be unique to gyms but now they all pretty much look the same. 

When I was training with Dieselnoi the other day I asked him what fighters he likes now. He thought about it for a minute (a lot of men his age don't, they just immediately say everybody today sucks), then shook his head and said nobody really. It's a common answer, that fighters now can't hold a candle to the Golden Age. But he gave an interesting addendum to that assessment, which I've never heard from any others like him. He said that before you had these top fighters and champions who had to fight each other - the best fighting the best. He says now you have these great fighters but they're under different promoters, so they don't fight each other. The best are protected from the best. Like how you don't see very many "super fights" in the UFC and none in boxing anymore.

There aren't a lot of famous female fighters in Thailand. I can probably count on one hand the very top names and they're usually not in the same weight classes as each other. And those who are, won't fight each other because "we're friends." And their gyms go along with this because of money and reputation, I think. Same reason Anderson Silva and Machida - one weight class apart, it is possible, but they wouldn't do it - wouldn't fight. But if there's no money for top female fighters, then there's no fights for top female fighters. The woman in the photo that Kevin shared above is Mary from Thailand (facing the camera; the woman with her back to the camera is Chinese) and she's a good fighter, well-established, good name, etc. She's 25, which is "old" for a female fighter; it's even a bit old for a male fighter. But fighting in China is good money for a Thai and it happens more or less in a vacuum, so it doesn't matter for her reputation or her career overall. I think the thing that's killing female Muay Thai is that there's nowhere to go. What's killing male Muay Thai is that what used to be really prestigious simply isn't anymore. And as interest by generations of Thais wanes, while interest by westerners picks up, the audience will have great affect on how the aesthetic develops. Sports are living things, they change, and the tendency is always to say that how it used to be was always better. I expect Muay to change and I don't think that's a bad thing. But it's still painful in some ways. 

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