I’ve posted and talked about this fight elsewhere, but recently the video was sent to me by someone who has been practicing Muay Thai for more than a decade, and who I know to be interested and involved in current events in Muay Thai; he sent the video with the question as to whether Thai scoring is always this bad/unfair. We had a back-and-forth and still saw wildly different fights, which made me realize that a blog post up about this fight might be meaningful. To me, this was an extremely clear and easy win for the Thai fighter Duannapa Mor. Ratana Bundit (red in the video), and I heard the same from others in Thailand, who are familiar with Thai Scoring. But for the host of UFC fans who are (rightly) very excited about Joanna Jedrzejczyk, this fight seems to be a quintessential example of “bad” judging in Thailand. That’s not remarkable – a great number of fights that are lost by westerners here are seen as robberies to the western fans who judge them from their computers. Western and Thai scoring are different. But it seemed with this fight that even those in the west who enjoy following Muay Thai and have great respect for the sport itself (rather than a “background” style in MMA) fail to see how dominant a win it was for Duannapa in this fight. It’s like we’re just not watching the same fight. This likely just means one thing: some in the west do not understand Thai scoring. This is not to put others down – perhaps the way to say it is that western eyes do not perceive how Thai eyes are scoring a fight – we are all shaped by our experiences, and many are not informed about Thai scoring. But this is a profound problem for Muay Thai itself because Thai scoring is what makes Muay Thai what it is, and if the Muay of Thailand is going to proliferate in the west, then so too must important aspects of its scoring.
Above, the fight (action starts around 7:40)
There is some discussion of the fight and the scoring on the Muay Thai Roundtable.
Talking Past Each Other – Fighting Two Different Fights
Nik, an owner of Santai Gym wrote on my Facebook wall, for instance, that he was ringside for the fight and that everyone there knew that Joanna lost; everyone except for her and her corner. This raises a super important point, something seen when many top western fighters come to face Thais. Western fighters, even those who are very experienced in western kickboxing or western Muay Thai, often do not understand scoring in Thailand. This can lead to terrible experiences of feeling cheated or robbed, which in reality is simply not knowing the rules of the game. If you know what scores (and what doesn’t), your chances of knowing where you are in the fight are much greater, your chances of victory increase. If two different fighters have different scoring objectives, and only one of these is the recognized one, the western fighter might very well feel that they are doing great, and end up losing. This is not just the case of the judging being unique or unknown while each fighter fights their fight. How each fighter fights is shaped by what they think scores. The Thai fighter, for instance, may very well gladly allow the western fighter to do all sorts of things that the westerner thinks are scoring, making no effort to stop the tactics (low-kick, punch combos, advancing forward for “aggression points”) because these simply don’t win fights on their own. On the same note, the western fighter might very well allow the Thai to do many things that they don’t feel are a big deal, like landing lower-volume but accurate shots like body kicks, or fighting backwards/retreating, because the western fighter feels a low-volume, backwards style shouldn’t win a fight. Both fighters are fighting past each other. We’d never know if either fighter would fight differently, if they understood and agreed upon the rules.
Some Principles of Scoring that are Misunderstood
These below are edited/modified summation comments I made on Reddit about Thai scoring principles, trying to explain the scoring to others who just couldn’t see how Joanna lost. I am no authority on Muay Thai scoring, and knowledgeable people may disagree with me, but it’s a very rare occasion when I watch a Muay Thai fight in Thailand and feel like I don’t understand who won and why. I have grown through my own experience as a fighter here in Thailand, in over 110 fights, learning how I have to fight if I want my performance to come out on top. In many ways, my style isn’t a judges style, it’s a gambler’s style. So it’s good to know where I stand in the fight, knowing a point calculator will rarely be a tool in my favor:
You can watch this video seminar by Tony Myers, who is an expert, which explains the principles of Thai Muay Thai scoring. It’s about balance and control.
If you visibly hurt or affect your opponent then you are taking them out of balance and control. In the absence of doing this the opponent who displays more balance and control wins. The advancing fighter is not awarded points simply for advancing. Kicks and knees to the body are a bread and butter of scoring in that they are seen as penetrating the opponent’s center.
The biggest difference is the way that aggression is thought about and scored. In the west visible aggression is scored for its own sake, whether it has an impact or not. The retreating fighter can be perceived of as being “afraid” and “not wanting to fight”. In Thailand the aggressive fighter is seen as somewhat desperate, and the retreating, defending fighter as being controlling/impenetrable – Duannapa is impenetrable here. (Imagine all those bullets bouncing off of the hero, unblinkingly – you’d never think, “right! The gun shot a thousand rounds, of course it wins!”) Once a fighter has the lead (they have landed solid scoring strikes) and they start retreating and defending it is up to the other fighter to catch them and retake the lead. There are some very aggressive fighters in Thailand, but they must show scoring dominance to win.
Low-kicks do not score in Thailand, generally, unless they visibly hurt or off-balance the opponent. Every low-kick Joanna lands, take it out of your mind – strike it from the record. Also, punches only score if they rock someone. Basically Joanna doesn’t score for much of the whole fight – she starts scoring a bit in the first half of the 3rd round, when she finally starts kicking the body. The most dependable scoring strike in Thai Muay Thai is the kick (or knee) to the body. Unlike many other strikes a kick to the body does not have to off-balance an opponent to score. Duannapa lands this repeatedly through the bout and Joanna never defends or counters it – because she doesn’t seem to know she’s being scored against.
Also, being “active” offensively is not scored in Thai scoring. When you are the aggressor you have an additional burden of being effective. An aggressive fighter has to land kicks or knees above the waist or visibly hurt or rock the opponent. You don’t get points for chasing. It’s the opposite. The retreating, defending fighter is seen as controlling the fight. When you are retreating you (usually) are defending a lead you already have. You’ve landed scoring strikes. If your opponent doesn’t score again you don’t have to throw another strike. You already have the lead. If you retreat AND score, as Duannapa does here with her kicks to the body, you are expanding your lead. I think the fight comes under some question in the 3rd because final rounds can weigh heavily and Joanna comes out strong, scoring. If she had continued with this she may have taken the fight. But then Duannapa reestablishes control in latter half of the 3rd.
A key to looking at Thai fights is that they usually start out neutral, with neither fighter chasing, each standing their ground. At a certain point one of the fighters will start to retreat. That fighter is symbolically claiming the lead (often after solid strikes have landed) inviting the other fighter to come and try and take it back. If you follow that fighter you are more or less admitting that s/he has the lead. You have to get it back. You can also refuse to chase and stand your ground, which if the fight is close enough this will usually bring the retreating fighter back to you, to start again. Whether you chase or not can be a complex decision, sometimes involving your corner (late in fights you’ll see fighters look to their corners). I take this decision-making out of my fights. I go forward the entire fight, bell to bell. My opponent is symbolically in the lead for much of the fight.
If you are losing and decide to go backwards, you don’t gain the lead simply by fighting backwards. However, if the score is close and you start moving backwards, “claiming” the lead and your opponent chases, then they’ve just agreed you’re in the lead and must score before choosing to be chased again. While it’s an inelegant example, visually it’s a clear one: imagine two dogs wrestling over a stick. While they’ve both got their mouths on it, it’s pretty even – one dog has it for a moment and the other snatches it away, back and forth; pretty even. But when one dog grabs the stick and runs, he’s got the damn stick and the other dog must chase after him to get it back. And if he chases, he’d better get that stick or he looks like he was defeated. The stick is dominance and in an exciting fight it’s being volleyed back and forth all the way through. Now imagine if the two dogs don’t both agree on who’s got the stick… it would be very confusing, indeed. In this fight Duannapa has the stick almost the whole fight, and Joanna by following her confirms this – but she does not realize this…she believes she has the stick.
Tony Myers Scored This Fight As Well
But I wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about when posting this, despite getting some pretty significant reassurance, so I reached out to Tony Myers, a widely regarded expert in the UK on Muay Thai scoring, and a someone who has spearheaded the education of the west in unified principles of scoring. This is what Tony wrote to me in response to the scoring of the fight, agreeing to be quoted here – he felt as well it seemed to be a case of Joanna not understanding Thai scoring, and its related techniques:
“…it was a very clear win for the red corner[Duannapa]. Blue corner [Joanna] does not really know how to score in Muay Thai or how to protect herself from kicks. Blue corner gets repeatedly scored on with body kicks and even some punches where she loses position (usually after catching a kick). While understanding of Muay Thai judging used to be very bad here in the UK, I do think it has got much better. Now I would be surprised if any Muay Thai judge here (or competent UK Muay Thai fighter) would think blue had won that fight. If people really think blue won, then this would be an instructive fight. A clear explanation of how red wins would be useful…”
Watch this Tony Myers Video Lecture on Scoring
Thais Will Not Let Foreigners Win
As mentioned before, the result of a lot of this miscommunication of scoring principles is that westerns will often feel robbed of a fight they feel rightly to have won. Principles they prize like forward aggression or volume of strikes (no matter where or how hard they land) feel so natural to fighting that it leaves them at times stunned when the decision is read. Things get even worse when your own gym instructs you to fight in a certain way, or confirms your experienced reality. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t happen that Thais are awarded close fight wins on big promotions, but I will say that in my own fights, of which there are many, I’ve almost never experienced a loss that I felt steadfastly was rightfully a win, stolen from me. There are gray area fight decisions, to be sure, but you can almost always pick out from where the decision was drawn. One on television that I recall was a little iffy (but it was points (me) vs. performance (her) in a way), and in another case a draw was declared to protect a gambling interest (I found out), but largely I understood the principle reasons why I’ve lost. I’ve never been outright robbed, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a westerner be robbed either. In close fights, the bias has gone both directions.
Watching a Fight, You SEE your Fighter Score
Another reason why this fight is so instructive is that beside perhaps not being familiar with Thai scoring principles when we are pulling for a fighter we simply count their strikes as more powerful than the other fighter. We experience the fight that way. While a year ago maybe there would be much less outrage about how unfairly this fight was scored from the west, now that Joanna put on some very dramatic displays in the UFC we expect every punch and combination to be crisp and powerful. We enhance, in our mind’s eye, the efficacy of her strikes in this fight, when in fact there was very little that she did that affected her opponent at all. Fight fans in the west see a Duannapa who does not want to fight and is repeatedly being “tagged”. Our perception is biased toward what we both want and expect to see. Same goes for the Thai eye.
About the Fight
This was a World Muay Thai Angel fight, the largest female only Muay Thai promotion in Thailand. Joanna is facing someone who very likely was much heavier than her. Duannapa was in fact disqualified from winning in the next round of this tournament because she could not make the weight of 57 kg, well above Joanna’s preferred fight weight of 52 kg. (I’d imagine Joanna weighed somewhere near 54-56 kg in this fight; she had no reason to cut down to 52 kg.) Some of Joanna’s ineffectiveness may come from the size difference, strikes just look different, have different impact impression when coming from larger or smaller opponents. The burden of proof for the smaller fighter is increased. This, coupled with choosing low or non-scoring strike targets makes a very steep hill to climb. Duannapa also was once considered the best female Muay Thai fighter in Thailand, though at the point of this fight she was no longer very active, and was struggling with staying in shape. Both fighters probably had fought for 10 years. Joanna over 60 times, in Europe, Duannapa probably over 100 full Muay Thai fights in Thailand. Joanna, then 25, was less than a year from bursting on the scene of the UFC and ultimately being declared one of the best strikers in the sport – Duannapa here is near the end of her career as a Muay Thai fighter, still young (then maybe around 19) because Thai female fighters do not have career paths into their late 20’s. In this fight they are fighters heading in two different directions in terms of opportunity and development. But Duannapa displayed great Muay Thai equilibrium. So much so that this fight never feels out of her control.