Muay Farang has a really nice article by Roberto Cassarino on Muay Thai Scoring. Do read it to get the most of what is written below.
How Muay Thai is Scored in Thailand
There really is very little written about scoring in Thailand and this piece is perhaps one of the best there is. It comes from the author’s personal experience and perspective, but in the main it’s dead on. In the past I summarized a fantastic Tony Myers seminar on the principles of scoring: Balance and Control – Keys to Muay Thai Scoring, the video of which you can see below:
Tony Myers is pretty much the authority on this in the West, but he comes to it from the point of view of an official and the stance is rather academic; there are some interesting differences of emphasis between Myers’ excellent explication and Cassarino’s. I love how Cassarino points so strongly toward attitude. Yes, this attitude is thoroughly found in the forms of balance and control that Myers emphasizes in terms of aesthetic, but moreover it also is part of a theatrical display of dominance – a performance – and unaffected presence. I can say that as a western fighter this is part of a gradual evolution of psychological skill. In the west we are taught to express a lot of things that really don’t look good in a Muay Thai ring. I see this all the time in training, in others, but also it’s something I’m keenly aware of and constantly working on myself; the hard part being I can’t see myself, so I have to feel it. Things like showing fatigue, the intensity of one’s effort, or even pain are western habits that just don’t fly in Thailand. The Thai performance is poker-face in hiding any stress, fatigue, effort, discomfort, pain or deflation, coupled with a theatricized confidence and ease with which one’s muay is enacted in the ring. You make it look easy because you are at ease. In both the case of the western betrayal of emotion or effort in the face and the Thai stoicism, it comes down to what you practice. If you do it in training, you’ll do it in the fight when you get pushed.
Aside from all the nuances of attitude that Cassarino talks about, both he and Myers emphasize the importance of returning on balance back to a fighting position after a strike. This is a big lesson for westerners who in many ways pay almost no attention to what happens after a strike is thrown. At times being off balance after a strike can be given a kind of thumbs up in the west, as a sign of how hard you threw it, that you gave it your all, etc. The opposite is the case in Thailand. You look like a cartoon character who swung the bat too hard, missed and kept spinning with the “whoop, whoop, whoop” soundtrack accompaniment. It shows lack of self-control, and often implies desperation. Even strong strikes that land can be downgraded if you are not able to “stick” the move (think Olympic gymnastics). I’ve been working on this myself in shadow as part of what I learned from Sakmongkol recently. Be in control of your strike continuously, before, during and definitely after the strike.
There are lots of great nuggets in this article that may not be commonly known. Did you know that you can (in certain contexts) actually gain points by being hit in the face (if the punch is made to look ineffectual)? Or, did you know that Saenchai’s spectacular cartwheel kick is actually giving up a point because it is a foul? (But man, do you ever look badass to willingly sacrifice a point in order to put your foot on someone’s face in a trick move. Like, “I can spare the points, I’m so far ahead.”) Do read the piece and spread the word. One of the best things about Muay Thai in Thailand is how it is scored and knowing what you’re looking at certainly helps in enjoying and appreciating it.
Muay Thai was not Always Fought or Scored this Way
There is a danger among western Muay Thai aficionados, when talking about Muay Thai scoring, to think that once you have come to understand how it is really scored that this means somehow that it’s how Muay Thai has always been scored since, the dawn of time. Unfortunately this simply is not the case. (For example, the first two rounds being very slow to start and the final round sometimes being “taken off” if one fighter is far ahead is called “traditional” by many of us in the west who are explaining it to others, but it’s actually a fairly modern development – I’m guessing that has been in this dramatized, widely-accepted form maybe the last 10-15 years or so – and has a lot to do with gambling, rather than pure aesthetic or even Muay Thai ethic.) It seems very likely that things like balance, self-control and displayed attitude have always been vital to Muay Thai, but the aesthetic of Muay Thai has been shifting for a long time, and is still shifting.
For instance, when talking to Kru Nu of Petchrungruang when I was down in Pattaya I was surprised to learn that the new Lumpinee (just opened) has made the decision to alter its Lumpinee-trademark scoring which favored more defensive, artful tactics, to now rewarding more forward movement and aggression, bringing it more in line with Channel 7 fighting, perhaps. And indeed, Sam A’s fight in the four-man tournament at Lumpinee’s grand opening in February would likely have been a victory for him at old Lumpinee, but as I was told, his defensive style was not favored by the new scoring and he lost the decision. Simply put, fights in Thailand won today, or last year, may well have been losses 10, 20 or 50 years ago. Different stadia, different decades, all saw a different Muay Thai.
Anyone considering the history of scoring and the weighting of strikes, would also have to ask: what was the relationship between western boxing and Muay Thai, due to influence during and after the Vietnam War? Many like to think about Muay Thai as if it has had a natural, unadulterated progression from its Muay Boran roots, but since the 1960s Muay Thai may have picked up lots of western boxing influences from America military – the first US presence at Thai bases began in 1961, the last USAF personnel left in 1976. That is 15 years. (There was also a western boxing influence as early as 1919. Padded boxing gloves are certainly taken from the west when they replaced the old rope-bound fists.) I remember my founding teacher Master K, who has a love for boxing, telling me that he learned western boxing in Thailand through the the military. Some current military-rooted Muay Thai gyms show strong boxing influence, producing world class western boxers. The Sasiprapa Muay Thai gym, with military roots, is an example. Did classical Muay Thai go through several modernization periods, in its scoring in the 1980s with the influence of Western boxing? Kaensak, one of the most famed Muay Thai fighters of the 1990s was a vicious puncher. Samart, perhaps considered the most artful Muay Thai fighter of the modern “golden age” of Muay Thai in the late 90’s, was of course a WBC boxing champion.
It seems likely that the way that punches are scored throughout Muay Thai history – nowadays they don’t score highly – has gone through several evolutions. Watching older fights from the 80’s and 90’s… man, those guys used to bang. Now there’s far more kicking and clinching.
Did the success of Deiselnoi’s undefeatable height and knee-style also alter the way that Muay Thai was scored or appreciated? In 1982 he defended his Lumpinee title against Samart, who is thought of as one of the greats, who then went onto boxing eventually winning the WBC junior featherweight belt in 1986, only to win Fighter of the Year in 1988. Dieselnoi remained undefeated at Lumpinee for 5 years using his long, tall style, eventually forced to retire for lack of challengers, at the age of 24. (Also, he’s the reason knees to the groin are no longer legal; watch him knee and you’ll see why.)
One of my favorite old videos, Dieselnoi demonstrating his devastating kneeing style on pads:
The Times (and Styles) They Are Changing
My instructor for the past two months, Sakmongkol, is still strongly associated with a beautiful, brutal fight he had with Jongsanon Fairtex circa 1996, a fight known by many as “The Elbow Fight.” (The two men fought seven times, of which this fight is the fifth.) The fight is iconic, as are the styles of both fighters – as they say, styles make fights and these two styles together make an absolute war – but you don’t see fights like this very often these days. I don’t know that you saw them that often back then, either, but Sakmongkol has told me personally a few times now that there aren’t any real fighters anymore. The change in style, the change in scoring, and the change in fighters is all inevitable – MMA is an incredibly new sport and you can already complain about how guys nowadays don’t fight the way the first guys did – but Sakmongkol doesn’t even see present day Muay Thai as fighting anymore. There’s no power, he says. Everyone is just playing around, it’s “gone soft” and he finds the Muay Thai of today literally boring and almost unwatchable. Dieselnoi also has said that the Muay Thai of today is not that of the past: “For me there is no strong fighter as before, its not the same thing anymore. It’s changed in the last few years due to the promoters, without a doubt. It’s not the same anymore. I do not see anyone fighting very, very hard today, as it was a few years ago.” – siamfightmagazine article. This could be old fighters merely talking about the days of yore, but it certainly notes real changes the sport as well.
Still Changing – Beyond Scoring
Big productions like Thai Fight and Max Muay Thai are also influencing Muay Thai, in my opinion for the worse. Thai Fight has been around longer and influenced the very existence of other shows like it, but it appears to cater to an international audience with some of their changes. The Ram Muay is eliminated (boo!) and each fight is only three rounds, ostensibly to keep the action high-paced and doing away with the “testing out” style of the first two rounds. The matches are always a Thai versus a westerner and 9 times out of 10 (or 10 out of 10, if you don’t watch every show) it’s a terrible mismatch. This is great for nationalism and pride – Thais are absolutely the best in the world – but it makes for a real snooze-fest if you actually want to watch a good fight. Muay Thai is moving towards “action”, but not the high-skilled action of its Golden Era.
All my complaining aside, the success of these kinds of promotions is influencing Muay Thai in more traditional settings. I’ve been on large cards in Thailand where the Ram Muay was requested to be “fast”, although thankfully not eliminated. Of course, the inclusion of westerners on cards in western vs. Thai matches is a plus because westerners want to fight top Thai fighters and be involved in visibility of the sport, but it’s also a negative because the opponents are often not well matched. Tournament style shows also seem to be becoming more popular, perhaps part of the Thai Fight effect. These tournaments – even when they’re not all in one night and continue on with the “next round” weeks or months later – can utilize the three-round fight – like the on-going Muay Thai Angels production featuring women, and the Muay Thai Plaza 50 kg women’s tournament ending in Hua Hin. Incredibly, the 3 round tournament format was even the headline of the grand opening of the new Lumpinee stadium, amidst a star-studded night of fights, making me feel that I was almost watching something other than Lumpinee. All the fights were three rounds and some of them were fully ridiculous. As someone not old enough to be waxing poetic about the “good old days” yet, it’s definitely not a welcome change in my book.