I was reading about this impending MMA mega event, a huge production of “ONE Championship” being fought on Thai soil for the first time. In fact, this will be the first ever major MMA event in Thailand, spearheaded by Evolve MMA’s Chatri Sityodtong and entertainment/real-estate mogul Kamol Sukosol (see the promo video below, at article bottom). It’s hard to describe just what MMA’s standing in Thailand is, at the moment. I’ve heard from some that MMA as a sport is “illegal” in Thailand, but it probably more properly is understood to be un-sanctioned, in the sense that Thailand’s Sports Authority did not support its promotion, and without this support official promotions have a hard time getting footing. There have been small, unofficial promotions in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and even in the heartland of Muay Thai, Khorat (Isaan), but this is scattered, unrecognized and ultimately somehow and to some degree underground.
This ONE Championship event on May 27th is a radical break with all of that, in that the authority above Thailand’s Sport Authority (Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sport) has embraced and approved the mega event, which not only will be a ONE Championship card including former 3x Lumpinee Muay Thai champion Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke, defending his straw-weight ONE Championship MMA title belt (against an as-yet-unnamed challenger), but it will be also a rock concert featuring two of Thailand’s biggest bands: Bodyslam and Big Ass. In Thai style, big fights are going along with Big Music, like an enormous festival. (Live music on a stage is always right next door to the Muay Thai ring at festivals in Thailand, so this is familiar, albeit on a much larger, Bangkok-style scale.)
It seems likely that the reason why MMA has been restricted is that it is perceived as a threat to Thai heritage, as found in the sport and art of Muay Thai. While big televised productions like Thai Fight, Max Muay Thai and Kunlun have been pushing the envelope of what Muay Thai really is (with light shows, huge sound systems and stage production, and maybe more importantly: creative matchups and rule/scoring variations, often for the sake of spectacle), inching towards more western MMA aesthetics, this will be the first time MMA itself, in a huge venue, with a large televised audience, will take place in a sanctioned show on Thai soil. It’s just a very interesting moment.
By sheer coincidence Itti (pronounced it-tee), a part-time Thai MMA fighter, full time MMA aficionado, is also the manager of my apartment building here in Pattaya. He’s a 30-year-old fighter, who has trained a few times at my gym Petchrungruang, and who also happens to run a Facebook Group that coordinates people so they can find BJJ training here in Pattaya: Open Facebook Group: Pattaya BJJ. Believe me, someone like Itti is incredibly rare. He’s the only Thai person I’ve ever personally met who trains and fights MMA. So I picked up my camera and ran downstairs to the front office of my apartment to ask him about this event, and about his training too, to get feel for the state of MMA in Thailand. He’s fought on several productions, and more or less has his finger on the pulse of actual MMA both inside and outside of Thailand. Not to mention, he’s a very nice guy. If anyone has follow-up questions, please message me and maybe I could do another interview.
Interview with Thai MMA Fighter Itti Chantrakoon:
Above is my video interview with Itti
I really resonated with him and his passion. What is perhaps most interesting for me is that he is living out a reality very much like the one I found myself in when pursuing Muay Thai in America. He bemoans that Thai people don’t know what they are looking at when they watch MMA, it felt the same in the US when people watched Muay Thai several years ago. And like him, I too started something just so women of Muay Thai could get together and train. For me it was a group of women who could find sparring together outside the confines their respective gyms. This is the lost blog I used to write about that circle and the women in it, more than 6 years ago. I connected with what Itti is doing here in Pattaya with his BJJ group. We both were loving something that wasn’t native to our countries, our nationalities. You just find others who want the same things and make it happen.
Itti also talks about the big ONE Championship event, how much he wants to go to it, but also about his pessimism over how many Thais will actually pay to go. He feels that very few Thai people actually know what is going on enough to go pay to watch MMA – the UFC they see on TV is free on Channel 8, often without any delay to when it airs on PPV in the US. That perhaps is what is so brilliant about including two huge Thai bands, and merging rock concert and MMA together. It is an attempt to bring a youthful, liberated, out of the box sub-culture together. And while many in the west have had perhaps more social and economic freedom (by comparison), so that some of us are drawn to the meaningful restrictions of Muay Thai, how deep an art it is, as a tradition and a sport, one can imagine that when Itti talks about the added dimensions of MMA, he is talking also about symbolized dimensions of freedom itself, how MMA goes beyond Muay Thai for him. If MMA can tap into that sense of freedom and dimension perhaps it has a future in Thailand.
Mostly though, I wanted people to meet and see a passionate MMA fighter from Thailand, and hear about how he has to piece his training together, and occasionally fight in promotions in different parts of the country. It’s a beautiful thing. Itti’s group has been getting together for many months now and for a while there Rambaa M16 (nephew to the owner of Sor. Klinmee, a former Muay Thai and K-1 fighter, who transitioned to MMA “Shooto” in Japan 14 years ago (!) and became the first Thai to be world champion in MMA) was joining them at their rolling sessions. Rambaa has since that time opened his own MMA gym (Rambaa Somdet M16 Gym) in Pattaya, only a few paces away from the Sor. Klinmee Muay Thai Gym, complete with a chain-link fence octagonal cage (I’ll be doing a video review soon). I pass by this gym frequently when I’m getting extra clinch in over at Sor. Klinmee and it looks busy, mostly with Thai kids at the times that I glace over. But it means that Rambaa took meaning in his experience as an MMA fighter in Japan and sees a possibility for it in Thailand. I’m not sure that MMA will be taking Thailand by storm anytime soon, but finding pockets of it and witnessing the passion and dedication by Thai people involved in its practice, is beautiful for me to see. Not because I necessarily want MMA to be a hit in Thailand, but because I understand the drive toward learning, and building these communities. That, to me, is exciting.
Itti’s Last MMA fight in Khorat (Dec, 2015):
This is Itti’s most recent fight, a fight he refers to in the interview (above). And below is some MMA action from a moving production called Full Metal Dojo.
Clip from a Thai MMA Fight: A Full Metal Dojo 10 – March 19th, 2016
The One Championship Bangkok Event – May 27th, 2016
Lastly, this is the promotional video for the ONE Championship mega event:
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