Some of my thoughts and experiences of this past weekend, as part of a big event. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has a catchphrase, which I think is common of tourism to have – something catchy and memorable like, “Virginia is for Lovers” – which is, “Amazing Thailand.” The first annual “Amazing Muay Thai Festival” in Hua Hin this past weekend is named this way because of the participation of the Tourism Authority, along with the Thai Military and WBC as an international organization. The festival was scheduled to take place over a number of days and included various activities, the most notable of which were a Pro-Am tournament, training with Superstars on the beach each morning (Kem, Sittichai, Saenchai), a professional card with WBC World Titles being vied for, and the closing ceremonies including setting a Guinnes World Record for most people performing a simultaneous Wai Kru. This number ended up being 3660 persons, many of whom were soldiers and led by Buakaw.
I was on the professional card, facing off against Italy’s Elisabetta Solinas for the 45 kg/ 100 lb Minimumweight WBC World title (see that fight here). Kevin and I have a particular style to how we approach fights, which in a very general sense is a precision “in and out,” meaning we show up to the parts that are mandatory but generally don’t fully throw ourselves into the more mundane parts of the events. When we were confirmed for the fight, we got concerned that there would be a shortage of rooms available in Hua Hin with so many people descending on the town for this event – the Pro-Am tournament could be quite large with kids being a large target for participation, which often means additional family members, etc. So we booked rooms for ourselves and Karuhat, who we would be taking as a corner and mentor, straight away and, while we were offered a room a couple days before we were meant to arrive, we ended up staying about 15 minutes away from the venue. We hit some nasty, stand-still traffic in the area around Bangkok on our way down and I hate being late, so I was fretting in the back of the car as WBC President Kevin Noone called and asked how close we were when we were already 30 minutes late to medicals and weigh in. Once we actually got there and found where we were supposed to be, however, it was incredibly fast and stress-free to step on the scale, get an approving check from the officials who needed to see that, then sit in front of the doctor and go through a few checks. I had to get my blood pressure checked twice because I was so agitated from running in late, but the nurses understood the situation and just let me sit down for a moment before checking again and all was fine. I honestly get more stressed by this kind of thing than fighting, at this point. Immediately after this, the LUI team, who is in charge of Channel 8’s media (Superchamp, Fairtex Fight, etc) stopped me to get a photograph for the walkout graphics. They were incredibly efficient and talked to me about how much Sawsing had told them about me (that was sweet) while giving me a quick explanation for what poses and attitude they were after. Guys… I am not someone who likes being photographed and I don’t have tons of experience with formal shoots, so I’m not a professional in this realm at all. But they got their shots within, like, 5 minutes and ended up using the first and 4th frame they took. Wham, bam, have a nice day. They’re amazing. Kevin took some great photos of them during that shoot, so you can see the energy they bring:
We were allowed to leave, go check in and eat and all that before returning to the venue for a “ceremonial weigh in,” which is just a media event with the fighters standing on a scale for photos and the weights we actually weighed in at before being announced as we flex. During this part of the event, speeches were given by the Owner of the WBC, Mr. Mauricio Sulaiman, from Mexico, and Colonel Thanapol Bhakdibhumi, President Elect of the WBC Muay Thai, from Thailand.
Both Mr. Sulaiman and Col. Bhakdibhumi gave speeches at this point. I was quite fascinated by Mr. Sulaiman’s speech and it affected me quite positively, which was a surprise to me because, without being unkind, speeches for these events are usually quite long and boring due to their formality. Mr. Sulaiman spoke about how his father, the Owner of the WBC before him and whose position he has taken over, loved Thailand. As an historian of Muay Thai in Thailand, I’m familiar with the time period when the senior Sulaiman would have been bringing fighters over to Thailand, as well as sanctioning WBC bouts here and creating champions like Samart Payakaroon, Chatchai Sasakul, Den Junlaphan a.k.a. Eagle Kyowa, Saensak Muangsurin, et al. Among these, only Den was not also a Muay Thai fighter. The WBC Muay Thai only came to be in 2001, so WBC champions from Thailand had second careers in Western Boxing. The Golden Age of Muay Thai was able to be what it was in a large part because of the influence and embrace of Western Boxing by H.M. King Bhumibhol, the late King, who was a patron to the fighting sports and heavily supported both Muay Thai and Boxing. The senior Sulaiman played a part in this era as well and it touched me, moved me, to hear junior Sulaiman speak about his father’s affection for this country, at an event that’s for WBC Muay Thai.
The reason this is important, or why it inspired me, is that the resuscitation of Muay Thai in Thailand is not achieved by a foreign investor with deep pockets coming in and throwing cash around, without more importantly bolstering the tricky-but-foundational element of government or state-sponsored support for the art. I often compare it to farming, because most westerners can grasp farming as both an industry and job, as well as a “way of life” for so many who have grown up in and carried on the businesses of their families as farmers. Muay Thai is like this. It’s not just something people pick as an extra-curricular in school; it’s a way of life. It’s handed down in families, it’s work, and it supports networks. Monocropping can create huge problems within farming business, on many levels. This is a consequence of business overstepping the knowledge and long-term practices of farmers. It’s money over practical, inter-generational knowledge. That knowledge gets lost; the practices get lost. In farming, the most common way that the industry and the families are kept afloat under difficult circumstances is government subsidies. When the government is invested in keeping something alive, that’s a much longer-term solution than if, say Elon Musk, stepped up and decided to visit a bunch of farms and give a check to those he found struggling. This event in Hua Hin, sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Military (which is essentially Thailand’s government), is a demonstration of that interest and investment that’s required to keep Muay Thai alive.
When we came back the next day for a meeting to go over rules and do a run-through of our walkouts, we listened to WBC President Kevin Noone go over the rules and regulations. Something he emphasized a few times over were rules that were specific to keeping the ruleset and scoring “Thai.” Some were seemingly negligible, for example: abroad there are limits on whether tape can cover the knuckle of a fighter on a wrapped hand; in Thailand you can have tape on the knuckles, so we were allowed tape on the knuckles. Some were to do with legal or illegal strikes. And one that stood out to me, as a woman, was that the WBC had petitioned to allow the two female bouts of the card to fight 5×3 rounds, same as men, but because it’s Thailand the SAT rules only permit women to fight 2 minute rounds, so we fought 5×2. I prefer 3 minutes, but the point is that the WBC pays attention to the rules, practices, and particulars of what Thailand’s regulations are and that’s how it goes. Even though I dislike the limitation there, I appreciate how much they are taking care to respect the existing articles.
After my hands were wrapped, Karuhat and I had to go up to the official by the ring to have them approved, and then my gloves had to be taped on right there in front of him (I assume so that nobody can then make adjustments to wraps that have already been signed). As Karuhat tied my gloves on, he and the official chatted about who were the judges and referee in my fight. “He’s from Lumpinee, he likes Muay Khao,” the official nodded at one name that Karuhat said. “He’s Channel 7, he has judged a lot of fights,” he said of another. As I stood there, listening to their conversation and watching the fighters entering the ring in front of me, I felt relief at how much this felt like just a normal fight event. The referees and officials all wore bowties, which is a WBC thing, but other than that it just looked, felt, and operated like any fight card I’ve been on. That felt so good. This was Thailand’s Muay Thai.
I never sleep after fights, so once the sun came up I crept out of the hotel room where Kevin was peacefully snoozing and headed back to the venue to watch Kem teaching on the beach. There was great enthusiasm from the small group of international students. They’d watch Saenchai demonstrate a technique, then they’d pair off and practice it while Saenchai, Sittichai and Kem walked around making adjustments and cheering for everyone. There really was a palpable excitement, a thrill, within the movements that many of these students were giving to each technique. Most of them had come to the event for the certification courses, for trainers or judges, which were offered over the last few days. Two men I met were from Sri Lanka and had come to be certified as trainers. Watching them execute Saenchai’s techniques with each other, and V, who was taken up by Saenchai for a demo of how to snatch your leg back when someone tries to catch it, had a kind of crispness and “maximum effort!” to his performance that honestly made me a little emotional.
We left soon after, once Karuhat and Kevin woke up, to make our long drive back to Pattaya. The final day and closing ceremony had this massive Wai Kru, which I was very excited about but couldn’t stay for. It made the news and was shared on a couple different channels, so it came into my feed on the 6th of February, which is in recent years celebrated as International Muay Thai Day (as opposed to March 17th, which is Wai Nai Khanomtom Day – the “father of Muay Thai”). A few online commenters with Thai names, but speaking English, complained about the event. “Why? Shouldn’t the Military be doing their job?” I noted to a few commenters that it’s Muay Thai Day, so there’s the “why,” and those people came back with complaints that it must have cost a fortune and, as tax-payers, they were upset about it. I’m not Thai, so I’ll leave it to them to be upset about how taxes are spent, and I’m also aware the military has been in hot water over gross spending on submarines during Covid lockdowns, when much of the country was really struggling – so I get it. But I did feel compelled to defend this event, at least from the point of view of someone who appreciates the tremendous effort. I explained that Muay Thai is a large part of Thailand’s tourism (which feels like it is all of Thailand’s economy – a sizeable 18% of GDP), and this event was meant to draw people from all over the world to celebrate and educate themselves about Muay Thai. Furthermore, Muay Thai is an important part of Thai heritage and culture, so specifically this event of the mass Wai Kru is very meaningful, especially at a moment when the identity of Muay Thai is being bombarded with different rule sets, “entertainment Muay Thai,” and internationalization for easier consumption. Having the Guinness World Record set allows the event to be cemented in an international, historical position as well.
An annual festival isn’t going to “save Muay Thai.” But celebrating the traditional parts of it and spending time and money educating those who are willing to dedicate their interest to it, rather than altering it for the casual viewer, does a lot to preserve the art and sport. I do recognize that it is the same entity that has invited ONE into Lumpinee, and at the same time has organized this festival with the emphasis on Thailand’s heritage. I guess my point here is that I’m relieved that these efforts, and the success of it indicating that there will be incentive to continue in this direction, are also being put forth by the government. Very recently Muay Thai was declared a “soft power,” by the Thai government. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it basically means a part of a country’s culture that has influence on an international level, as opposed to the “hard power” of guns, policies, occupations, etc. I was interviewed by Saksith Saiyasambut for Channel News Asia, for a segment he was creating about this topic:
For me, the government embracing Muay Thai as a soft power is incredibly important and very exciting; the reason being that a group of powerful people who probably know very little about Muay Thai from the inside, in the way that those for whom it’s a way of life know it, its important that they are considering Muay Thai a point of identity for Thailand. The government saying, “this is us,” is a huge statement, especially because in practice Nakmuay have been looked down upon in a socially, as poor, criminal, dirty workers. This is not outrightly stated anywhere, but there is a stigma and it became more evident at the start of Covid when one of the largest cluster outbreaks originated at a Muay Thai event at Lumpinee. That’s a whole other thing, but what I said to Mr. Saiyasambut (which did not make the edit) and what I’m saying here is that the declaration of Muay Thai as a soft power by the government is potentially a life-line for a very anemic, struggling piece of Thailand’s heritage. And I’m excited about it, and this event looks like a step in the right direction.
You can see my fight for the WBC title here: