The Essence of Muay Thai – 6 Core Aspects That Make it What It Is
A Husband’s Point of View – Guest Post
One of the most difficult things when talking about trying to preserve Muay Thai, especially the Muay Thai of Thailand, is defining just what that is. A lot is at stake when you’re trying point out that something is not “Muay Thai”, and there are struggles, even political struggles, over the inclusion of something as authentic, or properly belonging to the art. With the mobilizing forces of globalized capital, and the expansive (and even necessary) commodification of the art as sport, fueled by the world-wide epidemic appeal of Mixed Martial Arts, Muay Thai finds itself pulled in multiple directions, many of them away from itself, threatening to unroot it from what makes Muay Thai Muay Thai, that is: the fighting style (muay) of the Thais.
So, at the very least, it makes sense to try and come up with criteria that define the essence of Muay Thai. If criteria can eventually be agreed upon then when we encounter new versions of the art we can refer back to these elements and keep an eye on just what is changing. Just by the nature of things there is no ultimate definition, but, following the philosophical notion of a “family resemblance”, things that are “Muay Thai” all bear some sort of resemblance to each other when enough of a set of criteria are shared. And when too many essential characteristics are changed we risk really to have lost something, things no longer resemble each other in important ways, for those that seek to preserve the very core qualities of the art.
The Essential Aspects of Muay Thai
I set out to create a definitive list of vital aspects of Muay Thai, things that make it what it is and not just kickboxing. I am speaking of sport Muay Thai, though sometimes will refer to it as an art. So I composed an initial draft and sent it over to Tony Myers who is not only a very nice fellow and always a gentleman, but also widely considered the high authority in translating the art of Muay Thai into western standards, and making principles behind Muay Thai clear. What follows is not Tony Myer’s list, it is mine, but it came out of our conversation and borrows directly from phrasing or concepts he forwarded, and at least from his responses I would be very surprised if he disagreed with it fundamentally – with the exception of the final aspect, which was something we did not discuss.
- an emphasis on control of position and physical balance in scoring
- a narrative scoring structure that is holistic in nature
- inclusion of clinch as a fundamental art form and scoring factor.
- particular Muay Thai techniques favored and the prioritization of landed waist-up strikes
- a regard of ineffectual aggression as a negative. Instead of aggression, dominance is favored
- Thai culture is evoked by some sort of rite or custom.
I think it safe to say that the position is not that if one of these aspects is missing from a production/promotion then the fights are not Muay Thai. Rather, it is more that as each or any of these are lost or diminished the fighting is moving away from Muay Thai proper, and becoming something else. If several of these or most are changed then it really is straying quite far from Muay Thai, the Muay Thai of Thailand.
The first 5 of these aspects are aspects of scoring. How a fight is scored is a powerful determinant of how it is fought and also consumed. The scoring of Muay Thai fights in Thailand can sometimes be something of a mystery to outsiders simply because many core assumptions that hold true for western sport fighting styles, don’t for Muay Thai in Thailand. I’d argue that ultimately why these are important for those that seek the preservation of Muay Thai is that these aspects express strong cultural values, values about personhood, even to a spiritual dimension. Changing these elements in favor of western values and expectations actively is working to un-root Muay Thai from its very Thainess. If one wants to do that, fine – but at least let us acknowledge that this is what is being done, and not close a blind eye to it. Now onto the aspects, a note on each. I’m a pretty philosophical fellow, so these notes are explorations. The article could easily just end here.
Notes on Each Aspect of Muay Thai
- an emphasis on control of position and physical balance in scoring
This is a very important one, and Tony Myers himself has worked long and hard trying to impress it upon western practitioners. You can see a seminal video seminar of where he explains technical aspects of position and balance. To some degree each of these aspects are all interwoven, in that the reasons for each all come out of the same fabric of cultural assumptions. We separate them out mostly for clarity. To use an extreme example: in the west if we see a fighter throw an enormous round kick or overhand, and then fall over from the force of the attempt at a big moment in a fight, we are thrilled by it. We see this as a sign of great heart, total commitment, absolute aggression. The comic book kid in us surges. Thais too feel this excitement, but when the huge force of an attempt leads to stumbling there is something of a tsk, tsk. This is, above all else, the loss of control. What is really being expressed in Muay Thai values is control. Control of oneself, control of your opponent, and control of the space between you. In Muay Thai if you land a strike and then fall over yourself, this is often comic, not heroic. I’ll bring this up below, but this is why retreat composes a fundamental element of Muay Thai. Retreat and counter attack is a means of control: the control of oneself, your opponent and the space between you. Methods of scoring that devalue control over displays of forward aggression are moving away from Muay Thai. What I believe at bottom grounds the emphasis on physical control is that this is a Buddhist philosophy of the control of oneself, your emotions and thoughts. The technique is expressing a state of Mind, and in the end the character of a person.
2. a narrative scoring structure that is holistic in nature
This is a deep one. I have a philosophical bent so I can’t help but believe that the difference between Thai style scoring and western style scoring is fundamentally a coded argument about the nature of Time. You don’t have to buy into my bigger ideas here, but let me present them briefly. Western style scoring which is characterized by a largely atomized, mathematical, indeed mechanical view of the world (adding independent round scores together) where in small elements are awarded some sort of pre-set value (price), which then can be simply added up together to produce an ultimate value. A “significant” punch or kick equals “x” and you just add up all of “x” together, and you have a conclusive, and even unarguable result – hey, it’s math, who can argue with math? Nobody really scores like this in a pure way, but it is a direction towards which western scoring gravitates. Such scoring ideally should be transparent and numerical. This is what I would argue is an expression of Industrial Time, augmented now by Digital Time. Fights are segmentable events (rounds, moments of striking) in which all strikes, ideally, carry a basic value, and whether they occur in the first second or the last second, they are part of the same addition. Really, if you boil it down, there is no real, lived Time in this kind of scoring. Fights are thought to occur in a kind of abstract Time, in which the order of events, again ideally, plays no role. A lot of westerners come to fight in Thailand which some version of this value of scoring in their heads, and they are often mystified by fight results that simply are seeing events in a very different way. Thai scoring is narrative. What happens first and what happens next, and next, and next, and last are of utmost importance. Each and every fight is a story being told. In fact it is a contest between two different storytellers (fighters) who are attempting to tell their own story, vying for the right to have their story be THE story. You can no more place what happens in round 2 in round 4 than you could arbitrarily edit out a scene in the first 15 minutes in a film and stick it at the 1 hour mark. There is a structure to what is unfolding. It isn’t chopped up neutral, context-less values you can add up like beans or widgets in a jar. Because it is narrative in nature, it is also comprehensive. The entire unfolding is taken into account, not numerically, but rather a holistic presentation of dominance and control (will be discussed below). Fundamentally, I believe that this is because the Time from which Thai scoring grows from is Agrarian Time, it’s a time of unfoldings, and repeated sum-able cycles. A day in Spring, even if it has the same temperature and relative humidity, is not the same as another day in Autumn, however numerically similar they may be. They are only appreciated by their place within the repeated circle of Time. When you seek to do away with Thai style scoring, where a 2nd round is not = to a 5th round, you are tearing at the very fabric of Thai Time, a sense of time (and art) that is still attached to the earth, the seasons, a world of revelations instead of additions. And this comes to a second fundamental aspect of Muay Thai, that couples with the principle of Control. Muay Thai is narrative because it ultimately is a performance. It is the performance of essential Thai values of control, dominance and masculinity, as an art form – even as a kind of violent (and seriously contested) dance. When you seek to alter the sense of Time (scoring) that is intimate to that art form you risk unweaving the art itself.
3. inclusion of clinch as a fundamental art form and scoring factor
It is very fashionable these days to devalue clinch in stand up fighting. Sometimes it is because people claim that clinch is boring to the uneducated viewer, and promotions want action to sell to the widest audience possible. At other times it is that the Thais are the best clinch fighters in the world, bar none, and removing clinch from any sort of cross-disciple kickboxing is the easiest way to remove a huge advantage Thais have. That Buakaw achieved what he has achieved, largely without the full, inherent advantage of Thai clinch is something remarkable and perhaps somewhat forgotten. In any case clinch is an essential element to what makes Muay Thai, Muay Thai. Not only is it an art form until itself, practiced at length in 1,000s of gyms across the country by fighters since childhood, clinch expresses core Muay Thai values that balance out the more acclaimed artful striking Muay Thai is better known for. The art and balance of violent strikes, clinch represents the essential values of control: of oneself, one’s opponent, and the space in an escalated sense. All three are at risk nearly every second when clinch fighting in engaged. When watching clinch at the highest levels it indeed can be boring because micro movements threaten and then are countered by other micro movements, and often it is much more a series of threats rather than spectacular throws, in short, a chess game at close quarters. I contend that if you remove (or diminish) clinch you have in effect cut Muay Thai in half. A reason for this is that at least since the 1970s clinch has acted as a counterbalance to the artful striking of Muay Thai itself. The power of clinch is often pitted against the best striking or femur fighters. If you are a great femur fighter you need to show how your art can overcome the challenge of clinch fighting (which has its own art). The analogy is not perfect, but for those who love the very young art of MMA, it is the threat of the takedown and submission that radically changes the striking that is possible when standing up. In the war over balance and position that is Muay Thai the threat of clinch fighting, that a fight very well might end there, that challenges and shapes all of the strategy and tactics that the much wider public celebrates. Even in the Golden Age there was Dieselnoi vs Samart. The clinch fighter vs the slick striker is an eternal pair. (And yes, there are infinite variations between these two extremes that help compose the art.) Muay Thai without clinch is amputated.
4. particular Muay Thai techniques favored and the prioritization of landed waist-up strikes
Of all the essential aspects this one I feel is the least fundamental, which isn’t to say it is without meanin at all. Unlike many kickboxing sport arts Muay Thai does not favor waist down attacks. Fighters who come to Thailand and low kick all fight and lose should know that low kicks do not score highly — that is, unless they start to distort your opponent. The reason for this may be historical, just to the nature of how Muay Thai developed in stadia in the context of western boxing and perhaps Karate. I’ve seen it argued as well that strikes above the waist present much greater difficulty and threats to balance (which points to aspect #1), and that kicks and knees in particular are more of a challenge to balance than punches. This makes good logical sense, there is a built in bias towards degrees of difficult in terms of balance in basic strike kinds, though I don’t know if this is the reason. There are other cultural roots which can be woven into these biases – for instance the foot is held as socially low, and the head as high, so there is a built in gradation of value already coded into the body as an image, and then with some difference, while we in the west see the seat of the body as the “heart”or the “brain”, Thais seem to view the lower torso (and strikes landed there), as quite vital – we have remnants of this in our own language as well…the “thinking with my gut” and the “gut punch”. If changes were made that started scoring low kicks more highly my own sense is that Muay Thai would feel much the same, at least at the surface, but these kinds of scoring changes are almost always seemingly linked towards a more numerical (whoever lands the most) scoring ideal, which is problematic. The favoring of particular techniques is I believe connected to deeper principles of balance and control, and a Thai view towards the Body; it further helps characterize the nature of Muay Thai which operates within a kind of vocabulary of strikes, something that gives it its own Thai characteristics. If you fight in Lumpinee and you want to start throwing TaeKwonDo kicks left and right this just isn’t going to sit right with the judges, unless you are doing some damage. Each art has its own cannon of rightful expression, and the Muay Thai of Thailand has a visual vocabulary to itself. Western fighters like Deckers or Parr have come here and successfully bent the cannon, but when this happens things should still be noted as changed.
5. a regard of ineffectual aggression as a negative. Instead of aggression, dominance is favored
If aspect #1 (control/balance) comes ultimately out of a Buddhistic value of Self, and aspect #2 (narrative) comes out of a different concept of Time, those two may hold the most base positions of importance to the preservation of Muay Thai. But this aspect is an expression of both of them, and perhaps the most obvious difference between Thai scoring and western sensibilities. If I can idealize: the western fighter is something of an aggression engine, launching and often landing significant strikes, eternally coming forward. But she/he is something more than this. The aggression is not just a thing of forward, zombie-like movement (in fact, the Thai clinch fighter exhibits some of those mentioned ideals), the aggression expressed is in the west something akin to, if not out-right anger. The western fighter is not just trying to control space by advancing, she/he is heroically launching attacks that feel aggressive, that feel [insert here any number of strong, emotional qualities]. In this way, launching attacks itself expresses aggression is a positive way, just like pulling the trigger on gun does. Bang! Bang! Bang! Whether any of those shots land can be almost secondary to the performance of aggression. In contradistinction, the retreating fighter is seen (largely) as being afraid. Stand in and fight! Stand and bang! Stop running! These are comic book descriptions of an extreme version of some western fight values…but these are also things that western fighters actually say. This whole picture is antithetical to the Muay Thai of Thailand. Yes, aggression can be much praised, but only aggression that achieves, aggression that lands. This is very different from “heart”. The heart of a fighter can be seriously applauded, even in failure. But aggression in itself is something of a negative quality. And I believe this goes back to balance and control. While aggression in the west is blurred with heart, expressing the heroic, such that wild swinging punches, or leaping kicks you fall down from are acme moments, in Thai sensibility this is simply lack of Self control – remember Buddhistic values. While the western fighter seeks a kind of timeless rage of powerful forward aggression (let’s make a cartoon of it, to be clear, though that is really how many Thais experience some western fighters, like cartoons), the Thai fighter is narratively telling a story of dominance, not aggression.
Now, in Thailand there are many ways to express dominance, but almost all of them involve the portrayal of self-control. You can dominate with a relentless march forward with knees and clinch. You can dominate through long, successive hand combinations. You can dominate through repeated similar strikes that can’t be stopped, or through the variety of strikes. You can dominate through fakes and threats that disarm your opponent. And – and this is very important – you can dominate through evasions, through interruptions, through the control of the space between you and your opponent. This is why – and this is something that some of the west do not know – the retreating fighter is usually, all things being equal, seen to be in the lead. The lead. Once you have the lead you (largely) defend your lead through retreat, countering as you go, taking a “come and get me” approach, demonstrating your control over the space and your mastery of your opponent. If you could push it to an extreme: the western fighter is trying to smash her/his opponent, the Thai fighter is trying to show her/his opponent crumbling from within, exposing a flaw. This is dominance, not necessarily aggression. Dominance is far more nuanced than aggression is, and it relies on a host of culturally grounded cues that are not always natural to western eyes. In the west we understand the “don’t let him make you lose your cool,” ethic, where if you can keep cool while getting a rise out of your adversary (usually verbal), you’ve won on the social level. This lack of self control is tightly woven into current Thai custom and culture, where strong emotional expression of any kind is frowned upon, and so this carries into the story of how fights are viewed when one person is calm and cool and coaxing the opponent to “catch me if you can,” and the fighter trying to catch up is forced into a state of desperation. In Thai the expressions are to have a “cool heart” (jai yen) or a “hot heart” (jai rohn), with very much the same connotations as the English cool-headed and hot-headed. Above all, you want to remain jai yen and risk losing face – or losing the fight – by being pushed toward jai rohn, which is what western aggression looks like on a Thai stage.
So promotions/productions/regulating bodies that prize “aggression” for its own sake, often coded as “going forward”, are fundamentally undermining an important and I would say vital dimension of Muay Thai – that the retreating fighter may very well be dominating in counter-fighting retreat. This can be a vast miscommunication between western and Thai values and leads to many misunderstood decisions in both directions.
6.Thai culture is evoked by some sort of rite or custom.
This is the one essential aspect of Muay Thai that I did not discuss with Tony Myer, it is solely my own, but I feel it cannot be left out. I get it, promotions will remove the Ram Muay or other Thai cultural elements for time constraints, or to simply make what they are presenting more appealing to a wider audience – I personally think that this is often a marketing mistake in the west, but that is another story. But it should not be lost that what makes Muay Thai the Muay of Thailand are direct cultural connections to the land and people that gave birth to it, and still gives birth to it. I’ve already argued above that core concepts of Time, Art, Value, Self and Soul are embedded within Thai scoring and ultimately in its techniques and styles. These rule sets have grown out of the culture, they are an expression of it, and every time we try to abstract the fight from what gave birth to it (grafting it onto other rule-sets, expressing different values) we are cutting something off, we are severing. This is why the presentation of fighting should retain some sort of evocation of Thai culture, as a performance. When these elements are removed we are working to unmoor the sport from the art, and the art from its home. Yes, a fight occurring in the west with no Ram Muay or mongkol or Thai music can very well be quite “Thai” if it embodies the other 5 attributes, but usually it is the opposite. The removal of the evocation of Thai culture also signals the alteration of other essential aspects. The ritual or custom evocations are in a certain sense a flag raised that the other 5 aspects will be respected, at least to a degree. Their presence assures: we are trying, Thailand is our aim.
Now, there are deeper values and beliefs behind these rites and customs, a concept of the Self and connection that is woven into many of the principles behind the scoring aesthetics above. Ideally one would want to invest personal time in discovering these meanings, these aptitudes, so to grow closer to just what it is that Muay Thai is expressing, the story of the meaning of violence that is enduring on a profound level. One cannot expect this, but the preservation of these customs is a doorway to the larger ideas of Muay Thai.
Judging Promotions and Rule Sets
As mentioned in the prologue, it is not the case that if one of these essential aspects of Muay Thai is missing then the Muay Thai is not authentic. This is a sliding scale, and perhaps it is best if we don’t used concepts of authenticity as central judgements. It is likely better to talk of whether a rule set if preserving. And this in fact goes well beyond western vs. Thai values. One of the more popular shows in Thailand is Max Muay Thai, a Muay Thai that is almost absurdly un-Thai in its approach. It has a rule set that boldly defies aspects #1 and #5, in fact awards big money bonuses for fighting very unlike you would at Lumpinee and Rajadamnern. The biggest events are often older (or younger) Thais prodded by rules and cash to bash it out with equally encouraged hyper aggressive western fighters, in a huge spectacle of a show. This trend toward aggressive spectacle is also found to a lessor degree in the well-received Thai Fight, or even in 1 Round Knock Out tournaments which are becoming popular. The truth of the matter is that classic, stadium Muay Thai has an aging demographic, and more hyper-aggressive fighting is probably tapping into viewers that are bored with, or find the Muay Thai of Thailand uncool. There is a surreal, almost carnival quality to these fights, and as much as Thai’s esteem high values like “self control” or “respect” or “precision” they also do love some carnival and humor. And yes, Thais in the gym do laugh at last night’s Max fights the next day in a kind of pure enjoyment. So the move away from classic Thai scoring is not just at the hands of evil western kickboxing shows trying to parasitically harvest the fervor for MMA (let’s just do MMA without all the boring laying on the ground stuff!). The ethic of aggression finds itself at home in commercial Thailand itself, think of Buakaw’s now overdone anime grimace, or alternately in Japanese kickboxing (Japan has its own cultural perception of aggression and heroic heart), or in the burgeoning world of nationalistic Chinese combat shows. Even highly valued organizations such as the IFMA and its esteemed push towards an International style of Muay Thai that would be acceptable to the Olympics fit within this aggression framework in their rule-sets and trans-national aims. This really is a world-wide phenomena, and it would take some serious essay writing to uncover most of the deeper social/economic/psychological trends that fuel both the rationalization of the art of Muay Thai, and the promotion of more simplified human affects, tending towards rage.
For those that love Muay Thai, the Muay Thai of Thailand. The Muay Thai that both belongs to and is an expression of the Thai people, this is going to become an increasingly vexing issue – especially as Muay Thai holds a significant symbolic place within Thai national identity. The Muay Thai of Thailand is going to be pulled in any number of these globalizing directions, not just from the outside, but also from within The powers of finance, globalized connections and the promise of what is perhaps the last real martial art are just too sweeping. The question for those who celebrate the Muay of Thailand, and work to preserve it, is: What is the value of saving it all? For those that want it saved I hope that these criteria help draw parameters around what we hope to preserve, and even give a little clue to why.