How a Conversation with Stephan Fox Changed How I Feel About the IFMA
I wear many hats on this blog, sometimes journalist, sometimes fighter, sometimes in-between. Today’s post is mostly a personal reaction to the conversation I had with Stephan Fox yesterday, as a female fighter who has devoted her life to the art and the sport here in Thailand. I hope to write more about his mission in the future from a journalistic point of view, including details on an innovative country-wide, motion-capture aided curriculum being added all Thai schools.
I had the opportunity to sit down for an hour with Stephan Fox at his office in Bangkok yesterday. We’d spoken on the phone once before, just prior to the 2015 IFMA’s in Bangkok, when we talked about the founding of Rangsit Stadium as the first permanent stadium in Thailand to host women fighters in 1997. Speaking with Stephan on the phone then, he’s got this crackling energy that certainly shows his passion for what he does; but sitting down with him in his office to talk about the mission of the IFMA to bring Muaythai to the Olympics, a mission which is already 20 years old, my impression was much deeper. Hearing a stadium cheering over the TV set gives you an idea of the passion of fans; but actually being in that crowd is something else entirely – that’s the difference between a call from Mr. Fox and actually sitting with him.
His office is lined with years of accomplishments and modern history of Muaythai: belts, photos with the Royal Family of Thailand, newspaper and magazine clippings, framed images from “The Contender: Asia,” which is where I first ever saw Stephan Fox, who hosted the famous show and acted as mentor to the icons of Muaythai who competed on the show: John Wayne Parr, Yodsanklai Fairtex, Jabar Askarav, et al. But you get the impression off of all these symbols of achievement that these clipped moments are like dipping your hand into a running stream of accomplishment, rather than isolated peaks. Talking with Mr. Fox for well over an hour, the sheer amount of work that his team puts in is just… staggering. The difference in scale really struck me was when I asked, “So, what’s the projection for Muaythai being accepted into the Olympics?” For a man and a team that has been working for two decades to make exactly that happen, the frame in which he speaks is in years. You think of a goal, a mission, a “next step” and it’s in a matter of years, not weeks or months. There’s no instant gratification in what they’re aiming to do. And yet, this achievement feels imminent. All the steps that were required, perhaps the largest of which is an Anti-Doping and drug testing policy, are in line; all the “i’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed. But there was this depth of vision that he communicated as he ran down all the hurdles he checked off, that already have been achieved, that simply struck me that it isn’t even really about the Olympics. It’s about changing the face and future of Muaythai, across the planet.
Stephan Fox is very personable. He speaks with authority and knowledge, of which he has a great deal of both. But he’s far more mellow than the pace of his speech implies. He sounds like knows he’s going to win, so he’s kind of dancing off the final round, even with his adversaries chasing him. “There are people who simply will always be against us,” he said, several times in our conversation. But he just accepts that, and he sees it as something that makes his organization and their mission stronger. And he speaks about “fair play,” one of the five pillars of the IFMA’s mission statement, in the context of sexism and gender equality as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world; as if an offense to this equality is to be struck out regardless of how “big” or “small” it is. Equal is equal and that’s the end of it. Never before have I heard someone other than myself use the bottom rope (women have to enter the ring under the ropes, men go over) as a strong and unequivocal example of inequality in Thai Muaythai. He said it as if there would be no argument, as if it was as clear an example as having segregated rings, which to me it is. And yet, in just a few words he added something to this example that I’d not fully articulated for myself yet. Mr. Fox made clear that he respects culture, “but come on, Guys,” he said, “this is 2016!” In my case against the bottom rope I’ve been criticized for “disrespecting Thai culture,” by opposing the demand on women to crawl into the ring. Largely middle-class, male, western critics have told me that this isn’t my business, that I’m trying to impose my Western Feminism on Thai Traditionalism like it’s some kind of colonialism, and that the only answer is to shut up about it and if Thailand wants to change, it will. But what Mr. Fox articulated, and it really impacted me, was the link between global modernity and global competition. Part of what makes the drive toward Muaythai in the Olympics so appealing in Thailand is that great National Pride is at stake, but the Olympics are global; they’re international and modern and if you want to take part on an international stage you have to conduct yourself by international standards of respect, equality and “fair play.” There is room for tradition (Mr. Fox argues that Muslim women should absolutely be able to wear a Hijab in competition, only stipulating that it must be white so that the referee can see blood if there are cuts), but those traditions must also adhere to the standards of respect, for all players. He laughed when I suggested that the Thai women at the IFMA’s in Bangkok had gone under the ropes as a self-enforcement of this “tradition” and told me that they were actually in violation of the IFMA’s rules. According to the handbook, fighters must enter through or over the top two ropes and the Thai women who went under were technically breaking this rule. Obviously, there was no penalty for this, whereas the men who complained that they had to fight in the same ring with women were simply told, “fine, don’t compete then.” The IFMA draws hard lines and soft lines, but all with the focus toward their five pillars: respect, honor, tradition, fair play and excellence. For me as a western female fighter who loves and embraces the Thainess of Muaythai in Thailand, while struggling within some of these elements, this was a stark and bold thing to hear. It felt like a relief.
I will say that amateur Muaythai has been simply not on my radar. When the subject comes up about changing scoring, creating “ranks” within a singular Muaythai “system,” and the inevitable changes to the sport that come from its integration into the Olympics, I admit that I’ve had strong resistance to a lot of it. There are aspects of the “old ways” of Muay in and of Thailand that I would want and would fight to see preserved, rather than adapted to a more global competition – I cherish the Muaythai of Thailand. I still feel this way and reckon the conflict within myself will remain. That said, by sitting and listening to Mr. Fox describe his mission, all the work they’ve already done and where they’re going, I can see how huge and global this mission and these changes really are. I’ve never felt so inspired by the idea of Muaythai making it to the Olympics. Not for the fact of the result, but for all that comes from the road that leads to it. The process of progress… sounds familiar. There are parts of amateur and international Muaythai that don’t appeal to me, mainly that there has to be amendments to scoring and performance in order to set it on the global/international stage – in the same way that professional Western Boxing does not look the same as Amateur Boxing and, quite frankly, watching boxing in the Olympics is unappealing to me. It doesn’t look like the same sport, so I make the leap over to what amateur Muaythai might be, as many other than me have phrased as “watered down” Muay. That might be so. But that doesn’t mean it will change the professional Muaythai of Thailand, or even of Europe or the UAE or North America. In fact, what Mr. Fox made quite clear in our discussion was that getting Muaythai into the Olympics isn’t the “end game” of the IFMA’s mission. Through the process of endless paperwork and bureaucracy that is required for getting Muaythai into the Olympics, an incredible number of unarguably wonderful things also open up: programs for kids, UN campaigns that work against violence against women and children, a curriculum to be introduced to every single school child in Thailand that involves the current masters of Thailand’s Muaythai instructing on the techniques and execution of traditional Muay. I can’t tell you how incredible that is, not because it makes all Muaythai the same – which is part of the pitch for such a thing, that everyone in the world has access to the same Muaythai techniques and curriculum – but because Muaythai in Thailand is dying. That’s just a fact, as much as it is heartbreaking, as much as every taxi driver you’ll ever meet will practically leap out of his seat with excitement about Muay. Simply put, the art and the popularity are deteriorating. So, to bring forth a program that will mean every school child in Thailand will learn some Muaythai also means a preservation of the art, the heritage, and the identity of Muay across the board. That’s huge. And while I can dissent a little bit at the idea of “One World, One Muaythai” in the sense that I find it meaningful, beautiful and precious that there is not one Muaythai but rather a great variation of Muay, all across the provinces, from gym to gym and even within the same gym, I cannot argue against the fact that, while the history of Muay is in the bodies of these old masters, the future of Muay is children. It’s cliche, I know, but it’s true. I remember sitting on the floor of Lanna Gym on Christmas Eve, listening to one of my favorite persons in the world – a trainer named Wung – say that he won’t pass his Muaythai knowledge on to his son; that his Muay will die with him. It sounded and felt exactly like a man saying that his bloodline would end with himself, it was so despairing. That’s what Muaythai is facing, to some degree. And the way to preserve it, besides capturing the movements of these fighters, ex-fighters, masters and living legends, is to keep breathing life into it. As long as there’s money in a sport, it will go on, which is why Muaythai has not completely disappeared from Thai television already. But for money there must be competition and that’s the method by which IFMA is accomplishing incredible things, on a global scale. So, I absolutely see now what the vision is and what the IFMA is attempting to do… and has already for more than 20 years been successful in doing.