when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

From the BXP photo archive: Muay Thai in Thailand, 2003

with 3 comments

Fighter waits for his bout at Ratchadamnoen Stadium, Bangkok, 2002

Fighter waits for his bout at Ratchadamnoen Stadium, Bangkok, 2002

I saw my first muay Thai—Thai boxing—bout in Bangkok in 1987 as the guest of Apichart Sears, guesthouse owner, ping pong champion, man about town, and friend. We sat in the cheap seats at Lumphini Stadium. The fighters’ intensity and stamina in the ring fascinated me; their ability to absorb withering punches, kicks, elbows, and knees shocked me. (I learned later that most professional fighters have been so punished physically they must hang up the gloves in their early to mid-20s.)

I started photographing muay Thai in 1998, in Thailand and the U.S., and continued for another five years. It struck me as brutal, yet courtly. None of the trashtalk, peacock-strutting, and booming hip-hop/heavy metal soundtracks of American boxing. There was humility and, like karate or taekwondo, a deep respect for tradition and lineage. Fighters perform the wai kru, a prefight Buddhist ritual, in the ring with absolute solemnity. But then, of course competitors set about hammering and thwacking each other—with martial precision and utter stoicism—until a KO or the final bell.

Muay Thai, a distilled form of actual and ancient military hand-to-hand combat, had been popular among martial artists internationally for years. But the rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts (MMA) in the U.S. in the late 1990s and early aughts transformed this relatively obscure fighting school into a must-learn discipline for anyone hoping to earn real money as a professional martial artist. MMA is where the cash is.

MMA borrowed muay Thai‘s rigorous and effective “stand-up”— fighting done while on one’s feet—because it incorporates strikes with knees, elbows, and shins as well as the more mundane punches of boxing and kicks of karate, and adapted it to bloodier ends. When a muay Thai fighter slips or gets knocked to the mat, the referee steps in. Fighting resumes only when both competitors are standing, just like boxing or karate. MMA, which was also called “no-holds barred” fighting in its early days, however, is about domination and “submission.” The real fighting—read, bloodletting—starts when fighters hit the mat. They resort to grappling, wrestling, and jiu jitsu techniques. The goal isn’t to score technique points but to tie up your opponent in a hold, then bash him/her in the ribs and face until he/she “submits,” or taps out. This makes MMA particularly ugly, brutal, and soulless. And also extremely popular here in the United States and in many other countries—the U.K, Japan, Algeria, Denmark, France, Russia….

But that’s another story—and another photo essay.

UK fighter trains at Sor Vorapin Gym (formerly Jitti's Gym, Banglamphu, Bangkok, 2002

British fighter trains at Sor Vorapin Gym (formerly Jitti’s Gym), Banglamphu, Bangkok, 2002


3 Responses

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  1. Look forward to reading ‘another story’… and it must be as good as the present one.


    2013/03/26 at 04:43

    • Thank you, Suvendu! I would love a Drik India update from you some day soon!


      2013/03/26 at 08:45

  2. Hi Brian

    I enjoyed the boxer photo, my friend. And I hope you’re well.


    Dr. Phil Neisser Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Chair, Department of Politics Dunn 106, 315-267-2230 Satterlee 307, 315-267-2554 SUNY Potsdam Potsdam, NY 13676

    Phil Neisser

    2013/03/27 at 19:32

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