Muay Thai Madmen
1989's Kickboxer was a not-so-blockbuster that knocked the socks off of every dude is America. In order to avenge his brother's paralyzation, Kurt Sloane (Jean-Claude Van Damme) takes the good fight to Tong Po, Thailand's undefeated Muay Thai madman. The movie is full of Hollywood violence and 80's cliche. Though pure fiction, the film is freaking awesome. What isn't make believe, however, is the art of Muay Thai and Thailand's national obsession with the sport.
Muay Thai is an integral part of Thai culture. The sport has existed for centuries. For an ancient Siam, Muay Thai was the art of the battlefield, an essential close quarters technique. Because of this, King and commoners alike became obsessed with Muay Thai. Despite its violent nature, Muay Thai was even taught as a part of school curriculum up until the 1920's when the nation appealed to reason and acknowledged inquiry rates. It was then that the art went into the gyms and clubs spread throughout the country.
The 1930's ushered the most radical changes in the sport. Cups to protect the groin were introduced and gloves (instead of fabric strips) went on the hands. Stadiums, instead of makeshift rings and courtyards, began popping up during the reign of Rama VII before the second world war.
Muay Thai Today
The fascination persists. Imitating the sport is as much of a Thai's childhood as learning songs about the elephants that foreign visitors now ride atop of. Several nights a week, radio and television stations broadcast the fights to millions of loyal fans.
Outsiders question the obsession with a sport so violent that during the reign of the Tiger King, hands and forearms were bound with strips of horse hair to inflict more damage upon the opponent (Even ground glass was mixed with glue and spread over the strips). But those familiar with the sport agree that the obsession can easily be explained.
At each Muay Thai event there is ceremony. There is ritual. From Chang Mai to Bangkok, Chiang Rai to Samui, Thais and farang (foreigners) fans alike understand that Muay Thai is much more than violent fist-a-cuffs. It is an art form clouded in both mystique and tradition.
Make sure to check out a Muay Thai fight the next time you are in Thailand.
Award winning photographer based in Tokyo, Japan. Specializing in portrait photography, he shoots a variety of portraiture, editorial, and event, and commercial photography assignments. Andy is a husband, father, and lover of fried food.