Muay Thai In America

Sports — By on December 7, 2012 at 6:51 am

Cover photo-a fighter is handled by his corner. Photo-Tania Anderson. A fighter is bloodied in the first bout of the evening. Photo by Andre D. Cohen.

By Tania Anderson and Buddy Sampson

Marina Del Rey, CA- In honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 85th birthday, Muay Thai boxers competed in a Mixed Martial Arts(MMA) sporting event, which premiered live on international television December 1st 2012.

In Muay Thai boxing, martial arts is incorporated into the movements of boxing, often giving the appearance of an exotic, but violent dance. MMA, which is growing immensely in popularity, is beginning its appeal to mass audiences all over the world. But why? “First of all, it appealed to the underground, outlaw-type people in the initial stages when it was on the Indian reservations,” said veteran MMA referee “Doc” Hamilton. “The sport developed followings, and that was the only thing that kept them going, was the following, because they weren’t getting any love from television or the public in general and then they came on site with Ultimate Fighter and people started getting into that.”

Hamilton maintains that MMA’s core audience is a younger crowd. “It’s a generational thing,” said Hamilton. “Their core audience is 18-35 year old males that wanted to be separated from the old time boxing crowd, so it became like their thing-‘this is our thing.’ It’s a trend that took hold. Lastly, I think that MMA contests simulate a fight more so than boxing or even Muay Thai for that matter. Here, you get a guy (or lady) that gets knocked down and someone jumps on them and starts pummeling them.”

KB Solomon, sings the national anthem, while the Thai ring ladies look on. Photo by Tania Anderson.

Before the show, nine exquisitely-dressed Thai ladies wearing their traditional national costume assembled in the ring to hear the Thai national anthem. They remained in the ring while K.B. Solomon, with his extraordinary basso profundo voice, sang the American national anthem. “Being Thai myself, Muay Thai is really amazing,” said Achara, one of the ring ladies who delighted the audience between rounds. “I love how spiritual it is and all the respect that the fighters give to their teachers, which is such an important part of Thai culture. But it’s also really brutal. So it’s this contradiction, which is really interesting.”
Combatants made an entrance festooned with small ceremonial head-dresses accompanied by colorful flowers around their necks. On their way to the ring they stopped to bow down before an elaborate portrait of King Bhumibol, the world’s longest serving monarch. A four-man ensemble played drums accompanied by a flute, reminiscent of temple music while the fighters engaged in the matches. In a sense, the music was a bit distracting, but definitely something different from your typical American match. And that wasn’t all. At the beginning of each round, one of colorfully-dressed Thai ladies sashayed around the ring to remind fans of each round.

Most boxers entering the ring went to the ropes and bowed in all four directions to the audience. Then they kneeled on the floor for a few quiet moments in humble entreaty to a higher authority. During the first match, fans’ heads bobbed as one fighter got hit in the temple. It began to bleed profusely down his chest where the elastic band of his trunks caught it at the waist. He became entangled with his opponent a few times, and the ref quickly pulled them apart. Quite soon the other boxer was also covered in blood.

As the fighters retreated back to their corners, the blood was wiped off, but continued to run as they went at it again. EMTs were close by, but nobody checked to see if the cut was too deep. The uninjured boxer appeared confident and, like a shark in the ring, moved in with some quick kicks. However, the bloodied fighter rallied and won the match.

The high kicks in MMA can be lethal but also makes fighters vulnerable while their legs are raised. Photo by Andre D. Cohen.

In Muay Thai boxing, contestants are barefoot and during the course of the match the audience heard numerous swift kicks—some very high, aimed towards the upper body—which sounded like slaps. One particular boxer, Paul Karpowicz, always blurted out “Whish!” as he delivered high blows with his feet, accompanied by rapid-fire accurate punches. However, often the opponent would grab the high-flying foot, sending the boxer with a hard smack straight to the floor.

In comparison with American boxing, Muay Thai boxing has completely diverse dynamics. Sometimes it was a bit violent and unpredictable, as one could hear cracks and yelps. Other times it was almost gentle and respectful, like an unusual waltz rather than a fight, but always traditional. Some matches appeared ritualistic, but after punching it out, often the boxers smiled, bowed, and then hugged each other like old friends at the conclusion, with no apparent animosity.

Sportsmanship is a key element in Muay Thai matches. Photo by Andre D. Cohen.

In one display of good sportsmanship, a Thai boxer Boom Wattanaya and English boxer Andy Howson took a quick comical break and vigorously hugged each other before going to it in round five. During that round, the Thai boxer hit the Englishman in the jaw, sending him straight to the floor, where he was promptly assisted to his corner. When the Thai boxer was declared the winner, the Englishman hoisted the victorious winner up off the ground with a little swing.

In arguably the best bout of the night, Amanda Kelly (L) defeated Julie Kitchens (R) in an action packed slug fest. Photo by Andre D. Cohen.

Now it was time for the ladies to compete. Similar in physique and size, Amanda Kelly from Scotland and Julie Kitchens from England entered the ring. At the onset, both were smiling but it didn’t take long before they looked red-faced, worn, and absolutely exhausted. Every time one of the ladies landed a good punch, the audience would croon, “OOOOOO!” But it was the fight of the night. The ladies left it all in the ring and it was five rounds of explosive action. Where the men were measured, concerned of their opponents fierce knockout power, the ladies fought with reckless abandon, and positively thrilled the crowd. When polled, many of the spectators agreed it was the match of the evening. Kelly won the fight, but she was visibly exhausted. Outside of the ring, the stunning fighter was so overjoyed and spent after the contest, that she was in tears. It was truly a poignant moment of the evening. But why would women engage in such violent sport? “It started off as just a childhood thing, doing martial arts and wanting to compete and then it became a natural progression, doing it for years, to test yourself and see what you know,” said Amanda Kelly before the bout. “But there’s a lot a great female fighters, quite a lot of talented women that are helping to put women at the forefront to show that the girls can do just as well as the men.”

Amanda Kelly emerged from her fight exhausted, but victorious. Photo by Andre D. Cohen.

All together, nine nationalities were represented by the Muay Thai boxing contestants, which clearly illustrated the universality of this sport, which is becoming more popular by the day.
“In Search of America’s Muay Thai Team,” a new reality show, is currently in production.

Tania Anderson is a talented writer and personality. Stay tuned for the release of a fantastic book she penned in 2013.

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