By John Wolcott
For the past decade the sport of Muaythai has been revealing itself from the shadows of combat sports in America. Once regarded as fringe, with promotions such as Lions Fight and M-One putting together high-level, international bouts that feature some of America’s best, it’s now starting to gain the recognition it deserves. Though, we still remain at a pivotal moment concerning American Muaythai scoring. This has proven to be true with the recent release of the Association of Boxing Commission’s proposed unified rules for Muaythai in the United States. Although it doesn’t mirror the exact guidelines as those practiced in Thailand, presently it is as close as we’ve come to seeing the legitimization of our sport here in the far west – and that’s a positive. However, it has yet to be adopted by all the commissions that sanction Muaythai – and that’s a negative. A proper, fully understood, universal set of rules like this is exactly what is needed to end the bastardization of Muaythai in America. However, what happens if these rules aren’t integrated across the board?
If we look at the current state of Muaythai scoring in the United States we can see that many issues still exist. If nothing changes will American Muaythai become a colorful assortment based on geographic location? Without the unification of rules, will we be stuck in a hodgepodge of segmented opinions on what Muaythai is and how it should be scored? Will it continue to be judged and refereed based on the biases of officials from boxing or other martial arts backgrounds? These are just some of the questions that linger. If a practiced set of unified rules is not in order, we may miss the bus.
I’ve always dreamed of a day when our best fighters could be comparable to those of Thailand. I’ve strongly held on to the idea that we wouldn’t go the way of the Dutch, with a majority of the game being focused on hands, above all else. Instead, I’ve envisioned us with an entirely different set of combatants; fighters who possess the technical aptitude found among Thailand’s best mixed with the determination of the American heart, the same heart that fueled our greatest athletes and carried our country though its roughest moments. However, what is happening is the creation of a standard that when fights go the distance, those with the best hands, wins.
We’ve seen it too many times before. A fighter prepares for a Muaythai fight only to be met in the ring by a boxing or mma-based fighter “looking for experience,” and what happens is the boxer/mma-based fighter gets the decision. Because of the excessive use of hands that appears to be more effective or aggressive, judges are giving the nod to that fighter instead of awarding the points to the Muaythai tactician. This is the complete opposite of traditional Muaythai. Look at any fight from Thailand where a fighter knows they are down on points and in the fifth round, 9 out of 10 times they are dead set on using only their hands. It’s a last resort move to try to score the knockout and secure the win. When that happens here, however, it’s interpreted as a strong finish, the crowd goes crazy, and the judges award that fighter the W. Why is it that a fighter who uses his hands for a majority of the fight is sure to get the win?
What message are the judges sending out to the Muaythai community with these calls; that we should water down the methods that make Muaythai the beautiful ring science it’s known as? Should fighters dumb down the techniques that were passed along to them by masters of the game just to appease the biases of ill-informed judges? Who would be willing to sacrifice that aspect of the sport? For most dedicated Muaythai fighters, they’ve spent time living, eating, and experiencing life among the Thais, and because of this most feel it’s their duty to represent the sport as it’s done in Thailand. With that, if we all agree that Muaythai is a sport, then it should be played according to its rules.
Let us compare Muaythai to another sport; I’ll use American Football for example. Going into a football game a team trains and strategizes according to the rules of football. They practice certain plays that will get them closest to the end zone with the aims of scoring, and they figure out how they can make the best of strong and weak points in their opponents offense and defense, all while protecting their own assets. Going into the game it’s already understood and agreed upon that certain scores gain you more points. A touchdown, for instance, is worth more than a field goal. Even two field goals don’t trump a touchdown(assuming the extra point was scored after the touchdown). Just because more field goals were scored doesn’t mean that team is up on points.
The same holds true for the sport of Muaythai. Going into the fight, for the well versed fighter and trainer, it is already understood that certain techniques score higher points. A straight knee, for example, scores more than a flurry of hands where only one punch had actually hit its intended target; the same goes for kicks, especially those that off-balance an opponent. If a trainer, fighter, and that fighter’s gym mates come together to prepare for a Muaythai fight, only to have it scored heavily in favor for the fighter that resembles western boxing, kickboxing, or mma, then where do we stand a chance to grow the sport? A unified set of rules and trained officials may help solve this problem, but a grass-roots movement to educate the community would also serve us well.
If trainers and fighters were educated on what techniques score the most – and the least amount of points – then they might train accordingly. This would raise the standards of Muaythai significantly. Just maybe then we wouldn’t have amateur fights that look like Toughman competitions. The future of the sport is in the hands of our amateur fighters and long after the professional fighters of today retire, they will be the ones representing America. They will be the fighters carrying the torch, taking the stage against the current 8 and 9 year old seeds of Thailand. What better time than now to raise the bar for our current freshman?
Though, this grass-roots movement shouldn’t only take place in the gym; sanctioning bodies and their officials should take part as well. Wouldn’t it make sense to have judges and referees who are sport-specific? Maybe the judges should be required to watch “x” amount of Muaythai fights(from Thailand) while shadowing a legit Thai official. More so, boxing judges and referees could stick to boxing, and Muaythai can have its own set of qualified, experienced officials. On the East Coast, we have ex-Thai fighters available for the job. These guys are definitely more qualified to ref and judge a Muaythai fight than the typical mullet-rocking martial arts hack who resembles Danny McBride in The Foot Fist Way.
What happens over the next few years will set into motion the path which Muaythai will take in the states. How new fans understand the sport and become educated enough to point out what is and isn’t Muaythai will depend on the content that is given to them. Muaythai has always been about the beauty. Sure, it’s a tough sport where people get hurt and cut. However, the attraction for every fan and practitioner alike is that the two can and do exist in the same realm – brute and beauty that is. Although, if we keep passing off Muaythai as just another ring sport, where technique and scoring are no more important than the color of a fighters anklets, then we will be doing a great disservice to the sport and to those who we uphold our moral duties to.