I’ve been a combat sports fan for nearly a decade now.
I began watching MMA back in 2009, around the time that stars like Georges St-Pierre and BJ Penn were at their peak, and immediately got hooked, and it’s actually that fandom that got me to where I am now today…a sportswriter.
It’s also that appreciation for the sport that got me to try and get into combat sports, and I’ve been practicing on a regular basis since then.
The first time I ever set foot inside a boxing gym and put on a pair of 16-ounce gloves was for my first ever Muay Thai class. I saw these fighters on TV throwing these beautiful kicks, knocking the bejeezus out of their opponents. I wanted to be able to do that too, I decided to try it out.
That first session was really fun, but real tiring…and painful. I was sore for days after that, but I enjoyed it and decided to make it a regular part of my life. It wasn’t necessarily to be a pro-level practicioner, rather a way to keep fit and stay healthy.
My first session was around eight years ago, and I’ve been going as regularly as I can ever since.
Of course, my appreciation for the widely popular martial art grew, I started doing some research and watched some Muay Thai fights online, and eventually being able to try and train Muay Thai in Thailand and getting to watch a legit fight became parts of my ‘Bucket List’ so to say.
Fortunately, I got to tick one of those things off my list late last year.
When I was sent to Bangkok (to cover ONE Championship MMA, fittingly enough), I was able to catch a Muay Thai card at the most popular Muay Thai arena in Thailand, the Lumpinee Boxing Stadium.
A quick look at the Lumpinee Stadium schedule on their website shows that there’s usually a fight card thrice a week, every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, which gives you an idea of how popular it is to patrons, and how many competitors there are.
It’s a 5,000 seater arena, no bigger than the San Juan Arena, but boy, the place was buzzing on that Friday night.
Unlike here in the Philippines, where boxing or MMA shows don’t get filled up until about midway through the card, the Lumpinee Stadium had a decent number of people after the first fight of the night, and amazingly, the fans were already into it, a testament of just how big Muay Thai is in the country.
It is, after all, their national sport.
But before I go on any further, here’s a quick backgrounder on what Muay Thai is.
A striking-based form of self-defense and combat sport that rose to prominence in Thailand during the 1900s, Muay Thai makes use of one’s hands and elbows, knees, and feet to inflict damage.
It’s commonly known as “The Art of Eight Limbs” because practicioners can punch, kick, knee, and elbow their opponents.
Names like Samart Payakaroon, Buakaw Banchamek, and Saenchai have made names for themselves in Muay Thai.
In MMA, former champions such as Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, and Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke are known for their high-level Muay Thai.
So, going back…
The card I went to that night was apparently a big one, with three championships up for grabs. The ticket cost me 1000 Baht, which is around 1500 PHP. A small price to pay, I believe, to get to see some honest-to-goodness Muay Thai action in the country’s most popular stadium. (I did, however, get into an argument with the ticket lady because I tried haggling for a lower price, to the point that she let out an exasperated 'OH MY GOD!' in the thickest Thai accent I've ever heard.)
There was no reserved seating, at least for the ticket I paid for, so I had to find a spot that gave me a good view. Being that the stadium itself was small, my spot wasn’t too far away from the ring. Think lower box seats. It was close enough for me to see the action.
When I said that Thai fans were immediately in to the action, I meant it. When I got in, it was towards the end of the first fight of the night, but it felt like it was already the main event, as the fans were as rowdy as they could get.
With every kick and with every punch, the people would go “EYYYYYY!!!” whether or not it connected or it missed, and with every knee, they’d yell out “KNEEEEEE!!!” Every fight had that ‘big fight feel.”
The fights lasted for up to five three-minute rounds, and while much shorter than boxing bouts, there was definitely no shortage in action.
Again, with the small stadium, you could hear every time that flesh hit flesh, which was both entertaining and at the same time unnerving.
One thing that you’ll notice in Muay Thai fights is that the competitors do a little dance before the fight commences.
This ritual is called the “Wai Khru” and it’s done to pay their teachers respect and show their gratitude. Interesting note: the Wai Khru isn’t just limited to Muay Thai. Students in schools in Thailand participate in this ritual as well.
I asked my trainer about this years ago, and he said that usually, the actions and gestures in the Wai Khru are thought of on the spot.
The thing that struck me the most about this experience was that bets were being placed inside the arena as the fights were going on.
After every round, a few people in the crowd, would yell out and call for bets, much like the ‘Cristo’ that you see in cockfighting arenas.
I really hate the comparison, but it looked a lot like human cockfighting.
Be that as it may, when you look past the gambling aspect of it, (which in reality, is prevalent anywhere anyway, just not as blatant), you’ll see that the martial art is very much a part of Thai culture.
If you can fill up a 5,000 seater arena three times a week, I’d say that you’re doing something right.
The experience was really something worth going through, especially if you enjoy combat sports in it’s purest form.
I’ve gotten to watch boxing and mixed martial arts in bigger, sold out stadiums, but getting to watch Muay Thai in a tiny arena such as the Lumpinee Stadium was very different experience.
The action and the atmosphere was unlike any I’ve ever seen before, and it’s something that I highly recommend to anyone who gets to visit Bangkok, whether or not you’re a fight fan.
If you are a fight fan, it’s definitely something to experience.
I’m really happy that I did.
Now to check that other thing on the bucket list off...