There have been many great cultures in Western boxing since the sport spread to the prominence and influence it has now. When you study the history of boxing and its champions, it seems that the talent pools being drawn from were continually shifting around the globe. First in England and Ireland, then to America and former British colonies, on to Mexico and Latin America, and then to Eastern Europe and the former soviet states. I think that if you knew boxing well enough, and you were to watch a match between two silhouettes, you might be able to guess which boxing culture the silhouettes came from. They each have a style unique to them. If you are a fan of boxing you’ve no doubt heard people talking about Mexican boxing, one of the most famous styles of all from one of the greatest boxing cultures to date. Mexican boxers are known for forward aggression, attacking the body, and for putting on action-packed fights from bell to bell. By contrast, American boxers are known for having a more defensive game, using more footwork, and head movement. There are some practical reason for the differences in style for instance most American boxers spend a long time in the circuits where the ability to not get hurt so that you can fight multiple times in a weekend is crucial, whereas Mexican boxers tend to move on to professional fighting earlier, where the emphasis is to finish fights. But I also think that there are cultural aesthetics to fighting. What’s considered beautiful or ugly fighting seems to vary from place to place.
Now that Muay Thai has reached the rest of the world it’s interesting to compare the different styles of fighting being incorporated into the Muay Thai of different cultures. Former Thai boxing champion, owner, and head trainer of The Wat in New York City, and previous Muay Thai coach to George St. Pierre and Jon Jones, claims to have blended his style from his favorite American boxers like Muhammed Ali, and his favorite Nak Muay. It shows in his fighting too. He has that floating footwork that moves him around the ring much more so than a typical Thai fighter would. Lots of ring movement is typically discouraged by Thai trainers. Even amongst the most evasive Thai fighters, guys like Saenchai, Lerdsila, Ole Kiatoneway, and Somrak Khamsing, the style is to be evasive but do so in the pocket. Arguably much more difficult. However, there have been, contrary to popular opinion, Nak Muay who have done exceptionally well fighting on their back foot, but they don’t dance around the ring, this would be considered running in Thailand. Instead, they inch backward, slowly giving ground inviting their opponent in to attack while using an excellent sense of timing to intercept those attacks. The infamous Samart Payakaroon comes to mind here. People tend to stereotype Thai boxers as always moving forward and generally being willing to “stand and bang,” and are not very focused on being evasive. I couldn’t disagree more. This is only the strategy when a fight is extremely close, or you know you are losing. There some very evasive Thai fighters and as long as you are outscoring your opponents it doesn’t matter which direction you move.
If I were to choose three words to describe what is considered beautiful fighting in Thailand it would be relaxed, balanced, and strong. When you use lots of footwork and move all around the ring you run the risk of appearing panicked or hurried. You’re trying too hard essentially, and often you will appear off-balance not to mention the tactical dangers of making it harder to check kicks. A good check is a sturdy one, a strong check where your balance is unaffected. Your face does not flinch or squint; your eyes stay open and you appear calm. A good kick requires all the same relaxation and balance. One thing about Thai scoring that confuses westerners is how a kick that lands on the arms can score. It may not be a clean land, but if it is strong enough to break your opponent’s balance, to cause him to lose some composure then it scores. But if your opponent appears unmoved then it won’t. It reminds me of the slappy inside leg kicks that used to be so popular in MMA. Fighters would use it almost like a jab or a range finder but when it landed their opponent was hardly ever moved. This would not score in Muay Thai no matter how much you landed it if your opponent was able to break your balance once or twice with any other technique.
There are more subtle values I’ve discovered since I’ve been training here, by watching fights and speaking with my trainers. One of them reminds me of a common phrase that coaches in the states will use If a fighter lands a clean blow but then stops and stands back, westerners will call this “admiring your work.” It’s meant negatively and the suggestion is that clean landing shots should be followed up on as an opportunity for a potential stoppage. You will see this a lot in Muay Thai fights in Thailand though. Fighters will land a clean blow then exit range just barely and drop their hands. One of the greatest fighters of all time Kharuhart sor Sopuawan, would step back, smile and point his glove at you after landing elbows. Many fighters will take a moment to adjust their shorts (which is pretty much the ultimate swagger in Thailand.) The idea here is to highlight your score and emphasize it in some manner. It reminds me of skateboarding a little bit the way the roll away from landing a trick is emphasized. You don’t want to go right into another trick that might be sloppy, you want to take your time and “stick the landing.” You want to put a sort of exclamation point on it.
Recently I was talking to the owner and head trainer of my gym Joe Hongthongnoi about the differences between the American and Thai style of fighting. Joe has over a hundred fights and 20 years of experience. He and his brother have traveled the world teaching Muay Thai. Joe told me, that from his experience in the US, American fighters seem to be all about the kill. They always want the finish. It’s the slam dunk or holy grail of any match. I think he’s right about that for the most part. You can especially see it in MMA. We love flash knockouts and consider quick finishes an awesome win. Like that ugly flying knee KO of Ben Askren by Jorge Masvidal the other week. Knockouts here are not the ultimate win. In Thailand, you don’t want to always go for the knockout, especially not in the early rounds. Partly because you recognize the fact that you’re both participating in a sport, and not an actual combat scenario, and that you both will soon fight again. This why in the fifth round of a Muay Thai fight in Thailand you may see one fighter offer a glove touch, and if the other touches gloves, he will have conceded the fight and the two will mostly bounce around the ring and raise their hands for the remainder of the round. There’s no need for either of them to take any more damage if a clear victor has emerged. That seems sort of strange almost upon first hearing it I’m sure. It did for me as well but think about it for a moment. A flash knockout can be the result of luck, but if you can control the distance and pacing of a fight while consistently outscoring your opponent throughout five rounds, that is nothing other than superior skill. This is how a Thai wants to win, and I think it’s why MMA still hasn’t become very popular out here, and perhaps why Muay Thai hasn’t become very popular in the states. Because the west is all about the kill, and Muay Thai is all about the art.