The combat sport of Muay Thai has long been a popular form of martial arts but it also endures its fair share of controversy.
It is often labelled as “the art of eight limbs” due to the required combination use of hands, elbows, shins and knees but it is also considered the most dangerous sport in the world.
Muay Thai holds a rather romantic story as its very beginning. It goes all the way back to the 16th century when war was fought between the Siam and the Burmese of the Konbaung Dynasty.
In 1767, a notorious fighter by the name of Nai Khanomtom was captured by the Burmese during a battle. As a sign of respect for his capabilities in hand-to-hand combat he was given the chance to fight for his freedom.
He prevailed victorious and was allowed to return to his native Siam. He was heralded as a hero by his people upon his return.
His fighting style was christened as Siamese-style boxing. It would later become known as Muay Thai.
The Modernisation of Muay Thai
At the turn of the 20th century, Muay Thai had become one of the major sports in Thailand. The sport had become recognised as Muay Thai in its modern form at the Suan Kulap College.
In 1923, the first international standard ring was set up at the Suan Sanuk Stadium. During his reign between 1925 and 1935, King Rama VII moved to introduce rules for Muay Thai. Referees were introduced and rounds for fights were timed. Protective clothing was also introduced.
Fast forward to 1993 and the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur was established. Just two years later, the World Muay Thai Federation was created. It remains a recognised body by the Olympic Council of Asia to this day.
Even though the sport is still colloquially identified as Muay Thai, there was a name change in 2006.
The sport was included in SportAccord but one of the requirements was that no sport involved must possess the name of a country. Therefore, the amendment was made t0 refer to the sport as Muaythai in line with Olympic Games requirements.
2014 saw the sport included in the International World Games Association. It will also be included in the schedule for the 2017 World Games that are due to take place in Wroclaw, Poland later this year.
Thriving in the Mainstream
The 21st century has seen Muay Thai really come into the foreground of the public conscience. This has been mainly due to the discipline being used by celebrities across a range of platforms.
The Thai martial artist and actor Tony Jaa used the sport as a method of fighting in a number of his movies such as Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003) and Furious 7 (2015).
A number of high-profile UFC fighters have also built their careers on using the discipline in their fights.
Iconic fighters such as Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo have frequently used Muay Thai to defeat their opponents.
The Darker Side of Muay Thai
Unfortunately, as the popularity of Muay Thai has flourished it has become vulnerable to the darker sides of sports.
The sport has attracted more money and this has made it more susceptible to corruption and manipulation. It has been reported that at larger stadiums, bets between the value of 100,000 Baht ($3,000) and 3 million Baht ($90,000) can be placed.
Gambling on Muay Thai in Thailand is rife. This can bring its own problems. Betting ringside can be chaotic and intense. Proceedings are led by the “Big Legs”.
This is the individual who technically acts as the “House” at these events. They are usually rich and powerful individuals. However, it is an industry that is self-policed and unregulated. This can lead to dangerous problems.
One issue that has arisen from betting on Muay Thai is fights becoming tainted by the sinister hand of fixing. The most famous incident occurred when rising star Kem Sitsongpeenong entered a fight and he was expected to win.
He had won his previous 12 fights with relative ease. It was a no brainer. In the pre-fight warm-up, Kem took a sip of water from his corner. The man who offered him the water was a relative of the owner of the Sor. Ploenchit Gym that Kem was contracted to fight for.
The man disappeared after giving Kem the water. Kem immediately suspected something didn’t quite taste right.
He told his corner to keep the water sample.
During the fight, Kem’s muscle power deserted him. His opponent won the fight on points.
Kem was taken to hospital after the fight, where he tested positive for a sedative.
When the drink sample was tested, it came back that it was contaminated with the same sedative. Kem had been poisoned.
Kem stated “That guy did it because he was a gambler. I don’t think anyone ordered him to do it. He just wanted to make sure he’d win. After he took my mongkol off, he went up and placed a bet on my opponent. My father told me the man came back to my corner to get the cup of water back, but my cornermen had already taken it away.”
After complaining to his gym’s owner about the poisoning, the owner told Kem that he would take care of it. Kem never heard anything further about the incident or what happened to the man who handed him the contaminated water.
Sadly, Kem’s story is one of many that has come from Muay Thai. It is an issue that has plagued the sport over recent years.
More money is gambled on Muay Thai than ever before. This leads to gamblers taking big risks to ensure their bet comes in. Worryingly, as in Kem’s case, it is not a problem that is restricted to organized criminal gangs. It now appears that lone wolf poison attacks are becoming common in the sport.
Generally, the guilty party is somebody that has easy access to the fighter before or during the fight – somebody directly associated with the fighter in their corner or somebody related to somebody in the corner of the fighter. It has started to breed an atmosphere of paranoia around Muay Thai with fighters uncertain who to trust.
Transgender Muay Thai fighter Rot-Duan is another disheartening tale of corruption within the sport. She was poisoned by a driver who had driven her and her family to a fight she was expected to win.
Suspiciously, he insisted on getting her electrolyte drink for her. Despite her gut instinct warning her against drinking it, Rot-Duan consumed the drink after encouragement from her mother. By round three of the fight, Rot-Duan suffered a TKO as her body gave in under the pressure of the poison slipped into her drink by the driver.
Rot-Duan said of the driver, “They found him and beat him up, broke his teeth,” she said. “The Muay Thai community is on top of things.”
Rot-Duan’s candid answer is further evidence of the self-policing environment that Thailand has created around Muay Thai. It does mean everybody looks out for each other but it has also seen an attitude of vigilantism thrive under the surface.
Poisoning has now become such a problem that gym owners are known to grow a herb that can counteract the sedatives commonly used.
One gym owner, Ya Kiatpetchm warned a couple purchasing a gym about the troubles of poisoning.
He said, “I’m going to give you a small plant before you leave. Start growing it at your gym in case someone slips something to one of your fighters. It’s the herb I was talking about. You’re a gym owner now. Trust me, you’re going to need it.”
Health and Financial Repercussions
The fall out of corruption within Muay Thai can have devastating effects on a fighter’s career and those involved in the corruption.
Fighters that are poisoned can suffer serious health problems in the months and years after the attack. Some fighters never recover from the incident. The poison can also have damaging effects on the body, leaving fighters out of training for long periods.
Then there is the issue of judges, referees and the fighters themselves being influenced to fix an outcome. Judges can be paid to adjust their points card, referees can call a fight before it should be and fighters can throw a fight themselves by taking a fall or feigning an injury. The threat of corruption is everywhere. This leaves the health and financial security of those involved heavily at risk.
For that very reason, Muay Thai could well be considered the most controversial sport of all time. The number of factors that can jeopardise an individual’s safety and integrity are unparrelled in any other sport. It has to be said, until fit and proper regulation is accepted by the community of Muay Thai then it is hard to see the problem ever going away.