The Bruce Wayne Phenomenon: A Short History of Westerners Training Muay Thai in Thailand - VICE
Tong Po, the Thai national champion, brutally dispatches Eric and leaves him paralyzed. Kurt vows to revenge his brother, and—of course—goes to the jungle to train with a mysterious grand master. Wax on wax off, and a few felled banana trees later Kurt returns to defeat Tong Po.
Kickboxer introduced western martial arts fans to Muay Thai on a massive scale, and captured the western fascination with travelling to Asia to learn the secrets of deadly martial arts. In the 90's Dekkers fought Thailand's best at Lumpinee stadium. His rivalry with Coban Lookchaomaesaitong produced some of the best fights of all time. The second of their four fights had a lasting impact on Muay Thai—Dekkers knocked Coban out with superior boxing. Thais took note, and started incorporating more western boxing into their training. The Deckkers-Coban rivalry had its roots in an earlier clash between Thai's and foreigners.
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In , Japan sent three of its best Karatekas to challenge the Thais. The Thais humiliated the Karatekas. But in the Japanese tried again. All but one of their fighters lost—Toshio Fujiwara—who in would become the first foreigner to win a Rajadamnern Stadium championship.
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Jan Plas brought kickboxing to the Netherlands after studying in Japan with Fujiwara. Ramon Dekker's heavy handed, quick footed style traced its lineage to the Fujiwara. In the states, the rise of mixed martial arts brought Muay Thai into the mainstream. The first UFC broadcast on pay per view in to an audience of 83, The sport grew rapidly.
The Spike TV show The Ultimate Fighter, which followed fighters training and competing for a multi-million dollar contract with the UFC, aired in and drove widespread interest in the sport. In , UFC 61 had more than 1 million viewers on pay per view. Those crowds also found their way to Thailand.
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Sam Sheridan went to Thailand in —before the influx. He trained for six months at Fairtex gym in Bangkok and defeated a high level Japanese karateka. In , Fairtex was a barebones Bangkok style gym, and Sheridan writes fondly of sleeping on dirty mattresses in an ant-infested room with the handful of other farang. When he returned in to research his book "The Fighters Heart," Fairtex had become a Muay Thai resort with a spa, air conditioned treadmills, and a host of "Farang" training.
Today, Thailand boasts Muay Thai resorts like Tiger Muay Thai, which have luxury rooms, bars, weekend parties, and the opportunity for Westerners to fight in "amateur fights. Thai gyms traditionally made money from their fighters.
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Every fight has a purse, and fighters split their winnings with the gym. The influx of farang means that more and more gyms supplement or even support themselves primarily with income from foreigners who pay to train. That's not necessarily a bad thing—foreign interest has helped keep the sport alive, as more and more Thai's have started to watch soccer and other western imports. It's also gotten more Thai's training—Westerners' fascination with Muay Thai has reduced the sports' association with poverty. Bangkok's middle class stays trim at Soul Cycle style boutique Muay Thai fitness classes.
Still, there's a dedicated group of western fighters who train in Thailand. Some come to tune up their skills for MMA or international kickboxing productions like Glory. Others try to beat the Thais at their own game. But new research within Thailand suggests that the earlier Muay Thai boxers begin, the more prone they are to a range of injuries. Lawmakers under the country's military leaders have also drafted revamped legislation that would bar children under 12 from competing in the contact sport.
The push has gathered new momentum in light of the death of year-old Anucha Tasako, who died from a brain haemorrhage last weekend after his similarly aged opponent struck him with multiple blows to the head at a charity fight near Bangkok. Deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan instructed the sports ministry to review the legislation, which also requires parental consent for those between 12 and 15 and "physical safety measures".
Thai child fighting culture sparks debate after 13-year-old's death
It is common for Muay Thai fighters to start young and Anucha embarked on his career when he was eight years old. He grew up in the northeastern province of Kalasin and after his parents parted ways he spent time with a relative who had a Muay Thai gym. By the time he got to the charity match in Samut Prakan on Saturday he had fought times, according to local media reports.
Critics point to alleged child exploitation as gamblers bet on bouts or promoters shave off prize money. A five-year study from by the Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Center at Ramathibodi Hospital carried out MRI scans on the brains of child boxers and compared them with non-boxers of the same ages. Hospital director Adisak Plitponkarnpim said it was "clear" that child boxers suffered more brain cell damage and ruptures, and also had lower IQs.
Thailand's champions who have climbed out of Muay Thai and into success in western boxing circles also honed their skills as youngsters. Wanheng Menayothin, the WBC minimumweight champion who surpassed Floyd Mayweather's record this year, moved to Bangkok at age 12 to train.
Some also feel the discussion around Muay Thai unfairly stigmatises a sport that is easier to access for the South-east Asian nation's impoverished youth than more expensive sports such golf or tennis.