Muaythai is devastating. It demands the utmost physical conditioning and uses the sharpest parts of the body to dismantle an opponent’s arsenal. It’s ring war. It’s a testament to what one is willing to sacrifice. Muaythai is brutal. But somewhere nestled in between the damaging strike of an elbow and the crippling blow of a knee lies the beauty. It’s fluid. It’s efficient. It’s effective. Above all, it’s art. But the art of muaythai is not static. Muaythai is as dynamic as life itself. Or, to put it in the words of Eric Rivera, “Muaythai is life.”
There is an ebb and flow that separates the muaythai that takes place in Thailand from the muaythai that takes place in other parts of the world. In Thailand, the spectator is just as important as the fighter. The fighters in the ring feed the spectators, the spectators, in turn, feed the fighters. The energy is rhythmic; as the cadence of the fight picks up the energy of the crowd surges. The wage is on. The fight is on. Kicks and knees are traded and chants from the crowd follow. Messages trickle down from the rungs of the uppermost portions of the stadiums to the corners where the fighters break in between rounds. There is a connectivity between those who do and those who watch. In the muaythai experience, nothing is passive. Take a giant step back and this, my friends, is the art of muaythai.
Just earlier this year I climbed the concrete slabs to the highest seat in Rajadamnern Stadium. It was a quiet night. There weren’t a great deal of superstars on the card so the stadium was only a quarter of the way full. I sat alone looking down on the gamblers and the action in the ring. The sounds from the clarinet and the hand drums reverberated off of the dense structure and somehow, despite being so far away, still pierced my eardrums as if I was sitting down below. The fighters tussled from within the clinch and the gamblers in the crowd threw up hand signals like they were trading stocks on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Save these bettors weren’t risking their wages on dividends and yields; what they were betting on were young hungry souls competing for their way out of poverty. Muaythai is the art of survival.
They rise up early in the morning and, in groups, they take to the streets to race the sun to the horizon. As Bangkok slowly comes alive muaythai awakens. Some may be Lumpini champions, others may only be 8 years old, but together they are the face of muaythai. As Thai society hurries along in suits and school uniforms they nonchalantly make their way back to the gym. The holes in their sneakers tell the stories of their struggles. But they are happy. They might not have the luxuries of the common person, their riches are found in their hearts. They’ve overcome the personal conquest of poverty. Although their own, at times, look down upon them, to most enthusiasts they are modern-day heroes. Muaythai is the art of living.