5 Reasons Muay Thai Will Always Struggle in the United States (Until Something Changes)

Last night in Milwaukee, another American Road to Glory came and went. It has been the latest in a big year of Kickfighting, and there’s quite a bit left for Americans to look forward to- including a May 16th affair between Tetsuya Yamato and Sagetdao at M-ONE, a big Lion Fight card, and GLORY 9 in New York.

With all these events, there has been a recent boom in Muay Thai (still not so much kickboxing) that the United States hasn’t seen in quite some time. But the question on everyone’s lips is still the same- “Will the U.S. ever be able to produce a strong stream of international level fighters?’

I’ve listed 5 reasons that I think Muay Thai in America will continue to struggle until someone, somewhere, takes the steps to make a change.

1. Where’s the Good Ole tradition Gone?

Now, I’m no stickler for the rules. I spent my youth dressing up like a ninja and running on top of my primary school’s roof avoiding the police, so a little tradition-bending now and then is healthy for the spirit, I think. That being said, there’s a difference between stretching and snapping.

The long-standing myth in Muay Thai is that Thai’s have weak boxing. So I guess it occurred to someone, somewhere, that maybe we should drill OUR boxing 200% more than the Thai’s, because no one has ever thought of that, and it’s a pretty good idea.

The main problem here is that the Thai’s actually have very good boxing, they just typically don’t use it. Why? Well, because unless you visibly rock your opponent, punches DON’T COUNT in Muay Thai.

But in the United States, where rules are meant to be broken, the scoring system is very un-Thai. Fights are judged much closer to boxing or MMA matches, where the one who has thrown more usually wins the round. This is not how it’s supposed to be, despite how much it goes against the common sense of a typical combat sports aficionado.

Putting aside the fact that most American nak muays are not taught the correct ruleset, they also normally never learn a proper Wai Kru, or have any bearing on the tradition behind Muay Thai itself. What you end up with is a sport that is more like kickboxing than what it claims to be.

There’s nothing wrong with inventing a new sport, but there is an issue when you create something unique and call it Muay Thai. You wouldn’t see basketball players nodding their head in agreement if the other team came out wearing moon boots, only played one quarter, and refused to dribble. While fighters like Kevin Ross and Romie Adanza will always struggle against mid-level fighters under full Thai rules, they still put on exciting performances that I personally think are much better suited to the kickboxing ring.

2. MMA

You knew this was coming. Probably the largest reason that Muay Thai/Kickboxing has had trouble taking off in the States was the Big Bang of MMA that exploded in the late 1990’s. It might interest our international readers to note that in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the United States was one of the largest kickboxing powerhouses in the world, along with Thailand, the Netherlands, and Japan. The rumors of Benny Urquidez being one of “the best eva” are no exaggeration. In fact, if you watch the fight below with Rick Roufus and Rob Kama, you’ll similarities in their style that no longer exists today. Up until this point the USA and the Netherlands were developing their kickboxing technique in a parallel fashion.

So what happened? Well, when the mma boom made contact in the states, good kickboxing and
Muay Thai gyms were all but abandoned. In Japan, and the Netherlands however, they continued to refine their technique through the now-famous legendary gyms like Chakuriki, Vos Gym, and now Mike’s Gym. The United States put most of their attention to gyms like the Lion’s Den, that would go on to revolutionize the “style” of MMA.

As with any sport, the evolution of style, technique, and crispness can be directly attributed to how trainers are instructing their students. The best gyms often have the most renowned trainers, who have just as much experience creating champions as they do running a business.

Muay Thai in the United States isn’t like that. They haven’t yet found a revolutionary trainer or gym that can elevate their students to a truly international level. But the development of MMA in the United States created another problem, one much more difficult to solve.

3. Lack of Athletes

Where have all the good athletes gone? Well, to MMA mostly. Also to basketball, American football, hockey, wrestling, track and field, the Olympics, boxing, etc. Essentially everywhere EXCEPT Muay Thai. In a way it’s very understandable.

Muay Thai is a brutal sport. Far more violent than MMA in this humble writer’s opinion; More taxing on the body- painful, and repetitive. The injuries never stop hurting when you become more skilled, you merely learn how to steel your face and hide it better. With that being said, who would subject themselves to the anguish of Muay Thai to earn pennies on the dollar, when they could just as easily pursue a career in MMA for a much greater profit margin?

Thai’s are usually trained from a young age to be killers. By the time they are in the their teens most have fought several dozen times. Young athletes from the U.S. aren’t brought up in combat sports (except wrestling). Many go to basketball camps, football camps, and baseball camps, where the payoff is a few million dollars a year if everything goes their way.

What’s the payoff for a muay thai fighter? The best they could possibly hope for is a livable salary, constant injuries, and to be recognizable in certain, very small circles. It’s certainly not the most luxurious lifestyle choice.

So if that’s the case, who does Muay Thai attract to the sport now? The answer is those who have a true love for it. To be a nak muay in the U.S. you have to be passionate, because there’s no other reason to spend countless hours in the gym and in the ring for some of the measliest paychecks imaginable in professional sports. And while love is a fantastic base, what any sport really needs are those gifted with wonderful genetics and an even more wonderful mind. Thailand’s ability to produce master class fighters is the best in the world in this regard, and it’s purely from a numbers perspective. If your 5 out of every 10 Thai children take up Muay Thai, chances are at least are few of them are going to be dang near geniuses.

4. No Organizational Ladders

In the United States there are no ranking systems. There are no levels to differentiate the talented fighters from the beginners. Look at MMA: After going pro there are a slew of local shows one can partake in, before moving up to regional and state-based fights. From there the talented martial artists can usually find opponents in bigger promotions outside the country, where if they do well, they might be invited to an organization like ONE FC, Bellator, or the big one- the UFC.

It’s through this process that we know we’re getting the best of the best. In Muay Thai, there aren’t enough fighters or promotions to create an appropriate weeding system. If someone is a pro fighter applying for a card, the answer most of the time is “We’ll take him.” The sport is also often plagued with gym bias- If one particular company is throwing a big show, they’ll take it upon themselves to use their own amateur level fighters instead of bringing in professionals from other parts of the country. Because of this we may see high class competitors fighting on a ‘no-name” show up North, while a 0-0 professional takes a match on the undercard on one of the biggest events in the States.

Muay Thai in America is still in it’s relative infancy, so that’s changing. Lion Fight has been receiving lots of international attention, as has M-ONE, for putting on good fights like the upcoming match between Tetsuya Yamato and Sagetdao, as seen below.

But before a change can be made for the better, American promotions need to start bringing the best of the best in from ALL parts of the country. Not just the local regions.

5. Non-Existent Media

The media coverage for Muay Thai is virtually non-existent. While that may be the case in most parts of the world too, it hits especially hard in a country working to develop a little known sport into a popular one. You would think that the community of online bloggers, journalists, and fans would be a critical group that U.S.A based muay thai organizations would rely on to spread their message across the globe, but interestingly enough that isn’t the case.

Journalism, professional or not, is the best way to reach an audience that has an interest in your product. It’s the reason why you see T.V. advertisements for something you had absolutely no intention of buying beforehand, but when you’re at the store wondering what your kids could eat for dinner without breaking into allergic reactions, you remember that annoying little jingle you saw earlier and snatch whatever-it-is off the shelves because “Why not?”

It works the same way in sports. By putting out a message, over and over again, you’ll create mental channels to exist where they didn’t before. Not to mention, having your news in a stable online environment that’s accessible forever is one of the best ways to ensure no one forgets about “That one company that put on that awesome show that one time. Remember?”

The Bottom Line: The U.S. is one of Muay Thai’s most developing markets. MMA fans that complain about a less than exciting ground-game are enthralled when they witness Yodsanklai or Saenchai for the first time. But the sport is at a critical period: Whether it succeeds or goes on to stagnate over the next few years is completely up to promoters or gym owners. Hopefully, the rarity of solid Thai fighters from America will decrease over the next few years, and we’ll see something new and exciting rise up from one of the world’s most sport obsessed countries.

A boy can dream.

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7 Comments on “5 Reasons Muay Thai Will Always Struggle in the United States (Until Something Changes)”

  1. May 13, 2013 at 7:57 am #

    All good points. Especially point 1. If Muay Thai can’t market itself as distinct and create an allure about what is different about itself it will just be absorbed by the trends it is trying to pattern itself after. You see though the same trend of assimilation happening in Thailand with Thai Fight and now Max Muay Thai. Muay Thai needs to embrace its “Thai” identity in order to prevent it from becoming just “stand up” MMA.

  2. May 29, 2014 at 2:04 am #

    Great article, I teach and promote amateur fighters in Colombia. We have a big problem that is most of the people that train at the gym is older than 25 and they have their training as a Hobby, or they have a little time to train. We don’t have a government economic support to train young people and to make more Muay Thai events. People tend to think Muay Thai is a sport without regulations and think it’s not a sport that helps young people’s health. There is a lot of work to make people understand that Muay Thai comes from a Traditional Martial Art and it has a lot of philosophy and values that are not only based in training the muscle but the mind, hard and will of the Nak Muay.

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  7. November 11, 2014 at 12:30 am #

    A Muay Thai gym (Sitan Gym) in Chandler, Arizona teaches the traditional technique. They are cultivating young and upcoming fighters. They have organized with Siam Fight Productions and in association the the United States Muay Thai Federation the first US Muay Thai Open tournament of its kind to find the best American Nak Muays. http://usmuaythaiopen.com/

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