Muay Thai: A Dangerous Path out of Poverty

Nut turns twelve today as he walks down the rainy street from his training camp toward his village’s boxing ring. His shin splints ache with each step, but he’s grown accustomed to it. Like many Thai children his age, he has already trained in his country’s national martial art, Muay Thai, for several years. Muay Thai is more than a martial art for many Thai people: it’s a way of life. Despite the fact that the IMFA (International Federation of Muaythai Amateur) doesn’t allow anyone to fight until they’re sixteen, Nut has fought in the ring since age seven, giving and receiving bruising blows from knees, shins, elbows and fists. In the rainy season, the prize money he brings home is often his family’s only source of income. If he trains hard, Muay Thai will eventually provide Nut with a path out of poverty, as it does for many young Thai children. Someday Nut will move to Bangkok, and instead of the $25-50 purses of prize money he earns now, he’ll make hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars for a match.

Nut arrives at the tin-roofed wooden building that houses the boxing ring and steps inside. He walks past the gamblers and spectators gathered at tables around the ring and stands beside his trainer. Nut waits until it’s time for the match, eyes idly wandering across the stains left by spatters of blood on the floor. He strips off his shirt and sandals while he waits, and wraps hemp rope around his knuckles. This traditional form of protection keeps his hands from getting damage, but unlike modern boxing gloves provides no protection for his opponent. The referee announces the fight and Nut steps into the ring.

Nut’s trainer ties a traditional headband called a Mongkhon around Nut’s forehead, and Nut begins the Wai Khru – a traditional dance performed before Muay Thai fights to show respect to the fighter’s teacher and opponent. His opponent this time is Aawut, a boy from Nut’s own village but belonging to a different training camp. Nut dances to the four corners of the ring and touches each for good luck, and Aawut mirrors him from the opposite side of the ring. The two fighters return to their own corners and their trainers remove the Mongkons. They assume their stances, and the referee rings the start bell. Nut and Aawut move to meet in the center of the ring, quickly but not without caution. Nut blocks Aawut’s first punch with his right arm and slams his left knee into Aawut’s stomach. Aawut pulls away, blocks Nut’s next kick, and then delivers a powerful elbow strike to the side of Nut’s head. Nut feels the pain of the blow but doesn’t flinch. After years of training, he takes hits like that in stride.

Nut may not be a real person, but many Thai children today share his story. Throughout centuries, Muay Thai has remained a ubiquitous part of Thailand’s culture. Centered in Bangkok and teeming with gamblers, the traditional but now more underground world of professional Muay Thai still thrives. But now that it is a recognized sport, the type of amateur Muay Thai that the IFMA runs also flourishes in Thailand, and has taken root in other countries as well. There are hundreds of Muay Thai training camps in Thailand, and all sorts of different people train there, ranging from people who just want some exercise or a recreational activity, to professional fighters preparing for their next match, to children like Nut who fight for a better life.

Strongly connected to the history of Thailand itself, Muay Thai’s history goes back hundreds of years. Sadly, the Burmese destroyed most of Muay Thai’s written history in the 14th century when they ransacked Thailand’s (then Siam’s) capital. We do know that when the King formed the first Siamese army out of a need to protect the Siamese people from neighboring tribes and kingdoms, the hand-to-hand combat training that the Siamese soldiers received eventually evolved into Muay Thai. Tempered by the countless wars between Thailand and the neighboring countries, and refined throughout centuries as the techniques passed down through generations, Muay Thai became known as one of the strongest martial arts in the world.

Europe and the rest of the world finally came into contact with Muay Thai during World War I. Thai soldiers stationed in France participated in boxing matches organized by the commander to keep up morale among the troops. In the 1930s Muay Thai became an official sport, with standardized rules, regulations, and modern equipment. Today Muay Thai’s popularity is at its highest point yet, and training gyms have taken root all around the world. Professional and amateur fighters alike undergo incredibly intense training in preparation for equally intense fights, frequently from very young ages. Muay Thai is a well-loved part of Thailand’s culture, but the intensity and brutality of the sport can have serious consequences for fighters – especially young ones who have no choice but to fight to provide for their families.

Muay Thai fighters are susceptible to all of the health issues that boxers face, and more. Repeated blows to the head, even if they aren’t hard enough to cause a concussion, can lead to Boxer’s Dementia. 15-20% of boxers in the U.S. have Boxer’s Dementia, which can manifest as dementia, Parkinson’s, tremors, lack of coordination, or speech problems. The blows that eventually result in this condition are usually not the ones a fighter takes in a match, but the frequent hits he takes in training over a long period of time.

The people who only train Muay Thai as exercise or enjoyment practice as much as they want to, but those with ambitions of becoming a professional fighter train with a dedication and intensity that is rarely seen elsewhere in the world. It’s this incredible dedication to the sport that makes Muay Thai one of the world’s most powerful martial arts, but that power is hard earned and the training can take a heavy toll on the human body. A famous training technique frequently shown and alluded to in Muay Thai-related movies is the old practice of using a banana tree to practice strikes. Muay Thai fighters would train by choosing a banana tree in the forest 18-24 inches in diameter, and they would practice their leg and knee strikes until the tree fell down. Banana trees provide an effective target because they are hard enough to withstand a lot of beating and toughen the bones and skin of the shins and knees, but not hard enough to seriously damage the leg.

When Muay Thai became an officially recognized sport, heavy boxing bags replaced the banana trees. According to Orion Lee, who spent a year training with professional Muay Thai fighters while studying abroad, the fighters adhered to this schedule for six days a week: They woke up at 4:45 a.m. and immediately began a two-hour workout, beginning with a five-mile run and followed by a variety of calisthenics and then a light workout of drilling techniques. After their breakfast, they had another two-hour workout consisting of jumping rope for 20 minutes, then some heavy bag work and shadow boxing, and then sparring followed by an abdominal workout. After that they ate lunch at noon, followed by a typical strength workout – squats, bench press, pushups, et cetera. Then after another break, their evening training at 5 PM consisted of another two-hour session consisting of 20 more minutes of jump rope, more bag work and shadow boxing, and then several rounds of clinch sparring. Following that last session they ate dinner and then slept, and repeated the next day. Six days a week. This incredible dedication shown by the fighters makes Muay Thai one of the most formidable martial arts.

As intense and brutal as this training is, it’s nothing compared to the fights. Since the 1990s, boxing gloves replaced Muay Thai’s traditional hemp knuckle wraps, but fighters still don’t wear any form of head protection. While most minor injuries (such as broken bones, pulled muscles, shin splints, and bruises) can heal with no lasting damage if treated properly, it’s no surprise that Muay Thai can also cause long-term brain injury.

Compared to Muay Thai, Western boxing looks like a child’s game. Muay Thai fights are harsher, less controlled, and the fighters wear less protective equipment. Muay Thai fighters also fight much more frequently and take less time off between fights to heal from injuries. Muhammad Ali, one of the all-time greatest heavyweight boxers, fought a total of 61 fights in his career. By the time a Muay Thai fighter reaches his mid-twenties, it’s not unusual for him to have fought up to 120 or 150 times. Many regulatory organizations in North America don’t allow a boxer to fight again for 30 to 90 days after a knockout, but in Thailand a Muay Thai fighter will frequently fight again only a few days after a KO.

Blows that don’t cause a knockout can still cause concussions, which even on their own aren’t something to take lightly. Getting a second concussion before a previous concussion has healed can give a fighter Second Impact Syndrome (SIS). SIS conveys a high risk of brain swelling, which is potentially fatal and will almost certainly impact brain function. A KO is a grade 3 concussion. The real danger lies in the fact that the first two grades of concussion don’t involve losing consciousness, making it easy for a fighter to simply not realize that he’s had a concussion, which makes a second concussion and SIS much more likely. The fact that Muay Thai fighters will fight only days after even a KO puts them at significant risk for SIS.

A fighter and his trainer have a conflict of interest. According to Stephen Kong, while foreigners who go to Thailand to train at a Muay Thai camp pay to train there, native Thai people train for free. In return for the free training, the camp takes 30-50% of their fighters’ winnings for fights. Many of the traditional rural camps don’t take foreigners at all, so the camps often subsist solely on their cut of the money fighters take in matches. With that in mind, while it may be best for a fighter to rest and heal, it’s best for the camp if he keeps fighting. Adult Muay Thai fighters as well as children often live paycheck to paycheck and need to keep fighting to put food on their table. With so much resting on a fighter’s ability to continue fighting, he rarely has time to heal and compounded injuries take a heavy toll on his body.

With all of the risks in mind, it’s hard to believe that some Thai children begin training and fighting as young as 7 or 8, but it’s not uncommon. A 2009 study claimed 20,000 professional Muay Thai fighters under 15 years old, though it’s estimated that there may be as many as 30,000. The danger of brain injury is higher for children, as their brains aren’t fully developed yet. A study comparing the brains of 13 Thai fighters with the brains of 200 non-boxer Thai children found permanent brain damage in the fighters. Despite the danger, many of these children have to fight to bring home prize money to support their families during the rainy seasons when farming isn’t possible. Their fathers can’t fight because Muay Thai fighters almost always retire before their 30s due to injuries or an inability to keep up with younger and stronger men. Even when it isn’t something the children have to do to feed their families, many of them still want to train and fight. Muay Thai has a huge cultural importance and is a source of entertainment, pride, and hope to the Thai people, especially those living in the rural areas of Thailand.

Authorities have tried to enact laws to keep children from fighting legally, but they haven’t worked. Families that rely on the boxing money their children bring in have resisted and kept laws regulating child boxing from being implemented. Thailand passed the Boxing Act of 1999, requiring that parents sign a letter of permission before a child under 15 to fight – but depend on the fight money to survive, so they sign the permission forms. Parents never want their children to be harmed, so the fact that they oppose these regulations goes to show that in their situation, outlawing child Muay Thai would only make things worse.

The problem isn’t so much whether or not children should be allowed to fight, but that they have to. Thailand has an unemployment rate of 0.6%, largely because the country has very little in the way of unemployment insurance or welfare, and therefore provides little to no incentive to stay unemployed. More than 64% of Thailand’s total working population works in the informal sector of the economy, which includes taxi drivers, street vendors, the self-employed, and those working in the grey market. Overlapping with that 64%, more than 40% of Thailand’s population works in agriculture. Rice is Thailand’s primary export, but it doesn’t grow during the wet season. This leaves a large number of Thai people unemployed for parts of every year – leaving their families with no source of income except Muay Thai fights.

No direct solution to this problem exists. Outlawing child Muay Thai fights completely would only worsen the precarious situation many Thai families currently find themselves in. And yet, it’s also no good to just let it continue unchanged. This isn’t a problem on its own – it’s a symptom of the Thai economy as a whole. The cities may have their areas of luxury and riches, but the majority of Thailand is very poor, and most of the people in Thailand’s rural areas live in poverty. They have to take any means available to survive – which frequently means Muay Thai fighting, prostitution, or a number of other unsavory choices.

Thailand only has a 2% rate of absolute poverty (1 US dollar a day), but the poverty line may be drawn in the wrong place. Thailand has its share of billionaires, but the gap between the wealthy and the poor is vast. As Thailand develops as a country, life in the cities continues to become easier due to the increased availability of lucrative manufacturing jobs. However, for those who live in the rural areas, the situation remains largely unchanged. While most Thai people may subsist above the official poverty line, their standard of living remains very poor, and what they have is hard to earn. Andrew Chambers describes a typical home in one of Pattaya’s slums, only a few minutes away from the 5-star hotels downtown – made of a cobbled-together mix of scavenged plywood and corrugated iron, it has no running water and electricity only became available recently. Soon Ton, the Thai woman who owns that house, earns her living by scavenging recyclables from trash bins and makes almost six U.S. dollars a day. That’s six times the official poverty level, but it’s no easy life, except perhaps by comparison. Even less fortunate Thai people often end up working as prostitutes to make enough money to eat.

Muay Thai is, for the most part, a positive part of Thailand’s cultural heritage. It’s a sad fact of life right now that many children have no way to escape poverty aside from fighting their way out, but rules and regulations of the sport can’t fix that. This situation demands a more far-reaching solution that will affect the entire economy, and give the Thai people ways to climb out of poverty that don’t force them to sacrifice their safety. I don’t know what solution Thailand needs to find to fix its economy, but that solution is the first step toward fixing this problem.