At the definitive clang of the referee bell, two sweat drenched fighters, clad in somewhat offbeat pink shorts rise from their opposing benches and circle each other in a manner that looks somewhat like an animalistic display of attack and fleeing behavior in a territorial battle between wild cats. Rising and falling in tension, their orbiting is accompanied by ceremonial music, and the raucous yelling of the crowd.
Interchanging between going on the offensive, to the defensive, each fighter will bait, intimidate and provoke, inciting each other with glaring eyes, locked in a display of controlled aggression. However, being strangely graceful and mesmerizing to watch, the brutality of the kicks and strikes is offset with flowing dance-like movements, and has a beauty that makes this combat distinct from Western boxing.
We are at a Muay Thai match in Bangkok’s Lumpinee stadium, a somewhat hardcore looking place with a couple of thousand fold up seats, and meshed steel fences, surrounding a small, neon light lit ring, with an absolutely frenzied crowd of gamblers shouting furiously, and comically mirroring the onstage action with their fists in the air that peaks as the opponent is visibly weakened.
Craig Moser, a Canadian instructor with 15 years experience who is there to watch the match tells me he started Muay Thai after doing various types of Martial Arts, “naturally gravitating to more realistic forms of fighting,” developing a “love for the realism,” he explains the appeal saying, “It’s as close to real fighting as you can get, it’s not in any way hypothetic.”
Being the national sport of Thailand, it is a highly esteemed martial art, and is the most popular spectator sport in Thailand. Dubbed the “Science of Eight Limbs” it makes use of a graceful, albeit lethal combination of punches, elbows, knees and feet strikes.
Muay Thai has a long history in Thailand, and is thus steeped in tradition, originating from the tactics of the Thai army in Medieval times, and was made a National Sport after King Nareusan used his boxing skills to secure his freedom after being captured by the Burmese in 1560 AD.
While there are currently 60,000 professional fighters, most boys in Thailand  will learn Muay Thai at some point in their lives. Muay Thai is also internationally more popular than ever before. Not only do aspiring students come to Thailand to train, but with international training centers the form is becoming more recognized, and appreciated as a legitimate sport, as well as a great way to stay fit.
Muay Thai is especially popular in Japan. Perhaps due to Japan’s history of martial arts, making the idea of “fighting” for discipline, fitness and self defense an idea that is already lodged in local the psyche, and despite it having a rather hardcore image, it is popular with both men and women.
“Foreigners have a very good chance of dominating Muay Thai, even better than the Thais in the future,” explains Rambo, a top trainer at the highly lauded Fairtex gym in Bangkok, “There are two types of people that train Muay Thai, those that are doing it for fitness, and those who are professional trainers. This year especially there are a lot of women who  are interested in doing Muay Thai as well, for fitness, for self defense… It’s about 50 percent women.”
Kickboxing (which contrary to popular belief, is a very distinct sport to Muay Thai) is most commonly practiced in Japan, which is actually a fusion of Muay Thai and Karate that was created by Japanese boxing promoter Isamu Noguchi in the 50s. However, Muay Thai is becoming more popular as well as the gyms supporting the form such as the lauded Fairtex establishment popping up in Tokyo’s Arakawa, Warabi and Chiba.
There is only way to describe initial Muay Thai workouts:– absolutely, gobsmackingly, strenuous. Being a combination of offense, defense, stamina, and fitness, a typical work out consists of activities to promote the conditioning required to last in a real match. This may consist of running, skipping, jumping up and down on tires, sit ups, push-ups, weights, and shadowboxing—all this is before the actual Muay Thai training.
In fact, training Muay Thai makes any gym session seem like a walk in the park, and neophytes will usually experience bruising, and soreness, as this is a contact sport, although the exhilaration, endorphin rush and adrenalin produced is somewhat addictive, not to mention the almost instantaneous results in terms of improved stamina, and body tone.
Not only is training Muay Thai enjoyable, but watching a match is one of the best ways to enjoy Muay Thai—at a distance that won’t leave you sore or covered in bruises! Each match is preceded by an esoteric ceremony, the Wai Kru (respect to the teacher) which is a breathtaking aspect of the match, performed wearing sacred headbands, the fighter performs a transcendental prelude to the match as a sort of quasi-dance that mimics the movements of folkloric characters that not only serves the purpose of intimidating his opponent, it demonstrates religious devotion.
In Japan, tournaments held by various gyms are sporadic, but the matches at Odaiba’s Differ Ariake (a venue that holds many Muay Thai events) are highly recommended. The event is held by the Weerasakreck Muay Thai gym in Higashiyama, a location that will see the current champion, Gennarong Weerasakreck, perform the Wai Kru, and slug it out with the cream of the Japanese crop.
Despite its brutal image as a bloodletting form of street fighting, Muay Thai is now more popular than ever and seen as a fantastic way to stay fit, with the controlled movements of a martial art with centuries of tradition. If a tournament doesn’t awe you with its power, it will surely stun you with the grace of these agile, and disciplined modern age fighters.

Story by Manami Okazaki
From J SELECT Magazine, November 2008