Before a fight, combatants dipped their hands in glue and broken glass.
A thousand-year-old fighting style, traditional Muay Thai could be considered barbaric by today’s standards. But its apparent barbarism did have its uses—both military and cultural—with fights bringing honour to individuals, families and towns. During peacetime, Thai soldiers competed in unarmed combat to hone skills and identify strong fighters, both locally and regionally. Battles took place inside hand-drawn circles, and the length of each round was measured surprisingly enough, by coconuts: perforated coconut half-shells were placed in water. When the shell filled, the coconut sank, ending the round. Winners were not only honoured, but gained their choice of wives as well—strong fighters were considered highly marriageable.
Of course, Muay Thai has changed a great deal over time. One of the world’s fastest growing full-contact sports, most know it better as Thai kickboxing: a fast and furious kickboxing style that incorporates flying kicks, elbows, and knees—unlike western-style kickboxing which allows only punches and kicks. Currently an Olympic sport, Muay Thai’s international popularity reflects the sport’s increased respectability—fighters traded in glass-laden fists for boxing gloves long ago. Domestically, the sport’s standing has changed dramatically as well, moving from the military to the business arena.
It’s close to golf in the business world, explains Michael Gosal, owner of Akal Martial Arts, and a kickboxing instructor. “Deals are made during a fight, just like how deals are made on the golf course.”
In Thailand, where corporate meetings are, as Gosal notes, ”nothing like western business meetings,” contacts and contracts fill ringside seats at Muay Thai fights. In fact, corporations sponsor many fighters, and a boxing ring can be as essential as a good dinner to seal a sweet deal. The sport absolutely fits Thailand’s corporate culture where “business meetings are conducted like celebrations.”
Of course, this business focus doesn’t mean traditional Muay Thai practices have completely disappeared—in some parts of Thailand, women are still introduced to champion fighters as potential wives. The sport is, in fact, firmly entrenched in Thai culture, with Saturday night fights analogous to our own Hockey Night in Canada. Just less violent, of course.