Most People Don’t Understand Muay Thai

Golden Age Muay Thai

Muay Thai is one of the most popular martial arts in the world, as well as one of the most enigmatic. There are only around 69 million native Thai speakers in the world, most of them residing in Thailand, and very few of them are knowledgeable in the martial art. Translating both language and culture to explain both its physical and spiritual aspects is difficult. Most of it gets lost in translation, which is why most people tend to misunderstand Muay Thai. This is an attempt at clarifying what this martial art is really trying to present itself as.

I was inspired to write about this by Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu, the husband of nak muay Sylvie von von Douglas-Ittu. Together, they run the Muay Thai Library, a growing repository of Muay Thai knowledge which I’m a regular patron of. This thread on his @mediasres Twitter/X account touches upon the Buddhist roots of Muay Thai and how westerners consistently misunderstand the art as they see it mostly through the lens of western culture. It’s not really their fault since Muay Thai proliferated westward through the sport, which was adapted for its utility while either ignoring or deliberately bypassing its more cultural and spiritual aspects.

Even now, with the ongoing attempt to make it more palatable to mainstream global audiences through what is being labeled as ‘Entertainment Muay Thai’, those aspects are being passed over. However, while showbusiness is taking precedent to grow an industry around Muay Thai, it’s those cultural and spiritual aspects that inform what the martial art is truly about.

DISCLAIMER: I myself haven’t gone beyond the surface in fully understanding this topic, but I think I’m further along than most people enough to talk a bit about it. If you think I got some stuff wrong, you can tell me about it in the comments section.

I only found this 4-hour podcast of them discussing the topic after having finished writing this blog post. I’ll have to go through it and compare.

How Most of the World Understands Muay Thai

Most people only see its seemingly aggressive nature without truly understanding what sets Muay Thai apart from other martial arts aside from the prodigious use of elbows and knees. For instance, Kyokushin karate has similar techniques and methodology. Yet, it can be said that it’s actually more aggressive than Muay Thai, which is actually more patient and defensive in comparison. This is especially so if clinching isn’t overly restricted.

You can watch stadium fights on YouTube and they may put you to sleep if you only expect knockout after knockout. Most of them tend to start slow and only heat up by the third round or so since they have to give time for the gamblers in the stands to make their bets before the fighters really start throwing down. But if you watch highlight reels most of the time, you only see the exchanges and finishes, so you don’t really get the full experience of a Muay Thai fight.

Of course, there are certain styles of Muay Thai that are more naturally aggressive like muay mat (punchers), muay sok (elbow fighters), and muay bouk (pressure fighters). There are also muay khao (knee fighters) and muay tae (kickers) that are about imposing their weapons and range on the opponent. Depending on the nak muay’s physical attributes, affinities, and competencies, they may fall into one of these categories by training.

However, the most classical form of Muay Thai — muay femur — is the all-rounder style that utilizes all eight limbs. It tends to be more patient and defensive in approach. The very style that is said to best represent the art is a relaxed one. They can turn on the heat if they want or have to, but that’s because they’re in control. They can address problems with the appropriate weapon, not having to impose one weapon to all problems.

If Muay Thai were truly nothing else but aggressive in nature, its ideal form would reflect that. But with such an immensely large sample size of Muay Thai throughout over 150 years of its documented modern history, you can look at as many fights as you can and see how most of them actually start off at a slower pace and ramp up as the rounds go by.

While most who are in-the-know would attribute that to gamblers being given time to place their bets, that’s not the only reason. Muay Thai sport came to be, then the gambling followed, not the other way around. Gambling isn’t exactly revered in the Buddhist nation of Thailand. However, as with most other developing nations with considerable poverty, it’s inevitable for gambling to be a part of their ecosystem.

The more I see arguments on X about Muay Thai, the more I’m convinced that stadium matches are like 1984 — people claim they’ve read the book, but you know most of them never have willingly. High schools aren’t assigning Golden Age Muay Thai matches as homework.

The highest form of a martial art resides not in its offense, but in its defense. That’s why styles like Aikido and classical Wing Chun exist — they’re distillations of their origins, which get focused more on defensive capability. However, the problem with those particular styles is by tossing away much of their offense, they’ve ‘defanged’ themselves.

Relying only on reads and reactions to defend yourself is like waiting for a gun to fire a bullet before taking cover. As discussed in this blog post about the levels of combat, the highest level is being able to control your opponent and make them do what you want, and that can only be done with perfect harmony between offense and defense.

On the other hand, if all it took to fight was to be more violent, then the true art of fighting is in getting as psychotically hopped up on methamphetamines as possible. Some really think Viking berserkers were just a myth.

I’ve personally heard Muay Thai being described by someone within earshot as “It’s so melee.” That’s a true story I can verify with another witness. When a person speaks so confidently about something they know so little about, you can’t help but lose some respect for them. It’s not an outright red flag, but it can be when paired with other evidence for their subpar character.

That short rant aside, let’s get into what I’ve learned recently about the true nature of Muay Thai.

The Buddhist Roots of Muay Thai

Here’s the tweet that inspired this blog post. Thailand’s main religion is Theravada Buddhism, which pervades throughout its culture. For instance, it’s common practice for boys to get their heads shaved and join a monastery for a short time as a coming-of-age rite to bring in good fortune for one’s family. Buddhist themes are also present in Muay Thai.

As the Buddha uncovered in his enlightenment, life is suffering. Much of life in samsara boils down to how well you endure that suffering in order to transcend it. Once you’re able to finally break through and reach enlightenment, you break your cycle in samsara and transcend into nirvana. To do so, you walk the noble path and face suffering with dignity.

But then, you may start wondering if it actually makes sense. After all, isn’t Buddhism supposed to be about pacifism? Perhaps that’s true if you’re talking about Jainism, whose adherents even filter their drinking water to make sure they don’t ingest microorganisms by accident. Meanwhile, Buddhists have never been above self-defense, like the Shaolin of China.

The very mythology of Muay Thai is based on self-defense. After being taken as a prisoner of war, Nai Khanom Tom was ordered by the Burmese king who was curious about their fighting art to go up against nine (or ten) of his best boxers. They were dispatched one by one, and the impressed monarch freed him, exclaiming that every part of the Thai is ‘blessed with venom’.

To this day, the Southeast Asian mainland continues to see armed religious conflict between Buddhists and Muslims. As hypocritical as it seems, Buddhist extremism exists in the region, and no amount of “Hey, that’s not right” won’t change that.

Many traditions of Muay Thai are wrapped around both Buddhism and local mysticism. I’ve previously talked about syncretism on this blog, and things are no different in Thailand. The foundation of Theravada Buddhism is topped off with shamanism and folklore. It’s not uncommon for farang training in Thailand to be told about ghosts and other paranormal activity by locals who wish not to disturb what should not be disturbed.

Before every fight, after dancing the wai khru, fighters go to their corners and pray while their coaches hold their heads — a sign of trust as casually touching someone’s head is seen as taboo. The coaches then take off their mongkhon — the blessed headgear worn to signify their status as fighters — and the fight begins.

Yuen Dee Dee: Stand Well

Those Buddhist themes also pervade in the martial art itself, especially in the most fundamental aspect of the stance. At the very least, people can recognize the Muay Thai stance — weight on the back foot, light on the front foot, hands high up in front of the face. It’s distinct from other modern arts like boxing, so it does stand out — no pun intended.

As hinted, much of the narrative in Buddhism — and therefore, Muay Thai — is about facing suffering with dignity. This is represented by one’s ability to stand straight with balance and stability, despite being forced to do otherwise by a motivated opponent.

Western fighters tend to focus more on the mechanics and effects of a technique, even if it compromises one’s stance. It’s not uncommon to see brawlers throw all of their weight into their punches, aiming for a knockout, but they could then be knocked out themselves as their face hurtle towards a counter punch, multiplying its force with their own momentum.

On one hand, there’s the school of thought which goes with throwing every strike with deadly intentions. That’s what Dutch kickboxing became known for, combining western boxing with kicks from Karate and Muay Thai to create a turbine from hell. They train how they fight, so they do hard sparring all the time and throw every strike with 100% power.

When you hear ‘Dutch combos’, it brings up the image of controlled chaos.

On the other hand, critics like to point out how Muay Thai fighters seem to not have either good boxing or knockout power in their hands. Of course, there are exceptions like Coban ‘The Cruncher’ and Samransak ‘The Iron Fist’. Suffice to say, if you have to punch in Muay Thai, you have to knock them out. Otherwise, your hands are for setting up your other weapons.

It’s said that you can throw hundreds of punches, but as long as your opponent hits one meaningful kick above the waist, they will win in the scorecards. There’s actually more nuance than that, of course. However, the Muay Thai priorities in strikes shows they favor the more difficult and aesthetically pleasing techniques. That seems silly since fighting should be about what works best, right? Things are somewhat different in Muay Thai.

But then, there’s no better way to make your opponent not stand well than knocking them out.

It’s more like they focus on what works really well more consistently instead of just what may work if it’s thrown hard and often enough. Even the low kicks that were popularized by Muay Thai are scored pretty low since it’s both easier and can be countered with a well-timed right hand or catch. Meanwhile, head and body kicks can’t be countered, only blocked or evaded. You could also clinch up, but ‘Entertainment Muay Thai’ doesn’t like that.

Sparring and Chronic Brain Injury

On the topic of standing well, we have to go on a tangent and discuss full contact sparring. If there’s anything that can make a fighter not ‘stand well’, it’s chronic brain injury — specifically chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

At first, you may not think chronic brain injury is related to this discussion about martial art style, but truly practicing a martial art must involve sparring and pressure testing. With that, there’s no avoiding the possible consequence of getting your brain scrambled. If you have joined a gym that prides itself as a ‘dog house’ where ‘only the strong survive’, then this matters.

As far as I can surmise from readily available information, the jury is still out on whether chronic brain damage is a major issue in both Dutch kickboxing and Muay Thai. From Kevin’s observations, most of the retired nak muay they’ve interacted with don’t seem to have permanent damage from head trauma they may have received during their fighting days.

Meanwhile, scenes throughout the world that have hard sparring ingrained in their gym cultures report high incidences of CTE. Most of the damage comes not from professional fights, but from the sparring wars in these gyms. Terry Norris is a notable example of someone — a pro boxer — who had to retire early due to brain damage incurred throughout his career.

It’s said that a lot of that damage was from those gym wars he and his brother Orlin had to go through in order to be ready for the ring. It’s said that boxers, especially those from America, take more damage from training than fighting. While the philosophy of ‘train how you fight’ seems to make sense, its impact on longevity does call it into question.

Once a professional fighter’s career is over, they don’t get to do much else since they’ve specialized throughout most of their formative years.

Muay Thai is seen as brutal, but that’s far from the truth when it comes to their training regimen. It’s still immensely tough, but they’re not scrambling their brain cells every day or even every other day. Nak muay can pile on 200 to 300 fights throughout their careers — which end around the average age of 25 — because they don’t do hard sparring in the gym.

If you, a foreigner, fly over to Thailand to train Muay Thai, perhaps on a training visa, then spar with a Thai fighter and try to give it to him full blast, they’ll just walk away, call you an ‘amateur’, and never train with you again. Are they chicken? Or are real professionals the sort who don’t attach their egos to meaningless gym fights?

If you do it to someone who’s not as kind, they’ll knock you out, and then they’ll call you an amateur and never train with you again.

When you consider the skill level of most nak muay compared to fighters outside of Thailand, whether it’s in full Muay Thai rules or in one of the various kickboxing rulesets out there, as long as they’re able to punch and kick, Thai fighters tend to exhibit a higher skill level. Despite having drastically less hard sparring — or perhaps because of it — they’re more technically proficient, physically durable, and mentally resilient.

Of course, there may be outlying underachievers, but the pattern throughout modern combat sports history generally favors the Thai fighter.

To cap this portion off, here’s another good example of standing well being better compared to just throwing your weight around.

If Muay Thai is a Video Game, It’s Like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

To make this easier to understand, we can use a video game analogy. Most think of fighting like how it is in fighting games — two characters squaring off, each with a health bar on top of the screen. When one of the health bars gets empty, that character loses.

However, we’ve seen throughout combat sports that it’s not as simple as that. When a fighter looks down and out, they sometimes are not really done just yet. They get back up, they keep fighting, and some of them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat even when physically compromised. That’s a major factor to what makes combat sports special.

Sometimes, the winner ends up being worse for wear and needing medical attention. Therefore, it’s not as simple as running out of durability. There are other variables involved.

Therefore, you shouldn’t think of health bars; instead, think of posture. Muay Thai isn’t as much of a battle of attrition as most people would think. It’s more about standing well while doing your best to compromise your opponent’s composure and stability. Once you understand this concept, Muay Thai rules and scoring start to make more sense.

But even if you really think about other combat sports, especially if it involves striking, this makes more sense as well. If your stance is compromised, your strikes won’t have power, your movement is hampered, and you’re more or less a sitting duck. Therefore, we need to think not in terms of durability, but in terms of structural integrity.

With Muay Thai, don’t think of Street Fighter; think of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Perhaps most From Software games can make the cut, but Sekiro is special due to how different it is from the Dark Souls games. While Elden Ring (review here) also uses a similar poise system, the combat system in that game is more like a hybrid between pure Dark Souls, Bloodborne (still no PC port), and Sekiro.

Out of all those games by From Software, I think Sekiro has the most to say about fighting, which is saying something considering that the Souls games already give a lot of inexperienced gamers  a lot of difficulty. But with Sekiro, it’s entirely no longer about health, but about breaking the enemy’s posture while making sure they don’t break yours.

On a tangent, there’s also Absolver, the multiplayer action game developed by Sloclap which has a similar combat system.


Muay Thai is changing, thanks to how it’s being marketed by those who hope to bring it to a global audience through the Internet and social media. However, it’s a distillation that emphasizes its brutality without its subtlety, like turning wine into brandy.

This X thread is case in point. Read the replies and take it all in. One of them even called these two fighters muay femur while being the complete opposite. They look more like muay bouk, but that’s to be expected from an audience who have only known of Muay Thai as bloodsport.

ONE Championship is leading the charge in taking Muay Thai to the world, making stars out of the likes of Rodtang, Superlek, and Tawanchai. Meanwhile, their ‘Global Muay Thai Rules’ took away extended clinching and judge fights based more on damage and aggression.

Never mind the lack of traditional music and the 4-ounce gloves. The rules define the style, and this Muay Thai is not the genuine article, but a simulation that’s laser-focused on its most entertaining parts. It will soon become a simulacrum — its own thing — once it achieves its goal of global mainstream success.

Perhaps that’s what’s needed to truly bring it to the world. Take out what keeps the west away from it and highlight its most exciting parts — the parts that appeal to the TikTok-obsessed world. But is it truly worth the cost?

Tradition vs. Modernity, As Always

I’m reminded of an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown set in Tangier, Morocco. He brought up the analogy of an expat who complains about how the flat screen television on the wall of a ‘traditional’ Moroccan cafe is ruining the authenticity and integrity of the place, only to be rebutted by a local who just wants to watch football matches there.

Maybe the same is happening here, the so-called authenticity of Muay Thai that has farang making pilgrimages to learn about the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’ versus the prospect of a world finally accepting it as a truly global combat sport much like professional boxing and mixed martial arts.

There have been famous nak muay back in the day who would transition to boxing and achieve international success like Khaosai Galaxy and Samart. Then there’s Somrak, the genius muay femur who no one wanted to fight, whose transition to boxing would see him become Thailand’s first Olympic gold medalist.

They were followed by nak muay who took their talents to international kickboxing, like Changpuek who made the rest of the world acknowledge the effectiveness of low kicks, Buakaw dominating in K-1 World MAX, Yodsanklai winning The Contender Asia and international titles, and Saenchai making foreign pros look like amateurs.

There would also be foreigners who would fight in Thailand and beat their best, like Ramon Dekkers, John Wayne Parr, and Jean-Charles Skarbowski. Dekkers would be revered as a legend, Parr still runs Boonchu Gym in Australia, and Skarbowski now runs the legendary Jocky Gym that has been rebranded as Skarbowsky Gym.

They would help bring Muay Thai to the rest of the world, but the west’s understanding of it would be different from how it truly is. When filtered through the ever-varying rules of kickboxing, with its elbows and clinching removed, its strategic nuances are diluted and more of its offensive characteristics are highlighted.

Coming Around to ‘Entertainment Muay Thai’

I’m sick and tired of calling those who only want brawls and firefights as troglodytes. I also loved it when Max Holloway and Justin Gaethje threw down in the middle of the Octagon in UFC 300. I would watch Thomas Hearns vs. Marvelous Marvin Hagler’s three-round war whenever I remember it (like just now). I even bring up Mike Zambidis vs. Chahid Oulad El Haj because watching that barnburner while listening to Michael Schiavello screaming his head off is peak entertainment for me.

I’m sick and tired of pretending that I don’t like that just because “it’s not technical.”

While the Thailand that’s romanticized and aestheticized throughout this blog post is the Buddhist nation that imprisons whoever badmouths their royalty, there’s also the Thailand that’s known for its red light districts and coup d’etats. Muay Thai is an art practiced for centuries, but it grew throughout the 20th century thanks to its illicit gambling industry.

You can’t take the good without the bad. Perhaps ‘Entertainment Muay Thai’ is what we really need. It won’t be the Muay Thai we love, but it will be the Muay Thai everyone else will get to love while they’ve never loved it before. Perhaps it’s worth the price. Time will tell.

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