Thailand muay ThaiThai Boxing: The Reason Behind Thailand’s Success
Posted by: Aaron Jahn in Muay Thai Blog, Thailand 4 March, 2015 2 Comments 9,087 Views
This is a follow up post to a recent piece I wrote explaining the theory behind Thai style coaching. There’s a common phrase you’ve probably heard which goes “train like a Thai, fight like a Thai”. It’s mainly used for marketing purposes in many gyms in Thailand, and I don’t blame them for using it, but I feel it’s a little misleading.
Thailand produces the most high-level muay Thai fighters than any other country by far. But why? Is it their training? Environmental or economical factors? Or something else?
Let’s look at a few of those variables to help get a better understanding of the reasoning behind the matter.
Law of Averages
Firstly, Thailand has more muay Thai fighters than any western country, period. There are around 60,000 professional fighters competing at one time, so inevitably, there is more chance of some of those fighters reaching the highest level, just by the sheer law of averages.
The likelihood of a gym discovering a Thai boy with all of the physical and mental attributes required to excel in Thai boxing is increased due to the huge number of boxers competing from a young age.
There are many people in western countries who would make great boxers, but maybe they’ve never had the opportunity to commit enough time to it, or maybe they just aren’t interested in fighting for a living.
Thai boxing in Thailand
The reason so many fighters exist is that Thai boxing is more than just a sport in Thailand, it’s a job. A way of life. There are so many shows put on across the country every day that it makes it possible for Thais to make a living from fighting.
But surely there are easier ways to make money in Thailand? Why would so many people choose to get beat up for a living?
Well, in most cases the fighters don’t actually choose to become a Thai boxer, they have to become a Thai boxer to earn money to support their families. If a parent has enough money to support their boy through school and pay to put them through University then that’s usually the done thing. But if they don’t, then there’s a good chance that he’ll become a boxer. In some cases, it’s either that or working on the family farm, and that type of work doesn’t usually pay very well in Thailand.
So the large amount of Thais working as boxers can partly be attributed to the fact that there are several regions in Thailand which are underdeveloped and the inhabitants have a very poor income.
Of course, Thai boxing was created in Thailand, which contributes to the reasons behind their superiority. They have a good “head start” on the rest of us due to decades of muay Thai training and fighting experience passed down from generation to generation.
They just know how to fight… Take football (or soccer) for example, western children instinctively know how to play football. It comes naturally to them. Well it’s the same thing with Thai boxing in Thailand – kids grow up watching fights on TV every day. When they do begin training, it just comes so much easier to them.
Other aspects of Thai culture are very different from western culture too. Take gambling for example; Thai boxing in Thailand is ALL about money, and gambling is a huge part of that. Thais love to gamble, and Thai boxing wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular as it is today without the income generated from punters. If you take money out of the equation, 60,000 Thai boxers would be out of work.
Go to 1:37:50 of this video to listen to John Wayne Parr talking about gambling in Thailand. By the way, it’s worth listening to the whole podcast.
Confessions of a Muay Thai Gambler and A Rough Guide to Muay Thai Gambling are a couple of great posts written by Lindsey Newhall which might fill in a few gaps for anyone who is a bit miffed by the muay Thai gambling scene too.
Muay Thai Gambling
Another aspect of Thai culture which are vital to the success of their boxers is their detachment from emotions. Thai trainers and senior fighters in gyms can often come across as a little cold-hearted at times, especially when a fighter puts on a bad performance. In some muay Thai camps it’s common for a young fighter to get beatings after a particularly bad loss. The theory behind it is that the fighter will try a little harder next time to avoid getting beat up, which is often worse than the fight itself.
This is something that Thais feel develops a better boxer in the long run, but this kind of treatment is largely unheard of in the west (I hope?).
Consequences of Failing
This brings us nicely on to consequences of failing. What are the consequences of you not turning up to training in the morning? Or losing a fight? Perhaps you miss a few sessions leading up to a fight for whatever reason, and you’re not as sharp as you should be, not as strong, or your conditioning isn’t optimal. The consequences are that you may not perform well and you might lose your fight. But hopefully you’ve still got a roof over your head and food on the table.
Muay Thai Training
For a young Thai living at a camp it’s much different. If a fighter loses too many fights then he won’t be getting his share of any winnings and will struggle to send his family enough money to support them. Not only that, a gym won’t keep supporting a losing fighter – they’ll kick him out of the gym if he constantly under-performs.
If a Thai boy has been given the responsibility of providing an income for his family and he fails to do so, he may even be disowned by his family.
Thai Boxing Training
So how about the training itself? The two general things to look at here are the quality (or what one perceives as quality) and the quantity of training.
For what my opinion’s worth, in terms of training quality, the Thais are spot on in most areas. I’m not saying that the Thais training is perfect, because I don’t think it is. When I compare Thai training to western training, I see good and bad in both.
The Thais use a long duration, high reward type of repetition training as I explained in the Thai style coaching article I mentioned earlier. It works.
Muay Thai Camps Thailand
However, coming from a sports science background, I see room for improvement in certain aspects of their training such as strength work and activity order. For example, they’ll train a lot of low resistance, high repetition stuff with no actual training to improve their maximal strength, but this ultimately comes down to the lack of proper equipment and knowledge. One example of an activity order error would be going for a run during the hottest part of the day (30-40+ degrees) and then being expected to train with good technique for the next two or three hours.
Let’s be honest, when a foreigner beats a top level Thai it’s usually partly due to the fact that the foreigner has a physical, not a technical (or tactical) advantage. Not all cases, but in most. It’s one of the reasons I used to cut ridiculous amounts of weight just to be able to compete with these guys. I couldn’t beat these fighters just through skill alone, so I would make sure I was bigger, stronger and more powerful than they were. I knew the Thais wouldn’t be strength training or doing much sprint work, so I made sure that I had the edge in that department too.
In terms of quantity of training, Thais can afford to commit much more time to their training due to the fact that it is their only source of income. We’re talking about training six hours a day, six days a week from around the ages of eight up until they quit fighting at around twenty three or twenty four years of age. This example of a common Thai boxing career amounts to almost 30,000 hours of training.
Most Thais will have had a crazy amount of fights before they retire. The figure is usually above 100 – up to around 300. I know a Thai trainer in Koh Samui who has had around 800 fights. On average, a Thai will fight every 3 weeks. Again, this is mainly due to the financial reward of fighting.
The volume of fights that Thais have is probably the main reason they are a cut above the rest, in my opinion. Once you’ve had a certain amount of fights, you don’t learn so much from training anymore – you learn from fighting.
Law of averages – This could never become prevalent in western countries. Even if the poverty levels rose to a similar level as Thailand, it would still never happen. Ever. We will never have the amount of Thai boxers that they have, and so the level of our training partners and trainers will never really compete with theirs.
Culture – The fact that Thai boxing is Thailand’s sport clearly gives them a huge advantage when it comes to training fighters. But this head start that they have now won’t necessarily benefit them forever. Any nation can excel in any sport, regardless of whether or not they created it. Just look at football – England invented it, and now they get whooped by everyone. Thai culture and western cultures are worlds apart in a lot of ways, and always will be. A Thai boxing gambling scene like the one in Thailand would never be allowed to exist in western countries, and the emotional toughness that many Thais develop will only manifest itself in individuals with a similar upbringing as a Thai would have.
Consequences of failing – It goes without saying that we have little control over our upbringing and the environment around us when we’re growing up. If you have a wealthy family, you have a wealthy family. If you don’t, you don’t.
You can take yourself away from your own country and travel to Thailand to immerse yourself in their way of life – live like a Thai, train like a Thai, you might even start thinking like a Thai if you spend enough time in Thailand. But at the end of the day, you’re just a plane ticket out of it all. You can go back to doing whatever you were doing before you went to Thailand and carry on with your life relatively easily if you really want to.
The Thais don’t have that luxury. They’re in it for the long haul whether they like it or not. Once they’ve grown up in a Thai boxing camp their whole lives and missed out on an education, they don’t have a lot of options available to them.
Training quantity – The training quantity can be replicated, but it rarely is in western countries. You may have to go to Thailand to make that one happen. It’s a lot easier to get fights in Thailand so there is much more chance of making a living from it out there, especially as the living expenses are so low.
Of course, I’m talking about replicating that amount of training in the short term. To make up 30,000 hours of training similar to a Thai is almost unthinkable in our society. A westerner would have to leave school to train full time, it just wouldn’t happen.
Training for 6 hours a day while holding down a full time job is difficult, to say the least, and the quality of training will suffer. The only way of matching the training hours of a Thai without diminishing quality of training is to make it your full time job. This is a lot more achievable in Thailand than it is in western countries.
Training Quality – With regards to training quality, I’m just going to make up my own saying here “you’re only as good as your training partners”. I honestly believe that, and I think it’s more prevalent in Thailand than in western countries. If most of your training is coming from actually performing in training rather than getting instruction from a coach, then training with good fighters day in day out is the most important thing in training. A little instruction here and there is helpful but that can only take a fighter so far.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that unless you have a lot of seriously high level fighters at your gym who are clinching and sparring with you every day then it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to compete with the level of training in Thailand.
Fighting – Being able to get on a Thai boxing show every 3 weeks for 15-20 years straight in a western countries would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Not to mention detrimental to your health. When I fought every 3 weeks in Thailand for only one year I was riddled with injuries before every fight and during training too. I only fought because I needed the money and my gym wanted me to fight, otherwise they would have kicked me out too. So again, if there’s not a financial necessity to fight, then you’re not going to want to fight anywhere near as often as this.
Attributing the success of Thai fighters just to the way they train is highly erroneous. I believe there are several factors which contribute to their success. You’ll notice that all the different factors are linked to one another. Each factor is a consequence of the one that precedes it. However, everything stems from poverty, or at least a low income. I’m not sure of the figures regarding the amount of people living below the poverty line in Thailand, but a low income or a struggle to find work makes people take what may seem like drastic measures to make ends meet.
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