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Why is Muay Thai not more popular?

Objectively Muay Thai does not operate in the same spheres as other combat sports in the world. Although the sport has strong foundations in Thailand it cannot be said that the influence and popularity of the sport has translated as well throughout the rest of the world. When you look at this initially it does not seem to make sense. You have one of the most exciting striking sports in the world yet it has not had the takeoff that MMA experienced in the early 2000s. Nor has it come close to rivalling boxing’s well established grip on the UK fight scene.

Ceremony

One of the most obvious possibilities could well be the culture shock that comes with watching your first Muay Thai event. The walkouts look similar to what we are all familiar with in boxing, MMA and any other combative sport, beyond that it is somewhat alien. Watching the combatants begin the Wai Kru is often a strange sight if you do not understand its significance in preparing the fighters. Admittedly the Thai drums probably don’t help either; you would be hard pressed to find anyone who does not watch Muay Thai that would find the music appealing or willingly listen.

The ceremony of a Muay Thai fight is a stark contrast to MMA or boxing events with the booming ring announcers, blaring music and high budget pyrotechnics. Unfortunately this seems to have set the standard for many western audiences. A number of shows have noticed this and have cut the Wai Kru and limited the use of the drums for their events. Whether that is staying true to how Muay Thai should be displayed is another debate entirely.

Fights

Once again this is another contrast between the expectations of an uninitiated audience and the reality of a Muay Thai fight. The first round is nearly always notoriously slow paced as the fighters feel out each other. There will often be few serious exchanges until the later rounds after the feeling out process has been completed. Attention spans of a new audience are usually fairly limited and with hundreds of source streaming the latest UFC knockout or boxing highlight reel it isn’t a wonder that many prefer the quick fix to the full experience.

The scoring system is also very different to any other combat sport. It isn’t as simple as hitting a given point on the body and receiving a set amount of points like Olympic Taekwondo. Nor is it as basic as who does the most damage to their opponent such as MMA. Instead you have the intricacies of how trips and sweep scores. Not only that you have the observational score of who is able to disrupt their opponents position the most to name but a handful of scoring principles. There is simply too much to score to give a running commentary as it happens to explain to a new audience. After all you can’t pause a fight for 3 minutes whilst you patiently explain why a kicked checked didn’t score but the kick across the thigh did.

Unified organization

Muay Thai suffers from the issue that there appears to be several different world champions at any given weight class. Boxing suffer from the same issue with four ‘main’ organizations offering world championship belts sometimes with different champions in each one. However Muay Thai lacks an international organization with the definitive say on who ranks where. There are good domestic rankings for both the UK (such as the ThaiFighter UK rankings) and Thailand (such as the stadium titles). But without a definitive ranking system for each weight category it is hard to put as much stock in world titles.

Media backing

A more tangible reason for the slow growth of popularity is probably due to the lack of large scale media backing. Boxing has deals with organizations like Sky; MMA has the UFC on Fox TV in the US as well as on BT sport in the UK. Muay Thai gets nowhere near the coverage that these sports do. Cards with some of the best talent available are often only available on some obscure streaming service or not at all.

Bouts broadcasted free could potentially make the sport more popular and generate more interest. It would make entry into the sport easier than paying for a live event that you know nothing about. Organizations like Yokkao do a good job of releasing fights on sites like YouTube which help to generate interest. ONE Championship in Asia also does an excellent job of mixing in Muay Thai bouts into their cards which are primarily MMA (for instance they recently streamed Fabia Pinca taking on Nong-o). In essence, the more content that promotes the best of Muay Thai, the better. The sport is not in the state where we can demand high pay per view streams or withhold fights for rental.

Fighters

All major sports from boxing to tennis have one thing in common. They all have personalities or athletes which transcend the sport. For example you might know nothing about football but it is almost certain you have heard of Messi or Ronaldo. Boxing has Ali and Tyson, MMA has McGregor and Rousey. Outside of Thailand you would be hard pressed to find a recognizable name even amongst the elite fighters of this era. Even though Buakaw managed to use his influence in K1 to generate a following in places such as Japan, he still lacks the recognition elsewhere.

The sport has plenty of personalities that can fill this void. The hard part is how to promote these fighters. They almost have to be their own brand and be able to sell both themselves and the sport. This is of course all on top of backing it up with the performances in the ring. Not exactly an easy task but necessary to fill the gap. It is obviously easier to write with these demands or expectations but promotion is done off names and personalities just as much as the fights themselves. I am sure many of us are guilty of watching fights and sporting event purely because of the hype generated rather than purely on the events merits.

Conclusion

As I previously stated, it is easy to read off a list of demands and point fingers. This is by no means a criticism; instead this is simply an idea on how we can further advance the sport. The community has done an excellent job of expanding the sport and retaining its values. More and more people are getting involved on a club level. There are the new comers and the constant feed of fresh talent both here and abroad. Promotions across the country are putting on excellent shows which showcase the very best of the sport. Coaches, clubs and fans are doing the number one task which helps support Muay Thai. They are educating people. The more people that understand and engage with the sport the more it grows and its knowledge base expands. This is the only way to achieve long lasting growth.

The underlying question remains though, how much are you willing to change parts of the sport to make it more palatable to potential fans? Should Muay Thai be true to its roots or shed as part of its evolution and growth?

It might seem a disgusting proposition to some. But the Wai Kru is already being removed by some promotions and some fighters do not practice this even if they have the opportunity. Thai drums are also less popular with many organizations preferring the sound of the crowd. Obviously there are no hard and fast rules on what should and should not be practiced. It is a debate which can be contentious amongst purest and those more concerned with generating interest. Neither one is wrong but there is a balance between the two which needs to be struck if Muay Thai is to see main stream success.

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