Women’s MuayThai in Thailand.
By Niamh Griffin
Until the last 10 years, this phrase was
almost a contradiction in terms.
The huge changes which have come over this scene really have to be
seen to be believed. Outside of the Bangkok stadiums, women are getting
into the ring and doing their stuff at a rate unimaginable a few short years
As yet, there is no official ranking for
these women similar to what the men
have in Lumpini or Rajadamnern but coming closer. Bear in mind that these
stadiums were only built in the 1940s, before that the mens’ sport was
exactly the same position as we have now for the women
Brief History of Women and MuayThai, Thailand.
MuayThai in its present form developed in
the 1920s. Over the years since
then, there were incidences of women fighting, especially upcountry but
never on a fully organised basis. This was not due solely to the “oppressive men “
but also to the fact that many women of these times simply had no interest.
Right back at the beginning when MuayThai was a pure
martial means of
attack and defense, women known as Khunying Mae-yamo (respected mother)
fought alongside their men using Muay Thai to repel invaders.
In the 1960s and 70s - as gender-changes
swept the world, things began to change.
There were even womens’ fights in Rajadamnern - involving daughters of prominent gym-owners. Lumpini Stadium also ran a series of women’s fights. Unfortunately this renaissance was short-lived.
The main obstacle to women fighting in
Thai rings is a mixture of deeply-felt
Buddhist belief and superstition. To give an example, boxers are blessed by
monks in a moving ceremony involving the monk walking over the boxer’s
limbs - however female fighters cannot partake in this as Buddhist monks
are forbidden to touch women. This Buddhist belief that women represent
desire - something which must be suppressed in order to attain nirvana is
not something which can be lightly tossed away.
This belief was then added to by an
incident in Rajadamnern in the late
1970s. A female TV producer was in the stadium preparing for a shoot.
She stood in the ring while giving directions. No doubt a few people were
uneasy about this, and when every one of the night’s fights ended in serious
cuts, the natural thought was that this proved that women did not belong
anywhere near a boxing ring. This resulted in an unofficial ban on womens’
fights and from women even touching rings in the stadiums and gyms.
However, as with all things in Thailand, a
total ban is never what it seems.
Women whose father or other family members owned gyms continued to train.
As with the men, if someone was worth laying a bet on, they could fight.
Just not in the main Bangkok or larger upcountry stadiums. Often promoters
got around peoples’ prejudices by having the women fight last - so if they
did offend the spirits or upset the balance of the ring, no one else would be
affected. They had the female fighters go under or though the middle of
the ropes instead of over so that they would not set themselves higher
than the spirits.
It would be easy for Western
women to become indignant about this,
but its not as if there isn’t discrimination in the West too - its just not
draped in the Buddhist mantle. Its called science ! An athlete like
Paula Radcliffe can run a marathon but a female fighter can only handle
a 2-minute round, where’s the logic in that either ?
But, the times they are a changing.
Slowly as the 1990s wore on, more and more
women were being seen in
the larger stadiums. As the standard of women’s fight improved, the betting
got higher and the interest spiralled.
This was given a major boost by the work
of the World MuayThai Council in
1998. As this body is largely composed of foreigners, there was more
openness to promoting women’s fights. This resulted in Rangsit Stadium
putting on shows which were televised for about 2 years. This was a major
boost to the sport - not just for the individual women who got the glory of a
TV fight but also as an encouragement to thousands of women around the country.
Unfortunately, as of 5 years ago there
wasn’t yet the depth of talent to
sustain weekly TV shows. This coupled with the fact that many parents in
this still traditional society were unwilling to send their daughters to Bangkok
meant that the project had to be temporarily shelved.
But you can’t stop a good thing.
Today women fight in Thailand on the same
level as the men - 5 x 3 minute
rounds with elbows. The main difference is financial. MuayThai is a business,
boys leave school and home at the age of 12 and go to live and train at a gym,
often 100s of miles from home. This is not an option open to women as the
fight-purse is so much smaller for them.
The standard for women varies
greatly across the country, with the best
fighters concentrated in Isan and in a small cluster in the South around
Surat Thani. The larger stadiums such as The Mall, Khorat and Chaweng
on Samui will usually have 1 female fight per show. This might sound low
but bear in mind that there are fights every night - and many afternoons
too in hundreds of stadiums in the countryside. In Isan, the top women
fighters are sometimes placed as the Main Event ahead of the males.
( Religion taking a second place to the betting ! J )
Women often still have to go under the
ropes on their way but it is a
small price to pay. The bigger problem is that some of the stadiums are
owned by the “older generation” who are refusing to budge on their ideas.
But boxing is a business and if there is money is having a female fight,
then there will be a female fight. It’s not very idealistic but whatever lever
works is being used by those who are determined to bring the female
sport to the same level as the mens.
The majority of the female fighters in
Thailand train with a family
member - who will make sure they are looked after at fights and shows.
There are 60,000registered professional male fighters in Thailand.
Because the women aren’tactually professional in the sense of earning
all their income from MuayThai, they aren’t registered but an estimate of
between 8-10,00 was featured recently in the Thai press.
These women are the real pioneers of
Female MuayThai. In a country where
women are supposed to smile, wear high heels and know their place, they
are breaking moulds in a way we can’t imagine in the West. This is a culture
where men say that a women fighter will never marry as who would want her !
and they are only half-joking.
What drives women such as Daoprasuk from
Surat and GeangKaew from Buriram?
The same as any fighter , the love of the sport. For these fighters money also plays a part. This is how it works, the promoter won’t pay a huge purse for a female fighter. But the money is made from the bets placed by the gyms against each other. GeangKaew’s last fight pulled a 40,000 bet which she took with an elbow KO in the 4th round. A good days work indeed.
The opportunities are here now for Thai women to fight. Their fight-records are still lower than the males, so that for example an 18 year old male fighter would have had about 90 fights and his female counterpart about 25. But, as more promoters become involved and the women themselves improve, this can only change. One of the top fighters here, NungLin from Ubon Ratchathani has had 47 fights at the ripe old age of 17.
Many of the fighters are very young, often still at school - they are the new generation. Due to their age we haven’t seen many of them fighting abroad yet, again parents are dubious of sending teenage daughters away. This is hopefully something that will change over time. Promoters who wish to invite Thai women to fight abroad should contact the WMC at email@example.com <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>
So, where does this leave Western MuayThai women ?
Many Western women have been put off by the stories of neglect in the camp, no opportunity of a fight, fights in go-go bars etc. Sadly, this was ( is ? ) all true. However, with the increased number of fights for women here, camps are more willing to invest the time now to train women. And for non-fighters, there are quite a few camps now which will take you in and give the same training they would give a farang male.
For anyone who is fighting at home, a 2-3 weeks session at a Thai camp will do wonders for your technique and skills. The thing with being a woman is that you can’t just walk into any camp - you need to focus on the camps which take foreigners anyhow. As yet, travelling off to a camp in the countryside and announcing that you’ve had 10 fights is likely to get you absolutely nowhere ! ( well, same true for many farang males too ! )
Camps which are open to foreigners and our weird ways are more receptive to the idea of a woman in their space, more ready to go to bat and get you a fight. They are also used to the “crazy” idea that foreigners often have no thought of actually fighting but will pay good money for training.
There are a number of these camps dotted around the country. The ones which come with female recommendations are : ( in no particular order ! )
Bangkok : SorVorapinGym, www.thaiboxings.com
JittiGym, can be contacted through email@example.com
Chiang Mai : Lanna Gym www.lannamuaythai.com http://www.lannamuaythai.com
Koh Samui : WMC Lamai Gym http://www.wmcmuaythaicamp.com
Ubon Ratchathani: KRS Gym, mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
No doubt there are others where if you have a personal introduction, you will also do fine but these gyms are open for business - male or female. The last thing you need on a short trip is to spend days trying to prove yourself before you have any fun.
To be a female MuayThai fighter in any country is to be part of something special, something our mothers couldn’t have imagined - how much more special then to go the Motherland and train there.
Thailand is the home of MuayThai and will be for some time to come. The average standard of the female fighters here is not yet on a par with the men. Hence there is no need to feel that “ I have only trained for 2 years or 6 months… or… “ , there is room for all levels.
Aside from fighting, a few weeks spent at any of these gyms will give you a new insight into the culture and religious beliefs behind MuayThai. Not to mention being a whole lot of fun!
So get your gloves on and get over there !!
Griffen recently defeated Thailand's Noppian Petchopas, for the
WMC Intercontinental Title. see fight reports.
Thanks to Niahm for this fascinating report on the fighting women in Thailand. We will also have some pictures from Thailand shortly, to add to this report.
Niamh Griffin of Ireland, is currently living in Thailand and fighting as well as working
with the world Muay Thai Council. (WMC)
More scenes from Thailand:
Amy Birch vs Daoprasuk Petchopas
Niamh Griffin lands one on Noppian
Siriporn Sonplod lands a kick on Erin Linley