IF you ask a Thai about fighting in Thailand, the word “Muay Thai” will roll smoothly and swiftly off their tongues. It’s engrained into the consciousness of all Thai people, that this is the acceptable way to fight in a controlled environment. Throw a new style into the mix and first it will be met with fear and suspicion. That’s where mixed martial arts is at right now in Thailand.

That’s where the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was 10 years ago; UFC was just sold for US$4 billion dollars and its stars are now household names.

MMA is on a steep upward trajectory in Thailand, gyms are transitioning from Muay Thai to MMA, and there is a growing interest in the sport.

The sport needs good ambassadors, affable promoters, and more than anything needs to capture the imagination of the thousands of fighters who exists here in Thailand. It’s already enticed Muay Thai legends Seanchai and Buakaw Banchamek, who are training MMA, making the transition right now.

But there is one enormous obstacle preventing thousands of uneducated fighters from leaving their sacred sport, as Shannon Wiratchai, MMA fighter, ambassador, and member of the Thailand Mixed Martial Arts Federation (TMMAF) explains: “There’s a lot of people interested, but it’s difficult for the established Muay Thai fighters because they’re scared they have to learn so much more, after having fought for so long in this style.”

Wiratchai, nicknamed “One Shin”, could be a pivotal figure in the growth of MMA in Thailand and in changing the stigmatisation of MMA in the country. He is well educated, from a relatively privileged upbringing and he chose to learn MMA.

Shannon Wiratchai ONE FC

I WANT TO TELL MY PEOPLE THAT YES, WE ARE BROTHERS OF OUR MUAY THAI FIGHTERS, BUT WE NOW HAVE A NEW FLAVOR OF MARTIAL ARTS, A NEW FOOD ON THE TABLE.

He is one of the original Thai MMA stars, having fought for the prestigious ONE Championship fight promotion. He was never a Muay Thai fighter, but he still understands the importance of attracting these great fighters to the sport of MMA.

“Some of the Muay Thai fighters will not switch unless it’s for big money. In order to attract these fighters, there needs to be a transition program for them,” he says.

“The reason for this is; Muay Thai fighters are something a little bit different. They have already fought for many years and fought hundreds of times. They can already strike very well and grapple, for sure they need to improve their ground skills. It should still be different for Muay Thai fighters, compared with those who are starting from scratch.”

Aside from motivating the warriors of Muay Thai to learn some new techniques, inspiring Thailand’s younger generation to go to the gym and learn MMA is another important step. Winning the hearts and minds of the parents holds the key for this gate to be unlocked. Shannon may well be a key figure in achieving this, with his clean-cut image, high-society background and the major success he’s achieved in the sport since going professional.

“When I started I was just a lazy boy who was not very athletic and wanted to play games, then I started training and realised I can change that, I can make it. I want to show everyone in Thailand that anyone can do it.

“I want to tell my people that: yes, we are the brothers of our Muay Thai fighters, but now we have a new flavor of martial arts, a new food on the table. We can see a new breed of fighter now in MMA who can do many different things. Don’t be scared of this new sport, we can do it too.”

Shannon’s involvement with TMMAF is significant, and the affiliation with IMMAF, the world’s only sanctioned amateur MMA federation, is a game-changer for Thai MMA. Suddenly opportunities are going to arise for young, aspiring fighters in Thailand to enter tournaments, compete and gain valuable experience in the sport, as well as potential, life-changing rewards for the winners of these tournaments. Full Metal Dojo fight promoter and entrepreneur Jon Nutt will put together a tournament called “Made in Thailand” in October, where the winner will gain an all-expenses paid trip to compete in the pinnacle of the sport as an amateur, the IMMAF World Championships in Las Vegas.

The tournament is all amateur, strictly Thai, fully sanctioned and will invite fighters from four regions to take part. This is what the sport needs, according to “One Shin”.

SHANNON WIRATCHAI ROUGH MMA ASIA THAILAND

“A tournament like this can definitely get the support of the Thai people, because MMA is underground in the eyes of Thai people. So TMMAF is very important and people can relate to this organisation. Slowly they can become educated which is the ultimate goal, to move away from thinking it’s an underground sport.”

“My Dad is a doctor, my Mum is a nurse so they don’t like to see me getting hurt. It took them five or six years to become educated in this sport and realise that learning mixed martial arts is actually the safest, most specific style which replicates a real life fight. You don’t even need to be a fighter, even just training is great for your body and your mind.”

Shannon trains at Bangkok Fight Lab, alongside former UFC fighter Tommy Hayden, who coaches there and recently fought in a Full Metal Dojo event in Bangkok, and won. Both are bubbling with enthusiasm about a new Thai MMA fighter. According to Shannon, Muay Thai is not too engrained in his soul as he only had around 100 fights.

As I enter the gym, Tommy is watching over them as they are warming up and I immediately see the man, who Tommy calls one of his “world champions”.

He is sparring MMA with another Thai fighter. He tosses his team-mate to the ground, gets up and howls with delight. Then he re-focuses, and they go right back to work. They start circling each-other, throwing punches and transitioning to the takedown. He has an incredible energy about him and his attitude is infectious.

The same can be said about most people I’ve met in the small, enlarging MMA community in Bangkok.