There’s something to be said about the power of nostalgia in colouring perceptions of the past. Things were better in my day, the guys were tougher back then, the sport was purer back in our time. Any of these statements could apply to Muay Thai or any other sport with a hallowed past. And ironically, you don’t get more hallowed than the fight business.
Muay Thai, like other popular sports, had a Golden Age. From around 1980 to 1995 there was an explosion of talent, money, and competition. Countless incredible fighters were produced, pushing each other beyond their limits in thrilling bouts.
Put on almost any video of a fight from that time period and prepare to be entertained by fighters giving it their all from the first bell. Add to that the incredible skills fighters displayed against other elite opponents and even the uninitiated know they’re watching something extraordinary.
But what made the fighters so good? Why was this specific period of time so special? Many of the people who lived though or studied the era have their own explanations. The common threads in their stories help piece together the socioeconomic conditions in Thailand and the daily lives of the fighters outside the ring.
Thailand was a much tougher place to live in back then. Putting food on the table, or more commonly the floor, was a much more difficult task than it is today. Hunger is a great motivator and fighters are driven by desperation and poverty. A tough, desperate life breeds tough, desperate people. And the promise of money, food, and a better life propels many young men to lace up. Men who have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
In this way, Muay Thai is similar to its counterpart Western Boxing which saw an explosion of young men joining the sport during the Great Depression. Slums and underdeveloped regions are rife with the kind of people looking for an escape.
While the poverty may have been deep, the Thai economy had been booming for decades. Unfortunately, this wealth was mainly concentrated in Bangkok and its environs. The countryside, the breeding ground for Thailand’s greatest fighters, was economically neglected. It’s the classic story; lack of education, job opportunities, and resources funnel young men in one direction.
From Isaan to the South, fighters fought in that direction to spots on cards at the major stadiums in Bangkok.
Central Thailand has been the seat of power in the country since the days of the Ayutthaya Kingdom and the best fighters from all over find themselves invariably journeying there. It’s the promise of the big pay days, from a Bangkok flush with cash, and eternal glory in the ring that draws them. A heady mixture of money and fame for the prizefighters who are considered lo-so or low society in Thailand.
The great Muay Thai stadiums, Rajadamnern and Lumpini, were consistently filled with top tier talent. Getting a fight at the venues was harder and only the best of the best competed there. The fighters also greatly appreciated the opportunity to ply their trade at the twin Meccas of Muay Thai. It’s a far cry from the ease with which fights can be arranged there now. Many low level fights, that would have never have been scheduled, have become commonplace at the stadia today.
It’s not easy to imagine, for people who have seen how hardscrabble many Muay Thai gyms in Thailand are, but things were even rougher in the Golden Age. Training was more difficult back then, no soft padded ground, no good running shoes. Thin gloves, hard bags, and no modern equipment meant fighters with hardened bodies. All these factors combined to create fighters who were physically and mentally hard.
One of the biggest changes however, is the effect gambling has had on the sport. Go to any fight in Bangkok, even at the temple fairs, and you’ll find the majority of ticket buyers are gamblers. This lopsided power dynamic means they have an outsized influence on the outcome of fights.
Rotnarong Daowpaedrew, former Rajadamnern Champion and still endlessly energetic Golden Era legend, notes how this influence has affected the way fighters fight. The fighters take fewer risks and focus on powerful techniques that please the gamblers.
“Back then, a single sweep wasn’t enough to sway the gamblers.”
Fights don’t get going until the third round these days. The fighters take it easy the first two rounds to give gamblers a chance to assess them and lay down their bets. “We just fought. When the bell went we fought, we fought until the end, never knowing what being tired felt like,” declares Rotnarong, confidently contrasting himself with this latest batch of Nak Muay. Many Golden Era fighters and Muay Thai purists lament the watering down of the sport. A lot of old school techniques or risk taking has lost favour with fighters wary of making a misstep in the eyes of the all-powerful gamblers.
“These fighters today are all sissies,” was how Lou Stillman summed up fighters in the late 50’s when he sold his iconic New York boxing gym. It’s almost unimaginable to think of the Western boxers coming up then as soft. It’s just as hard to consider the young Thais who’re coming up in Muay Thai today as soft as well. Their lives are difficult in different ways and poverty remains. But there really was something special going on during the Golden Era. Something probably impossible to replicate.