In the west, both male and female fighters enter the ring over the top rope. In Thailand however, only male fighters enter the ring over the top rope; female fighters must enter under the bottom rope.
For a Westerner, this can be conflicting as it seems to send a clear message of gender-based hierarchy. The Western female fighter in Thailand faces a dilemma; to enter the ring in a manner that symbolises gender equality at the expense of being culturally insensitive or even offensive, or to act respectfully towards Thai culture and acknowledge her lower status compared with her male counterparts. What is more important, cultural respect or gender equality?
However, is it really that black and white? More tellingly, how do female Thai fighters resolve this conflict, or, do they even experience the conflict that the Westerner perceives?
I spoke with two female Thai fighters to understand their perspective on the matter.
Loma Lookboonme is arguably one of the world’s most famous female Muay Thai fighters. She has more than 300 fights under her belt – some of them against males – and has recently transitioned to MMA. Her international MMA debut was bold and logistically difficult move for a Thai who’s grown up in the countryside.
Loma feels strongly about honoring the tradition that she has been observing since she started training and fighting at the tender age of seven.
“I don’t know why we have this tradition, but it’s part of the belief system here.”
At her home gym, she goes through the middle ropes – never over the top, but when she trains at Dejrat Academy, she always goes under the bottom rope. And when she competes, it is always under the bottom rope regardless of where she is.
Somsurat Rangkla immigrated from Thailand to Australia at age 17, and has been living in Australia for 15 years. She commenced her fighting career in Melbourne three years ago, and her one and only trainer is a Westerner.
In a sense, Somsurat occupies a unique position; she understands and is very much part of both Thai culture and Western culture. Fighting in Australia she could enter the ring over the top rope, as is the usual custom in here. However, Somsurat always enters the ring under the ropes.
“It is Thai tradition” she says, “and it is important for me to respect my culture.”
Somsurat made an important distinction between culture and gender.
“I don’t feel inferior. I go under the ropes because it is what women do in my culture. I live a rich and meaningful life, I don’t feel inferior because I am female – I wouldn’t do it is that’s what it meant – I just want to observe tradition.”
Samurai later added, that if it was a ‘stupid’ tradition, she wouldn’t do it.
Loma also refers to the importance of upholding tradition,
“When I fought for IFMA in Mexico, I went under the bottom rope. Whenever I fight abroad, I will continue the tradition of entering under the bottom rope.”
I am not Thai – indeed, it has been almost three years since I took my fighting to Thailand – but I feel a similar desire to observe tradition. When I fought in America earlier this year, I entered the ring under the bottom rope.
I felt like I was honoring the Muay Thai tradition, the Thai gym that gave me so much, and the Thai trainers who taught me so well – their own fight careers are many times more illustrious than mine is or ever will be, their knowledge and intelligence in the ring is unmatchable.
Observing the Muay Thai tradition is a way of deferring to the culture and the incredibly rich history of Muay Thai. My own journey – a female Westerner who battled stereotypes and Western expectations to fight and train for long periods in Thailand – is not unimportant, and the rise of both Westerners and women in Muay Thai are rich and important chapters in the history of muay thai.
However, they they are not the only chapters in Muay Thai. There is a very long and rich history and tradition of Muay Thai that predates the involvement of both Westerners and female fighters by centuries, and I feel that by entering the ring under the ropes, it is those generations of illustrious fighters that come before me that I defer to rather than gender inequality. When I enter the ring, I am part of a tradition much greater than myself and the chapter that I play a role in.
Lord K2 (David Sharabani) is an award winning photographer. He has spent the past three years completely immersed in the sport of Muay Thai, documenting its culture and lifestyle with unrestricted access throughout Thailand.