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Thailand’s national sport is multi-limbed, all-sensory showdown. Duncan Forgan shines a spotlight on the Muay Thai ring

In the street outside the open-air gym at the Muay Thai school in central Bangkok, rush-hour traffic is polluting the atmosphere with emissions of fumes and sound.

I am a man on a mission, however, and no amount of honking horns will distract me from it. I apply some herbal lotion to my joints, don a pair of gloves and make my way purposefully towards the elevated stage.

At the side of the ring, my trainer Pok calls up a playlist on an iPad before facing me. The intro of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” clicks into gear. This is my moment to shine. I am Rocky, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali rolled into one. I am Evander Holyfield. I am…

“You are kind of like a ladyboy,” laughs Pok as I throw a succession of limp-wristed punches and hooks that all seem to fizzle out with a pathetic splat on the pads I am supposed to be pulverizing.

Known as the ‘art of eight limbs,’ Muay Thai is characterized by use of fists, elbows, knees, shins, and feet. It was developed as a form of close-combat that utilizes the entire body as a weapon. The sport is hugely intense, which is why a match consists just of five x three-minute rounds with a two-minute rest between each.

Muay Thai as we know it today is said to have originated in the middle of the 16th century. Its popularity spread when the Burmese took prisoner thousands of Thai soldiers after the downfall of Thailand’s former capital Ayutthaya.
While incarcerated, the best Thai boxers had to then fight against Burmese boxing champions. The ultimate champion, as legend tells it, was a Thai fighter Nai Khanomtom, who was granted his freedom by the Burmese king after shocking one of Burma’s best fighters.

Over the centuries the sport has grown in popularity with everyone from upcountry farmers to Thai movie stars and celebs tuning in to Channel 7—the national Muay Thai channel. Such is the pride in the national sport that savvy foreigners can get visas specifically to train in Muay Thai.

The experience of watching the pros live is visceral. Famous stadiums such as Rajademnern and Lumpinee (the latter slightly diminished since its move from central Bangkok to a new site in the burbs in 2014) come alive with the sound of knee hitting knee and fist connecting with face as fighters get down to combat.
The sport is a magnet for money in Thailand. While boxers themselves face a tough route to riches, top Muay Thai stars can earn up to THB120,000 (US$3,800) per fight. With the stakes as high as they are, it is no surprise that many poor youngsters see the sport as a ticket to a better life. These ambitions are often exploited. Thailand has come under fire in recent times for its lax controls on children (some as young as six) competing for cash.

But there are plenty of feelgood stories as well of course. The sport’s broad appeal means it has fostered plenty of female stars as well as male. Champions are all viewed as top role models in the country. Bad-asses basically.

I’m feeling bolder, too, as I improve my fighting skills. Soon I am circling Pok with some degree of nimbleness, blocking kicks with my legs, parrying jabs with a solid guard and letting loose a few worthy shots of my own.
“Punch and kick good,” he says giving me a hearty pat on the back. “No more ladyboy.” I’ve seen some definitely badass dragqueens, though, so I’m OK with my effort either way. But I don’t think I’m ready to bet my visa on it.