How Muay Thai moved West

Sken Kaewpadung

Thai boxing was never seen outside Thailand (then known as Siam) until 1926, when Chua Chakshuraksha and Wanlop Thanasiri demonstrated the art after their graduation from a banking institution in Sydney, Australia. Cries of “Siamese kicking” filled the air around town as the Australians became enthused with this total contact sport.
The United States got its first taste of Muay Thai in 1950, but only small crowds saw Surachai Looksurin and Somsri Tiemkamhaeng demonstrate the sport in gymnasiums and circuses on about seven occasions. Three other Thai boxers successfully toured the U.S. for six months in 1951; they were seen in Hawaii, California and Texas. It was not until 1962 that members of the world population were treated to the first official demonstration of Muay Thai, complete with musicians at the Seattle World Fair.
Today this martial art is known throughout the world. The late Patrick Brizon of Clermont Serrand, France was the first Western martial artist known to have gone to Thailand specifically to train in Muay Thai in 1975. He returned to France that same year and opened Europe’s first Thai boxing gym.

Legendary five-time Thai boxing champ Pudpadnoy Worawoot (1971-75) is congratulated by the president of Thailand. Pudpadnoy (a.k.a. Poodpardnoi) who was the Bill Wallace of his sport, immigrated to Paris, France in 1979 and today is the Technical Director of the French Muay Thai Association. Image courtesy of G. Finot.

Legendary Thai boxing champion Pudpadnoy Worawoot, known during his heyday as “The Golden Ankle Boxer,” was the Bill Wallace of Muay Thai. He was a five-time champion from 1971-75. In 1979. a student of Patrick Brizon’s sponsored Pudpadnoi’s immigration to Paris, France to teach his art. Pudpadnoy (also spelled Poodpardnoy) today is the Technical Director of the French Muay Thai Association and has trained some five champions. Pudpadnoy is the instructor of Frenchman Gerard Finot who founded the North American Muay Thai Association in 1984 in Cleveland, Ohio. which is the official U.S. branch of the WMTA (see below). Sken Kaewpadung, known in Europe as Master Sken, immigrated to the United Kingdom and established the British Thai Boxing Council in Manchester, England. By 1988 he had nine champions in his fine stable.

The World Muay Thai Association undoubtedly, the most significant development in the West for Thai boxing was the formation of the World Muay Thai Association (WMTA) on January 15. 1984 in Amsterdam, Holland, Chalermpong Cheosakul ~ later the manager of the Rajadamnern Stadium in Bangkook, and his associates from Thailand met with representatives from West Germany, Belgium, Italy, Norway, France and Holland. Amsterdam’s Thorn Harrinck was named WMTA president. Aiming to promote Muay Thai internationally. The group planned to establish a ranking list, standardized fight rules, and criteria for referees and judges.
Following that first meeting in Amsterdam in 1984, a convention held in Bangkok that same year drew representatives from the above-mentioned countries as well as Brazil, England, Indonesia, Japan, Yugoslavia, Korea, Morocco, Mexico, Monaco, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, U.S.A. and Venezuela. Some countries refuse to let contenders use knee and elbow techniques in the ring, so the WMTA representatives considered establishing both Thai standards and so called international standards.

Dojo Chakuriki Fighters
Amsterdam, Holland’s Thorn Harrinck (far left) poses with his Chakuriki Dojo champions and performers. Harrinck’s influence has made Amsterdam the Muay Thai mecca of Europe.

The founding of the Thailand branch of the WMTA has been temporarily interrupted, but this should soon be resolved. When all branches are established, the WMTA plans to exchange periodic ranking lists for Muay Thai fighters so that, when a bout is arranged between international contenders, the promoters can evenly match the participants.

With Progress Come Problems
There are many problems and misunderstandings facing the global expansion of this sport. For one, Thai boxers typically do not use their birth names: they use pseudonyms or aliases. This practice has made foreigners believe the Thais send “ringers” into international bouts, that is, elite champions who use a different name to pose as lesser-experienced contenders.
Patrick Cusick, editor of Thai Championship Boxing magazine, explains that when a Thai boxer gets the sacred mongkul (headpiece), he takes a vow to become a Muay Thai fighter, and his trainer gives him a new name to symbolize his break away from the lay world. The fighter’s pseudonym is changed only if he is not successful in the ring and the trainer believes a new name would bring better luck. The fighter, however, would not fight under another name (for example as a “ringer” competing in another country) simply because a well known contender is likely to bring a bigger purse than an unknown.

Just as Western kickboxing has its superstars like Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Joe Lewis, Don Wilson and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez so, too, does Muay Thai. There have been at least a dozen legendary fighters. Currently, however. there is no single recognized Muay Thai superstar. Every stadium has its own champion in each division and publishes separate ratings. In Thailand the available titles, with subdivisions, are: flyweight (112 lbs.), bantamweight ( 118 lbs.), featherweight ( 126 lbs.), lightweight ( 135 lbs.), and welterweight (147 lbs.). Perhaps, with the addition of farangs (foreigners), Muay Thai titles can be extended to include heavier weights. Then fighters would be able to stay within their weight divisions for fairer matchmaking.

The Thai Boxing Commission (TBC), presently being re-organized, has been the sanctioning body for Muay Thai bouts in countries outside Thailand. The rules of the TBC, which were recently revised, have presided at those matches. It is likely that WMTA bouts would also abide by those rules. The rules have long been a point of ugly contention in international bouts except ~ perhaps, those conducted in Holland. To begin with many international mixed-matches take place without a written set of rules, Instead, they are proposed and agreed upon verbally, usually the night before or the day of the fight.

Manchester Muay Thai
Sken Kaewpadung (back row, center), posing here with some of his students has trained nine champions and is chief instructor of the British Thai Boxing CounciI in Manchester, England. Photo courtesy of Sandy Holt.

This oversight has caused grotesque mismatches. Some Westerners have outweighed their Thai opponents by 15 pounds or more. Yet, the Thais complain Westerners demand further handicaps such as the elimination of knee and elbows. Occasionally, they also try to eliminate leg kicks. On the other hand ~ Western fighters complain that the Thai boxers seldom follow the rules anyway. They kick to the groin and the knees and apply a periodic elbow or knee, even when it’s clearly agreed before the bout that those targets are prohibited. To intensify the problem the Thai fighters are never disqualified for ignoring the rules, even when their Western opponents have been injured by illegal blows.

Remember that fighters can and do get killed in this sport. In many of these mixed international matches, the Westerners are incapable of handling the Thai’s ferocious leg kicks. They often end up a fixed target and absorb so many leg kicks they are crippled for days after the fight. Some like Wisconsin’s Rick Roufus, have to had to wear casts on their legs following these bouts. Clearly, a meticulous and sane set of standardized international rules and qualified officials who will enforce them should now be the highest priority of the WMTA. Only then can the sport spread across the globe with a high degree of integrity and a low degree of controversy.

This article was originally published inside The Fighter International magazine’s issue of March 1990. The cover image features Sken Kaewpadung throwing a high kick.