Rocky and Mick, Miyagi and Daniel or Luke and Yoda—fight fans love training montages. With a master's help the hero battles pain, frustration and boredom to realize/transcend himself. It's the core promise of martial arts—study the way with enough discipline and you'll become the toughest, baddest motherfucker around and find yourself in the process. Few montages deliver like Bruce Wayne's in Batman Begins.
Bruce's journey into the criminal underworld lands him in an Asian prison, fighting inmates for practice. Henri Ducard visits Bruce in solitary, inviting him to join the league of shadows: "If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely" "Which is?" Bruce responds. "Legend, Mr. Wayne."
Realizing the universal fascination with superheroes, with the ubermench, is easier than ever. The rise of kickboxing and MMA popularized Muay Thai in the West as the world's most effective striking art. The Internet helped turn the trickle of foreigners heading to Thailand to train into a flood. Today, Thailand's gyms are packed with Westerners—from professional fighters to folks just trying to lose a few pounds—all starring in their own training montage. Not all of us can join the League of Shadows, but many travelling east to train Muay Thai have a little Bruce Wayne in them—or think they do.
Like boxing in the West, Muay Thai is a sport of Thailand's poor. Families that can't afford to take care of their sons send them to monasteries or Muay Thai gyms. The boys learn a skill, and since Thais start fighting at seven or eight they can remit their winnings to support their families. So it's often hard for Thais to understand why foreigners—called "farang" in Thai—choose to come to Thailand and fight professionally, let alone pay to train at a gym.
Muay Thai's relationship with the West stretches back to the First World War, when the Kingdom of Siam joined the Allies and sent an expeditionary force to France. Thai soldiers fought in exhibitions meant to raise morale on the Western Front. In the Second World War, American and British troops were stationed in Thailand, and the influence of western boxing solidified the widespread adoption of formal rules, including gloves and a ring. In the 50's, Thai boxers started competing internationally in boxing—in 1953 Chamrern Songkitrat lost to the undefeated Australian bantamweight Jimmy Caruthers for the 118lb championship in front of a crowd of 60,000 in Bangkok.
But Muay Thai didn't infiltrate the west until the Martial Arts boom of the 60s and 70s. Bruce Lee's Hollywood success helped catapult eastern martial arts into Coca-Cola culture's mainstream. In 1971, Bruce Lee travelled to Thailand to film "Big Boss." While there he supposedly fought a Thai boxer and was so impressed that he incorporated many of its elements into Jeet Kun Do, his fighting system. There's no way of knowing if that story's true—none of Bruce Lees fights were recorded. Still, Bruce's "Tao of Jeet Kun Do," a collection of his notes and philosophy of martial arts, has detailed descriptions of Muay Thai style kicks, elbows and knees.
In 1974, a young Thai boxer named Thohsaphol Sitiwatjana scored a bit part in The Man with the Golden Gun. The following year he moved to England, where he started a gym in Manchester. Grandmaster Toddy became one of the most famous coaches in the western world, and introduced Muay Thai to England and America. A few years later his friend Master Sken joined him—Sken's pupil Phil Nurse would go on to coach UFC greats like Jon Jones, Rashad Evans, Frankie Edgar and George St. Pierre. In 1982 Toddy's pupil Ronnie Green was one of the first Westerners to make the move to Thailand. He trained there for a year, and fought and won against top Thai fighters. Ronnie inspired a generation of European kickboxers to challenge Thais on their home turf.
Jean-Claude Van Damme immortalized the Westerner in Thailand trope in the 1989 cult classic Kickboxer. In the flick, Van Damme plays Kurt, who travels with his brother Eric to Thailand to prove themselves against the Thais. Tong Po, the Thai national champion, brutally dispatches Eric and leaves him paralyzed. Kurt vows to revenge his brother, and—of course—goes to the jungle to train with a mysterious grand master. Wax on wax off, and a few felled banana trees later Kurt returns to defeat Tong Po. Kickboxer introduced western martial arts fans to Muay Thai on a massive scale, and captured the western fascination with travelling to Asia to learn the secrets of deadly martial arts.
Jean-Claude Van Damme's on screen exploits paled beside the real life success of Belgian Ramon Dekkers. In the 90's Dekkers fought Thailand's best at Lumpinee stadium. His rivalry with Coban Lookchaomaesaitong produced some of the best fights of all time. The second of their four fights had a lasting impact on Muay Thai—Dekkers knocked Coban out with superior boxing. Thais took note, and started incorporating more western boxing into their training.
The Deckkers-Coban rivalry had its roots in an earlier clash between Thai's and foreigners. In 1963, Japan sent three of its best Karatekas to challenge the Thais. The Thais humiliated the Karatekas. But in 1972 the Japanese tried again. All but one of their fighters lost—Toshio Fujiwara—who in 1978 would become the first foreigner to win a Rajadamnern Stadium championship. Jan Plas brought kickboxing to the Netherlands after studying in Japan with Fujiwara. Ramon Dekker's heavy handed, quick footed style traced its lineage to the Fujiwara.
During the 1990s Europeans, Brazilians and South Korean's tuned in to the Japanese K1 kickboxing production, in which Muay Thai dominated. In the states, the rise of mixed martial arts brought Muay Thai into the mainstream. The first UFC broadcast on pay per view in 1993 to an audience of 83,000. The sport grew rapidly. The Spike TV show The Ultimate Fighter, which followed fighters training and competing for a multi-million dollar contract with the UFC, aired in 2005 and drove widespread interest in the sport. In 2006, UFC 61 had more than 1 million viewers on pay per view. Soon MMA gyms were opening around the US, and crowds flooded into Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu jitsu gyms.
Those crowds also found their way to Thailand. Sam Sheridan went to Thailand in 1999—before the influx. He trained for six months at Fairtex gym in Bangkok and defeated a high level Japanese karateka. In 1999, Fairtex was a barebones Bangkok style gym, and Sheridan writes fondly of sleeping on dirty mattresses in an ant-infested room with the handful of other farang. When he returned in 2006 to research his book "The Fighters Heart," Fairtex had become a Muay Thai resort with a spa, air conditioned treadmills, and a host of "Farang" training.
Today, Thailand boasts Muay Thai resorts like Tiger Muay Thai, which have luxury rooms, bars, weekend parties, and the opportunity for Westerners to fight in "amateur fights." Inexperienced travelers can also "fight a Thai"—promoters in Phuket set farang up against Thai taxi drivers who trained as kids, and are willing to take a beating in exchange for padding their paycheck.
Thai gyms traditionally made money from their fighters. Every fight has a purse, and fighters split their winnings with the gym. The influx of farang means that more and more gyms supplement or even support themselves primarily with income from foreigners who pay to train. That's not necessarily a bad thing—foreign interest has helped keep the sport alive, as more and more Thai's have started to watch soccer and other western imports. It's also gotten more Thai's training—Westerners' fascination with Muay Thai has reduced the sports' association with poverty. Bangkok's middle class stays trim at Soul Cycle style boutique Muay Thai fitness classes.
Still, there's a dedicated group of western fighters who train in Thailand. Some come to tune up their skills for MMA or international kickboxing productions like Glory. Others try to beat the Thais at their own game. Louis Green fights out of Santai Muay Thai near Chiang Mai. He's 5'6, with short blond hair, and sweats manic intensity. He says in a rapid fire Manchester accent, "I was sort of going down a bad road back home ya know. I saw a friend was in Thailand, not training though, and I thought if he can do it I can fookin do it." He didn't want to just backpack though—he needed a sense of purpose. Louis had only messed around with Muay Thai in England, but six weeks after he arrived in Koh Samui, he had his first fight and beat a Thai. He had two more fights, and won both. When he returned to England five months later he fought a pro fight against an English fighter and lost in a brawl. Louis says "I thought I was good, but that fight was fookin sloppy and I realized I wasn't that good." He couldn't find work back home, and after three months decided to come back to Thailand.
Despite his blistering personality, what's striking about Louis is his humility. "I'm not good—that's why I don't like to give advice around the gym. I still don't know shit." Louis thinks too many farangs compare themselves to people without much skill in order to feel superior, and they don't fight enough to know themselves. Louis has already had close to forty fights, and he thinks he'll need at least a hundred to answer the most important question: how he stacks up against the Thais.