“Khai Muay kap kum mak kup,” Mark DellaGrotte chants as he locks up his Muay Thai Academy at the end of another long day of training. As if praying, he clasps his hands together at his forehead and bows, uttering the Thai phrase that means, “Thank you for all you have given me.”
Anyone walking down Cutter Street in Somerville, Massachusetts, would probably regard DellaGrotte as a schizophrenic who talks back to the voices in his head. But this simple act of reverence refl ects the deep respect that is at the core of Muay Thai, an ancient form of combat, and defi nes its unique relationship between the physical and the spiritual realms.
The Royal Bond
“Muay Thai brought us our freedom,” says Master Toddy, who was born in Thailand. “When Burma conquered Thailand (in 1767), there was a man named Nai Khanum Tom who impressed the Burmese King with his Muay Thai skills. So the Burmese King asked him, ‘What is it you want?’ And Tom said, ‘I want my country to be free.’ So the Burmese King said, “Defeat ten of my best fi ghters and I will set Thailand free.’ Nai Khanum Tom defeated all ten, one after the other, and the Burmese King stayed true to his word. That is why Muay Thai is so sacred in my country.”
The tale is not a tall one, and it’s actually mandatory learning for every schoolkid in the kingdom today. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few tangible examples of Muay Thai in the country’s history, since the kingdom’s archives were lost when the Burmese sacked the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya in 1767. What is known is that Muay Thai was developed for the Thai warrior in an era when only handheld weapons were available, and when a soldier was often left on the battlefi eld with only his hands to fi ght with.
As such, Muay Thai is not a style developed in a non-combat environment, like Jigoro Kano’s Judo or the Gracie family’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It was developed and refi ned as a practical combat system on the battlefi elds of Southeast Asia over several centuries, and it still commands a deep respect among modern-day warriors. When Thai soldiers had to develop a way to knock their Burmese enemies off the backs of charging buffalo, they developed the fl ying knee that’s still a devastating weapon in today’s Muay Thai rings and MMA cages.
We know that from 1350 to 1921 Muay Thai was mandatory training for all soldiers. It was also the pastime of the country’s kings, who each put his personal stamp on the sport as it was passed down through the dynasties. Before Nai Khanum Tom, King Naresuan the Great used Muay Thai to defeat Burmese boxers and gain his country’s independence in the sixteenth century. King Sanpet VIII had a habit of disguising himself to compete in local Muay Thai boxing tournaments, an activity considered taboo because Thai kings were not permitted to mingle with commoners. King Rama I held boxing tournaments on his palace grounds and selected the best Muay Thai fi ghters to join his personal guard. During this period, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a tale emerged of two Frenchmen who came to Thailand to challenge the best Muay Thai boxers the country had to offer. King Rama l chose his best man, Muen Phlan, who defeated both Frenchmen in succession despite being smaller in size . The French should have learned from this event and stayed out of Indochina!
By the nineteenth century the sport was growing in popularity, and was about to experience its golden age. King Rama V established a professional boxing camp and encouraged his nobility to do the same, promulgating the sport nationally. Not to be outdone by his dad, King Rama VI went a step further by constructing large arenas; allowing commoners to run their own boxing camps, rings, and competitions; and establishing rules and regulations, such as the use of gloves and groin protectors. (Until 1928 the hands were bare or wrapped in hemp, and strikes to the genitals were legal. Thank God for progress!) King Rama VI’s patronage and the expansion of modern transportation caused Muay Thai camps to spring up like a contagion throughout the land, and within a generation the sport transitioned from a military skill and the sport of nobility to a saving grace for street urchins. Enter the religious right.
Purifi cation Through Pain
Buddhist monks advocate peace, but their history is littered with violent periods. It’s not surprising when you consider the fact that most confl icts around the world are centered on religion, but Buddhism in particular is inseparable from violence and the martial arts. Modern Buddhism believes in purifying the soul through meditation. In previous centuries, however, physical exertion was the way to spiritual enlightenment. Like farming, Muay Thai was a natural fi t for the Buddhist way of life, so temples contributed to the development of the sport as a means of helping others.
“The temple in my village would put on Muay Thai fi ghts so the kids could make money,” Master Toddy says. “It was their way of helping the kids to survive, and keeping them from becoming little thieves or things like this. That’s where I started fi ghting, when I was six years old.”
Children’s full-contact fi ghting would have set off a fi restorm of moral and ethical controversy in western countries, but it’s one of the few survival options available to a poor, rural society like Thailand’s. The connection between compassionate monks and hungry kids is a relationship that’s unique to Muay Thai, and that is where the bond between the physical and spiritual worlds were often formed. But not everyone is impressed with the purported link between the two.
“Muay Thai is practically male prostitution because it’s only for the poorest sector of society,” says Erich Krauss, an American Muay Thai fi ghter and author of Muay Thai Unleashed. “It’s basically survival for them because it’s their only alternative.”
Master Toddy echoes Krauss’ sentiment. “In Thailand the upper class does not let their kids do Muay Thai,” Toddy says. “It’s for poor kids because it’s one of the only ways they can make money. So kids become professional fi ghters at just six years old, because they don’t make money unless they turn pro. Upper class children don’t have to do that.” Their situation is not unlike that of the inner-city boxing gyms in America, but the two cultures are polar opposites in temperament. Muay Thai fi ghters are bereft of “attitude” and don’t like to admit what they do for a living, while young American boxers prefer the Muhammad Ali style of machismo and braggadocio. In that regard, boxing could probably benefi t from a dose of Buddhism.
The Buddhist infl uence on Muay Thai runs deeper than its use as a philanthropic outlet. Going back to the earliest days of border warfare, there is evidence that monks blessed Thai warriors before a battle, a practice that carried over into the ring with a prayer for the combatants’ safety and a call upon their ancestors to be with them in the arena. Buddhism believes in reincarnation and the ability of bygone people to have a spiritual presence in the physical world.
“The spirits of a fi ghter’s ancestors are embodied in the head,” Master Toddy says. “That’s why we wear the mongkol on the head and why boxers in Thailand don’t let women touch their heads. It’s also why they jump over the top ring rope, because if they go through the ropes their heads might touch it and they’ll lose their power.” Tattoos are another part of the Muay Thai mystique. While tattoos are decorative art forms in the west, Thais believe they can actually protect the fi ghter from being cut in the ring.
But the granddaddy of all Muay Thai rituals is a dance called the Wai Khru Ram Muay, which is performed by each contestant before the fi ght. It’s a carefully choreographed set of movements that pays respect to the fi ghter’s ancestors, teachers, and camp, and demonstrates his abilities regarding balance and control. Kneeling as a sign of respect to God and Buddha and a prayer for the safety of the fi ghters are key components of the Wai Khru Ram Muay. That belief in higher powers accompanied by a need to appease them may seem like pagan worship to westerners, but it sets Muay Thai apart as the most ritualistic martial art in the world. Unless you consider Sumo a viable martial art.
A Rite of Passage
“Back in the day, you didn’t learn martial arts because you paid a guy,” Mark DellaGrotte laments. “You learned it because a master accepted you into his dojo. Now anyone with a check and a pen can join a gym.” After thirteen years of working his way up through the Muay Thai hierarchy and being named the offi cial conservator of the art in the United States, DellaGrotte knows the process. Muay Thai clings to the traditional way of passing itself down: by selecting its future gatekeepers through a merit system based on commitment and passion for the art…and by keeping the camp clean.
“When I was a boy there was a gym in my village,” Master Toddy says of his childhood in Prakanow, Thailand. “I was four years old and I would watch the fi ghters train through the fence every day. After a year the Kru (master trainer, like a sensei) fi nally invited me in to help train their fi ghters. They wanted to work on defense and asked me to throw strikes at their champion… and sweep the fl oor of course,” he says, laughing.
Rites of passage are nothing new. They’re a facet of most collective organizations, from the Freemasons to fraternity houses. But being accepted into Muay Thai is something that stays with each individual and instills a code of respect for the art’s elders. It’s not a tangible system of recognition, like belts, but it’s the unspoken hierarchy of respect that gives Muay Thai a mystical appeal seldom found in modern martial arts. “In MMA today everyone is like, ‘What’s up bro,’” DellaGrotte says. “But in Muay Thai we all wai (the traditional gesture of holding both hands to the head) and bow to show respect to those who have earned it.”
It’s all about pride in something that you’ve worked hard to achieve and which has given so much back to you in return. National pride in Muay Thai runs deep, which is understandable when you consider that it’s credited with saving their country. “At boxing matches you can hear a pin drop during the national anthem,” Della- Grotte says. “Try that at a baseball game in the States. Every Joe has his cell phone going off or they’re mumbling to each other. Half the crowd will sing along, but it’s not the same.”
DellaGrotte has achieved what’s available to all, but attained by so few. Many martial arts refrain from allowing insiders get too close to their inner secrets. Anyone who’s studied the arts knows the famous tale of Bruce Lee’s fi ght with his fellow Chinese teachers over sharing the secrets of Kung Fu with Americans. Lee won his battle to teach, but several art forms still remain closed to the unwelcome. Muay Thai is on the opposite end of the spectrum: Thais are generally happy to throw their doors open and teach their art to anyone who wants to learn. But the faint of heart need not apply because, in general, Thai people have no tolerance for farang (westerners) who just want to go through the moves and strike without passion.
“They look for the guy who just wants to have an adventure,” says DellaGrotte. “Any white guys who go to Thailand and don’t show heart and dedication get tossed over to the heavy bags right away and never get the attention they want. As long as you show a sincere appreciation for the sport and give it your all, you’ll get all they have to offer.”
Muay Thai in MMA
And what they have to offer is signifi cant. Muay Thai is not restricted, like western boxing, which only has two striking points, or kickboxing, which only has four. Muay Thai earned its moniker as “The Art of Eight Limbs” because it uses eight striking points—two hands, two feet, two knees, and two elbows —to deliver crushing blows that can cause immense damage and frequently break the skin. The evolution of Muay Thai was infl uenced by the hot climate of Southeast Asia, where the indigenous people don’t wear heavy clothing that restricts their movements. This allowed the art to develop strikes that are effi cient and natural. Compare that to the stiffer movements and rigid forms of those martial arts designed for a combatant wearing a gi or body armor.
“It’s simple and effective,” says DellaGrotte, who spent years studying various martial arts before settling into a life of Muay Thai. “MMA has proven it. With MMA, we get to see what works and what doesn’t. I came from a Jeet Kune Do background, which weeded out the nonessentials, and Muay Thai has the same philosophy. It’s an art that uses what works and ignores what doesn’t, so it’s very effi cient. It’s easy to teach, it’s easy to learn, and it’s effective, not just in MMA, but in combat and in self defense. It’s a very complete art.”
The History Channel delved into the science of Muay Thai in its Human Weapon series to discover what makes Muay Thai strikes so effective. They found that a Muay Thai kick generates roughly the same amount of force as a baseball bat because of the rotation of the hips. “It’s the same principle that cracks a whip,” according to the program. “Turning the hips just a few degrees forces the foot to travel a much greater distance, and creates a lot of speed as it does. Unlike Karate fi ghters , Muay Thai fi ghters are taught to strike with the hard bone of the shin.”
Almost all martial arts use hands and feet, which makes elbows and knees unique to Muay Thai. “Human bones can resist forty times more stress than concrete,” points out the narration in “Human Weapon.” “And unlike most strikes, which land with some combination of fl esh and bone, the elbow strike is almost pure bone. All the force is magnifi ed by being concentrated in a small, hard area. Even if the elbow does not deliver a knockout, it will almost always leave a nasty cut.” Examples of this in modern MMA abound. Kenny Florian’s elbow to Sean Sherk’s temple at UFC 64 and BJ Penn’s elbow strike to Joe Stevenson’s forehead at UFC 80 are among the bloodiest fi ghts in the sport.
“You can punch a hundred ways, and there will always be that danger of breaking your hand when you do,” says DellaGrotte. “But if you hit something with your elbow, you’re going to break what you’re hitting .” The knee is also a Muay Thai specialty that derives its power from leverage. “Dragging your opponent down while bringing the knee up can deliver up to two and a half tons of force,” continues the narration of “Human Weapon.” “The fl ying knee concentrates all the power of the body into the spear point of the knee and combines it with gravity. It’s the equivalent of hitting our opponent in the chest with a sledgehammer.”
Maybe that’s what Anderson Silva should change his nickname to. “The Spider” was raised on Muay Thai competitions, and regards Muay Thai as a critical component of his skills. “When I was growing up I fell in love with the breadth of the discipline, how you could string
the various techniques together to form complex combinations,” Silva says. Known for his formidable Muay Thai striking, it’s his clinch that he credits with winning the most important fi ght of his life, when he downed former UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin.
“What allowed me to dominate that fi ght was the Muay Thai clinch,” Silva says. “Where I trained, in Curitiba, developing a strong Muay Thai clinch is a long tradition. All the professors have spent years mastering it. I spent a good portion of my training on this position alone and even worked on new techniques with it to make it more applicable to MMA. I knew that every time a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner or wrestler goes for a takedown he has to drop his head, so I learned to defend takedowns using the clinch. It was the one thing Rich Franklin didn’t expect. When I tied up with him in the clinch I felt considerably stronger. I used that to my advantage.”
Always the student, Silva took the extraordinary step of adapting a Muay Thai strike from a movie to a professional fi ght. After seeing Muay Boran legend Tony Jaa execute a reverse back elbow in the movie Ong Bac, Silva practiced the move with his wife, standing on his couch holding pillows. Despite his trainers’ telling him it would never work, he threw it at Tony Fryklund at Cage Rage 16, and added an incredible KO to his highlight reel. It is probably the best illustration of how effi cient even the most unorthodox Muay Thai strike can be.
For anyone who loves big knockouts (and who doesn’t), the strike was jaw dropping. Muay Thai is probably the one style that most accurately resembles a street fi ght, which Americans, and MMA fans in general, appreciate. That’s the least we can do for a martial art that has given us so much.