BANGKOK, Thailand -- Young 20-somethings pour into Club Insomnia. DMX barks from the speakers, and the strobe lights splash color on everyone and everything. Thai waitresses lean into your ear and ask what you would like to drink. The brands are out in full force: Tapout, Sprawl, Hayabusa, Jaco, Throwdown and Affliction. For the first time in Thailand’s history, there is about to be a sanctioned, professional mixed martial arts fight inside an octagonal cage.
“Welcome to DARE Championships!” the announcer yells over the music. “You are about to witness history being made!”
While Jussi Saloranta, head of fighter and public relations for Dare Fight Sports, is quick to point out that this organization is promoting the first sanctioned MMA event in Thailand’s history, he remains humble enough to acknowledge that he is merely extending the roots that were planted many years prior. He made constant reference to Art Davie’s MMA experience in Bangkok.
“It’s a story many fight fans don’t know about,” he said. “It could be argued that MMA was born in Bangkok.”
What Saloranta refers to dates back to 1969. Davie was a young Marine on R&R in Bangkok. A former Golden Gloves boxer, he was attracted to the fight game, so there he was in a smoky saloon that doubled as a fight arena when he witnessed a muay Thai kickboxer take on an East Indian wrestler. Although the muay Thai fighter ended the bout with a knee to the wrestler’s head, it was the energies outside of the actual encounter that captivated Davie, a blossoming adman, for the next 20-plus years of his life: the sheer excitement of what would happen when styles collided, the fact that every discipline was welcomed and the uncertainty in a fighter’s eyes when he stood across from a man trained in a totally different art.
Fast forward to the summer of 1993, and Davie is in Torrance, Calif., negotiating the production of such an event with Rorian Gracie. By September 1993, ads for the Ultimate Fighting Championship were blanketing the martial arts industries. Then, at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, on Nov. 12, 1993, the UFC was born.
Before the fights began at Club Insomnia, I spoke with several Thai fighters in the audience, including one who would be competing on the card in less than an hour.
“You’re a decorated muay Thai champion,” I said. “What are your keys to victory in this fight?”
In broken English, he responded: “I’m going to take him down -- ground-and-pound, baby!”
His opponent was a wrestler and submission artist. It does not take much imagination to know the outcome. Other Thais echoed similar responses. Still, I tried again, this time asking a retired Thai boxing champion who was just there to watch: “What do you think is the best part about MMA in Thailand?”
“The grappling,” he said. “Love the triangle chokes and ground-and-pound. Love that Matt Hughes kind of style.”
“It seems that the muay Thai fighters here aren’t interested in using their muay Thai,” I said. “Is it just because grappling is so new and something different they want to try?”
“It’s like this. We’ve been training muay Thai every day of our lives since we were little kids. Many of us are burnt out; we’re tired of it. Sure, it’ll help us in there,” he said, as he pointed toward the cage,” but some of us have had nearly 200 muay Thai fights. We’re sick of it.”
As Thais tire of their national sport -- some even go so far as to say that muay Thai is becoming the poor man’s sport, similar to boxing in America -- Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA academies are thriving in Bangkok. Take, for example, Bangkok BJJ. Led by Luke Chaya, founder of the wildly popular BJJ-Asia blog, and Ben Weinstein, it is a Ralph Gracie-affiliated school in the heart of Bangkok.
A major hurdle now is making the MMA and BJJ classes accessible to the Thai people. Many of the MMA and BJJ academies are priced about the same as schools in America -- $90 a month, or 3,000 Thai Baht (THB). While this is a reasonable fee in America, it is quite expensive for most Thais, so the more those prices rise the more Thais will be excluded. Consider that even some associate-level professors at universities here are working full-time and only bringing in about $1,000 per month or 30,000 THB, and it is easy to see why many of these academies will fill primarily with foreigners.
Economically, Bangkok is in the middle of rapid change. While many employers pay “Thai salaries,” the pricing of food and housing in Bangkok are increasingly being westernized. While you can get a plate of pad Thai from a street vendor here for 30 THB, you often have to walk past 10 or more new restaurants with westernized prices to get it. There are also plenty of businesses here that hire both Thai and foreign workers, yet pay the Thai workers less than half to do the same job or more.
The latest Dare Fight Sports show was held on Jan. 7 and featured Daiju Takase -- the Pride Fighting Championships veteran who holds wins over Anderson Silva, Chris Brennan and Carlos Newton. The Thai fighters had developed their ground game significantly since the opening event nearly six months ago. Most Thais in the crowd actually cheered for ground transitions -- when one fighter passed guard, for example. Not only had the Thai fighters themselves improved, but the fans had expanded their MMA knowledge.
Thailand prides itself on its fresh foods, friendliness and fighting. Mention muay Thai to any taxi driver, and you are sure to get smiles and stories. This makes it all the more powerful to be part of the MMA revolution here. It is one thing to have an elite training center like Tiger Muay Thai, which brings in guys like Royce Gracie and Roger Huerta to its beautiful Thailand island resort. It is another animal entirely when the soul and economic heart of an entire country -- a city with a few million more people than the entire state of Pennsylvania -- begins fully embracing a new sport so like and unlike its own.
During this event, I stood beside a Thai man in his 50s. He jumped and shouted “oo-way!” when a Thai fighter threw a knee, elbow or kick; you hear this a million times if you watch a muay Thai bout here in Thailand. However, when the fight hit the ground, he grew quiet. His eyebrows furrowed as the athletes jockeyed for position, and he paced around the cage to get a better view. He was clearly confused, but from his confusion seemed to grow a fire for understanding.
The foreign fans went wild at an armbar attempt, but he stayed calm, meditative even. He squatted down to get a different angle, to see how the bottom fighter was swiveling or how the top fighter kept his base. Just then, Tanaphong Khunhankaew, who had previously been getting dominated on the ground by a fellow Thai fighter, Mangthus Rewtawee, sat on his knees while Mangthus relaxed on his back in closed guard. Khunhankaew began smiling.
The man’s forehead wrinkled deeper as he pressed himself closer to the cage. All the fans were swaying and moving to get a better glimpse of the action. They did not boo when the action hit the ground; the Thais do not lose face in this way even if they want to on the inside. Just then, Khunhankaew shot a right hand straight down the middle. Rewtawee went limp. Before the outburst of cheering, the fans covered their mouths in awe for a split second. The man looked over at me and smiled. He nodded his head enthusiastically and began clapping.
We had just watched a true Thai MMA bout filled with side mounts, triangle choke attempts and double-leg takedowns, a bout that ended with a familiar result: a knockout. Even the Thai bartenders began cheering. The music came back on with a club remix: “One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble.”
Cameron Conaway is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet.