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If you put together a list of the top countries outside of Thailand for Muay Thai, which countries would make your list?
Anyone not in the Muay Thai scene would probably assume that America is one of the best Muay Thai destinations outside of Thailand. Unfortunately, American Muay Thai wouldn’t even make the top 10 list of best countries. While there are high-level fighters who come from the America, as a whole, North Americans have been behind the rest of the world forever.
Countries like France, England, Australia, Russia, Sweden, and many Eastern European countries have continually produced some of the top Muay Thai fighters outside of Thailand.
You just need to look at the amateur Muay Thai World Championship results to see that it is rare for the U.S. or Canada to win gold in any weight class.
Have you ever wondered why North America has fallen behind the rest of the world in Muay Thai?
This article is going to try to answer that question.
The Beginning of Muay Thai in America
The first instructor to introduce Muay Thai to America was Surachai (Chai) Sirisute who came over in 1968.
If you read his bio in Wikipedia it states the following:
“[Surachai] formally studied both Muay Thai as well as karate beginning at the age of six. He earned his black belt in Shorin-Ryu at the age of 12, age at which he also started to fight in the ring in Muay Thai.”
Since I have never trained with Surachai, I can’t comment on his teaching skills.
Given Surachai’s background in Karate, the Muay Thai system he established in America had a lot of elements that crossed over with traditional martial arts. This makes a lot of sense considering the popularity of Karate and Taekwondo in the 1970s. If you wanted to introduce a new sport like Muay Thai to America, it would be easier to blend it with other martial arts.
Things like student testing, belt systems, and a hierarchy of rankings in gyms are a North American invention. These belts and ranking systems do not exist in Thailand. The only rankings you gain in Thailand are from professional fights in the big stadiums.
Muay Thai was always considered a sport for the uneducated Thais. Only in recent years, Thailand started to see Muay Thai being practiced by the wealthy Thais for its health and fitness benefits.
While America did have Thai Champions come over to teach Muay Thai like Kaensak Sor Ploenjit, he arrived many years later.
Lack of Exposure to Real Muay Thai
Back in the day, a trainer could make up any bull shit and students would listen. Nobody knew what real Muay Thai was, which made it easy to pass off anything as Muay Thai.
Some gyms instructors will advertise themselves as Muay Thai trainers when their only experience is from a few weekend seminars.
Today, with social media you have a massive amount of exposure to real Muay Thai. When fights happen in Lumpinee or Rajadamnern stadium, you get to witness Muay Thai at its highest level.
Lack of Qualified Instructors
Given the history of Muay Thai in America, this leads me to the next issue: A lack of qualified teachers.
Before the rise of social media, people used to live on information islands. Your knowledge of Muay Thai was based on what your instructor told you. If you had an instructor teach you something, there was no way to know if that person knew what they were talking about.
Recently, a Canadian guy once tried to tell me that one of the old Thai trainers in Canada was sent many years ago to be a Muay Thai ambassador representing the King of Thailand. I couldn’t help but laugh. The fact that this guy believed this nonsense reminds me of those guys explaining how these old Karate masters could beat up ten guys.
There are a lot of “Muay Thai” trainers in North America who have a background in these traditional martial arts like including Jeet Kwon Do, Japanese Jiu Jitsu, and Karate. Anytime you read a Muay Thai instructor who lists an additional background in anything other than Muay Thai, that is a bad sign. The only thing your Muay Thai instructor should advertise is Muay Thai.
Geography and Visas
Another reason for the lack of quality instructors from Thailand in North American Muay Thai is the physical distance between North America and Thailand.
Australia has direct access to Muay Thai trainers with a 5-hour flight. This makes it easy for some gyms in Australia to have full-time Thai trainers working at the gym. Since most Thai fighters don’t like being away from home too long, this is the perfect scenario for them.
When you live in North America, it is easy to get isolated from the rest of the world.
Getting a visa to train Muay Thai in America is MUCH harder than the UK or Australia. One of my Thai trainers failed multiple times to get a US Visa to teach at an American gym. After giving up on an American visa, he made one application for Australia and was approved in a few weeks. The process of getting Thai trainers over to the USA is more laborious than other countries.
Muay Thai in the Land of MMA
For every one Muay Thai gym in North America, there are probably 20 MMA gyms. The reason why Americans love MMA so much is that they are good at it. America has the world’s best wrestling programs built into their high school/college systems, which means they can produce the best MMA fighters merely because they have elite wrestling programs.
While a lot of MMA gyms teach Muay Thai, they teach a bastardized version that is adapted for dealing with takedowns and grappling. So while there are a lot of potential Muay Thai fighters that could be good, their technique is already terrible because they have a base of non-Muay Thai striking.
Even though MMA has been great for Muay Thai exposure around the country, it has also resulted in potential Muay Thai fighters choosing to become MMA fighters instead of standup strikers. In countries like Australia, Muay Thai is equally as popular as MMA. This means that they have a vast number of people choose Muay Thai over MMA.
If a Muay Thai gym wants to survive financially, they need to offer MMA. This makes it difficult for a real traditional Muay Thai gym to succeed in America.
Since MMA pays a lot more, people have a financial incentive to train MMA over a sport like Muay Thai.
In addition to MMA, Kickboxing seems to be the defacto sport for standup strikers. Fighters like Joe Schilling have crossed over to Kickboxing because of the increased purses on shows like Bellator Kickboxing.
That being said, more and more MMA fighters and Kickboxers are making the trip to Thailand to train Muay Thai from the source. This is going to continue to increase the exposure of Muay Thai to North America and grow the sport.
Even though North America has fallen behind the world in Muay Thai for the past few decades, it doesn’t mean it is not improving.
In the past decade, there has been an enormous increase in the number of people traveling to train and fight in Thailand. This has resulted in a lot more people coming back home who are qualified to teach and have experience with the best in the sport.
There are also a few areas like California, and the East Coast have a rapidly growing Muay Thai scene.
Additionally, with the growth of the internet, more and more people have become exposed to real Muay Thai from Thailand. Now you can view all of the best fights from Thailand either live or hours after the events.
This exposure to the elite fighters from Thailand has made a significant impact on the perception of real Muay Thai. Muay Thai students are no longer restricted to learning from their instructors; they can now look on YouTube to see techniques that are taught from the best fighters in the world.
Muay Thai is growing around the world, and I expect the level of competition to continue to improve as thousands of fighters visit and improve their skills in Thailand.