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Thailand spotlights the tougher side to the Land of Smiles

Tony Jaa-photoThailand fully deserves its reputation for courtesy and friendliness but – in the words of Cat Stevens – ‘it’s hard to get by just upon a smile’. In the last resort, the alternative is Muay Thai.

And anyone who has witnessed the national sport can see one reason Thailand‘s culture puts such emphasis on politeness and avoiding confrontation.

Muay Thai is far more functional than most codes of kick-boxing. Known as the art of eight limbs, its fighters in Thailand are allowed to hit with their fists, feet, knees and elbows – making the risk of injury far higher than under other codifications of kick boxing.

Over many centuries, Muay Thai was practised in Thailand by warriors and bodyguards and featured in local contests with a bloodcurdling absence of restrictions. In some competitions, fighters pounded each other with fists wrapped in cloth onto which ground glass had been glued.

But Thailand‘s government is now aiming to teach the world that Muay Thai no longer deserves a brutal reputation. Deputy Commerce Minister Alongkorn Ponlaboot has set out to establish international regulation and to promote boxing schools abroad.

As part of the initiative he will also be enlisting movie star Tony Jaa – Muay Thai’s equivalent of Bruce Lee – who honed his skills vaulting his family’s elephants as a child in the rural province in Surin in north-east Thailand.

‘Later this month, Thai action star Tony Jaa and I will fly to the United States to promote Muay Thai,’ Mr Alongkorn told the Bangkok Post.

The mission is well-timed, as the influential North American Association of Boxing Committees (ABC) is already planning to introduce rules governing Muay Thai at its conference in July.

This is expected to deliver a massive boost to the sport in the US, where the biggest Muay Thai fight in years will take place in California on March 14 between Kaoklai Kaennorsing and Saenchai Sor Kinstar.

With the introduction of a set of rules to govern all professional and amateur Muay Thai contests in North America, the sport could start to challenge mixed martial arts and boxing, to which it is now a distant third.

Interest in Muay Thai is also being driven by champions of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a popular mixed martial arts contest that sets few restrictions on how contenders defeat their opponents.

While Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has long been seen as the effective training for this form of combat, a growing number of successful fighters – such as Anderson Silva – come from a Muay Thai background.

A more codified version of Muay Thai will also get an international showcase this year when action movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme takes on Thai Olympic boxing champ Somluck Kamsing at K1 Muay Thai in Macau in China.

Some are predicting a tough time for Van Damme, who will be 50, against his 37-year-old opponent… but the sport should be a winner.

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