Ringside view: Muay Thai

Karnataka State Muay Thai Championship 2018

Lean bodies, torsos, tattoos, the heavy footsteps pacing before combat, deep drawn breaths, jaws moving with last minute adjustment of the guard inside their mouth, tugs and loosening of arms, furtive dance-like movement of legs as a warm up in the few minutes leading up to the bell strike and the gaze. Every single contestant who got inside the ring had a unique combination of these. The ring is where the fighter unfolded and in the quick few rounds of combat either unleashed the self or got pounded by the opponent unleashing just the same, with greater force. What went on round after round in the confines of the ring was a fight that would never in daily life.  Never, because real world does not have referees nor rule following is binding. This combat is controlled, governed by rules, regulated and operates on mutual respect between the fighters. It can get dangerous nevertheless. The fighting ring makes a fascinating reading of human behaviour. On a Sunday morning, I sat watching Karnataka State Muay Thai Championship 2018, first ever in the city. I thought about these young men and women who were here to contest in a form of kickboxing that evolved in Thailand – Muay Thai. This form of kickboxing is fascinating to watch. It is punch-kick-elbow-knee vs punch-kick in the conventional kickboxing. Muay Thai is an ‘eight-point striking system’ which lets fighters use their elbows and knees in addition to punching and kicking as in conventional kickboxing. How do these additional two points of contact make a difference? One must watch it to know!

Age is visible and felt acutely here in the auditorium. The contestants are young, in 18-35 age group.  As an audience my winces are different from the mother who was watching her daughter fight it out in the ring. To say that these matches are enjoyable is to understand nothing of human beings. The fights here is feed-stock. It feeds a spectator’s urge to externalize difficulties and see oneself punching, kicking and tackling the hell out of it, in rounds of three minutes each. A full-some kick, leveraging a high amplitude swing fed by the slowness of the opponent lands hard on the soft looking girl’s crotch. The sound of the impact split the auditorium into a cheering lot and the other which grated their teeth as the girl collapsed on her knees pressing her hands in-between legs trying to absorb the kick, fist loosening into a sodden palm trying to hold the ground and tightening again in-vain. The ensuing seconds stretch into a fast pace yet frame by frame spectacle. Her eyes. The helmet highlighted those eyes, fading with pain and flight of spirit to tackle the aggressor. The match referee swoops in, beginning a count of ten right above her as the auditorium awaits next moves. Is she knocked-out? Will she stand up? A doc from the ringside gets in for a quick assessment. The girl is still drawing in, blowing out, wiry breaths that wouldn’t otherwise steady in whatever remained of the count of ten. These moments were the match. Were the earlier months of training which probably trained her to handle exactly this kind of a shattering kick, flashing by her? The arms tensed, and the auditorium saw her rise up. Legs had loosened their grip on the floor, one could see. But here was the birthing of a win! She rose, assumed her stance, even as the breaths were getting visibly harder. Before referee’s tenth she was good to go. To watch that debilitating kick and then see the girl standing there in her fighting stance, was disbelief being kicked in the gut. Here was a fine Muay Thai moment, unfolding and how raw in its looks and appearance.

Literature  on psychology of boxing and martial arts suggests that these forms of combat sport reduce aggression, teach self-control and aid emotional intelligence. It doesn’t quite dwell on the fact that these can be downright distressing to watch and traumatic for some. Self-control of the dominating opponent and emotional-intelligence in having landed hard blows on the opponent – both being enhanced – who can be sure of that? But one might feel glad that they are rule bound. Only the rules lie in between punching and punching someone to death. On the fringes of the rule-space, these fights attest to a possibility of human behaviour that expresses in varying degrees in all of us. Would I thump my feet and begin punching an opponent? Kick and punch rule-bound, yet make it hard wherever it is allowed.  It is hard to not think of one’s own behaviour and unknown possibilities that lie buried within. The last time they emerged as a response, I must confess that arms and legs went flying. The ring is an encounter with self if one’s up for investing a thought in these matches besides being a spectator.

Karnataka State Muay Thai Championship 2018

Three rounds were up with the bell strike. The girl was still in pain. She shook hands with the opponent who was declared winner. They bowed out thanking their coaches. In a few minutes, the next round of contestants were in the ring. Men’s matches had begun. The participation from martial arts and fight schools was substantial enough to fill two long days of fights. After the early rounds of women’s matches things began getting louder, from the ring to the referee’s interjections and right up to the judges desk.

Every one is red or blue. A kick, a stoop, gasps, foiled bids, tackled attacks, swift hooks, the hurt, exhaling, inhaling, the eyes, hands firming, intent of a kick, an all ending lock, continuous punches, the charges, grimaces, shins dueling as though pieces of steel rods… all of it in three rounds of three minutes each. A whistle and a clap mark these. It is the same in varying degrees round after round. Sometimes there is cheer on one of the contestants sent rolling off the ring on to the side tables in the first round itself. At times the fighters learn the hard way – that premature charge leads to ones own fall. Most of them tended towards strategic play by the second round. A three minute learning curve can be seen remarkably close and in a felt manner here.

The wordlessness of it is striking. There is cheer and there are loud gasps. Very few words.  From preparation before a march to the fight and bowing out, having won or lost, not many words are exchanged. There doesn’t seem to be a need too. By the noon, auditorium appears seated. These are students of martial arts, coaches and their families. The afternoon matches comprise of heavyweights. Red and blue wearing contestants. In one of the most adrenaline filled  matches, fighter in red exhibited a terrifying yet remarkable poise. He observes opponent’s moves, foils them and then lands his heavy punches, as though a master punishing his student brutally for all the sloppy moves. There is a poise even in this adrenaline. Red begins charging in the third round, calmly, after exhausting him. Then begins a waspish float around the dissipating opponent.  The strategy is clear when one watches the rounds. Meanwhile, the noodles stall outside has turned into a hive of beaten out and victorious players getting their breakfast.

These men and women are identified and fielded by clubs. IMA Fighters, Kimura Martial Arts, Yodha Martial Arts, Institute of Eight Limbs and many more. The equipment is shared. One who goes up in the ring wears the only pair, and passes it on to the next in line. The shortage of gear and the basic nature of their kit is striking.  By late noon there is no roar in the auditorium. It is slow and low pitched. In the heavyweight rounds there is measure, there is calm and then there is a burst.  All of this is video recorded by a sea of mobile phones. There is no press covering it.

In the auditorium one gets to know and witness that defeat has a face . It shows itself up every tenth minute. One can see the energy draining out. The flailing hands, slowing feet work, draining out – right from the eyes down to feet, the defeated being helped out of the ring by the victor – all of it, match after match. The primal feel of every encounter
in rounds seems to stretch time.

As I walked out of the auditorium echoing with slaps, kicks and tensed subdued roar of the audience, sometimes cheering, often wincing, I scored of a to-do item from my list of 2014. That year, I spent a week in Thailand and one of the things I wanted to do was to watch a Muay Thai match in Bangkok. It was meant to be in Bangalore, and I am not complaining watching Indians clocking several years of training and organizing championships of this martial art. The trauma or joy of this kind of combat training, I do not know.

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