“New Normal”: Thailand’s Fight Scene During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Posted on January 19 2021
As the striking fight scene drought continues on in the rest of the world, all eyes turn to Thailand. Fights officially were allowed to start back up in Thailand on July 4th, and the motherland has been churning out shows since then. However, the road to get government approval was not an easy one, especially when you look at the sport’s role in spreading COVID-19.
Thailand was the first country outside of China to have a confirmed case of the coronavirus. Even still, the country operated as usual at the beginning of the spread of the pandemic, up until a show at Lumpinee at the beginning of March changed everything.
Mid-March, celebrity and Muay Thai announcer Matthew Deane publicly announced that he had contracted the virus and urged anyone who had been in contact with him for the past two weeks to get tested for it. Deane was also the announcer for the previously-mentioned show at Lumpinee just a couple weeks before he was diagnosed.
With over 5,000 people in attendance at that show alone, many rushed to get tested in fear. As a result, there was a huge cluster of infections that was linked to the stadium (and, by association, Muay Thai as a whole). Health experts estimated that at least 500 people were infected that day, but not all of them went for testing. Just days after Deane announced he was COVID-positive, the government shut down gyms, arenas, malls, cinemas...basically anywhere that could possibly cause over 50 people to gather. The closures started in Bangkok, Phuket shortly followed suit, then other provinces did the same.
Muay Thai became associated with negative connotations because of all this, and the virus’ effects on people within the community were heartbreaking. Because there were no fights, nak muay were not making any money, and gyms were not making any money from fight purse cuts (gyms are entitled up to 50% of their fighter's prize money as part of the sponsorship deal). And with gyms forced to be closed, the supplemental income of tourists dropping in to train was out of the question.
The community waited anxiously for the day to arrive when fights could start again. There were a few reports of fights starting in June when gyms were allowed to open up again, even with official-looking fight cards, but those shows were forced to withdraw their statements. Everyone rejoiced when the official word came in for the magical date: July 4th.
Out of shape and finally with some luck, nak muay scrambled to get back in shape as shows started compiling their fight cards and confirming fighters. Omnoi Stadium held the first show since the “Muay Thai ban”, and they have since had their regular Saturday shows. Rangsit Stadium, Max Muay Thai, and Rajadamnern have all held shows so far. With matchups, weigh-ins, and fighting typically a smooth and laidback affair, some of the current regulations are becoming “the new norm” as the country is not completely out of COVID’s sights.
A few days before the fight, nak muay must get a health certificate stating they are healthy, fit to fight, and free from COVID. During the fight, all officials and cornermen must wear face masks and face shields. Despite a viral picture that’s been shared hundreds of thousands of times, fighters only need to wear the face mask and shield right before the fight starts but do not fight in them. Any clinching during the bout is being broken up earlier than usual. Traditionally, fighters hug each other before and after the last round as a show of sportsmanship, but this is currently prohibited. All shows are currently audience- and gambler-free.
Places like Chiang Mai and Phuket will most likely not get fights going in their local stadiums for much longer; those stadiums are heavily dependent on ticket sales from tourists, and with most tourists gone, they will not be able to pay any staff working the fights, nor the fighters. For the time being, Bangkok and surrounding provinces will be the best places for fighters to get matchups, and fighters currently living elsewhere within Thailand will have to travel if they want to compete.
Entertainment shows such as Super Champ and Muay Hardcore, which typically match up Thai fighters against foreign fighters, struggled a bit to get the ball rolling, but they have shows. confirmed for the end of July. ONE Championship solved the issue of matching up foreign fighters for their shows with the current travel bans by having their main card be Thai versus Thai, and by looking to sign long term foreigners still left in Thailand. ONE’s next show is also at the end of July.
Despite the battles the Muay Thai community had in face of COVID-19, it’s on a road to recovery as things are normalizing more by the day. As a fighter, Thailand is certainly one of the best places to be in right now given the current health climate. It's only a matter of time before the fight scene is booming as before.