The Muay Ying Experience in Thailand
Posted on January 19 2021
Nak Muay means “fighter” and, more specifically, (Nak) Muay Ying is the term for “female fighter” in Thai. Female fighters in Thailand have existed alongside their male counterparts much longer than many people believe. However, there has always been scarce news available to the general public on them, and this is still true today. When people think of Muay Thai fighters, a famous (man) probably comes to mind, such as Saenchai or Buakaw. During the acclaimed “Golden Era”, classic fights between men at the famous stadiums were documented, but none were of women during this apparent “Muay Thai surge”. People don’t usually think of the tens of thousands of Thai women and foreign women that fight regularly in Thailand.
Photo by Helen Tran
If anyone wants to see a clear disparity of opportunity, pay, and recognition based on gender, look no further than Muay Thai in the motherland. Imagine this: a man and a woman. They both have the same fight experience. They both put in equal amounts of time training at the gym and have to make the same sacrifices to be a professional fighter. They each get fights on the same show. Logic and ethics would make you think that they would get paid the same, right? Unfortunately, women are always paid much less than men are, even with those prerequisites.
It’s quite easy for a male fighter in Thailand to start making 20-30k baht per fight, as a start, while women have to regularly fight for under half of that for many years. Even then, it is a huge maybe for them to break 20k baht per fight. And just to make it clear, this is the pay for televised shows. For non-televised shows that don’t have many sponsors, the pay is often much less. Fighters can compete about once every 3 weeks as adults, so making less than 20k baht per fight makes it almost impossible to make a living, especially if the fighter has to take care of their family.
The big, regularly-scheduled shows have only men on them. For special holidays, such as Thai Mother’s Day, some of the aforementioned shows will have one token female bout on it - this has happened in Thai Fight and MX Muay Extreme. When Super Champ first came around, only men were on the show, but women regularly started getting matched up (usually one or two female bouts on each card) since November 2019. Max Muay Thai used to have female bouts many years ago, but they did away with them and there are doubts if they will match up women again.
As if the scarce opportunities alone aren’t enough, there are some places where women are not allowed to fight in due to religious and cultural reasons, such as the famous Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums. In fact, there are signs that forbid women from touching or getting too close to the ring (fun fact: many gyms even have separate rings for men and women. Men can get into the “women” ring but women, by no means, can go nor touch the “man” ring).
At the moment, the only regularly scheduled shows that are broadcasted nationally and online that have female bouts are Super Champ and Muay Hardcore. On a similar note, male tournaments are pretty regular - Channel 7 stadium hosts the Poon Seua (Tiger Cement) tournament each year, and Omnoi does the same for the Isuzu Tournament. These are the major tournaments in the stadium scene while the entertainment-based shows have 4-man tournaments regularly as well. Women are not afforded such a luxury of being offered tournaments, and in the past year and a half, the only places that have held tournaments for women are the WPMF Muay Thai Day event in Ayutthaya at 51 kg in March 2019 and Super Champ’s 57 kg tournament in February 2020.
Allycia Araujo, out of Phuket Fight Club. She won the 4-woman tournament in Ayutthaya in 2019.
During fights, women are required to go under the bottom rope, whereas men are expected to climb over the top rope. Symbolically, this can have many implications. One is that women are thought to be inferior to men. It is also not uncommon for announcers to compare stronger fighters to be “like a man”, which, in and of itself, is problematic because it calls to question a lot of stereotypes and gender norms that may or may not be true.
Referees tend to stop fights earlier when a woman is cut and visibly bleeding, as opposed to a man cut and visibility bleeding, especially if the bout is televised. In June 2020, a news source for female Muay Thai, Muay Ying, reported that the Boxing Committee was going to hold a meeting “to discuss women having to wear elbow pads during their fights.” This was following a social media post that went viral - the post depicted a few good-looking women with cuts on their faces and the caption called for extra protection for women. Many fighters, mostly foreigners, were outraged at the thought of this. Following the hashtag started by Muay Ying on Instagram, #fuckyourelbowpads, women all over the world started sharing pictures and videos of them throwing or receiving elbows in protest of the discussion. Australian fighter Bec Rooney wrote in her caption, “When we step into the ring, we shouldn't be seen as a woman, but seen as a fighter” and this sentiment was really the core of the outrage. As reported by Muay Ying, “This is another example of how women are objectified in Muay Thai and how beauty is prioritized BY OTHER PEOPLE over skill level or the fact that they’re a fighter. Never in a million years would it cross their minds to have men put on elbow pads despite the numerous cuts and knockouts men get from elbows.” The meeting was held but no conclusion was made; at the moment, women do not have to wear elbow pads.
It’s difficult to say why so many shows actively don’t want women on them without getting subjective and involving the delicate conversation of tradition and culture versus sexism. But it’s because of these scarce opportunities and low pay that make it difficult for women get the support they need during their career, as not many are willing to invest in fighters that make little compared to the men. It's also very rare for Thai women to continue fighting past their early 20’s. It’s very common for them to retire their professional fighting career around 20 or 21 to start working full time, doing something else that pays better and has more financial security.
In the last five years, there has been more recognition towards women fighters, thanks to shows like GLORY Kickboxing and ONE Championship creating divisions that feature high-level strikers. Seeing women display their skills on an international stage has brought hope to the next wave of fighters that know that won’t have to struggle as much as the generation of fighters before them. Women’s Muay Thai and women in combat sports as a whole are on the rise, and hopefully, it will come with equal opportunity, equal pay, equal recognition, and less sexualization.