ONE Championship lead commentator and Fox Sports presenter, Steve Dawson, looks at how MMA has grown in Thailand alongside the art of Muay Thai.
The spread of mixed martial arts throughout the world hasn’t been without its hurdles, but 2016 was a banner year for overcoming them.
In the West, MMA eventually won the right to host events in the influential state of New York. Here in Asia, however, a similar battle was being fought and won with the sport looking for a foothold in Thailand, where Muay Thai has been the kingpin of combat sports throughout its 500-year history.
ONE Championship’s maiden event in “The Land of Smiles” was at the Impact Arena in Bangkok on 27 May last year, and its second event, ONE: WARRIOR KINGDOM, is due this Saturday, 11 March, at the same venue.
The debut show, ONE: KINGDOM OF CHAMPIONS, had Muay Thai hero Dejdamrong sor Amnuaysirichoke in an unsuccessful attempt to defend his ONE Strawweight World Championship and this time, WMMA sensation, Angela Lee, defends her ONE Women’s Atomweight World Championship.
These are sizeable main events to bring to a city for its first two shows, and that’s indicative of how significant ONE Championship — founded by Thai entrepreneur Chatri Sityodtong — sees this new and energised market.
According to Bangkok-based combat sports journalist James Goyder, Muay Thai and MMA peacefully co-exist, and he doesn’t see any kind of friction between the two, despite past resistance.
“You can’t really compare the two because there are Muay Thai fights in Bangkok and all over the country every night of the week,” Goyder said, comparing that to “four or five MMA shows a year, all over Thailand.”
There is also an interesting dynamic in play between the two disciplines. Around the world, mixed martial artists have already incorporated Muay Thai into their arsenals for more than a decade, while it is just beginning in the art’s birthplace of Thailand.
“Muay thai is a very, very good base to have for mixed martial arts because there’s so much emphasis on speed and power,” added Goyder. “It’s got all your striking bases covered.”
Former Muay Thai competitor, and my commentary booth partner, Mitch Chilson, made the move to mixed martial arts himself, and also sees Muay Thai as the perfect striking platform for MMA.
“It is a very complete striking art. We haven’t really seen a lot of Thai fighters be able to use it successfully though, because they lack the wrestling and the ground game,” said Chilson, “but they’re only getting better, and becoming well-versed mixed martial artists.”
With Muay Thai being so prevalent in the country, we think we know what to expect from the expanding roster of Thai mixed martial artists, but that most amazing of countries country is always ready to surprise. After all, Thailand’s most successful mixed martial artists haven’t always followed the expected route.
Dejdamrong, the most successful high-level Muay Thai fighter to make it in MMA, did so with an impressive ground game to complement his world-class striking, with two of his first three professional wins coming by submission. Shannon Wiratchai, the country’s other big star, didn’t come from a Muay Thai background at all.
As MMA starts growing in popularity, it’s a good bet that we’ll see more and more of these Thai martial artists gaining prominence on the international stage. And that is a very exciting prospect indeed.
Steve Dawson is ONE Championship’s lead commentator, a Fox Sports presenter and an author of sporting biographies. He can be found on Twitter & Instagram as @Gulasahi and on Facebook as Steve Dawson.