An American Sociologist Is Studying the Behavior of Muay Thai

Fightland Blog

By Lindsey Newhall

Photos by Lindsey Newhall


A professor of sociology at Florida Gulf Coast University in the United States, Mari DeWees has been studying Muay Thai academically since 2013. I met Professor DeWees at a Muay Thai gym in early 2014 while on separate, concurrent research trips in Phuket. A year later, we met in Bangkok to talk about her research, preliminary findings, and challenges she's encountered in her studies of Muay Thai.

Fightland: What aspects of Muay Thai does your study focus on?
Mari DeWees:
 My tentative book title is “The Business of Muay Thai” and my research is focused on multiple aspects of the sport, ranging from the involvement of the government, military, promoters, and fighters to trainers and more casual students.

Initially I thought I would be taking more of an organizational/ business approach. However, I think there is also a definite story focused on the people involved, the relationships they create, and the ways in which the cultural context both informs and shapes the sport. I think this is particularly true as a segment of Muay Thai in Thailand caters to a heavily tourist market, which introduces another layer of complexity.

I'm also very interested in other aspects of the business of Muay Thai, such as the gambling, lives of both the fighters and spectators, and the students of Muay Thai. Why are people coming from all over the world to study it? Or studying it in their home countries instead of a more popular sport? What draws people to the sport? There are so many aspects that one book alone could never cover it. 

What do you hope to contribute with your research?
There is a lack of academic literature published on Muay Thai to date. This work will contribute to the scholarly knowledge and provide a framework for understanding the complex dynamics in the sport and culture. I hope it also creates a surge of interest for other scholars to build from it and continue to understand this unique sport, culture, and the lives of those within it.

What does your fieldwork entail?
My fieldwork can potentially take me anywhere in the world, but mostly it's been in the U.S. and Thailand. I officially started my fieldwork in November 2013, and to date, I have done 22 interviews, ranging from 45 minutes to two hours. I've been to over 20 gyms for observation and interviewing.

What started your interest in Muay Thai? 
My interest started out as something more personal. I like fitness, and a couple years ago when I found out I was going to Thailand for an academic conference, I started looking into what sorts of fitness activities I could do while I was there. I really liked Muay Thai because I'm not good at it, and I really like things that are uncomfortable for me—it immediately draws me in, so honestly that was the hook.

What have you come across in your research that has surprised you?
In some regards, there is anecdotal evidence that Muay Thai is declining in popularity in Thailand. I had the pleasure of spending time at the College of Muay Thai north of Bangkok at Muban Chom Bueng, Rajabhat University, and meeting some of the faculty and students there. During various conversations there, I learned that there's actually an initiative by the Thai government to do for Muay Thai what the Korean government did for Taekwondo in the '90s. They're modeling it heavily off Korean efforts to spread Taekwondo internationally and are now working to develop a standardized curriculum in Muay Thai. It's being tested in a few provinces in Isaan with the hopes of developing specific marks of achievement in the sport and growing interest among youth. The long-term outcomes would be a more standardized format for learning and becoming certified in Muay Thai (much like earning belts in sports such as Taekwondo or karate) and an eventual spread of this curriculum to places like Australia, Europe, and North America. Ideally, champion nak muay and others proficient in the sport in Thailand would become gainfully employed as teachers of this curriculum in-country and abroad. The thought is that this will perpetuate the sport and culture, as well as provide a clear employment path for Muay Thai champions. I’ve heard varying opinions on this project, but as someone who loves and is studying Muay Thai, I think it is an interesting idea.  

How does looking at Muay Thai through a sociological lens affect how you view it? 
Primarily because you just can't remove the culture. The culture is tantamount, whether you're in Thailand or the U.S. In the U.S., Lion Fight is pretty much the premiere Muay Thai promotion to emerge in the last five to 10 years. It's very different than major promotions in Thailand. It's televised unlike a most fights in Thailand, but the big difference is that there's no wai kru, they don't play the traditional music—they essentially remove a lot of the Thai cultural pieces for an American audience. I'm pretty confident that I would never see a Muay Thai fight in Thailand with no wai kru and no music, at least not in a normal situation.

What else about Muay Thai would you like to see others research and write about?
I could give about 25 different future directions for research; it's definitely a career topic. One group I find absolutely fascinating is people who come to Thailand to train Muay Thai. I didn't expect to come to Thailand and focus on foreigners, but I find a lot of the fascinating stories in the Muay Thai gym are those of the foreigners and the pathways that led them to Thailand: the reasons they're here, why they like Muay Thai, why they train. That would probably be the next step—an ethnography of a Muay Thai gym. 

Give me some examples you've heard of why people come to Thailand to train, other than the chance to work with top Thai fighters.
Based on my interviews, a common response has been that people are not satisfied with their lives at home, whether it's the U.K., U.S., Australia, or wherever. They say the weather is bad, their jobs are unfulfilling, their lives are depressing, so instead they come to Thailand, the "Land of Smiles," where it's always very warm and inviting.

A lot of people I talk to on a day-to-day basis at the Muay Thai gym are foreign males, and certainly foreign males are very attractive in Thailand, they get a lot of attention. Many people who come here feel it's a better situation for them—the weather, the food, the prices—they feel like it trumps their situation at home. 

These people you're talking about, are they in Thailand short-term or long-term?
Both. In many cases I've observed, people who come short-term end up coming back long-term. In my past year of research, I've seen many of the same faces at the same gyms, or at different gyms in the same area, repeatedly. 

What about the foreigners who make a permanent commitment to Muay Thai in Thailand? What kinds of people are they?
I think there's a gender split in that sense. I know a lot of the male foreigners who are here long-term, and I'd say about 75% or more have Thai girlfriends or are involved with Thai women and their families. That encourages them to stay. For the foreign women, I don't know the draw. I don't know what keeps them here, except that for a lot them whom I've spoken to, maybe the weather is not good where they're from or they're not happy with their lives. Some have said they feel living here is like a holiday. For example, they're in Phuket and it's on an island. A few people have specifically referred to the fact that there are fewer rules, so you can get a motorbike, you don't have to wear a helmet, you don't really have to have insurance, as opposed to where they come from, say North America or Europe, where it's much more restricted. Women talk specifically about that. Of course there's a variety of reasons why people come here and stay here, but I do see differences in terms of gender.

Muay Thai is an interesting case because it comes from Thailand, which has a fascinating culture, and a lot of students drawn to the sport whom I've met talk about how there's something mystical about this culture that attracts them. They come here, see the cultural differences and see that they're outsiders, especially if they stay long enough. They still are taken in by it.

How does Muay Thai in Thailand differ from the Muay Thai you've seen practiced in the West? 
One particular dynamic I've looked at is between trainers and students. The teacher-student relationship is very different in Thailand than what I've seen in the U.S, for example. I'm generalizing here, but in Thailand there is a high respect for your teachers. You do not disrespect your teacher, just like you don't disrespect the elderly. I don't care if what they're saying is garbage and you don't believe any of it, you do not disrespect them. As someone who teaches in the U.S., we don't have the same expectations of our teachers; we don't view teachers as these beacons of knowledge that we just accept whatever they tell us and do whatever they say. Whether good or bad, we question, and we almost expect teachers to be our friends and our support. We need a lot of coddling, for lack of a better word. Especially in the current generation, we want a lot of hand-holding from our teachers.

And then you have Westerners coming to Thailand and getting hit with sticks. The trainers are not sympathetic when their students are injured or tired. It's just such a different dynamic, and I find fascinating the way a Thai trainer teaches a Thai fighter versus how he teaches a foreign fighter, or a foreign holiday tourist.

When you're here long enough, you start to see the layers. It's an onion and you won't get anywhere near the core, but you start to notice things. I've seen so many cases of this in gyms that house both tourists and fighters. You see the trainer holding pads for a tourist, the tourist is telling the Thai trainer he's not holding pads right. Sometimes if it's in the fighter's ring, you'll see the tourist-fighter get K.O.ed in training, and no one says a word. 

Can you explain a bit further?
Sure. Okay, so pretend you're a trainer in the fighter's ring of a large gym, and you're training me. Let's say I'm a foreigner, usually male just by function of the population, and I'm a fighter back in, say, Turkey. Maybe my background is in K-1, but I'm here in Thailand to train Muay Thai. So I come in to the gym to train, you're a six-belt Lumpinee champion but I don't know that, don't really care, whatever. So I come in and you're holding pads for me but I don't like it so I tell you you're not doing it right. Well, then I proceed to get beaten as all the other trainers watch and egg it on. All of a sudden it's like, "Okay, if you don't like how I hold, then let's do sparring." Bye-bye pads, here comes a sparring session, where the trainer is establishing his dominance. 

I don't see that in the U.S. I can't even fathom that sparring at a fighting level would be allowed with a student who is paying for a service simply because the student angered the trainer or was insulting. But I've seen it in Thai gyms on multiple occasions. 

When I talk to trainers who have been in that scenario and have encouraged it or witnessed it along with me, no one says anything about it. No one says, "Hey that wasn't right," or, "That kid was just being stupid, go easy on him." No one goes against it. I think if it were to happen in a place like the U.S., someone would probably get sued. 

The differences in dynamics and expectations are fascinating. You can just see that sometimes the trainers think the Westerners are babies, and I've seen people who by all accounts were seriously injured being told they need to fight again, the trainers saying, "You're just being a baby. This is what it takes." It's because the Thai trainers come from such a different background and orientation. They're not steeped in Western sports medicine. I've heard my trainer tell me I'm too slow. "Well what can I do for that?" I ask him. He says, "Run!" That's always the answer, running. I said, "But I run slowly." "Okay then run farther," he says. Again it's just a lack of knowledge about sports medicine and sports science, or at least a different approach.

If Thai trainers have such a lack of knowledge, then how do they produce such great fighters? 
I'm not saying what they've done for however many decades doesn't work. Clearly, it does. But I will tell you that I have heard concern in the Muay Thai community that foreign fighters have the strength, the power, the knowledge, and the nutritional education to the extent that, given some time, they will dominate the sport, and are already infiltrating. You see an increasing number of top fighters who are foreign. One coach I spoke with cited a lack of focus on exercise science, nutrition, and varied training techniques as the basis for this concern. Of course promoters in Thailand are concerned, as they want to continue to excel in their national sport. They're aware that changes may need to be made, and some have called for an increase in sports sciences education. Muay Thai in the West is often for the privileged, whereas Muay Thai in Thailand is for the poor, a demographic that classically doesn't have as much access to education in general. 

That begs the question of how you cover an issue like sports science education. I'm not saying Thai gyms don't have strategies for Muay Thai. They're obviously quite good at it, if not the best. But in this day and age, there's so much knowledge and information, so many other people utilizing that knowledge, that it'll be interesting to see how this all plays out in the future.

I'm also not saying foreigners have it all figured out or that we're as tough as your average Thai fighter. We generally train in air-conditioned gyms and then we go home. We don't grow up in the same conditions as the Thai fighters. Still, almost downplaying your injuries and the way you feel in your body is an interesting response. Not to say we don't push injured fighters to fight anyway in the U.S., for example, but we're a little more aware of recovery. 

They don't have that recovery-time attitude as much in Thailand when they're younger; they jump back into fighting. By all accounts their lives are harder here in Thailand. You look at the average layperson here and they're working hours and hours a day. That's why I find the interaction between Thai and foreign fighters so interesting—we're all coming from such different backgrounds.  You're taking such a wide cross-section of people and putting them all in one Muay Thai gym, a place that's very insular and often very nationalistic. Thai people, just like Americans, in many ways have a strong hold on what they believe to be true. So how all the dynamics of that filter into the business of this sport, I absolutely find fascinating. 

If there is such a disparity in education and if there is concern that foreign fighters are catching up, then why do Thai fighters still dominate the sport? 
Maybe because Thai fighters grow up in gyms and Muay Thai is their job. They're doing it six hours a day, whereas most fighters I know in the West have one or more jobs and can go to the gym only after work. It will be interesting to see what kinds of shifts happen in the future. Again, I'm not saying foreigners will be better at Muay Thai across the board, but I think it's a legitimate concern. For a sport that the Thais are so proud of, I personally am glad people are expressing concern and wanting to better the sport. They want to continue the tradition of excellence in their sport, but they realize some changes need to be made.

Who has expressed concern about this? 
I've heard concern from a variety of sources. Thais at various levels of the sport, promoters, gym owners, people who follow the sport on an international level, and certainly foreign students who come here, many of whom have backgrounds in kinesiology and physical therapy, are highly aware of the lack of guidance by Thai trainers in terms of recovery. The sense I get from the Thais I've spoken with about this is that Muay Thai is a source of national pride, they're happy it's popular internationally—I'm happy to see that too because it's a phenomenal sport that I really love—and they want to expand it and stay on the cutting edge on an international level. 

What are the biggest challenges you've faced in researching Muay Thai? 
For me personally the biggest challenges in my research present themselves in the form of language barriers, cultural differences, and gender. I’m presently working on my Thai language skills and although many people involved in Muay Thai even in Thailand can speak conversational English, language is a key issue.

Cultural and gender issues pervade my every day in Thailand. As a white-Anglo female from the U.S. with a Ph.D., I have a unique experience when working in the country. I’ve had some nice access to key figures in the sport due to my credentials but the prevalent concept of “saving face” has presented interesting challenges when asking people to speak openly about their experiences in the sport. This is particularly true as Thai people are very proud of Muay Thai and understandably want to present it in a positive light to the Western world.  

Also, I’m studying a sport which is still male-dominated in a traditionally male-centered culture. I don’t feel that being a female scholar has impeded my data collection necessarily as most people involved in Muay Thai are happy to share their stories, but it has shaped my experience in the Muay Thai gyms and larger culture. The role of women in Southeast Asia is very different than that I’m familiar with in the U.S., so just the more overt patriarchal nature of my daily interactions is something I notice.

I also train in the sport which for some adds confusion in the sense that an educated woman isn’t seen as needing to fight or take part in a sport that often draws athletes mobilizing out of poverty. In addition I get the more expected commentary at times on my overall appearance—for example, the bruises I sustain from Muay Thai being “unladylike” and the idea that “for a lady” I’m not too bad at the sport.

How has being a woman affected your work?  
It affects it every day, every moment, all the time. I don't downplay the fact that gender is a consideration even at home, and I do see gender issues there too, but here, you can't escape it. It's been made clear in both subtle and overt ways that it's a male-centric culture.

For me, it's a little different because I have a Ph.D., I'm here for work and not on holiday, I dress relatively professionally, and people often see me working. I am treated differently, but I can't always sort out whether it's mostly gender, education, or nationality.

Can you give me an example of how you're treated differently because you are a woman?
I can give you 100 examples because it's every day that I'm reminded I'm a woman. It's like you step of the plane and are like, "Oh yeah, I'm a foreign woman." Plus I'm a giant, six feet tall. Anyway, here's one example: I had been training with my trainer that I regularly did sessions with. I had a small bruise near my eye, very typical for training, and about a hundred little bruises all over my legs. I was lying on the side of the ring at the end of training trying to breathe, and one of the other trainers, whom I know very well, comes over and sees my eye and says, "Mari!" like he was upset, going to chastise me. He said, "Try to be a lady!" because I had this bruise on my eye. He had seen me the last hour training Muay Thai, in which I'm completely pummeled every day. No one cared about the bruises on my legs but once it was on my face I was told I needed to "be a lady." I'm not sure if you'd call it hypocrisy—like you want me to train and you're accepting of that, but the minute I have a mark on my face, I'm not being a lady.

Do you think he was just joking?
No, I think he was serious. I find it a conundrum. Women are supposed to be ultra-feminine—baby-doll, no bruises, don't want to train, don't want to be too strong or lean. But then again… And this is where there are so many layers, why I'm writing a book and not an article. In my interactions with foreign males at the gym, they're very encouraging of my strength training, of me leaning up, eating a high protein diet, trying to tone. I get nothing but support. But then with the Thai trainers, I'm constantly judged for not being soft and feminine. You have the foreign girls who want to compete, do cross-fit workouts, be the strongest, fastest, leanest, but then the Thai trainers criticize me for not being softer, more feminine, and for having bruises on my face which is "not ladylike."

What is one thing about Muay Thai that has made a big impression on you?
There have been so many things. One example I can think of is in regards to the difference between Muay Thai here and in the U.S. When I was training in Thailand, one of my trainers said to me which I found very comical, "Mari, it's like a dance. Relax! Dance!" I don't relate to that but I think maybe it goes back to the Buddhist tradition, or a group of people who have worked very hard and haven't had the easiest lives, but their acceptance of things, their ability to focus and let things go and get out of their own heads, using Muay Thai for that, I find fascinating. My Thai trainers say, "No problem," like saying, "Get out of your own way."

As a Westerner, I find it a hard lesson to learn. When I go home and practice, I am really in my own way. I'm my own problem. It's not that I'm not athletic enough, it's more that I'm a product of my multitasking environment. We're stressed, we're worried, we overanalyze everything, especially as a professor. I tell my trainers in Thailand, "This is what I do for a living!" Overanalyzing. But in Thailand the people I come in contact with are really able to put things aside when they're doing Muay Thai and focus on the here and now. They have a different attitude, an acceptance of the moment. Maybe that's why people keep coming here.

I've heard some foreign practitioners say they like Muay Thai because it's almost a form of meditation.
Exactly. Again, I don't think you can separate the sport from the location and the surrounding culture. In the U.S., people go to a promotion to watch fights or people go train, and then we all go back to our jobs or on to other things. At the Muay Thai gym in Thailand, Muay Thai is your job—it's your life, your nexus, your extended family, your one-mile radius between your home and the gym. It is everything. The way nak muay come together and certainly some of the dysfunctions of that same scenario are fascinating. You don't see that in the U.S., at least not in my experience, and not to that extent.


Check out these related stories:

Life of a Pad-Man: A Muay Thai Trainer's Remorse

Born into Fighting: Away from Home at Singpatong

Daughter of Muay Thai