Muay Thai Competition in America
As many of you continue to build your Muay Thai foundation, start to feel comfortable in the clinch, and begin to spar, you may foster an interest in competition or at the very least watching live Muay Thai. Muay Thai in America is still a growing and evolving. Though no longer at the fringe of sports competition, it certainly is not widely known or watched. With that comes good and bad consequences. In this blog post, we will explain the very basics of fighting Muay Thai in the USA. Unfortunately, it’s a little bit more complicated than pro and amateur!
Lack of Uniformity
In Western boxing, there are clear bout rules and specifications for the US amateur scene. The scoring is the same across state lines, bouts are 3 rounds, and the required protective gear is the same. Judging is unified, and more or less competition looks and feels the same from event to event. The progression of a boxer among the amateur ranks is cut and dry. Fight in Golden Gloves and USA Boxing sanctioned events and tournaments, and build yourself a name.
Muay Thai competition in the US lacks this uniformity. Rule sets are created by state athletic commissions and the criteria for scoring is different from sanctioning body to sanctioning body. For this reason, you may very well see an entirely amateur card that looks like professional Muay Thai. Full rules Muay Thai, with no protective gear—except for elbow pads—fought over 5 rounds. On the flipside, depending on the state athletic commission, sanctioning body, and promotion, you may see an amateur card where every fight is fully geared with shinguards and headgear, elbow strikes are restricted, and bouts only last 3 rounds. Additionally, due to a lack of education, scoring criteria may be based on aggression and forward pressure, which is wildly different than the traditional scoring of Muay Thai.
Amateur Muay Thai fighting in the states has extreme variability in regards to:
Judging & Scoring Criteria
Usage of strikes—particularly elbows;
What does this mean for fighters? Primarily, that fighters should just fight… Any ruleset, any gear requirement, any opportunity. There are not a depth of opportunities, and any experience is valuable, so it’s best to just get in there. However, the lack of uniformity has and will continue to create confusion in the outcomes of fights—as scoring traditional Muay Thai and scoring for aggression produce wildly different decisions.
So Why Not Just Turn Pro?
When explaining the complexities of the amateur scene, I often get the question, “Why don’t fighters turn pro as quickly as possible? That way they get paid; and, there is more uniformity in the gear requirements, usage of strikes, and bout duration?” In MMA, many fighters will turn professional after 2-5 amateur fights. In Muay Thai, it is not uncommon for an amateur fighter to have 25+ fights.
The problem stems from opportunity.
Promoting professional fights costs more money. The fighters must be paid, higher insurance requirements are needed, and things like travel and hotel are often accommodated—all for a sport with a niche fan base. Simply put, there is very, very little professional opportunity in the United States. The decision often boils down to: ‘Turn professional and have a maximum of 3-4 opportunities to fight a year making small purses (typically $500-$1500 a fight), or stay amateur with 2-3 opportunities a month and the capability to fight primarily geared fights (fighting more often and taking less damage), or fight ‘Full Rules’ bouts very similar to professional bouts gaining that experience while keeping the opportunity to frequently compete.
How to Fix It
There are two schools of thoughts on this:
Ensure more opportunities for professional fighters
Advocate for all state athletic commissions to require a certain number of professional fights on every card, thus ensuring more opportunity for pro fighters;
Advocate for competitor compensation in “Full Rules” (no gear) amateur fights (which is common in places such as the UK).
Unify the amateur ranks under a consistent ‘Olympic Style’ geared ruleset
Ensure clarity in scoring & judging, bout duration, gear requirements, and rules;
Provide more opportunity to compete, as geared competition puts significantly less wear and tear on the body.
We are seeing a ton of progress both in the visibility of the sport and the push towards unification. Streams like UFC Fight Pass have picked up Muay Thai promotions such as Friday Night Fights in New York City. This visibility gets more people invested in the sport. Always a good thing!
Likewise, organizations like the United States Muay Thai Federation (USMF) are doing the thankless and burdensome work of attempting to unify rulesets, provide more competition opportunities, and push US athletes to excel at the IFMAs, which are the premier international geared competition for Muay Thai (think the Olympics of Muay Thai).
The Right Answer?
Personally, I love Muay Thai in its pure state. 5 rounds, no gear, traditional scoring. My natural inclination is to push for more professional opportunities and the small compensation of amateurs in ‘Full Rules’ no gear fights (basically to cover costs). I understand the economic challenges of this and the burden it puts on promoters. On the flipside, in our current pay to play scenario, there is a huge economic disincentive to fight, and lower income folks most certainly struggle with barriers of medical fees, hotel and travel costs, fighter registration fees, etc. etc. The fighters, who put their bodies on the line receive no compensation for sometimes crazy feats of strength and dedication (I.E. Amateur 8 man, full rules, tourneys in which a fighter will fight three times in one night for zero compensation).
That being said, in other countries it is very common for fighters to fight professional fights in which they fight traditional Muay Thai, while also continually competing in geared ‘Olympic Style’ competition. There is no current network for that in the United States, but it seems to be the best of both worlds. Compete often, and get compensated. In an ideal world, fighters would have opportunity to compete in compensated professional Muay Thai while also being able to compete in geared, Olympic style, amateur competition with BOTH opportunities matching fighters based on experience.
As long as the Muay Thai community continues to work together, the sport will progress. Luckily there are a ton of smart and super experienced folks working towards this very goal.
How You Can Help
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL FIGHTERS. Fighting is often thankless. And the folks who are training the hardest are often—but not always—the ones who are the worst at social media marketing, advertising themselves, and promoting their ‘brand’. Go to local shows. Buy tickets from local fighters. Invest in the sport.
Juniper Muay Thai has our very first fighter, ‘Smokin’ Chris Joynt, fighting June 22 in Dover, Delaware. It is an entirely amateur card, and will be geared competition. Let’s support out teammate! South Philly’s authentic Muay Thai gym will start cranking fighters out. Just you wait! :)