What is Muay Thai?
It is an ancient martial art from Thailand and it is possibly one of, if not the, most exciting ring sport on the planet! It is often called the art of eight limbs because fighters use punches, kicks, elbows, and knees along with stand up grappling or clinching. To many it is a lot more exciting than MMA as there is no ground fighting or ground wrestling to slow the pace. It is a fast paced action packed stand up striking art that is taking the world by storm!
Why would you want to become a Muay Thai fighter in the USA?
Many people mistakenly start out thinking they will be able to make the kind of money that their favorite UFC fighter or professional boxers make. This is not currently the case for Muay Thai in America. Though things are rapidly changing and evolving there are currently few opportunities for those who choose a career path as a Muay Thai fighter to make a living fighting Muay Thai.
So why then do people choose to become Muay Thai fighters? It is an exciting sport no doubt and there are many accolades you could set your sights on. But it is currently mostly for just that. It is for the bling, honor, glory and the pursuit of excellence in the sport that Americans currently participate as athletes. It is certainly not for the money. Not yet anyways.
One Championship is changing the game by offering real prize money to Muay Thai fighters who compete on their promotion. They also offer extremely good safety protocols and care for the fighters that compete for them. Before One Championship there was no prize money available like there is now. If you can get to One and do well you can make a decent living. The problem is…that is everyone’s goal now. Including the superstars of the Muay Thai stadiums in Thailand. Many are now shifting over to competing for One Championship where they can make life changing money.
For the Thai’s this kind of money is absolutely life changing and there is currently only one opportunity for them to earn it, that is One Championship. Promotions like RWS at Rajadamnern Stadium are offering up to 3 million baht (around $100k) and putting on excellent fights that are very exciting to watch. They are providing opportunities here in Thailand but still cannot compete with One who offers bonuses for single fight performances that match that. One is currently driving, shaping and evolving the sport.
So what does the current career path of an American Muay Thai fighter look like?
The journey to becoming a professional Muay Thai fighter in the U.S. is a long one. It starts as an amateur Muay Thai fighter. Many states in America do not allow full rules Muay Thai for amateurs. This is too bad. It leaves most American fighters with no choice but to start out doing kickboxing (an entirely different sport than Muay Thai). So with each state there are different rules, this is not only a problem for fighters but for fans as well. Can you imagine if football, basketball, baseball or soccer had different rules in each state? It would be very difficult for athletes to understand the sport and even more difficult to get fans to comprehend it.
Where do you start?
Most athletes nowadays start out with low level amateur competitions. There are different levels of amateur competitions you can get started in. There is a movement called the MDL or Muay Thai Development League. This is in my opinion one of the best starting points for any aspiring Muay Thai competitor. It is basically organized sparring. It is a true semi contact event. There are no knockouts and it starts out at a level where there are no winners/losers. I believe this keeps it semi contact and does not make it become more competitive so that there are people trying to win at sparring. Taking out that element makes it a true learning experience and great place to start out. I am of the opinion that these events should not be counted as a fight on your record as it is the same as in-house sparring, just better organized, overseen and not necessarily sparring with someone from your own gym. They should however be counted as experience and should be taken into consideration when matchmaking.
Next there are PKB events. These events are advertised as semi-contact but they are NOT! Be careful if you go into one of these thinking it will be semi-contact. You will see knockouts frequently at these competitions.
Because these end up being full contact in a lot of cases, there should always be a doctor on hand, if not I would pass. Also there should be an ambulance on site. These events are being run by the same organization that had an athlete die in a competition a few years back. It has been said that this may have been prevented if they had proper medical staffing and an ambulance on site.
If you or your athlete are KO’d in one of these events please take proper precautions for a concussion protocol since there is no formal suspension nor anything preventing the fighter who was KO’d to compete in another event after being concussed. This is dangerous! Secondary brain bleeds are what kill people in our sport. It is how people die. Proper precautions should always be taken when any athlete receives a concussion in any sport!
This format always has a winner/loser and often has title fights. When there is a belt on the line, semi contact goes out the window. Hard contact is unavoidable when two people are fighting for a belt. Also, these are frequently done in a gym and always done on the floor not in a ring (that is the legal workaround for how they can do these outside of the regulating body). If there are obstacles close to the competition area be aware. I have seen these being done with tables close to the competition area where someone could accidentally fall and hit their head on the table or into a wall. These can provide great experience in fighting but remember regardless of how it is billed it is a real fight. If you choose to compete in these just know the risks.
Then there are smokers. In some states there are smokers which in other countries are called inter-club competitions. Meaning they are in gym competitions with other clubs or gyms. We had these almost every weekend in California for almost 15 years. These were great to develop experience. When we had them there were always experienced Muay Thai referees, coaches and fighters that oversaw them. We never had any serious injuries or problems because of that.
The problem happened when MMA started getting popular and MMA tried to do smokers and a kid got his spine broken in one. That was the end of that. But there are still smokers going on in some areas of the USA. However, you should be cautious of these events if you are unsure that there will be solid safety oversight. These should count on your record! Do not sandbag and tell people you have no fights when you have several smokers. Smokers count as fights just as PKB fights should!
When do you move on to bigger things?
So how many of these low level amateur events should you have before you move onto a local sanctioned competition? I am of the opinion that you should gain a basic level of experience in these types of events and then move on quickly to an actual sanctioned amateur promotion event. In these events there are much more regulations, oversight and safety protocols in place. It is also a great way to begin to build up a fan base and get used to performing in front of a bigger crowd.
The problem exists when people get stuck in trying to get too many low level competitions and don’t move on into the bigger arena. There are many reasons why competitors don’t move up. At this level for some it is just a bucket list item to check off that they have fought and they have no intention of moving beyond that. Some are scared of a higher level of competition. Some just want to be the big fish in the little pond. Either way this can hurt a career and even get people stuck on the goal of staying in these until becoming a…Low Level Amateur Champion?
This is the wrong way to look at these low level competitions. It’s not about having a PKB, Smoker or MDL career. The primary goal of participating in these events in the first place is to gain sufficient experience to enter the game safely at a real level of amateur competition. It is where you get your feet wet, not where you swim.
As mentioned before sanctioned local amateur promotions are much more regulated and safe. This is where the goal changes and you can pursue becoming the best in your division as an amateur athlete. The hard part is knowing if you really are the best. Because every promotion has their promotional titles. There is no one list of rankings that say who is the best or where anybody stands in the rankings.
Some promotions have different standards than others and can have people fighting for belts after only a couple of competitions. Some have international titles with two athletes from the same state or country. World Champions should be two of the best competitors in the world competing against each other. Yet there are World Champions that compete against athletes from the same country, even the same state or region. Sure they may be the best in the state but are they really the best in the world?
That is the difficulty with promotional titles; they can make up any standard they want to fit their promotional goals. Remember the goal of the promoter is to sell tickets! They can make up titles to do just that and there is nobody to set any standards above them. They have the final say and if their goal as a promoter is to fill seats and not to find the best fighters in the world then a promotional World Title just doesn’t mean very much.
My suggestion is to find the most reputable promotion in your area and work your way up in that promotion. It is tempting to fight for other promoters and shows once you have a following but it is better to develop a relationship with a single promoter who can build you up as a fighter challenging you but also protecting you from getting overmatched. Always remember that when a promoter comes to you from another promotion and asks you to fight for a title against “Their Guy”, it can be a lopsided match up in favor of their fighter. No matter how much they pump you up, make sure you are up for the challenge and it isn’t just your ego that accepts the fight.
Promoters are not always working towards your best interest. If you stick with one promoter and you consistently put on a good show and sell tickets it will be a lot more in your favor. Not to say the promoter will not challenge you because that is what a good promoter will do but it will be less likely to be unfavorable or one sided.
If a promotion has a well recognized sanctioning body that you can move up in the ranking and get a title shot with, that is even more favorable and you should consider this above all plain jane local promotional shows with local promotional titles. This type of promoter has someone to answer to and they will hold them to the standards of their organization.
Getting involved with a promoter is kind of like getting married, choose your partner wisely at the beginning or be stuck in a bad relationship. When you get divorced neither party is happy. There may however be a time where you outgrow the local promotions and just need to move on to bigger opportunities. In that case the promoter should be happy for you and wish you well. They won’t always since they are losing a cash cow for their business. .
What about international amateur competitions?
These are really great to gain experience. You get to travel and see the world and experience competing in different countries with opponents from other countries. Be aware however, that other countries will send their professional athletes to these competitions. Some of them are Stadium or World Champions in high level organizations. Thailand does not have amateurs. Even their youth fighters fight for money and do not wear pads so by definition they are professionals. It is a competition at the highest level for amateurs. These competitions are usually done as a tournament style allowing the athletes to get up to 5 fights in a tournament. That is a lot of valuable experience whether you are an ammy or professional.
Other countries do not differentiate their amateur and professional athletes the same as we do in America. Amateur competitions are simply padded events that professionals can take part in so long as they are willing to wear pads and not get paid. They will usually separate them by experience levels using a class system.
I personally like this model because it solves one of the problems we have in the USA when turning professional. When you turn pro in America you just don’t get that many chances to compete regularly. There are not enough professional promotions to support a large number of fights for professional fighters. This is largely because of the way our amateur system is set up in America. If pros could compete in amateur tournaments to gain experience but not get paid then there would be more opportunities for them to compete. So long as they are willing to wear pads and not get paid in exchange for that experience.
Promoters as mentioned above use a model of putting together shows that feature primarily amateur athletes because they do not have to pay them. It costs less than an all professional show. They put a couple of professionals on the card for excitement and draw as the main events. But this model, while benefiting the promoter, hurts Muay Thai. Because amateurs are not always padded it looks to the audience to be almost the same as professionals. This is how promoters get away with this and basically take advantage of amateur fighters.
The audience doesn’t always know the difference. Fans become confused as to what an actual professional level fight looks like. They may see a bunch of medium level ammys on any given show and a couple of low level professional fights. If that same fan comes to Thailand and witnesses a high level all professional fight they will definitely see the difference! If they were able to see an all professional show in the USA they may not feel so ripped off and Muay Thai may gain a lot more fans of the sport! It’s not all the promoters fault, they just want to make money, it is a business after all and it isn’t easy when you have to pay high prices even for a low level pro fighter.
If we differentiated our amateurs by making them wear padding but separate them by experience using a class system like they do in most countries around the world it would help our sport grow and stop this odd concept of having an amateur career. There is no such thing! Amateur competitions are designed with one purpose…to get experience and move up to professional! .
I highly recommend international level amateur competitions for those who are at that level where they are either a highly successful amateur that needs a challenge beyond their local, regional opponents, are on the verge of turning pro or are a professional fighter that wants to gain great experience. Just be aware the level is not the same as your local ammy show.
The downside to these types of competitions is that they are pay to play and are usually expensive to participate in. Often the lure of becoming an olympic athlete is used to create excitement about paying to play. Just remember that even Olympic athletes dream of having a professional career in their sport.
It can be money well spent to gain valuable experience, but not all can afford to pay to play, especially the pros who are used to getting paid to play. It is worth it if you can swing it but it adds up when you are paying for travel, hotel, competition, team uniforms, coaches travel, food etc. I do highly recommend the experience though and if you get the chance to participate and can afford it then do it.
How many Amateur fights should I have before turning Professional?
This is a really good question and one that I wish more American amateur fighters would ask sooner. The answer will vary from person to person but again the goal is to develop a good level of competition experience so you can have a safe transition into fighting professionally. That’s it. Nothing more.
In countries like Australia, for example, athletes transition into professional as early as they possibly can. They are not interested in being an amateur champion; it seems silly to them to waste time on such things. Gaining an adequate amount of experience is enough for them to “move on”. This is likely because they have a lot of competitions and promotions that pay professionals.
So why is it so different from America? How can promoters afford to put so many professional level shows on? It is the law of supply and demand. There are more professional fighters so there are more to choose from for promoters. Lower level professionals don’t get paid as much as American professional Muay Thai fighters want to be paid. If there are less fighters they can demand a higher wage. If there are more fighters for promoters to choose from they get paid less and are more affordable for the promoters.
The fact is that this is stunting the growth of professional Muay Thai in America. So many Muay Thai fighters don’t want to turn professional because they won’t get as many fights. But if all of the fighters in the USA that had more than 10 or 15 amateur sanctioned Muay Thai fights turned pro it would flood the market for the promoters and they would have lots to choose from.
Initially however, the lower level pros wouldn’t get paid much. But this would develop a true professional system with a pay hierarchy and the best fighters could demand a higher price. There would be more professional competitions, more pay and more opportunities for everyone because promoters could afford to put on an all pro show and it wouldn’t break the bank.
When will Americans get over this obsession with being an amateur?
It seems Americans are obsessed with staying amateur as long as they possibly can, but it creates a chokehold on the sport. It’s like a continuing cycle. Everyone thinks that if they turn pro they won’t get fights so few will turn pro. Those few can demand a higher price but promoters cannot afford to have more than a couple of pros on the show. So most stay ammy forever and nothing ever changes. If they would just all turn pro at a reasonable time then the supply and demand would change and there would be lots of professional fights. But someone has to be willing to break the cycle. I hope one of the upcoming generations of Muay Thai fighters will realize this and just turn pro at a reasonable time. Then things will actually begin to change for the professional Muay Thai fighters in America. There will be more promoters, promotions and opportunities for all.
Once you turn pro then what?
That is when your career begins! It is an exciting and fun time where you grow your fan base and continue to grow your social media presence. It is then that you can begin to look for sponsors and get paid to fight. This is when you should have your goals set and begin to climb the ladder to the top. It is when you should focus on the goal of winning a State then Regional then National title with one of the big sanctioning organizations. Once you reach that goal readjust your sights to an international title and then finally …a World Title!
It is my hope that this article will inspire more American athletes to move towards the goal of becoming a professional Muay Thai fighter!
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