By Kaitlin Young
There is no such thing as a black belt in Muay Thai. There may be specific schools with their own ranking system but in the sport itself, no belts or ranks exist apart from how highly ranked one is as a competitor. Muay Thai, along with boxing and kickboxing, is a ring sport. Development in Muay Thai is traditionally centered around competition, rather than competition being an aside as it is in Karate, Tae Kwon Do, or even Jiu Jitsu. Therefore, any ranking system that exists for Muay Thai is entirely made up by whichever school or association it falls under.
The Problem with Muay Thai Ranking Systems
Ranking systems are not necessarily a bad thing. Not everyone who practices Muay Thai is going to want to fight and frankly, in the US, gyms would cease to exist if they only catered to fighters. Creating a way for those who won’t be testing themselves in a ring to have a concrete measure of progress makes sense. We need to be mindful that the construction of such ranking systems has the potential to paint Muay Thai as something it is not.
There is already the problem in the Muay Thai community, at least in America, of putting form over function. There is already the problem of adding elbows and knees to poorly executed kickboxing and then calling it Muay Thai. There are Muay Thai gyms that scarcely even acknowledge the clinch. There are coaches who make up scenarios or moves, without ever having tried them against a resisting opponent, and teach them as gospel. If Muay Thai doesn’t work, if it’s not ring-tested against full rules, why are we calling it Muay Thai? We can have the most beautiful knees in the world or the coolest escape from the clinch, but they are completely pointless, and possibly even dangerous to teach, if not proven effective under full rules.
The Sources of the Problem
The primary sources of this problem are the structure of our gyms and people with little to no experience DOING Muay Thai, moving up the ranks and running programs. What I mean by that is practicing moves is not doing Muay Thai. Kicking pads is a part of Muay Thai. Hitting the bag is a part of Muay Thai. Drilling is a part of Muay Thai. Those activities alone are not “doing Muay Thai”—especially if a person is rarely or never sparring and clinching to put them into context. Take Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, for example. Drilling takedowns is important. Drilling armbars is important. Drilling sweeps is important. Drilling by itself would never be confused with practicing Jiu Jitsu. They wouldn’t allow a person to rank up without demonstrating proficiency in rolling—which is practicing full Jiu Jitsu.
Muay Thai is Different
Muay Thai is not an art that can be practiced fully, as it was intended, in the gym. Composure under pressure is a big part of Muay Thai and fighting in general. There is a damage element that is not simply a side-effect of fighting, but an integral part of it, and provides great feedback regarding the effectiveness of both our attacks and defense. Even fighting with shin or elbow pads will dampen this feedback in the same way that training wheels might give us skewed ideas about our balance on a bicycle. Most people in America are not going to put their body, time and finances through what it takes to develop the ability fight effectively under full rules with no pads. That’s understandable and shouldn’t prohibit anyone from practicing and learning about the art. When we consider who should be holding the equivalent of a “black belt”, this needs to be considered as well. Can a person be a black belt in an activity they’ve never done?
There will always be someone better or more skilled. Do you need to be a Lumpinee champ to be a black belt in Muay Thai? Do you need to be a professional fighter? An amateur fighter? Should it be based upon time spent training? It’s fair to say that if a head instructor is not willing or able to dive into the fire themselves, they should certainly be learning from someone who has spent significant time there. A copy of instructions written by another will still be legible, a copy of a copy of a copy may not be. The further we get from full un-padded bouts, the further we are from learning Muay Thai.
Even if softened or dialed back, proficiency is something we should be demanding, both from ourselves and others in the community. Timing or play sparring is an effective way to practice elements of Muay Thai without being injured (if this isn’t possible, that’s a red flag in and of itself). Clinching can be done with harder grappling and lighter strikes. Live training does not mean that it is dangerous training.
Maintaining the Integrity of the Art
It is not impossible to maintain the integrity of an art while also assigning rank. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, for example, is one of few martial arts that has been able to maintain standards such that a belt color is known to mean something. Can you imagine how terrible Jiu Jitsu would be if they allowed blue belts to run programs? They don’t allow it for a reason. They aren’t yet proficient enough, and that’s not regarding skill alone.
On the journey to a BJJ black belt, a person will have to tap out and admit defeat many times in the many thousands of hours of rolling they’ll have to complete before they arrive. They’ll also sink many submissions and learn how to contend with various types of opponents. For most, it takes at least 10 years. Some do it in less, some do it in more. It becomes quite difficult to have illusions about one’s own skill and long before a person receives their black belt, their ability will be obvious to others. Of course, there will always be varying levels of athleticism and experience among those with top rank, but the technical proficiency should be apparent regardless. Sadly, in Muay Thai and striking gyms in America, that is often not the case. Black belt, or black rank, is usually assigned based on the standards used in traditional martial arts.
If not practicing Muay Thai in its entirety, it’s easy to whack the pads and imagine one’s self as a killer. Muay Thai is so much more than the ability to hit hard. Range, timing, placement, position, defense, balance, control, footwork, etc. are all elements that may just never be tested when a person is able to achieve rank without live training. The skill of emotional control while losing a round badly isn’t developed. Seeing how a person responds and does or does not take advantage of another with less size or experience isn’t observed, either. Without live training, we don’t get an accurate picture of who a person is as a martial artist.
A lot of people speak well on the topic. They know what they should say to sound like a master. It’s an entirely different thing to demonstrate those principles under even the slightest bit of pressure. Add the involvement of the ego, with the whole class watching, and we’ll see what would otherwise stay hidden. There’s the coward who won’t spar with anyone even near his skill level. There’s the bully who will socially punish anyone who bests her. These unacceptable behaviors won’t have the opportunity to be revealed without live training, at least, not to the same degree. We also don’t get to see them display the generosity of pushing another person without injuring them or choosing to forgo an easy knockout because they’d rather not hurt their partner. All of these scenarios give us a deeper insight into a person’s state of mind. They give us a well-informed idea of how they might handle a position of power.
Don’t Water Down an Art
Why are we handing out black ranks, black belts and instructorships without the demonstration of both skill and character under duress? It’s a recipe for turning Muay Thai in America into a community riddled with McDojos. It’s the best way to take an incredibly effective martial art and water it down completely. It’s also the best way to make room for abusive instructors who don’t have the strength of character to experience and overcome failure. We have seen all of this happen with Karate and Tae Kwon Do. Let’s take care that Muay Thai doesn’t follow suit.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Zebra Athletics or its employees.