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Social Mobility and Muay Thai

As a job, Muay Thai can be brutal, but the benefits for Thai fighters go far beyond earning a living. Despite gaining popularity in recent years, the sport wasn’t getting much attention from Thailand’s middle and upper classes back in the day. It was viewed as a poor man’s pursuit, a means to an end, and a way to make money for those with little to no opportunities. While that is still true in many cases, there is a silver lining.

Social mobility is a difficult and often unattainable pursuit in Thailand, especially for those of limited means, like the sons and daughters of farmers. But in the case of Muay Thai, it can take you from the rice fields to the world stage if you’ve got what it takes.

While Muay Thai has now become part of mainstream culture in Thailand, that wasn’t the case just a decade ago. In response to the changing times, gyms nationwide have shifted their focus to cater to a new clientele – it’s no longer about raising fighters. This, in turn, has had a profound effect on the local Muay Thai scene. Fighters now have a career path that naturally transitions from their days in the ring to becoming trainers. Before this so-called boom, jobs as trainers were limited and paid little. With professional gyms like Bangtao opening up, those who dedicated their lives to the sport can now earn a respectable wage, highlighting the transformative power of Muay Thai.

Muay Thai is more than just a means to earn money; it serves as a crucial avenue for social mobility. Fighters typically begin their journey at grassroots, community-run gyms in their villages. Despite their modest resources, these gyms offer a solid foundation for a promising future that might otherwise be out of reach. For many growing up in poverty, traditional educational paths are often not feasible, and as time goes by, access to opportunities diminishes. However, in the case of Muay Thai, the longer you stay in the sport, the more opportunities arise.

Sam-A at 10 years of age.
Sam-A at 10 years of age.
Sam-A one championship belt

Starting out their careers at temple fairs, fighters who perform well are offered slots on national TV. From there, those with good management are invited to fight abroad. For many Muay Thai fighters, these opportunities mark their first time flying on an airplane and stepping foot in a foreign country. As Sam-A Gaiyanghadao recalls, “When I was a kid, I didn’t even think I’d get to fight in Bangkok, let alone a foreign country.” His journey to the top is proof of the social mobility Muay Thai can offer.

Growing up in one of Thailand’s many villages, kids wouldn’t even dare to dream of achieving something that once seemed so far-fetched. However, with the social mobility that Muay Thai provides, kids are given the chance to dream of a life beyond the rice fields and can start to think about which country or gym they’d like to work at when it’s time to hang up the gloves.

Moreover, Muay Thai fighters and trainers get to meet people from all walks of life. Opportunities like fighting abroad can develop into jobs abroad, which then bring prestige and stability to the fighters and their families. Growing up in a village, networking opportunities were nonexistent, but Muay Thai can open doors. Trainers at Bangtao can learn English, interact with people from around the globe, and experience a variety of cultures.

Ultimately, the social mobility that Muay Thai provides far outweighs any short-term financial gains. This is what Muay Thai is all about; it’s more than just a sport. It’s a way of life for many Thais and a rewarding one at that.