There seem to be a lot of different pro-am tournaments these days under various organisations or sanctioning bodies, each operating as world championship events and giving out world title belts. There’s the WMF, IFMA, AITMA and the newest World MAC (Martial Arts Council) Games, although their Muay Thai belts are donned with WMO (World Muay Thai Organisation). It’s all a bit difficult to keep track of. After spending the last four years in Thailand and becoming somewhat familiar with the protocol of these kind of events, I’ve come to disagree with the way some of them seem to be carried out. So far, I’ve seen almost no discussion about this online. The only thing I’ve come across is this short thread on MuayThaiLand.com, which has now been locked so that forum members can no longer post on it, for some reason. Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu does have a post called ‘The Trouble with Belts‘, which is definitely worth a read, but it doesn’t cover these kinds of events. So, I want to talk about it here.
I’ll start by saying that it’s not my intention to discredit or belittle the career of any fighter who has taken part in the tournaments I talk about in this post. I have chosen to omit the names of most of the fighters for this reason. Instead, I want to create discussion about the events themselves and in doing so, to learn more about them myself and help others to do so, too. Of course, every organisation is different and some statements made here may not apply to all of the ones mentioned above. If anyone has any discrepancy or clarifications to make, please let me know so I can correct the information here.
If you’re not familiar with events like these, let me explain. They invite fighters from around the world to compete in annual world championship tournaments and tend to separate categories into ‘Amateur’, ‘Pro-Am’ and ‘Professional’ (although not every tournament includes every level, some only conduct amateur and pro-am fights). Generally, the only major difference in these categories is the gear that the participants wear. Amateur fighters are required to wear the full set of shin, elbow, body and head guards. Pro-Am includes the use of shin and elbow guards only. Professional fighters compete at full-rules level.
In theory, there is nothing wrong with the idea of tournaments like these. They promote Muay Thai on a worldwide scale and bring fighters, instructors and fans from around the world together. However, it’s integral that they be carried out in an ethical way. That is, a way that upholds integrity and safety for all those involved. This is where they start to lose me.
I assume that scoring methods differ between categories, although this is not something that I have any knowledge of. However, it doesn’t seem that the calibre or experience of fighters have much, if any bearing on which category they should fight in. Instead, the fighters themselves simply select whichever level they’d prefer to compete at. It even appears that fighters are able to enter more than one category, at least in some cases. This means that a very experienced fighter can fight all available levels, sweep them all and call themselves a multiple-time world champion at the end of it. Is that fair?
Last year, I witnessed what the lack of certain regulations in events like these means for the authenticity of the world titles they distribute. Some of my team mates and I were invited to fight at the Sports Authority of Thailand’s Pro-Am World Championship tournament, which took place in August 2014 at National Stadium in Bangkok. Having minimal prior knowledge of the event, I turned up to the registration and initial weigh-in to find out more, but later declined to take part as I didn’t quite feel comfortable and had to work on the day that I would have been scheduled to fight on anyway. My training partner, Katy Farrell, was scheduled to fight. Having only had a couple of fights at that time, she was matched up against an opponent with over 50 fights and multiple world titles, including a WPMF professional world championship belt. Subsequently, Master Toddy decided to withdraw Katy from the fight as he felt it was unfair and dangerous to put Katy into that particular match. Unfortunately, it does not seem that the event organisers took such care of their fighters. Her scheduled opponent fought a Thai girl in the first round, but as a result of Katy’s withdrawal, won the title by default. I attended the show and watched as they walked her into the ring as if she was going to fight, waited a few moments and then declared her the world champion. This is standard practice for any tournament, but could have been avoided if the categories had been more rigorously managed. If that had been the case, the mismatch wouldn’t have happened.
In 2015’s WMF tournament, a similar event took place. An inexperienced female fighter entered the amateur category, only to find herself fighting an opponent on the other end of the scale, who had not only fought extensively at a professional level, but held a WMC title. You can find out more about that by watching Under the Lights in Thailand, a documentary that followed the American Muay Thai team’s experience of that tournament. You can find a link to watch that in my Directory of Muay Thai Documentaries and Websites. See clips of the tournament in the trailer below. It doesn’t seem as though many precautions are taken to ensure that fighters are fairly matched in terms of experience.
I’ve also had the experience of fighting in one of these events. Very early in my fighting career, I took part in the AITMA Naikhanomthom World Championship tournament in 2013 as a way to gain experience, but what actually took place was rather dismal. I fought in the ‘B-Class’ category, which meant wearing shin and elbow guards. However, during my first fight of the tournament, my opponent entered the ring with only elbow guards, seemingly forgetting about the shin pads. At the time, I assumed that this meant that she would have to put them on, but instead, mine were removed and the fight continued as normal. I won and went through to the final round of the tournament, in which I ended up fighting an opponent who had not only not been present at the weigh-in, but was 14 kgs heavier than me and extremely experienced. As a result, a 64kg, professional fighter was given a belt for a B-Class -50kg title. On top of that, the fight went ahead under ‘A-Class’ rules with no protective gear after my opponent turned up without any at the very last minute and nothing was done about it. Seemingly, she and her trainers had been hiding until that point. You can read more about that fight here. It was not only my fights that were questionable. In several other weight categories, fighters from the same gym fought each other for titles. This was seemingly due to a lack of participants, which meant that the pool of opponents was very small.
As I mentioned earlier, fighters are often able to enter multiple categories in tournaments like these to give them a greater chance of winning. If you’d like to hear an in-depth, first hand account of one fighter’s experience of that in the 1st annual World MAC Games, see this video from Jade Marrisa Sirisompan, where she talks about how she was able to compete in and win the professional division after losing a fight in the pro-am division the previous day.
My final point of debate is that these tournaments don’t appear to have online, public rankings. It is unclear whether or not the belts presented at their annual shows are defended by the current champion each year. Rather than this kind of system, it seems to be the case that new champions are created each year and the reigning ones aren’t required to attend (although I understand that it is often not realistic for them to be able to do so, since they may have to travel from other part of the world).
If we are to consider the belts given at these events to be representative of world titles, there ought to be certain requirements and restrictions put in place. At the very least, it would seem fairer for fighters to be grouped in categories in terms of experience and for them not to be permitted to fight in more than one category. To what extent can we consider the winners of these belts to be world champions? Is anyone else concerned about this, or is it just me?
Again, if anyone can shine any light on the points I’ve raised here or has any corrections to make, please let me know in the comments section below.