AJARN CHAI SIRISUTE INTERVIEW – 5TH MARCH 1998 by Arthur Ligopantis
Ring deadly, street lethal – The devastating and effective martial art of Muay Thai has a rich and colourful history steeped in tradition and rituals. Muay Thai has long been associated as the main sport and culture of the Thai people. One man who has devoted a lifetime of dedication, honesty and love for his art and culture stands alone with an infectious energy in spreading the gospel of Muay Thai to the world. That man being ……….Ajarn Chai Sirisute.
Could I start off by asking you what exactly is Thai Boxing and what are the origins of Thai Boxing?
Thai Boxing started along time ago in Thailand. The style originated in the Military when Thailand was at war with Burma. As for the history of Thailand, we came down from South Tibet. One group stayed in Burma and another group moved down to Thailand and then Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the last group went to the Philippines. Every Country has their way of looking at their own art, but in Thailand, Muay Thai has its history in the Military. A long time ago when the Military fought, not only did they fight using their swords and staffs, they also used their kicks, elbows and knees. When the war was over, they would put down their weapons and would have competitions, competing in empty hand combat using their elbows, knees and kicks.
Sometime later, it started to become a sport in Thailand. I’m talking about 100 years ago, they would wear hand wraps much like boxing gloves. They didn’t have referees nor did they have a ring. They just fought until the first one dropped. However, that was in times of peace when they weren’t fighting against the Burmese.
Today however, we have stadiums, the main ones being the Lumpinee and Rajdamnern Stadiums. We also have boxing rings and we have referees. A long time ago, they didn’t have a timer, so what they did was, they would use a bucket filled with water and they would put a hole in a coconut. The coconut was put in the bucket of water until the coconut sank to the bottom of the bucket. That would signal the end of one round.
One of our most famous thai boxing warriors back in the old days was a person named Nai Khanom Tom. Nai Khanom Tom fought against the Burmese Army. The King of Burma wanted to know just how tough the Thai people really were. What they did was, they put Nai Khanom Tom up against some Burmese fighters whom he beat one after the other. That was when the King of Burma declared that the Thai people were very good fighters.
So as you can see, thai boxing originated from the Military and today, it is everywhere.
What is the difference between Thai Boxing and Kickboxing?
They aren’t that different. The only difference is, in kickboxing they use their legs for kicking but are not allowed to use their elbows and knees. These were the rules laid down when they were setting up kickboxing. Kickboxing started between 1967-69.
A long time ago, the Japanese went to Thailand and in Japan they were still using karate and didn’t know about kickboxing yet. So what happened was, when they went to Thailand, they were fighting against thai boxers who were using elbows and knees. After learning the art of muay thai, the Japanese people went back to their country and when they saw the elbows and knees, they said “oh no, this is too dangerous. Don’t do the elbows, don’t do the knees, just kicking and boxing.” At that time, the Japanese didn’t really understand the kicking method of the Thai people. This is why they snap the karate kick and later they added in the boxing, that’s how it became kickboxing. Now, that was a long time ago. Up until 1966-67, we had one guy named Fujihara, a Japanese kickboxer who went to Thailand to learn thai boxing. He was the first foreign thai boxing champion.
If you were to see a kickboxing and thai boxing match right now, you would see similarities between the two. Kickboxing is very much like thai boxing only they don’t allow the knees and elbows in competition.
Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in Thai Boxing?
O.K. about myself. When I was young, my dad loved thai boxing. I was the only boy in the family with 7 sisters. My father lived next to a thai boxing camp where I studied under my Instructor, Ajarn Suwan. Ajarn Suwan and my father would sometimes have a drink in the evening and my father would always be with him when he was training. He would normally train in the evenings everyday and I would just sit around and watch.
I was pretty young and he told my father “you know, in the evenings before you go, let Chai kick the heavy bag” and my dad brought back a small bag for me. I was about 4 years old when I started kicking everyday and he would watch with my dad and say “ok., do this, do it like this, do it like that.” Then when I was about 6 or 7 years old, I started to work out a little bit more and one day, Ajarn Suwan said to my father, “you know, he’s pretty good.” When I was about 8 or 9 years old, he said “come over and train after school.” So I used to go over next door and sometimes I couldn’t train with the adults because there wasn’t a lot of room and it was very busy. I would stand back and watch and when they finished, I would go over and kick the bag.
At the same time when he taught my dad, he would come over and say, “Chai, do the elbow like this, or do it like that.” At the age of about 10 or 12 years old, I started training and jogging in the morning with the other fighters. I would wake up and see the fighters, you have to understand, the fighters in Thailand a long time ago were usually poor people from different cities. They would work in the day time for the Manager’s of the camp and they would train in the evening. The fighters would jog in the morning and in the afternoon they would train.
I started to work with them and train with them pretty heavily when I was probably 10 or 12. I worked with big guys and they also had guys my size and I started to like it. My dad liked it because he would always go and watch the fighters almost every week. He took me to watch the fighters when I was 12 years old. The first time I fought was as a junior at a fair held at the Temple. They had set up a stadium and they had kids fighting and money was put on the fighters.
That was the first time I started fighting, when I was 12 years old. My mother didn’t like it, she hated it because sometimes I had black eyes and cuts.
After that fight, I would sometimes run away from school to go fighting without letting my mother know. When I went to school, I was just like other kids, sometimes you have a bad time, sometimes you become radical just being a teenager. When I was about 18 or 19 years old, My dad said, “you know what? I’m going to have to send you to the United States to go to school over there.” At the same time, my Uncle said, “Chai, when you get to the States, you should teach the Yankees.” This was my Uncle’s idea.
When I got to the United States, my Uncle used to send me information on how to teach them. My Uncle took care of sport in Thailand for the Military like P.E. (physical education), Krabi Krabong and Thai Boxing. When I arrived in the United States, nobody knew of thai boxing. I first started teaching in small karate schools because I knew the instructors. They said, “Chai, you should start teaching thai boxing, because no one knows it here.” Later I started teaching in College and the Y.M.C.A.
Up until 1975, I started to do Seminars. I met Dan Inosanto and I told Dan, I would teach him Thai Boxing and asked him if he would help me to promote the art and he said he would. He started to promote the art. I think he is the only person I can say in public, who has helped me promote the art of thai boxing, more than most people right now. I think the profile of thai boxing has been lifted because of Dan Inosanto. Other people who have helped are Walt Missingham, who has brought it to the Australian public. I know when I first came to Australia, there wasn’t much thai boxing at all. Up until now, the art has really come up in Australia and New Zealand. This is why I think that, when Walt Missingham brought me over here, it helped a lot to promote it here in Australia. All of my life since I was very young, up until today, I have never had time to relax. Pretty much all of my life has been dedicated to Thai Boxing and martial arts every day.
Sir, you mentioned earlier that you started kicking the bag at the age of 4, but when officially did you start taking lessons in Thai Boxing?
When I was 8 years old.
Are there different styles of thai boxing like there are in karate?
In thai boxing there is just one style of thai boxing. People might use it in different ways after they learn it, but they have the same elbows, knees, kicks and foot jabs.
Sometimes the Military will use it in a different way ,but Muay Thai is exactly the same. Just like if you look at Tae Kwon Do, this style, that style. It’s the same, North or South. There is nothing different, only some groups use it differently. You can use it for street fighting or any other way. It might be called something different, but it’s the same. There is only one Thai Boxing.
Thai boxing is steeped deep in tradition and rituals. How important are these rituals and do they develop a spiritual level of martial arts?
As I said earlier, thai boxing originated in the Military. Now, before they went to war, they would always have a ceremony. The ceremony has everything to do with the teacher. They did the ceremony for the instructor and it was also supposed to help make them stronger. These were the things they believed in along time ago. When they new they were going to the war, lets say they were going tomorrow, they would go to their mother and father and say “mother, I’m going to war tomorrow, and I may never come back. Do you have anything to give me for good luck.” The mother would take a piece of white cloth called Pha Salu and she would give this to her son for good luck and tie it on his arm. That was supposed to bring good luck, like a good luck charm. This is why the Military would wear it while they were fighting.
The charm was included when they had competitions in thai boxing and the Mongkon (head band) has to do with the instructor. It is a belief all in here (he points to his mind). This is 1998 now, not like over 100 years ago. People sometimes believed in certain things, like for instance the Chinese, they looked at the moon and they preyed. Now that Neil Armstrong has been to the moon, you can see that a lot of Chinese don’t prey to the moon any more. The same thing now, it’s all in here (he points to his mind again). Those beliefs were designed to instil discipline. You learnt discipline, you learnt to become disciplined but they didn’t say that. This is why all the things that we see today came from the past, because people believed in them.
Could you explain to us what the Wai Kru and the Ram Muay are and also, what are the differences between the two?
Wai Kru means you pay respect or gratitude to the teacher. Ram Muay is when you are dancing. Now you might say they look different, but they are meant to be put together as one. That’s why it is called Ram Muay. Ram means dancing, Wai Kru is when you show respect to your teacher. When the Military fought a long time ago, they would perform a Ceremony called Ram Muay or sometimes called Wai Kru. The words are different, but the meanings are the same.
How important is the Sarama music to the Thai Boxer?
A long time ago when they had their Ceremonies, they traditionally had drums. They didn’t have the type of music we have today. Later when they started to have competitions, the atmosphere was that of celebration and they would have music to accompany the fights. This is how it started in the old times with the old generation.
The fighters would put on their hand wraps and then they would have competitions. This group would fight that group to see who would win and the drums would be playing. Eventually, the Pi Java (clarinet) and the Shing (symbols) were added into it.
From that time on, we’ve always had the music when we fight. The music during the ceremony is usually slow, but when the fight begins, the pace and rhythm increases. The music is designed to get the fighters aroused and to keep them fighting. That’s the way it’s been from generation to generation up until today.
Thai boxing is a very physical art, could you tell us about the conditioning program of a Thai Boxer?
When we talk about conditioning you have to remember, in thai boxing, they fight for money. The main thing is money. So usually, the guy who trains longer and harder and who is better conditioned, is usually the guy who wins. You have to be in very good condition for the sport. They have to jog every morning and then they train afterwards on the pads and heavy bag.
In thai boxing they train everyday because when they fight and win, they earn a lot of money. If they were to lose, they would not earn much money and their name would mean nothing. This is why the conditioning of a Thai Boxer has to be perfect.
How and when does a teacher of Thai Boxing know when his student is not only physically fit but also mentally fit to fight in the ring?
As I said earlier, the student trains everyday. Not only does he become physically conditioned but also mentally conditioned through the training and the instructor knows when he is ready to fight.
What is the expected career life of a Thai Boxer?
A lot of people say thai boxer’s don’t last that long. Sometimes at the age of 22 or 23 they stop, that’s not true. It all depends on how smart you fight. If your not smart, you’ll get hurt and ultimately won’t be fighting for long. I still see some fighters at the age of 34/35 still fighting in Thai Boxing like Pytchun Noy. So I think it has to do with each individual, but the average career life of a thai boxer would have to be in his early 30’s.
Has Thai Boxing changed much over the past 20 years?
Very much so. If you were to put the old thai boxers of 20 years ago up against the thai boxers of today, the old fighters wouldn’t last long. The thai boxers of today know much more and their structure is different.
A long time ago, the thai fighters didn’t stand the way we do today. Their stance was low and their hands were out and open. So thai boxing today is definitely much better. One thing I can say about the old days, is that there was better form. A lot of Managers’ now days don’t work on as much form with the fighters, only power.
Is it true there is a Military version of Thai Boxing called Lerd rit and if so, how different is it to the Thai Boxing taught in public?
Yes there is a Military version, but with the Military you have to understand, they always have some sought of weapon in their hand whether it be a gun or a knife. The way they would use the Military version would be a little bit different because they might have to use their weapon in conjunction with their kicking, so their body mechanics might vary a little bit. If I was to train you in thai boxing, then all of a sudden hand you a sword, the body mechanics you had in thai boxing would definitely change a little bit. They use the term Military version but really, it’s just thai boxing with the added use of weapons.
What are the primary tools of a Thai Boxer and which tool is feared most in the ring?
The knee and thigh kicks I’d say are their primary weapons. The knee is the most feared weapon.
What are your thoughts on the recent explosion in the grappling arts and the dominance of grappling in the no holds barred events?
If I had a student and trained him in thai boxing, I would always encourage that student to work grappling. You need that component to be able to deal with a grappler. On the other hand, if you were just to know the grappling game and have no stand up experience, you might have a problem with a stand up fighter. If you were to fight in an event like the U.F.C. (Ultimate Fighting Championships), then I would recommend you learn both. In a street fight you never know who it is your fighting. You might just one day have to fight with a grappler, but as I said earlier, the reverse is also true. That’s why in my opinion, I would like all students to learn the grappling game along with the stand-up game. I think they should learn both. I always expect every art, I always do. Students should expose themselves to as many styles as possible, but I definitely recommend grappling.
Do you personally cross train in other arts?
You know, I can see things and normally pick things up very quickly. But yes, I do cross train. I’ve learnt a lot of different arts.
Thai Boxing is predominantly seen as an empty hand art, does it possess a weapons based component and if so, where is the material drawn from?
Yes it does, in Krabi Krabong we have the sword, we also have a staff that has a blade on the end of it and we also use a weapon similar to the Tonfa.
What is Krabi Krabong?
Krabi means sword, Krabong means staff. Krabi Krabong originated in the Military back in the early days when Thailand fought Burma. The foundation of Krabi Krabong is unarmed combat. Before picking up the sword, you must develop and train the natural weapons of the body. At this level, Krabi Krabong resembles mauy thai boxing. You have to look closely to see the locks, throws, breaks and pressure points that make the art very dangerous. The primary weapon of Krabi Krabong is the sword.
Where can one go to learn authentic Krabi Krabong?
They can go to Thailand. There’s an old school over there. I once took Dan Inosanto and some of my students to the Krabi Krabong School and Dan studied over there. Right now, Dan takes care of the Krabi Krabong Association in the United States. .
How and why was the American Thai Boxing Association formed and what is its purpose?
Since 1968, we didn’t have any sort of association. Later I started an association because I wanted to keep everyone together. What we did was, we formed 6 regions in the United States. North East, North West, South East, South West, North Central and South Central. In each region there is a different state and in each state, we have a representative and I have students in each region that take care of things. For example, Rick Faye takes care of the North Central region, George Garland takes care of the North East region, Francis Fong takes care of the South East region. In South Central we had Terry Gibson who unfortunately passed away. So we will now have to find somebody else. We may have to get Kathy Gibson his wife, because Kathy Gibson already knows how to run it. She will be the first lady ever to take care of a region in the Thai Boxing Association and of course, there is Dan Inosanto who is my Vice President.
For those who aspire to one day become Thai Boxing Instructors, how does one go about becoming qualified and how long does it take?
In some Associations, what they do, is people actually buy Certification. They pay their money and they become certified in a matter of 2-3 weeks.
I personally don’t believe in people buying certification. In my Association, it would normally take about 4 years or until they really understand and know how to teach the material.
What does Thai Boxing mean to you?
I’ve dedicated my life to Thai Boxing and teaching Thai Boxing. That should give you some sort of indication of what it means to me. Thai Boxing is my life. I’ve put my whole life and soul into it. It’s played an important role in my life, which is why I try to get everyone interested to learn the art. I do it for myself and sometimes I don’t even teach for money. I also do it for my Country, Thailand and for the art. I think it’s about time to let the world know about the Thai culture which is why I have put my whole life into it. Since the age of 18 till now, in my 50’s, I’ve taught virtually everyday right up until today.