The fight of the free man

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Muay Thai rarely leaves no one indifferent. Considered the king of Thailand’s sports, it draws attention for the extreme difficulty of the practice and the ease to be poisoned by the mafia and betting.

In 2018 I had the opportunity to attend and photograph, for the first time, a Muay Thai show, thanks to the invitation of an Italian fighter who during that night would verify her strength in the ring.

That evening, there I was, seated in the first row, about to witness “the fight of the free man”. And the ring. The fighters. The crowd. The rituals and sanctity. Ethics and codes of conduct. The war dance that greets the teacher. And then the assaults. The nudges and sweeps. The pain. The frustration. The tactics. The bandages. The drops of sweat. The victory. The defeat. And the respect, my respects.

After the first contact with the show, I didn’t miss any detail of the warming up of my friend Luisa, the next one to get in.

Female fighter resting in one of the corners of the ring, in Chiang Mai, Thailand © Sandra Morante

I was able to understand what happened previously, observing each precise and well-planned action. The spirituality that I could almost breathe in made the violence, that is an inseparable part of most of the combat sports, significantly easier to bear.

And speaking of spirituality and females. Nowadays, despite the fact that women compete under the same rules as men, their presence is still considered, by some, an offence to the mystical forces that protect the ring, a sacred place of combat. Luckily, such an approach is less and less frequent, but the change is happening very slowly (which is very typical for culture-related behaviour).

One more challenge that women have to face is a notable discrepancy in money prizes between female and male competitions. It is just another of many examples showing that there is still a long way to go.

Although my friend Luisa didn’t win this fight, I felt a little bit closer to the culture of the country that hosted me for almost 3 years.