Thai MMA Leaves Underground For the Living Room

I’ve been involved in Mixed Martial Arts for almost two decades, starting as a pro fighter back in the early ‘oughts and more recently as a referee for promotions all over Asia.

For as long as I have been in Thailand, a major player has been Full Metal Dojo, which under the creative direction of CEO Jon Nutt has put on some of the more exciting combat sports events I’ve seen. While there have been some amateur fights on Full Metal Dojo cards, the amateur scene had been relegated to smaller grass roots shows held in parking garages and parks.

This is why I was surprised to hear of the OneShin Cup, which took amateur fighters out of the underground and into a production studio in a made-for-television event more likely to appeal to a Thai rather than expat audience.

“Many events tend to portray the look and feel of an underground fight club style image which are probably ideal for the foreign audience and expats, but in order to break into the wider Thai market, the imagery of the competition needs to look polished and more like TV event,” said Jitinat “Plai” Asdamongkol, who promoted and produced the OneShin Cup.

The event and was co-promoted by Thai MMA power couple Shannon “OneShin” Wiratchai and Rika “Tiny Doll” Ishige. They live in Bangkok and are signed to Singapore-based ONE Championship.

And while Shannon and Rika were the faces of the event, it was Plai who made it happen. Plai isn’t new to MMA, he has been involved in the sport for at least 10 years since he met Shannon in a Jiu Jitsu class while they were training at Bangkok’s EMAC Gym. He’s now the president ot the Thai Mixed Martial Arts Federation, which is the domestic chapter of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation.

Making the event more polished and focusing on TV was the only way, from Plais perspective.

“Thai people don’t tend to buy tickets to see fight events especially if they are not Muay Thai gambling fans or to see concerts within an event”.

But just knowing the consumer behavior of the intended audience isn’t always enough. Putting on an MMA show in Thailand has other challenges, both from the government and the well established Muay Thai industry.

“MMA isn’t yet recognized as an official sport, which is not a surprise for us since there are still some irrational fear and ill-informed concerns about the sport threatening Thai values or the Muay Thai industry which is simply not true at all,” Plai said when asked about the issues with the Ministry of Sport not recognizing MMA. “But we are hopeful that the road ahead will eventually be cleared and MMA will become a nationally-accepted sport one day.”

While that official acceptance hasn’t stopped shows from being held in Thailand, it always looms as a cloud over the sport.

While MMA is a sport on the rise, in Thailand Muay Thai still reigns supreme, and anyone involved in the sport has heard the stories of MMA promoters being threatened by influential people in the Muay Thai community.

But according to Plai it seems those days may have passed. When asked directly about any potential conflict with the local Muay Thai community in Bangkok, he said they “didn’t face much tension or hostility from the Muay Thai community or fans at all.”

Not facing much isn’t the same as none, but it’s a far cry from some of the stories I heard just a year ago.

The one issue Plai did face had more to do with a Muay Thai fighter not getting permission to fight on his card, Plai explained it like this.

“We had one super fight in our event where we pit a Muay Thai pro champion vs a pro boxing champion in amateur rules format, that caused a little after-effect with a local Muay Thai camp and promoter when it was revealed that the Thai boxer didn’t get approval from the camp owner,” he said.

In a single show, Plai put the rest of Thai MMA promotions on notice. He has arrived with a newer style that is ready for Thai audiences. I’ll personally be a bit upset if most MMA shows move away from clubs to television studios because it’s a far different atmosphere, but that level of production and viewability for television will go a long way to help the sport grow – and that’s a good thing if you’re a fan.