Famed Lumpini stadium to close, future direction of Muay Thai in question

Monday, October 29, 2012

Islam has Mecca, boxing has Vegas, and Muay Thai has Lumpini. The storied stadium Bangkok is being demolished, and will be replaced by a new arena 20 miles away.

An era will end in 2014 when Lumpini Boxing Stadium closes down to be replaced by a new state of the art venue in Northern Bangkok. The existing stadium is in the heart of the city’s business district and, with it sitting on some very valuable real estate, the temptation to sell has become irresistible.

Lumpini Stadium is owned by the Thai Army and first opened its doors in 1956. Along with Rajadamnern Stadium it is one of the two most renowned Muay Thai venues in Thailand, with titles at Lumpini the most coveted in the entire sport.

The replacement stadium will be located 30 kilometers north of the current location on Ram Intra Road, which could cause confusion for first time visitors if it retains the “Lumpini” name. It is also further from the backpacker mecca of the Koh San Road and the hotels on Sukhumvit which is likely to adversely affect ticket sales to tourists.

At present the majority of Muay Thai stadiums in urban areas in Thailand, including Lumpini and Rajadamnern, operate a two tier pricing policy. Whereas foreigners typically pay anything from THB1,000-3,000 the cost of admission to Thai people is generally between THB200 – 500.

As a result, stadiums like Lumpini make a large percentage of their income from selling tickets to non-Thais at inflated prices. While this is a source of annoyance to expat fight fans, who repeatedly find themselves paying around ten times as much as locals, the tourist dollars do go a long way towards covering the costs involved in putting together the best Muay Thai fights to be found anywhere in the world.

Lumpini Stadium has iconic status in the Muay Thai world and is regularly packed to the rafters when a promoter decides to pull out all the stops and put on a star-studded card. The age of the building is an issue and the roof has been known to leak during the monsoon season while sitting in the stands is more often than not a hot and sweaty experience.

A refurbishment or replacement is long overdue and the money raised from the land will presumably be used to fund the brand new stadium, which is being constructed at an estimated cost of THB380 million (US $11.1 million). It will also be home to training facilities and the Petyindee Camp, which is currently located at Lumpini and has many of the top fighters in Thailand in its stable, is likely to move to Ram Intra.

The capacity of the new stadium will be 8,000 with around half of spectators seated and the other half further away from the ring in a standing section. Muay Thai stadiums are, along with horse racing tracks, are the only places in Thailand where gambling is legal and a large percentage of the audience tends to be Thai fans looking to bet.

The gambling is a free-for-all with bets made between various members of the crowd who often use a series of hand signals to indicate how much they want to wager and on whom. This system is not really conducive to an all-seater stadium which is why the new Lumpini will have a large standing area, just like the old one always has.

The biggest issue facing the new Lumpini Stadium will be persuading tourists to make the trip north in order to watch the Muay Thai, particularly when Rajadamnern Stadium is located in such close proximity to Koh San Road.

Another issue was addressed by Major Gen Surakai Chuttumart, who is the director of the Army Welfare Department and the Lumpini Boxing Stadium master. He is concerned at what he sees as a growing trend for fighters to be less entertaining than their predecessors were.

He is quoted in the Bangkok Post as complaining that, “These days, boxers tend to be a lot less forceful and forthcoming with their moves in the ring …They put more focus on physicality and this is where the allure of Muay Thai is losing its shine.”

A solution proposed by Major Gen Chuttumart is to encourage promoters to avoid booking fighters who are renowned for “fancy footwork” as opposed to, presumably, power, aggression and a willingness to engage.

There is a battle being waged for the soul of modern Muay Thai between the traditionalists and those who want to see the sport adapted to suit the viewing needs of twenty first century western audiences. One of the more famous foreigners to ever enter the ring, John Wayne Parr, has introduced the concept of “Caged Muay Thai” which borrows heavily from MMA and involved protagonists wearing the much smaller 4oz gloves.

Shows such as Thai Fights use a three round format, as opposed to the standard five rounds, in the hope of doing away with the feeling out process in the first two rounds which can be a frustrating viewing experience for the uninitiated who often don’t understand why the fighters aren’t going all out.

In essence, the dilemma revolves around whether to adapt Muay Thai in order to ensure its long term survival as a mainstream sport or to try and educate audiences who are unfamiliar with some of the unusual and even eccentric traditions of this ancient fighting art.

There are occasional murmurs of discontent in Thailand from veteran Muay Thai fans who can be heard referring nostalgically to a long gone “golden era” when fights were more exciting and the stadiums seldom half full.

The recent fight between Somluk Kamsing and Yodwanpadet Kaiyanghadaogym sold out Rajadamnern Stadium for the first time in years, demonstrating that the level of local interest is still there, although it is worth nothing that both these fighters are at least 20 years past their prime.

Internationally the sport is going from strength to strength and its profile outside of Thailand has never been higher. The closure of the old Lumpini Stadium and move to the state of the art replacement will be a seminal moment which could go a long way towards shaping the future for Muay Thai.

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