Photo of Original Lumpinee Stadium Bangkok, Thailand by Jacob Klensin
It’s a stifling day in Thailand. And inside one of the Muay Thai stadiums, a fighter lays face down on an old but sturdy wooden table in a pre-fight area of the concrete colossus. The fighter’s corner-men, a mix of old trainers and young fighters, one of whom wears a fresh cut across his brow, vigorously massage the fighter’s body. They take turns scooping out globs of Vaseline from a jar and mixing it with Thai boxing oil before working it into the skin and muscles of the fighter.
Just across the hallway in a separate room his opponent is spread out on a similar wooden table. And his cornermen attack his body in the same methodical way. One trainer massages his right leg. One trainer massages his left leg. And yet another trainer massages his back and neck. They take turns quickly rubbing the fighter’s muscles and bending his limbs in different ways.
Although both fighters come from different camps and come from different parts of Thailand, they share something similar. Like every Muay Thai fighter in Thailand, they go through the same process before the step into the ring, a process that involves a vigorous pre-fight massage.
It doesn’t matter if you’re at one of Bangkok’s prestigious Muay Thai stadiums, a tv studio, or in the rice fields of the countryside, where ever a Muay Thai fight takes place in Thailand, you’ll witness the pre-fight massage.
The pre-fight massage is a staple of the Thai martial art. Petch Tho, one of the head trainers at Sitjaopho gym in Hua Hin, says pre-fight massages help Muay Thai fighters in three ways. First, they relieve the soreness a fighter experiences from hard training and weight cutting before a fight. Second, pre-fight massages “wake up” the muscles and get them ready for the fight ahead. And third, pre-fight massages get a fighter’s muscles and joints moving efficiently before a fight.
It seems that Thai trainers and fighters have known the benefits of pre-fight massages for decades. But what does science tell us about this ritual? Do pre-fight massages actually benefit fighters?
The Science Behind the Pre-fight Massage
Max Muay Thai Stadium in Pattaya, Thailand by Matt Lucas
When fighters are massaged, bio-mechanical changes happen quickly. The vigorous rubbing of the fighter’s body increases the fighter’s range of motion, speeds up blood flow, and raises the temperature of the fighter’s muscles. All of which warmup a fighter before the Muay Thai fight. This explains why, in Thailand, pre-fight massages are done in place of pre-fight pad work, the preferred warmup method for most Western fighters. And this also explains what Peth Tho refers to as the waking up of the fighter’s muscles. But pre-fight massages affect the fighter’s body in other ways too.
When a fighter is massaged before a fight, the fighter’s heart rate and blood pressure may drop as well, causing the fighter to feel more physically relaxed. You might think that feeling too relaxed would be a bad thing, especially before for a Muay Thai fight. But the Thais value being relaxed. You won’t see too many Thais wasting energy before a fight. After preparing for their fight, they calmly sit waiting for their turn. Sometimes next to their opponent. Sometimes next to the ring. And once they’re in the ring, everything they do leading up to the fight is an extension of that calmness, from performing the wai kru to removing the mongkon.
If a fighter’s body is relaxed, it’s only a matter of time before his mind is going to relax too. Psychologically, pre-fight massages reduce anxiety and mentally relax a fighter. Brett Hlavacek, professional Muay Thai fighter from New York, says pre-fight massages are a form of meditation. The activity helps the fighter escape the chaos of the pre-fight staging area, especially in the West.
The Importance of Pre-fight Massages with Thai Oil
But for a pre-fight massage to have the most effect, a trainer can’t kneed the skin and underlying muscles of a fighter that is bone dry. This is where Thai boxing oils come into play. When fighters get their pre-fight massage, their cornermen often douse the fighter’s body with Thai oil until the fighter is soaked in the slippery yellow liquid.
For five or ten minutes, trainers and fellow fighters systematically attack each part of the fighter’s body, vigorously massaging the Thai boxing oil into the legs, arms, chest, neck, back, and stomach. They clamp their hands around the limbs of the fighter and push forward and pull backward on the muscles. On the back and chest, they use their palms to circle the boxing oil into the fighter’s muscles. When massaging the fighter’s stomach, they put their hands together like they’re doing CPR, and drop most of their weight down on the fighter’s midsection. Afterward, they’ll stretch the fighter’s arms and legs.
Some fighters, like recently retired Muay Thai pugilist Dorian Price, say their is a balance to the pre-fight massage, a balance that swings between being helpful and hurtful. But the Thais, who have been squeezing out pre-fight massages since the Golden Era, seem to have perfected the touch. They know how to apply just enough pressure just enough to keep a fighter limber, but not too much as to cause any damage.
By John Wolcott
John is a freelance writer and MAX Muay Thai ringside commentator living in Thailand. Originally from New Jersey, in 2014 he left a 15-year long career in corporate America for a more adventurous life in Thailand.
Advocating for Pre-fight Massages with Thai Oil in America
In the US, though, the use of boxing liniment in Muay Thai is still prohibited in many places. This is because the rules that govern what happens before a Muay Thai fight were adapted from combat sports like Western Boxing or amateur wrestling. Many athletic directors come from these combat sport backgrounds and may not understand the benefits of using Thai oil before a Muay Thai fight.
Athletic directors, for example, don't allow wrestlers to use anything on their skin before or during competition. There have been other times when boxers have used products similar to Thai oil, but if an official smells or sees something they’re not familiar with, it could cause issues for the boxer and their team.
Video of Mike Tyson having a Warmup Cream Applied before a Fight
In some cases, state athletic commissions let approved Muay Thai sanctioning bodies set the rules for the sport. Unfortunately, though, sometimes the officials at events are from the athletic commissions and are unfamiliar with Thai oil, thus prohibiting a fighter from using it.
In 2011, Muay Thai saw a leap forward a few years ago when the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combat Sports (ABC) approved the use of Thai Oil in Muay Thai under the Approved Unified Rules of Muay Thai.
Athlon Rub Founder presenting on Thai Oil - 2013 Annual Conf. Association of Boxing Commissions and Combat Sports (ABC)
Chaired by Nick Lembo, the ABC developed these rules after several years of work. The expert panel consisted of John E. Baker, Vladimir Borodine, Mick Doyle, Clint Heyliger, Samasek Kanthawong, Coban Lookchaomaesaithong, Tony Moore, Tony Myers, Siraphop Ratanasuban, Jr., Kaensak Sor Ploenchit, Stephen Strotmeyer, Manuel R. Taningco, and Kumron Vaitayanon.
Although many state athletic commissions choose to adopt the ABC Unified Approved Rules of Muay Thai, or those of the Muay Thai sanctioning bodies they have approved in the state, some state athletic commissions like Nevada choose to follow their own rules.
After years of lobbying the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) and having them vet everything submitted to them, the NAC said they would test the use of Thai oil only on the upper torso of fighters. But right before testing, they decided to test Thai oil only on the lower part of the body. The tests were only supposed to last a few months, but since the start of testing, it’s been seven years to date.
And the end result? It’s still confusing. Although the NAC listed the approval of Thai oil on their Q&A page, they failed to list it on their rules page, making it confusing for fighters and their team, as well as NAC officials, to understand the NAC’s stance on the use of Thai oil. Ideally, the goal is to have the approved use of Thai Oil before competition explicitly written within all governing body rules to avoid any ambiguity or confusion backstage. Now more than ever with the inclusion of the Muay Thai into the World Games and the recent IOC recognition, it is important to ensure the sport of Muay Thai retains its identity with minimum to no alterations
Instruction Video - Pre-Fight Massage with Thai Oil
Pre-fight massages are a staple in Muay Thai throughout Thailand. And Thai boxing oil is a staple of the pre-fight massage. For decades, the Thais have been using the pre-fight massage and Thai oil to help usher fighters into the ring in a state of both mental and physical preparation. Is it time we start taking this practice more serious in the West?
Athlon Rub - Founder // www.AthlonRub.com