For the longest time in Muay Thai history, practice emphasized the importance of fight experience. Rather than aim for black belts, nak muays preferred winning bouts and working towards championship belts. Of course, Muay Thai has since become more inclusive as it evolved from a purely combative discipline to a partly recreational one. As a result, many modern Muay Thai gyms implement an internal grading system for the sake of assessment.
The wider Muay Thai community does not follow an international grading system as most martial arts do. However, there are pros to internal grading systems in gyms. The first one is that it provides a relatively accurate reference point for the trainers’ assessment of students’ skills. Another is that it incentivizes learning and provides a goal for them to aim for, especially for those with no interest in competing.
That said, a particular story comes to mind. In a case of mistaken identity, one of our students had come under attack from a much bigger guy in a restaurant. This story doesn’t have a Hollywood ending since security came removed the aggressor before anyone did any real damage. Still, even in the excitement, our student kept his head on straight and analyzed the situation. He knew what he had to do to keep himself safe before security came. No, he doesn’t compete. No, he didn’t get to destroy his opponent. He did however, have the Muay Thai skills he needed defend himself. And he had the skills because the internal grading system kept him engaged in training.
But let’s go back to the point of the article. How does the Muay Thai ranking system work?
Western Muay Thai schools make use of the praijoud (traditional armbands) or singlet grading system to rank their students. At The Fight Centre – Brisbane, we use armbands to grade students under 12 years and singlets for those over 12 years. Rankings take many things into consideration, but the main points of assessment are:
This makes the students’ grading level subject to the trainers’ judgment. And, admittedly, it does cause debate among them at times.
But the truth is that ranking isn’t just about how good of a fighter you may be. Some people are innately talented, gifted with the biological edge in athletic ability, speed, and strength. For such a person, even training for a week is enough to surpass someone who has trained for six months. Do they deserve a higher ranking than the person who trained for six months? Well, they may have the combat ability, but for most trainers, the answer is still no.
It is important that the student earns their Muay Thai grading level. It’s not about creating some cult that requires such and such to be initiated. Instead, it’s about the student placing importance on the level of grading for when they finally achieve it. It requires an impressive amount of dedication and discipline to achieve our highest rank—the black singlet. But if anyone can commit to achieving that, they can commit to almost anything.
Unfortunately, earning the highest rank in certain martial arts has lost its prestige. It’s a point of conversation that nobody wants to be involved in, but that doesn’t take away from the reality of it.
In Brisbane, Karate dojos make students go through very rigid standards before promotion. Or at least, they used to do that in the earlier days. Nowadays, there are talks of clubs that hand out belts like a magazine subscription. As long as you pay your fees, you receive the next one. It is an unfortunate situation for dojos who continue to abide by their principles. The greed of others has cheapened the meaning of gaining a black belt.
(a questionable black belt grading)
On the other hand, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one of the few martial arts that has impressively preserved the prestige of their belting system. This is likely because BJJ places great importance on competition. You will be facing off against other people of the same rank in each competition. Getting a belt you don’t deserve is like signing up for a public beating from those who earn their status.
It is rare to see another martial art where even the first belt after white (blue) receives such respect. In turn, this means that a BJJ black belt is the sign of a truly disciplined martial artist. A BJJ black belt will often regard achieving this rank as one of the greatest achievements of their life.
The Fight Centre – Brisbane is doing its best to replicate this prestige at our gym. We don’t just give away rankings. It will take years for any of our most disciplined students to achieve the black singlet. And once they earn it by completing the tough Muay Thai grading, they will know that they deserve it.
The TFC grading system is also a way for our fighters and aspiring fighters to gain confidence in their abilities. Earning a singlet of a strong color shows that they have put in the work and haven’t cut corners in their training. Even now, we have professional fighters who have yet to achieve the black singlet.
The most important thing for us trainers is seeing our students achieve something. It can be their first bout. Or getting promoted to the next singlet color. Or winning a championship belt. If our students can reflect on their achievements with pride, we have done our job as trainers.