We have sat on this for a long time and thought we would just come out and say it: there are no black belts in Muay Thai. Repeat after us, say it aloud, there are No! Black! Belts! in Muay Thai. Or yellow belts, or purple pra jiads, or blue mongkhons, or arbitrary distinctions of any sort. Call us purists, or call us stuck in the past, but we don’t believe that there should be any form of grading in Muay Thai. Muay Thai is tradition. It is living culture, a martial art, an art form. In our opinion, it is not something that can be easily quantified, nor should it be quantified.
There are gyms around the world that do carry out Muay Thai gradings. They have a system of banding the students into five levels, or six grades, or seven belts, etc. Each group may have different techniques taught to them, different objectives and priorities, We do see the appeal of such a system. It helps in the organization of classes by filtering students into different bands, so that people of similar levels will be able to test their skills on each other and progress together. It also gives a chance for instructors to clinically divide techniques between the categories, maybe even maintain the quality of classes due to a strict adherence to a manual of standards. Sparring will also tend to be safer, some will argue, as there is less likelihood of unevenly-matched couples if everyone knew their ‘place’.
Grading systems can also be a good way to motivate students. With visible benchmarks, members will have something tangible to aim towards. The certifications every few months also encourages them to keep coming back and maintain their progress, in the hopes of making the next promotion, the next grade. This is how other martial arts, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, are organized and we do acknowledge how such grading systems may be productive. But we don’t believe in applying this system to Muay Thai.
For disciplines such as BJJ, judo, taekwondo, karate, there are international federations and sanctioning bodies that govern the promulgation of knowledge. And somehow, along the way in which those disciplines had been set up, rankings and gradings are part and parcel. But Muay Thai, as in Thailand, does not have such a practice. Instead, Muay Thai is a way of life and a way of livelihood as well. It does not matter whether you’re a Level 1 or Level 5; when you step in the ring, fighting for the purse, you are on equal footing with the opponent. A popular saying when people talk about Muay Thai not having grading systems is… “the belt is in the ring”. The person’s fight record is an indication of their “grade”. That is a pivotal part of Thai history and culture, and therefore, essential to bring across when we wish to learn or teach Muay Thai. It does not matter how many combos or techniques you have mastered; those are just tools in your arsenal. What matters is how you utilise them, how you wield what you have learnt, that really pegs how skilled you are (and also, it is simply not about how skilled you are. It is also about your character, your grace, your heart, your approach to life itself).
We are not saying that it is pointless to have grading systems for Muay Thai, or to distrust gyms that offer such promotions. Some gyms are clearly out for the money grab, of course- charging money for gradings, adding on expenses for coloured shirts or shorts, and demanding additional fees-, but there are other solid gyms with grading systems, who just do Muay Thai differently from how it is in Thailand. And that is okay!
But for us, at Onyx MMA, we believe that Muay Thai shouldn’t be broken down into such categories. We know that not all students dream of stepping into the ring, taking part in fights, sure. But creating belts is not the only way to encourage students, and it is not how Muay Thai in Thailand is. It can be restrictive. It limits on what their experience of Muay Thai can be. It makes them think linearly and calculate in terms of weeks and months and specific number of trainings. What we hope for, instead, is to inculcate a love for the martial art itself. Go through classes, see the improvements in their kicks or punches, feel frustrated at themselves when they feel stuck, get over it after more training or more sparring sessions, maybe feel like they have backtracked after a while, and get back in again.
If you did learn Muay Thai in such an environment, and have a black belt, or a high-level title, good for you! You did put in the effort, and that is commendable indeed. But there are those who wear it proudly like plumage and lord it over ‘lower-ranked’ students, and to them, we say, don’t get hung up on it. After all, every opponent you meet will be different, and even the same opponents, they are different on different days. In pithier terms, there is one ring to rule them all. It shows all, without a need for telling.