"Right, left, right, elbow ... right, left, right elbow," calls out Serm Damriram in quiet, understated tones. His voice is so soft that it can hardly be heard above the thwack of glove against pad as Chrisanne Roseleip unleashes everything she's got. Damriram nonchalantly kicks up a leg and pushes her away, before telling her to launch the next attack with her feet, kicking up at a pad held at head height. Roseleip's foot and shin smash into the pads with a resounding smack, once, twice ... eight times. Damriram smiles with approval as Roseleip catches her breath. Being attacked by elbows, knees, fists and flying feet is all in a day's work for the former Muay Thai champion who was in Taipei at the weekend to help conduct a seminar in Thai boxing for around 30 Muay Thai and kickboxing enthusiasts.
The seminar was hosted by Antoine Fares and his Fares Academy, which specializes in mixed martial arts (MMA), with the stated intention of publicizing Thai boxing and opening channels with the local martial arts community. The event was held at a dojo in Neihu under the auspices of the Taiwan Jujitsu Federation (台灣柔術協會). There was an enthusiastic turnout of mostly foreigners, eager for the chance to spar with professionals.
Arnaud Perron, a high school student in Taipei with a long-standing interest in martial arts, has been practicing Muay Thai for a year, and was enthusiastic about its benefits. "Since I started practicing Muay Thai, pretty much a whole lot of things have changed in the way I live. It is a sport in which you can't come [to practice] feeling dizzy, you have to be really healthy to actually be able to keep up [with the training]. This made me keep up a healthy life."
Students practiced with each other, while Damriram and Krittaya "Berm" Makate, the two Thai professional boxers invited to teach at the seminar, took individuals aside to refine their technique. "They told me some little details of things I was doing wrong, ... like throwing a hand to the side when I am doing a front kick ... small details that are really important, like in a competition," Perron said.
Watching from the side as Perron and others gave it all they had, smashing foot and fist into the pads, Tsao Yung-ching (曹永慶), a coach with the Taiwan Jujitsu Federation commented on the lack of local participation. "Foreigners really go for it," he said. "They're too fiercely competitive."
"It's great for the young people," Tsao added, "but for older people like myself, we want something different. ... There is a martial art for each stage of life. This is for the young. It's all about fighting and winning. But martial arts are not just about winning a fight."
For Roseleip, who has already gone professional in the US circuit, it's exactly what Muay Thai is all about. "I think it's a beautiful sport ... the thrill of the victory, and the anticipation of your opponent, the nerves. All of that stuff ... it's like an addiction. It's also the best workout I've ever had, and I've done many different sports," said Roseleip, who teaches math at the Taipei American School and hopes to travel to Thailand next year to prepare for professional fights there.
Coach Tsao looked on philosophically as the students grunted and perspired through their routines. "A sport like this has a low entry barrier," he said. "If you train for three months, you have three months of skill. Chinese martial arts are much more abstract. It can take years to achieve a real standard. Young people don't want that."