1950s Professional Combat Sports (diary entry)

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“Learn from the Fight” one of its rare deviations from Boxing in this lesson. The reason why Boxing has remained the dominant professional combat sport we have been covering is because we have been following a chronological timeline dictated by available footage. My clients lessons are to look directly at important fights via the film footage and boxing was, by far, the most popular professional combat sport worldwide from the late 19th century and for well over half the 20th century. Consequently there is scarce footage of other professional combat sports available during that period.

By 1950 Muay Thai was gaining some international attention. We have previously looked at some highlight footage from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s where the use the introduction of 4 oz gloves took place, the clear influence from Boxing with regards to punching combinations, timed rounds and the use of the ring was evident. We also saw the evolution of the kicks, which looked a lot like inside crescent kicks but later became the feared Thai version of the round kick. Contrary to popular belief, the clinch was already a big part of Muay Thai since at least the earliest days of film documented fights.

By 1937 the 5 x 3 minute round with two minute rest intervals was standardised by Thailand’s physical education department. After World War II Muay Thai became a much bigger sport in its native country due to the construction of the first stadiums dedicated to Muay Thai. The Rajadamnern Stadium had begun construction in 1941 but had to be halted due to the war and lack building supplies. It resumed in 1945 and was completed in only four months. The construction had been ordered by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, the Thai Prime Minister and resembled a Roman amphitheatre in design. It currently has an 8,000 capacity.  The first fight held there was on 23rd December 1945. Rajadamnern would start the trend for awarding its own belts, something followed by other stadiums. Muay Thai’s history of governing bodies is fractured to say the least. The stadiums have their own belts and ranked champions. Recognised world champions would only be declared decades later. Rajadamnern wouldn’t produce any notable champions until the 1960s.

Our first fight was watched in highlight form via a brief newsreel. It took place in 1950 at this very stadium. The nak muays fighting are not named or referenced anywhere. The footage begins with both men performing the ram muay and there was plenty of footage of the musicians constantly playing throughout the fight. The commentator described Muay Thai as being composed of “Boxing, La Savate, mayhem and a moonlight waltz”. This is not the first time I have heard an assumption that Savate had influence over Muay Thai. I have also heard the reverse. However, there is no evidence to suggest this being the case. My theory at this stage is that two independently developed stand-up sports that rely a lot on kicks both adopted conventions from Boxing and people have made the erroneous conclusion that they are related due to these small superficial similarities.

The fight took place at the Rajadamnern stadium whilst it was an open-air venue. A concrete roof would be added a year later. The teep and punching combinations were evident early on in the footage. We also saw that the Thai round kick was now very much in the form we know today with the shin being aimed directly at an opponent’s neck.  The next highlights showed more brief clinch work resulting in a sweep or fall. Both fighters moved into more boxing and one followed it with a long knee. Ultimately one fighter attempted a teep but was smothered. His opponent went for a big overhScreen Shot 2023-01-18 at 16.02.46and right and was knocked out with a big rear hand uppercut.

By this stage, we see the emergence of five designated types nak muay: the muay mat (puncher), muay femeau (technician), muay dtae (kicker), muay khao (knee fighter) and muay sok (elbow fighter). The previous fight appeared be a mix of muay khao and muay mat. 1953 saw the Rajadamnern Stadium run totally by its designated manager,Chalerm Cheosakul, after it began losing money. He founded Rajadamnern Co, Ltd. which still runs the stadium today having been given permission by the Crown Property Bureau.

By 1956 a second national stadium for Muay Thai was constructed: the Lumpinee Stadium. This stadium is run by the Army Welfare Department of the Royal Thai Army. It hosted its first fight on  8th December. The stadium did not hold as many people as Rajadmnern and the new version only has a capacity for 5,000.

Colour footage from 1953 showcased a Muay Thai bout without a ring came from the travel film “This World of Ours” produced by Carl Dudley. The footage showed a very aggressive to and fro, demonstrating everything but elbows. It had the feel of an exhibition or even a very stiff worked match, ending in an elaborate high kick knockout.

The next item of footage was filmed nine years later in 1959. It is titled by Pathe News as a “championship” bout and the narrator says it is for the “Thai Championship” but there no evidence to suggest whether or not this was case. Again, the identities of the fighters were absent.

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The bout opens with one fighter throwing a same side round kick/right jab combination. A left side round kick is caught and a clinch ensues. Whereas the early footage was described with naive-sounding but good meaning orientalism, the commentary this time around is outright offensive with the narrator clearly baffled by the sport that he describes as “halfway to murder” and their book of rules as “just a lot of blank pages”. Clinching involved at least one blatant hip throw, resembling a cross buttocks throw. After a brief aside showing an official trying to control a swarm of moths in the ring, we returned to the action. One fight exchanged punches with his opponent whilst holding his leg. The kick catch was countered and a brief exchange of knees swiftly transitioned to the fighter who had his leg caught landing a round kick and then a knee. Both sides traded round kicks and a teep was briefly caught but not capitalised upon. Another throw was also attempted but failed. One fighter appeared to be a muay dtae whereas the other was more of a muay khao. A spinning elbow was also attempted. There was just two very short, edited exchanges from the last round including another takedown.

Moving to Brazil in 1951 we watched highlights of the Masahiko Kimura vs. Hélio Gracie challenge match. This was a televised event in Brazil and although the fight resulted in a decisive 13 minute victory for Kimura it would become embedded in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu mythology. The history of what was considered to be a grudge match with both sides having a lot to prove, had its roots in early Brazilian jiu jitsu disputes. Takeo Yano was one of the Japanese judoka teaching in the North of Brazil who fell into a rivalry with Gracie jiu jutsu. In 1937 Yano fought Helio Gracie to draw due to their time running out, although reports state the Japanese fighter was dominating the fight with throws. A year later George Gracie defeated Yano with a leg-lock. Yano failed to secure a rematch with Helio who took a 12-year hiatus before returning to take up the “Gracie Challenge”. Kimura had fallen out of favour with the Kodokan despite once being their brightest star. He was the first and, to date, only 18 year-old to be awarded Godan (fifth dan). During his entire judo career he won All-Japan Collegiate Championships (1935),Takudai Kosen Judo Championship (1936), Takudai Kosen Judo Championship All Japan Judo Championship (1937), 8th All Japan Judo Championship (1938), 9th All Japan Judo Championship (1939), Ten-Ran Shiai tournament (1940), West Japan Judo Championship (1947) and All Japan Judo Championship (1949). He apparently only lost four competitions in his entire career. He reportedly trained for nine hours every day, including numerous repetitions of oso geri against a tree and very regular randori. Kimura was also a very keen cross-trainer who practised Shotokan Karate under Gichin Funakoshi for two years before switching to Goju Ryu where he became an assistant instructor alongside Gogen Yamaguchi. He was also a regular training partner of Mas Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin Karate.

Kimura took up professional wrestling like several judoka who travelled to the west. Originally this had taken the form of catch-wrestling challenge matches but by 1949 professional wrestling had long splintered off into worked matches. Both the Kodokan and the Gracies condemned professional wrestling. However, the art of judo had first been taught to Carlos Gracie Snr when Mitsuyo Maeda had been giving demonstrations and holding challenge matches on his father’s jointly owned Italian-Argentine circus: Queirolo Brothers. This was in 1916 just under 10 years before the first official worked championship professional wrestling match but one wonders how much staging was already underway by this stage. Anyway, Helio Gracie was quick to challenge Kimura’s touring group of judoka/professional wrestlers when their sponsor, São Paulo Shimbun newspaper publicly promoted the group as authentic jiu jitsu black belts compared to the Gracies’. Kimura was also publicized as “world’s jiu jitsu champion”.

Screen Shot 2023-01-18 at 16.04.24The first fight pitted Helio Gracie against Yukio Kato. This was in response to the Gracie’s demanding that Kimura face Pedro Hemeterio, an apprentice to the Gracies, to prove his status as a true champion. Kimura came back that Helio should face Kato who was their lowest ranked member and the closest in weight to the Brazilian fighter. He was also not very experienced in challenge fights and the papers also pushed this aspect, considering the name Helio had made for himself through the Gracie Challenge and the emergence of Vale Tudo. The fight was for 3 x 10 minute rounds, fought under jiu jitsu rules, which is pretty much very liberal gi-based grappling only. The fight ended in a draw although Kato was the most active, regularly throwing his opponent. Helio’s ukemi responses on the soft matting ensured that none of these throws were scored. A rematch with no-time limit ended in a controversial stoppage victory for Helio. After Kato had not been able to win the fight with his throws he took the fight to the ground but both men became entangled in the ropes. Kato was attempting a cross-collar choke and Helio was attempting a counter choke of his own. However, once the fight rolled into the ropes, Kato stopped expecting the referee to intervene and reposition the fighters back in the ring. Helio continued and Kato lost consciousness, forcing Kimura to throw in the towel.

A coffin was paraded through the streets of San Paulo by the Gracies to celebrate their victory and symbolising Kato’s defeat. The Japanese judo community in Brazil were not happy with the loss and criticised Kimura’s group. Meanwhile, the press were less supportive of the Gracies and called out its illegality. Helio challenged Toshio Yamaguchi, the next in rank order, but Kimura stepped in and agreed to the challenge match. The rules were similar to the first match with 3 x 10 minute rounds. However, the stipulation was set that the winner could only be decided by submission or technical knockout. With no pre-match weigh-in much speculation was made about the difference between the two fighters. The Gracies have declared anything up to 40 lbs although most observers say it was around 10-15 lbs. Helio was the taller of the two.

The fight took place at the Maracanã Stadium. An audience of around 20,000 people attended, including the president of Brazil, Getulio Vargus and vice president, Joao Cafe Filhoas well as renowned Japanese writer Michilharu Mishima. We only saw highlights, which showed the final throw and Kimura controlling the fight from the top position, transitioning through pins. Apparently Helio lasted the entire first round, successfully performing ukemi from Kimura’s various throws. With the fight going to the ground in the closing minutes, it is alleged that Helio passed out briefly without anyone noticing. He came to after Kimura released his hold and switched pins and was bleeding from his ear. Kimura asked if he wanted to continue and Helio said he did as the fought on until the bell. In the second round a tomonage throw was blocked and Kimura threw him using a osoto geri, remaining in the top pinning position. The fight continued for three minutes where Helio passed out again and Kimura put an arm lock on again. He rotated the arm until it broke and then broke again before Carlo Gracie stopped the fight.

screen-shot-2015-12-11-at-113209-pmWe also watched the challenge match between Wu Gongyi and Ch’en K’e-fu in January 1954 in Macau. Gongyi was the 53 senior representative of Wu family style of Tai Chi Chuan (the second most popular style after Yang style) and had been challenged by a much younger K’e-fu (in his 30s) who represented White Crane. The fight was supposed to be 3 x 5 minute rounds. Certain rules were agreed upon (joint locks, kicks and throws) but later disregarded and the entire match looked like chaos. Round one was halted early when K’e-fu received a bloody nose. Round two only lasted one minute when matters got extra heated and kicks started to come into play. The fighters threw many swinging punches which possibly has some connection to certain Chinese martial arts but their timing was off and neither combatant looked particularly skilled under pressure. This was the fight that Bruce Lee pulled apart when he was criticising traditional martial arts in the Chinese community.



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