In the middle of the room, two boxers face off, one with thick rectangular pads attached to his forearms and waist. The other, a gangly young man, so skinny his ribs poke out when he stretches, bounces a bit before rocketing his long leg out from his hip, connecting with one of the pads with a thunderous crack.
After a few more minutes of furiously thrown punches and kicks, he has used a clinch move to grab his opponent by the head. A grey-haired man who's been watching the round quietly but intently steps toward the combatants, calling out, "Bırak! Yeter!"
The man the fighters call hocam, Ercan Gürgöze, is the founder of Boran Gym in the Elmadağ neighborhood near Taksim Square, one of a handful of self-proclaimed "serious" Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, gyms in İstanbul. Unlike American-style boxing, where only fists are used, or most other martial arts, which allow both fists and feet, Muay Thai is known as "the art of the eight limbs" since fighters can use their fists, elbows, feet and knees. (Head-butting is no longer allowed.)
"Muay Thai is the king of this business; everything is derived from it," Gürgöze says. The sport is considered a major influence on the development of kickboxing, now popular in gyms around Europe and North America, and is widely used as an element in mixed martial arts training and competitions.
Gürgöze discovered Muay Thai in the late 1970s, while he was studying abroad in Europe. He brought his interest back to İstanbul -- "I think I'm the pioneer" of Muay Thai in Turkey, he says -- and started organizing gala kickboxing and Muay Thai fights in the early 1990s. A mining engineer by trade, the demands of his work took him away from the sport for a while, but he returned to it in 2003, establishing a small gym and helping found the Türkiye Muaythai Federasyonu. He says there are now approximately 5,000 licensed Muay Thai fighters in Turkey.
Muay Thai is descended from Muay Boran, or "ancient boxing," a style of unarmed combat first employed by Thai warriors 2,000 years ago. It has been used for sport since at least the 15th or 16th century and has been championed and practiced by many Thai kings, notably Prachao Sua, the Tiger King from 1697 to 1709, who is said to have traveled incognito to various villages to fight in their Muay Thai competitions. The standard ring with ropes was introduced during the early 1900s reign of King Rama VI, as was time-keeping with a clock. Previously, a round had lasted until a pierced coconut shell, floating on a body of water, sank.
A central part of festivals and other celebratory occasions, Muay Thai bouts were also used to select men for high positions in the military and, at least once, in 1411, to settle two brothers' claims to the throne. The national sport in Thailand, where it draws futbol-like levels of public interest and enthusiasm, it is popular throughout Asia and is the subject of the reality TV series "The Contender: Asia."
The closest things to Muay Thai in traditional Turkish sport are probably yağlı güreş (oil wrestling) and aba wrestling, which is related to judo and practiced in the area around Gaziantep. Like yağlı güreş, Muay Thai is steeped in tradition. Two of Gürgöze's boxers put on the Mongkol, a type of rigid headband, to demonstrate the Wai-Kru, a multi-part ceremony performed before every fight to pay respect to the trainers.
About 20 fighters, three of whom Gürgöze deems serious competitors, train at Boran Gym. Most are Turks between the ages of 16 and 40, though foreigners show up from time to time. Ninety percent are men. "The young ones come for fighting and self-defense, the older ones for sport and self-defense," says Gürgöze. Though he says he finds it difficult incorporating female fighters into the mix, Maie Crumpton, a British woman who trained there occasionally while working for Vodafone in Istanbul, says she "felt very welcome at Boran and was extremely impressed with Ercan's knowledge and dedication to teaching pure Muay Thai rather than the kickboxing hybrids I have encountered at other gyms."
The sport of Muay Thai has enjoyed a recent surge of popularity among women. The first amateur international women's competition took place in 1999; at the most recent World Championships, there were 68 female teams represented, with their fights referred and judged by other women. "I always found that, despite often being the only woman, Thai boxing clubs are friendly, welcoming and helpful," says Crumpton. "It's an extremely effective fighting art, but there is no machismo. And you don't have to be big -- the Thais aren't!"
Indeed, 70 percent of all Muay Thai fighters worldwide belong to the fly and bantam weight divisions, the lightest of 14 strict weight classes. And though the fighting style is aggressive, the sport is much less dangerous than it was before 1930, when the modern rules and regulations were adopted, including the replacing of rope or cloth bindings -- occasionally studded with ground glass -- with gloves. Modern boxers also wear protective guards on their head, mouth, chest, elbows, groin and shins during competition.
The biggest competition is the annual King's Cup, held Dec. 5 and participated in by representatives from 110 countries. Gürgöze has brought fighters there in the past after they rose to the national level through competitions in Istanbul and the Marmara region.
Of course, winning competitions isn't the only goal of Muay Thai, which is heralded for boosting confidence, improving cardiovascular fitness and relieving stress. "This is a good sport," says Gürgöze. "You can use it for competition, for health, for self-defense. It is a sport with proven benefits." He says he appreciates the culture behind it -- "Thai people are relaxed. I like that" -- and the way Muay Thai utilizes every aspect of a fighter's conditioning. "I cannot become Thai," he says, "but I cannot separate myself from this sport."
For more information:
Boran Gym http://www.borangym.com
Türkiye Muaythai Federasyonu http://www.muaythai.gov.tr
International Federation of Muaythai Amateur http://www.ifmamuaythai.org
World Muaythai Council http://www.wmcmuaythai.org
*Jennifer Hattam is a freelance writer based in İstanbul.