Martial arts to the nth degree

Combat: A small class of adults practices the little-known sport of Thai boxing.

March 03, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Name a competition in which it's not only OK to hit your opponent but advisable tactically to kick his or her thighs - inner or outer; which doesn't matter - as often and as hard as possible.

Oh, yes, a sport in which you need to avoid choppy elbow-smashes to the face by your foe, especially those thrown in combinations. And at all cost, you want to be wary of any opponent - even in mock combat - who shouts "tang!" Because that's the verbal punctuation for a blast from a knee into, shall we say, the center of one's extreme, lower torso.

Fun, huh? Such stuff's not legit even in boxing, including when Mike Tyson's in the ring. Elbow and knee blows aren't permissible, either, in kick-boxing, which appears occasionally on American TV.

But all those tactics are allowed in muay Thai, or Thai boxing, which was introduced here in 1968 but is still little-known in this country. Locally, it has a tiny following honing combinations of such techniques - and learning to ward them off - in an east Columbia gym a couple of times weekly. A typical class is a dozen or more adults, most from Howard County, out of 24 signed up.

Instructor Scott Anderson, 35, an Ellicott City resident and staff member at a private school for students with behavioral problems, is candid about the sport, which is administered through both American and world associations.

"People have a bad impression of Thai boxing," said Anderson, who adds that he is one of few Americans with credentials to teach the sport, which he took up in 1994. "It's very different from the Chinese or Japanese martial arts. It's more like street fighting."

In a sense, he said, muay Thai simplifies some martial arts in that it teaches fewer moves, although those require a high level of execution.

Anderson said he and most participants arrived at Thai boxing via other martial arts, with Japanese jujitsu and judo and Korean tae kwon do among the most familiar in the United States. He discovered muay Thai, Anderson said, in pursuit of a number of lesser-known Southeast Asian martial arts that intrigue him; he has competed, for example, in Philippine stick fighting.

Anderson said only a couple of his students have attempted actual competition, during which punches, elbows and kicks get thrown for real under otherwise regular boxing rules. Those rules include timed rounds, point-scoring and knockouts, and exclude biting, butting and gouging. The nearest competitions occur in Philadelphia and Richmond, Va.

Talk with a few of Anderson's students, and you discover they're not the barroom brawlers you might suspect.

They say the pull is not only the strenuous workout for all parts of the body - from brain to wrapped ankles during a sweat-inducing hour of often pad-protected, intense drills - but fascination with self-defense to the nth degree.

"It's really efficient," said one obviously fit student, Bill Vermeer, 40, of Clarksville, who started in tae kwon do and has been at Thai boxing about five years. Vermeer, who described his work only as being for the federal government, bore testimony to the efficiency of an elbow caught unintentionally during a previous session - a classic black eye.

"I like the discipline of it," said Mary Beth Mora, 45, a legal secretary from Columbia, longtime jujitsu participant and Anderson's only female student. "It's discipline that filters through all you do in life, and besides, it's nice to know I can take a walk anywhere at night."

Vermeer, her training partner last Sunday, said the same thing another way: "You can learn to be an effective fighter in a short period. It's a proven martial art."

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