Seeing a muay Thai tournament is a popular activity for tourists in Bangkok, but its Malaysian equivalent, tomoi, hardly registers on the radar of most visitors to Kuala Lumpur.
This is largely because until relatively recently the sport was barely known in KL, its popularity restricted to its northern (rural Malay) heartland. But that is changing now, with several big tomoi tournaments a year in the Malaysian capital.
It’s not known exactly when and how tomoi arrived in Malaysia, but its seems likely that it came about while the northern sultanates of Kelantan, Kedah and Terengganu were nominally under Siamese rule. A strong hint comes from the name, which is a corruption of dhoi muay, the generic Thai term for fist-fighting.
Tomoi is part of a family of Southeast Asian kickboxing, where limbs are used as weapons. Internationally it is often known as muay Thai, much to the chagrin of Cambodians, who say they invented the sport during the glory days of the Khmer Empire. In Malaysia, the terms tomoi, muay Thai, and even boksing Kelantan (Kelantan boxing), are interchangeable.
Even before the fighting gets underway, the differences between tomoi and conventional (Queensberry Rules) boxing are clear to see. Showing respect for your opponent is a well-observed feature of the sport, as is the spiritual core of the pre-fight rituals. The highlight of the latter is the sacred dance which each fighter performs, known as the wai khru.
Once the bell rings, the grace of the wai khru is soon forgotten, replaced by the raw beauty of the bout itself. Virtually anything is allowed in tomoi: kicking, kneeing, punching, elbowing, all are “weapons” in the fighter’s arsenal. Some things are not permitted though, such as blows to the groin or back of the head; head butts; and kicking an opponent who is on the floor.
Tomoi bouts are generally scheduled to last five rounds of three minutes, but the vast majority do not go the distance. It normally doesn’t take long for one of the boxers to be either knocked out or so badly cut as to be unable to continue.
Blood is part and parcel of the tomoi experience. Given how violent the sport is, the atmosphere is notably non-macho. In fact, you will see plenty of women and children in the audience.
Unfortunately, most information about tomoi tournaments is in Malay, a reflection of the sport’s core fan base. The website for Boxx Tomoi Magazine is a welcome English resource. Other useful links, albeit in Malay, include the Facebook pages of Persatuan Tomoi Kuala Lumpur (KL Tomoi Society) and the Kelab Tomoi Kuda Merah (Red Horse Tomoi Club).
By Pat Fama.
Last updated on 8th February, 2017.
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