McDojo: A martial arts school that is solely established to make money and teaches an inauthentic form of martial arts.
The term “McDojo” has been floating around for a while. You can find McDojos around the world but the US is a hotbed for many of these fake martial arts schools and masters.
Muay Thai has become increasingly popular as more people learn about its effectiveness in combat and fitness. It is not spared from the McDojo phenomenon.
The sport’s popularity is a double-edged sword that has helped grow the martial arts globally but also attracted charlatans who view it as opportunities to scam people.
There are plenty of Muay Thai gyms in the US where Muay Thai fans can learn from champions and legends of the sport. Renowned Thai legends like Kaensak Sor Ploenjit, Jongsanan Fairtex, Sakmongkol Sithchuchoke and Coban Lookchaomaesaitong relocated to the US to teach Muay Thai after retiring from fighting.
However, there are also plenty of unqualified people teaching counterfeit versions of Muay Thai in the country.
Sometimes the signs of a Muay Thai McDojo can be subtle, particularly for someone not familiar with the sport. Many people confuse Muay Thai with other striking arts and can fall into the trap easily.
There is nothing wrong with training Muay Thai for recreation or weight loss purposes. But if you want to learn authentic Muay Thai, you need to watch out for signs of a McDojo and avoid it.
Top 10 Signs A Muay Thai Gym is a McDojo
Most gyms in the west will have a few “McDojo” signs but if you see 3 or more, you need to be wary. Here are the top 10 signs that a Muay Thai gym is a McDojo:
Belt Ranking System
If a Muay Thai gym uses a Japanese belt ranking system, and makes you wear a Gi for training, you are in the wrong place. The Gi is a Japanese martial arts attire.
Muay Thai fighters train in Muay Thai shorts and go topless (for men) or wear a t-shirt.
Some gyms in the West use colored shirts, Muay Thai shorts or prajiads (armbands) for ranking. There is no such system in Thailand. There is no such thing as a Muay Thai black belt.
The way a Muay Thai fighter shows his competency is by his fight record. Take the living legend Saenchai for example, he has a total of 346 fights with 299 wins. That’s a Muay Thai black belt grand master equivalent for you.
That said, ranking systems aren’t always an indication of a Muay Thai McDojo. Ranking can motivate and encourage young children to train. Some gyms implement ranking to separate beginners from advanced for the purposes of sparring. This is logical and can help to make training more productive.
It becomes an issue when ranking is exploited as a way of extorting money from students.
Grading tests where you pay to be assessed for your level of competency is largely a western concept. In Muay Thai, you have to fight in the ring if you are interested in proving your competency as mentioned above.
But if a gym focuses on tiered learning that you have to pay to unlock in order to learn “advanced” technique, it’s a big no-no.
McDojos will always make you pay for grading tests and purchase colored shirts/shorts/armbands. This is just not the way things are done in Thailand.
Call me Kru
Thai people use the term “Kru” to address teachers. The word Kru means teacher which originates from the Sanskrit word for Guru (Sanskrit: गुरु).
In Thailand, we address Muay Thai trainers “Kru” as a sign of respect. Ajarn is a higher order used for “masters” in Muay Thai with many years of experience and accomplishments.
If your “Kru” is an overweight white guy, that is a warning sign. Coaches calling themselves Kru or Ajarn when they are not Thai or not having trained in Thailand is a big red flag.
If he wears a Mongkhon (Muay Thai headband) when he teaches and insists that you “wai” and call him “Kru” or “Ajarn”, it’s a sign for you to pack up and run.
Sparring is a requisite part of training Muay Thai. All proper Muay Thai gyms include sparring as part of their training program as the sport places emphasis on the practical and competitive aspect. This may be incorporated at the end of every training session or as a separate sparring-only class.
It might be a few lessons or weeks or months to build foundation before you start sparring. But you will eventually be allowed and encouraged to spar in Muay Thai.
No sparring? Non-contact sparring? It’s not a real Muay Thai gym.
No Fight Team
An active fight team is a sign of a true-blue Muay Thai camp. Muay Thai training is designed for combat and competitions. Even if you do not intend to fight, a gym that has active competitive fighters indicates that there is a proficient level of competency in the instruction.
A gym with no amateur or professional fighters may not have as much credibility as a Muay Thai gym with a fight team.
(Lack of) Fight Record
Muay Thai coaches and trainers should ideally have competed professionally. Most Thai fighters have 100-200 fights by the time they retire around 30. Western Muay Thai fighters compete less frequently but many high-level ones have 50-100 fights over their career.
If you wish to learn to fight, your Muay Thai coach should have 10-20 bouts on their record and be able to provide proof for it.
Not all fighters can teach but think about this: would you trust someone who hasn’t fought to teach you how to fight? Maybe some people would but I personally won’t.
Some martial arts coaches masquerade Karate and Taekwondo moves as Muay Thai techniques. Flashy stuff like spinning back kicks can be effective but aren’t orthodox Muay Thai techniques.
Techniques that you see in Muay Thai movies like Ong Bak or Buakaw’s Broken Sword Hero are Muay Boran techniques. These are ancient Thai martial art techniques that are rarely used or taught in Muay Thai which is a modern ring sport.
Flashy techniques look good but are usually impractical in a Muay Thai competitive setting.
Muay Thai training is a serious calorie-burner. That is why Muay Thai fighters are often lean with minimal body fat.
If the coach, trainers and gym members all look like they haven’t exercised in a while, it’s definitely a McDojo. They probably focus on katas, deadly “Chi” techniques and smashing brittle wooden boards. None of which actually work in combat.
Muay Thai Shorts Rule
There are gyms that do not allow you to wear Muay Thai shorts until you have “earned them”. You do not need to earn the rights to wear Muay Thai shorts for training. It is your birthright.
Clinching is a form of stand-up grappling in Muay Thai. It is an art in itself and an effective skill for both ring fighting as well as street fights. Clinching is restricted in other stand-up striking sports like kickboxing or karate.
Muay Thai gyms in Thailand include clinch training as part of their daily program. Clinch training may receive less emphasis in gyms outside of Thailand but will always be taught in an authentic Muay Thai gym.
No clinch? Sorry, that’s kickboxing and not Muay Thai.
Top 5 Signs Your Muay Thai Gym is Authentic
Here are the top 5 -funny but true- signs that you are training at an authentic Muay Thai gym:
There is always that one guy who has trained and fought in Thailand and comes back with Sak Yant (Thai spiritual tattoos) inked on his body. Many westerners wear the Sak Yant as a badge of honor for having traveled and fought in Thailand.
Muay Thai gyms in Thailand smell like an intoxicating cocktail blend of Thai oil (Namman Muay), and sweat. Thai oil is used lavishly by Muay Thai fighters for a variety of benefits. It can be used to warm up the body before training or fights, and treat muscle soreness.
Thai Trainers and fighters alike use them. The use of Thai oil is also not uncommon in Muay Thai gyms outside of Thailand. If you walk into a gym and instantly catches a whiff of the exotic scent, you’re at the right place.
Muay Thai Grunt
Everyone makes loud grunt-like sounds during heavy bag and pad work. Grunting helps to expel CO2 from the lungs and engages the core muscles which helps to deliver more power. It means people are training hard when they grunt and that’s what Muay Thai training is all about.
You hear a loud “oooooeey” when somebody gets sweeped onto the mat. Don’t ask me why.
Nobody says “oss” after training ends. Just no. Please. No “oss” in Muay Thai.
There you have it. I hope you walk away from this article with newfound knowledge to help sift out the good gyms from the McDojos. Remember to check out “How to find Muay Thai Gym near you” if you want more information on this topic. Good luck!