When Amateur Muaythai first came to prominence under the IFMA umbrella, who could have thought it would grow from just 19 countries to more than 70? And, more relevant to a huge segment of fans, who would have foreseen the huge jump in female participation? The women's part of the competition has grown from nothing to a point where a second ring is needed to accommodate the numbers.
As the men's competition grew over the years from 1990, female fighters looked on and began to ask why not us? So, in 1999 at the Stadium in Bangkok, the first amateur women's fights took place. As it was the first time for this competition, it began in time-honored fashion as a demonstration of skill and techniques. In front of a packed crowd, many of myths about women not being skilled enough to fight or entertaining enough for the crowd were laid to rest. The highlight was a battle between Amy Birch from Australia and Rungaroon Sor Fongnam from Thailand, a great fight which ensured that this part of the World Cup was here to stay.
In the World Cup 2000, it was decided to put on a shorter tournament for women as part of the main competition. Sadly, the numbers where were not yet enough to justify running it over a week alongside the men. However, women from Thailand, Ireland, Australia, Italy and England traveled to compete and put on a great display of skills with the final matches taking up a full day at the end of the tournament.
During this time, a lot of work was being done behind the scenes to bring the judging, refereeing and other aspects of the women's sport up to the same standard. The rules for the fights were to be the same as the men - the same time for the rounds, same breaks in-between, they wore the same protective equipment and followed the same rules for the actual competition. The 10 weight category divisions were set at between 45-75 kg.
An innovation from IFMA was having female referees for the female fights. This encourages women who may not be able to fight to participate fully in the sport especially important for older women who have been involved with Muaythai for a long time, have a lot of experience and knowledge to share but are not interested in competing at this stage. IFMA has always run referee courses as part of the World Cup and now this was opened to women as well to ensure a constant supply of qualified referees. The first 20 female referees from around the world graduated and all female fights in the future at the World Championships will be totally controlled by female referees.
The Female Muaythai Board was set up as one of the IFMA committees. Headed up by Niamh Griffin (Ireland) and Sue Glassy (New Zealand) , other voted on to this first ever Female Muaythai Board included Ludmyla Varavva (Ukraine) and Pim Carlton (Thailand). Together with Niamh and Sue who are both are very successful former boxers with a great interest in the sport, this committee has worked to bring the female competition to the same level as the men's. Two of the IFMA Federations now have female Presidents - New Zealand and Kyrgyzstan.
With all of this going on, it's not surprising that the 2002 World Cup saw a dramatic increase in the number of female competitors, 20 countries send female teams to the competition. Thailand won the overall competition but the best Female Boxer went to Amy Birch from Australia the girl which was certainly the highlight of her career.
Women competed in the EMF European Cup in 2002, the numbers again showing the depth of talent which is coming up now and ensures a bright future for the female part of the sport. Finland won the team competition showing their world class standard. But the best female fighter went to the IFMA World Champion Fiona Hayes from England. The winner of the Best Ram Muay is chosen from all competitors male and female in the tournament. This went to Heidi Strengell from Finland, showing that the women as much as the men have learned to respect the traditions of Thailand.
Kazakhstan hosted the World Cup in 2003 with 28 countries sending their female athletes. The best female team title was captured by Australia this time, proving that in Amateur Muaythai there is not such thing as a sure bet. His Excellency, General Pichitr Kullavanijaya honored the tournament by flying in to attend. To the delight of all, his wife graciously handed out Thai orchids to each female athlete in recognition of their achievements. The world has truly noticed female Muaythai.
The 2004 World Cup was an exciting showcase of female talent with girls from nearly 50 countries competing in this part of the tournament. Strong teams from the USA, Canada, Australia, Finland, Ukraine, South Africa, New Zealand, Russia, Thailand, Greece, England and many others competed for the coveted medals and team trophies. Boxers from countries such as India and Sri Lanka, where Women's Muaythai is in its infancy, got great cheers from the capacity crowd. Some highlights were exciting battles between Thailand and Australia, Canada versus Holland, Finland versus Thailand. The team competition was quite close with Finland taking the honors. Mapela Letonen from Finland received the best female trophy and Linda Loyce from USA the best female Wai Khru performance. This was the first time in history that the event's 9 days (7 hours daily) were televised - this gave great exposure to female Muaythai both inside and outside Thailand.
So, that is the story so far. Female Muaythai has come a long way down a road which was not easy to traverse. Many international celebrities have become part of the female Muaythai circle, including Miss Korea and the singer Pink. The world is looking forward to the excitement of the Women's World Cup 2006 as well as the Queen's Cup.
Female Muaythai has become as (and maybe a little more!) popular as the male sport.