Whether or not you’re a fan of watching organized sports, how many times have you found yourself cheering for the team that represented your city or state? And during the Olympics, do you cheer for the country you’re from or the other team? Despite many not knowing everything (and some not knowing anything) about a sport or a team’s capabilities, many tend to gravitate to the team they identify with the most. Many want that team to be victorious because collectively, they feel like they’re winning too and are part of the “better” side.
This phenomenon, called “ingroup bias”, is a faulty cognitive tendency everyone partakes in, usually unconsciously. Many call this a form of “conflict of interest.” This bias is why many automatically cheer for groups that they’re a part of. And, friendship and comradery aside, this is also why many want their teammates to win a fight and find it difficult to be 100% neutral when watching/scoring a fight. This is why many sanctioning bodies do not allow people who are from the same gym as the fighters to score those specific bouts.
In Thailand, fights that pit Thais versus non-Thais are classic yet contain a sense of novelty. Can the Thai prove himself/herself and represent the country and its national sport? Or will the foreigner beat the Thai at their game? The foreigner can sometimes be seen as a “wild card” factor, with the possibility of them bringing in a non-conventional way of fighting to the show. Whole events and shows are founded on this concept and draw attention nation- and worldwide. Locals tune in and have a great sense of pride when their country wins. Many experience a sense of humiliation with their country loses, especially if it’s by KO.
Ingroup bias can be found on all social levels, from personal friendships to a national level. And it’s because of ingroup bias that when in Thailand, the foreigner has to make it crystal clear that they won the fight in order to get the official win, whether by knockout or absolute domination by points when they are fighting a Thai. If the fight comes close, even if the foreigner edges out the Thai by a bit, the judges will, more often than not, give the fight to the Thai. National pride and not wanting to “lose face” are also driving forces in this decision. This unfortunately happens much more than not and is a big downside to fighting in Thailand. While a win itself doesn’t mean much, robbing a fighter of a deserved victory can be changes in the fight purse or a lost opportunity to have a title that truly belongs to them.
Coban vs Ramon Dekkers. Dekkers was considered a pioneer for foreigners fighing in Thailand.
And so, the foreigner always has to do more. They have to train more, strike harder, be more active, show that they’re stronger – all because it’s hard to find a judge that is absolutely neutral and can watch the fight objectively without ingroup bias clouding their vision. There’s a saying to never leave it to the judges, and for good reason. Domination needs to be absolutely crystal clear, and even then, the fighter could still be robbed. The saying goes on to mean that the only sure way to secure the win is via KO, and that certainly is true.
It is no wonder that it is considered a huge feat to beat a Thai on their home soil, especially when it comes to big shows and title fights. Of course, this ingroup bias doesn’t just exist in Thailand, but more is expected from the motherland of Muay Thai when it comes to giving a deserved win to the right person. Of course, questionable decisions don’t happen 100% of the time, but they happen more often than they should when it comes to foreigner vs Thai bouts. At the end of the day, the existence of this bias is common knowledge among Muay Thai fighters and most suck it up and accept it as part of the “deal” when it comes to fighting in Thailand.
As the sport of Muay Thai is continuously and constantly changing, the top dogs of the fight scene change as well. More and more foreigners are becoming world champions, indeed beating the Thais at their own game. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before this bias is officially recognized and there is active reform and change to make decisions more objective and fair.