It’s a dark and rainy November evening. In downtown Kitchener, people scramble to hop on buses to escape the bone-chilling cold. Yet inside Elements nightclub — usually the home of drunken debauchery — a hot and slightly tipsy crowd is cheering on two young fighters circling each other in a ring set up where you would normally find people dancing. “Kick his ass!” one woman screams from the crowd. The fighters in question are several years below the legal drinking age. The one in red shorts lands a quick punch and the crowd responds with huge cheers.

This is not UFC, nor is it the crowd you would imagine going to a fight. Welcome to the world of amateur Muay Thai boxing in Ontario.

A week before the fight at Elements, a group of advanced and intermediate students are hard at work preparing for their fights at TKO Fighting Arts gym, a large open space gym tucked into a nondescript strip mall in Kitchener. Their trainer, Chris Greig (who is also TKO’s co-owner), leads the class through what seems like an endless number of pushups, burpees and sit-ups. Soon the mixed group of men and women switch to shadow-boxing, grunting their way past invisible opponents. “Always stay two, three, four steps ahead,” Greig calls out. “Think about what your opponent is going to do and respond to that.”

“It’s getting pretty good [here],” Greig says. “CASK Kickboxing [the national organizing body of Muay Thai events] model themselves after world organizations for world tournaments.” Muay Thai has been a part of Grieg’s world for a long time. As an amateur boxer, he’s twice won national championships and picked up a bronze medal for Canada at the amateur world championships.

Gazing out at all the TKO members he coaches and trains, Greig talks about the transition he now faces in his career. “Basically right now my fighting career is kind of winding down.” He’s beginning to see himself as coach first. “It’s more about training the guys and bringing them up through the system and creating provincial and national champions.”

Several contenders for those titles are training at TKO this very night. There’s Dragon Markovic, a tall fighter who Grieg counts as one of his best up-and-comers; he has won every one of his six past fights. Justin Holden, meanwhile, has been training for three years and has dabbled a little in several fighting sports. At 28, he worries about making the transition to pro before he gets too old. “It’s a young man’s sport so if I want to make the jump I have to make it soon.”

Sonia Hernandez-Bernas is another fighter with a lot of potential. Her path to boxing came for a simple reason. “I did it purely out of vanity reasons because I hate running,” she laughs. “[But] I got to know a little bit more about the culture and art aspect of Muay Thai. After learning a bit more it made me want to pursue some amateur fighting and train harder.” Hernandez-Bernas is very passionate about what she considers the more artistic side of Muay Thai. “You have to move a certain way. There’s technique involved, same as anything like painting or drawing or dancing even and those are all considered art forms.”

In Thailand, the home of Muay Thai, there is a legend about a man who was so skilled, he won the favour of an enemy king. Nai Khanomtom was captured by the king of Burma in the mid-18th century. There, he was selected to participate in a boxing competition against Burmese fighters to see which fighting style was dominant. Nai Khanomtom went on to defeat ten fighters without even taking a break. The king said in reaction, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom. Even his bare hands…”

While there is some argument about the truth of the legend, it’s certainly a truth that Muay Thai is an important part of Thai culture. Today, Muay Thai — the art of the eight limbs, so called because each appendage can become a weapon — is as formalized a sport in Thailand as boxing is in North America.

Originally developed by the military (much the same as Jujitsu or Karate) it eventually became a spectator sport with a great deal of ritual around it. New fighters are often blessed (a tradition Greig keeps alive at TKO) and boxers bow to the four corners of the ring before each fight.

The rise in popularity of UFC in Canada and the U.S. has brought more attention to Muay Thai, somewhat ironically, however, as Muay Thai is actually different than UFC (Mixed Martial Arts does use elements of it but Muay Thai differs in that the fighters remain standing and don’t wrestle). Many of its practitioners are quick to emphasize the ‘art’ aspect of martial arts, noting that it’s as much about technique and practice as any dance. They’re also protective of the sport’s heritage. “It’s frustrating for me as a Muay Thai practitioner,” says Greig of people who assume UFC and Muay Thai are one and the same. “There’s a lot of gyms opening up. The guy’s never even had one single fight, never even been to Thailand and doesn’t know anything about Muay Thai or the culture, yet he has a Thai flag hanging in his gym.”

Like traditional boxing, Muay Thai is scored on a points system. Fighters get points for landing punches, but style and technique count a lot too. “[The judges] are looking for the most devastating technique,” says Grieg. “You could be hitting a person lightly all around but the person who thows the most efficient devastating blow of the round would win because they did the most damage.”

As the class at TKO winds down, the fighters chat to each other about upcoming bouts. You can tell people are trying to keep their mind off the fight night at Elements on Friday, but it’s difficult. Some have only fought outside the gym in one or two fights. “My last fight was about three years ago,” says Jonathan Evans, a market analyst at RIM. He doesn’t get as much time as he likes to fight but still loves coming to TKO. “It’s a family, it really is,” he smiles. “I would hang out with these people even if we weren’t kicking the crap out of each other.”

Come Friday night at Elements, kicking the crap out of each other is all anyone can think about. Evans looses his bout. But even in defeat he’s quick to give his opponent a hug at the end of the match. He goes straight from the ring to the bar, smiling broadly; obviously still high on getting to fight in front of cheering fans.

“The best part of the whole night was the energy from everyone who came,” says Hernandez-Bernas. She was triumphant in her battle. A confident fighter, it was easy to see how methodical she is in approaching the fight. Each knee or fist thrown has purpose. It’s very much, as Hernandez-Bernas puts it, a dance. “It was my first win,” she says. “I was ecstatic.”

Markovic was also successful in his fight (unfortunately Holden’s fight was canceled). There’s a lot of buzz watching Markovic as he pummels the other fighter. It’s now seven-straight wins for him.

Greig is a constant presence during the fights. He’s in the shadows of the ring watching the fighters; he’s at their side when the bell goes, offering words of encouragement before they re-enter the fray; and he’s in the dressing room, putting the boxers through their final paces before they meet their opponent. It’s representative of the attitude he brings to TKO. “Everyone is here to help each other get better,” he says. It’s what his whole role is now centred around and what he wants the feeling at TKO gym to be.

By the end of the night about 500 people have filtered in to see the fights. As people are drawn to Muay Thai for whatever reason — UFC, family and friends, a love of blood sport — the sport has gotten bigger. With the professionalization of the amateur Muay Thai fighting circuit, its practitioners are hoping for bigger and better things including eventually getting the sport included in the Olympic stage. So like Nai Khanomtom, the man with venom in his fists, Muay Thai boxers will get to prove themselves to be the best, with the eyes of the world upon them.