Muay Thai’s origins are unknown due to the Burmese invaders vandalizing the ancient capital and destroying all of Thailand’s historical records. Oral history is what has kept several stories and traditions alive.
Thailand’s national sport of Muay Thai has been around for more than 2,000 years. Muay Thai was originally named Mai See Sawk and other names included Muay Pahuyuth, Chaiya Boxing, Muay Tai, and Siamese Boxing. Regional varieties include Muay Korat, Muay Lopburi, Muay Pra Nakorn, and Muay Chaiya. They can all be categorized as Muay Kaad-cheurk, meaning ‘fighting with bound fists’, or Muay Boran, meaning ‘old or antique boxing’.
It is thought that Muay probably spread throughout the Indochina Peninsula in conjunction with Buddhism. Temples were built at the center of each village where people sent their sons to study various subjects including martial arts. The original teachers of Muay Thai were Buddhist monks who were retired soldiers, officials or nobility knowledgeable of military strategy and socio-psychology. They taught this style of fighting with weapons, which was known as Krabi Krabong. Some scholars believe Muay Thai evolved from Krabi Krabong while others believe it developed alongside it due to the Thais constant fighting with the Burmese for survival and needing to also use hand to hand combat skills. These skills included using hands, feet, knees, and elbows; hence the name “The Art of Eight Limbs.” In Muay Thai, much of the fighting is done up close so elbows and knees become important weapons. Because of this, Muay Thai is regarded as the most powerful stand up fighting style.
Muay was a practical fighting technique used to protect the community, but during peacetime it became a sport where people would gather to watch for entertainment purposes. It also became a form of personal advancement since the nobility admired skillful fighters. The fighters who proved themselves through a series of bouts in the provinces were invited to go to the capital and fight in front of the king himself. Fighters would then be personally selected to live in the palace and teach muay to staff, soldiers, and the king’s personal guards while others were selected to become honored guards who also taught muay to the nobility.
The early form of Muay Thai became known as Dhee or Dhoi Muay. Fighters were bare fisted who fought opponents of various weight/size/age until someone gave up. The area in which fights took places was just a patch of dirt with spectators forming a circle leaving enough space for the fight to occur. When rounds were introduced, a coconut shell with a hole at its base was placed in water and when the coconut was submerged fully it signaled the end of a round. The number of rounds however was not determined.
In the early days, fighters did not have any specified training equipment but rather used whatever was around them to help develop their skills. For example, banana trees were used as heavy bags would be used today. Training would also consist of climbing coconut trees to develop power in the arms, running or jumping in rivers for leg strengthening, and rolling logs on shins for conditioning.
Fighters later left bare fist fighting for bounded fist so as to cause extra damage and still protect their hands from injury. Kaad Chuek (fist binding) was made of hemp threads twisted into a soft cord. There is a story that says fighters would soak the Kaad Chuek in flour and water paste, tree resin, or some other sticky substance mixed with glass or stone to cause more damage in fights.
After the death of a fighter who would not give up, new rules were introduced stating that fighters should wear gloves and socks in matches. The first bout with these new regulations was somewhat of a mess because the socks worn caused fighters to slip and stumble. The socks rule was abandoned but the gloves stayed, although it took some time for everyone to embrace them and fully switch over. In the late 1920 and 30s the use of gloves became the norm, Muay Thai gyms were constructed, and punching bags were developed.
The modern sport of Muay Thai was born on December 23, 1945 when the first match was fought in the Rajademnern Stadium (first stadium built in Thailand named after the road on which it was built). A committee was formed to oversee the rules and regulations. Judges awarded points based on power and accuracy of the techniques. They also took into account the boxer’s knowledge and mastery of Muay Thai. In the 1950s a well-developed ranking system with 8 weight-divisions was put into place with the help of an American G.I.
In the 1970s Muay Thai saw the rise of many great fighters whose mastery of Muay Thai were like none before. Thanks to the popularity of martial arts movies from this decade everyone was excited to learn these skills themselves and Muay Thai became popular in many countries including Germany, Holland, and Australia.
Now a days it is seen as a right of passage for Muay Thai fighters from around the world to train in Thailand and experience Muay Thai like a Thai.
In Thailand, live Muay Thai contests take place every day and many are televised. Tournaments are held once a week in small towns and you can always count on a fight during festivals and celebrations. One of the biggest events held is to honor the Kings birthday that takes place on December 5th. Many foreigners attend this event where they can watch the best Muay Thai fighters perform.
Many aspects of Muay Thai were corrupted when it spread to the USA. Traditions were lost and rules were changed. Many gyms claim to teach Muay Thai when they mean kickboxing or full contact fighting. In Thailand there are no grading examinations or belt rankings but many American gyms have implemented them as a way of measuring their student’s achievement.
Learning these rituals is a way of showing your willingness to learn and the dedication to your camp and teacher.
Wai Kru: literally translated as ‘bow to teacher’ is a ritual performed before every fight to show respect to the Muay Thai teacher.
Ram Muay: A ceremonial dance honoring teachers and mentors. In Thailand, each camp is recognizable by the Ram Muay the fighter performs. By dancing it the fighter is asking for the protection of the spirits during the fight. The Ram Muay can also tell a story or be used to intimidate the other opponent by simulating their upcoming defeat. For example, at the end of the ritual dance a fighter could pretend to shoot an arrow or sharpen the end of a spear and throw it toward his opponent.
Before the Wai Kru, the teacher will have placed the sacred Mongkol on the fighters head which also lets spectators recognize where a fighter originates from and who his teacher is. Some Mongkols also contain Buddhist prayers that are woven in. It is considered bad luck for Nak Muay’s to touch the Mongkol.
The Pra Jer is a piece of cloth twisted, woven or plaited with magical symbols incorporated to it. This sacred amulet is placed around the biceps.
The Father of Muay Thai – Nai Khanom Tom
Nai Khanom Tom, a warrior from Thailand, was captured after the Burmese sacked the city in 1767. His fighting style intrigued King Mangra, the Burmese king, who demanded a tournament pitting his own country’s Bondi boxers against the Thai warrior. According to legend, Nai Khanom Tom dazzled his first opponent with a pre-fight dance ritual called Ram Muay. Then he proceeded to pummel him, scoring a quick knockout. But the Burmese fighter cried foul claiming Nai Khanom Tom’s pre-fight dance distracted him. The Burmese king knew that if Nai Khanom Tom could defeat nine more consecutive opponents he would then prove the superiority of his fighting style. Nai Khanom Tom took on fighter after fighter until finally none stood in his way. With these defeats he earned his freedom, an achievement which is celebrated every March 17 as “National Muay Thai Day.”
In the late 1950s, a Japanese entrepreneur involved with western-style boxing became very interested in Muay Thai. He filmed some bouts and took it to his students to view. He later developed a martial art that blends Muay Thai’s kicking techniques with some characteristics of karate and western-style boxing to make Kickboxing. It is a common error to use Muay Thai and Kickboxing interchangeable or to mistake that Muay Thai developed from Kickboxing when the opposite is true.