Muay Thai is famed for being one of the most dangerous competitive contact sports in the world. Like almost all martial arts, it has a rich and colourful history.
The earliest physical evidence of boxing in Thailand dates back to the 13th century. The first Thai army was founded in 1238 to protect the government and the residents of the northern city of Sukhothai. Soldiers trained in hand-to-hand combat, using weapons and the body as a weapon. Modern day Muay Thai and Krabi Krabong developed from this training, but due to ancient records describing the art’s origins becoming destroyed by the Burmese, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment Muay Thai was first practiced.
Various styles of kickboxing have been practiced throughout mainland Southeast Asia for centuries. The majority of these eastern fighting styles,are believed to have originated from tribes migrating south from China into the modern countries of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. It is likely they needed to fight for survival and gain the land they wished to occupy.
Muay Boran and the Chupasart
Muay Boran, a broad term used to describe the pre-cursor to sport Muay Thai was most likely a peace-time art practiced by soldiers of King Narusean, ruler of the Siam Kingdom and developed for the defence of the country.A manual known as the “Chupasart” was believed to have been written to detail the basis of Muay Boran.
The manual emphasized the use of different parts of the body, as if they were the weapons used by the warriors in battle.
- The hands were akin to the dagger and sword
- The legs and knees were much like the staff and axe
- The elbows replaced a mace and hammer to inflict blows on foes
- The shins and forearms acted as armour to defend against blows
During Narusean’s reign, interest in Muay Thai as a sport first occurred. Records from this period show the use of “powder-coated cotton thread” wrapped around boxer’s hands, additionally the mongkhon head-dress and Prajad arm bands were worn by the fighters. This showed a move away from the Chupasart manual and made room for the art to have a sport and recreational use. The first documented display was recorded in 1687 by French diplomat Simon de la Loubère, sent by King Louis XIV for him to write A New Historical Relation of the Kingdom of Siam (Du Rouyame de Siam).
After Narusean’s death, King Sanphet VIII, nicknamed Prachao Sao, or “Tiger King” reigned from 1697 to 1709. His love for Muay Thai was so great that he was rumoured to disguise himself to compete in village contests against local champions. This was a time of peace, Prachao Sao ordered his soldiers to train in Muay Thai in order to stay occupied and ready. This is when the sport became the national pastime of the country and became associated with betting, foreshadowing the present state of the sport.
During the 1767 invasion of Thailand, Burmese troops captured a resident by the name of NaiKhanom Tom from the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. Seven years later,royal presentations of hand-to-hand combat took place between Burmese and Thai boxers andKhanom Tom was granted the opportunity to fight for his freedom by the King of Burma. On his first day, Nai drew attention of the crowd with a captivating dance known as the Wai Kru, a gesture of thanks to the fighter’s teacher. The Thai fighter attacked his opponent with elbows to the chest to defeat him. The match was then declared unfair, with the referee claiming that the pre-fight dance utilized “black magic” and caused his opponent to be distracted. The Burmese king, Hsinbyushin then forced the Thai boxer to fight another nine Burmese men, who the Thai warrior handily defeated utilizing all eight of his limbs to do so. Fast punches combined with powerful kicks, knees, slicing elbows and throws were used to throw his opponents off-guard, completely outclassing them with unparalleled skills.
Hsinyushin declared that “every part of the Siamese is blessed with venom”, an expression that has been connected to Muay Thai ever since.
Khanom Tom was granted his freedom and a choice between money and two Burmese wives. Reasoning that money could be made easier, he chose the beautiful wives, whom he took back to Thailand, where he lived as a teacher of the art. To remember him, NaiKhanom Tom Day is celebrated on the 17th March every year, meaning that “National Muay Thai Day” and St. Patrick’s Day fall on the same time, thereby confusing Irish NakMuays worldwide!
King Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn was hugely passionate about the importance of Muay Thai and worked hard to develop it nationally for both self-defence and recreational purposes. During this period, Muay Thai schools and centres throughout Thailand began to appear. Many of these camps were given the last name of their teachers as a source of honour and fighters would adopt this name as their own, a tradition that still exists today. He encouraged the holding of tournaments all over the country and the winners were from time-to-time made bodyguards to the king. Around 1910 he formally organized Muay Boran by holding fights at the funeral of his son and celebrating the victors.
In 1913, The SuanKulap College in Siamadded British boxing to their curriculum, in what was the first recorded reference of the term “Muay Thai”. In the years that followed, Muay Thai began to spread globally. During World War One, when Thai fighters were stationed in France and other parts of Europe, where they would have Muay Thai fights to raise morale. French pugilists would often spar with their Thai comrades and soldiers would teach other skills from their own arts.
In 1921, two years after the end of the war, SuanKulap college erected their first permanent boxing ring. This ring was used for both Muay Thai and Queensbury rules boxing, which was added to the school’s curriculum.
In 1923, the SuanSanuk Stadium was built. This international stadium was the largest Muay Thai stadium to be built for the time and held both Muay Thai and Queensbury rules boxing bouts. This was a move away from traditional courtyard fights.
During this period and the reign of Rama VII, or King Prajadhipok that Muay Thai began to become more modernized. In 1926, Kru Chua Chaksurak was teaching a demonstration in Sydney, Australia and was forced to wear gloves for legal reasons. He returned to Thailand and acted as a strong advocate for adopting gloves. As a result of his advocacy, rules began to become standardized. Much like Queensbury rules, time limits and rounds were added.
Much of the new ruleset was centred around enhancing safety and protection from the hard-hitting blows. Along with the gloves, fighters would wear groin guards. The old hemp khat chueak (hemp rope bindings) that hardened their hands and made them dangerous were discarded. Referees would also look to ensure fighters were safe
.In 1928, Chia KhaekKhamen died whilst fighting in Bangkok, prompting King Rama to pass a gloves only law. Although this decree largely only affected fights in the city, these tighter regulations would allow Thai boxing to be organized and managed better, thereby increasing its appeal to an international market.
In 1927, the gambling act permitted gambling for boxing and other combat sports. Gambling is generally illegal in Thailand, but its legality only caused to increase interest in Muay Thai. Fighters wages are typically fairly low, so big bets allow them to bring home more cash. The downside of gambling is that it is known to cause more corruption amongst judges, potentially making them rule unfairly.
In the decades that followed, more and more stadiums were erected including Rajademnern Stadium, opened in 1945 and the legendary Lumpinee Stadium, opened in 1956. Both stadiums would adopt the formal Muay Thai rules set by the Education Department in 1937. They specified dress: boxing shorts, gloves, groin guards and the traditional mongkon, along with time limits for rounds. There would be five three minute rounds per match, with a two minute rest in between. Previously, rounds had been timed with holes drilled into coconut shells, being left in tanks of water. When the shells sank, the rounds were over. Admission fees in stadiums were often used to fund the Thai military, a practice which remains today.
The 60s and the Birth of Kickboxing
In the late 50s and early 60s, Thai boxers began to have matches against Japanese karate experts. In 1964, three Kyokushinkaratekas travelled to Thailand to take on NakMuays. Although two of the karatekas bested their opponents, Kenji Kurosaki, an influential kyokushin practitioner was knocked out with an elbow. Kurosaki would study some of the Thai techniques and left Japan for the Netherlands, where he opened up the legendary Mejiro gym in Amsterdam.
This was around a year after a fight between Thai boxer, Samarn Sor Adison who had beat his Japanese opponent, Tadashi Sawamura in Tokyo in 1963. Just as Kurosaki did after him, Tadashi chose to learn some of the Thai techniques including kicks, knees and elbows. This led to Sawarmura becoming a star in the growing sport of Japanese kickboxing, which had been born out of the early Muay Thai vs Karate bouts. Kicboxing though, was a sport that many Thais held a bitterness towards, feeling that the Japanese had “stolen” their sport. This animosity was only exacerbated by Japanese promoters holding many fixed fights which had pre-arranged outcomes with Thais losing, or pitting NakMuays against much heavier Japanese fighters.
Despite this tension between the sports, Muay Thai’s popularity would continue to grow both internationally and within Thailand. For much of the sixties, Apidej Sit-Hirun would dominate rings across the country. Sit-Hirun was a welterweight dynamo famed for kicks so powerful that they could break arms. His success would help toinspire what many consider the golden age of Muay Thai.
The Golden Age of Muay Thai
International interest in Eastern martial arts began to grow in the 70s as a result of Bruce Lee’s popularity and the Hong Kong produced kung fu films, meaning more and more audiences were exposed to Muay Thai and other arts. This broadened interest, coupled with Sit-Hirun’s success led to the so-called “Golden Age” of the sport. Lasting roughly from the early 80s, to the late 90s, this era would produce many of the legends of the sport. Highly skilled and highly charismatic fighters like arguably the greatest Nak Muay of all time, SamartPayakaroon and Dieselnoi, a fighter famed for his ferocious knees would draw fans from all over the country. National stadiums were jammed full, ready to gamble and be thrilled by these incredible fighters. Huge purses of up to 200,000 baht being fought for. It brings us roughly to where whe are today.
Present Day and Future Muay Thai
Between the growth of MMA organizations like the UFC and the hugely popular action films starring Tony Jaa such as ‘Ong Bak’, Muay Thai has exploded in popularity. Muay Thai was seen as one of, if not the most effective striking sport and fighters such as Anderson Siva and Mauricio Shogun Rua displayed the sheer efficiency the art has in combat.Additionally, the internet has had a big part to play in this growth, as fans can follow their favourite boxers around the world, live-stream events and even study techniques through tutorial videos.
It is highly likely that the sport will continue to grow, with more organizations promoting fights, some even returning to roped-hands or 4 oz MMA style gloves instead of the larger more Queensbury rules gloves.
Meanwhile in 2016, the Olympic committee granted provisional recognition to Muay Thai. This means that the sport can apply to become part of the Olympic Games after three years of receiving an annual monetary fund of $25,000. Who knows? There is a chance that we may see Muay Thai become an Olympic sport in the future!