What is Muay Thai or Thai Boxing?
Muay Thai or Thai boxing is the cultural martial art of Thailand. The origin of Muay Thai dates back several hundred years, and was, essentially, developed as a form of close-combat that used the entire body as a weapon. However, it must be added that the history of Muay Thai, and its' direct origin is a question of debate among modern scholars. Much of the history of Muay Thai was lost when the Burmese sacked Ayudhaya, the capital city of Siam (Thailand) in the 14th century. The Burmese looted the temples and depositories of knowledge held in the capital, and most written history was lost in this period. What volumes were saved are preserved and protected as national treasures for Thai culture and heritage.
What is known is that Muay Thai uses the body to mimic the weapons of war. The hands become the sword and dagger; the shins and forearms were hardened in training to act as armor against blows, and the elbow to fell opponents like a heavy mace or hammer; the legs and knees became the axe and staff. The body operated as one unit. The knees and elbows constantly searching and testing for an opening while grappling and trying to spin an enemy to the ground for the kill.
The origin of Muay Thai, as a fighting style, is thought to have developed for centuries as tribes migrated south from the steppes of China through Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia. The major tribes of that period, one of which was the (Tai) Siamese, fought fiercely to survive as they moved south and encountered other smaller tribes in what is now northern and central Thailand, and as far south as Malaysia. Through training, loss of life, military tactics, and hand-to-hand combat, technique and tactics were honed to a razors edge, and the rudimentary elements of a "fighting-style" began to take root.
Older soldiers and fathers taught their students and sons the offensive and defensive tactics and techniques, proper posture and position, and skills to enhance awareness. Those students and sons went on to teach their children, and the roots and permanent structure of an "effective fighting-style" began to strengthen. Proper technique and power strikes were a vital element in war that requires hand-to-hand skills. Each strike and movement is meant to deliever a debilitating and crushing blow, and enable the fighter to move on to the next opponent quickly without leaving himself exposed to an attack.
It would seem that the evolution of the most-effective hand-to-hand form of combat evolved in a rather Darwin-like manner demanding survival of the fittest: those who fought well.......lived and taught others before falling themselves.
The Thai were on constant guard against attack from neighboring countries, including Burma and Cambodia. Enemies for centuries, the Burmese and Thai fought several wars wreaking destruction on both countries. Muay Thai was primarily a part of the Thai culture during this period and was a mandatory training as part of the Thai military of that time. The military continued to train soldiers for centuries in the art of Muay Thai: defining, and refining the skills, tactics, and techniques with the wars against the Burmese, Cambodians, and other invaders.
Young Thai men returning from a tour of duty with the military soon engaged in matches for sport and fun in villages and towns. Each province, town, and village would support a local fighter who showed some promise and skill. Older warriors, survivors of many battles and engagements of the enemy, became Muay Thai instructors and teachers [ Kroo Muay]. The love of the sport, and a need for the defense of the kingdom made Muay Thai a part of the Thai culture for the next 500 years as generation after generation passed the skills on to the next.
Modern Muay Thai
Muay Thai has come a long way in the last 100 years. Because of the great national popularity, Muay Thai began to garner international exposure and recognition. In World War II, Thai soldiers were stationed overseas, and foreigners recieved their first good look at Muay Thai firsthand. Muay Thai was named by foreigners as Siam Boxing, as Thailand was formerly Siam. During WW II, the French labeled Muay Thai as "Le Sport Orient" or the fighting style of the orient. The Thai soldiers participating in the war would practice Muay Thai among themselves as soldiers from Europe and America watched with great interest. Until that time, Muay Thai was a cultural gem, hidden within this strange and wonderful culture of this country called Thailand.
Soldiers from abroad were so impressed of the Muay Thai fighting style that they asked the Thai soldiers to teach them the basics and traditions of Muay Thai. As Muay Thai became more popular, especially with an international interest, the rules began to changge to become more inline with other goverened sports like boxing. In the 1920's, the roots of modern Muay Thai were planted when rings were introduced replacing open courtyards.The old-style horsehide, hemp rope, or leather bindings were replaced with gloves similar to boxing. In the past, fighters were known to soak their hemp rope bindings in a sticky resin and then dip their hands in crushed glass and ash that could attack the opponents eyesight. [As appeared in the movie "Kickboxer" starring Jean-Claude Van Dame] A hard-cover groin protector was also added for the fighters protection from brutal kicks and knees.
After the end of WW II, the first formal rules were introduced into the sport. Fights were divided into 5 rounds, and time limits were imposed on each round. Time was counted on a clock rather than the old style of a coconut shell with holes sinking completely in a barrel of water. Major stadiums for Muay Thai were constructed after the war in large cities [Bangkok, Sukothai, Chiang Mai] throughout the country as the popularity of Muay Thai grew. Lumpini Stadium in Bangkok is now almost considered "holy ground" to the multitudes of Thai fighters, and now many foreigners, trying to win a place on a fight card. A system of weight-classes, defined rules, and championships was devised in the years ahead as Muay Thai began to resemble boxing in style and organization.
Muay Thai fighters often begin training when they are 6-8 years-old. They will begin fighting between 8-10 years of age and may have as many as 120-150 fights ( 3 times as many as a very active boxer ) before they are 24 years old. Muay Thai fighters do not generally have long careers because of starting at such an early age and how physically demanding the sport is on the fighters. Injuries are quite common in Muay Thai fights. From cuts and lacerations to the face and head to broken bones and severe sprains of muscles and ligaments, Muay Thai fighters deal with injuries their entire career. Muay Thai fighters are known for their ability to ignore pain and injury.
Today, the evolution of Muay Thai is finally reaping rewards and recognition. Muay Thai was recently accepted as an Olympic sport, and it is becoming quite popular in many countries throughout the world. Professional fighters in martial arts, K-1, and submission fighting all agree, Muay Thai is an essential part of being an all-around skilled fighter and having stand-up fighting skills. Muay Thai will continue to grow in popularity as new training camps and gyms open around the world.