Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing, is the national sport and cultural martial art. It was first developed as a form of close combat and utilised the entire body as a weapon. It is known as the “Art of 8 limbs” because of the usage of eight points of contact. Today, Muay Thai is practised worldwide and not only in Thailand.
Muay Thai is mainly a striking stand-up sport and a highly complex martial art involving two rings competitors. It differs from the other stand-up combat sports such as boxing (2 points - fists) and karate (4 points - fists and feet). The sport allows throwing punches, elbows, knees and kicks at each other apart from clinching and sweeping. Besides the 8-point contact, Muay Thai also differs by emphasising the traditional pre-fight dance ritual called ‘Wai Kru Ram Muay’, the head-dress and the Sarama music that accompanies the fight.
It is a martial art with roots dating back to the 13th century during the Sukhothai Kingdom. As per the records, the first Thai army came into existence to defend the kingdom. The soldiers were taught both armed and unarmed combat to fight the enemies. Over the centuries, Muay Thai became the way of life for the people of Siam (now Thailand) due to the continuous ongoing wars. Over time, the evolution of this martial art has brought Muay Boran and Muay Thai.
One of the most famous stories of Muay Thai has come from the great Nai Khanom Tom of the Ayutthaya period. The tale narrates the triumph of Nai Khanom Tom, who defeated nine Burmese fighters, one after another, during his imprisonment after the Siam kingdom was under siege. The historical event (half steeped in myth) is now celebrated as Muay Thai day on March 17th.
Though the history of Muay Thai records back to the centuries, its definitive history was lost when the Burmese attack took place during the 14th century. Few historical records have been preserved, leading to a persistent debate about the history of this sport.
During the Rattanakosin Kingdom era (around the early 20th century), Muay Thai became a national sport formally, where rules and regulations were introduced. And it has progressed significantly over the last 100 years. Since World War II, it has been loved and practised worldwide. The foreigners called it ‘Siam Boxing’, and the French termed it ‘Le Sport Orient’ or the fighting style of the orient. Soldiers from Europe and America were impressed by the fighting style, and thus they began to learn the fundamentals and traditions of Muay Thai from the Thai soldiers. As it became popular internationally, the rules were modified so that Muay Thai could be governed like the established sports such as boxing.
The roots of modern Muay Thai were profound by the year 1920, when rings were introduced to replace the traditional open courtyards. After World War II, formal rules were introduced. Each fight was divided into five rounds with a time limit for each. A clock was used to determine the length of each round instead of a coconut shell with holes sinking in a barrel of water. Gloves similar to those in boxing matches replaced the old horsehide, hemp rope or leather bindings, and a hard-cover groin protector was added as extra protection from brutal kicks and knees.
Muay Thai techniques are generally classified as an attack, defence and counterattack. To be proficient in Muay Thai, one needs to constantly practice and drill the techniques repeatedly until it forms a part of the muscle memory.
The first and foremost technique to learn is the basic stance. The stance forms the most fundamental technique in almost all combat sports. All the techniques and mastery can be perfect only when the stance is correct. The Muay Thai stance involves; the chin tucked in, body upright, and hands in a guard position to protect the head and legs shoulder-width apart. The orthodox fighters (right-handers) keep the left leg in front with the right leg at 45 degrees outside, whereas the Southpaws (left-handers) do the other way around. The stance or the position is very appropriate for the fighter to balance, strike and attack without any hassle.
Attacking techniques consist of punches, elbow strikes, knee strikes, kicks, push kicks and clinches, whereas defence techniques are comprised of blocks, lean backs, deflections, leg catches and dodges. Although these techniques seem simple and easy, each attacking technique includes variations. The punch with the left hand is called a Jab, whereas the right hand is a Cross. During a competition or a match, these techniques are mixed and matched to combine into combinations. The most common combo practised is the Jab-Cross-Low kick.
One of the Muay Thai training techniques is called Muay Thai Circle. This technique is popular today and is commonly used at Tiger Muay Thai and MMA training camps in Phuket, Thailand.
The necessity to wear the proper attire for Muay Thai competitions is like any other sport. The classical Thai music Sarama is accompanied by fights. Fighters wear a unique headgear called Mongkhon and armbands known as Prajiads. Both are considered sacred objects.
Muay Thai became popular in Europe and other parts of the world during the great World War. The Thai soldiers deployed in France would actively participate in the Muay Thai bouts organised by their commanders. The opponent fighters mainly were French soldiers. The current distinctive style of Muay Thai in different parts of the world must have developed over the centuries when the tribes of the Era migrated to China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
The wars against the Burmese, Cambodians and the other invaders refined the art of Muay Thai. The rudimentary elements of Muay Thai gradually faded, and it became a ferocious art due to the continuous attacks by the neighbouring countries like Burma and Cambodia. Also, the most effective and current hand-to-hand combat style must have evolved in a Darwinian manner. It demanded the survival of the fittest; those who fought and prevailed taught the art to others.
Today, Muay Thai has become very popular on a global scale. After long years of trying to clinch the listing of the Olympics, it was recently accepted as an Olympic sport, therefore finally gaining its deserved recognition.