The little we do know, comes from the writings of the Burmese, Cambodian,
early European visitors and some of the chronicles of the Lanna Kingdom - Chiangmai.
What all sources agree on, is that Muay Thai began as a close combat
battlefield fighting skill. More deadly than the weapons it replaced.
As to where Muay Thai came from, its evolution, the sources aren't clear and often contradict
each other. But there are two main theories.
One says that the art developed as the Thai people moved down from
China; honed in the struggle for land. The other theory says that the Thai people were already here and that Muay Thai developed
to defend the land and people from constant invasion threats.
The second, while controversial, has considerable academic backing
and archaeological evidence. The first is, however, possible as the area opened up to the early pioneers.
What is known is that Muay Thai was an essential part of Thai culture
right from its dawn. And in Thailand, it's the sport of kings.
In olden days, national issues were decided by Muay Thai contests.
The first great upsurge of interest in Muay Thai as a sport, as well
as a battlefield skill, was under King Naresuan in 1584, a time known as the Ayuddhaya period. During this period, every soldier
trained in Muay Thai and could use it, as the King himself did. Slowly Muay Thai moved away from its root in the 'Chupasart'
and new fighting techniques were evolving.
The change in the art was to continue under another fighting King
- Prachao Sua - the Tiger King. He loved Muay Thai so much that he often fought incognito in village contests, beating
the local champions. During the reign of the Tiger King the nation was at peace. The King, to keep the army busy, ordered it to train in Muay
Thai. The interest in the sport was already high but now it took off yet again.
Thai Boxing became the favourite sport and pastime of the people, the army and the King. Historical
sources show that people from all walks of life flocked to training camps. Rich, poor, young and old all wanted some of the
action. Every village staged its prize fights and had its champions. Every bout became a betting contest as well as a contest
of local pride. The betting tradition has remained with the sport and today large sums are wagered on the outcome of fights.
Thai boxing has always been popular but like most sports, there have
been times when it was more in fashion. In the reign of King Rama V, many Muay Thai matches were Royal Command fights. These
boxers were rewarded with military titles from the King. Today the titles, like Muen Muay Mee Chue from Chaiya or Muen Muay
Man Mudh from Lopburi are virtually untranslatable. They mean something comparable to Major of Boxing. At the time they were
much prized and respected titles.
The Rama V period was another golden age for Muay Thai. Boxing camps
were set up, talent scouts - at Royal Command - recruited potential boxers from up country. Match makers began to make the
great matches which were fought for big prizes and honour. This thrilled the people then as much as the main bouts do today
at the Bangkok boxing stadiums.
The matches then were not fought in a ring as we know it today - for
Muay Thai that is a recent innovation. Any available space of the right size was used, a courtyard, a village clearing.
It wasn't till the reign of King Rama VI that the standard ring surrounded
by ropes came into use, as did time keeping by the clock. Before this period, time keeping was done by floating a pierced
coconut shell on a boat of water. When the coconut piece sank, a drum signalled the end of the round.
Muay Thai has always been a sport for the people as well as a military
fighting skill. In all its golden ages, the people have trained and practiced the sport whether they were King or commoner.
It was a part of the school curriculum right up to the 1920's when it was withdrawn because it was felt that the injury rate
was too high. The people however, continued to study it in gyms and clubs just as they do today.
For centuries the army fostered Muay Thai. Soldiers have trained and
used the techniques for as long as there has been an army in Thailand. For the military it has always been the close combat
fighting skill, the martial art of the battlefield. When a Thai soldier fights hand to hand he uses Muay Thai. But then so
does every Thai person, male or female. Watching it, learning it, copying it is a part of Thai childhood. It always has been.
The people have always followed the sport and have been instrumental
in moving it from the battlefield to the ring. They have been as much a part of making it a sport as have the Kings. One of
the prime movers in transforming the sport was the Tiger King, who not only influenced fighting styles but also the equipment.
During the reign of the Tiger King, the hands and forearms began being
bound with strips of horse hair. This was to serve a dual purpose - protect the fighter and inflict more damage on the opponent.
Later, these were replaced by hemp ropes or starched strips of cotton. For particular challenge matches and with the fighters
agreement, ground glass was mixed with glue and spread on the strips.
The changes that the sport has undergone have been changes to equipment
used rather than radical change. For example, Thai fighters have always worn groin guards. A kick or knee to the groin was
a perfectly legal move up until the 1930's. In the early days, the protection was made from tree bark or sea shells held in
place with a piece of cloth tied between the legs and around the waist.
The groin guard later became a triangular shaped pillow, red or blue,
tied around the waist with a through strap between the legs.
The pillow went, after a boxer on a trip to Malaysia saw a groin box.
He came back with the idea, which is close to the original idea of the sea shell and since then, Muay Thai fighters have used
The 1930's saw the most radical change in the sport. It was then that
it was codified and today's rules and regulations were introduced. Rope bindings of the arms and hands were abandoned and
gloves took their place.
This innovation was also in response to the growing success of Thai Boxers in international
Along with the introduction of gloves, came weight classes based on
the international boxing divisions. These and other innovations - such as the introduction of five rounds - substantially
altered the fighting techniques that the boxers used causing some of them to disappear.
Before the introduction of weight classes, a fighter could and did
fight all comers regardless of size and weight differences. However, the introduction of the weight classes meant that the
fighters were more evenly matched and instead of there being one champion, there became one for each weight class.
Most Muay Thai fighters belong to the lighter weight classes. Seventy
percent of all fighters belong to the fly and bantam weight divisions. There are welterweight and middleweight fights but
they are not seen that often and the heavier categories seldom fight.
The establishment of stadiums, instead of makeshift rings and courtyards,
began during the reign of Rama VII before the Second World War. During the war, they gradually disappeared but mushroomed
again soon afterwards - Muay Thai had not lost any of its appeal. The boxers from up-country once again headed toward fame
and fortune in Bangkok.
The glory could be found at stadiums like Rajdamnern and Lumpinee.
Later, they fought in full colour fury on television. Thailand's Channel 7 started broadcasting the fights in colour over
20 years ago. Today all four Thai television stations broadcast free to millions of Muay Thai fans throughout Thailand - four
nights a week.
The battle art has evolved into a popular sport. Ruled, codified and
now with five three minute rounds, each with a two minute recovery period between rounds.
Those old timers around today who fought before the second world war, lament the changes bought
about by the standardisation of the sport. The three minute round and weight classes has, they say, changed the sport as they
"We had to fight all comers," one recalls. "Had to know all the tricks
of the trade. We used strikes and techniques these fighters haven't even been taught. We didn't have these breaks and instead
fought 'till one of us dropped."
They are also right. Muay Thai has changed across the years. Changed
and evolved from a battlefield close quarters killing ground technique based on a fighting tradition passed on from generation
to generation up to the present time.
But despite the changes of history, Muay Thai has lost none of its
exotic appeal and even mystique. Muay Thai is still the fighting art to beat. The fighting art that defeats all challenges
from Kung Fu, Karate, Taekwando and the latest kickboxing fashions. They have all come to Thailand, not just once but many
times and from many places to test themselves.
Muay Thai has lost none of its appeal in Thailand. The television
fight broadcasts rate among the Kingdom's most popular programmes.
In the provinces, villages cluster around any available TV to watch.
In the city, people disappear from the streets while Thailand is watching Muay Thai.
Thai Boxing is also becoming increasingly popular outside of Thailand.
It has its enthusiasts and practitioners in the Americas, Australia, Japan, Europe, as well as in many other countries around
The mix of karate, western style kickboxing and muay thai is today practiced and competed in
a form we now now as: "K-1". The system of rules being slightly different from classic Muay Thai. As an example;
therefore the use of the "thai-clinch" is not as applicable under K-1 rules and more distance fighting is practiced. This
leads to even greater damage and impact on the fighters and K-1 has become known for its 80-90% knock out ratio
= most K-1 fights do not end by win on points, they end up in K.O. - knock out.
Groundbreaking fighting legends like Andy Hug and Benny "The Jet" Urquidez made
the crossover from Karate to Muay Thai and kickboxing. So was the new, revised form of Muay Thai born which included
spinning and jumping techniques that are not usually a part of Muay Thai, but have been proven just as effective as the classic
techniques used by the thaifighters for centuries.
The illustrious history of Muay Thai will continue as it receives greater recognition
and gains in international popularity. The K-1 fights are not only on Japanese TV anymore, they are being shown on national
TV in America (ESPN) and on standard cable in Europe (Euro Sport)
Source: World Muay Thai Council with additional text by Fredrik