From the battleground to the ring, Muay Thai is an ancient martial art that spans thousands of years, refined by history, culture, and tradition. Scholars disagree on the exact origin of Thailand’s national sport, but one thing is for sure, you can’t tell the whole story without looking at the country’s warring past.
Under the constant threat of conflict, the first Thai army was built in the 13th century to protect Siam (now Thailand) from neighboring tribes and kingdoms. While there is physical evidence to support this, the subsequent invasion and looting of Ayutthaya, the Siamese capital at the time, by the Burmese in the 14th century decimated a plethora of written knowledge that leaves some gaps in putting together the full story of the martial art.
There are a few theories on the exact origin, but two, in particular, have been favored. One suggests that peoples from lower China developed the necessary skills to protect themselves as they migrated further South. At the same time, another hypothesizes that the Thai people already existed and created hand-to-hand combat techniques to fight off competing tribes. Regardless, what we do know is that by the 14th century, it was adopted by the Thai army to protect the government and its citizens. Soldiers were skilled in weaponry, and the art of 8 limbs was born to mimic these weapons, should they be rendered useless. What emerged is both a martial art and a fighting style that was refined into what we now know as Muay Thai or Thai boxing.
From tactical warfare, a culture and a sport began to appear. Training centers previously established for soldiers became training camps where men could learn and practice for their own personal reasons. In addition, returning soldiers began to compete in matches while off duty, and the older generations passed on their knowledge to both of these groups.
Although competitive muay Thai was a form of entertainment, it was also considered a necessary practice for the royal family, for a fearsome warrior becomes a fearless leader. These worlds would intertwine as Thai boxing was performed for exhibitions, and even the royal family would partake. One king, in particular, Naresuan, who trained rigorously as a muay Thai fighter, became a legend in his own right for defeating the Burmese and ending their occupancy in Thailand at the end of the 16th century.
A National Sport:
Following King Naresuan’s reign, Thailand began to prosper, and with it, a national sport began to take shape. Previously contests were not held in a smaller confined space, but now a ‘ring’ was established by a rope on the floor, and fighters began to cover their hands with ropes, called muay kard cherg,’ which protected the wrists and knuckles of the striker and added venom to the devastating blows.
Fighters were not matched by weight or experience, and winners had to be clearly defined by an opponent unable to continue. There were no rounds and no rules; even strikes to the groin were allowed. Unlike Muay Thai, grappling and ground fighting occurred as well as a ninth weapon: the headbutt. This version of combat is usually referred to as ‘Muay Boran.’ Although Muay Boran still exists today, it is an essential piece of Muay Thai’s origin story.
Rituals and Rounds:
Rituals both influenced by the dominant Buddhist culture and Thai traditions began to appear in the sport. The headband and armband typically worn by fighters were introduced, and gambling was as much a part of Muay Thai in the 17th century as it is today. It continued to be an integral part of people’s lives, whether they be royalty, infantry, or farmers.
The 18th century ushered in a period of peace for the kingdom, and the Thai capital moved from Ayutthaya to Thon Buri, a part of the country that was less accessible to the Myanmar army. Competitions continued to flourish, especially amongst gyms that sent their best fighters against neighboring camps. Although it was becoming increasingly more recreational and competitive, there were still no formal rulesets to define the sport.
This began to change when rounds were introduced. The length of the round was determined by a coconut shell with a hole in it placed in a bucket of water. As the shell began to fill with water, it would slowly sink to the bottom, signaling the end of the round. Although there was a time limit, there was not a determined amount of rounds, and competitors would still fight until one was at least incapacitated. The Wai Kru, an honorary dance for one’s teacher, sport, and country, originated in this century. Accredited to Nai Kanom Tom, this ritual, also known as the Ram Muay, is now an intrinsic part of the fight entrance ritual we see in Muay Thai today.
Rules and Regulations:
It wasn’t until the late 19th and 20th centuries that we saw rules and procedures that most closely resemble Muay Thai as it is now. Beginning in the 1880s, King Rama V promoted the sport tirelessly, offering tournaments, festivals, and events to highlight the potential and possibility in the sport. Winners were often chosen to be the king’s personal bodyguards, and Muay Thai became an essential part of the military cadet curriculum.
The First World War played a part in the globalization of Muay Thai when Thai fighters were stationed in France to boost morale. The French would even participate at times, and international appeal began to spread. A more solid striking pattern was emerging by this time, using the hands, elbows, knees, and legs to deliver brutal and debilitating blows. At the same time, the fighter was expected to have a good defense, so they too were not at the mercy of such devastating strikes. The only thing missing now was the rules and regulations to bring the sport into the 20th century.
In the 1920s, a formal ring and gloves were introduced, and a firm ruleset would follow after the second world war. Uniform regulations such as the number of rounds were established around the same time national stadiums were erected. Sixty years later, the world would witness the Golden Era of Muay Thai, a peak in exceptional talent and ability from both Thai and foreign fighters.
A Sport of Kings:
In 2016 Muay Thai was accepted as a provisional Olympic sport. The debut was expected to be in 2020, but we have yet to see the sport of kings on an Olympic stage. Regardless of when or if this happens, Muay Thai is a sport that has survived and even thrived due to adversity. It will continue to be defined by its moral characteristics as much as its physical ones: Respect, Courage, Honor, and an indomitable fighting spirit.