The History of Muay Thai

The development of Muay Thai saw the transformation of the human body into a multifaceted weapon inspired by the weapons common to the time. The shin became the staff of the pike, used to block and strike. The arms became the raised twin swords of defense. The fist functioned as the jabbing tip of the spear. The elbow developed into the battle axe, used to smash and to crush. The knee, too, axed its way through enemy’s defenses. Finally, there was the transformation of the flashing foot into pike, arrow, and knife. As each part of the body became a weapon unto itself, a new close-combat fighting skill was born: Muay Thai. Since its initial development, Muay Thai has changed in many ways. It is now a modern sport, rather than a battlefield skill. But in its heart are carried old traditions and an ancient fighting spirit.

Muay Thai is part of the cultural heritage of the Thai people. Their histories are intertwined. But their historical development is difficult to discern clearly. When the Burmese sacked the Thai capital of Ayutthaya, the archives of Thai history were, for the most part, lost. Along with them were lost the historical accounts of the development of Muay Thai. What little we do know comes primarily from the writings of Burmese, Cambodian, and early European visitors to Thailand, as well as chronicles from the Lanna Kingdom in Chiang Mai. All these sources agree that Muay Thai originated to be used on the battlefield in person to person combat. As to the specific origins, however, these sources are unclear and often contradict each other.

There are, however, two main theories. The first suggests that the art of Muay Thai developed as the Thai people migrated from China to what is now Thailand. It would have been an essential tool in the migrants’ struggle for land. The second theory contends that the Thai people were already settled in Thailand and developed Muay Thai as a means of self defense against invasion. Whichever account is correct, what is indisputable is that Muay Thai was an essential part of Thai culture from its very beginnings.

The first great upsurge in interest in Muay Thai as a sport and not just a military skill occurred in the Ayutthaya period during the rule of King Naresuan in 1584 CE. At that time, every soldier as well as the King himself, trained in Muay Thai. Muay Thai slowly evolved from its roots in the Chupasart – a warfare manual – and new techniques were developed. This development continued under the reign of King Prachao Sua, the Tiger King, who so loved Muay Thai that he often fought incognito in village contests. Thailand was at peace during his reign, so soldiers were ordered to train Muay Thai. Interest in the sport subsequently took off. Muay Thai became the favorite pastime and sport of the Thai people, who flocked from all walks of life to Muay Thai training camps. Every village staged prize fights and had its own champion.

While Muay Thai has always been popular, there have been times when it has been especially popular. The reign of King Rama V was one such golden age for the sport. Many boxing camps were set up and talent scouts, under royal command, recruited fighters from around the country to fight for the King. Match makers arranged grand bouts, which were fought for large prizes and honour. At that time, the matches were not staged in a ring as they are now. Any available space – a courtyard or village clearing, for instance – would be used. It was not until the reign of King Rama VI that the standard ring surrounded by ropes came into use, as did time keeping by the clock. Before that time, time keeping was done by floating a pierced coconut shell in a tank of water. When the shell sank, a drum signaled the end of the round.

Muay Thai has always been a sport for the people as well as a military fighting skill. Regardless of social position, the Thai people have always practiced Muay Thai. It was part of the school curriculum until the 1920s, when it was withdrawn because it was thought that the injury rate was too high. Thai people, however, have continued to practice Muay Thai in gyms and clubs. The people have always followed the sport and have been instrumental in moving it from the battlefield to the stadium ring.

Thai Kings, of course, have been powerful forces in the development of the sport. One such prime mover was King Prachao Sua, or the Tiger King. He not only influenced fighting styles, but also the equipment that was used. At the beginning of his reign, the hands and forearms of fighters were bound with strips of horse hair. This both protected the fighter and inflicted more damage on the opponent. Horse hair strips were later 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. Changes in the sport since that time have primarily been changes in equipment rather than radical changes. For example, while Thai fighters have always worn groin guards to protect against kicks or knees to the groin (which were legal moves until the 1930s), these guards have evolved from tree bark or sea shells held in place with a piece of cloth to triangular shaped pillows tied in place, which have subsequently been replaced by the modern groin protector which was brought back from Malaysia by a Thai boxer who traveled there.

The most radical changes in the sport occurred in the 1930s. It was then that the sport was codified and today’s rules and regulations were introduced. Rope bindings of the arms and hands were replaced by boxing gloves, a change that can be attributed to the growing success of Thai boxers in international boxing. The introduction of weight classes was also inspired by international boxing. These and other innovations – such as the organization of fights into five rounds – substantially altered the fighting techniques employed by fighters. Some techniques have disappeared.

The establishment of stadiums, instead of makeshift rings, began during the reign of King Rama VII before World War Two. During the war, they gradually disappeared only to return with a strong presence afterwards. Boxers from up-country once again headed toward fame and fortune in Bangkok. Glory could be found at stadiums such as Rajdamnern and Lumpini. With the introduction of television coverage, the popularity of the sport was enhanced. Channel 7 began broadcasting fights in colour over twenty years ago. Today four Thai television stations broadcast fights free to millions of Muay Thai enthusiasts throughout Thailand.

Muay Thai truly has evolved from a battlefield art into a popular sport. It has recently been accepted as an official sport in Asian Games competition and the push is on to have it accepted as an official Olympic sport. It is becoming increasingly popular outside of Thailand and has enthusiasts and practitioners in the Americas, Australia, Africa, Japan, and Europe. The fighting tradition continues to be passed on and is spreading wide and far. The illustrious history of Muay Thai is on a path to greater recognition and international popularity.

 
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