Muay Thai is a martial art native to the country of Thailand. It is widely known as The Science of Eight Limbs because it requires its practitioners to be proficient with elbows, knees, kicks, and punches. Although the origins of Muay Thai are not known, historical documents provide us with a scattered timeline showing the growth and transformation of Muay Thai over the last seven to eight hundred years. Differing from the ring sport of today, Muay Thai practitioners originally yielded their bodily weapons on the battlefield against foreign invaders and, at times, even against themselves. Civil disputes were often settled by way of Muay Thai and many Thais practiced the art as a form of self-defense to protect themselves and their families. There were four major periods that helped to define Muay Thai: they were the Sukhothai period, the Ayudhaya period, the Thonburi period, and the Ratanakosin period.
Sukhothai Period (1238-1375)
During the time when Sukhothai was the capital of Thailand(known then as Siam) many wars took place with neighboring countries. Because of primitive war strategies these battles often occurred at close quarters. This forced soldiers to become skilled at hand-to-hand combat. Since their hands were occupied with weapons the push kick and the round kick became an important part of a soldier’s arsenal. After knocking an enemy off balance with one of these methods the solider would then follow up with a weapon attack. Even today we can see the influence of this ancient technique as balance is considered to be one of the most fundamental aspects of Muay Thai; furthermore, to knock an opponent off balance while fighting in the ring is a highly regarded tactic.Because of the constant threat of enemy invasions almost all Sukhothai young men and male adults learned and mastered the art of Muay Thai. Even members of the Royal Family were well-versed in the science. During this time it was usually the monks who taught Muay Thai at local village temples. And even when the threat of war was not present the people of Sukhothai remained keen on refining and mastering their Muay Thai skills. When festive occasions took place at temples or on Royal grounds, Muay Thai was usually at the heart of the activities.
Between 1350-1767 not much had changed in the way of teaching and practicing Muay Thai. The art was still taught on temple grounds and in local villages throughout Thailand. Also, Muay Thai bouts were still held at Royal ceremonies and at this time some monetary reward was given to the fighters. Although, there were no fees to witness these spectacles and gambling had not yet been introduced to the sport. During this time, fighters who competed against each other would agree to a set of rules before the fight; a universal rule set – like we see in the sport today – was nonexistent. However, some of these traditions still carried over into modern times. For example, often you will see fighters being matched up according to body type rather than exact weight. This has been a practice since the inception of Muay Thai and still lives on today.If there was one defining moment that came out of the Ayudhaya period it would have to be the story of Nai Khanomtom. As legend has it, after the Burmese sacked Ayudhaya they took prisoners of war and returned to Burma. Most of these Thai prisoners were soldiers who were proficient at Muay Thai . As a form of entertainment, the Burmese King put together a festival in which the Thai prisoners would have to fight against Burmese boxers. Nai Khanomtom, being one of these prisoners, beat ten consecutive Burmese boxers. The king was so amazed that he granted Nai Khanomtom his freedom and he returned to Thailand a legend. Because of this, every March 17th members of the Muay Thai community celebrate this day by paying respect to the people of Muay Thai , both past and present.
After Burma took Ayudhaya, the king of Thailand gathered as many Thai fighters as he could to protect the country and the Royal Family from future invasions. Training in the art of Muay Thai continued as it had done in the past, but the landscape of Muay Thai was now changing. Because battles were being fought differently, Muay Thai was used less frequently in combat. Instead, Muay Thai was now growing as an activity performed in temple celebrations and during new year festivals. This was also the time when Muay Thai had become more structured. Rounds were introduced, a ring began to take shape as makeshift ropes were laid out to form a square, and fighters started wrapping their hands for protection. However, there were issues with the methods of keeping time of the rounds. Coconut shells with holes in the centers were placed in water and when they sank, the round was up. Therefore, the length of each round differed. Furthermore, there were no set number of rounds; fighters simply fought until one decided to quit.
Ratanakosin (1782-present time)
Since the early years of the Ratanakosin era not much had changed in the way of Muay Thai . A formal set of rules had yet to be established and fights continued to take place in village temples and at Royal events. However, in the mid-to-late 1900s, Muay Thai finally got the boost it needed to become the National Sport of Thailand. By this time rules and regulations were set into place, weight classes were formed, and boxers were given the appropriate protective equipment. Additionally, in 1955 the first televised Muay Thai fight was broadcast from Rajadamnern Stadium. Because of the success of Muay Thai as a sport, there became a demand for Thai boxers to test their skills against practitioners from other arts. With this, in 1959 many fights took place in which fighters from different backgrounds competed against Muay Thai fighters. And with the kicks of Muay Thai fighters proving to be too much for most other martial artists, Thai boxers usually came out as the winners of these contests.
Moving forward into the 1990s, many considered this era to be the Golden Age of Muay Thai. Fighters were known for aggressive tactics in the ring and battles went back and forth for a majority of the five rounds. Furthermore, some of the greatest fighters to have ever entered the ring came from this Golden Age. Some of these fighters include: Samart Payakaroon, Boonlai Sor Thanikul, Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtom, and Santienoi Sor Rungrot, to name a few. During these times, stadiums were mobbed with gamblers and spectators who passionately backed their favorite fighters. However, today, the number of spectators going to live events continues to dwindle. Some believe this is because gambling can be done via cell phones and fights can be watched live on television. Others attribute the steady loss to the rising popularity of soccer.In 2011, today’s Muay Thai sport is played at the highest level of skill. Titles are frequently exchanged because fighters compete so often. And the game has turned into a battle of smarts. Trickery is the flavor of this generation of fighters as they try to out point each other until the end. However, the past decade hasn’t been without flaw. Many believe gambling has killed the growth of the sport and alters the outcomes of important fights; although, to date there have been no in-depth studies on the affect of gambling in Muay Thai.
Spread of Muay Thai to Europe
With the success of Muay Thai in Thailand, in the 1970s the sport began spreading west. Europe was one of the first countries to embrace Muay Thai and throughout the 1980s many organizations sprang up to help promote the sport in the region. Over time, Europeans began creating their own style of the art with an emphasis on strong hands and powerful low kicks. This later became known as Dutch Style Muay Thai; a methodology that was also influenced by Kyokushin Karate. Another defining trait that separates Dutch Muay Thai from traditional Muay Thai is in the training philosophy. The Dutch are known for heavy sparring and lighter flow work on pads. Whereas in traditional Muay Thai, sparring is done at about fifty percent of ones power, and pad work is done at one-hundred percent. Three of the more popular fighters to come out of the Muay Thai scene in Europe were Ramon Dekkers, Rob Kaman, and Danny Bill.
Spread of Muay Thai to America
Despite Muay Thai being introduced to Americans around the same time as their European counterparts, things moved far slower for the sport in the states. In the 1980s, boxing was still a huge draw and despite the existence of smaller kickboxing circuits, Muay Thai was hardly known among fans of combat sports. However, there were handfuls of individuals who had visited Thailand and wished to bring the art of Muay Thai back to the states. This is when we witnessed the sport blossoming in pockets of America. But because of the distance and diversity of those involved with the start up of Muay Thai, the sport became segregated before it ever had the chance to reach its full potential.
It wasn’t until the early years of the 21st century when Muay Thai received its biggest push in the way of mixed martial arts. Despite lacking the substance and traditions that make up the culture of Muay Thai, MMA helped to get the general idea of Muay Thai out to practitioners and fans of combat sports. This gave way for a greater demand of Muay Thai as many fighters favored the striking aspect of MMA. Eventually, the popularity of Muay Thai allowed for more traditional gyms to open their doors and the knowledge of authentic Muay Thai was able to be passed down. Additionally, with the increase of traditional Muay Thai fighters, promoters were able to hold events dedicated to the Muay Thai demographic.
Although still considered the subculture of combat sports, Muay Thai has been steadily growing in America and some of the countries best fighters are starting to break out on to the world scene. It’s still too early to see where Muay Thai in America is heading, but if 2011 was any indication of the sport’s potential, then Muay Thai will most likely become a permanent fixture in the American fighting arts.
There are many indoor and outdoor stadiums located throughout Thailand. Four of the major stadiums are Rajadamnern, Lumpini, Omnoi, and Channel 7.
The first of Thailand’s major stadiums to open to the public was Rajadamnern Stadium. Although construction on Rajadamnern began in 1941 it wasn’t until December 23, 1945 when spectators first witnessed Muay Thai fights from the enormous concrete structure. This was because in 1944, due to the material demands of World War II, construction was put on hold. However, in 1945 the building of Rajadamnern continued and within four months the stadium was complete. In 1951 a roof was added to Rajadamnern Stadium protecting its spectators and fighters from the outside elements.Today, Rajadamnern Stadium is still a popular attraction for tourists and Muay Thai enthusiasts alike. Outside the stadium there are Muay Thai equipment shops, food courts, and on any given fight night you will find hundreds of motor scooters lined up outside the stadium; the property of gambling Muay Thai enthusiasts who come to the stadium to sacrifice their weekly wages on their favorite fighters.
Lumpini Stadium was built in 1956 and opened its doors on December 8th of the same year. Despite being built ten years after its predecessor, Lumpini has become, to many, the mecca of Muay Thai. Upon entering its drab concrete innards, one will find at the heart of the stadium the famous stage centered among the tiers of rugged seating. This ring has been home to many of the sports greatest champions of both past and present. On its canvas is scribed the stories of legendary fighters and epic battles. One of the most successful fighters to ever compete at Lumpini was Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn. Dieselnoi held the lightweight title for four years before he had to relinquish the belt for lack of worthy opponents.With the huge amount of tourist traffic that Lumpini sees every year, it is no surprise why so many fight shops have opened up outside of the stadium. When fights are scheduled, visitors can shop for all major brands of Muay Thai equipment. Additionally, the world famous Petchyindee Muay Thai camp has opened a gym just above one of these shops. This has given westerners the opportunity to not only visit and watch fights at Lumpini, but it also gives them the chance to enjoy some authentic training at the same time.
Siam Omnoi Stadium
Siam Omnoi Stadium – more popularly referred to as Omnoi Stadium – was constructed in 1987 in Samutsakorn Province, replacing the former Samrong Boxing Stadium. This was after promoters and broadcasting executives realized the potential success of airing Muay Thai fights live on television. Up until 1990, fights held at Omnoi were broadcast on television through a partnership with Channel 9. But after Channel 9 cancelled its contract with Omnoi, fights at the stadium ceased until 1993; when Channel 3 took over the broadcasting rights. Their partnership has been strong ever since.Today, Omnoi Stadium has become synonymous with the tournament-style Muay Thai competitions sponsored by Isuzu. And being further away from the masses than Lumpini and Rajadamnern, it is often only visited by hardcore gamblers and foreigners who are training at local Muay Thai gyms. Like its Bangkok equivalents, Omnoi Stadium has a food court but does not offer anything in the way of training equipment.
Channel 7 Stadium
Channel 7 Stadium is located in Bangkok and is part of the Channel 7 Television Studio. Unlike Rajadamnern and Lumpini Stadiums, Channel 7 is free for spectators so long as there are seats available. But once inside, one often wonders if they ever turn anyone away. Each fighter warms up outside of the stadium and when it is their turn to fight, they are shuffled through the thick crowd of gamblers. Much of the time, it is so packed that fighters and their cornermen are only able to make it ringside if they walk sideways. Like Omnoi Stadium, foreigners who visit Channel 7 are often brought there by Thai acquaintances.Recently, a roof was built outside of the stadium where the fighters warm up. In the past, Muay Thai pugilists would have to sit under the scorching sun as they waited for their turn to fight. Food stalls are located on the street and free bottles of water are served to ringside spectators.
Traces of Buddhism can be found in every aspect of Muay Thai. But one place where it is most prominent is in the regalia that Muay Thai fighters wear. Below are some of the more popular pieces which make up the traditional outfit of a Muay Thai fighter.
The mongkon is a traditional headpiece worn by a Thai fighter as they enter the ring and perform the Wai Kru and Ram Muay. It is placed on the head of the fighter before they make their way to the ring. Before the mongkon is placed on the fighter’s head a prayer, which is believed to protect the fighter from harm during combat, is recited. It is removed from the head of the fighter after the Wai Kru and Ram Muay are performed. Placement and removal of the mongkon are done by an elder or trainer from the gym, the fighter’s father, or someone close to the fighter. The mongkon is unique to each gym; some gyms may have multiple mongkons, and others may have only one.There was a time when spectators could tell what part of Thailand a fighter was from by the way they wore their mongkon. If the tail was pointed upward, that would signify that the fighter was from northern Thailand. If the tail was pointed downward, then the fighter was from the south of Thailand. Additionally, if the tail of the mongkon was pointed straight back, then that fighter was said to be from central Thailand. Traditionally, fighters are never allowed to touch the mongkon. However, as time passes and traditions fade you will see fighters now handling the mongkon. As a blessed piece, and following the traditions of Buddhism, the mongkon is always stored above the heads of everyone in its presence and it is never supposed to touch the floor.
The prajiads are another sacred piece worn by a Muay Thai fighter. Differing from the mongkon, the prajiads are more personal to a fighter and are not usually shared throughout the gym. Often times, prajiads are hand made by a member of the fighter’s family and are braided from strands of a family garment or blessed cloth from a monk. Other times, prajiads are simply hand gauze tied around the fighters upper arms. At times, a fighter may only wear a prajiad on one arm, depicting this to be his strong side. However, in major stadiums like Lumpini it is mandatory for fighters to wear their prajiads on both arms. The prajiads are believed to bring good luck and protection to a fighter during combat.
The phuang malai is a floral arrangement given to a fighter as a token of good luck. These flowers, which are usually made of Jasmine, are strung together and make up a length long enough for a fighter to wear it over their neck. In Buddhist tradition, the flower symbolizes life and death and the impermanence of existence. The phuang malai is not native to Muay Thai like the mongkong and prajiads; rather, they were incorporated into the sport through the outside influence of superstition in Thai culture.
In traditional Muay Thai there are two dances that fighters perform before they fight; they are the Wai Kru(Pray Trainer) and the Ram Muay(Dance Fight). Today, most people now refer to the entire dance as the Wai Kru, and when performed gracefully the two separate dances flow seamlessly from one into the next. In olden days, spectators could tell where a fighter was from just by observing as they performed their Wai Kru and Ram Muay. Furthermore, because the movements allow a fighter to loosen up and release tension, these two dances are known to relax and prepare a fighter’s mind before combat.
Wai Kru and Ram Muay
The Wai Kru is the first part of the dance. During this time a fighter will seal the ring by walking along the inside perimeter of the ropes while stoping in each corner to say a quick prayer. The act of sealing off the ring is said to keep bad luck out and protect the fighter throughout the course of their bout. The fighter will then make their way to the center of the ring and circle about three times. After which, the fighter will then bring themselves to their knees and bow three times. Generally, in Buddhism things are done in threes as a sign of imperfection. Each time they bow they will give respect to their trainer, their spiritual beliefs, and ask for luck and an honorable performance.Following the Wai Kru a fighter will begin to perform the Ram Muay. The Ram Muay is more fighter-specific and each fighter’s dance is different. Some fighters will incorporate movements that tell a little tale of what part of the world they are from. Others will add a bit of personal flare. Some fighters will shoot arrows from a bow, yet others will set bear traps. The Ram Muay has become added entertainment for the Muaythai spectator.
Please note that there are no direct translations for Thai words when converting them to the romanized alphabet. The Thai words and phrases used throughout this article are just one way in which they could be spelled in English.