from the battles of S.E Asia, Muay Thai has conquered the world of Martial Arts
It is estimated that Muay Thai history began about 1500 years ago, when several warring kingdoms dominated what is now called South East Asia. From the mountains of Western Myanmar to the Mekong’s delta in South Vietnam, historical records show that the area was, for centuries, a large battlefield. Three main races were constantly fighting with each other, switching allegiances and often betraying their own people to protect or enlarge fragile kingdoms. These were the Burmese, the Siamese and the Khmer. They all share a common history of wars, fought for riches, farming land, or the beauty of a princess.
In war, infantries from all sides fought in a similar fashion: soldiers had one sword and a shield, or two swords, and were trained to use kicks, knees and elbows in case they lost or broke their weapons. This style of combat is peculiar of the region and it’s quite different from all Chinese Wu-Shu related martial arts. One of these ancient fighting art, of what is left of it, is still taught in military academies in Thailand.
The ability to fight bare-handed to survive in battle using the body’s best weapons (knees and elbows was ) was an essential part of a soldier’s training. This ancestral form of “Eight limbs boxing” is where Muay Thai history begins. Thais calls it Pahuyuth. It was a brutal way to fight, based of fast and powerful combinations of elbow and knee strikes, thrown with all body weight and at full charge, targeting bone junctions and vital points. Being used in battle, the objective was to dislocate joints and break bones, or at least to knock down the opponent. These techniques had to be swift and powerful, as it was a matter of life or death on the field.
The Burmese had their native fighting style, nowadays called Lert Wei, while the Khmer had Bokator. The overall styles were similar but the techniques were different and jealously guarded against the enemy. As there are historical records of Bokator fighters (engraved on Angkor Wat’s walls), many historians believe the Siamese and the Burmese may have learned this martial art from captured Khmer prisoners, forced to reveal their fighting techniques.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Muay Thai as we call it still didn’t exist yet. The Siamese style of fighting was not an unified, common knowledge, as the masters of Pahuyut were long gone and in absence of wars, the teachings were lost forever. Masters from different regions had their own sets of techniques, secret tricks and personal styles, which were taught only to a few students. At the time there were a few kinds of “muay”: according to where it was taught: Muay Lopburi from central plains of Siam, Muay Khorat from the North East and Muay Tha Sao from the Northand. Muay Chaiya, the only one still taught, was a peculiar fighting style created by a legendary warrior who become a monk and lived in the southern province of Surat Thani.
In times of peaces, soldiers kept their skills toned in boxing competitions, organized during religious festivals or special occasions, usually held at major temples’ fairs, for the general amusement of the king and his people.
Champions from all regions participated, attracted by the prizes (in gold or land) offered by the monarch. It was at this time that fighters started to be called nak muay (boxer), instead of nak rop (warrior), even though the majority of nak muay were all soldiers or ex-soldiers. Fights were held in circular patches of sand and there was no time limit. The winner was the one standing: as a result, many boxers were killed or permanently handicapped.
Members of royalty and noblemen not only enjoyed watching and sponsoring boxing contests, but participated as well. A legendary fighter was Phra Sanpetch VIII, one of the many Kings of Ayuttaya, known as the “Lord of the Tigers”. A warrior and a devoted practitioner, he was known to disguise himself as a commoner and participate incognito at boxing contests held in other cities, not for the prizes but to challenge himself against all top fighters of the region. King Rama V, one of the greatest monarchs in Thailand’s history, was an avid fan too and organized the first inter-regional fighting tournament in Bangkok. Champions from all Siam were invited to compete and display their different styles, for prizes and royal titles bestowed by the king himself. His son, King Rama VI did even better, organizing the greatest boxing tournament ever, at the Suan Kulap College in Bangkok, where the first boxing stadium was built in 1921. This international event attracted fighters as far away as Burma, Cambodia, China, India and Japan. All foreign champions were defeated and the Siamese fighting style established its superiority on all martial arts, a fact that Thais still mention today with great pride. Two more records of that era have survived: the tale of Nai Kanomthom and the chronicle of the twins French boxers who challenged the best Siamese fighters and were promptly humiliated.
Muay Kaad Chuak (bonded fists boxing) as it was called at the time became increasingly popular and lasted in its original form until the 40’s. It developed into a sport gradually, in a time span of forty years, which can be classified in five periods, each one associated to the location of boxing venues in Bangkok.
Suan Kulap era: people started to attend the fights in growing numbers, as they were held regularly and not only on festivals and special occasions. The fights started to be regulated by a referee and had a time limit. Still no gloves were used and accidental deaths occurred.
Tha Chang era: in this period an important change occurred: hemp strings were abandoned for the first leather boxing gloves. This greatly helped in reducing the number of dead fighters.
Suan Sanook era: fights became mass attractions and the owner of Suan Sanook Arena understood people loved to watch and bet. The first champions emerged and their names became famous all over Siam. Betting on fights was not against the law and people did it with gusto. This is what Thais refer as the “Golden Age” of boxing. And it’s when Muay Thai starts to resemble what it is today.
Lak Muang/Suan Jao Ched eras: the Army enters the scene, taking control of the fighting circles and organizing more regular fights. Part of the income from the sales of tickets went to the military, at the times often involved in coups d’etat and power struggles. At the same time, Siam becomes Thailand. Muay Thai is more and more popular nationwide, even though everything happens in Bangkok.
In the Fifties, the boxing scene is still firmly in control of the military, which builds the Rajadamern Stadium first and then the Lumpini. Muay Thai becomes the national sport of Thailand, loved by all Thais. Muay Thai history is now present history.