Muay Thai is a national sport of Thailand and can be traced back hundreds of years as a form of close-combat using various parts of the body. Referred to as the “Art of Eight Limbs” or the “Science of Eight Limbs”, the sport involves combination of elbow, shins, knees, and fists, giving the fighters many weapons to choose from. Boxers begin each fight with a ritual ram muay or wai kroo that is accompanied by traditional sarama music where the fighters pay respect to their teachers.
Before Muay Thai gained popularity in its martial-sport form, historical texts indicate that Muay Boran was the battlefield precursor to modern Muay Thai. It was originally developed for practical fighting and self-defense techniques used by the Thai royal military in warfare. Muay Boran is composed of techniques that is said to be too dangerous to be used in modern Muay Thai prizefighting. Techniques included grappling and ground fighting. Festivals would be held at different times of the year, and fighters from different styles would wrap their hands and forearms in hemp rope and fight each other. Nowadays, rather than martial-sport, it’s more accurate to call Muay Boran martial-art. Basic movements of muay are demonstrated in a non-combat form to depict the origin of muay and the nak muay (Muay Thai fighter) is dressed in premodern Muay Thai clothes. Interestingly, the term boran (ancient) was not used back in the days and was simply referred to as muay. Upon the introduction of Western-style boxing, the term boran was used to distinguish between the two styles.
Tracing back to the year 694 during medieval Thai period, the Sukhothai Era, many wars were waged between rivaling kingdoms and neighbouring tribes. The Siamese soldiers were taught hand-to-hand combat techniques involving hands, elbows, knees, and legs alongside weapons including bows and arrows. Due to constant fear of war, training camps were held at buddhist temples and young men were taught Muay Thai as a means of self-defense, exercise, and discipline. This would serve as the basis of Muay Thai for many years to come.
Muay Thai gain its national popularity during the reign of King Phra Chao Sua. He was known to participate in disguise at tournaments hosted in rural cities. His love for Muay Thai led to the creation of Department of Royal Boxing that was in charged of recruiting men worthy of fighting to entertain the Royals. Upon proving their worth, they are assigned as royal guards at the palace.
During the ascension of King Rama V, otherwise known as King Chulalongkorn, Muay Thai gained immense popularity due to his interest from when he was young. Beginning from the late 1880s to 1910, he began promoting Muay Thai tournaments throughout the kingdom and as a result ushered in the golden age of not just Muay Thai, but the whole kingdom.
Eventually, Muay Thai was introduced to the rest of the world during World War I. When the soldiers were stationed in France, fights would be organized to help boost the soldier’s morals. The French and the Americans were so curious about Muay Thai that they asked the Thai soldiers to teach them the basics. As Muay Thai gained international popularity, rules had to be changed so that it could be organized into an establishment like boxing. When King Rama VII ascended the throne between 1925-35, rules and equipments for Muay Thai were developed and adopted. Fights were divided into 5 rounds and 15 weight categories ranging from mini-fly weights (48kg) to heavyweight (80kg +) were created. Arenas were built in many provinces and referees were introduced. Gloves replaced hemp ropes and groin protection cups were used as an added protection from devastating kicks.
Instead of fighting to entertain the royals, modern day nak muay fight as a part of their career. Compared to western boxing, fighters make about $100 USD per week. Unless you’re Saenchai, fighters don’t gain a lot of money per fight. Many begin when they are 6-8 years old and may accumulate to as much as 120-150 fights by the time they are in their mid-twenties. Unfortunately, the lifespan of nak muay is fairly short, as they are trained to be tough and to ignore injuries and pain. Some suffer from many severe sprains and broken bones throughout their fighting career.