The history of Muaythai is the history of the Thai people – both though are difficult to discover.
When the Burmese army sacked and razed Ayuddhaya to the ground, the archives of Thai history were lost. With them, much of the early history of Muaythai also went.
The little we do know, comes from the writings of the Burmese, Cambodian, early European visitors and some of the chronicles of the Lanna Kingdom – Chiang Mai.
What all sources agree on, is that Muaythai began as a close combat battlefield fighting skill. More deadly than the weapons it replaced.
As to where Muaythai came from, its evolution, the sources aren’t clear and often contradict each other. But there are two main theories.
One says that the art developed as the Thai people moved down from China; honed in the struggle for land. The other theory says that the Thai people were already here and that Muaythai developed to defend the land and people from constant invasion threats.
The second, while controversial, has considerable academic backing and archaeological evidence. The first is, however, possible as the area opened up to the early pioneers.What is known is that Muaythai was an essential part of Thai culture right from its dawn. And in Thailand, it’s the sport of kings.
In olden days, national issues were decided by Muaythai contests.
The first great upsurge of interest in Muaythai as a sport, as well as a battlefield skill, was under King Naresuan in 1584, a time known as the Ayuddhaya period. During this period, every soldier trained in Muaythai and could use it, as the King himself did. Slowly Muaythai moved away from its root in the ‘Chupasart’ and new fighting techniques were evolving.
The change in the art was to continue under another fighting King – Prachao Sua – the Tiger King. He loved Muaythai so much that he often fought incognito in village contests, beating the local champions. During the reign of the Tiger King the nation was at peace. The King, to keep the army busy, ordered it to train in Muaythai. The interest in the sport was already high but now it took off yet again.
Thai Boxing became the favourite sport and pastime of the people, the army and the King. Historical sources show that people from all walks of life flocked to training camps. Rich, poor, young and old all wanted some of the action. Every village staged its prize fights and had its champions. Every bout became a betting contest as well as a contest of local pride. The betting tradition has remained with the sport and today large sums are wagered on the outcome of fights.
Thai boxing has always been popular but like most sports, there have been times when it was more in fashion. In the reign of King Rama V, many Muaythai matches were Royal Command fights. These boxers were rewarded with military titles from the King. Today the titles, like Muen Muay Mee Chue from Chaiya or Muen Muay Man Mudh from Lopburi are virtually untranslatable. They mean something comparable to Major of Boxing. At the time they were much prized and respected titles.
The Rama V period was another golden age for Muaythai. Boxing camps were set up, talent scouts – at Royal Command – recruited potential boxers from up country. Match makers began to make the great matches which were fought for big prizes and honour. This thrilled the people then as much as the main bouts do today at the Bangkok boxing stadiums.
The matches then were not fought in a ring as we know it today – for Muaythai that is a recent innovation. Any available space of the right size was used, a courtyard, a village clearing.
It wasn’t till the reign of King Rama VI that the standard ring surrounded by ropes came into use, as did time keeping by the clock. Before this period, time keeping was done by floating a pierced coconut shell on a boat of water. When the coconut piece sank, a drum signalled the end of the round.
Muaythai has always been a sport for the people as well as a military fighting skill. In all its golden ages, the people have trained and practised the sport whether they were King or commoner. It was a part of the school curriculum right up to the 1920’s when it was withdrawn because it was felt that the injury rate was too high. The people however, continued to study it in gyms and clubs just as they do today.
For centuries the army fostered Muaythai. Soldiers have trained and used the techniques for as long as there has been an army in Thailand. For the military it has always been the close combat fighting skill, the martial art of the battlefield. When a Thai soldier fights hand to hand he uses Muaythai. But then so does every Thai person, male or female. Watching it, learning it, copying it is a part of Thai childhood. It always has been.
The people have always followed the sport and have been instrumental in moving it from the battlefield to the ring. They have been as much a part of making it a sport as have the Kings. One of the prime movers in transforming the sport was the Tiger King, who not only influenced fighting styles but also the equipment.
During the reign of the Tiger King, the hands and forearms began being bound with strips of horse hair. This was to serve a dual purpose – protect the fighter and inflict more damage on the opponent. Later, these were 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.
The changes that the sport has undergone have been changes to equipment used rather than radical change. For example, Thai fighters have always worn groin guards. A kick or knee to the groin was a perfectly legal move up until the 1930’s. In the early days, the protection was made from tree bark or sea shells held in place with a piece of cloth tied between the legs and around the waist.
The groin guard later became a triangular shaped pillow, red or blue, tied around the waist with a through strap between the legs.
The pillow went, after a boxer on a trip to Malaysia saw a groin box. He came back with the idea, which is close to the original idea of the sea shell and since then, Muaythai fighters have used them.
The 1930’s saw the most radical change in the sport. It was then that it was codified and today’s rules and regulations were introduced. Rope bindings of the arms and hands were abandoned and gloves took their place.
This innovation was also in response to the growing success of Thai Boxers in international boxing.
Along with the introduction of gloves, came weight classes based on the international boxing divisions. These and other innovations – such as the introduction of five rounds – substantially altered the fighting techniques that the boxers used causing some of them to disappear.
Before the introduction of weight classes, a fighter could and did fight all comers regardless of size and weight differences. However, the introduction of the weight classes meant that the fighters were more evenly matched and instead of there being one champion, there became one for each weight class.
Most Muaythai fighters belong to the lighter weight classes. Seventy percent of all fighters belong to the fly and bantam weight divisions. There are welterweight and middleweight fights but they are not seen that often and the heavier categories seldom fight.
The establishment of stadiums, instead of makeshift rings and courtyards, began during the reign of Rama VII before the Second World War. During the war, they gradually disappeared but mushroomed again soon afterwards – Muaythai had not lost any of its appeal. The boxers from up-country once again headed toward fame and fortune in Bangkok.
The glory could be found at stadiums like Rajdamnern and Lumpinee. Later, they fought in full colour fury on television. Thailand’s Channel 7 started broadcasting the fights in colour over 20 years ago. Today all four Thai television stations broadcast free to millions of Muaythai fans throughout Thailand – four nights a week.
The battle art has evolved into a popular sport. Ruled, codified and now with five three minute rounds, each with a two minute recovery period between rounds.
Those old timers around today who fought before the second world war, lament the changes bought about by the standardisation of the sport. The three minute round and weight classes has, they say, changed the sport as they remembered it.
“We had to fight all comers,” one recalls. “Had to know all the tricks of the trade. We used strikes and techniques these fighters haven’t even been taught. We didn’t have these breaks and instead fought ’till one of us dropped.”
They are also right. Muaythai has changed across the years. Changed and evolved from a battlefield close quarters killing ground technique based on a fighting tradition passed on from generation to generation up to the present time.
But despite the changes of history, Muaythai has lost none of its exotic appeal and even mystique. Muaythai is still the fighting art to beat. The fighting art that defeats all challenges from Kung Fu, Karate, Taekwando and the latest kickboxing fashions. They have all come to Thailand, not just once but many times and from many places to test themselves.
Muaythai has lost none of its appeal in Thailand. The television fight broadcasts rate among the Kingdom’s most popular programmes.
In the provinces, villages cluster around any available TV to watch. In the city, people disappear from the streets while Thailand is watching Muaythai.
Thai Boxing is also becoming increasingly popular outside of Thailand. It has its enthusiasts and practitioners in the Americas, Australia, Japan, Europe, as well as in many other countries around the world.
The illustrious history of Muaythai will continue as it receives greater recognition and gains in international popularity.