Join me as I time-travel through Muay Thai history, from the origins to the modern era of the sport. Who invented Muay Thai? And where or what did Muay Thai originate from? You will find the answers here.
What is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai (Thai: มวยไทย) is the national sport of Thailand. Muay (มวย) means “boxing” in Thai language, so Muay Thai translates to “Thai boxing”. It has strong cultural and historical ties to the country and its people.
Muay Thai is both a martial art and a combat sport. This means that it is used for self-defense while also being governed by a specific set of rules.
The stand-up striking sport is growing in popularity worldwide. The number of practitioners is growing significantly whether for competition or fitness purposes.
This rise in recognition is only likely to continue. More and more people are seeing why it is the primary striking art in the world.
The Chupasart and The Art of 8 Limbs
In the past, however, Muay Thai was more closely entwined with the daily lives of the people of Thailand.
Muay Thai developed from Muay Boran (Thai: มวยโบราณ – translation: “ancient boxing”), a broad term used for the martial arts of Thailand before modernizing into the sport that we know today.
Muay Boran was developed and perfected for war so that warriors could use it to defend their homeland.
A warfare manual known as the “Chupasart” was believed to have been created to serve as the basis for Muay Boran.
The manual emphasized the use of various parts of the body as striking points. Different parts of the body were used to mimic the weapons used by warriors in battle:
- The hands replaced the sword and dagger.
- The forearms and shins were used to replace the armor to defend against blows.
- The elbows were used like a hammer and mace to inflict blows on opponents.
- The knees and legs replaced the axe and staff.
It was practiced by royalty as well and considered an art form in its own right. Hence its other name – the art of 8 limbs. (Click here to read more about the 8 limbs of Muay Thai).
Such a rich background deserves to be studied more closely. And that can only happen by going back to where it all started.
Aspiring Nak Muays and Muay Thai enthusiasts take note: know the Muay Thai history of every limb before you strike.
Muay Thai In The Beginning
Muay Thai history is deeply rooted in the land and the people. It marks its beginnings several centuries into the past. The earliest physical evidence of Thai boxing was found dating to the 13th century.
However, it would be difficult to paint a clear picture of the actual origin of Muay Thai or pinpoint the precise dates. This is because whatever ancient records there were of the art’s beginnings were lost in one of the many attacks by the Burmese.
The records were lost in the 14th century when the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya was invaded and sacked by the Burmese. They looted and pillaged the temples where the written histories were kept.
As a result, there have been disputes as to the actual origin of Muay Thai. Several versions of the story exist but there are two main ones that persist.
The first major theory states that the art developed as the Thai tribes migrated South from China. They needed to fight for survival and to gain land that they would occupy.
As they encountered other tribes in battle, their hand-to-hand fighting skills developed. Those other tribes lived in Northern and Central Thailand.
The second theory is that the Thai people were already in present day Thailand when they developed the art. It was born out of necessity because they needed to defend their land from invaders.
The Thais were always preparing for attacks from some of their closest neighbors, most notably Burma and Cambodia. They would go on to fight several wars with the Burmese throughout the centuries. One such battle resulted in the obliteration of Muay Thai’s true history.
One thing is for certain, however. Whatever the origin of the art of Muay Thai, it has become closely ingrained in the people of the land and not just in their warriors. It’s as much a part of the culture as any tradition they have.
Muay Thai is known as the “Sport of Kings” in Thailand and below we will talk about two kings that exemplified just that.
King Naresuan – The Warrior King
King Sanphet II (Thai: สรรเพชญ์ที่ ๒), or “Naresuan the Great” is a historical figure who also happened to be a Muay Thai legend. The reason for this is that it was during his reign that the first great interest in Muay Thai as a sport occurred.
This was in the 16th century and it carried great significance not just for that time but beyond. It was the very first time that Muay Thai was viewed as something other than a martial art that is only useful for the battlefields or in times of war.
During this period, Muay Thai evolved as new fighting techniques were created and added to what was already there. The soldiers kept on honing their skills and used their abilities for sport in addition to its original warfare purposes.
There are also records from King Naresuan’s reign showing the use of “powder-coated unbleached cotton thread” to wrap boxer’s hands. The mongkhon head-dress and Prajiad arm bands were also worn by the boxers.
This development signified a slight departure from the Chupasart. The old manual emphasized the use of the art for warfare. But the new direction made room for its recreational use.
The Coming of The Tiger King – Prachao Sua
Another great king continued to further the development of Muay Thai. He was King Sanphet VIII, and many commoners gave him the nickname Prachao Sua (Thai: พระเจ้าเสือ – Translation: “Tiger God/King”). His reign lasted from 1697 to 1709.
The king has such a great love for Muay Thai. So much so that he went to the extreme length of disguising himself so that he can participate in village contests. His skills were great enough to defeat the local champions of each village he visited.
It was a time of peace and the Thai army was unoccupied by war. In order to keep the soldiers of the land busy, the king ordered them to train in Muay Thai.
The soldiers did exactly that and raised their abilities to higher levels. It was also a time when people’s interest in Muay Thai as a sport continued to increase. Yet another departure from the Chupasart.
Muay Thai became the national pastime and people from all walks of life participated. Competitions were held and every village had their own champion.
Betting became very common in the sport and would soon be a tradition. It foreshadowed the present state of the sport, with spectators betting on the outcome of each match.
Nai Khanom Tom – The Father of Muay Thai
Muay Thai has had a lot of great figures throughout its long history. The two great kings discussed above are prime examples.
But while the two were of royal lineage, the next man we will talk about is a commoner. But he is no common warrior, though.
The warrior is Nai Khanom Tom (Thai: นายขนมต้ม) – known as the “Father of Muay Thai”. He also happened to be the protagonist in the most enduring legend in Muay Thai.
The Sacking of Ayutthaya
The year was 1767 and the Burmese army had just successfully ransacked the city of Ayutthaya. This city is the capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which is the forerunner of present-day Thailand.
After successfully ransacking the city, the Burmese army took many Thai prisoners back to Burma. The Thai prisoners were tasked with carrying the loot from the ransacked temples and palaces.
The Legend Emerges
Among those prisoners was Nai Khanom Tom along with a lot of other Thai boxers.
In 1774, King Hyinbyushin – the King of Burma – ordered a week-long celebration in honor of a Buddhist pagoda in Rangoon.
The festivities included comedies and plays as well as sword-fighting duels. One of the highlights of the celebration was a royal presentation of martial arts combat. The combat is between Thai boxers and Burmese Lethwei fighters.
This tournament was meant to establish the superiority of Lethwei over Thai boxing. Little did the Burmese know that the result would be the complete opposite.
Nai Khanom Tom was selected to fight on the very first day of the festivities. He was matched with a Burmese Lethwei champion, and they would battle it out in a ring set up in front of the King’s throne.
To the bewilderment of the crowd, Nai Khanom Tom started doing something unusual and unexpected. He started to perform what seemed like a complex dance move around his opponent.
The Burmese spectators could not have known, but Nai Khanom Tom was actually performing the Wai Kru. Today’s followers of the sport know this dance to be a symbolic gesture that gives thanks to the crowd, opponent, and the fighter’s mentor. However, the referee knew it to be a Thai tradition and explained as much to the crowd.
Blessed With Venom
The fight started and Nai Khanom Tom made quick work of his opponent. He did it through an aggressive attack that was highlighted by knee and elbow strikes.
But the referee ruled the knockout to be an unfair victory for the Thai. The reason given was that the Burmese fighter was said to be “distracted” by the Wai Kru.
Due to this ruling, the Burmese King ordered Nai Khanom Tom to fight nine other Burmese warriors. The Thai warrior defeated his opponents one after the other, making expert use of all the 8 limbs to do so.
He combined his fast punches with powerful kicks, crushing knees, elbows, and throws. His opponents were thoroughly outclassed in a display of unparalleled fighting skills.
King Hsinbyushin was so impressed by Khanom Tom’s skills and courage that he granted him his freedom. In addition, he was given a choice between money and two beautiful Burmese girls for wives. He chose the two wives, reasoning that money could be found easier.
The King was reported to have stated that, “every part of the Siamese is blessed with venom”. This expression has been connected with Muay Thai ever since.
In time, Khanom Tom took his two wives with him back to Thailand, where he lived out his life as a teacher of Muay Thai.
Nai Khanom Tom Day is celebrated in Ayutthaya every year on March 17th in remembrance of the legend, marking the day when he was granted freedom. It is also known as “National Muay Thai Day”.
Ushering the Modern Age of Muay Thai
Modernizing the art of Muay Thai was inevitable. As a nation, Thailand was slowly taking its place on the world stage. This meant that outside influences were creeping in and the reverse was also true. Thai culture was also becoming more known to the outside world.
As a major part of Thai culture, Muay Thai slowly began to be known. In connection with this, the staging of Muay Thai fights became more regular. The fighters were being recognized as they fought not just for the glory but also for money and fame.
The reign of King Prajadhipok (Thai: ประชาธิปก), or more commonly, Rama VII in the 1920s saw the steps that led to Muay Thai’s modernization. One of the first steps was to construct a western boxing style ring in Suan Kularb, Bangkok.
Other important components that ensured the modernization of art were introduced. The use of gloves, referees, rounds, and time limits, were the most important.
In 1937, the department of Physical Education set the standards for the rules and regulations of Muay Thai. 5-round matches of 3 minutes each and two-minute rest between rounds were introduced. There would be one referee in the ring along with two scoring judges.
4-ounce gloves were used in the early years but that has changed too.
Safety was given more priority so that unnecessary accidents could be kept to a minimum. Muay Thai was codified and this signaled its beginning as a modern combat sport.
The Golden Age
After World War II, the popularity of Muay Thai exploded. It was when the major stadiums were built in the largest cities such as Bangkok and Chaing Mai.
The fabled Rajadamnern and Lumpinee Stadiums were built and opened in the mid-1900s. They are revered and treated as almost like the “holy place” of Muay Thai.
This surge in popularity would continue on in the following decades. The 50s, 60s, and 70s would all be highlighted by the tremendous growth of the sport.
Since the sport has grown massively in popularity, more people than ever before were practicing it. What this means was that the talent level of the fighters also grew exponentially.
It all led to the coming of the so-called “Golden Age” of Muay Thai. This period lasted roughly from the early 80s to the late 90s.
Perhaps the most significant thing about this time is that it produced a lot of the greatest warriors in Muay Thai history. The most skilled and the most charismatic fighters flourished in this age. (Click here to know the top fighters of the Golden Age)
A roll call of the sport’s all-time best competed in the Golden Age. Samart Payakaroon, considered by many to be the greatest in the sport. Dieselnoi – the greatest knee fighter ever and had one of the coolest nicknames in the sport.
Muay Thai Today
Today, Muay Thai is at the height of its popularity on a global level. Never has the sport seen as many practitioners and followers in so many countries around the world.
The level of competition is high and the tournaments have grown in number.
There might be some issues in Thailand about the role that gambling plays in the sport. Overall, however, the sport seems headed in the right direction. Muay Thai continues to evolve and produce more skilled fighters and practitioners.
Internationally, the sport has never been bigger. Practitioners of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) have incorporated it into their skill sets. Some even use it as their base martial art especially for their striking since they find it to be effective and practical at the same time.
All of the developments point to the fact that Muay Thai will always hold a special place in martial arts.
Not just as the most effective striking art, but also as one that carries a lot of history and culture. And so every Nak Muay gets to be blessed with venom, for the modern-day battlefield and beyond.