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Martial Arts History – Part 6 – Muay Thai

John Dempsey Jr. January 2, 2013

Muay Thai is the national martial art/sport of Thailand. The word “Muay” comes from the Sanskrit “Mavya,” which means “to bind together.” Muay Thai is often referred to as “the sport of kings,” the “Art of 8 Limbs,” or the “Science of 8 Limbs,” as it uses the hands, feet, elbows and knees instead of the two or four points of contact allowed in other regulated combat sports. In this manner of thinking, the hands were seen to become the sword and dagger; the elbow represented a heavy mace or hammer; the legs and knees became the axe and staff, and the shins and forearms were hardened in training to act as armor against blows.

Muay Thai has also gone by other names such as “Pahuyuth” (also from Sanskrit, meaning unarmed combat),”Dhoi Muay,” (boxing or pugilism), or simply “Muay.” Muay Thai evolved from an ancient style of boxing called “Muay Boran” (ancient boxing). Some believe that muay boran was based on the weapon art called “Krabi Krabong,” but this has not been confirmed. Muay Thai has its origins dating back several hundred years. However, the exact history of Muay Thai, and its direct origin is a question of debate among modern scholars. Much of the history of Muay Thai was lost when the Burmese sacked Ayudhaya, the capital city of Siam (Thailand) in the 14th century. The Burmese looted the temples and depositories of knowledge held in the capital, and most written history was lost in this period.

It is generally agreed upon though that the origin of Muay Thai, as a fighting style, had developed over centuries as tribes migrated south from the steppes of China through Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia. The major tribes of that period (one of which was the Tai Siamese), fought to survive as they moved south and encountered other smaller tribes in what is now northern and central Thailand, and as far south as Malaysia. The unarmed techniques they developed were for the warrior to use when his weapon had been taken away or broken in combat. As time went on, these techniques were passed from father to son, elder to younger.

As years passed, the Thai were on constant guard against attack from neighboring countries, especially Burma and Cambodia. The Burmese and Thai were enemies for centuries, and fought several wars against one another. Muay Thai was primarily a part of the Thai culture during this period and was a mandatory training as part of the Thai military of that time. The military continued to train soldiers for centuries in the art of Muay Thai, which over time became more refined and organized into an effective fighting system. The love of the sport, and a need for the defense of the kingdom made Muay Thai a part of the Thai culture for the next coming centuries, as generation after generation passed the skills on to the next.

The first known practice of Muay Thai as a “sport,” occurred in the 15th century when loosely organized competitions began to be started up around the country. Soon it became a very popular sport for all people, rich and poor. Training camps began to be established all over the country, and competition in Muay Thai was an extremely dangerous activity that often ended in serious injury for one or both fighters involved in a match.

A very popular Thai legend is that of Nai Khanom Tom. In 1767, the Burmese army sacked the Thai capital city of Ayudhaya. The Burmese King (Lord Mangra) and his army pillaged the city and its magnificient temples, and took with them many prisoners to carry back the treasure to Burma. Among the prisoners was a Muay Thai fighter named Nai Khanom Tom. To celebrate his victory over the Thai, the King of Burma held a festival at which the slaves from Thailand were ordered to fight Burmese fighters for entertainment.

When Nai Khanom Tom was forced to fight, he asked for a moment to prepare. He then began a slow ritualistic dance around the courtyard which the Burmese fighter interpreted as Nai Khanom Tom trying to curse him with evil spirits before the fight. When asked what he was doing, Nai Khanom Tom explained he was giving respect to his Muay Thai teacher, his sport, and his country by performing his short dance. Many believe this may have been the origins of the ‘Wai Kroo’ (see below), which is still performed by all Thai fighters in traditional settings before they fight an opponent.

When the fight began, Nai Khanom Tom easily defeated him. The Burmese fighter protested that he had lost because he was cursed by the Thai, but this was shown to be false when Nai Khanom Tom went on to defeat 10 more Burmese opponents. The Burmese King was impressed with Nai Khanom Tom’s ability and skill that he granted Nai Khanom Tom his freedom and rewarded him with several Burmese women to be his wives and concubines. Nai Khanom Tom returned to Thailand as a hero, and lived out his life teaching Muay Thai. Because the legend of Nai Khanom Tom is so well-known, he is called the “Father of Muay Thai.” There is even a Muay Thai day, celebrated on March 16 in his honour.

The Wai Kroo is a ritualistic and traditional dance carried out before Muay Thai fighters engage in the ring. The “Ram Muay” is the dance that is unique to each Master instructor who teaches his students. The student will dance in each direction of the ring approaching and touching the corner posts with a prayer, showing respect to his opponent and to the spirits. Before every fight the boxer “seals the ring” by circling three times, after which they perform the “Ram Muay” dance, showing respect to their opponents and opposing camps, as well as parents, teachers and whatever religions they may believe in. Many boxers will display their techniques in this warm up.

The music that accompanies this dance is refereed to as “wong pee glong” and is played by four musicians, each with their own instruments: pi java (Javanese oboe), glong kaek (a pair of thai drums played by 2 musicians) and a ching (small Thai cymbals). The songs are very specific, and are only played before a Muay Thai match.

As mentioned above, Muay Thai was a very violent sport where serious injuries were common. This changed at about 1930 when King Rama VII (who reigned from 1925-1935) pushed for codified rules for muay, and they were put into place. Thailand’s first boxing ring was built in 1921 at Suan Kularp. Referees were introduced and rounds were now timed by kick. Fighters began wearing modern gloves during training and in boxing matches against foreigners. Rope-binding on the hands was still used in fights between Thais but after the occurrence of a death in the ring, it was decided that fighters should wear gloves and cotton coverlets over the feet and ankles. It was also around this time that the term Muay Thai became commonly used and the older form known as Muay Boran was used only as an exhibition to the public.

Under the new rules, there were five judges for each fight, which scored both offensive and defensive point decisions. Bouts were divided into four rounds with two minutes per round, and two minutes between rounds. Safety became the most important aspect of Muay Thai, therefore boxers had to wear protective equipment, consisting of head guard, mouth guard, chest guard, elbow guard, gloves, hand wraps, groin guard and shin guards. It was declared that every boxer must have a boxer’s book and a medical check up before and after every fight. There came to be 14 strict weight divisions. The referees in Muay Thai had to meet strict criteria and undergo yearly retesting.

Muay Thai has come a long way in the last 100 years. In World War Two, Thai soldiers were stationed overseas, and foreigners recieved their first good look at Muay Thai. During the Second World War, the Thai soldiers participating in the war would practice Muay Thai among themselves as soldiers from Europe and America watched with great interest. Muay Thai was named by foreigners as Siam Boxing, as Thailand was formerly Siam. Until that time, those outside of Thailand had barely heard of Muay Thai. Soldiers from Europe and America were so impressed by this style of fighting that they asked the Thai soldiers to teach them Muay Thai. As Muay Thai became more popular, the rules began to change to become more inline with other organized combat sports like boxing. After the end of World War Two, the first formal rules were introduced into the sport. Fights were divided into five rounds, and time limits were imposed on each round.

Today, Muay Thai fighters often begin training when they are 6-8 years-old. They begin fighting between 8-10 years of age and may have as many as 120-150 fights before they are 24 years old. Muay Thai fighters do not generally have long careers because of starting at such an early age and how physically demanding the sport is on the fighters. Injuries are quite common in Muay Thai fights. From cuts and lacerations to the face and head to broken bones and severe sprains of muscles and ligaments, Muay Thai fighters deal with injuries their entire career. They are well known to be able to deal with pain from injuries, due to extreme training methods which harden the shins, forearms, and help the fighters to learn to resist pain. The typical Muay Thai fighter in Thailand trains many hours everyday. Many fighters will fight every 3-4 weeks just to be able to support their family. Unlike boxing in Europe and America, Muay Thai fighters make very little money from each fight.

The teacher is held in deep respect in Thailand. When young men want to enter into a gym and become Muay Thai fighters, they must first pay respect to their Muay Thai teacher (Kroo Muay) and give respect and honour to the gym where they will train. You just don’t decide to become a Muay Thai fighter. It is a way of life and long respected tradition in Thailand. There may be a significant initiation where the prospective student must spend time in meditation at a temple, or perform some ritualistic tasks. Students are usually expected to give some form of gift or offering, such as white linen cloth, flowers, joss sticks (incense), and some small monetary offering.

Traditionally, a picnic or gathering was arranged so that the fighters of the gym could welcome the new student. The Master Thai instructor would then ask for a blessing for his new student and then place the traditional Mongkon on the student’s head (which is believed to bring good luck to the student in competition), and tie an armlet (Pra Jer) on his bicep. The Thai people are known for being superstitious and their belief in evil spirits. Muay Thai fighters have for centuries used special tattoos, wards, amulets, and ceremonies to increase their good fortune and ward off bad luck and evil spirits that might follow them into the ring. Traditional fighters in Thailand often wear pieces of bones from their ancestors wrapped within their Mongkong or in their Pra Jer. The bone is supposed to represent the good spirits of their ancestors and provide them protection from injury in the ring.

Some fighters, and regular Thai people, will often go the temple or a “Maa Doo” (reminiscent of a witchdoctor or medicine man), to have tattoo inscriptions in Thai language etched into their skin. These inscriptions are supposed to provide special protection, strength, courage, long-life or sexual prowess. Traditionally, in Thailand, before fights fighters would rub special oils and mixtures or potions on their skin to make them oblivious to pain and invulnerable. Special amulets called, “Kreung Rang” were sometimes worn around the neck and were thought to contain magical powers. Today, the sport of Muay Thai is continuing to evolve. Muay Thai was recently accepted as an Olympic sport, and it is becoming quite popular in many countries throughout the world. Many modern mixed martial artists agree that Muay Thai is an essential part of being an all-around skilled fighter and having proficient stand-up fighting skills.

Due to the rigorous training regimen, frequency of injuries, and the toll that regular full-contact bouts take on the body, professional boxers in Thailand have relatively short careers in the ring. Many retire from competition at a relatively young age, to begin instructing the next generation of Thai fighters. Most professional Thai boxers come from the lower economic backgrounds, and the fight money is sought as means of support for the fighters and their families. Here in North America, it is becoming a very popular sport, especially for those that enter full contact, mixed martial arts competitions.

John Dempsey Jr. is a martial artist that lives, trains and teaches in Toronto, Ontario. He has been involved in the martial arts as a student for 25 years and as a teacher for over 10 years. His dojo, Ryuuko Dojo, focuses on outdoor traditional training methods and teaches the style of Goshin-jitsu. John is currently a second degree black belt in Goshin-jitsu, a blue belt in Kempo, and a 4th kyu in Taijutsu. For more information, visit



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