The History of Muay Thai Boxing

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Origins of Muay Thai Boxing

Muay Thai history is deeply entwined with the history of Thailand itself. Because of perpetual invasions from neighbouring countries when Thailand was in the process of forming, Thai people depended on their ability to defend themselves. In these early times only short-range weapons such as spears, pikes and clubs would have been available for use in battle. During this kind of hand-to-hand combat, fighting methods can quickly change and the body’s natural weapons such as the head, fists, elbows and feet would necessarily also have been utilised. Undoubtedly, it is the systemised use of these natural weapons, developed as a practical fighting skill for the battlefield that came to be Muay Thai boxing.

The early days of Muay Thai history

There are few written records pertaining to pre-twentieth century Muay Thai history. Knowledge has been passed down by oral tradition, which makes it difficult to be sure of the facts. But even in times of peace self-defence techniques have always been of great importance to Thai military leaders and the monarchy; we can be sure that Thai soldiers have studied Muay Thai boxing since early times. Muay Thai has most likely earned money for its competitors since the Sukothai era (1238 – 1377). During this time Muay Thai boxing gradually became a means of personal advancement as the nobility increasingly esteemed skilful practitioners. About 50 miles north of Bangkok lies the ancient city Ayuthaya. This once great city was Thailand’s capital for over 400 years. Here a platoon of elite guards was formed to protect the king. Officers were highly skilled in Muay Thai boxing. As well as its continued use as a practical fighting technique Muay Thai became a sport where spectators went to watch for entertainment. Regional varieties of Muay Thai existed with different fighting styles being adopted in the various provinces. For example, Southern fighters from Surat Thani province are renowned for using their brain to decide on strategy and tactics.

Early Muay Thai Boxing competitions

In the beginning Muay Thai boxers fought bare-fisted. Early competitive forms of Muay Thai had no grappling; fighters moved in, then quickly withdrew again. There was no attempt to pair opponents based on their weight. They needed only to express a willingness to fight. Sometimes fighters on a winning streak could be matched against several opponents in succession. There were no real rules. The head was used as a weapon and the groin was an acceptable target. The ring was a bare patch of earth. At some point came the division of the contest into rounds. Time for these was measured by placing a coconut shell with a hole bored through the bottom into water. When the coconut was filled with water and thus submerged the round was over. Tree bark, seashells, and later kapok-stuffed triangular cushions were used to protect the groin.

Muay Kaad Chuek

During the Ayuthaya era came the introduction of Muay Kaad Chuek. That is the use of unrefined hemp wrappings to protect the fingers and wrists. A length of around 20 metres was enough to bind one hand. The use of Muay Kaad Chuek quickly spread, as a bound fist is tougher, stronger and better protected against injury than an unbound one. It is said that before a contest fighters immersed their fists in water. This would cause the binding to harden when it dried, making it capable of producing serious injury. Some people go further and claim that fighters dipped their hands in glue and ground glass. Such a contest would certainly have made a gory sight! To this day an annual Muay Kaad Chuek contest with Laos is held in Nong Khai near the NE border with Laos, on the Thai side of the Mekong River. A Muay Kaad Chuek contest with Burma is staged in the Mae Sot, western Thailand, during the Sonkran (Thai New Year) festivities (April 12-14). Boxers fight until knockout. If both competitors remain standing at the end of the bout a match is declared a draw.

Early Muay Thai training methods

In the early days Muay Thai training equipment was found from nature. The smooth, slightly spongy nature of the trunk of a banana tree was found suitable for kicking practice. Repeatedly climbing out of water quickly improves stamina. Chopping the sea in front of your face assists in developing unblinking focus. Muay Thai trainees also used floating coconuts as targets and suspended limes for punching and avoidance practice.

A golden age for Thailand

With the ascension of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1868 a golden age for Thailand was ushered in and the country developed rapidly. It was a time of great reform that set the nation on the road to becoming a modern society.  Royal patronage of Muay Thai boxing continued, the country was at peace and a Muay Thai boom occurred. King Rama V constructed roads making travel to the capital, Bangkok, feasible. Muay Thai fighters who had proved themselves in the provinces were invited to the capital to fight.

Muay Thai Boxing today

After WWII Muay Thai boxers headed to the capital for fame and fortune, and the glory is still to be found at Rajadamnoen or Lumpinee boxing stadiums in Bangkok. Today in the villages in the provinces people can be seen clustered around available TV sets to see televised matches. All professional fighters have official ring names. The first part of the name is generally their own, while the second is the name of the training camp to which they belong. Today many men and women of all ages enjoy regular training sessions. There is now a World Championship for Muay Thai and it has become an accepted amateur sport in many countries. Muay Thai boxing is an essential part of Thai culture. Thais have a fiery belief in the lethal effectiveness of their fighting art and have proved it time and again.

The Muay Thai Boxing Stadium

Nowadays the Muay Thai ring is the same size as that used for Western boxing, 24 foot square. The floor of the ring is wooden with canvas-covered matting. Traditionally the four sides of the ring are aligned with the points of a compass. The red corner points NW, the blue SE. The other two corners are white. These colours are derived from Western boxing and were introduced in the 1920s. The red corner is usually assigned to the defending champion or the contestant thought to have the advantage.

The betting tradition of Muay Thai Boxing

From the earliest competitions each bout became a betting contest as well as a contest of local pride. The betting tradition has remained and today large sums of money are wagered on the outcome of fights. A trip to watch a Muay Thai match in Thailand is worth it for the spectacle of the frenzied betting alone.

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