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 systemic use of these natural weapons, developed as a practical fighting skill for the battlefield that came to be Muay Thai boxing.
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
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
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.
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
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.
The first permanent Muay Thai arena was constructed in 1920 at Suam Gularb (rose garden) in Bangkok. The reigning King Rama VI arranged for a great Muay Thai boxing tournament to be staged. Many foreigners came to match their skills against the Thais. A huge crowd gathered and the proceeds were used to purchase weapons for the countries defence. The floor of the ring was made from wooden planks and rushes were laid across the top. Time was measured in minutes and there was a referee.
As late as 1920s Kaad Chuek was still in use. In a tragic event fighter Jia Kaegkhmen died in the ring of the Lak Muang Arena after being punched by Pae Lieng Prasert. He clung to the ropes dying but refused to give up. After this a new rule was introduced that fighters should wear gloves and Kaad Chuek was slowly phased out. The sport took the name Muay Thai post 1920s after the introduction of gloves and other elements of Western Boxing. In 1928 a rudimentary ranking system was introduced. There was a title fight held in November of that year and people flocked to see the fight. The following year, modern groin protectors were used in Siam for the first time. The convenience and safety of these quickly caught on. The groin was a legal move until the 1930s. In 1950 a fully developed ranking system was implemented with eight weight divisions. Rajadamnoen and Lumpinee Muay Thai boxing stadiums were erected in Bangkok and standard regulations adopted by the sport.
During the late 1920s and 30s Muay Thai training was developed. Gyms were constructed and punch bags and balls became widely available. The use of training gloves and contest gloves became the norm. Muay Thai became a favourite sport and pastime. Every village staged prize fights and people from all walks of life flocked to training camps.
Interest in Muay Thai flourished until the 1970s, which was a golden decade for Muay Thai with the emergence of many great fighters. The oriental martial arts enjoyed a boom in general thanks to the movies of Kung Fu Legend Bruce Lee. Muay Thai gyms began appearing in USA, Germany, Holland and Australia.
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.
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.