Muay Thai is one of the most popular competitive contact sports in the world. Like most martial arts, it boasts a rich and colourful history.
This form of fighting evolved along side the cultural development of South East Asia which influenced it throughout the years.
Lets have a look at the history of Muay Thai in more detail to better appreciate its worldwide presence in modern times.
Like many eastern fighting styles (such as Shotokan or Aikido), Muay Thai is said to have originated as a form of self defence amongst the tribes that were migrating south from China into the modern countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma. These varied peoples are said to have travelled as far south as Malaysia. Over the centuries, this form of hand-to-hand combat was further honed and refined due to direct conflict with other tribes and indigenous populations.
Unfortunately, there is still a bit of conjecture in terms of the former interpretation. Some scholars claim that the Thai people were already living in their present territory and instead developed Muay Thai as a means to defend themselves against invading armies from abroad (such as the Chinese and Burmese). The main reason for this disparity arises from a conflict that arose in the 14th century. A Burmese military force sacked the capital of Thaliand (Ayudhaya at the time). During this process, many precious historical documents and records were destroyed or otherwise lost. However, it is still clear that Muay Thai was primarily designed to mimic and replace traditional weapons of war such as swords and armour. This may have arisen from the relative scarcity of such materials during ancient times. The hands represented cutting implements, the shins and forearms came to replace armour through the hardening of the bones over time while the knees and legs replicated axes and wooden staffs.
As much of the teaching was passed on from the experience soldier or even parent to the beginner, Muay Thai began to take shape as an effective fighting style. Of course, this was due in no small part to the number of incursions that had to be fought off by the Thai peoples. In particular, there was a deep-seated enmity between the Burmese and the Thai populations. This is one of the primary reasons why Muay Thai became such an integral part of the culture here; just as compulsory as other forms of military training.
Evolution as a National Competition
What is perhaps the most interesting in regards to this fighting form is that it slowly began to evolve into the political and social arena. The most famous example of this occurred in the middle of the 16th century. During this period, the Konbaung Dynasty of Burma and the state of Siam were constantly battling. A famous fighter by the name of Nai Khanomtom was captured by the Burmese military. However, they were aware of his prowess in Muay Thai. The Burmese elite gave him an opportunity to fight for his freedom. When he won the match, he was allowed to return back to Siam in glory. He was thereafter known as a hero throughout his homeland. While the form that he used was still known as “Siamese Boxing”, it was not long before the style began to take hold as a national sport.
The Era of the Tiger King
Muay Thai became so popular that Siam was well known for its “warrior kings”. In other words, the kings and the ruling elite themselves trained in this fighting art. Therefore, Muay Thai was just as much a national treasure as it was a pragmatic fighting style. Most historians agree that the first example of this can be seen in the era of The Tiger King (also known as Prachao Sua). It is said that this ruler enjoyed the sport so much that he would travel to villages in disguise and challenge the local champions. Each location had its own prize fighter and large sums of money were wagered on the outcome of the fight. These forms of betting and pride continue into the present day. Many villages will invest a great deal of time and money into training a fighter.
In truth, this likely took place due to the fact that the kingdom was at peace during the reign of The Tiger King. To keep his standing army occupied, he encouraged them to train as well. It is therefore no surprise that Muay Thai saw another surge in popularity during this time.
The 19th Century and King Rama V
Also known as King Chulalongkorn, King Rama V ushered in what many consider to be the golden age of Muay Thai. When he ascended to the throne in 1868, he was already an avid fan and practitioner of the art. Once again, the country was at peace. He encouraged the population to continue to practice Muay Thai not only as a form of self defence, but as a means of recreation and personal advancement. Another interesting development here is the transition from rather informal settings to the adoption of Muay Thai schools and centres throughout Thailiand. Many of these camps were given the last name of their head instructor as an honour and a source of pride. Students flocked to such locations from all over the country.
Due to such a widespread institutionalisation, the rewards and titles given to the victors were much more recognised. In fact, many matches were ordered by what can be termed a “royal decree” in modern times. Positions such as “Muen Muay Mee Chue” and “Muen Muay Man Mudh” are not easily translated, but can be considered the equivalent to “Major of Boxing” in the English language.
King Rama VI
Muay Thai continued to gain in popularity during the reign of King Rama VI (1925-1935). This leader is credited with formalising the sport into the familiar style that is known today. Up until this point, time was kept by floating a pierced coconut shell on water. When the shell sank, it was a signal that the round was over. King Rama VI introduced regular timekeeping for more accurate matches. Several other advancements also took place. These included:
- Rope gloves known as Kaad Chuek.
- Hardened groin protectors.
- Three-rope rings and padded corners.
However, it should be noted that the rope gloves allowed the hands to become even more formidable weapons. After a number of deaths occurred during live bouts and even sparring matches, these ropes were forbidden and modern training gloves were used as replacements.
The Transition into the Western World
Muay Thai also began to gain an international reputation before and during the reign of King Rama VI. One of the first times that westerners were exposed to this sport was in 1913 when British boxing and Muay Thai were taught as part of the curriculum at Suan Kulap College. This is believed to be the first instance when the art form was referred to as Muay Thai (it was previously widely known by the more traditional term of Muay Boran).
During the 1920s and 1930s, such formalisation continued. Examples of this can be seen in the establishment of different weight classes. Throughout most of the history of Muay Thai, these classes did not exist. By segmenting groups of fighters in this manner, more balanced competitions could take place while a greater number of champions would likewise emerge. Also, groin guards evolved from rather crude pieces of tree bark or even sea shells to the modern protective devices that are seen today.
Muay thai continued to gain fame throughout the 20th century and by the 1990s, its international prestige was recognised through a series of accreditations. 1993 saw the establishment of the International Federation of Muay Thai Amateur (IFMA). No lees than 128 countries joined this league. It is now also a member of the Olympic Council of Asia.
In 1995, the World Muay Thai Council was established; the largest professional Muay Thai organisation in the world. It currently boasts over 70 member countries and thousands of active practitioners.
Another significant development occurred as recently as 2006 when Muay Thai became a member of SportAccord (an umbrella group for Olympic and non-Olympic sports). Due to the rules that no sport can have a country of origin within its official title, the name of this art is now technically considered to be Muaythai to accommodate such a requirement.
Likewise, Muay Thai was included within the International World Games Association (IWGA) in 2014. Due to this status, it will be included at the 2017 International World Games in Wroclaw, Poland. The first University Muaythai World Cup was recently held in 2015 in Bangkok, Thaliand.
A Massive Following
No comprehensive history would be complete without mentioning the influence that the media has had upon the popularity of Muay Thai. It can be argued that one of the films which introduced this art to the mainstream public was Kickboxer (1989) starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. Soon, other films and video games followed this path. Throughout this time and during the 1990s, thousands of schools emerged across the globe. Clothing companies including Infithstyle Inc. have aided in this recognition; providing garments and equipment to a growing number of athletes from around the world.
So, it is clear to see that the art of Muay Thai has a history that is as colourful and interesting as the techniques and competitors themselves. As the sport continues to evolve, we should only expect to witness an even larger number of followers emerge into the future. Like many martial arts, the rather humble and utilitarian roots of Muay Thai gave birth to what can only be called one of the most popular sports in the world today.