Muay Thai Special: Part 1 of 3: History of the Art

Muay Thai fighter in training.

Muay Thai fighter in training. (Sesame/Joup)

Pai, Thailand – Being one of the most utilized money earning martial arts in the world leads to respected acclaim and ultimate popularity, all of which seemingly go hand in hand. However, for those that live the life of Muay Thai – the life of training, regimen, fighting and yet more training – there lies so much more. I have traveled a long road through Thailand to the small town of Pai (80km NW of Chiang Mai) to find the origin and heart of Muay Thai beyond the glitz and glamor of the UFC and Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok. Of course both Lumpinee and the UFC are huge in modern fighting (and betting and prize purses), but the roots of the successful UFC fighter stem from, in part, training in Muay Thai. In this three part story Joup hopes to gain insight into Muay Thai through reviewing it’s history and development, observing a Pai Training Gym named Charn Chai with head trainer Bee and finally by following English fighter Liam Kirkham (1-0) who trains at Charn Chai and will fight his second fight in Pai.

As often times found in human evolution, necessity is the mother of invention. Early Muay Thai provides a fine example. Although much of the earlier records of Muay Thai were lost in battles with Burma and the eventual fall of the city of Ayutthaya, the lore remains. In the current regions of now Thailand (Siam), northeast Burma, west Laos and southwest China lies the origins of many a Martial Art. One art of which is Muay Boran (ancient boxing).

“Muay Boran was an unarmed combat method which Siamese soldiers used after losing their weapons in battle. Some believe that the ancient Siamese military created Muay Boran from the weapon-based art, krabi krabong but others contend that both systems were developed at the same time. Krabi krabong nevertheless was an important influence on Muay Thai as seen in the movements in the wai khru.

Muay Boran, and therefore Muay Thai, was originally called by more generic names such as pahuyuth (from the Sanskrit bahu-yuddha meaning unarmed combat), Dhoi Muay (boxing or pugilism, a cognate of the Malay word Tomoi) or simply muay. As well as being a practical fighting technique for use in actual warfare, muay became a sport in which the opponents fought in front of spectators who went to watch for entertainment.” (wikipedia)

One cannot discuss the history of Muay Thai without including the history of Siam and now Thailand. The Martial Art intertwines with the Thai culture, evolution and being. From the earliest known history of the Muay Thai, it has defined Siam and it’s leaders. Take King Naresuan in the late 16th Century. Although in his youth he was held as a royal hostage in Burma while Ayutthaya (the then Siam capital) was a Burmese vassal, he went on to lead the Thais from their Burmese captures by further developing and implementing Muay Thai. His main soldiers? Men that were “beaten and displaced by the Burmese warriors [then becoming] scouts and jungle warfare soldiers that would eventually liberate Thailand.” (Tiger Muay Thai). Some believe that King Naresuan had to fight his way out of Burma before becoming the great King he became. What is known is that he led Siam into an era of peace through Muay Thai.

It is through this era that the Art became transcendent with Thai culture. After Naresuan, King Narai ushered in a period where Muay Thai became a national sport by developing the fundamental traditions that would remain the same for the next 400 years. The Mongkong (headband) and pa-pra-jiat (armband) were both introduced and the first ìringî was made by laying a rope on the ground in a square or circle as a designated fighting area. The fighters used hemp ropes or horsehide strips as hand coverings which wrapped around the hands and forearms.

Muay Thai fighter practicing his "Thip" (Sesame/Joup)

Muay Thai fighter practicing his “Thip” (Sesame/Joup)

Refinement in techniques also progressed throughout this period. The two most common kicks developed are known as the thip (literally “foot jab”) and the te chiang (kicking diagonally upwards cutting under the arm and ribs). Muay Thai fighters also further evolved their use of elbows (Ti sok), knees (Ti khao) and clinches (Chap Kho). These moves shaped not only the defensive strategies of combat in keeping opponents at bay, but offensive advances as well, by catching opponents off guard. Further hand refinement came hundreds of years later with the introduction of western boxing. To this is day, the Thais general upper body strength over western fighters is their clinching and elbows.

Before the modern era though, there is yet another great fighter of importance: Nia Khanomtom. According to Thai folklore, at the time of the fall of the ancient Siam capital of Ayutthaya in 1767 the invading Burmese troops rounded up thousands of Thais and took them to Burma as prisoners. Among them were a large number of Muay Thai fighters, including Nia Khanomtom.

After 7 years in captivity Nia Khanomtom’s time finally came. In the Burmese city of Rangoon, the Burmese King Hsinbyushin (known in Thai as “King Mangra”) decided to organize a seven-day, seven-night religious festival in honor of the Buddha’s relics. King Hsinbyushin wanted to see how Muay Thai fighters would compare to the Burmese Lethwei (Burmese Boxing) counterparts. Nai Khanomtom was selected to fight against the Burmese champion. The boxing ring was set up in front of the throne and Nai Khanomtom did a traditional Wai Kru pre-fight dance to pay his respects to his teachers, ancestors, and the spectators by dancing around his opponent. This amazed and perplexed him as well as the rest of the Burmese spectators. When the fight began, Nai Khanomtom charged out with punches, kicks, elbows and knees pummeling his opponent until he collapsed.

However the Burmese referee said the Burmese champion was too distracted by the dance, and declared the knockout invalid. The King then asked if Nai Khanomtom would fight nine other Burmese champions to prove himself. He agreed and fought them all, one after the other with no rest periods in between. Nai Khanomtom mangled the lot and no one else dared to challenge him.

King Hsinbyushin granted Nai Khanomtom freedom along with the gift of either riches or two beautiful Burmese wives. Nai Khanomtom chose the wives, as he said that money was easier to find. He then departed with his wives for Siam. Other variations of this story have him winning the release of his fellow Thai prisoners. His feat is celebrated every March 17 as Boxer’s Day or National Muay Boran Day in his honor and that of muay boran’s.

The Golden Era

King Chulalongkorn’s (Rama V) ascension to the throne in 1868 brought a golden age for Thailand. As a result, Muay Thai progressed greatly during his reign because of the king’s personal interest in the sport.

It is at this point the organization of Muay Thai began. Masters of the art taught Muay Thai in training camps where students were provided with food and shelter. They were treated as family and it was customary for students to adopt the camp’s name as their own surname. Scouts would be sent by the royal family to organize matches between different camps. Often fighters were chosen to be Rama’s personal guards or Royal officers when they were victorious in regional matches.

This structure is still found regionally today throughout Thailand including Pai.

Western Muay Thai "Farang" in Training (Sesame/Joup)

Western Muay Thai “Farang” in Training (Sesame/Joup)

Where East Meets West

The first two decades of the 20th Century shaped Muay Thai as it garnered more and more attention from western countries. King Rama VII furthered the sport by regulating a set code of rules, implementing a raised roped ring and coverting fighter’s twine hand covering to proper boxing gloves.
After a lull in the sport during World War II boxing stadiums sprang up again. Skilled boxers from the north flocked to Bangkok to take part in tournaments. The first standard boxing stadium, Rajdamnern Stadium, was established in 1945. Rules were set at 5 rounds of 3 minutes each, with a two-minute interval between rounds. Each fighter’s weight was taken down in stones (like race-horses) and later in kilograms. Pairings were now matched by weight classes. Thus the sport further evolved through Thai soldiers exposed to the Western traditions while fighting in both World Wars. Not only did Thais themselves seek recognition and pay check in Bangkok but now “Farang” (Foriegners) did as well.

The last century has found the finest of refinement in the Art, espically in punching (Chok) techniques. “The goal of each strike and movement is to deliver an excruciating, debilitating blow which would enable the fighter to quickly overcome his rivals without leaving himself exposed to an attack. Thus, proper technique and power strikes were a vital element in their training.”(Tiger Muay Thai) We see in the last fifty years how western flavor has ironically seasoned this already savory eastern Sport.

Muay Thai breaks ground as each year in the 21st Century passes. More fighters train; more fights are held every week in larger stadiums (Lumpinee); and matches generate more money for Thailand each year. A countless amount of UFC fighters are well versed in Muay Thai. It’s become almost a requirement of the sport along with Brazilian Ju-Jitsu and Grecco-Roman Wresting. Anderson Silva, Mauricio Rua and Thiago Silva all have successful UFC careers due in large part to their training in Muay Thai.

However, being a Muay Thai fighter (or UFC fighter even) is far from glam, fame and fortune. Although those things can come with it if you are good (and lucky), most often fighters struggle to earn for themselves let alone their families. Even the talented fighters have to fight and instruct to make ends meet. If they are lucky and get some backing, they start their own gym. In reality, the respect of the art and the fighter’s inner fire keeps Muay Thai alive and well in Thailand while stretching it throughout the globe.

Next: Part 2 Charn Chai Gym and head trainer Bee.

Joe Grez

Joe Grez

Joe Grzesik (JGrez) is still an artist developer trying to keep up with new technologies. Photography still has been one of his strongest passions. However, now his main focus has led him back to music where he teaches guitar, piano, saxophone and percussion privately. Music education can never be short changed.

4 Responses to Muay Thai Special: Part 1 of 3: History of the Art
  1. Muay Thai Reply

    Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am impressed!
    Very useful information particularly the last part :
    ) I care for such info much. I was looking for this particular information for a very long time.
    Thank you and good luck.

  2. [...] essence of the successful UFC fighter flows from training in Muay Thai. Joup has reviewed a basic histor...
  3. [...] essence of the successful UFC fighter flow from training in Muay Thai. Joup has reviewed a basic history...
  4. SBaker Reply

    Great article Joe! You really went into the roots of the art/sport to show how something like this is central to the evolution of a land and a people. I love it when someone writes something like this and puts a more recognizable face on history otherwise easy to gloss over. Good show old chap!!!

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