Traditional Mauy Thai kickboxing or "Thai boxing" is a martial art famed for its brutality and overwhelming power. History records that when six kung fu masters travelled to Thailand to compete against top-ranked Thai fighters, all were defeated in under six minutes total and all were defeated by knockout.1

One could argue that that is because the fight was fought under Thai rules. One has only to watch a practitioner of this martial art in action, however, to understand the result. Allowed techniques in the sport include just about anything besides headbutting2. Elbow strikes are frequently used to swiftly despatch opponents.

Muay Thai was once a required part of training for the Thai military. It was made the Thai national sport by past Thai king Phra Chao Seua and gained enormous popularity. Many fights were fought with horsehide or cotton wraps dipped in glass, and a huge number of these fights were fought to the death.

In the 1920's, Muay Thai was outlawed by the Thai government owing mainly to the high mortality rate. In the 1930's is was reinstated with a modified set of rules which stated in part that:

  • Bouts were to be five rounds of three minutes
  • All fighters were to wear gloves and trunks
  • No footwear is to be worn
  • Rater than the traditional circle, fights take place in a 7.3 meter canvas floor which is surrounded by ropes.

The sport as practised in Thailand is highly ritualised, and good fighters become quite famous. Music is played throughout the bout on a Thai oboe (or pii) and changes in tempo in response to the action in the ring.

The sport's governing body is the World Muay Thai council. Those who wish to teach traditional Thai boxing must first gain the permission of this body.

1Information from the World Muay Thai council

2Cap'nSalty says re Muay Thai: a few other rules: no judo (over the hip style throws), and no striking or grappling while either opponent is on the ground

Muay Thai is the fighting art of Thailand

When the Burmese army attacked and razed Ayuthaya, much of the early history of Thailand and Muay Thai was lost. The little we do know, comes from Burmese history, early European visitors and some of the chronicles of the Lanna Kingdom - Chiang Mai. One thing all sources agree on, is that Muay Thai began as a close combat, battlefield fighting skill, nearly as deadly as the weapons it replaced.

There are 2 main theories as to the origins of Muay Thai:

The first and most widely accepted says that the art developed as early pioneers moved down from China and fought the natives for the land.

The second more controversial theory says that the Thai people were already there, and that they developed Muay Thai to defend themselves from constant invasion threats. There is considerable archaeological evidence to suport this.

What is known is that Muay Thai is inseperable from the rest of Thai culture, to them, it's the sport of Kings.

The first surge of interest in Muay Thai as a sport, was under King Naresuan in 1584, a time known as the Ayuthaya period. During this time, every soldier trained in Muay Thai and could use it well, as could the King himself. Slowly the focus of Muay Thai moved away from the battlefield and into the sporting arena as new fighting techniques evolved.

People from all walks of life flocked to training camps wanting some of the action. Every village staged its prize fights and had its champions. Every bout became a betting contest as well as a contest of local pride. The betting tradition has remained with the sport, and today large sums are wagered.

Another King - Prachao Sua - the Tiger King loved Muay Thai so much that he often went to the village contests and fought incognito, beating the local champions. During the reign of the Tiger King the nation was at peace. The King, to keep the army busy, ordered it to continue to train in Muay Thai. The interest in the sport was already high but now it took off yet again as the Tiger King not only influenced fighting styles, but also the equipment, with the hands and forearms being bound with strips of horse hair. This was to serve a dual purpose - protect the fighter and inflict more damage on the opponent. Later, these were replaced by hemp ropes or starched strips of cotton. For particular challenge matches and with the fighters agreement, ground glass was mixed with glue and spread on the strips, many times this resulted in fatal injuries.

The Rama V period was another golden age for Muay Thai. Boxing camps were set up all over the country, and, at Royal Command, talent scouts recruited potential boxers. Match makers began to make the great matches which were fought for big prizes and honour. These champions were rewarded with military titles from the King. Today the titles, like Muen Muay Mee Chue from Chaiya or Muen Muay Man Mudh from Lopburi are virtually untranslatable. They mean something comparable to Major of Boxing. At the time they were much prized and respected titles.

The reign of King Rama VI saw the use of the standard ring surrounded by ropes, as well as time keeping by the clock. Before this period, time was kept by floating a pierced coconut shell on water. When the coconut piece sank, the end of the round was signalled by a drum.

Muay Thai has always been a sport for the people as well as a military fighting skill. It was a part of the school curriculum right up to the 1920's when it was withdrawn because it was felt that the injury rate was too high. The people however, continued to study it in gyms and clubs just as they do today.

The changes that the sport has undergone have been changes to equipment used rather than technique changes. For example, Thai fighters have always worn groin guards. A kick or knee to the groin was a perfectly legal move up until the 1930's. In the early days, the protection was made from tree bark or sea shells held in place with a piece of cloth, then a triangular shaped pillow, red or blue, then, a boxer on a trip to Malaysia saw a groin box. He came back with the idea and now Muay Thai fighters use steel and leather groin guards.

With the growing success of Thai Boxers in international boxing in the 1930's, rope bindings were replaced by the "traditional" lace-up boxing glove and weight classes based on the international boxing divisions became standardised. These and other innovations - such as the introduction of five rounds - changed the tactics and techniques that the boxers used, causing some of them to disappear. Before the introduction of weight divisions, a fighter could and did fight all comers regardless of size and weight differences. However, the introduction of the divisions meant that the fighters were more evenly matched and instead of there being one champion, there became one for each weight class. Most Muay Thai fighters belong to the lighter divisions. Seventy percent of all fighters belong to the fly and bantam weight divisions. There are welterweight and middleweight fights but they are not seen that often and the heavier divisions are seldom seen.

During The reign of Rama VII, before the Second World War, the makeshift rings gave way to stadiums. During the war, they all but disappeared but reappeared soon afterwards. Boxers from the country once again headed toward Bangkok seeking fame, fortune and glory.

The glory could be found at stadiums like Rajdamnern and Lumpinee. Later, they fought in full fury on television. Thailand's Channel 7 started broadcasting the fights in colour in the 1970's. Today all four Thai television stations broadcast free to millions of Muay Thai fans throughout Thailand four nights a week. The television fight broadcasts rate among the countries most popular programmes, in the villages, the people gather around any available TV to watch, in the city, people vanish from the streets while the whole country watches Muay Thai.

But despite changes to the sport, Muay Thai has lost none of its appeal or effectiveness, Muay Thai is still the fighting art to beat, as challenges from Kung Fu, Karate, Taekwando, and the latest kickboxing styles, have all come to Thailand, not just once but many times and each time Muay Thai has been victorious.

Thai Boxing is one of the fastest growing martial arts today. There are over half a million regestered fighters in Thailand alone and now it has trainers and fighters in America, Australia, England, France, Greece, Japan, as well as in many other countries around the world. In Athens during July 2001 the IAMTF World Friendship Cup was staged. This was the first in a series of tournaments which will help countries involved in amateur Muay Thai to select fighters for the Olympic Games.

sources: The World Muay Thai Council, International Kickboxer, Blitz magazine
thanx to anthropod for guidance
One Friday night last month I was Hua Hin with nothing to do so I decided to go and watch the "Friday Night Muay Thai contest" held at Grand Sport Hua Hin on Petchkasem Road.
I had received a flyer earlier in the street promoting the event and decided that it might be worth checking out. Apparently there are two Muay Thai venues in Hua Hin and this wasn't the "real" one, but if I wanted to go that night I didn't have much of a choice. It wasn't a stadium as such, more like a gym that had a ring in the middle and some chairs set up on two sides. I believe they have Muay Thai lessons there every day. There wasn't a live band there either so the music didn't get faster as the matches progressed, we had to make do with a taped loop.
The admission price was 500 baht, a little expensive I was informed by a local bar owner, but I wasn't complaining. Also any tuk tuk or taxi in Hua Hin will take you to the venue for free, just show them the flyer. That amazed me.

The first fight started at 9pm, if I remember correctly it was a couple of 12 year old or so boys. Interesting enough and I was amazed by their already ripped physiques, especially their stomache muscles. There were a number of other fights including a 16 year old girl versus a 19 year old girl that was stopped after the second round because the older girl sustained an injury. After a while a section on one side of the ring that didn't have any seats set up by it started to fill up with Thai patrons. A number of them had brought blankets and were sitting there watching the matches. I remember wondering at the time if they too had paid 500 baht to get in. Somehow I doubted it.

Anyway, to get to the point of my writeup, one of the main events that was being touted all night by the announcer was a match between a nine year old boy and a nine year old girl. This long awaited match finally got underway at 11pm. As they were entering the ring it was announced that the boy was so confident that he would win that he had bet 7000 baht on himself. This was announced several times over the loudspeaker. I pondered where a nine year old boy would get 7000 baht as I sat there looking up at the "No Gambling" sign posted to the wall (in English only) above the bar.

The fighters came out to much excitement by the crowd, including myself and they were gorgeous, especially the little girl.
I may be mistaken but I believe the ceremonial dance that the boxers do before the match is called the Wai Klu. In each of the matches that night one of the boxers did the dance while the other stayed in his or her corner. For this match the girl was the one to perform the dance. Only this time she did something that I had not seen any of the other boxers do during their ceremonial dances. I'll do my best here to decribe it but I doubt that I can do it justice.
Starting in her corner she would face her opponent who was standing in his corner on the other side of the ring. She would take one or two steps forward while twisting her body back towards her corner, then she would stomp her foot towards her opponent at the same time as sending an imaginary punch his way, which he would deflect with his hands, much to the delight of the crowd. This continued until she reached his corner, with him knocking away her imaginary punches each time. Then she would head back towards her ring, two or three slow steps at a time, looking back over her shoulder with each step, give him an appraising look, shake her head and take some more steps. Finally she looked satisfied that he was weakened enough and she concluded her dance. I don't think I can sufficiently explain how exciting this was.

Finally the match gets underway, and just like a mouse's heart beats a hundred times faster than the much larger dog, their movements seemed to be a lot faster than the previous boxers' movements. I was as excited if not more so than the rest of the crowd. Her arms were longer than his so she was getting in a few more punches than he was. Whenever she hit him I'd let out a roaring cheer, however when he kicked her I would cringe and have to stifle a cry of , "Hey she's a girl! leave her alone!!" I think I might have been a little too into it.

The rounds were only two minutes each as opposed to the 3 minute rounds of the older fighters, but by the 4th round the girl's face was showing clear signs that she was getting tired. My heart broke.

After a while though I started to have terrible misgivings about the whole adventure. Thoughts like "What are you watching??!!" and "You are paying people who make two little kids fight" ran through my mind. I was feeling very conflicted by the whole situation. I was able to put those thoughts to the back of my mind though when they announced that the winner was the girl. The whole place errupted and I am not afraid to say that I almost had a tear in my eye. I was so happy for her. But then I started to feel a little sorry for the boy, who not only had to live with being beaten by a girl, but he had lost 7000 baht (If that story was to be believed).
After the fight both of the kids went around the audience and posed for photos and accepted money from the crowd. I gave her 100 baht and him 20. Now all he needed was another 6980 baht.
When I posed for my photo with her I put my arm around her shoulder and I could feel her arm on the other side. It was rock solid.

There was one more match after that, apparently a champion of the south versus a champion of the north, but I soon lost interest and went back to the hotel after the kids had gone.
In the songthaew on the way back I started to think about the whole night and had a number of questions.

I wonder if they were really fighting or if they were like a brother and sister and have that same fight for the tourists every week?

I wonder if they go to school like other kids. I would imagine it takes a lot of training to get to that kind of level, plus the announcer had mentioned that typical Muay Thai boxers train for 12 hours a day.

I wonder if they get to keep the money that they are given by the tourists or if unscrupulous event organizers pocket it. Or do their parents collect it?

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