Muay Thai is a martial art that was developed in the early 1200s by the soldiers of Thailand, formerly known as the country of Siam, to defend themselves against attack from foreign invaders. On the battlefield Muay Thai used all the weapons of the soldier’s body, including kicks, punches, and elbow and knee strikes, in addition to any weapons a soldier was carrying. After being disarmed, a soldier would rely on his skills in Muay Thai to fight off the enemy. Over the years, when conflict with surrounding countries was nonexistent, Muay Thai became a way to settle matters within the community, and from that practice blossomed the culture and sport of Muay Thai that we know of today.
In modern times, Muay Thai is a ring sport that is unique from any other. Fights take place over five rounds that are three minutes in length, and the winner is determined by who scores the most points during the course of the fight. Points are tallied as fighters knee, kick, elbow, punch, and dominate each other in the clinch. There are no hip throws allowed in Muay Thai but certain sweeps are allowed. Unlike boxing or mixed martial arts, aggression does not always lead to winning a Muay Thai fight. Instead, off-balancing an opponent and showing technical superiority are higher factors. Fights can also be won by knock out or technical knock out. Muay Thai is a full-contact, rigorous sport that is entertaining to young and old alike.
Gambling is also a major occurrence in Muay Thai. At all of top stadiums in Thailand, on any given night, thousands of working-class Thais bet their wages on their favorite fighters. Bets are placed on the overall outcome of the fight, or they can be placed on minute areas within the fight, such as which fighter a gambler thinks will win a certain round. Gambling is a double-edged sword in Muay Thai, however. It allows promoters to put on stellar events, because the gamblers are the major purchasers of tickets, but at the same time it deters the general Thai public from visiting the stadiums and supporting the sport. Because of this there has been a decline in support from the Thai public, and less and less teens are getting involved with Muay Thai.
Recently, to try and overcome the obstacles of promoting Muay Thai the general Thai public, Thai Fight was formed, a promotion which focuses on the action of Muay Thai and not just the gambling. The number of rounds were shortened to three, and the gambling is not as prominent at the events. The promotion showcases talented Thai-born fighters against foreign opposition and welcomes the support of the Thai people. At any event held in Thailand, middle-class Thais come out in droves to support their favorite Thai superstars.
Additionally, as younger promoters are put into office the sport should change in its capacity. The current generation understands what it will take to get the general Thai public involved in Muay Thai again, and the younger promoters will mostly work to making that happen. Right now there is still an old guard that promotes Muay Thai, and their decisions are mostly made to please the gambling spectators. A fresh, new take on Muay Thai may be just what is needed to attract the younger crowd back to Thailand’s National Sport, a pastime that survived hundreds of years of Thai history.
Muay Thai Over Time: 1200s – Present
In the early 1200s, when Sukhothai was the capital of Thailand, the country was still at war with many of its neighbors. These wars were fought before the invention of modern weapons; with this, soldiers relied heavily on Muay Thai and their hand held weapons to survive on the battlefield. When the country was at peace Muay Thai was still used, but it was mostly practiced during festivities and temple fairs. At this time monks were responsible for teaching Muay Thai to the younger generations. Instead of gyms, however, Muay Thai was taught at village temples. In addition to the common young men and adults, the Royal Family also practiced Muay Thai.
During the time when Ayudhya was the capital of Thailand, around 1350 to the late 1700s, not much had changed in the way of Muay Thai. In 1767, however, when Burma sacked Ayudhya, a legend in Muay Thai was born. This was the legend of Nai Khanomthom. Nai Khanomthom was a prisoner of war, held captive along with many other Thai soldiers by the Burmese King. One day (some say March 17th) the Burmese KIng decided to put a festival together showcasing the combative skills of the Burmese against the Thai prisoners of war. Nai Khanomthom was one of the Thais selected to fight against the Burmese boxers. Legend has it that Nai Khanomthom went on to defeat 10 of the Burmese boxers, one after the next. The Burmese King was so impressed with Nai Khanomthom’s Muay Thai skills that he set him free. In remembrance of Nai Khanomthom’s spectacular feat the Muay Thai community every year celebrates National Muay Thai Day on March 17th.
In the late 1700s, when Thonburi was the capital of Thailand, Muay Thai saw a shift from the battlefields to more of a sport. At this time Muay Thai was used more and more during festivities and less and less during war. Fighters began to fight in what resembled a boxing ring, save the there was no physical ring. Instead, spectators gathered around and formed a ring for the fighters to fight in. Muay Thai fights took place directly on the ground with little protection for the fighters. Rope was used for hand wraps and fighters fought until one decided they have had enough.
It was not until the mid-1900s when the Muay Thai that we know of today started to take shape. At this time rules and regulations were put into place to protect the fighters from serious injury, and two of Thailand’s most prominent stadiums were built for spectators to view the growing sport. Because Muay Thai fighters were so highly skilled this was also the time when many foreign challengers came to test the Muay Thai fighters. From all backgrounds of the martial arts fighters from all over the world battled with Thailand’s Muay Thai fighters, and most of the time the Muay Thai fighters won. Foreigners were so impressed that they began traveling to Thailand to learn the highly effective striking art.
If there was any era in which Muay Thai solidified itself as a ring sport it would be the 1990s. During this time, dubbed the Golden Era, many of Thailand’s greatest fighters battled with each other to find out who would reign supreme in the sport of Muay Thai. Fighters such as Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn, Boonlai Sor. Thanikul, Jongsanan Fairtex, and Samart Payakaroon, Nung Ubon Sithlertchai. ushered in a highly entertaining era for Muay Thai, an era that some say will never be seen again.
Muay Thai and Globalization
Due to the effectiveness of Muay Thai as a martial art, and partly because of the appeal of the traditional and cultural aspects of Muay Thai, the sport has steadily spread west since it’s formal inception in the mid-1900s. Muay Thai first became popular outside of Thailand in Europe and Japan and then began to spread to Australia and the western world thereafter. Today, Muay Thai is recognized all over the globe.
Superstar’s such as Saenchai and Buakaw have become household names in Thai society, and even abroad their popularity is ever-rising. Because of the high demand of Muay Thai trainers, fighters, both current and retired, can travel abroad to teach, hold seminars, and even fight. There used to be a time when ex-fighters would have to resort to driving taxis, however, if a fighter was good enough, they can now have themselves a lucrative career teaching Muay Thai abroad.
With the popularity of Muay Thai also came the opportunity for promotions to grow and expand globally. Many promotions now put together fight cards pairing Muay Thai fighters from around the world against each other. Muay Thai fans can now see just who is the best fighter in the world in each respective weight division. But due to the rigorous training and starting at an early age, the Thais are still ahead of every country when it comes to Muay Thai, although, that gap is slowly closing as the skill set of western fighters steadily increases.
There are many Muay Thai stadiums throughout Thailand but the most important – and the most prestigious – are Lumpinee, Rajadamnern, Channel 7 Studio, and Siam Omnoi. These stadiums are designated for showcasing top level Muay Thai in Thailand. Unlike the west where fights are held at venues shared by other sports such as basketball or hockey, these are dedicated stadiums for the promotion of Muay Thai. Because of this, it adds to the allure of visiting and watching fights at one of these major stadiums. Once inside Lumpinee Stadium or Rajadamnern Stadium a spectator could feel the history inside the building. These two stadiums are masses of concrete, with Muay Thai equipment stores and food stalls surrounding the outside perimeters. There is nothing fancy about them, however, once the fights begin the patrons will be amazed at the energy that buzzes through the crowds of gamblers. Fighting on a main card in either Lumpinee or Raja