A History and Style Guide of Muay Thai

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Martial arts enthusiasts call Muay Thai the art of eight limbs. When you break it all down, that's perhaps what makes this national sport of Thailand so effective in combat -- it doesn't just focus on punches or on shin-connecting kicks. Rather, elbows, knees and other body parts harmonize to effect just one goal: to defeat one's opponent. 

Muay Thai History

The histories of Asian martial arts styles are often difficult to uncover because of these disciplines' ages. Muay Thai is no different in that regard. Current scholarship suggests that Muay Thai emerged from an ancient Siamese or Thai fighting style called Muay Boran (an ancient form of boxing), which was likely influenced as well by Krabi Krabong (a weapons-based Thai martial art).

Several waves of invasion marked early Thai history, which spurred the need for hand-to-hand combat skills.

Muay Thai the Sport

What at first was almost exclusively about self-defense, eventually morphed into a sport. Muay Thai competitions developed during the Sukothai era (1238-1377), a time when competitors began earning money for their fighting prowess. Initially, Muay Thai boxers or competitors fought without the use of gloves (strictly a striking competition -- no grappling). Strikes to the groin and headbutting were acceptable, weight classes were nonexistent and the ring generally was wherever you were at the time. At some point, a system of sporting rounds developed (much like rounds in modern boxing). What's more, during the Sukothai era Muay Thai became a way to impress the Thai nobility, which could lead to financial or social advancement.

The Ayutthaya Period

During the Ayutthaya period, fighters began using unrefined hemp wrappings to protect their fingers and wrists in the same way that fighters today use tape. This practice was called Muay Kaad Chuek. There are legends, though unconfirmed, that some ancient warriors even dipped their hand wrappings in glue and then ground glass before competing (check out the movie Kickboxer to see this in action in Hollywood).

Also during the Ayutthaya period, a platoon of royal guards called the Grom Nak Muay (Muay Fighters' Regiment) was established. This platoon stayed in place through the reigns of Rava V to Rama VII. Muay Thai's popularity soared during the reign of Rama V given his great interest in the art. Accordingly, experts began teaching the discipline in training camps where students were both fed and given shelter. Member loyalty was high enough to compel many students to adopt their camp's name as their own surname.

Today Muay Thai fighters compete in rings, in stadiums, with boxing gloves on. These bouts are highly popular and can be seen worldwide.

Muay Thai Hero, Nai Khanom Tom

In the 1760's, Ayutthaya, or Thailand, was taken over by invading Burmese troops. During the siege, a group of Thai residents, including Thai boxers, were captured. At a festival in 1774, the Burmese king had one of these Thai boxers -- Nai Khanom Tom -- fight a Muay Boran champion. Tom took out his opponent quickly. The king then asked him to fight nine other Burmese champions in succession, all of whom fell to the Muay Thai practitioner. The king was so impressed that he granted the Thai fighter both freedom and wives. To this day, Tom's victory is celebrated on March 17 as "Boxer's Day," and the victories continue to be a source of pride for the Thai people.

Characteristics of Muay Thai

Muay Thai is primarily a hard, striking martial art where all "eight limbs" -- shins, elbows, knees and hands -- are used to strike opponents. Today, the blocks and strikes of Muay Thai are often seen in the kickboxing ring and in modern mixed martial arts, a sport where Muay Thai has become a staple of training.

One of the many things that set Muay Thai apart from other striking styles is the use of the clinch. Where many other styles such as Japanese kickboxing and western boxing separate fighters when they begin to grab one another inside, Muay Thai welcomes this strategy. Practitioners will sometimes grab the back of their opponents' necks in such situations and deliver knee strikes to the midsection. Consistent and effective use of elbow strikes also sets Muay Thai apart from many other martial arts styles.

Basic Goals of Muay Thai

In Muay Thai kickboxing competitions, the basic goal is to win the fight by either knockout or by way of decision. In real life, the goal of Muay Thai is to defend against an attacker as quickly and effectively as possible.

Some Famous Muay Thai Practitioners

  • Mark DellaGrotte: The head trainer of Sityodtong, a Muay Thai/MMA gym in Boston, DellaGrotte's ability to teach Muay Thai is revered.
  • Ernesto Hoost: One of the greatest Muay Thai kickboxers of all time. 
  • Anderson Silva: If you want to see Muay Thai and the clinch used to perfection in an MMA cage, check out Anderson Silva, one of the greatest strikers in MMA history.
  • Nai Khanom Tom: This revered Muay Thai hero dismantled several Burmese opponents during a time of occupation. His exploits led to "Boxer's Day" and continue to be a source of personal pride for the Thai people.