Muay Thai (pronounced Moy Tie), and often called the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’, is the national sport of Thailand and a very common and effective stand up martial art often used by MMA fighters. Rapidly growing in popularity across the globe for its exciting and explosive style, fighters use their hands, elbows, knees and shins to strike the opponent, as well as utilising clinch fighting to throw their opponent. It’s a complex and intricate martial art, with several traditional elements that are often lost on western audiences. But the history of the sport is fascinating, a mixture of truth and legend that we’re going to briefly cover in this article.
The true origin and history of muay thai is actually a subject of debate as the majority of written records were destroyed when the Burmese army pillaged the city of Ayudhaya, the capital of Siam (modern day Thailand). It is known however that the art of Muay Thai originated as a form of unarmed combat used in warfare, for when soldiers were disarmed. Surviving soldiers taught the techniques they’d learned to younger ones, and slowly a fighting style began to form. When these soldiers returned to their homes they began to put on shows, fighting for the entertainment of their neighbours. Villages would put forward their best fighter to compete and older veteran soldiers began to teach the techniques and open schools. The sport became a huge part of Thai culture, not least as there were ongoing wars between Siam and the surrounding countries for hundreds of years, and Siamese men were needed to serve in the military and know how to fight.
The most famous Thai legend is the story of Nai Khanom Dtom (or often Nai Khanomtom). In 1767, when the Burmese army had again ransacked Ayudhaya, Nai Khanom Dtom was one of the many Thai prisoners, including several Thai Boxers, captured and taken to Burma. In 1774 the Burmese King decided to throw a week long festival in honour of Buddha, with plays and comedies, sword fighting matches, and a competition to test which martial art was better – Muay Thai or the Burmese fighting style of Lethwei. Nai Khanom Dtom was selected to fight a Burmese Lethwei champion, and a ring was set up in front of the Kings throne. Before the fighting began Nai Khanom Dtom completed the traditional Wai Kru, a pre-fight dance to warm up, and give thanks to the ring, his trainers and ancestors and the spectators. This fascinated the Burmese spectators, some of whom thought it was a black magic ritual. When the match began the Thai fighter charged forwards, pummelling his opponent with all of the eight striking points of Muay Thai, until the Burmese fighter collapsed. The referee declared the knockout invalid however, saying that the Burmese fighter was distracted by Nai Khanom Dtom’s Wai Kru. The Burmese King then asked Nai Khanom Dtom to fight nine more Burmese champions to prove his skill, which the Thai fighter agreed to. He proceeded to beat all nine of the Lethwei fighters, without break in between, with the final one being a famous Lethwei trainer, who couldn’t stand up to the kicks of Nai Khanom Dtom. When his final opponent fell, and no one else dared step up to the challenge, the Burmese King offered Nai Khanom Dtom his freedom (some versions say he secured freedom for his fellow captives too) and was offered either two beautiful Burmese wives, or a monetary reward. Nai Khanom Dtom chose the wives, as money was easier to come by, and departed back to his home. It’s reported that the Burmese King said after the competition that ‘Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom, even with bare hands he can fell nine or ten opponents. But his lord was incompetent and lost the country to an enemy, if he had been any good there was no way the city of Ayudhaya could have fallen’
Throughout the 19th century the country of Thailand was at peace, and with the King of Thailand taking a personal interest in the sport Muay thai came on leaps and bounds, with the sport being used as a means of physical fitness, self defense, recreation and self advancement. In the early 1900’s the Thai King pushed for and formulated the first codified rules of Muay Thai, and fighters began to wear gloves and groin protectors. This was also when the term Muay Thai began to be used, before this point Muay Thai was known as Muay Boran, which still exists but is more a exhibition art form than a competitive martial art.
The next major advancement in Muay Thai came in 1993, when the International Federation of Muay Thai Ameteur was formed with 128 member states, governed by the Olympic Council of Asia. Then in 1995 the oldest and largest professional Muay Thai federation, the World Muay Thai Council, was formed by the Royal Thai Government and sanctioned by the Sports Authority of Thailand.
Today there are thousands of gyms spread across the globe, with muay thai growing increasingly popular with promotions like Lion Fight in the USA and Muay Thai Grand Prix in the UK, as well as the popularity of Muay Thai as the stand up style used in MMA promotions like the UFC.