Muay Thai is referred to as “The Art of Eight Limbs”; and using eight points of contact the body mimics weapons of war. The hands become the sword and dagger; the shins and forearms were hardened in training to act as armor against blows, and the elbow to fell opponents like a heavy mace or hammer; the legs and knees became the axe and staff. The body operated as one unit. The knees and elbows constantly searching and testing for an opening while grappling and trying to spin an enemy to the ground for the kill.
The King of Thailand is an avid fan of Muay Thai. Since being crowned its popularity has grown more than in any other era in history.
The Sukhothai Era
In 1238 (Buddhist years), the first Thai army was created in the northern city of Sukhothai, Siam being its capital. The recorded history shows that a need to defend the capital city was spawned by many wars being fought between neighbouring tribes and kingdoms. The Siamese army was created to protect the government and its inhabitants within the city and surrounding villages. Soldiers were taught hand-to-hand combat and how to use weapons, as well as how to use the entire body as a weapon. Their training is what eventually evolved into Muay Thai and Krabi Krabong.
Learning the military arts or “Muay Thai” became engrained in the culture of the early Siamese people. With the constant threat of war, training centers slowly began to appear throughout the kingdom. These were the first Muay Thai camps. Young men practiced the art form for various reasons: self-defense, exercise, discipline; monks even instructed at many Buddhist temples, passing down knowledge and history from one generation to the next.
As Muay Thai became popular with the poor and common people, it also became a required staple for the high-class and royalty. The two sons of King Phokhun Sri In Tharatit, the first King of Sukhothai, were sent to learn at the Samakorn training center. The common idea was that good warriors made brave leaders and this would prepare them as future rulers of the kingdom.
Phokhun Ram Khamhaeng university is named after the writer of the first ancient text of Muay Thai. It is located in Bangkok along with the Sport Authority of Thailand.
The Krungsri Ayutthaya Era
With many wars being fought between the developing countries of Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia, the development of large armies became necessary to protect and ensure the survival of the Thai kingdom. Young men were trained in warfare at training centers throughout the country, devoting themselves to learning hand-to-hand combat, the sword, staff and stick (“Krabi Krabong”). Phudaisawan Center for swords and pole arms became the most famous of the these training centers and was considered to be the eras equivalent of a college or university education.
The Era of King Naresuan
King Naresuan loved Muay Thai and fighting competitions. He would eventually become a Muay Thai legend, calling upon the men who had been beaten and displaced by the Burmese warriors to become scouts and jungle warfare soldiers that would eventually liberate Thailand from it’s Burmese occupants around 1600.
The Era of King Narai
During this era Muay Thai became a national sport, 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 “ring” was made by laying a rope on the ground in a square or circle as a designated fighting area.
The fighters used hemp ropes and threads as hand coverings which wrapped around the hands and forearms. A thick, starchy liquid would sometimes be used to bind the threads and make the striking surface harder. Now, 400 years later, TWINS is Thailand’s #1 Muay Thai equipment manufacturer.
In the first professional fights, fighters were not matched up by weight, height, experience or age. There were no time limits on fights; they continued until there was a definite winner. Local champions would represent their city or village, and often times fought on behalf of wealthy businessmen or royalty as a way for them to settle disputes. Losing a fight often resulted in the fighter and/or businessman losing face. Gambling on Muay Thai matches was as popular then as it is now in stadiums across the country.
King Prachao Sua “Tiger King” Era
King Prachao Sua loved competing in Muay Thai. He was known for entering tournaments in small cities and villages disguised as a commoner. Because no one recognized him as the King, he was allowed to participate in a tournament against several notable fighters.
According to the legend, he defeated three fighters named Nai Klan Madthai (Killing Fists), Nai Yai Madklek (Fists of Iron), and Nai Lek Madnok (Strong Fists). The “Tiger King” was forced to disguise himself because Thai people hold their King in such high regard that out of respect, no one would have fought him.
Prachao Sua loved the sport so much that he made his two sons, the princes of Thailand, study Muay Thai, sword fighting and wrestling. During this time the Department of Royal Boxing was founded with the responsibility of finding and recruiting worthy men to fight as entertainment for royalty and to become guards in Thani Lir, the royal court. As royal guards, they were also given the task of training the members of royalty in combat and Muay Thai, as they were still at war with Cambodia and Burma.
The Thonburi Era
During this period known as the Thonburi Era, Thailand began to see peace and the kingdom was slowly being reconstructed. Training in Muay Thai was generally for Soldiers in the military and a favored past-time for those who were not. With the country’s new found peace, the sport began to turn more competitive. Camps would match their best fighters agasint each other for entertainment. As there were still no formal rules, they lasted until a clear winner was left standing.
The Ratanakosin Era
By the time of the reign of Rama I, Muay Thai had become a national fighting art and rules and regulations were introduced. The sport had become an integral part of celebrations and festivities across the country. The length of each round was measured by a coconut with a small hole that would float in water. The coconut filling with water and sinking to the bottom of the barrel signified its end, though there was still no limit to the number of rounds per fight. Combatants continued to fight until a clear winner was chosen, or one person was left standing.