Pra Puttha Yord Fa Chulaloke
King Rama I was a Muay Thai enthusiast from an early age, training and traveling to watch matches throughout the kingdom. As the legend goes, in 1788, two brothers from France came to Thailand in search of boxing or fighting competition. One of them was a fighter of some renown and had fought throughout other countries during their travels. He wanted to fight for prizes against a Thai boxer.
The King consulted with Pra Raja Wangbowon, the head of the royal boxing ministry, where they agreed upon a bet of 4000 Baht (50 Changs) and to hold the fight at the Grand Palace at the temple of the emerald Buddha. A ring of 20 X 20 meters was constructed specifically for the fight.
Early in the match it seemed the fighter from France was too strong for the smaller but faster Thai. Eventually he began to tire, and seeing that he was on the verge of losing, his brother broke the rules by hastily jumping into the ring to help. This caused a riot and fighting ensued between the foreigners and Thai guards and spectators. Disgraced by their actions, the brothers left soon after.
The Golden Age of Muay Thai
King Rama V
King Rama V realized the value of Muay Thai and did much to promote the sport from the late 1880’s to the turn of the century. He promoted tournaments and “Muay Luang”, also called Royally appointed Boxing Centers throughout the kingdom, which often served as a way for him to find personal guards or Royal officers when a fighter was victorious.
Often times the top fighters at the Royal Muay Thai Centers would be given personal invitations by the King to fight at tournaments, festivals and important international events. The Department of Education was created in 1887, with Muay Thai as part of the Military Cadet teachers school curriculum.
World War I
King Rama VI
Muay Thai was introduced to Europe and the rest of the world during the first great war. Thai soldiers were stationed in France, and the commander would organize Muay Thai bouts for to boost the morale of the servicemen. French boxers would often participate and compete against the Thai fighters.
The first permanent boxing stadium was built at the Suan Khoolab School after the war. They still did not have the modern gloves used today, so fighters’ hands were wrapped in cotton and hemp. Mongkongs were worn on their heads and pra-jiats around their biceps.
The distinctive style that is Muay Thai is thought to have developed over centuries as the major tribes of that era (one of which was the Siamese) migrated through China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia. The Thai tribes moved south, fighting fiercely to survive as they encountered other tribes in what is now northern and central Thailand, and as far south as Malaysia.
The rudimentary elements that defined Thai Boxing as a fighting style began to take root. Through training, military exercises, combat and loss of life, techniques became precise and specific. The goal of each strike and movement is to deliver an excruciating, debilitating blow which would enable the fighter to quickly overcome his rivals without leaving himself exposed to an attack. Thus, proper technique and power strikes were a vital element in their training. Veteran soldiers and fathers taught their students and sons the offensive and defensive tactics and techniques, proper posture and positioning and skills to enhance awareness. Those students and sons went on to teach their children, and from there the core elements that make up Muay Thai today had become a permanant foundation.
It would seem that the most effective hand-to-hand form of combat evolved in a rather Darwin-like manner. It demanded the survival of the fittest: those who fought and prevailed lived and taught others before eventually falling themselves.
The Thai were constantly on guard anticipating attacks from neighboring countries like Burma and Cambodia. The Burmese and Thai had fought each other in many wars over the centuries, causing much destruction in both countries. The wars against the Burmese, Cambodians and other invaders helped refine the art of Muay Thai, teaching the Thai combatants much about engaging in combat.
When the young men returned from tours of duty with the Thai military, they often engaged in matches for sport and fun. Older soldiers, being survivors of many battles and hand-to-hand confrontations, became “Kroo Muay” – instructors and teachers. A local fighter from each province, town and village who showed promise in the sport would garner the respect and support of the local inhabitants. The love of the sport and importance of an effective defense system for the kingdom made Muay Thai a vital part of the Thai culture for the next 500 years as the skills were passed through the generations.