The history of Muay Thai is interwoven with the history of the Thai people. The Thais although a gentle, peace-loving people, for centuries they had to defend themselves and their land from aggressive neighbours. They developed a form of close, hand-to-hand combat using fists feet knees elbows and weapons best suited for the kind of rough-terrain battles they were fighting. Over time it became a rite of passage for Thai men to take up training in this martial art. King Naresuan the Great (1555-1605), one of the country’s most celebrated warrior-heroes, is believed to have been an excellent boxer himself, and it was he who made Muay Thai a required part of military training.
Muay Boran

The best known and most celebrated of the early fighting greats was Nai Khanom Dtom, who, having been captured by the Burmese, regained his freedom by defeating twelve of the enemy’s gladiators in an unarmed contest witnessed by the Burmese king. His story is related in many versions and appears in grade school textbooks. All stadia in the country honour the hero by dedicating one fight doubt that Nai Khanom Dtom was a historical figure, although no records exist in Thailand. The most reliable confirmation comes from Burma.

Researchers who have attempted to uncover details of Muay Thai’s past have met with little success: the fighting art’s origin remains unknown. Thailand’s early historical records were lost forever in 1767, when Burmese armies laid siege to Siam’s ancient capital of Ayuddhaya. The city was overrun, ransacked and put to the torch. All treasures, religious relics and works of art as well as the royal archives were destroyed.

Thailand’s history, as it is known today, has been pieced together from provincial record, the writings of early European visitors and Burmese, Cambodian and Chinese sources. It is from this amalgamation of information, with its many contradictory statements, that our little knowledge of early Muay Thai comes.

It seemed to have been fairly common to settle disputes of national importance by unarmed combat duels. The annals of Chiang Mai relate the story of King Sen Muang Ma, who died in 1411. His two sons, Yi kumkam and Fang Ken, fought for the throne, but despite long conflict neither could get the upper hand. Fang Ken suggested settling the issue by single combat. Each side was to select a champion boxer from among his followers who was to fight until blood was drawn. The prince whose boxer lost would forfeit his claim to becoming the new ruler. The terms were accepted by both sides. The bout lasted for several hours before Fang Ken’s fighter received a scratch on his foot which showed a trickle of blood. The contest was over and Yi Kumkam became the new king.

During the reign of King Naresuen the Great ( 1590-1605 ), Muay Thai was part of military training. The king himself was an expert on individual combat techniques and won several contests which had considerably historical consequences. In 1577, at the age of 22 he was declared a national hero. Although firearms were already in use at the time, Muay-Thai was an important item in a warrior training curriculum. It supplemented the sword and pike in close-in fighting.

Muay Thai reached the height of its popularity during the reign of Pra Chao Sua, the “Tiger King” ( 1703-1709 ). Siam was at peace with her neighbors and the army was idle. Boxing became the favorite pastime of the population, with young and old, rich and poor joining fighting camps. Every village staged it prize fights and heavy betting, often for all or nothing, transformed ordinary bouts into vicious battles. The king himself was a skillful fighter and was reported to have visited village arenas (Visaidchicharn District) to challenge and eventually defeated the 3 local champions and, still undetected, walked off with the prize money. According to some authorities it was customary to bind hands and forearms with strips of horse hide in order to protect one’s own skin and inflict maximum damage on one’s opponents. Some of the techniques used today are said to be based on Pra Chao Sua’s style of fighting.

The horse hide thongs were later replaced by hemp ropes or starched strips of cotton soaked in glue before being tied to a boxer’s hands. It is also said that for some matches and with the agreement of both contestants, ground glass was mixed with the glue. The fighters wore groin guards of tree bark or sea shells held in place with a piece of cloth tied between the legs and around the waist. In those days there were no such arrangements as weight divisions, or three minute rounds. A bout lasted as long as fighter could continue. Many a boxer is said to have left the arena on a bamboo stretcher-dead.
Thais doing padwork

By the beginning of this century Muay Thai was taught in schools. It continued thusly until 1921.When too many serious injuries and several cases of brain damage prompted the government to prohibit the practice in all elementary and high schools. The use of hemp ropes and sea shells continued until the 1930s. At that point Muay Thai underwent a major transformation. A number of rules and regulations from international boxing were adopted, modern boxing gloves were introduced and the shell was replaced by a metal cup as a groin protector. Weight divisions were established and bout were staged in a modern ring.Thai padwork