In the beginning
Muay Thai or Thai boxing as it`s more commonly called, has grown and progressed significantly over the past 100 years as it began to earn international recognition and exposure. In World War II, after formally being introduced to Muay Thai, foreigners named it “Thai Boxing” The French labeled it as “Le Sport Orient” or the fighting style of the orient. Soldiers from Europe and America would watch attentively as the Thai soldiers practiced Muay Thai amongst themselves. They were so impressed with the style of fighting that they asked the Thai soldiers to teach them the fundamentals and traditions of Muay Thai. As it became more popular internationally, the rules began to change so it could be better organized and governed like established sports such as boxing. In the 1920’s, rings were introduced to replace open courtyards, which ultimately planted the roots of modern Muay Thai.
Gloves like those used in boxing matches replaced the old horsehide, hemp rope or leather bindings and a hard-cover groin protector was added as extra protection from brutal kicks and knees. The first formal rules were introduced to the sport of Muay Thai after WW II ended. Fights were divided into 5 rounds with a time limit on each; a clock was used to determine the length of each round instead of a coconut shell with holes sinking in a barrel of water, and major Muay Thai stadiums were erected in cities throughout the country.
Unlike boxing in Europe and America, Muay Thai fighters make very little money fighting. Many will take fights every 3-4 weeks, earning barely enough to support themselves, let alone a family if they have one. Muay Thai fighters train many hours a day and often begin when they are 6-8 years of age. They typically take their first fight when they are 8-10 years old and may accumulate as many as 120-150 (3 times as many as an active boxer) before they reach their mid-twenties.
Due to how physically demanding the sport is, and how early the average Thai begins fighting, Muay Thai fighters generally do not have long careers. Muay Thai fighters are known for their tough skin and ability to ignore pain and injuries, which are quite common. The fighters deal with everything from cuts and lacerations to the face and head to broken bones and severe sprains throughout their careers.
Today Muay Thai is becoming very popular on a global scale. It was recently accepted as an Olympic sport, finally gaining it’s deserved recognition. Professional martial artists from all sides of the fighting spectrum agree, Muay Thai is essential to becoming an all-around multifaceted fighter. As new training camps and gyms open around the world, Muay Thai will continue to grow in popularity.
Early Muay Thai training was no joke!
Long before there was the usual modern-day exercise equipment such as heavy bags, agility balls, long banana bags and other equipment we use to today, Muay Thai fighters had to be resourceful and rely on readily available tools to help them train and condition. Thailand’s tropical environment garners an abundance of banana and coconut trees, rivers and streams and manual labor; all which fighters relied on to become better and more skilled in the sport.
One of the most popular and well-known training techniques of “old-style” Muay Thai fighters was kicking banana trees. The soft and porous nature of the banana tree was ideal for practicing leg kicks and knee strikes. Fighters would be practicing striking using a tree around 18-24 inches in diameter, and slowly wore it down using a variety of techniques until it fell over. The banana tree was preferred because it was soft enough to not damage the fighters’ leg, but hard enough to powerfully strike with kicks or knees many times before it would fall over.
Often fighters would roll small logs along their shins or strike them with bags of sand, the intention being to toughen the skin and build calluses which would provide extra protection during a fight. Hard shins and tough skin were an important part of being a good Muay Thai fighter.
The coconut tree was also utilized in many creative ways when it came to training. The Thai fighters would often climb them to strengthen their legs, slowly pushing with their feet and contracting their thigh muscles. The rough bark helped harden their feet, and even the coconuts themselves were used to aid in training. The fighters would place half of a broken coconut shell on the ground, partially fill it with sand, and then repeatedly strike their elbows into the shell and sand. This helped them practice their aim while simultaneously toughening their elbows, making them hard and coarse for fighting.
To practice striking accuracy on a moving target, the Thai warriors would often hang a coconut or lime from a string or vine and punch, kick, elbow and knee the moving target which mimicked their opponent in the ring. It is also believed that the fighters would slowly and methodically strike the hard husk of a coconut with their fists until it split, exposing the fruit inside. This can still be seen at Muay Thai shows for tourists throughout the Kingdom of Thailand.
Another popular and effective method for strength training was digging a small pit from knee to waist deep to jump in an out of. The fighter would only use the strength and explosive power of his legs to propel him upwards and land on his feet. This is very similar to the modern practice of plyometric training popular among Muay Thai and MMA fighters today. Thai fighters would also practice walking against the current of a strong stream and through thick, muddy rice fields to help build strong calf and thigh muscles.
In order to practice not blinking their eyes when getting struck in the face, the Muay Thai fighters would stand in rivers and slap the water into their faces while attempting to keep their eyes open.
Another favored and very popular Muay Thai training technique is called the Muay Thai circle. A group of fighters would form a circle with one person in the middle. The fighter in the middle would then train with each person in the circle for a designated amount of time, switching at even intervals. They would often go through 5-6 opponents in a row, for approximately 10 minutes, to improve their clinching skills while building endurance and stamina. If a fighter can train for 10 minutes without a break, then a 3-minute round in the ring will be much easier to endure.
Where to see Muay Thai in Thailand
Bangkok’s Lumpini and Rajadamnern Stadiums are the best places to see professional Muay Thai fighters, local and foreign. Ringside seats can be purchased for little money where tourists get to experience professional fighters giving their-all, certainly offering great value for money.
Tourist resorts like Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and others, quite often will have boxing rings in the bars where visitors can enjoy the Thai national sport while enjoying a few beers, not quite the high standard seen in the national stadiums, but certainly very entertaining and usually free of charge. Be prepared to witness young kids and women fighting ferociously, that might not be to everyone’s liking but anything goes here!
I have personally visited Thailand many times and been fascinated by Muay Thai, the history and culture of this sport and the country itself are something to admire. Anyone else witnessed Muay Thai while visiting Thailand, if so, what were your impression of both?