The national sport in Thailand is Muay Thai or Thai Boxing. It has also been called The Art of Eight Limbs because it uses eight points of contact, thus using the entire body as a weapon of war:
- Hands – dagger and sword
- Shins and forearms – shield against blows
- Elbows – mace or hammer
- Legs and knees – staff and ax
In 1238, the first Thai army was formed in Sukhothai. There was a need to protect the capital city of Siam after several years of fighting between nearby tribes and kingdoms. The army was trained in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat.
The Muay Thai military art became a part of the Siamese culture. Training centers became a need as the area was under constant threat of war. These were Muay Thai camps for young man to practice. Some practiced for exercise and discipline, but there were many who trained for self-defense purposes. Monks taught history and passed down knowledge from previous generations in the Buddhist temples.
Muay Thai Warriors Make Strong Leaders
Thai boxing was popular among the poor and the common people, therefore, it became a basic requirement for the high-class and royal part of the population. King Phokhun Sri and the first king of Sukothai sent their sons to the Samakorn training center because it was believed that brave warriors made strong leaders.
During the Krungsri Ayutthaya Era, there were many wars between Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, Therefore, training centers were necessary throughout the country. Soldiers were taught Krabi Kabong, which included skills with the staff, stick, and sword.
Traditions Begin to Form Around Professional Fights
Under the reign of King Narai, Muay Thai became a national sport. It was during this time that fundamentals were created and were a tradition for 400 years. The fighting ring, headband and armbands were introduced. The headband is called the Mongkong and the armbands are called pa-pra-jiat.
Hemp ropes and thread were wrapped around the hands and forearms and covered in a thick starchy liquid. This made the striking surface harder.
When professional fights began, under King Narai, the ring was a rope placed on the ground in the shape of a square or circle. There were no weight classes, and fighters were not matched up by size, age or experience. Bouts were fought until there was a clear winner, who would continue onward representing their village. Oftentimes the wealthy would have champions fight to settle a dispute.
Gambling became a popular around the sport.
The Tiger King Legend
King Prachao Sua enjoyed competing in tournaments during the Tiger King Era. He was known to disguise himself as a commoner and compete against well-established fighters. According to legend, King Sua defeated Killing Fists, Nai Klan Madthai; Fists of Iron, Nai Yai Madklek; and Strong Fists, Nai Lek Madnok.
The Department of Royal Boxing was founded, while Sua was king, to recruit worth fighters to entertain royalty. When they were not in the ring, these men served as guards in the royal court, Thani Lir. The royal guards were also tasked with training royalty in Muay Thai and combat.
During the Thonburi Era, Thailand experienced peace long enough to begin reconstruction. Muay Thai was reserved for soldiers and became a favorite past time for others. However, the sport became more competitive. Training camps would have their best fighters compete for entertainment and gambling opportunities.
Rules and regulations were introduced to the sport by the time Rama I was king. Muay Thai was a featured event at festivals and celebrations throughout the country. The length of a round was equal to the time it took a coconut with a small hole to sink to the bottom of a barrel. Competitors still fought until there was a clear winner.
In 1788, two brothers from France, were traveling countries while one of them challenged fighters. They arrived in Thailand so the brother could compete against a Thai boxer.
The head of the royal boxing ministry Pra Raja Wangbowon and the king agreed to bet 4,000 Baht. A ring was crafted in the Grand Palace and measured 20 X 20 meters for the fight.
The fighter from France was stronger but the Thai fighter was faster. When the Frenchman began to tire, his brother jumped in the ring to assist him and broke the rules. This action caused a riot between the fighters and the crowd.
Royally appointed boxing centers, called Muay Luang were built throughout Thailand. This is how King Rama V found royal officers. Fighters in these centers were invited to fight in tournaments by the king to participate in international events and royal tournaments.
During WWI, Muay Thai was introduced to the world. Fighters were sent to France to entertain the troops. After the war, the first Thai boxing stadium was built in the Suan Khoolab School. Fighters still wrapped their hands in hemp but added cotton. They still wore Mongkongs and Pra-jiats on their heads and around their biceps.
As tribes migrated south, they fought their way through China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia. Through military exercises, combat, training and loss of life, the Thai sport began to take shape, developing rudimentary elements and techniques of precision. Each movement designed to create excruciating pain to an opponent. This would allow a fighter to overcome a rival without being open to attack.
Proper posture and positioning were used to enhance awareness. Soldiers taught specific techniques and skills to students, and fathers taught sons.
Teachers of the sport are called Kroo Muay. The ritual dance performed by fighters in the ring is called Wai Kroo. It honors the teacher, casts spells of protection and mentally prepares the fighter. Ram Muay is a dance unique to each training camp. The dance is done in each direction of the ring. The contender touches each corner post to show repsect for the spirits and his opponent.