What is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai is a combat sport, which can also be considered a martial art. It is a striking art that originated from Thailand. Muay Thai is widely considered to be the most effective striking martial art in the world. It is known as the ‘art of eight limbs’, this refers to the body parts used whilst training in Muay Thai, the hands, elbows, knees and shins.
Muay Thai is great for self-defence due to its nature of teaching practitioners how to effectively use the body as both a defensive and offensive weapon. The word ‘Muay’ can be translated to ‘boxing/combat’, therefore also giving it the name ‘Thai boxing’. Nowadays, due to the rise of mixed martial arts (MMA), many MMA fighters choose to train in Muay Thai to help improve their stand-up game for fights.
- The origins and history of Muay Thai
- How Muay Thai spread across the world
- Modern Muay Thai
- Why is Muay Thai important in Thailand?
- Basic principles and techniques of Muay Thai
- Difference between Muay Thai and Kickboxing
- Equipment needed when you first start Muay Thai
- Muay Thai as a competitive sport
- Why study Muay Thai over other martial arts?
- Benefits of Muay Thai
- How to get started and find a Muay Thai class!
The origins and history of Muay Thai
The origins of Muay Thai are unclear due to many relics of Thai history being destroyed by the Burmese, who invaded Thailand. However, it is known that Muay Thai was developed from Muay Boran and used to train soldiers to fight in wars which were frequent at the time.
Muay Boran was an umbrella term for Thai martial arts. It was a martial art that was used before the introduction of rules. Muay Thai would emerge from Muay Boran once rules were introduced and helped it to become more of a competitive sport.
The wars between Thailand, Cambodia and Burma
In 1238, it is believed that the first Thai army was created in Sukhothai. Many wars were being fought and the capital city, Siam needed to be protected. The Siamese army would train themselves in the use of weapons and how to use their bodies as weapons. The first camps were set up to train young men for this.
They learned self-discipline and self-defence allowing for them to be war ready. At first Muay Boran was mainly practiced by the poor but later became important amongst the rich too, especially the kings who wanted to be seen as strong and competent leaders.
Wars between Thailand, Cambodia and Burma were fought on numerous occasions. By this time, many training centres had been opened across the country to train the young men in Muay Thai and weapons use.
It is believed that in 1767, the Burmese would seize treasures from the city of Ayutthaya in Thailand. They would take thousands of Siamese people to Burma as prisoners. In 1774, the Burmese king, Lord Mangra, wanted to celebrate this victory over Thailand with a festival.
Amongst the prisoners was Nai Khanom Tom, a famous Thai fighter. Prior to his fight he would perform a ritual and dance. This is now known as Wai Kru, which is a dance a Thai fighter performs before a fight to pay respect to their teachers, the martial art and their country.
Nai Khanom Tom would destroy his opponent with ease. The Burmese blamed the loss on the dance before the fight and didn’t count it as a victory. Nai Khanom Tom would be ordered to fight an additional nine fighters. One after the other he destroyed them.
Impressed with his performances the Burmese king would grant Nai Khanom Tom his freedom, gifting him with Burmese women to take home to Thailand.
Many people regard Nai Khanom Tom as ‘the father of Muay Thai’ because of this. He was able to show the effectiveness of the martial art and showed how it was superior to the Burmese fight style (known as Lethwei nowadays). On the 17th March, every year the Thai people celebrate ‘Muay Thai day’ to commemorate the occasion.
Kings of Thailand
Kings also played a big part in the growth of Muay Thai. Some well-known kings include King Naresuan and King Taksin who lead the Siamese armies against various wars with Burma during their respectful individual reigns. Check out this page to find out more about some of the popular kings of Thailand.
Many kings set up tournaments and some kings even took part in the competitions themselves. A popular King who was also a Muay Thai fighter was Prachao Sua. The king was an avid Thai fan and loved to compete.
The Thais were respectful to their kings, they did not like fighting and causing harm to them. Therefore, it is reported that King Prachao Sua would disguise himself and go to small villages to compete. The king was given the nickname the ‘Tiger King’. He loved martial arts and made his two sons train in Muay Thai, sword fighting and wrestling.
Muay Thai becomes a sport
Muay Thai would then develop and start becoming a national sport. During the early days of Muay Thai competitions, there were no rules. There would be no weight classes and no limits on fights which would continue until a clear winner was visible.
This caused many fights to go on for hours! Fighters would use rope threads to cover their arms, wrapping it around their hands and forearms.
There would be local champions who would fight one another to see who the best was. Bets were placed on fights and this generated money. Fighters would also fight on behalf of the upper class who wanted to settle disputes. If a fighter lost for them it would bring them great shame.
Muay Thai would continue to develop and rules started to be introduced and regulated. The length of rounds would be determined on how long it took a coconut to sink to the bottom of a barrel when filled with water! The number of rounds were still unlimited until a clear winner was decided.
The French brothers who came to Thailand
In 1788, two brothers from France came to Thailand. They would travel the world looking to compete against the best fighters in the region. One of the brothers was a fighter who would compete in the places they visited. They wanted to learn more about the significant martial arts in different countries.
The leader of Thailand at the time was King Rami I and he would settle a bout for the French fighter with bets placed on the fight. There are different accounts of how the fight went on, but it is known that in the later stages of the bout, the Thai dominated the fight.
His brother then stepped into the fight causing chaos and anger amongst the Thai people. The brothers would leave Thailand soon after. Many people believed this helped Muay Thai to further grow as a sport as it again showed their art against another countries (in this case french kickboxing) fighting style.
Development of Muay Thai
In 1887, the department of education was created in Thailand, making Muay Thai a part of the Military Cadet teachers school curriculum.
Muay Thai would then start to adopt some of the rules from boxing using similar gloves and a similar ring. There would finally be a cap on rounds with there being five in total. Stadiums would start to be used to host the events and they would be full up of eager fans. The Muay Thai golden area was believed to be in the 1980s and 1990s. The Lumpinee stadium would become the home of Muay Thai fights. The Lumpinee title is regarded as one of the most prestigious belts a Muay Thai fighter can win in their career.
How Muay Thai spread across the world
Muay Thai would be introduced to France during World War I. Some of the Thai army were stationed here and to boost morale, Thai fights were set up by the generals. The French were interested in the style and would compete against the Thais too.
After both World Wars, the Rajadamnern stadium was created in 1945, helping to bring world-wide attention to Muay Thai. American businessmen would sponsor Thai fighters to perform demonstrations in America, such as in 1950 when Thai fighters were brought to New York to hold a Muay Thai demonstration.
Emergence of Kickboxing in America
In the early 1970s many Japanese martial artists would regularly visit Thailand. They saw the potential in Muay Thai as a competitive sport but made some changes.
They removed strikes with the knees and elbows, then mixed some elements of karate into this style. They changed the shorts for pants, including the change of rules mentioned before, they would create the competitive sport, Kickboxing.
Osamu Noguchi is credited for being the founder of Kickboxing. This would become popular in America and would outshine Muay Thai as a sport in America for some time.
It is only recently that Muay Thai has gained more popularity, most likely due to the emergence of mixed martial arts (MMA), which allows strikes such as elbows and knees and clinch work. Many qualified Muay Thai instructors have also moved to America to help the art grow in popularity.
Muay Thai in Europe
Muay Thai was able to spread through Europe much easier. Unlike in America, where they adopted the Kickboxing rules, the Europeans would abide by the Muay Thai rules. The World Muay Thai Association was founded in 1984 in Amsterdam. This would then also see people from outside of Thailand competing in major Muay Thai stadiums such as the Lumpinee and Rajadamnern for the first time.
In 1986, the Amateur Muay Thai Association of Thailand (AMTAT) was founded. This would help Muay Thai to become a safe competitive sport for people with less experience who wanted to compete at an amateur level. Head guards and shin guards were required (and sometimes body shields).
The first European Amateur Muay Thai Championship would be held in Manchester, England in 1997.
Nowadays there are many Muay Thai organisations that govern tournaments all over the world.
Modern Muay Thai
As stated before, Muay Thai now has many different governing bodies worldwide. The art has truly become a global martial art. Due to the inclusion of the ring and gloves, the sport became more practised worldwide, as people began to see it as more than just a brutal sport.
Muay Thai has evolved and is now viewed as one of the most effective striking martial arts in the world.
In 1993, the International Federation of Muay Thai Amateur (IFMA) was created, which now consists of around 130 countries. This organisation has been specifically working closely with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), abiding by their code of rules.
This has finally paid off as Muay Thai can now apply to become an official Olympic sport! Hopefully we will see the martial art in the Olympics sometime in the near future!
Why is Muay Thai important in Thailand?
Muay Thai has become a crucial element of Thai culture over the years. Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand.
The history of Muay Thai has played a great part in their development and freedom from countries such as Burma and Cambodia who they were constantly at war with. Many Thai people train in Muay Thai starting from a young age.
However, most Muay Thai fighters are not paid well at all. Families relying on their children to fight to provide their family with money is common in Thailand. This has caused great concern for the child’s wellbeing, as taking regular blows to the head and the physical training they are required to do, is far from acceptable at such a young age.
Putting the child’s future health at serious risk. Due to the small amount of money they are paid, they are required to fight every few weeks. Muay Thai careers do not last long most of the time due to the frequency of fights. Starting at such a young age depletes the body over time.
In Western countries, fighters start at a much older age with limited contact if they do start when younger. In Thailand this is not the case with their being full rules with full head contact for bouts with children.
Check out this video on a young Thai fighter, it is truly sad to see the struggles and the weight on his shoulders at such a young age. But it opens our eyes to this situation.
People who are in jail in Thailand are also able to get time reduced off their sentence or even freedom from fighting in Thai bouts! This is known as ‘Prison Fight’ and is located in Bangkok.
Check out this video to learn more about Muay Thai fights in prison.
Muay Thai is much more than a combat sport and martial art for the Thai people, it is a way of life. There are also religions attached to the martial art in Thailand, such as Buddhism. Muay Thai also provides life values too such as self-control, respect, mental toughness and many more!
Basic principles and techniques of Muay Thai
Muay Thai was originally developed from war. The Thai people needed to be able to train their minds and bodies. Being able to master both of these elements will provide you with supreme confidence in whatever you do!
Self-discipline is also important in Muay Thai. It can be gruelling to regularly train in Muay Thai due to the intensity of training, so you must be committed to the art to really see improvements in your game.
There are many techniques in Muay Thai. However, when first starting the most important will be basic moves such as kicks and punches. Moves that include knees and elbows are more advanced, so this will come with time!
There are many different levels now when it comes to fighting, due to the damage that can be caused by both knees and elbows, many amateur bouts won’t allow the use of them. There is not a belt system in Muay Thai, practitioners usually like to see how they have progressed by sparring and competing against others.
The two key elements in Muay Thai are striking and clinching. We will look at some of the basic techniques in more detail:
- Hand strikes- This includes different punches that are also used in boxing such as the jab, the straight punch (backhand), uppercuts and hooks. The hands are important in Muay Thai as they can set up bigger scoring shots such as the kicks but can also cause devastation!
- Leg strikes- These strikes include kicks such as roundhouse kicks and teeps (push kicks). Roundhouse kicks are one of the signature kicks in Muay Thai. Practitioners will constantly be drilling the roundhouse kick and in the process be conditioning their shins. Roundhouse kicks can be thrown to the leg, body and head (leg kicks may not sound that bad but they are one of the worst trust me!) Teeps on the other hand are used like a jab is for a punch. They push away opponents and can set up other strikes. However, teeps thrown with power can also cause some damage!
Check out how powerful Muay Thai kicks really are!
- Clinch techniques- The clinch is important in Muay Thai. This consists of being able to control your opponent using movement and being able to strike them efficiently at the same time. This can be tougher and takes a while to practise. Clinches are a very big part of Muay Thai fights and is what sets them apart from the likes of kickboxing bouts.
- Sweeps- This is where you use movements that allow you to floor your opponent without using a strike. This includes unbalancing your opponents and using force to drive them to the floor. This is effectively used in clinching and when catching an opponent’s strike (roundhouse kicks and teeps especially). This does not count as a knockdown, but a sweep scores well in a fight as it shows control.
There are many variations of these basic strikes that you will learn with regular practice!
Difference between Muay Thai and Kickboxing
Many people mistake Muay Thai and Kickboxing for the same thing, this couldn’t be further from the truth! Muay Thai has been around for a much longer period of time and has gradually developed into a sport.
Kickboxing is much more recent and was influenced by other martial arts. In fact, Kickboxing was highly influenced by the likes of Muay Thai. The Japanese martial artists who regularly visited Thailand saw the potential in the art to be a sport. But they knew that changes needed to be made for it to become popular in the eyes of the public.
Muay Thai was first perceived to be a brutal sport, which put many people off it. Therefore, the Japanese removed strikes such as elbows and knees which can cause disastrous damage such as cuts which can be gruesome to look at!
They also included their own martial art, Karate with a mix of Muay Thai to make it more appealing and brought in more martial artists to compete in their sport.
Clinches are also not allowed in most Kickboxing bouts. The referee will usually separate the fighters immediately. Whereas in Muay Thai, clinching is a vital part of the sport! Strikes such as knees are very common in clinches as they can cause serious damage. From this position fighters can also sweep their opponent to score points in a Muay Thai bout.
Kickboxing has a higher focus on strikes thrown such as punches and kicks, whereas Muay Thai has an emphasis on grappling techniques too such as the clinch and sweeps (plus including extra strikes like knees and elbows).
Muay Thai fights are also usually fought at a higher pace with opponents constantly trying to counter each other (watching a live Muay Thai fight is really a great experience!). Kickboxing can be similar to a boxing pace where fighters can be more tactical.
Here we can clearly see that kickboxing and Muay Thai are very different! Kickboxing techniques can be used in Muay Thai bouts, but you will also need a solid clinch game, especially at the higher ranks. Many mixed martial artists do decide to fight in both Muay Thai and Kickboxing bouts to improve their overall mixed martial arts ability.
Equipment needed when you first start Muay Thai
When starting Muay Thai people usually wear a t-shirt and shorts. This is ideal as you don’t want to be wearing heavy clothes as you will start to sweat once you get into the training session!
Shorts are also ideal as they will allow you to kick with ease and be able to practice your kicking technique, which is vital for Muay Thai.
Don’t worry though, we will be providing the perfect attire for this. Our t-shirt and shorts are designed for training purposes (to be honest they can be worn for anything!). Providing you with all you need to train in Muay Thai in style! Be sure to sign up to our email list, they’ll be out sooner than you think!
It is also common for Muay Thai practitioners to wear Muay Thai shorts (we will probably create these sometime in the future too!) These shorts are higher up than your average shorts and have been designed to allow people to complete kicking and knee techniques with ease. They also allow the practitioners to cool off faster.
Once you have attended regularly for a few sessions and adjusted to Muay Thai training, you will need equipment for sparring! Usually, you won’t need much to spar, just gloves, gumshield and shin guards (a groin guard is also optional and recommended for men).
This will allow you to put what you have learnt to the test. There are different levels to sparring depending on what you want to get out of it.
For example, you may just want to spar for self-defence, therefore sparring may be lighter. But you may be training for a fight where sparring will be harder to emulate a real fight scenario. You can get these items online for a mix of prices, alternatively your gym may know where you can purchase them too.
Muay Thai as a competitive sport
Muay Thai has developed into a popular competitive sport. However, there are different rules to the bouts depending on the level. Amateur Muay Thai contests usually require competitors to wear gloves, shin guards and sometimes head guards and groin guards. Then for professional fights competitors may only be required to wear gloves!
In Muay Thai fights, competitors can be seen wearing a headband and armbands when entering the ring. The Wai Krum dance is also usually performed before bouts to pay respect to their teachers, gym and Thailand. All these elements have remained in Muay Thai for a long time. This has remained in place to pay homage and to respect the Thai culture.
For all levels of fights, there are three ways to win a fight, by knockout, the referee or fighter’s corner stops a fight or by points at the end of a fight.
We will look at how fights are scored and some of the key rules and fouls in a Muay Thai bout.
The scoring system is similar to that of the boxing system. Muay Thai bouts are usually scored with the winner of the round receiving 10 points and the loser receiving 9,8 or 7 points. When the round is close but one competitor slightly edged the round, the judges will give that competitor 10 points and the opponent 9 points. Knockdowns are classified as strikes where an opponent has fallen to the floor due to legitimate strikes. Sweeps do not count as knockdowns. If one competitor has been dominant in the round and even knocked down the opponent once, the judges will usually award the fighter with 10 points and the opponent with 8 points. In a round where a fighter is in complete control knocking down his opponent a few times, he can then be rewarded 10 points and the opponent will be awarded 7 points.
Fouls- can cause warnings, point deductions or disqualifications
- Biting, head butting, eye gouging and spitting
- Using wrestling techniques or any sort of grappling that is not the clinch
- Swearing or using abusive language during the fight
- Striking the opponent once they have been knocked down
- Usually, bouts will be five rounds and three minutes for professional bouts
- Competitors must wear Muay Thai shorts only, that meet the requirements of the governing body
- Points are awarded for ring control, damage caused to the opponent and clean and accurate strikes
- Fighters should be in the same weight category having weighed in earlier (usually the day before or on the morning of the fight)
- Professional fighters must be over the age of 15
- The ring should be between 6.1m x 6.1m and 7.3m x 7.3m
- If the fight goes to points and the judges have it even, the bout is declared a draw
These are some of the key rules on a professional bout. Check out this page for my details on the rules.
Be sure to check out this Muay Thai fight including Saenchai! He is regarded as one of the best Muay Thai fighters in the modern age, often stepping up to fight people much bigger than him!
Why study Muay Thai over other martial arts?
All martial arts are similar in that they teach you ways of defending yourself and how to control both the mind and the body.
Muay Thai is believed to be one of the most effective striking martial arts in the world. It includes a variety of different strikes, teaching you how to effectively use different parts of your body as a weapon. Muay Thai is a very good self-defence martial art and is great for real life situations.
Though Muay Thai is a striking martial art, it does also include some clinch work. Practitioners will learn how to be effective in the clinch. This can be very beneficial as you will learn how to clinch with people much bigger than you and how to sweep people from this position.
This can also come in handy in a real-life situation where you may be attacked by someone much bigger than you and end up in a position similar to the clinch.
People also like to choose Muay Thai due to its history and heritage. Many practitioners like to travel to Thailand and train in Muay Thai. There are Muay Thai gyms all over the country. People are able to experience the Thai culture and see what Thai fights are like in Thailand (they are truly unique and there are fights going on literally all the time!).
Training can be tough and gruelling there, but it is a great experience and helps people to appreciate and understand the martial art even more!
Muay Thai has become very popular for those who want to become mixed martial artists. Muay Thai provides them with a solid foundation in their striking game.
In MMA, you will be allowed to clinch knee and elbow in professional bouts. Learning these skills from Muay Thai can be effective in MMA. Some of the best strikers in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have been Muay Thai specialists such as Anderson Silva and Edson Barboza.
Benefits of Muay Thai
There are many benefits of training in Muay Thai. We will go through some of the key benefits:
- Learn how to defend yourself- Muay Thai is the art of eight limbs! It will teach you how to use your body effectively in defensive situations.
- Improve your strength and stamina- Through constant training you will see an increase in your strength as you are regularly drilling combos. Your stamina will also increase through workouts and sparring!
- Improve the confidence you have in yourself! – Training in Muay Thai will definitely build up your self-confidence. Being able to use your body effectively to strike opponents will bring you a feeling of self-accomplishment. The more you train the better a Muay Thai practitioner you will become! This confidence will spread into your general life!
- Boosts your hip mobility- Muay Thai is really good for your hips! The strikes thrown generate the power from your hips (especially kicks!). This will provide you with good and loose hips which will definitely benefit you in your older age!
- Improve your mental health- Regular training can help to reduce any stress you may have and uplift your sprits by providing you a way of expressing yourself through the martial art. It can help combat depression and anxiety.
- Builds character- Muay Thai is a really tough martial art. Training can be hard and really push you to your limits. But during this process you are improving and building your character. You will see you are much more capable than what you thought, bringing you great life skills in the process.
How to get started and find a Muay Thai class!
Anyone can start Muay Thai, no matter how old or fit you are. Finding a Muay Thai class is a simple process! Make sure to check online for nearby Muay Thai gyms in your area, as most will have an online presence.
Contact the school (if they have contact details) if you have any questions you want to ask. Find out which session you would like to attend by contacting them if possible.
Wearing a t-shirt and shorts will be suitable to begin training (make sure to sign up to our emails here to find the latest on our clothing!) in your first lesson, you will not be required to purchase the equipment as of yet.
This is a commitment you make once you realise Muay Thai is for you! Turn up to one of their sessions and see how it goes! Usually first classes are free, so this will allow you to see if this is a good fit for you.
After going to a few classes and trying this martial art, Muay Thai may not be for you. Don’t worry, there are many other martial arts out there! Be sure to check out our ‘MARTIAL ARTS…WHAT ARE THEY?‘ post to gain a good understanding of other popular martial arts too!
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We have gone through Muay Thai in this post. In our next few posts on the Martial Arts Series, we will cover other individual martial arts. Make sure you subscribe to our blog to keep up to date with the latest posts!