You might know Muay Thai as a world-famous martial art. But you don’t know its history, right? That isn’t anything strange. After all, even Thai people can’t pinpoint when, where, or how their national martial arts originated. So, do you want to know the history of Muay Thai?
The origin of Muay Thai is obscure. Only a few records mention it as a tool of war. During the Ayutthaya period (1351 –1767), locals already knew about the 4 Muay Boran: Powerful Korat, Strategic Lopburi, Technical Chaiya, and Speedy Ta-sao. So, the root of Muay Thai must have been older.
Even though Muay Thai history doesn’t have a clear starting point, it still has a story. Read on to explore the history of Muay Thai and what makes it unique.
What is the origin of Muay Thai?
How it started
As mentioned, nobody knows who invented Muay Thai, when it was founded, or how it was established.
Locals like to joke that Muay Thai is an innate instinct. Thai people know how to swing a devastating kick from their first day on earth.
However, experts say Muay Thai is a product of the combined 4 Muay Boran (Ancient boxing — Muay means boxing and Boran ancient).
During the Ayutthaya Kingdom, people gossiped about the famous hand-to-hand martial arts from four regions: Northeastern Muay Korat, Central Muay Lopburi, Southern Muay Chaiya, and Northern Muay Ta-Sao.
Each of the four specializes in one aspect of Modern Muay Thai. Korat is in power. Lopburi strategies. Chaiya techniques. And Ta-Sao speed.
Of course, people practiced Muay Boran — or Muay Thai — to use in unarmed combat during the war. You never knew when your weapon might fail. So, being able to fight bare-handed would increase your chance of survival.
However, Muay Thai was not war-exclusive. The people of Ayutthaya enjoyed it as a sport too.
Some monarchs loved Muay Thai so much they even joined the ring in disguise to fight with famous fighters. One of the prominent examples was King Suriyenthrathibodi (1661-1708) — nicknamed: the tiger.
He was a fierce fighter and Muay Thai practitioner. So, when he joined the ring, he was said to overwhelm 3 masters of that time.
And since the king was so fond of this martial art, everyone began practicing it. Some people even made a career out of Muay Thai by joining the police. So, you could say that this is where Muay Thai saw its boom as something other than a tool of war.
How it grew
Fast forward a little. Ayutthaya Kingdom has fallen. And this is the opportunity for Muay Thai to make its name as the art that saved the nation.
In the attempt to take Ayutthaya back from Myanmar, King Tak-sin created an army of seasoned warriors in Jantaburi. And many of these warriors happened to be Muay Thai masters of the era. For instance, Thongdee Fun-Kao (later known as Pichai, the broken sword).
Together, they managed to take back the fallen Ayutthaya. And the group of Muay Thai masters was celebrated as national heroes, hence the name “Savior Muay Thai.”
However, that’s still not the peak of the national martial art.
The most significant turning point of Muay Thai came during the reign of King Rama V.
The monarch was a big fan of the sport, as an audience and a fighter. He organized official matches between masters of all regions in front of the grand palace. As a result, Muay Thai popularity skyrocketed. Hence the golden age of local Muay Thai.
On a side note, the name “Muay Thai” actually came out much later. People still called the art by the original 4 names.
But in the 1932 revolution, the locals decided it was time to unite the nation as one. You see, nationalism was a huge deal back then. So, they gave four Muay Boran one singular name: Muay Thai.
How it went international
As you know, Muay Thai is not Thai-exclusive anymore. A bunch of foreigners travel to Thailand to train in this martial art. But how did Muay Thai get to that point?
The answer is simple: the media.
In the late 80s when the world was opening up, Muay Thai found an opportunity to make a name globally.
Rick Rufus, a world-champion kickboxer, decided to challenge Muay Thai. And Changpuek Kietsongrit was the Thai candidate who accepted the duel.
The fight was broadcast worldwide. Changpuek managed to pulverize Rufus even though half of his arsenal was sealed away (most Muay Thai moves, like elbows and knees, are considered illegal on the international stage).
This is arguably the moment that Muay Thai made a breakthrough. From that day, westerners started paying more attention to this unknown martial art. More and more people tried their hands at it. And today, Muay Thai has reached its international peak with the likes of ONE and UFC.
What makes Muay Thai unique?
Lethality. One word to sum up Muay Thai’s original philosophy.
Remember, Muay Thai was a tool of war. Its purpose was to exterminate your opponent and move on to the next. So, it’s no surprise that the art contains various killing moves.
The most obvious example is the inclusion of elbows and knees.
The art of 8 limbs
If you haven’t noticed, elbows and knees are among the most solid parts of your body. They are almost pure bones with little meat. So, making use of them is natural when weaponizing your limbs.
Combining 2 elbows and 2 knees with 2 hands and 2 legs, you get 8 weapons. Some Muay Thai schools include the use of head and buttocks too. So, the art can extend its arsenal up to 10.
Not convinced that elbows and knees are dangerous? Watch this video.
However, the most terrifying weapons in the Muay Thai repertoire are not these two. After all, they both have a short range and can be risky to use.
What makes Muay Thai really dangerous is the kicks.
The hidden weapon
You can generally divide Muay Thai kicks into 2 categories: swing and thrust.
The swing is called “Te” (เตะ). Most martial arts use this technique to strike opponents from the side. But as mentioned in the video, Muay Thai’s “Te” uses your hard shin’s bone as a contact point instead of the soft meat. The result? A devastating power.
Of course, this kicking technique can hurt the practitioner too. That’s why most local fighters train their swing kicks since they weren’t even 10. They need to strengthen their bone for the impact.
Next is thrust (or push). Thai people call thrust kick “Teeb” (ถีบ). This move is basically you performing pushes with your foot. The natural range of your legs is longer than your arms. And they generate much more force.
So it’s an effective tool to create distance or destroy the opponent’s balance. And if you got “Teeb” in the solar plexus, you will immediately be on the floor struggling for air. The fight would end right there.
Both leg techniques can shut down your opponent if they aren’t prepared. That’s why many Muay Thai fighters throw kicks more than punches. Not buying it? Watch this (skip to 07.40 for the actual fight).
No punches. All kicks.
And if you think about it, it also makes sense in an ancient war environment.
Your legs are usually longer than your arms. So if you have to fight bare-handed with a sword-wielding man, you might want to damage them from a distance first. Then, going in later.
And besides, if you punch, your opponent can just cut your arms with his blade. But if you quickly strike from a lower angle with kicks, it can be difficult to block with a sword.
Top 5 Muay Thai Legends
1. Kanom Tom
Let’s start with the earliest legend in Muay Thai history. Kanom Tom.
Kanom Tom was a Muay Thai Master in the late Ayutthaya Kingdom. Even though his early life was nothing eventful, his later days were entirely different.
Following the fall of the capital, he was captured and sent to Myanmar. In the foreign land, he fought, UFC-style, for Myanmar King’s entertainment.
The legend said he beat down 10 Myanmar masters in a role, using only Muay Thai. Even the king of Myanmar had to admit that Muay Thai was deadly, quoted, “This man is dangerous even with a bare hand.”
Today, most Muay Thai schools recognize him as a great teacher of Muay Thai. He has a statue monument in Bang Ban, Ayutthaya. There’s also a local annual event called Kanom Tom Day, where people celebrate his skills and love for the art.
2. Pichai, the broken sword
Pichai was known for his sword-fighting spirit more than Muay Thai. But you can’t deny that he was a beast in the ring.
In his youth, Pichai was called Thongdee Fun-Kao. Legend says he won a fistfight against a Muay Thai master of Tak City. (It was rare for a no-name to win against a master back then).
Seeing Thongdee’s victory, the Duke of Tak invited him into his army — promoting him to master. Later on, the Duke of Tak seized the throne as King Tak-sin. He appointed Thongdee as his royal protector under the new name, Pichai (victory).
If you’re curious about the title, here’s what happened.
In Pichai’s time, war was raging in the nation. He practically ate and slept on the battlefield. And after so many fights, one of his dual swords couldn’t keep up and broke mid-battle. But that didn’t stop him from slaughtering his opponent and winning the war.
Hence, the broken sword.
3. Samart Payakaroon
Let’s fast forward to the modern era.
If you’re a Muay Thai fan, you must know the name and face of Samart Payakaroon. Or at least his kicks.
He was an unrivaled Muay Thai champion, considered to be the greatest of all time. His distancing technique was so powerful that you couldn’t get close to him (unless he wanted to knee or elbow you).
The fighting genius of Samart was undebatable. After sitting at the number one title in Muay Thai for many years, he moved on to the international boxing stage. And, as you expected, he became a champion there too.
After his retirement, he worked in the entertainment industry as a singer and actor for a couple years. Then, became a famous Muay Thai coach in America.
4. Somrak Khamsing
Another Muay Thai Champion who made it big worldwide.
He was the first Muay Thai fighter who won Olympic boxing and took the gold medal home.
Somrak was a strategist. His fighting style was said to be extremely difficult to read — no matter in offense or defense. He’s so full of feints and tricks that many fighters of his time claimed that he made them look dumb in the ring.
And to top it all off, his reflex was legendary. Blocking and attacking at the same time is only a natural thing for him to do. But unlike Samart, Somrak prefers to get close and smash with lightning-fast punches.
After fighting for many years, he retired and became a TV personality (as seems to be a common trend for Thai athletes).
5. Tawanchai P.K.
If you love Muay Thai, you must have heard of this name. (And if you remember the sudden-death kick video, yes, that’s him)
He is considered the best of the bests in today’s Muay Thai, proven by the world champion Title. And maybe, he’s the reason you’re reading this article.
What makes Tawanchai a beast is his speed and accuracy. They are basically insane. Most of his opponents fail to defend against his kicks that come out of nowhere. And he also has the reading prowess to boot. No matter what you do, he can find a way to counter instantly.
Many Muay Thai Fanatics dub him the “once-in-a-lifetime genius.” Give him some time, and you might see the second coming of Samart Payakaroon.
Muay Thai history: From obscure to phenomenal
Even though Muay Thai’s origin and history are all over the place, its current reputation rivals Kung Fu. After all, you Googled “Muay Thai History” to find this article, right? That in itself is proof of Muay Thai’s reputation.
Needless to say, Muay Thai has come a long way both as a tool of war and sport. And it’s nigh impossible to see the martial art disappear anytime soon. Who knows? It might be making history for itself right now.
So, enjoy your time with Muay Thai as an audience and a fighter. You’re a part of its legend too.
Like always, if you want to discover more about Thailand, stay guided with ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.
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