Whenever discussions begin on the history of Muay Thai, it is always a contentious point on when things actually began.
Generally, the 16th century and the ancient Kingdom of Siam are accepted by most as the time when a martial art practiced by the soldiers of King Naresuan was first born. During battles between the Burmese and the Thais, a form of Muay Boran, including the use of weapons in battle, was first ever recorded historically. This martial art became later known simply as Muay.
There are also many old and now legendary tales surrounding the birth and growth of Thai martial arts, the most famous of which being the legend of Nai Khanom Tom.
The story has it that the Thai warrior, who in the mid 18th century was captured by the Burmese army and forced into slavery, fought off eleven Burmese soldiers one by one in front of the King and the Burmese Court to secure his personal freedom and was subsequently released in honour. Upon returning home to Thailand, Nai Khanom Tom was celebrated as a national hero and spent the rest of his days teaching Muay Boran.
Today, March 17th is celebrated annually as Nai Khanom Tom day in Thailand, a day that has grown to become an important cultural and historical event in modern Muay Thai circles – in Thailand and all around the world.
Muay was a practical fighting art for soldiers in real battles but also became increasingly popular as a sport. Fighters would face off against each other bare knuckle and later with rope wrapped hands in makeshift rings on the earthen ground and people would watch for fun and for betting. In time, such fights became popular live events and regularly took place at festivals, in temples and at large celebrations all over Siam. Fights with rope wrapped fists became known as “Kard Chueak”.
Through the centuries, Kings and the nobility became increasingly interested in Muay, and by the early 20th century, Rama V, King Chulalongkorn, formalised the sport of Muay Boran and its many regional styles nationwide. As interest in boxing, the use of gloves and fighting in a boxing ring slowly grew, so the term Muay Thai became official. By the mid 1920’s, the first international style three-rope ring with red and blue padded corners was in use, near Lumpini Park in Bangkok.
King Rama VII voiced his interest in rules and regulations for Muay Thai, referees were soon introduced, fighters and techniques were given points and the rounds were timed. Fighters began wearing soft hand wrapping, boxing gloves, groin protection and boxing shorts and the first fights versus foreign fighters began. The traditional martial arts style of Muay Boran and the sporting, boxing style of Muay Thai were hereafter both firmly established and grew rapidly as proud national sports of Thailand.
The modern day.
Muay Thai was at the height of its popularity in the 1980’s and 90’s. Top fighters commanded high purses and the stadiums all over the country were almost always full. Gambling was legal in the stadiums and major fights drew huge attention, TV coverage and high sponsor and advertising revenues. Many of the best Muaythai fighters in the 90’s became household names in Thailand, many are still talked about with favour today.
Of the many superstars that have emerged over the decades, three spring immediately to mind. The first is without a doubt Buakaw Banchamek, who helped put Muay Thai on the world stage through his dominance in K1-Max tournaments and his subsequent win of the prestige title. The second is the unique and very exciting Saenchai, who is widely regarded by most as the most technically adept and experienced Muay Thai fighter of the modern day.
The third fighter that comes to mind is Nokweed Davy, one of four fighting brothers from Koh Samui. Nokweek, who once lived on the site of our camp, set the media ablaze back in the day by challenging the world famous French heavyweight kickboxing champion Jerome Le Banner in a now historic K1 battle back in 1995.
All three of these historic fighters have greatly helped the worldwide expansion of interest for Muay Thai, training in Thailand and for Thai martial arts in general.
As tourism in Thailand grew and the media reports about Muay Thai attracted international fighters, so did the number of young foreign students interested in Muay Thai. The traditional Muay Thai gyms and trainers recognised this growing market and began welcoming international kickboxing and boxing students and fighters to learn, train and fight in the art of Muay Thai.
In the coming years, many federations and sanctioning bodies developed and regulated the sport further, with the introduction of safety equipment, padding and head guards the sport of Muay Thai became internationally recognised as both a professional and amateur sport and by the end of the 90’s had gone global.
Today the sport of Muay Thai is governed by the Sports Authority of Thailand and is recognised as an official sport worldwide by the IOC.
International students still continue to flood to Thailand to train the art of Muay Thai in its original form and to be taught by authentic Thai trainers in an authentic Thai gym. All the major tourist destinations around Thailand now host a number of acclaimed gyms that have developed champion fighters from abroad. And the stadiums around the country are regularly full with crowds eager to watch Thai fighters defend national pride against the foreigners.
We at Punch it welcome you to Koh Samui and look forward to seeing you at our gym!