The history of Muay Thai is the history of the Thai people - both though are difficult to discover.
When the Burmese army sacked and razed Ayuddhaya to the ground, the archives of Thai history were lost. With them, much of the early history of Muay Thai also went.
The little we do know, comes from the writings of the Burmese, Cambodian, early European visitors and some of the chronicles of the Lanna Kingdom - Chiangmai.
What all sources agree on, is that Muay Thai began as a close combat battlefield fighting skill. More deadly than the weapons it replaced.
As to where Muay Thai came from, its evolution, the sources aren't clear and often contradict each other. But there are two main theories.
One says that the art developed as the Thai people moved down from China; honed in the struggle for land. The other theory says that the Thai people were already here and that Muay Thai developed to defend the land and people from constant invasion threats.
The second, while controversial, has considerable academic backing and archaeological evidence. The first is, however, possible as the area opened up to the early pioneers.
What is known is that Muay Thai was an essential part of Thai culture right from its dawn. And in Thailand, it's the sport of kings.
In olden days, national issues were decided by Muay Thai contests.
Thai boxing has always been popular but like most sports, there have been times when it was more in fashion. In the reign of King Rama V, many Muay Thai matches were Royal Command fights. These boxers were rewarded with military titles from the King. Today the titles, like Muen Muay Mee Chue from Chaiya or Muen Muay Man Mudh from Lopburi are virtually untranslatable. They mean something comparable to Major of Boxing. At the time they were much prized and respected titles.
The Rama V period was another golden age for Muay Thai. Boxing camps were set up, talent scouts - at Royal Command - recruited potential boxers from up country. Match makers began to make the great matches which were fought for big prizes and honour. This thrilled the people then as much as the main bouts do today at the Bangkok boxing stadiums.
The matches then were not fought in a ring as we know it today - for Muay Thai that is a recent innovation. Any available space of the right size was used, a courtyard, a village clearing.
It wasn't till the reign of King Rama VI that the standard ring surrounded by ropes came into use, as did time keeping by the clock. Before this period, time keeping was done by floating a pierced coconut shell on a boat of water. When the coconut piece sank, a drum signalled the end of the round.
Muay Thai has always been a sport for the people as well as a military fighting skill. In all its golden ages, the people have trained and practiced the sport whether they were King or commoner. It was a part of the school curriculum right up to the 1920's when it was withdrawn because it was felt that the injury rate was too high. The people however, continued to study it in gyms and clubs just as they do today.
For centuries the army fostered Muay Thai. Soldiers have trained and used the techniques for as long as there has been an army in Thailand. For the military it has always been the close combat fighting skill, the martial art of the battlefield. When a Thai soldier fights hand to hand he uses Muay Thai. But then so does every Thai person, male or female. Watching it, learning it, copying it is a part of Thai childhood. It always has been.
The people have always followed the sport and have been instrumental in moving it from the battlefield to the ring. They have been as much a part of making it a sport as have the Kings. One of the prime movers in transforming the sport was the Tiger King, who not only influenced fighting styles but also the equipment.
During the reign of the Tiger King, the hands and forearms began being bound with strips of horse hair. This was to serve a dual purpose - protect the fighter and inflict more damage on the opponent. Later, these were replaced by hemp ropes or starched strips of cotton. For particular challenge matches and with the fighters agreement, ground glass was mixed with glue and spread on the strips.
The changes that the sport has undergone have been changes to equipment used rather than radical change. For example, Thai fighters have always worn groin guards. A kick or knee to the groin was a perfectly legal move up until the 1930's. In the early days, the protection was made from tree bark or sea shells held in place with a piece of cloth tied between the legs and around the waist.
The groin guard later became a triangular shaped pillow, red or blue, tied around the waist with a through strap between the legs.
The pillow went, after a boxer on a trip to Malaysia saw a groin box. He came back with the idea, which is close to the original idea of the sea shell and since then, Muay Thai fighters have used them.
Muay Thai History Continuned...