Its origin can be traced to the ancient Siamese jungles, where a style called Muay Boran ("ancient boxing") was created for ceremonial purposes and self-defense. It was first highlighted in legendary battles against the nearby kingdom of Burma. The sport of muay thai as we know it came to be at the beginning of 19th century, when kings Rama V and VII codified its rules and introduced gloves and rings like in British boxing. By this way, muay thai became a very popular and culturally-tied form of prizefighting, and it built its center on Bangkok, where its violent and bloody matches started taking place on the now famed Lumpinee Stadium.
In our modern popular culture, muay thai became known mainly thanks to the rise of professional Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts, in which it soon established itself as the crown jewel of striking styles due to its flexibility, efficiency and physical preparation. However, you may possibly know it thanks to film star and notable exponent Tony Jaa, who gave us films like Ong-Bak, or thanks to the Kickboxer series.
Practitioners of the sport are called Nak Muay. The uniform consists solely of shorts, gloves and sometimes ankle wraps.
Note that "muay thai" and "kickboxing" are often used interchangeably, but reality is much more complicated. While muay thai is a form of kickboxing, technically speaking, it contains a set of moves, rules and cultural practices that are tied solely to the style practiced in Thailand. The rising popularity of the art caused that many forms of Western kickboxing are called by this name, which adds confusion when said forms are dissimilar and/or unrelated at all to the Thai source (good examples are the Dutch, Japanese and Brazilian schools).
Muay Thai has cousins throughout Southeast Asia in the form of other stand-up, kickboxing styles with clinching and knee/elbow strikes, with similar but distinct techniques and rules. These include Tomoi from Malaysia (which is directly descended from Muay Thai as it was introduced by the Siamese communities in Kedah and Kelantan before the Islamization movement in the 80s), Muay Lao from Laos, Pradal Serey from Cambodia and Lethwei from That South East Asian Country, all of which appear to be related to Musti Yuddha, or ancient Indian boxing. The heritage and development of these related but unique styles are subjects of heated debate and national pride to some, but Muay Thai is indisputably the dominant style internationally.
Tropes associated with muay thai
- Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Encouraged to some degree by Thai culture. In a muay thai match, it's correct and sometimes obliged to celebrate immediately after scoring a dump or a knockdown, as it eases scoring count by separating intentional techniques from accidental falls. It doesnt extend to the Buddhist ceremonial performed before the matches, however.
- Attack! Attack! Attack!:
- Muay thai (at least its classic, true Thai style) is a heavily committed style based on maximizing every attack. They twist the entire body to kick, step in when throwing knees, and whip around their elbows to strike; their usual course of action is plodding forward and exchanging blows to the very end.
- The Brazilian style (Or "Chute Boxe style", named after one of the most influential MT gyms in Brazil) is known for this. Aggressive, beserker, brawling style, with wild punch combinations and somewhat unsophisticated clinch game focusing on taking the double collar tie position in order to smash a knee into the opponents face. It was mostly used in Mixed Martial Arts and used mostly by fighters such as Wanderlei Silva.
- Beat Them at Their Own Game: Muay Thai is an infamously flexible martial art and champion nak muay have been known to compete at the highest levels of other sports ranging from Kickboxing all the way to Marquess of Queensbury rules Boxing. In no particular order:
- Samart Payakaroon captured a Boxing world championship (Super Bantamweight) in addition to his Muay Thai championships.
- Sakmongkol Sithchuchok took up Kyokushin Karate as a hobby after retiring from Muay Thai and became a two time WKO (World Kumite Organization) champion.
- Buakaw Banchamek, Changpuek Kiatsongrit, and Kaoklai Kaennorsing all competed in K-1 with Buakaw becoming K-1 WORLD MAX champion in 2004 and 2006 and Changpuek and Kaoklai placing 3rd and 2nd in K-1's Openweight division despite being a middleweight and the lightest fighter in K-1 history respectively.
- Sittichai Sitsongpeenong and Petchpanomrung Kiatmookao are the GLORY kickboxing light and flyweight champions at the time of this writing.
- Boring, but Practical:
- The teep or pushing front kick is a basic technique, but instrumental to control the range and set up attacks.
- The low kick is, well, a low kick that targets the opponents legs. It's not the prettiest or most impressive move but it's relatively easy to perform, easy to regain balance from should one miss, difficult to properly counter, and hits like a ton of bricks when done properly. The damage it does to an opponents legs will cut down their mobility and severely decrease their punching power. Of all the different kinds of kicks out there it's the one with the best risk-reward ratio. Whole fights have been won with nothing but proper low kicks.
- Challenge Seeker: Challenges to other striking disciplines were common in the 1970s when the muay thai community was internationalized. Especially notable were the challenge matches between Thai boxers and Chinese kung fu practitioners, in which the latter group ended up being wrecked in minutes.
- Combat Pragmatist: Played with. On one hand, nak muay are expected to overpower their opponents in an orthodox way, with things like evasive movement and even leg kicks being considered dishonorable. On the other hand, they are taught to capitalize on every opening to land a devastating blow.
- Dance Battler: Thai fighters are expected to perform a ritual dance named wai kru ram muay before fighting. Also, ritual music is played during the fight itself, which gives to the match a dance feel (a really violent dance, that is). Malaysian Tomoi as a descendant art also had this in its beginnings, but the Islamization movement that banned the sport for years until it was legalized again in 2006, but still banned the ritual chanting and dance due to its Hindu-Buddhist influences, though they did keep the music.
- Good Old Fisticuffs: Inverted. Punches are the least scoring kind of strike in Thailand, which is why Thai fighters usually don't put much emphasis on training their boxing; they reserve their handfighting for the inside of the clinch, where it is more useful.
- Handwraps of Awesome: The traditional hand protection of the sport was the kaad chuek, a rope bound around the hand in the shape of a glove, which served both to protect the knuckles and to lacerate further the opponent. It has been largely replaced by regular boxing gloves nowadays, but Tony Jaa made them a trademark on his Ong-Bak film series.
- Honor Before Reason: In Thailand it's believed that moving backwards, side-to-side or simply to evade an attack is contrary to the spirit of muay thai; the "right" strategy is to charge forward and absorb all the enemy hits that cannot be blocked or checked.
- How Much More Can He Take?: Professional muay thai matches are often battles of attrition: they go out and give and take until one of the two is too turned into pulp to continue fighting.
- Divergent Character Evolution: Foreign schools of muay thai often added influences from the native martial arts of their countries resulting in related but distinct types of muay thai. This is most clearly seen in it's two largest derivatives, the Dutch and Japanese schools. Dutch muay thai is characterized by carrying heavy influences from European boxing and Kyokushin karate, and it places a huge emphasis on footwork, leg kicks and punching combinations. Japanese muay thai takes the heaviest influence from Kyokushin and other forms of karate and favors flashier kicks and longer combinations than what a traditional nak muay would consider practical. Both shy away from clinch, elbow, and knee techniques, often because the governing bodies of kickboxing in their countries don't allow them.
- Brazilian Muay Thai is more wild and aggressive than the traditional variant from Thailand thanks to being influenced by the near rule-free "Vale Tudo" competitions of Brazil. Brazilian nak muay favor a constant offense with a focus on taking the clinch position to knee opponents into submission, a habit brought about by mixing Muay Thai with the native "Luta Livre" grappling styles of Brazil. Many of the instructors of Chute Boxe, the premier Muay Thai training center of Brazil, had also been Taekwondo blackbelts before falling in love with Thai boxing (though actually almost all the early Brazilian nak muay were Taekwondo practitioners). As a result many Brazilian nak muay pick up complicated spinning kicks alongside the normal MT repertoire. While these kicks are normally low percentage moves Brazilian nak muay still manage to frequently land them by combining them with the more linear but practical tactics of Muay Thai often leading to spectacular K.O.s.
- Made of Iron: Fighting in muay thai requires a solid conditioning, a very high pain tolerance and especially being tough as freaking nails.
- This is especially true of their shins, which are notoriously tough. The shin is the part of the leg a Nak muay kicks (and defends from kicks) with, and can safely be toughened much further than the other striking surfaces (elbows, knees, fists). Training includes kicking bags, trees and each other's shins to condition them. Kicking with or being kicked in the shin hurts very much, as anyone who has taken a low kick from Muay Thai can tell you.
- Martial Arts Headband: Muay thai features the mongkon, a headdress made of consecrated rope which is worn over the head in the pre-match ceremonies.
- Meaningful Name: Nak muay are obliged to adopt the name of their gym, camp or sponsor as their second name. Their forename is usually a nickname based on their talents as well.
- Odd Friendship: In the old vale tudo scene, Muay Thai was commonly associated with Brazilian luta livre, to the point that most of the greatest lutadores (Flavio Molina, Eugenio Tadeu, Hugo Duarte and Marco Ruas, among others) were nak muay as well. This was mostly due to an Enemy Mine situation against the jiu-jitsu boom in Brazil, along with the luta livre's eagerness to assimilate new styles like capoeira and muay thai.
- Spin Attack: Spinning back elbows and backfists are used rather liberally by some fighters thanks to the modern gloves.
- Training from Hell: Thai gyms and training camps in Thailand are positively brutal.
- Tyke Bomb: Thai boxers usually learn muay thai from a very young age, in most cases in order to avoid poverty and secure an income. Many of them debut in rings with gloves and full contact rules when they have just learned walking, and some have hundreds of pro fights before they are teenage. Naturally, when they reach majority of age they are usually too brain-damaged to keep an active career.