Various forms of kickboxing have long been practiced throughout mainland Southeast Asia. Based on a combination of Chinese and Indian martial arts practitioners claim they date back two thousand years. When the Burmese army sacked and razed Ayuddhaya to the ground in 1763, however, 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, and early European visitors as well as from 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.
Muay Thai evolved from muay boran (ancient boxing), an unarmed combat method which would probably have been used by Siamese soldiers after losing their weapons in battle. Some believe that the ancient Siamese military created Muay Boran from the weapon-based art of Krabi Krabong but others contend that the two were merely developed alongside each other. Krabi Krabong nevertheless was an important influence on Muay Boran, and so Muay Thai, as can be seen in several kicks, holds and the movements in the wai khru, whic h have their origins in armed combat.
Muay Boran, and therefore Muay Thai, was originally called dhoi muay or simply muay (boxing). As well as being a practical fighting technique for use in actual warfare, muay became a sport in which the opponents fought in front of spectators who went to watch for entertainment. These muay contests gradually became an integral part of local festivals and celebrations, especially those held at temples. It was even used as entertainment for kings.
Muay gradually became a possible means of personal advancement as the nobility increasingly esteemed skillful practitioners of the art and invited selected fighters to come to live in the royal palace to teach muay to the staff of the royal household, soldiers, princes or the king's personal guards. This "royal muay" was called muay luang (มวยหลวง). The first great upsurge of interest in Muay Thai as a sport, as well as a battlefield skill, was under King Naresuan in 1584, a time known as the Ayuddhaya period. During this period, every soldier trai ned in Muay Thai and could use it, as the King himself did.
Some time during the Ayuddhaya period, a platoon of royal guards was established, whose duty was to protect king and the country. They were known as Grom Nak Muay (Muay Kick-Fighters' Regiment). This royal patronage of kick-muay continued through the reigns of Rama V (mid 19th century) and Rama VII (early 20thcentury).
One of the prime movers in transforming the sport was the Tiger King (1703-1709) 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. Later, horse hair was replaced by hemp ropes or starched strips of cotton.This type of match was called muay kaad cheuk (มวยคาดเชือก). This was to serve a dual purpose: protect the fighter and inflict more damage on the opponent. For particular challenge matches and with the fighters’ agreement, ground glass was mixed with glue and spread on the strips.
The people have always followed the sport and have been instrumental in moving Muay from the battlefield to the ring. They have been as much a part of making it a sport as have the Kings, and Thai Boxing eventually became the favorite sport and pastime of the people, the army, and the King. Historical sources show that people from all walks of life flocked to training camps. Rich, poor, young and old all wanted some of the action. Every village staged its prize fights and had its champions. Every bout became a betting contest as well as a contest of local pride. The betting tradition has remained with the sport and today large sums are wagered on the outcome of fights.
Ascension of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to the throne in 1868 ushered in a golden age not only for muay but for the whole country of Thailand. Muay progressed greatly during the reign of Rama V as a direct result of the king's personal interest in the art. The country was at peace and muay functioned as a means of physical exercise, self-defense, recreation, and personal advancement. Masters of the art began teaching muay in training camps where students were provided with food and shelter. Trainees would be treated as one family and it was customary for students to adopt the camp's name as their own surname. Scouts would be sent by the royal family to organise matches between different camps. In the reign of King Rama V, many Muay Thai matches were Royal Command fights. These boxers were rewarded with military titles fro m 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.
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. 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.
Thailand's first boxing ring was built in 1921 at Suan Kularp field in Bangkok, but it was during the 1930's that Muay Thai saw the most radical change. At that time,King Rama VII pushed for codified rules for Muay Thai, and they were put into place, lasting to modern time. Fighters at the Lumpinee Kickboxing Stadium began wearing modern gloves during training and in boxing matches against foreigners. Rope-binding was still used in fights between Thais but after the occurrence of a death in the ring, it was decided that fighters should wear gloves and cotton coverlets over the feet and ankles. Rope bindings of the arms and hands were abandoned altogether, and gloves took their place. Thai fighters have always worn groin guards. A kick or knee to the groin w as 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 was abandonned, after a boxer on a trip to Malaysia saw a groin box or “cup.” 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 these cups. Before the introduction of weight classes, a fighter could and did fight all comers regardless of size and weight differences. However, the introduction of the weight classes meant that the fighters were more evenly matched and instead of there being one champion, there became one for each weight class. Referees were introduced and rounds were now timed by kic k. It was also around this time that the term Muay Thai became commonly used while the older form of the style was referred to as muay boran.
Today all four Thai television stations broadcast free to millions of Muay Thai fans throughout Thailand - four nights a week. The television fight broadcasts rate among the Kingdom's most popular programs. In the provinces, villages cluster around any available TV to watch. In the city, people disappear from the streets while Thailand is watching Muay Thai.
With the success of Muay Thai in the mixed martial arts, it has become the de facto style of choice for competitive stand-up fighters. As a result, western practitioners have incorporated much more powerful hand striking techniques from boxing although some Thai purists accuse them of diluting the art.