HISTORY OF MUAY THAI

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 Muaythai 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 - Chiang Mai.

What all sources agree on, is that Muaythai began as a close combat battlefield fighting skill. As to where Muaythai came from, the sources aren't clear and often contradict each other.

However, there are two main theories. One says that the art developed as the Thai people moved down from China. The other theory says that the Thai people developed Muaythai 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 Muaythai was an essential part of Thai culture right from its dawn.

In olden days, national issues were decided by Muaythai contests.

The first great upsurge of interest in Muaythai 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 trained in Muaythai, as did the King himself. Slowly, Muaythai moved away from its root in the 'Chupasart' and new fighting techniques evolved.

The change in the art was to continue under another fighting King - Prachao Sua - the Tiger King. He loved Muaythai so much that he often fought incognito in village contests, beating the local champions. During the reign of the Tiger King the nation was at peace. To keep the army busy, The King ordered soldiers to train in Muaythai.

Muay Thai became a favourite 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, and large sums are wagered on the outcome of fights.

Muay Thai had always been popular, but like most sports there were times when it was more 'in fashion'. In the reign of King Rama V, many Muaythai 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. At the time they were prized and respected titles.

The matches were not fought in a ring as we know it today - for Muaythai that is a recent innovation. Any available space of the right size was used - a courtyard or a village clearing.

The Rama V period was another golden age for Muaythai. Boxing camps were set up, talent scouts - at Royal Command - recruited potential boxers from across the country. Match makers began to create great matches which were fought for big prizes and honor.

It wasn't till the reign of King Rama VI that the standard ring surrounded by ropes came into use, along with 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 signaled the end of the round.

Muaythai has always been a sport for the people, as well as a military fighting skill. In all its golden ages, the Thai people have trained and practiced Muay Thai, regardless if they were King or commoner. Muay Thai was part of Thai schools' curriculum right up to the 1920's, when it was withdrawn because of high injury rates. The people however, continued to study Muay Thai in gyms and clubs just as they do today.

For centuries the army fostered Muaythai. Soldiers have used the techniques for as long as there has been an army in Thailand. For the military, Muay Thai has always been a close combat martial art of the battlefield.

The people have always followed Muay Thai and have been instrumental in moving it from the battlefield to the ring. Along with the Kings, they have been instrumental in turning Muay Thai into a sport. One of the prime movers in transforming the sport was the Tiger King, who influenced fighting styles and the equipment used.

During the reign of the Tiger King, the hands and forearms were 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.

Muay Thai has further undergone radical change - for example, Muay Thai fighters always wear 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 1930's also bought codification of today's rules and regulations. Rope bindings of the arms and hands were abandoned, and gloves took their place. This innovation was also in response to the growing success of Thai Boxers in international boxing.

Along with the introduction of gloves, came weight classes based on the international boxing divisions. These and other innovations - such as the introduction of five rounds - substantially altered fighting techniques, causing some techniques to disappear.

Before the introduction of weight classes, a fighter could and did fight all comers regardless of size and weight differences. However, the introduction of weight classes meant that the fighters were more evenly matched, with one champion for each weight class.

The establishment of stadiums began during the reign of Rama VII ,before the Second World War. During the war, they gradually disappeared but mushroomed again soon afterwards. Country based boxers once again headed toward fame and fortune in Bangkok.

The glory could be found at stadiums like Rajdamnern and Lumpinee. Nowadays, Muay Thai fighters appear in full colour on television. Today all four Thai television stations broadcast free to millions of Muaythai fans throughout Thailand, four nights a week.

Despite the changes throughout history, Muaythai has lost none of its exotic appeal and mystique. Muaythai is still the fighting art to beat.