Muay Thai History and Technique
The article below is one that I wrote for my website as well as a hand out to students.
*Guro and Kruu are Filipino & Thai terms for instructor or teacher.
Muay Thai Boxing: History & Technique
By Guro/Kruu William Schultz
Muay Thai (pronounced moo-ee-tie) is Thailand’s national obsession, blood-and-guts combat that is raw in purpose yet beautiful to behold. Until recently, it has been basically an enigma to Eastern and Western martial artists, whose primary exposure to the art has been to observe an occasional bout at Bangkok’s “Big Two” – Rajadamnern and Lumpini stadiums. Those among them who may have sought out kun kruu (trainers) to learn the staggering Thai round kick found a closed door, partly due to the opinion that it would be improper to force Buddhist traditions and rituals so critical to the study of the art upon outsiders. Attitudes softened in the mid-70’s, when Dale Kvalheim, an American serviceman, became the first Westerner accepted for training by the Muay Thai establishment and allowed to compete at the “Big Two”.
Bouts held in the early days of Thai boxing had more in common with the kill-or-be-killed games of Roman gladiators. Skin-ripping horsehide thongs were wrapped around the fists and forearms, and a vee of tree bark held in place by a loincloth protected the groin. Fights went on for hours with no rest periods, the loser either dead or horribly maimed. The Thai 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 King Phra Chao Sua (AKA: 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 horsehair. 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 fighter’s agreement, ground glass was mixed with glue and spread on the strips. The high incidence of death and physical injury led the Thai government to institute a ban on Muay Thai in the 1920's, but in the 1930's the sport was revived under modern regulations based on international Queensbury rules with weight divisions, and the use of gloves.
Colored belts denoting training ranks, such as those issued by other Chinese and Japanese systems, do not exist in Muay Thai. The old saying goes; “The belt is in the ring”. As one well-known Muay Thai trainer has said, "The only belts Thai boxers are concerned with are the Lumphini Boxing Stadium and the Ratchadamnoen Boxing Stadium championship belts". Lumphini and Ratchadamnoen, both in Bangkok, are Thailand's two main Muay Thai venues.
An estimated 125,000 Thais train regularly in the art while 12,000 fight on the amateur and professional levels. Bouts run for five three-minute rounds, with two-minute rest periods in between. Professionals use six- or eight-ounce gloves, amateurs four. A steel cup provides groin protection, while aenken (elastic anklets) preserve the instep. Any part of the body can be attacked by the fist, foot, elbow, and knee. Head butts, leg sweeps, hip and shoulder throws, arm locks and hitting an opponent who is down are all forbidden in the sport version of Muay Thai (yet are all present in the “Old Styles” of Muay Boran and Muay Kachuek).
Before any Muay Thai bout, Buddhist and Thai Animist rituals take precedence. At ringside, a cloth-covered, finger-diameter headpiece called a mongkon (crown) is placed on the fighter’s head before he goes to the center of the ring to perform the wai kruh (honor bow) and the Ram Muay. The Ram Muay ceremony usually lasts about five minutes and expresses obeisance to the fighters Khruu, the trainer, as well as the guardian spirit of Thai boxing. This is done through a series of gestures and body movements performed in rhythm to the ringside musical accompaniment of Thai oboe (pii) and percussion. Each boxer works out his own dance, in conjunction with his trainer and in accordance with the style of his particular training camp.
The woven headbands and arm bands worn by the fighters in the ring are sacres ornaments which bestow blessings and divine protection; the head band (mongkon) is removed after the ram muay ceremony, but the arm band (kruang rang), which actually contains a small Buddha image, is worn throughout the match. After the bout begins, the fighters continue to bob and weave in rhythm until the action begins to heat up. The musicians play throughout the match and the volume and tempo of the music rise and fall along with the events in the ring.
The Thai boxer will start the first round slowly, feeling his opponent out with low, rapid round kicks steadily quickening his pace and progressing up the body with strikes as the rounds advance. He will rain blows from every angle, never tensing his muscles until the moment of impact, focusing all of his might and intent into the area of his shin and instep and powering that point of concentrated energy through the target just as a woodsman’s axe embeds itself in a tree. The goal in Muay Thai is to disrupt the opponent’s offense, and that means keeping him on the defensive by mounting a continuous offense.
Banana trees were once used by Thai boxers to condition and desensitize the striking surfaces of the shin, instep, knee and elbow. Today, the main pieces of training equipment are the Thai pads – foot-long leather bags that range in weight from seven-to-ten pounds. Strapped to the forearms of a partner, full-power strikes are driven into the pads to accomplish this conditioning. Kun kruu well into their 70s have been known to wear two, ten-pound pads for an hour and absorb hundreds of bone-jarring round kicks from young fighters without effect.
Muay Thai remains consistent in its techniques, the dominance of the legs over the arms varying from trainer to trainer.
The idea of a “snap kick” is unknown in Thai boxing; legs either thrust or swing. It’s much harder to develop the maximum power potential of your legs with snap kicks. Snap kicks have power only to stun, so the leg is easier to block or grab. In contrast, the heavy Thai round kick leaves your opponent with no choice but to keep his guard up close to the body to protect his midsection. He won’t risk extending his arms to block with them alone – that’s a good way to get them broken.
The Thai boxer works to build equal hitting power on both sides of his body. Hard blocks are avoided; if you can’t slip, dodge or throw a strike of your own to stop the offense, you absorb the blows on the arms or upper body. The Muay Thai credo is “Let it all hang out and let conditioning, skill and fighting spirit win the bout.”
Keeping to a philosophy of directness and economy of motion, one stance forms the basis to launch both arm and leg techniques. The boxing stance sets the feet in direct alignment behind one another, the front foot pointed at the opponent, the rear foot cocked, heel raised, to quicken footwork and allow the twist of the foot to add force to blows. Gloves are held in front of the face in a peek-a-boo style, the chin and neck tucked into the shoulders. Punches, elbows and the occasional knee strike are all launched from the boxing stance.
Before the adoption of the international boxing rules in the late 1930s, Muay Thai footwork formed a triangle, the front foot sliding forward to advance, the rear lifting off and stepping back to retreat. Thai boxing evolved in parallel to the “sweet science,” the circular dancing, lateral movements refined by Western boxers becoming the norm. Thai boxers used exposed fingers to poke and gouge prior to the use of gloves, and hand techniques were more on the order of swinging chops, inner knife hands, and hammer fist strikes. These techniques remain today, although the art has become more ring effective by the use of the boxing jab, uppercut, hook and rear cross.
In spite of the obvious power of kicks, the elbow accounts for the highest number of knockouts in strict Muay Thai bouts. Elbows are thrown in relaxed, rapid up-and-down combinations slightly off the vertical line, as the Thais have found horizontal strikes easier to block and the angular trajectories better to bypass the guard.
The “down elbow” is considered the deadly counterpart to the devastating round kick, a finishing strike that has ended many a fight early. The initial movement is a winding motion of the shoulder that rotates the point of the elbow past ear level, the hand pointing down, loose and open, so as not to constrict the range and follow-through of the blow. It is basically a forearm smash, for it will go up and over any guard in the manner of a karate back-fist to strike the head, neck, or collarbone.
When a Thai boxer intends to kick, he will move from the boxing stance to the Thai kicking stance, sliding his rear foot forward and out to a sixty-degree angle to the font foot. This maneuver cuts off up to two feet from the trajectory the kick must travel, hastening the delivery and making the kick harder to block. Always up on his toes, the Thai boxer eliminates the extra telegraphing move of lifting the rear heel to unleash a kick.
The round kick is Muay Thai’s ultimate weapon. It starts with the slide into the kicking stance. The rear leg is launched while simultaneously pivoting on the ball of the lead foot, which turns 90 degrees past the centerline to accommodate the added torque of the hips and waist as the shin and instep drive through the target.
One misconception about the round kick is that it is thrown stiff-legged to the point of impact. In actuality, the leg is slightly bent as it hurtles in a downward arc with the entire weight of the body behind it, the knee locked upon contact. A sharp exhalation aids in striking. The left arm makes a small circle while the right shoots forward, then reverses, to maintain balance and complement the force of the kick.
Round kicks are designed to root and jolt the opponent’s body, rather than push or lift him off his feet in eye-popping fashion. Shock waves flow throughout the opponent’s body, causing pain and hesitation that puts the receiver of this punishment in a hopeless defensive situation. After a few round kicks square on the forearm guard, the tendency is to drop the arms, creating the perfect opening for a knockout blow to the head.
Except for a few jamming kicks thrown by the lead leg, the majority of the kicks are launched from the rear power leg. This does not make the Thai boxer a one-dimensional fighter. If he happens to find an opening on the side opposite his kicking side, he will make a shoulder-width shuffle of the feet so he can bring the lead foot into a rear position to kick with maximum power. He will never flick out a weak kick with the lead foot then plant it, for he needs the momentum of the retraction to keep his leg out of range of counter round kicks. This stance change is rapid and is used as a feint to prevent telegraphing of kicks.
Three short-range round kicks that demand this stance change are the “down round”, “upper round” and “cut kick”. The down-round kick is thrown in a slashing, downward trajectory to the calf, thigh and lower abdomen to paralyze the nerves of the opponent’s lead foundation leg; without it he cannot launch powerful round kicks of his own. The upper-round kick is thrown at an upward angle, smashing the shin against the guard to create a gap so that the midsection can be pummeled. The cut kick is a low round kick to the opponent’s supporting leg (at the thigh and calf) as he throws a kick. One application of this technique is to sidestep an incoming round kick and drive the instep of the cut kick into the back of the knee. This will cause the opponent to turn, momentarily off balance. The Thai boxer will then charge and clinch to knee him in the back, pushing him down as he continues to knee and throw upper-round kicks to the ribs and back.
Foot and knee strikes can be classified as offensive blocking instruments in Muay Thai. The “foot jab” is one strong example. The leg is raised in a stepping motion, knee slightly bent, hips thrusting forward and leg stiffening at the point of impact. The ball of the foot is used to strike vital points on the legs, groin, and solar plexus. It’s common to strike with the heel against the thigh of the kicking leg, causing pain and stopping the kick.
Points are awarded per round in strict Muay Thai bouts. The fighter who can harass his foe’s offense and make him look sloppy has a better chance of winning a decision should the fight go the distance. One of the highest insults you can give a Thai boxer is a steady stream of foot jabs to his face – kicking high is considered a show of disdain for his fighting ability.
Because of the power of Thai kicks, the knee is used to block. The Thai boxer will raise his knee to protect his midsection, point the toes down as added insurance against low cut kicks to the supporting leg. He will try to avoid blocking the opponent’s boney shin and instep with his knee head-on, opting to jam the knee into the soft, inner portion of the thigh. The upper body leans away at the completion of each knee technique in order to keep the head out of range of elbows and counter-punches, and to allow the thrusting forward of the hips that adds power to each strike.
When delivering the knee, it pays to have good control of your opponent by grabbing or clinching. One popular tactic is to parry a straight-lead boxing jab, chopping down on the inside of the punching arm to hit the side of the neck and grab it. The fighter will then jerk the head and chest down into an uprising upper-knee strike.
One of the stereotypes that should be dispelled about sport Muay Thai is that the Thai boxer will automatically attack the knees of his ring opponent with intent to maim. Unless his own knees are in jeopardy, the Thai boxer is content to throw low round kicks to the thigh, calf, and back of the knee to disrupt balance, viewing it as un-sportsmanlike to break a knee. Of course, self-defense situations are another matter. One must do what is needed to end a confrontation as quickly as possible, and the knees are a viable target. Another myth is that Muay Thai demands hard sparring in training. Some kun kruu believe otherwise, yet it is against Thai boxing tradition to pit members of one’s boxing family against each other in all-out combat. Students occasionally engage in a hard punching workout wearing gloves, sparring lightly with the legs, knees and elbows, more for form, speed and timing.
Fighters are made accustomed to hard contact by holding the Thai pads for a partner on a daily basis and learning to cope with the force of full-power kicks, knee and elbow strikes. Taking these punishing blows on the arms and upper body safely is enough to toughen the mind and body for the ring.
In some areas of Thailand, a pre-1920's version of Muay Thai still exists. In North-Eastern Thailand, Muay Boran is a very ritualized form that involves locks and throws as well as grappling. In pockets of Southern Thailand, fighters practicing Muay Katchii still bind their hands in hemp, and a more localized southern style in Chaiya uses the elbows and forearms to good advantage. Each year around Songkhran (the lunar new year) in April, near the town of Mae Sot on the Thi-Mayanmar border, a top Thai fighter challenges a Burmese fighter of similar class from the other side of the Moei River to a no-holds barred, hemp-fisted battle that ends only after one of the opponents gives up or is carried from the field of battle.
Another traditional martial art (which today’s Muay Thai has descended from) still practiced in Thailand is the ancient Thai weapons art of Krabi-Krabong (literally, sword-staff). As the name implies, this art focuses on hand-held weapons techniques, specifically the Krabi (sword), Plong (quarter-staff), ngao (halberd), daap sawng meu (a pair of swords held in each hand), and mai sun-sawk (a pair of shield-like clubs strapped to each arm). Although for most Thais, Krabi-Krabong is a ritual artifact to be displayed at festivals or tourist venues, the art is still solemnly taught according to a 400-year-old tradition handed down from Ayuthaya's Wat Phutthaisawan. The King of Thailand's elite bodyguards are trained in Krabi-Krabong; many Thai cultural observers perceive it as a 'purer' tradition than Muay Thai.
Unknown to most practitioners of “sport” Muay Thai in the U.S.A, The art of Muay Thai descends from the weaponry system of Krabi-Krabong. Similar to the Filipino Martial arts, Muay Thai is an open hand system of combat that is based off of weaponry technique. A few examples: The mechanics of the vertical down elbow and the Thai round kick come from Krabi (sword) technique. The typical Thai open hand stance as well as the Thai pads are based off of the mai sun-sawk or mai-sawks.
Thai Boxing is becoming increasingly popular outside of Thailand. It has its enthusiasts and practitioners in the Americas, Australia, Japan, Europe, as well as in many other countries around the world.
The illustrious history of Muay Thai will continue as it receives greater recognition and gains in international popularity.