You might have heard about it, or even seen it on TV, the furious punches, crushing elbow strikes, lethal kicks, powerful grappling and artful feints. But nothing compares to seeing them executed to loud cheers and heart-racing tune of an accompanying wind-and-percussion ensemble. Welcome to the exciting world of Muay Thai, a martial art like no others, and a proud heritage of a nation
The history of Muay Thai is interwoven with the history of the Thai people. A gentle, peace-loving people, for centuries Thais had to defend themselves and their land from aggressive powers. They developed a form of close, hand-to-hand combat best suited for the kind of rough-terrain battle they were fighting. Over time it became a rite of passage for Thai men to take up training in this martial art. King Naresuan the Great (1555-1605), one of the country’s most celebrated warrior-heroes, is believed to have been an excellent boxer himself, and it was he who made Muay Thai a required part of military training. Another milestone in the history of Muay Thai was the triumph of Nai Khanom Tom over 10 Burmese boxers in 1774. Taken captive after the Thai capital fell in 1767, Nai Khanom Tom was picked to fight before the Burmese king. After defeating ten of them in a row, he was freed and returned home a hero.
In the old days, Muay Thai was a dangerous sport, with no safety gear of any kind for the fighters, and only lengths of cords to wrap around the fists in place of gloves. Over the years rules have been written along the line of international boxing regulations. In recent years the sport has attracted a wide following outside of the country, and training facilities have been set up in countries as far as the U.S. and the former Soviet states. In 1995 the World Muay Thai Council was set up by cabinet resolution in 1995 to promote this national heritage at national and international levels. At a conference held that same year, 78 member countries voted for the establishment of a training school where all elements of Muay Thai would be taught. The Muay Thai Institute was founded in 1997 and is now the only training school accredited by the Ministry of Education.
An International Passion
Muay Thai, along with soccer, is certainly the most passionately followed sport in the country. Television networks broadcast fights five days a week, and the fight results at major stadiums are reported in all major newspapers. International boxing is also very popular, and the country has produced dozens of world champions, but they all started out as Muay Thai fighters. So it is not surprising that a boy as young as seven or eight would start training to become one, and many do, at stables across the country. Most provincial capitals have a boxing ring, but the ultimate dream of young boxers is to fight at Lumpini or Ratchadamnoen, the biggest and most famous stadiums in the country. Lumpini and Ratchadamnoen alternate, so there is a fight program every night. Tickets on an average evening are 220, 440 and 1,000 baht, but on big nights prices of ringside seats may go up to 2,000 baht. Ratchadamnoen’s Sunday Special rates are good bargains, with ringside tickets going for 500 baht each. Fights usually begins around 6:30 pm., with preliminary bouts featuring younger, less experienced boxers, and build up towards the main event, usually around nine o’clock.
Muay Thai is fought in five three-minute rounds with two-minute breaks in between. The fight is preceded by a wai khru dance, in which each contestant pays homage to his teachers. Besides the symbolic meaning, the dance is a good warm-up exercise. You will notice that each boxer wears a headband and armbands. The headband, called mongkhol, is believed to bestow luck to the wearer since it has been blessed by a monk or the boxer’s own teacher. Since Buddhism and the teacher play important roles in the life of Thais, the headband is both a lucky charm and a spiritual object. It will be removed after the wai khru dance, and only by the boxer’s trainer. The armbands, meanwhile, are believed to offer protection and are only removed when the fight has ended.
A match is decided by a knockout or by points. Three judges decide who carries the round and the one who wins the most rounds, win the fight. The referee plays a very important role, since the boxers safety depends on his decision.
To one side of the ring is the band section, comprising a Javanese clarinet, drums and cymbals. They accompany the fight from the homage dance to the conclusion. The tempo goes up as the action inside the ring intensifies. The musicians are mostly old-timers who have seen just about anything, yet their music always makes the heart race faster. It is said that the tune is a siren song that the true Muay Thai devotee can never resist.
On fight nights at major stadiums, especially at Lumpini and Ratchadamnoen, tourists fill up a sizable portion of the seats, and the number is growing. Most opt to sit at ringside, to see the action up close. On nights of major events, usually advertised days in advance, it can be hard to get tickets. You might want to book through your hotels or travel agents.
Equipment used in Thai Boxing Match
Equipment that is necessary for Muay Thai matches must be provided by the stadium. There are a stopwatch, a signal gong, a warning bell, boxing gloves of various sizes according to the rules, equipment to provide water for boxers, and other additional personal accessories for boxers who have not prepared their own such as boxing shorts in red or blue, jock straps, surgical tape, or sacred cords. Thai boxing can be classified into two major types, the first is muay lak which puts the emphasis on caution and patience, and is very rare nowadays. Theo- ther is muay kiew which is full of tricks and feints performed to catch the opponent off guard.
A Muay Thai match formally have no more than 5 rounds, each round take 3 minutes to last, with a two-minute rest period in between. No additional rounds is allowed. Boxers must regularly wear gloves, each weighing not less than 6 ounces (172 Gramm).
The gloves must not be squeezed, kneaded or crushed to change its original shape.
Rules on contestants’ boxing costumes.
– Contestants must wear only trunks (red or blue according to their corners) appropriately fit their bodies.
– Contestants must wear standard supporters or sturdy athletic cups to protect their groin, Gum shield may be used.
– Wear no shirts nor shoes, but ankle cap is permitted.
– A sacred cord known as Mongkol can be worn around the head only during the pre-fight ritual of paying homage to ancestral teachers of Muay Thai, to be removed before the start of the fight.