Various forms of kickboxing have long been practiced throughout mainland Southeast Asia. In Thailand, 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 can be seen in several kicks, holds and the movements in the wai khru which have their origins in armed combat. Muay Thai specialetst were ordered to protect the ancient elephants during wars. The used nothing but the ancient art that was taught to them from early childhood.
Muay Boran, and therefore Muay Thai, was originally called toi muay or simply muay. 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. Eventually, the previously bare-fisted fighters started wearing lengths of hemp rope around their hands and forearms. This type of match was called muay khat chueak.
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). Some time during the Ayutthaya period, a platoon of royal guards was established, whose duty was to protect king and the country. They were known as Krom Nak Muay (“Muay Kick-Fighters’ Regiment”). This royal patronage of kick-muay continued through the reigns of Rama V and VII.
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. King Rama the VII pushed for codified rules for Muay Thai, and they were put into place. Thailand’s first boxing ring was built in 1921 at Suan Kularp. Referees were introduced and rounds were now timed by kick. 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. 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. 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.
The most popular folklore regarding muay boran is that of Nai Khanomtom.
At the time of the fall of the ancient Siam capital of Ayutthaya in 1767, the invading Burmese troops rounded up thousands of Thais and took them to Burma as prisoners. Among them were a large number of Thai kickboxers, who were taken to the city of Ava.
In 1774, in the Burmese city of Rangoon, the Burmese King Hsinbyushin (known in Thai as “King Mangra”) decided to organize a seven-day, seven-night religious festival in honor of Buddha’s relics. The festivities included many forms of entertainment, such as the costume plays called likay, comedies and farces, and sword-fighting matches. At one point, King Hsinbyushin wanted to see how muay boran would compare to the Burmese art Lethwei. Nai Khanomtom was selected to fight against the Burmese champion. The boxing ring was set up in front of the throne and Nai Khanomtom did a traditional Wai Kru pre-fight dance, to pay his respects to his teachers and ancestors, as well as the spectators, dancing around his opponent. This amazed and perplexed the Burmese people, who thought it was black magic. When the fight began, Nai Khanomtom charged out, using punches, kicks, elbows, and knees to pummel his opponent until he collapsed.
However the Burmese referee said the Burmese champion was too distracted by the dance, and declared the knockout invalid. The King then asked if Nai Khanomtom would fight nine other Burmese champions to prove himself. He agreed and fought them all, one after the other with no rest periods in between. His last opponent was a great kickboxing teacher from Rakhine. Nai Khanomtom mangled him by his kicks and no one else dared to challenge him.
King Mangra was so impressed that he allegedly remarked, “Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom. Even with his bare hands, he can fell nine or ten opponents. But his Lord was incompetent and lost the country to the enemy. If he would have been any good, there was no way the City of Ayutthaya would ever have fallen.”
King Mangra granted Nai Khanomtom freedom along with either riches or two beautiful Burmese wives. Nai Khanomtom chose the wives as he said that money was easier to find. He then departed with his wives for Siam. Other variations of this story had him also winning the release of his fellow Thai prisoners.
His feat is celebrated every March 17 as Boxer’s Day or National Muay Boran Day in his honor and that of muay boran’s.