Muay Thai is a combat sport from Thailand that uses stand-up striking along with various clinching techniques. It is similar to other Indochinese styles, namely pradal serey from Cambodia, tomoi from Malaysia, lethwei from Myanmar and muay Lao from Laos. Descended from muay boran, muay Thai is Thailand’s national sport.
The word muay derives from the Sanskrit mavya. muay Thai is referred to as the “Art of Eight Limbs” or the “Science of Eight Limbs” because it makes use of punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes, thus using eight “points of contact”, as opposed to “two points” (fists) in boxing and “four points” (hands and feet) used in other more regulated martial arts sports, such as kickboxing, boxing, and savate. A practitioner of muay Thai is known as a nak muay. Western practitioners are sometimes called nak muay farang, meaning “foreign boxer.”
Various forms of kickboxing have long been practiced throughout mainland Southeast Asia.
In Thailand, muay Thai is a modern integration of traditional regional muays, be Muay Chaiya, Muay Korat, Muay Tarsao, Muay Jearng, which can be collectively called muay boran or “ancient boxing”. 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 boran, and therefore muay Thai, was originally called toi muay or simply muay. 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 (???????). 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”).
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.
Today, some have wrongly attributed the legend of Nai Khanomtom to King Naresuan, who spent his youth as a royal hostage in Burma while Ayutthaya was a Burmese vassal. However, Nai Khanomtom and King Naresuan were almost two centuries apart.
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 VII (r. 1925-1935) 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 came to be known 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.
Formal muay Thai techniques are divided into two groups: mae mai or major techniques and luk mai or minor techniques. Muay Thai is often a fighting art of attrition, where opponents exchange blows with one another. This is certainly the case with traditional stylists in Thailand, but is a less popular form of fighting in the contemporary world fighting circuit where the Thai style of exchanging blow for blow is no longer favorable. Almost all techniques in muay Thai use the entire body movement, rotating the hip with each kick, punch, elbow and block.
- Spinning Backfist
The punch techniques in muay Thai were originally quite limited being crosses and a long (or lazy) circular strike made with a straight (but not locked) arm and landing with the heel of the palm. Cross-fertilization with Western boxing and western martial arts mean the full range of western boxing punches are now used: lead jab, straight/cross, hook, uppercut, shovel and corkscrew punches and overhands as well as hammer fists and back fists.
As a tactic, body punching is used less in muay Thai than most other striking martial arts to avoid exposing the attacker’s head to counter strikes from knees or elbows. To utilise the range of targeting points, in keeping with the centre line theory, the fighter can use either the Western or Thai stance which allows for either long range or short range attacks to be undertaken effectively without compromising guard.
Elbow (Ti sok)
The elbow can be used in several ways as a striking weapon: horizontal, diagonal-upwards, diagonal-downwards, uppercut, downward, backward-spinning and flying. From the side it can be used as either a finishing move or as a way to cut the opponent’s eyebrow so that blood might block his vision. The diagonal elbows are faster than the other forms, but are less powerful.
- Elbow Slash
- Horizontal Elbow
- Uppercut Elbow
- Forward Elbow Thrust
- Reverse Horizontal Elbow
- Spinning Elbow
- Elbow Chop
- Double Elbow Chop
- Mid-Air Elbow Strike
- Straight Kick
- Roundhouse Kick
- Diagonal Kick
- Half-Shin, Half-Knee Kick
- Spinning Heel Kick
- Down Roundhouse Kick
- Axe Heel Kick
- Jump Kick
- Step-Up Kick
- Straight Knee Strike
- Diagonal Knee Strike
- Curving Knee Strike
- Horizontal Knee Strike
- Knee Slap
- Knee Bomb
- Flying Knee
- Step-Up Knee Strike
- Straight Foot-Thrust
- Sideways Foot-Thrust
- Reverse Foot-Thrust
- Slapping Foot-Thrust
- Jumping Foot-Thrust
- Arm Clinch: One or both hands controls the inside of the defender’s arm(s) and where the second hand if free is in the front clinch position. This clinch is used to briefly control the opponent before applying a knee strike or throw
- Side Clinch: One arm passes around the front of the defender with the attacker’s shoulder pressed into the defender’s arm pit and the other arm passing round the back which allows the attacker to apply knee strikes to the defender’s back or to throw the defender readily.
- Low Clinch: Both controlling arms pass under the defender’s arms, which is generally used by the shorter of two opponents.
- Swan-Neck: One hand around the rear of the neck is used to briefly clinch an opponent before a strike.
- Blocking – defender’s hard blocks to stop a strike in its path so preventing it reaching its target (e.g. the shin block described in more detail below)
- Redirection – defender’s soft parries to change the direction of a strike (e.g. a downwards tap to a jab) so that it misses the target
- Avoidance – moving a body part out of the way or range of a strike so the defender remains in range for a counter-strike. For example, the defender moves their front leg backwards to avoid the attacker’s low kick, then immediately counters with a roundhouse kick. Or the defender might lay their head back from the attacker’s high roundhouse kick then counter-attack with a side kick.
- Evasion – moving the body out of the way or range of a strike so the defender has to move close again to counter-attack, e.g. defender jumping laterally or back from attacker’s kicks
- Disruption – Pre-empting an attack e.g. with defender using disruptive techniques like jab, foot-thrust or low roundhouse kick, generally called a “leg kick”(to the outside or inside of the attacker’s front leg, just above the knee) as the attacker attempts to close distance
- Anticipation – Defender catching a strike (e.g. catching an roundhouse kick to the body) or countering it before it lands (e.g. defender’s low kick to the supporting leg below as the attacker initiates a high roundhouse kick).
There is also a distinct difference between a single elbow and a follow-up elbow. The single elbow is an elbow move independent from any other move, whereas a follow-up elbow is the second strike from the same arm, being a hook or straight punch first with an elbow follow-up. Such elbows, and most other elbow strikes, are used when the distance between fighters becomes too small and there is too little space to throw a hook at the opponent’s head. Elbows can also be utilized to great effect as blocks or defenses against, for example, spring knees, side body knees, body kicks or punches.
The two most common kicks in muay Thai are known as the thip (literally “foot jab”) and the te chiang (kicking upwards in the shape of a triangle cutting under the arm and ribs) or roundhouse kick. The muay Thai roundhouse kick uses a rotational movement of the entire body and has been widely adopted by practitioners of other martial arts. It is superficially similar to a karate roundhouse kick, but includes the rotation of the standing leg, like in Kyukushin, Goju, Kojosho and Kenpo, it is done from a circular stance with the back leg just a little ways back (roughly shoulder width apart) in comparison to instinctive upper body fighting (boxing) where the legs must create a wider base. This kick comes with the added risk of having the groin vulnerable at times, which is against Karate and Tae Kwon Do ideology in general except for brief moments after a kick for example. The roundhouse kick draws its power entirely from the rotational movement of the body; the hips. It is thought many fighters use a counter rotation of the arms to intensify the power of this kick, but in actuality the power is from the hips and the arms are put in said position to get them out of the way.
The muay Thai kick has been recorded as one of the most powerful kicks, producing up to almost 1,000 pounds-force (4.4 kN) of force.
If a roundhouse kick is attempted by the opponent, the Thai boxer will normally check the kick, that is he will block the kick with his own shin. Thai boxers are trained to always connect with the shin. The foot contains many fine bones and is much weaker. A fighter may end up hurting himself if he tries to strike with his foot or instep.
Muay Thai also includes other varieties of kicking such as the side kick and spinning back kick. These kicks are used in bouts only by few fighters.
Knee (Ti khao)
Jumping knee strike – the boxer jumps up on one leg and strikes with that leg’s knee.
Khao loi (Flying knee strike) – the boxer takes a step(s), jumps forward and off one leg and strikes with that leg’s knee.
Straight knee strike – the boxer simply thrusts it forward but not upwards, unless he is holding an opponents head down in a clinch and intend to knee upwards into the face. According to one written source, this technique is somewhat more recent. Supposedly, when the Thai boxers fought with rope-bound hands rather than the modern boxing gloves, this particular technique was subject to potentially vicious cutting, slicing and sawing by an alert opponent who would block it or deflect it with the sharp “rope-glove” edges which are sometimes dipped in water to make the rope much stronger. This explanation also holds true for some of the following knee strikes below as well.
The foot-thrust or literally “foot jab” is one of the techniques in muay Thai. It is mainly used as a defensive technique to control distance or block attacks. Foot-thrusts should be thrown quickly but yet with enough force to knock an opponent off balance.
Clinch and neck wrestling (Chap kho)
In Western boxing the two fighters are separated when they clinch; in muay Thai, however, they are not. It is often in the clinch where knee and elbow techniques are used. To strike and bind the opponent for both offensive and defensive purposes, small amounts of stand-up grappling are used in the clinch. The front clinch should be performed with the palm of one hand on the back of the other. There are three reasons why the fingers must not be intertwined. 1) In the ring fighters are wearing boxing gloves and cannot intertwine their fingers. 2) The Thai front clinch involves pressing the head of the opponent downwards, which is easier if the hands are locked behind the back of the head instead of behind the neck. Furthermore the arms should be putting as much pressure on the neck as possible. 3) A fighter may incur an injury to one or more fingers if they are intertwined, and it becomes more difficult to release the grip in order to quickly elbow the opponent’s head.
A correct clinch also involves the fighter’s forearms pressing against the opponent’s collar bone while the hands are around the opponent’s head rather than the opponent’s neck. The general way to get out of a clinch is to push the opponent’s head backwards or elbow them, as the clinch requires both participants to be very close to one another. Additionally, the non-dominant clincher can try to “swim” their arm underneath and inside the opponent’s clinch, establishing the previously non-dominant clincher as the dominant clincher.
Muay Thai has several other variants of the clinch or chap kho, including:
Defense against attacks
Defenses in muay Thai are categorized in six groups:
Punches and kicks
Defensively, the concept of “wall of defense” is used, in which shoulders, arms and legs are used to hinder the attacker from successfully executing techniques. Blocking is a critical element in muay Thai and compounds the level of conditioning a successful practitioner must possess. Low and mid body roundhouse kicks are normally blocked with the upper portion of a raised shin. High body strikes are blocked ideally with the forearms and shoulder together, or if enough time is allowed for a parry, the glove (elusively), elbow, or shin will be used. Mid section roundhouse kicks can also be caught/trapped, allowing for a sweep or counter attack to the remaining leg of the opponent. Punches are blocked with an ordinary boxing guard and techniques similar, if not identical, to basic boxing technique. A common means of blocking a punch is using the hand on the same side as the oncoming punch. For example, if an orthodox fighter throws a jab (being the left hand), the defender will make a slight tap to redirect the punch’s angle with the right hand. The deflection is always as small and precise as possible to avoid unnecessary energy expenditure and return the hand to the guard as quickly as possible. Hooks are most often blocked with a motion most often described as “combing the hair”, that is, raising the elbow forward and effectively shielding the head with the forearm, flexed biceps and shoulder. More advanced muay Thai blocks are usually in the form of counter-strikes, using the opponents weight (as they strike) to amplify the damage that the countering opponent can deliver. This requires impeccable timing and thus can generally only be learned by many repetitions.
Like most competitive full contact fighting sports, muay Thai has a heavy focus on body conditioning. Muay Thai is specifically designed to promote the level of fitness and toughness required for ring competition. Training regimens include many staples of combat sport conditioning such as running, shadowboxing, rope jumping, body weight resistance exercises, medicine ball exercises, abdominal exercises, and in some cases weight training. Muay Thai fighters rely heavily on kicks utilizing the shin bone. As such, practitioners of muay Thai will repeatedly hit hard objects with their shins, conditioning it, hardening the bone through a process called cortical remodeling. Muay Thai practitioners typically apply Namman Muay muay Thai liniment liberally before and after their intense training sessions.
Training that is specific to a muay Thai fighter includes training with coaches on Thai pads, focus mitts, heavy bag, and sparring. The daily training includes many rounds (3-5 minute periods broken up by a short rest, often 1–2 minutes) of these various methods of practice. Thai pad training is a cornerstone of muay Thai conditioning which involves practicing punches, kicks, knees, and elbow strikes with a trainer wearing thick pads which cover the forearms and hands. These special pads are used to absorb the impact of the fighter’s strikes and allow the fighter to react to the attacks of the pad holder in a live situation. The trainer will often also wear a belly pad around the abdominal area so that the fighter can attack with straight kicks or knees to the body at anytime during the round.
Focus mitts are specific to training a fighter’s hand speed, punch combinations, timing, punching power, defense, and counter-punching and may also be used to practice elbow strikes. Heavy bag training is a conditioning and power exercise that reinforces the techniques practiced on the pads. Sparring is a means to test technique, skills, range, strategy, and timing against a partner. Sparring is often a light to medium contact exercise because competitive fighters on a full schedule are not advised to risk injury by sparring hard. Specific tactics and strategies can be trained with sparring including in close fighting, clinching and kneeing only, cutting off the ring, or using reach and distance to keep an aggressive fighter away.
Due to the rigorous training regimen (some Thai boxers fight almost every other week) professional muay Thai fighters have relatively short careers in the ring. Many retire from competition to begin instructing the next generation of Thai fighters. Most professional Thai boxers come from the lower economic backgrounds, and the fight money (after the other parties get their cut) is sought as means of support for the fighters and their families. Very few higher economic strata Thais join the professional muay Thai ranks; they usually either do not practice the sport or practice it only as amateur muay Thai boxers.