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How Muay Thai Turns Four Limbs into Eight

The full-contact martial art of Muay Thai originated in Thailand and became popular on the world stage in the 20th century. Known as the “art of eight limbs”, Muay Thai allows the use of hands, elbows, knees, shins and feet, which technically should make it the art of ten limbs, but who’s counting? The fact is that this physically demanding and exciting sport is utilized not only within the framework of the Muay Thai governing bodies, but with good reason has been adopted for use within other combat sports such as Mixed Martial Arts.

If you’ve seen Muay Thai tournaments on TV or you’re a mixed martial arts fan who’s interested to know more about Muay Thai in its purest form, this guide will give you an insight into how the sport came about, some relevant folklore and details of how a Muay Thai competitor uses conditioning and strength, along with eight (or ten) limbs to subdue his opponent and have an arm raised in victory.

Muay Thai Origins

Originally known simply as Muay, the sport which is today called Muay Thai has its origins in Siamese warfare and certainly goes as far back as the sixteenth century. Eventually, practitioners of Muay began to fight for the entertainment of spectators and so the combat technique became a sport, with contests becoming a regular feature of celebrations and festivals at Siamese temples. Originally, Muay Thai fighters used bare hands in combat but eventually progressed to wearing hemp bindings around their hands and arms.

In 1868, King Rama V ascended to the throne of Thailand. Rama V had a personal interest in the sport of Muay and this, along with the fact that a means of exercise, recreation, personal advancement and self-defense was needed during the peaceful era of Rama V’s reign, did much to advance Muay as a popular sporting pastime. During this time, training camps were established where students of Muay could live and study the art full-time. So dedicated were the students to their adopted camps that they would typically take their camp’s name as their own surname.

From Muay to Muay Thai

During the early part of the twentieth century King Rama VII was responsible for initiating the coding of official rules for Muay, which included timed rounds during contests as well as referees to ensure fair play. In 1921, the first Thai boxing ring proper was established at Suan Kularp. At this point, fighters still wore the traditional rope bindings on their hands, with knots over the knuckles. The knots were intended to protect a fighter’s hands, while at the same time making his strikes more damaging.

It unfortunately took the death of a fighter in the ring to bring about changes to fighting attire. After the Lumpinee Kick Boxing Stadium opened in 1956, fighters took to wearing gloves, cotton coverlets on the feet and groin protectors. By now, Muay had become known as Muay Thai and foreign fighters (known as Nak Muay Farang) were to be seen in the ring along with Thai nationals (Nak Muay). The original art of Muay became known as Muay Boran.

Fact or Fiction – The Story of Nai Khanomtom

It is said that when Ayutthaya, the ancient Siamese capital, fell to the Burmese in 1767, thousands of prisoners were taken back to Burma, among them a number of Muay fighters. One of these prisoners was named Nai Khanomtom. Khanomtom was still incarcerated in Burma in 1774, when the Burmese king decided, during a week-long festival that he wanted to pit a Muay fighter against one of Burma’s own boxers.

Nai Khanomtom was the fighter selected and he was to take on the Burmese boxing champion of the time. Before the fight commenced, Khanomtom performed the traditional Siamese Wai Kru: A form of dance intended to honor his ancestors, his teachers and the spectators, including the King whose throne overlooked the boxing ring.  Enthralled and spellbound, the Burmese audience believed the dance to be a form of black magic.

When the fight began, Khanomtom soon felled his opponent with a flurry of elbows, knees, kicks and punches. The result was a knockout victory which was quickly overruled. The referee stated that the Burmese boxer was distracted by the Wai Kru and that Khanomtom’s win was not valid. The king requested that Khanomtom fight nine more top Burmese boxers to prove himself. Nai agreed and proceeded to take on nine of the best boxers in Burma, the last of whom was a renowned kick boxing teacher. Khanomtom prevailed over them all, despite fighting one Burmese fighter after another with no break in between.

According to the story, the Burmese king granted Nai Khanomtom his freedom along with a choice of riches or two wives. Khanomtom opted for the wives, saying that money was easier to obtain. Some versions of the legend suggest that Khanomtom’s feat won the freedom of his fellow prisoners as well as his own. To this day, the Thai people celebrate Nai Khanomtom and the art of Muay on March 17th each year. This national holiday is known as Boxer’s Day or National Muay Boran Day.

More About the Wai Kru

Wai Khru Ram Muay is a traditional pre-fight ritual in Muay Thai. It’s a form of dance, unique to every fighter and is performed to pay tribute to the fighter’s trainers and to apologize to the king for the brutality to come in the fight. The style of a fighter’s Wai Khru generally contains clues to where the fighter comes from as well as to who trained him, for those who are in the know.

The Wai Khru, also known as Ram Muay, may or may not be accompanied by music and the fighter may wear armbands, called Pra Jiad and a headband, named Mongkhon during the ritual ceremony. After each of the two fighters has performed his Ram Muay in his corner of the ring, the Muay Thai match can commence.

Muay Thai Punching Techniques

The techniques of Muay Thai are categorized into two groups. These categories are known as Mae Mai and Luk Mai, which mean major and minor techniques respectively. Traditionally, Muay Thai opponents would stand and trade blows. However this technique has lost favor on the world Muay Thai circuit. Kick’s punches, blocks and elbows all tend to involve movement of the entire body, centering on hip rotation.

In modern Muay Thai, western influences have infiltrated the art to a point where a wide range of punches is utilized, whereas these were once restricted to crosses and looping blows landing with the heel of the hand’s palm. Body punching tends not to be used a great deal, since it exposes the attacker’s head to strikes from elbow or knees. Punches used in Muay Thai today include:

·        The jab

·        The cross

·        The hook

·        The swing

·        The spinning back fist

·        The uppercut

·        The Cobra punch

·        The Shovel punch

·        The Hammer fist

·        The Over hand

·        The Corkscrew punch

Muay Thai Clinching

Unlike western boxing, clinching is allowed in Muay Thai. Clinching or neck wrestling is an important technique and is often used as a precursor to knee and elbow attacks. The neck clinch is used to force an opponent’s head downwards to where it’s in range of a swiftly timed elbow. Other clinches used are as follows:

·        The arm clinch

·        The side clinch

·        The low clinch

·        The swan neck

All clinches are generally used to facilitate a knee or elbow strike or a throw.

Defensive Techniques

There are essentially six groups of techniques for defending against an opponent’s assault in Muay Thai. These techniques consist of:

·        Blocks – Intended to stop a strike in its path

·        Redirection – A parry to deflect a strike

·        Avoidance – Moving out of the way of a strike while staying in range to deliver a counter-strike

·        Evasion – Moving out of range of a strike

·        Disruption – Using jabs, thrusts, or kicks to hinder the opponent’s forward progress

·        Anticipation – Catching or countering a strike before it lands

The Importance of Conditioning

As a very physical, full-contact combat sport, Muay Thai requires practitioners to be very well conditioned and physically fit. In addition to training in the Muay Thai techniques, training is likely to include the following activities:

·        Abdominal exercises

·        Resistance training

·        Rope jumping

·        Medicine ball exercises

·        Running

·        Shadowboxing

One very important element of Muay Thai training is the hardening of the shin bone. This is achieved by hitting a heavy bag with the shins repeatedly. This activity toughens the bone by a process called cortical remodeling.

Muay Thai gym conditioning involves many daily rounds of training with coaches who wear thick pads on the hands, forearms and abdomen. This is so the fighter can practice punches, kicks, knees and elbow strikes to a live opponent. The trainer will also perform attacks which the fighter must defend against. Fighters also spend time sparring with opponents as well as extensively practicing on the heavy bag.

Muay Thai Worldwide

The World Muay Thai Federation today has over 70 member countries, highlighting the global popularity attained by this ancient eastern martial art. For participants it is a fast paced, demanding sport which requires a great deal of determination to succeed in. For spectators, Muay Thai is a dazzling and explosive display of man to man combat during which there is no time to blink, lest a decisive punch, kick, knee or elbow is missed.

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