What little we know of early Muay Thai can be traced primarily to provincial records and writings of visitors who witnessed early bouts. Most of the accounts can be traced to the Chinese, Burmese, and Cambodian countries. The reason for such a sketchy history is due to a loss of records in 1767. On that date, Burmese armies attacked and destroyed Thailand's capital city of Ayuddhaya. All of the royal archives were destroyed by fire.
Muay Thai is an art of self defense using various parts of the body. Because it is based on the principle of "doing no more than necessary to teach a lesson," it is equally well suited to be used as a competitive sport as well as a "fight to the finish." In ancient times, Thai warriors had intensive training in the art, giving them a distinct advantage in close-combat situations. Royalty, military leaders, and those common people responsible for defending the nation received regular instruction by leading exponents of the art.
The origins of the art itself was as colorful as the men who practiced it. Origins trace back to the Yunnan Province in central China. Because of the Chinese invasion, the Thai race fled and were thinned out by invaders, disease, and hunger. They finally settled in Chao Phraya Valley of the Mekong River. To deal with the many enemies, the Thai leaders developed a military training program for the young men of their race. This original art was called Chupasart. This taught use of knives, swords, pikes, and later muskets. Because of many injuries to soldiers who sparred in this system, the techniques were developed for open hand as well. This was the birth of Dee Muay , which later evolved into modern Muay Thai .
The best known and most celebrated of the early fighting greats was Nai Khanom Otom , who, having been captured by the Burmese, regained his freedom by defeating twelve of the enemy's gladiators in an unarmed contest witnessed by the Burmese king. His story is related in many versions and appears in grade school textbooks. All stadiums in the country honor the hero by dedicating one fight a year to him. It has been established without doubt that Nai Khanom Otom was a historical figure, although no records exist in Thailand. Ironically, the most reliable confirmation comes from Burma.
Muay Thai became part of the military training during the reign of King Naresun the Great (1590-1605). He also practiced the art, and in doing so became a national hero.
Muay Thai reached the height of its popularity during the reign of Pra Chao Sua , the "Tiger King" (1703-1709). Siam was at peace with her neighbors and the army was idle. "Boxing" became the favorite pastime of the population: with young and old, rich and poor joining fighting camps. Every village staged its own bouts. The king himself was skillful and was reported to have visited village arenas incognito to challenge and defeat the local champions and, still undetected, walk off with the prize money. According to some authorities it was customary to bind hands and forearms with strips of horse hide in order to protect one's own skin and inflict maximum damage on one's own opponent. Some of the techniques used today are said to be based on Pra Chao Sua's style of fighting.
The horse hide thongs were later replaced by hemp ropes or starched strips of cotton soaked in glue before being tied to the boxer's hands. It is said that for some matches and with agreement of both contestants, ground glass were mixed with the glue. The fighters wore groin guards of tree bark or sea shells held in place with a piece of cloth tied between the legs and around the waist. In those days there were no such arrangements as weight divisions or three-minute rounds. A bout lasted as long as a fighter could continue. Many a boxer is said to have left the arena on a bamboo stretcher - dead.
By the beginning of this century, Muay Thai was taught in schools. It continued roughly until 1921. The use of hemp ropes and sea shells continued until the 1930's. At that point Muay Thai underwent a major transformation. A number of rules and regulations from international boxing were adopted, modern gloves were introduced and bouts were staged in modern rings.
Muay Thai retains its number one ranking in the sports popularity chart. At the time of writing, six weekly, one daily, and one monthly publication are devoted exclusively to the fight game. Muay Thai motifs appear on postage stamps and matchbox covers. The enthusiasm has also gripped a number of foreigners, mostly American servicemen, who have joined training camps in different parts of the country.
The highlights of the Muay Thai season for fighter and spectator are the championship bouts and the contests for the "Best Boxer of the Year" title awarded by the reigning King. Here, not only the richest purses are awarded, but also the highest honor a boxer can win are vied for.
Most Thai boxers begin training at the age of 7-8 years old. Females also train, but mainly for self defense. They learn to use their legs, fists, knees, and elbows and are usually in the ring by their eleventh birthday in the phantom 4 class. By their sixteenth birthday they may even hold a title and prize money up to 40,000 baht and sometimes a reward up to 200,000 baht.
The average Thai fighter hangs up his gloves during his middle or late twenties, though there are exceptions. After leaving the ring many will enter the monkhood for a short time. Many return later to their camps to be among friends or train to stay fit. Some act as assistant trainers and others, if they can afford to, may open their own training camp. Very seldom will one find an ex-fighter who has divorced himself from the fight night, the elation after a victory and the bitter taste of defeat all have formed a bond that it too strong to break.
Muay Thai in Thailand is a strictly professional affair. No boxer, whether schoolboy or veteran, would think of climbing through the ropes without a purse at stake. He knows that he will get hurt however good he might be and considers it only fair to get paid for his pain. A fighter’s rates are not set but negotiated. They differ considerably depending on a boxer’s popularity and his manager’s talent.