Forget Jean Claude Van-Damme, kicking sapling trees until your leg bleeds and fighting Tong Po with hands dipped in shards of glass. If you want fancy high-kicks and rubber ball somersault-spinning roundhouse kicks, go and play Mortal Kombat, Capoeira or learn taekwondo. And it's nothing to do with kickboxing. Jumping about performing multi-angle reverse spinning kicks to the head might look good on a silver screen, but if you want a realistic martial art that is effective and looks good, you could do worse than take up muaythai. 1
A martial art from Thailand and developed over thousands of years, muaythai is described as the 'science of eight limbs' - two fists, two shins, two elbows and two knees. Muaythai is currently split into two parts, the ring sport and the martial art, of which the ring sport is the most well-known. However, the art side contains many techniques that cannot be performed in a ring with gloves on.
Muaythai used to be referred to as 'Pahuyuth' ('multi-faceted fighting style') and was originally a no-rules contest between fighters where the winner was the one left standing. Fights would be held at almost any suitable location; jungle clearings, courtyards, a village square or any area of flat ground, contained within a circle sometimes drawn on the ground or marked with a rope. Boxers would fight with their forearms strapped in rope and their fists bound with strips of raw cotton.
Muaythai is said to have developed some one to two thousand years ago as an effective way for Siamese soldiers to train during peacetime without using edged weapons. Legend also has it that the Thais often couldn't afford swords anyway, having to resort to unarmed combat in battle. As a spectator sport it has been recorded at least as far back as the middle ages.
Nonetheless, aspects muaythai and the unique clinch-work or stand-up grappling used today would be noticeable in the fights staged for the pleasure of the Siamese kings in the 17th Century. Only the head-butt was banned as a striking technique - most others were perfectly legal, bar striking a grounded opponent.
In 1929, with the introduction of weight divisions, timed rounds and gloves as opposed to hemp rope or leather thongs wound around the hands2 brought about the advent of the sport of muaythai as most people know it today. Modern fights are fought over five three-minute rounds with two-minute breaks between rounds, a referee and three judges awarding points for effective strikes in a similar scoring system to western boxing. However, these developments in safety meant many Thai traditionalists felt their sport has been ruined. Even today in Thailand punches rarely score and are not viewed as true 'weapons' by the local purists.
The Sport v The Art
It's not widely known that the sport of muaythai is a smaller part of a whole; the Thai fighting system has developed many components from its 'no holds barred' past and most people wouldn't be aware that there are areas of training that also cover weapons and groundwork more akin to the likes of ju jitsu and kempo. These little-known facets are referred to as 'ling-lom' and, coupled with the powerful striking techniques of muaythai boxing, make for a very effective system of self-defence.
One of the main differences between muaythai kicks and other martial arts forms is that muaythai fighters strike with the shin instead of the foot or instep. The reason behind this is that the foot contains many bones, nearly all of which are relatively small compared to the shin, which makes it a delicate limb; if an opponent blocks a kick with the foot it is far more likely to be injured than the shin-bone. Not that the shin can't break - it can and does, and there are examples of shin-strikes leading to very nasty breaks; but with the right training and conditioning, a shin-strike can carry a force akin to that of being hit by a baseball bat.
Muaythai kicks also tend to be 'long-leg' kicks. Most other forms kick by raising a bent (chambered) leg and kicking out in a flicking motion before returning the leg to 'chamber'. In muaythai the leg is kept as straight as possible, using the weight of the leg and twist of the hips and body to strike through an opponent, a technique some kickboxers call a 'whip' kick. Kicks can be thrown to all areas of the body, with neck-strikes attaining the highest score, although kicks to the knees, thighs and ribs, especially to the softer inside of the upper thigh, are often used to wear an opponent down.
Elbows are allowed, as are knee strikes, along with punches, and these can be thrown to any part of the body (with the exception of the groin). Even the use of the shoulder to strike can be effectively utilised in a 'clinch'. Punching in Muaythai isn't considered a true strike, especially to the purists, and so many Thai fighters are poor punchers. With the advent of mixed martial arts and the inclusion of western boxing practices, punching as an effective strike in muaythai is improving. However, punching is still used mainly as a feint for a more powerful attack, or a way to close down the distance to the opponent and bring them into close quarters grappling or a 'clinch', where fighters battle for control of the head by holding a opponent in a vice-like grip with fingers laced behind the neck. Caught in this position, knee strikes can often be punishing as knees and elbows to the head are legal techniques. A fighter in a clinch can also be thrown (without the use of the hips) though trips and sweeps are not allowed, as is hitting a downed opponent.
Muaythai is steeped in historical ritual and ceremony, a spiritual aspect to the martial art few people realise exist. To the layman muaythai is just a violent sport. However, from a superstitious past and culture that it has inherited the pre-fight ritual dance, the ram-muay or wai-kru. In a muaythai contest, before each bout both boxers perform this pre-fight ritual dance, a graceful display that is a vital part of the original spirit of muaythai, showing gratitude and respect for the skills learned by the boxer. All bouts are also accompanied by a unique type of music called pi muay, which is used to help focus the mind in the meditative pre-fight stage and drive the fighters on to the conclusion.
Women and Muaythai
Women have been participating in muaythai in the ring for a long, long time, well before the controversy of western women climbing into the boxing ring to fight. Despite recent outrages over women boxers, women regularly compete in muaythai events in the UK without evoking the same level of anger, which seems odd considering the common misconception of muaythai as being a brutal and violent sport.
Muaythai is more than just a competitive sport, with only 10% of practitioners in the Western world ever stepping into the ring. Instead of the fighters who train professionally in Thailand, elsewhere many simply train for the benefits of increased fitness and self-confidence muaythai can offer as others would train in boxing or football or simply running.
The Wai-Kru or Ram Muay
Before the competition of muaythai, Thai swords (krabi-krabong) or any other ancient weapons' martial arts, every competitor must perform the wai-kru ritual and perform the boxing dance, which hails from ancient contests. Wai-kru was originally carried out to exorcise any evil spirits that may be lurking in the ring, but was also a way to pay homage and respect to the fighter's trainer, the judges and officials present and of course the opponent.
The style of the dance is unique to each boxing 'camp' or group of gyms and often went alongside the camp colours and individual fighting style, generally reflecting the teaching practices and ethos of the camp's chief instructor, or kru. Often the dance would be personal to a fighter and many fighters in Thailand develop their own routines, particularly the part of the Ram-Muay where the boxer makes a highly stylised representation of using weapons of some sort to kill his opponent. Apparently a boxer in Bangkok recently caused outrage when he ritualistically acted out his ram muay using an Uzi machine gun.
Usually fighters who danced the same style wouldn't box each other since they would know they had the same master. Today the dance is a good way to warm up before a fight, helping to relax and prepare the body and mind before combat.
Krabi-krabong is a traditional Thai martial art still practised in Thailand, focusing on handheld weapons as well as empty hand techniques, specifically the krabi (sword), plong (quarterstaff), ngao (staff with blade in the end), Daab song meu (a pair of swords held in each hand) and Mae Sun-Sawk (a pair of clubs). For most Thais, krabi-krabong is a ritual display paraded during festivals or at tourist venues, but the art is still solemnly taught according to a 400-year-old tradition handed down from Ayutthaya's Wat PutthaiSwan. The king's elite bodyguard are trained in krabi-krabong and to many Thais it is perceived as a 'purer' tradition.
As was the case in muaythai matches of 70 years ago, modern krabi-krabong matches are held within a marked circle, beginning with a wai kru or ram muay ceremony and accompanied throughout by pi muay. Muaythai techniques and judo-like throws are employed in conjunction with weapons techniques. Although sharpened weapons are used, the fighters refrain from striking their opponents, the winner decided on the basis of stamina and the level of technical skill displayed. Injuries do not usually stop a match, although an injured fighter may surrender.