Almost anything goes in this martial sport, both in the ring and in the stands. If you don’t mind the violence (in the ring), a Thai boxing martch is worth attending for the pure spectacle – the wild musical accompaniment, the ceremonial beginning of each match and the frenzied betting throughout the stadium.
Thai boxing is also telecast on Channel 7 every Sunday afternoon, which explains the quiet streets at these times.
This developed as a form of self-defence during the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). Boxers are forbidden to wrestle or bite. However, they may kick, shove and push and unreservedly use bare feet, legs, elbows and shoulders, besides fists, to batter each other into submission. Thai boxing is featured throughout the week at Bangkok’s Ratchadamnoen Stadium (Monday, Wednesday,Thursday and Sunday) and Lumphini Stadium (Tuesday, Friday and Saturday).
The high incidence of death and physical injury led the Thai government to institute a ban on muay thai in the 1920s, but in the 1930s the sport was revived under a modern set of regulations based on the international Queensberry rules. Bouts were limited to five three-minute rounds seperated with two-minute breaks.
Contestants had to wear internation-style gloves and trunks (always either red or blue) and their feet were taped – to this day no shoes are worn.
There are 16 weight divisions in Thai boxing, ranging from miniflyweight to heavyweight, with the best fighters said to be in the welterweight division. As in international-style boxing, matches take place on a 7.3 sq metre canvas-covered floor with rope retainers supported by four padded posts, rather than the traditional dirt circle.
In spite of these concessions to safety, today all surfaces of the body are still considered fair targets and any part of the body, excepted the head, may be used to strike an opponent. Common blows include high kicks to the neck, elbow thrusts to the face and head, knee hooks to the ribs and low crecent kicks to the calf. A contestant may even grasp an opponent’s head between his hands and pull it down to meet and upward knee thrust. Punching is considered the weakest of all blows and kicking merely a way to ‘soften up’ one’s opponent ; knee and below strikes are decisive in most matches.
The training of a Thai boxer, and particularly the relationship between boxer and trainer, is highly ritualised between boxer and trainer, is highly ritualised. When a boxer is considered ready for the ring, he is given a new name by his trainer, usually with the name of the training camp as his surname. For the public, the relationship is perhaps best expressed in the ‘ram muay’ (boxing dance) that takes place before every match. The ‘ram muay’ ceremony usually lasts about five mintues and expresses obeisance to the fighter’s guru (khruu), as well as to the guardian spirit of Thai boxing. This is done through a series of gestures and body movements performed in rhythm to the ringside musical accompaniment of Thai oboe (pii) and percussion. Each boxer works out his own dance, in conjunction with the style of his particular camp.
The woven headbands and armbands worn into the ring by fighters are sacred ornaments that bestow blessings and divine protection ; the headband is removed after the ‘ram muay’ ceremony, but the armband, which contains a small Buddha image, is worn throughout the match. After the bout begins, the fighters continue to bob and weave in rhythm until the action begins to heat up. The musicians continue to play throughout the match and the volume and tempo of the music rise and fall along with the events in the ring.
Coloured belts denoting training ranks, such as those issued by karate schools, do not exist in ‘muay thai’. As one well known ‘muay thai’ trainer has said, ‘The only belts Thai boxer are concerned with are the Lumpini Stadium and the Ratchadamnoen Stadium championship belts’. Lumpini and Ratchadamnoen, both in Bangkok, are Thailand’s two main ‘muay thai’ venues.
As Thai boxing has become more popular among westerners (both spectators and participants) there are increasing numbers of bouts staged for tourists in places like Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui. In these, the action may be genuine but amateurish, and the judging way below par. Nonetheless, dozens of authentic matches are held every day of the year at the major Bangkok stadiums and in the provinces (there are about 60,000 full-time boxers in Thailand), and these are easily sought out.
Several Thai ‘nak muay’ have gone on to win world championships in international-style boxing. Khaosai Galaxy, the greatest Asian boxer of all time, chalked up 19 World Boxing Association (WBA) bantamweight championships in a row before retiring underfeated in December 1991. At any given time Thailand typically claims five concurrent boxing champions – usually in the bantamweight and flyweight categories.
Meanwhile in some areas of the country a pre-1920s version of ‘muay thai’ still exists. In North-Eastern Thailand ‘muay boraan’ is a very ritualised form that resembles taiji-quan (tai chi) or classical dance in its adherence to set moves and routines. In pockets of Southern Thailand, fighters practising ‘muay katchii’ still bind their hands in hemp, and a more localised southern style in Chaiya known as ‘muay chaiya’ uses the elbows and forearms to good asvantage. Each year around the lunar new year (Songkhran) in April, near the town of Mae Sot on the Thai-Mynmar border, a top Thai fighter challenges a Burmese fighter of similar class from the other side of the Moei River to a no-holds barred, hemp-fisted battle that ends only after one of opponents wipes blood from his body.