Muay Thai is one of the most free-form martial arts in the world. In Thai, the phrase translates to “the art of eight limbs.” The art utilizes elbows, fists, knees and feet to devastate opponents, making use of long-range and close-range techniques and calculated footwork to harm the legs, torso and head of the opponent. Muay Thai is practiced across the world in kickboxing and MMA, as the techniques translate well into each of these disciplines and arenas. Modern Muay Thai fights in Thailand mirror some of the more contemporary kickboxing events across the world. However, the art of eight limbs, a cultural cornerstone of Thailand, has a deep tradition and reflects as much a spiritual art as it does a physical one.
Hundreds of years ago, Thailand was on constant guard against neighboring countries like Burma and Cambodia. Muay Thai was an effective art taught to soldiers as a method of close-quarters combat, using every limb of the body as a weapon. Skills like balance and precision were often learned and developed in kata form, practicing a string of techniques by memory, like a dance. This dance, called the Wai Kroo, is still demonstrated by some traditional fighters before they enter into the ring to show respect to their art, to their instructor and to their heritage.
Muay Thai was first adapted as a sport in the early 1700s when King Prachao Sua organized matches to keep the army practicing and refining their techniques against experienced opponents. But the first rule set was not adapted until the 1930s. For centuries, competitive Muay Thai fighter fought one single round to the knockout or forfeit of their opponent, often strapping tight ropes around their knuckles and shins to inflict damage on their opponents and protect their own knuckles. By the 20th century, regulations set round length and number in place along with weight divisions and the use of padded gloves.
Muay Thai fighters often strengthened their techniques and their limbs by punching and kicking banana trees. This method strengthened the fighter’s bones, calloused the knuckles, and developed speed, agility and toughness. This method is still practiced by the most hardened and traditional fighters; however, Muay Thai practitioners have also adapted the more common training tools like heavy bags.
Thai fighters like Saenchai and Buwak continue to devastate kickboxing circuits around the world. Yet, the techniques of Muay Thai have also been co-opted by fighters around the world, such as John Wayne Parr from Australia. Muay Thai has also become a prominent striking art in MMA. Some of the best proponents of the sport include Jose Aldo, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, and Edson Barbosa.
Muay Thai’s prominence comes largely from the variety of ranges at which techniques can be applied, the use of tight-range clinch fighting, the calculated foot-work setups and the power, precision and speed with which techniques are employed.