Just as NFL football dominates the sports scene in the U.S. and soccer holds sway in Europe and South America, Muay Thai is the athletic event that keeps millions of people in Thailand glued to their TV screens and clamoring to get a ticket to a live match-up.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, has been the No. 1 spectator sport in Thailand for at least 500 years. The first historical references to Muay Thai emerged in the West in the 1600s when the then Kingdom of Siam opened diplomatic relations with France. French diplomat, Simon de la Loubère, wrote about Muay Thai in his famous document, Du Royaume de Siam (The Kingdom of Siam), published in 1687.
Muay Thai began as a form of martial arts that features striking or punching, combined with a series of other moves that include kicking, knee thrusts, elbow jabs, and shin blocks. The early Siamese fighters called it “the art of the eight limbs” as it describes the key points of contact deployed by a trained fighter.
It is said that a Muay Fighter transforms his body into a weapon of war. The hands become the swords and daggers. The shins and the forearms are used as armor and shields. The elbow is a hammer. The legs and knees are ax and staff respectively.
Muay Thai fighting techniques developed as a peace-time sport after being adapted from use in genuine hand-to-hand combat by Siamese soldiers. Muay contests would evolve to become spectator events at local celebrations and festivals. Those conducted at temples were of special significance, featuring fighters called Nak Muay.
The true Golden Age of Muay Thai began in the 19th Century when King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) ascended to the throne in 1868. King Rama V took a special interest in the sport. His reign was a time of peace for Siam (future Thailand), and he encouraged the development of Muay Thai for entertainment and as a national exercise regimen.
By the early 1900s, Muay Thai truly began to take the modern form we recognize today. In 1921, the first permanent ring was established at Siam at Suan Kulap College. In 1923, Suan Sanuk Stadium opened near Lumpinee Park. It was the first three-rope ring with red and blue padded corners, following international style.
Muay Thai gained international popularity in the 1990s when more Western-oriented fighters from Thailand began competing in kickboxing and mixed rules matches. The Professional Boxing Association of Thailand was founded in 2004 and is sanctioned by The Sports Authority of Thailand.