what is muay thai

What Is Muay Thai and why it’s the perfect martial art

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Anderson Silva to Jon Jones, many of the world’s elite fighters utilize Muay Thai to gain an upper hand in fights.

I’ve learned from training that it can be an effective style, even if you aren’t competing. It’s functional, versatile, and simple to learn. More importantly, the development of Muay Thai for use in combat makes it incredibly lethal.

What is Muay Thai and how can it be useful to you?

Let’s take a look.

What is Muay Thai?

Muay Thai is a style of fighting that originated in Thailand. At its core, it most resembles modern-day American Kickboxing with a few exceptions. Roughly translated, Muay means combat and Thai is the term for the nation of origin.

Unlike many popular martial arts disciplines such as Karate, Aikido, or Kung Fu, Muay Thai was developed with the intent of being efficient and lethal. It is one of the very few martial arts disciplines developed and used in warfare.

Muay Thai utilizes many types of strikes that are not found in other disciplines. Primarily, this involves the use of elbows to deliver blunt force trauma. In all, practitioners make use of their fists, elbows, knees, and shins for a total of eight points of contact. For this reason, Muay Thai has come to be known as the Art of Eight Limbs.

Muay Thai vs Kickboxing

Even though Muay Thai is known as Thai Kickboxing, the two styles differ in a few key ways. As noted above, Muay Thai involves the use of elbows and knees which are not traditionally used in other styles such as American and Japanese Kickboxing.

Muay Thai Vs Kickboxing

Muay Thai fighters are also allowed to use clinch fighting, throws, sweeps, and even shots to the groin. These types of strikes are against the rules of most kickboxing organizations and, from personal experience, are not usually taught outside of Muay Thai.

Kickboxing and Muay Thai also differ greatly in their foundation and development. Usually, when people refer to kickboxing, they mean American Kickboxing which developed in the early 1970s. American Kickboxing is not a specific discipline but a hybrid martial arts style that arose from Karate and American Boxing.

Muay Thai, on the other hand, is a specific discipline that developed over hundreds of years. Modern-day Muay Thai is more similar to kickboxing than the original fighting style was. This is due mostly to the standardization of the rules for the purpose of competition. These rules were mostly adapted from American Boxing.

The Origins and History of Muay Thai

Muay Thai as we understand it today is a product of standardizing the fighting style for competition. Originally, Muay Thai was known only as Muay. This roughly translates into “combat”.

The fighting style was not standardized throughout the kingdom. Instead, different fighters had different styles and they would pass their knowledge onto their children and junior soldiers. In the same way, there was no standard when it came to training and how students learned.

The umbrella term for these various styles is Muay Boran. The term was created to differentiate the original style of Muay from modern-day Muay Thai. Some of these styles included Muay Chaiya, Muay Thasao, Muay Lopburi, and Muay Korat. These early styles represented the regions which they originated and the masters who taught them.

Muay Boran differed from modern Muay Thai in that it included both stand up striking as well as grappling and killing techniques. This system was designed with combat in mind. Therefore, the intention was to kill or incapacitate enemies while protecting the fighters’ own body.

The complete history of Muay is unknown due to incomplete records on the subject. Much of the written history of early Thailand was destroyed during the Burmese-Siamese Wars (1765-1767) when the Burmese armies raided and burned down the capital city of Ayutthaya.

Modern scholars still do not fully agree on the exact origins of the fighting style. The style is thought to have developed as tribes from the steppes of northern China, the easternmost area of the Eurasian Steppes, migrated south into Southeast Asia.

The Tai Peoples, one of the tribes which migrated from the steppes, are thought to be responsible for developing the foundation of the style. As they made their way into what is now modern-day Lao, Thailand, and Vietnam, they developed fighting systems which they would use in combat against other tribes in the area.

These fighting systems were mostly passed down from older soldiers to younger ones and from fathers to their sons. There was no standard system and different combatants were known to have different styles of fighting. The above-mentioned styles, which fall under the term Muay Boran, were only some of the many that existed around the nation.

Over the centuries, Muay became more formalized as differing styles merged into one standard system. This style of fighting was mandatory learning for all soldiers in the Thai military. It was a key weapon used during the various wars fought between Thailand and surrounding countries, primarily Burma and Cambodia.

During these wars, styles were refined and techniques strengthened by the soldiers who fought in them. These veteran fighters who returned home became instructors, known in Thai as Kroo Muay, teaching others the discipline.

This is also when Muay was popularized for competitive sport. The young fighters in the military began competing against each other and organizing matches. Each province around the country had a prized fighter that was supported and showed the most promise, a tradition which continues in some respects in the modern-day.

Muay Thai as “The Sport of Kings”

Just as Muay Thai is a large part of the culture of Thailand, so too are the various monarchs that have ruled the country over the centuries. The two often intertwine, as the institution of the monarchy has historically supported the teaching and preservation of Muay Thai.

In fact, it is largely because of the monarchy that Muay Thai was developed into a competitive fighting sport in the first place. During the reign of King Narai, from 1656 to 1688, Muay Thai was declared a national sport.

Many of the traditions still in place today, such as the headband (Mongkong) and the armband (pa-pra-jiat), were developed during this time. The first use of a ring for Muay Thai fights occurred during this time as well. This consisted of a rope square or circle designated as the official fight area.

The influence of the monarchy on Muay Thai continued over the centuries. One of the most famous examples was of monarchs who enjoyed Muay Thai was King Suriyenthrathidobi. Legend has it that King Suriyenthrathibodi, also known as the Tiger King, would sneak out dressed as a commoner in order to participate in Muay Thai fights.

Over the centuries, official Muay Thai festivals were set up by the monarchy in the major cities. The best fighters from around the country, and occasionally even some foreign fighters, would travel to the cities to participate. This tradition continues to this day.

The Traditions of Muay Thai

Because Muay Thai is so rooted in the culture of Thailand, there are many traditions that have developed around the fighting style which have continued into the modern-day.

I touched on a couple of these above, namely the headband and armband worn by fighters. But also the famous tournaments organized by the monarchs. However, there are many other traditions that go hand in hand with Muay Thai of both past and present.

Wai Khru / Ram Muay

This is one of the most sacred of traditions for Muay Thai practitioners. The wai khru ram muay is a ritualistic dance performed at the beginning of each fight. Roughly translated, wai is a traditional Thai greeting with hands together as a sign of respect. Kroo is a Sanskrit word for teacher. Ram is the traditional style of dance, and muay is the word for combat.

The wai khru ram muay is a dance taught by a Muay Thai master to their students. This dance is performed before a fight in order to show respect to the teacher, the sport, and the country of Thailand. Every master has a unique dance and performing the dance is considered a sacred and extremely important pre-fight ritual.


I mentioned previously that the Mongkhon is a type of headband. It is sacred to Muay Thai fighters and is handed down from a Muay Thai instructor to students they believe have reached a certain level of excellence.

Muay Thai does not have the traditional ranking system found in other martial arts such as Jiu-Jitsu or Taekwondo. Instead, fighters know they are ready when their master bestows upon them the Mongkhon.

This headband is considered to have special powers of protection. In order to retain these powers, the Mongkhon should never touch the ground. It should also only be handled by the student and their master. The Mongkhon is worn by fighters during the wai khru ram muay and is then passed to their master before fights.

Pra Jiad

The Pra Jiad, as I noted above, is an armband worn by fighters. As with the Mongkhon, the tradition of the Pra Jiad is centuries old. Traditionally, the Pra Jiad was worn by soldiers before going into combat. It was usually a piece of cloth torn from the clothing of the soldier’s mother and blessed for protection.

As with the Mongkhon, the Pra Jiad is treated as powerful and sacred. It is usually kept in a high place such as on a wall or shelf. It is believed that if the Pra Jiad is ever dropped on the floor or stepped on or over, that it will lose its power. Therefore, the Pra Jiad and the Mongkhon are treated with the utmost respect by fighters.

Early Muay Thai

I talked a bit about the early history of Muay Thai and how it developed over the generations into what it is today. But just how different was early Muay Thai from the modern-day sport?

For starters, Muay Thai, originally just Muay, included both stand up striking and grappling. The grappling aspect of the fighting style was transitioned out when the sport became standardized.

It also was originally created to kill. As I’ve stated a few times already, Muay Thai was originally developed to be efficient and deadly. Soldiers learned Muay Thai in order to kill their enemies swiftly without leaving themselves open to harm. This is in contrast to organized combat sports of modern-day.

Early Muay Thai Equipment

We don’t know much about ancient Muay Thai. I noted above that all of the records were lost when the old capital of Ayutthaya was burnt and ransacked.

One thing that we do know for sure is that there was a major difference between the equipment used by ancient fighters and what is used today. Primarily, the use of hemp rope for hand wraps as opposed to the elastic bands used by modern-day fighters.

In ancient times, when Muay Thai was used as a tool for war, hemp rope was wrapped around a fighter’s hands. The fighter would then usually dip their hands in a resin in order to create a hard cast that would inflict massive blunt force trauma on enemies.

There are many accounts of combatants adding broken glass or other sharp items to the drying resin. This turned their hands into a weapon similar to a club or mace that could inflict massive, and often lethal damage to enemies. The glass would be used to attack enemies’ eyes in order to quickly incapacitate them.

Modern Muay Thai

As Muay Thai shifted from a combat system for use in warfare to a fighting style for use in competition, the needs changed. It was no longer necessary for fighters to kill their opponents and many of the techniques served no practical purpose in a combat sport.

The discipline underwent a massive transition in order to make it more accessible to the outside world as a competitive sport. This is where the terms Muay Thai and Muay Boran came into play.

As I noted above, the original fighting style was simply known as Muay. The term Muay Boran was developed to denote this style of Muay and the many different styles it involved. Muay Thai then was created as a name to promote the modern-day boxing sport and to help reinforce it as a product of Thai culture. This also helped to differentiate it from western style boxing and kickboxing.

Modern Muay Thai was formalized with a system of rules, a standardization of venue, and formal weight classes. Matches are now fought in a ring and consist of three 5 minute rounds with 2-minute breaks in between. Modern Muay Thai is stand up only, though throws are allowed.

There is no grappling as there was with traditional Muay Boran. Also, the more lethal techniques have been stripped from the discipline and many impractical aspects of the style are no longer being taught.

Modern Muay Thai Equipment

As the sport has become more formalized, so too has the equipment. Hemp ropes are no longer used and have instead been replaced by cotton wraps with slight elasticity to them. Traditional boxing gloves are also being used instead of horsehide or resin casts.

Even though the more lethal aspects of the discipline have been removed, there are still some strikes allowed that are illegal in other combat sports. Kicks to the groin are allowed as well as elbows to the face. Fighters now wear cups in order to protect the groin area from the damage.

Some pieces of equipment still remain. Fighters still wear the Mongkhon during their dance. Also, fighters will still wear a Pra Jiad during the fight for luck. Muay Thai shorts have become the standard uniform for fighters and are usually made from either nylon or satin or a combination of the two.

Benefits of Muay Thai

Now that you’ve had a thorough rundown on the history of Muay Thai, what about the benefits?

Aside from the obvious upside of being able to defend yourself, there are some major health benefits to training Muay Thai. I’m specifically talking about training here. Competing in Muay Thai comes with risks that can outweigh the benefits.

Some of the major benefits of training Muay Thai are:

  • It’s a great way to burn fat
  • You can develop your self-confidence
  • It’s a great way to improve flexibility
  • It’s easy to learn compared to some martial arts

Muay Thai is an incredibly effective full-body workout. In fact, you can potentially burn up to 1,000 or more calories an hour during training. My own training usually consisted of a 10-minute warm-up jumping rope. This is normally followed by 10 minutes of shadow boxing followed by pad work for 20 minutes. After this, you can expect a post-training workout before you leave.

You will burn fat if you are putting effort into your training. This combination of fat loss and developing your skills as a fighter can go a long way towards helping you develop self-confidence. The longer you train as a Muay Thai fighter and the more precise you become with your movements, the more confident you generally will become in your overall life.

Most importantly, this isn’t rocket science. Some disciplines of martial arts are incredibly complex and difficult to learn (looking at you Jiu-Jitsu). Muay Thai is not that. The major upside of being created for combat is that it is simple, precise, and effective. It was made for teaching soldiers preparing for war so it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to learn.

Muay Thai is the Perfect Martial Art

That’s a bold statement. But, certainly not an unfounded one.

Remember how I talked about Muay Thai being developed for warfare? Most martial arts can’t make the same claim. There is a lot of hype around various disciplines but the reality is that many types of martial arts are developed in the gym, not on the battlefield.

The fact that Muay Thai was developed through actual warfare means only the best survived. This is survival of the fittest in its most pure form. Only the best practitioners made it off the battlefield alive and were able to pass on their knowledge.

For this reason, it is regarded by many as the most effective striking style in the world. Every technique used in modern-day Muay Thai has been distilled down from the best techniques in battle. These are techniques that are effective for both short and long-range striking as all parts of the body are being utilized.

Most importantly, as I stated above, it’s easy to learn. There aren’t a ton of fancy moves like you find in Jiu-Jitsu. You don’t need to memorize specific sequences as you would in Karate. Instead, Muay Thai is about proper body mechanics and technique.

Once you have the basic technique down it’s a matter of strengthening your body to help you punch and kick harder. It’s really that simple. This is why so many fighters in the UFC and other big-name organizations in MMA are using Muay Thai as the foundation of their striking game.


By now, I hope I’ve convinced you of just why Muay Thai is the perfect fighting style to learn.

Whether you’re interested in learning self-defense or proving your might in the ring, you can find benefits from training Muay Thai.

To top it off, the rich history and cultural significance mean you will always be learning something new and interesting not just about fighting, but about Thailand and the culture.

If you do decide to try out Muay Thai, I wish you well in your training and until next time, chok dee and kap khun krap!

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