Muay Thai: A Beginner’s Guide

Muay Thai is an ancient boxing discipline from the hills of Thailand. Also known as “the art of eight limbs,” it distinguishes itself from other martial arts through its use of all body parts in combat, not just hands and feet. Instead of simply punching or kicking their opponents, Muay Thai fighters use fists, arms, elbows, knees and shins for combative strikes and cinches.

Origins

It’s unknown when and where Muay Thai came from, though early forms of muay boran in Cambodia look similar and might have influenced its growth. Most researchers assume that Muay Thai evolved naturally from street fighting in Siam, eventually transitioning from wrestling and roughhousing into a more disciplined art that was refined through the centuries with practice and practical experience.

muay thai

photography by Thomas sauzedde

The furthest legitimate records on Muay Thai date back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the early 1300s. Royals of the time period were guarded by Krom Nak Muay (literally “Muay Fighters Regiment”), an elite squad of defenders who were tasked with guarding their monarch in this life and the next.

Techniques

Techniques in Muay Thai fall into two categories:

- Mae mai, or major techniques, include punches, jabs, hooks and uppercuts. These are practiced with movements of the entire body, not just the arm, and they’re often followed through with strikes from elbows and knees. Kicks are also mae mai, though they’re never delivered with ostentation, only precision and force. They can take the form of shin, foot, knee and heel strikes.

- Luk mai, or minor techniques, are mostly blocks and other defensive maneuvers, which aren’t considered dishonorable in Muay Thai. Taking a blow is one of the first things Muay Thai fighters learn how to do. A well-rounded Muay Thai education will include offensive strikes and evasion, disruption and redirection techniques.

Conditioning

Given that most modern fighting takes place in a ring, there’s a great emphasis on conditioning among Muay Thai practitioners. Fighters need to be strong enough to both land and roll with a blow, and they’ll need extreme endurance as well, since matches can last up to five rounds.

Here are a few common conditioning techniques found in Muay Thai training:

- Running
- Lifting
- Shadow boxing
- Strength training
- Jump roping
- Pain tolerance
- Clinching

Rules

Traditional Muay Thai has many rules about appearance, attire and legal techniques, but the lines are becoming blurred with the increased cross-fertilization of Muay Thai and MMA. For example:

- In old-school Muay Thai, boxers exchange blows one at a time. In modern competitions, this is often waived to give the audience a more exciting show.

- Muay Thai is Thailand is fought in nothing but trunks and boxing gloves. The head, feet and chest are all bare, the better for utilizing the entire body for the fight. Muay Thai abroad usually has stricter safety rules and may require helmets or shirts.

Overview

Though greatly changed from its early days of brawling, Muay Thai has survived hundreds of years more or less intact. Perhaps one day it will evolve again, and “the art of eight limbs” will transform into something even greater and more impressive.

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