A Muay Thai Fighter’s Training Regimen
Muay Thai: Traditional Rites and Customs
History of Muay Thai
A competing Muay Thai fighter has to stay in top physical condition throughout the year. The fighter typically has a schedule of at least one bout a month and cannot afford to be lazy if he or she wants to stay in the limelight. Training sessions are held daily, often on weekends as well, and are strict, no-nonsense affairs. Naturally, the degree of discipline differs greatly from camp to camp, but in general, trainers follow the same pattern. Thai Boxing teachers are usually hard on their students though not unreasonable.
- Fifteen minutes of rope skipping at different speeds
- Shadow boxing for five rounds with one-minute breaks, using all offensive techniques, including fists, knees and feet
- Bag practice for five rounds with one-minute breaks, using all attacks in a Thai Boxer’s repertoire
- Sparring with a senior fighter or trainer who wears specially designed protective pads on his or her forearms. He or she uses only defensive moves and directs the attacks of the boxer, who is to react as fast as he or she can using any technique he or she sees fit
- General exercise such as push-ups, sit-ups, and light weight training
- Roadwork: this is normally done early in the morning and consists of at least one half-hour of jogging and includes five rounds of running at increased speed for three minutes. During one-minute breaks the runner does not rest but keeps on jogging
All phases of the workouts are controlled by a stop-watch or timer. The last thirty seconds in each three-minute period are announced, and all exercises, including running, are executed at full speed and power.
The fighters live on a controlled diet determined by the trainer. Its main ingredients are lean meat, fresh vegetables, and plenty of fruit, supplemented by milk and eggs.
Physical training is not the only part of a traditional Muay Thai fighter’s education. For those who live in a traditional camp, discipline extends to the non-training hours. They do chores and run errands for their teacher, whose every word is obeyed. The more concerned and knowledgeable instructor also lectures students on anatomy and the workings of the muscular, nervous, respiratory and digestive systems, and teaches them massage techniques. He gives moral coaching and acts as teacher, doctor, father and brother. In the words of a well-known boxing instructor, a Muay Thai fighter should be a "bonus to society." He or she should be a good technician, confident, disciplined, quick-witted and brave. He or she should be patient, helpful, and polite, with a good sense of sportsmanship.
Thai matches at one time were held in theaters and temples in Thailand and have recently turned into a business held in stadiums. Most of them are held in Rajadamnern Stadium situated across from Chulachomklao Military Academy . The matches are televised for home entertainment and are also open to live spectators.
Bangkok, the largest gathering place for matches, has four stadiums, whereas other stadiums in Thailand have folded. These stadiums complement the expansion of boxing camps, which have spread out all over the country.
At present, Rajadamnern has already set up a museum of Thai boxing and is collecting history of the art for the following generations.
Before a young man is allowed is allowed to join a boxing camp, he must be accepted by his prospective teacher. Should there be any doubt about the youngster’s suitability or character he will be rejected or asked to apply again after some time.
Once a new student is accepted, the "Wai Kruh" or "Khuen Kruh" ceremony, an important entrance ritual, must be performed. Even modern physical education colleges insist on this practice for those students taking a course in Muay Thai. The general procedure is similar in camps throughout Thailand, although many teachers have introduced slight variations to suit their own preferences.
The most important part of the khuen kruh, which is held in front of a Buddha shrine flanked on either side by Muay Thai equipment, is the vow of loyalty. After the students have made their offerings of flowers, a piece of white cloth, sticks, candles and perhaps a few coins or small presents, they pray before reciting their pledge.
The recital is followed by a period of meditation, Buddhist rituals and chants, and a talk by the master of ceremonies and teacher. The students are now part of a boxing "family," with the teacher as the adopted "father," and cannot change camps without permission.
An inherent cultural characteristic of the Thais is the desire to show respect and gratitude, especially to those who impart knowledge, like parents and teachers. A worthy and beautiful custom is boxer’s way of paying homage to his teacher by performing the ram muay or boxing dance.
This ritual differs from camp to camp, and should two fighters be seen rendering a similar performance, they are almost certainly students of the same teacher, or else their instructors have come from the same camp. If an inquiry reveals this to be true, the two boxers will on no account fight each other. This tradition is the result of strict disciplinary training and the pledge given during the khuen kruh ceremony. It ensures a feeling of close unity in the camps and villages and is meant to foster a sense of belonging to the race as a whole.
The ram muay is accompanied by music and starts with wai kruh, or obedience to the teacher. The boxer kneels in the ring facing the direction of his camp, home, or birthplace. He covers his eyes with his gloves and says a short prayer while three times bowing low until his gloves touch the canvas. Now the ram muay, or boxing dance follows. It is performed in many different ways, each teacher having his own variety which he gives to a boxer according to his proficiency and experience.
The ram muay also serves as a pre-fight warm-up exercise and can last as long as five minutes. Its performance is accompanied by silent prayers and the recitation of magic formulas. Some of the higher forms of these dances are difficult to perform and may earn a boxer extended applause if well executed. For those with an intimate knowledge of ram muay, details of the dance easily reveal the identity of the performer’s teacher or camp. Without initiation and the knowledge of the secret words, jealously guarded by each boxer, its performance is quite useless.
One can often see a boxer wearing a string or piece of cloth around one or both biceps. This is called the "kruang rang" and may be worn throughout the fight. It sometimes contains protective charms, a small picture of the Buddha or a saint, or an herb said to have magic properties.
During the pre-fight ritual fighters also wear the "mongkon" or crown, a cord about finger-thick worn around the head. It does not belong to the fighter but is the property of the teacher, and it is considered sacred. After the completion of the ram muay and before the first round commences, the trainer bows with folded hands, says a short prayer, and lifts the mongkon off the boxer’s head, blowing on his hair for good luck.
A very important part of Muay Thai bouts is the music, which not only accompanies the fight itself but also the pre-fight ceremonies. The haunting sounds are heard far beyond the confines of a stadium. The "wong muay," as the four-piece band is called, consists of a reedy sounding Jawa flute, the "Pi’chawa," a pair of small brass cymbals known as "Ching," and the "Glong Kaek," two drums, one high, the other low pitched. The musicians know every move in the game and watch the fighters constantly, varying tempo and volume from slow and soothing to speedy and loud, depending on the action in the ring.
What little we know of early Muay Thai can be traced primarily to provincial records and writings of visitors who witnessed early bouts. Most of the accounts can be traced to the Chinese, Burmese, and Cambodian countries. The reason for such a sketchy history is a loss of records in 1767. On that date, Burmese armies attacked and destroyed Thailand's capital city of Ayuddhaya. All of the royal archives were destroyed by fire.
Muay Thai is an art of self defense that uses various parts of the body. Because it is based on the principle of "doing no more than necessary to teach a lesson," it is equally well suited to be used as a competitive sport as well as a "fight to the finish." In ancient times, Thai warriors had intensive training in the art, giving them a distinct advantage in close-combat situations. Royalty, military leaders, and those common people responsible for defending the nation received regular instruction by leading exponents of the art.
The origin of the art itself is as colorful as the men who practiced it. Origins trace back to the Yunnan Province in central China. Because of the Chinese invasion, the Thai race fled and was thinned out by invaders, disease, and hunger. They finally settled in Chao Phraya Valley of the Mekong River. To deal with their many enemies, the Thai leaders developed a military training program for the young men of their race. This original art was called Chupasart. This taught use of knives, swords, pikes, and later, muskets. Because of many injuries to soldiers who sparred in this system, the techniques were developed for open hand combat as well. This was the birth of Dee Muay, which later evolved into modern Muay Thai.
The best known and most celebrated of the early fighting greats was Nai Khanom Otom, who, having been captured by the Burmese, regained his freedom by defeating twelve of the enemy's gladiators in an unarmed contest witnessed by the Burmese king. His story is related in many versions and appears in grade school textbooks. All stadiums in the country honor the hero by dedicating one fight a year to him. It has been established without doubt that Nai Khanom Otom was a historical figure, although no records exist of him in Thailand. Ironically, the most reliable confirmation comes from Burma.
Muay Thai became part of military training during the reign of King Naresun the Great (1590-1605). He also practiced the art, and in doing so became a national hero.
Muay Thai reached the height of its popularity during the reign of Pra Chao Sua, the "Tiger King" (1703-1709). Siam was at peace with her neighbors and the army was idle. Boxing became the favorite pastime of the population: with young and old, rich and poor joining fighting camps. Every village staged its own bouts. The king himself was skillful and was reported to have visited village arenas incognito to challenge and defeat the local champions and, still undetected, walk off with the prize money. According to some authorities it was customary to bind hands and forearms with strips of horse hide in order to protect one's own skin and inflict maximum damage on one's own opponent. Some of the techniques used today are said to be based on Pra Chao Sua's style of fighting.
The horse hide thongs were later replaced by hemp ropes or starched strips of cotton soaked in glue before being tied to the boxer's hands. It is said that for some matches and with agreement of both contestants, ground glass was mixed with the glue. The fighters wore groin guards of tree bark or sea shells held in place with a piece of cloth tied between the legs and around the waist. In those days there were no such arrangements as weight divisions or three-minute rounds. A bout lasted as long as a fighter could continue. Many a boxer is said to have left the arena on a bamboo stretcher - dead.
By the beginning of this century, Muay Thai was taught in schools. It continued roughly until 1921. The use of hemp ropes and sea shells continued until the 1930s. At that point Muay Thai underwent a major transformation. A number of rules and regulations from international boxing were adopted, modern gloves were introduced, and bouts were staged in modern rings.
Muay Thai retains its number one ranking in the sports popularity chart in Thailand. At the time of this writing, six weekly, one daily, and one monthly publication are devoted exclusively to the fight game. Muay Thai motifs appear on postage stamps and matchbox covers. The enthusiasm has also gripped a number of foreigners, mostly American servicemen, who have joined training camps in different parts of the country.
The highlights of the Muay Thai season for fighter and spectator are the championship bouts and the contests for the "Best Boxer of the Year" title awarded by the reigning King. Here, not only are the richest purses awarded, but also the highest honor a Thai boxer can attain.
Most Thai boxers begin training at the age of 7-8 years old. Females also train, but mainly for self defense. They learn to use their legs, fists, knees, and elbows and are usually in the ring by their eleventh birthday in the phantom 4 class. By their sixteenth birthday they may even hold a title and prize money up to 40,000 baht, and sometimes a reward up to 200,000 baht.
The average Thai fighter hangs up his gloves during his middle or late twenties, though there are exceptions. After leaving the ring many will enter the monkhood for a short time. Many return later to their camps to be among friends or to train to stay fit. Some act as assistant trainers and others, if they can afford to, may open their own training camp. Very seldom will one find an ex-fighter who has divorced himself from the fight entirely; the elation after a victory and the bitter taste of defeat all have formed a bond that it too strong to break.
Muay Thai in Thailand is a strictly professional affair. No boxer, whether schoolboy or veteran, would think of climbing through the ropes without a purse at stake. He knows that he will get hurt however good he might be and considers it only fair to get paid for his pain. A fighter’s rates are not set but negotiated. They differ considerably depending on a boxer’s popularity and his manager’s talent.