Before there was Muay Thai, there was Muay Boran
“The days of Nai Khanomtom using the ancient techniques for national pride were over.”
In the late eighteenth century, during one of the many wars between the Kingdom of Burma and the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya (in modern-day Thailand), a famed Thai boxer named Nai Khanomtom and several of his comrades were captured and held in Burma.
After seven years years of captivity, the Burmese king organized a festival. He wanted to see his Burmese boxers fared against the Thai boxers. Nai Khanomtom was chosen to represent the Thais against the Burmese champion.
As is custom, Khanomtom opened the fight with his Wai Kru dance—this mystified the Burmese, who had never seen one before. He then brutally knocked out the Burmese champion. The Burmese thought the Wai Kru was some sort of black magic which had aided him, and the king ordered that he face more Burmese boxers.
Man after man fell. The tenth Burmese boxer to face Khanomtom was a champion, but was mangled by Khanomtom’s kicks and was knocked out just as the previous nine had been.
After seeing this, no Burmese fighter dared step into the ring with him. The Burmese king was impressed with Nai Khanomtom, and is believed to have said,
“Every part of the Siamese is blessed with venom. Even with his bare hands, he can fell nine or ten opponents. But his Lord was incompetent and lost the country to the enemy. If he had been any good, there was no way the City of Ayutthaya would ever have fallen.”
The Burmese king granted Nai Khanomtom his freedom along with the choice of two beautiful Burmese women or a large sum of gold (Khanomtom took the wives, saying that money was much easier to find) and his triumph is celebrated every year on March 17th in Thailand as National Muay Thai Day.
This series of fights that Nai Khanomtom undertook on that fateful night has made him an immortal figure in Thailand and made Muay Boran a national treasure. However, the martial art that Khanomtom used was not called “Muay Boran.” There are several old styles that were developed in various regions of Thailand that are now lumped into the term Muay Boran (literally “Ancient Boxing”), such as “Muay Chaiya,” “Mae Mai Muay Thai,” “Muay Lopburi,” and “Muay Korat.” But regardless on which regional variant it was, both have been driven to near-extinction due to the popularity of the ring sport we now know as “Muay Thai” (or, “Thai Boxing”).
How did the more recent boxing style dethrone the Thais’ national treasure? Simple: money. There is a lot of money to be made when men fight for money, especially when it comes to gambling on the fights.
This made Muay Thai fighters more valuable to promoters and gamblers, and no promoter wants to see his best fighters’ careers jeopardized by exceedingly dangerous competitions if they can help it. Weight classes were added, as were timed rounds. Dangerous techniques such as throat strikes, strikes to downed opponents, or groin strikes were forbidden. These reforms steered the ring sport away from a potential life-or-death conflict.
They also radically changed the approach of fight sports in Thailand. We must remember that the rules of competition will shape how a martial artist will train. Before the Marquess of Queensbury rule set was introduced to western boxing, it looked very different from the sport we have today. Head-butting, eye gouging, and throwing your opponent where allowed—while the absence of weight classes, timed rounds, or gloves, for that matter, made for a gruesome spectacles. Compare this to a modern boxing event, and you see a far different competition and a vastly different type of fighter.
The dangers posed by techniques such as these are simply too great to maintain a career. Instead of being seen as fighters for regional pride, these new Nak Muay were seen as assets in a bank—assets that must be protected as much as possible.
“If you’re good at something then never do it for free”- The Joker.
There is wisdom in this statement. Fighters representing all various martial arts will say that they don’t do it for the money or the fame, but the fact is that we all have mouths to feed and mortgages to pay. Professional fighters are celebrities to some extent, whether we like it or not.
And in Thailand, a country that developed without a fervor for most team sports like the U.S. has, Muay Thai fighters were the alpha dogs. The ring sport dominated headlines in a country without football, baseball, basketball, and villages were packed to watch any fight that was set up. The days of Nai Khanomtom using the ancient techniques for national pride were over.
The new era introduced matchmaking, negotiation of purses, and, of course, lots of gambling. What choice did young and aspiring fighters have? As rich a history as Muay Boran had, history wouldn’t put food on the table.
As for the teachers of the regional variants, they had little choice as well. Mixing western boxing must have been blasphemous to the Krus of that day, considering how England and France were colonizing southeast Asia. But they too faced the same problem: continue teaching the ancient styles knowing they wouldn’t attract many students, or teach the ring sport and make more money. Raising champions in Muay Thai leads to more press, which leads to more money as more up-and-comers would want to join the gym.
When Nai Khanomtom defeated the Burmese, he did so using techniques that were built and bred for the battlefield, moves that were intended to maim or kill with single blows—not for getting cheap points to potentially win on a judge’s scorecard.
There is a big difference between dodging and countering attacks from an opponent who has a sword and an opponent who doesn’t. For Nai Khanomtom, martial arts wasn’t for money, it was for survival. This made his mentality much different from modern-day Nak Muay.
Let’s not kid ourselves; 90% of us will post pictures and videos of ourselves running, hitting pads, or sparring on Facebook or Instagram, complete with a dozen hashtags that could’ve been a paragraph instead. Muay Thai is much more recreational for westerners, and while it is taken more seriously in Thailand, it is still a far cry from the brutal competitions of old. Sports are based around money, and fight sports like Muay Thai are no different.