Muay Thai Equipment History
Muay Thai Equipment History
Muay Thai is one of the oldest and most popular martial arts to have emerged out of ancient Asia. It is believed to have originated in Thailand, where it was created by tribes migrating down from China, first in order to assist in the fierce warfare required for the conquest of land, and then later used to protect that very land from invaders. Through centuries of warfare and training it was eventually refined into the modern day combat sport it is known as today. In Thailand it is elevated to almost religious levels, being practiced in numerous gyms and dojos across the country. It has become known as the sport of kings, and one of the greatest honors of the sport is the opportunity to fight before the King of Thailand. It is also a corner stone of the modern day sport of mixed martial arts, commonly referred to as MMA.
Muay Thai has been a part of Thai culture from its earliest days. The watershed moment for the sport came in 1584 with the ascension of King Naresuan in what is now referred to as the Ayuddhaya period. The king stipulated that every soldier in his army had to be trained in Muay Thai just as he had been, which greatly helped to popularize the martial art.
As the sport has evolved to a higher degree of sophistication, so has the equipment used, both in fighting and in training. Early Muay Thai came from humble and brutal beginnings and the equipment reflected that. Fighters fought with bare knuckles and with very little protection. All of the equipment necessary for training was found in nature. One of the most legendary pieces of equipment, used historically and still favored by today’s hardcore purists, was also among the most simple and abundantly found in Ancient Thailand—the banana tree. This ancient staple of Thai culture was found by the forerunners of today’s fighters to be particularly suitable for punching and kicking practice. The legends tell us that the ancient fighters would kick the trunk of a banana tree hundreds of times a day to toughen limbs, to deaden nerves and to make themselves inured to pain. The smooth, slightly spongy texture of the banana tree trunk was found to be ideally suited to this purpose and the tree was so abundant in Thailand that a suitable training environment could be found almost anywhere. The banana tree helped fighters to develop their techniques, to develop toughness and pursue the hard-body training for which Muay Thai fighters are known.
Ancient practitioners also made use of other natural resources around them. Natural pools of water were used to increase endurance. Kicking and punching against water resistance was an ideal way to build strength and maximize the power on impact. Fighters rapidly and repeatedly climbed in and out of pools in order to increase endurance. Chopping the sea in front of the face was done to develop focus. These fighters also used suspended or floating coconuts for target practice in order to work on the accuracy of their strikes against moving targets.
Fighters wore little or no protection. Often their only protection was tree bark or seashells strapped around the groin. This was important because up until the 1930s groin strikes were perfectly legal in Muay Thai.
Another ancient piece of equipment was developed during the era of king Prachao Sua, also known as the Tiger King. A passionate advocate and a high level practitioner of Muay Thai, the Tiger King was known for entering local contests and fighting anonymously so as avoid gaining any advantage. It was during his reign that the first prototypes of hand equipment were introduced. Horsehair straps were wrapped around the fighters hands and forearms and they served a dual purpose. The first was to protect the fighter’s arms from damage incurred during the furious striking often seen in Muay Thai. The second was to inflict as much damage as possible on the opponent. On occasion, if both fighters agreed, ground glass would be applied to the horsehair straps, increasing the damage inflicted exponentially. This raised the stakes in any fight and pushed the fighters to their physical and mental limits.
Horsehair eventually was replaced by unrefined hemp straps referred to as Muay Kaad Chuek, which translates as “bonded arms.” These were hugely popular among fighters and fans alike and would remain a staple of the sport right until the modern era. 20-meter hemp straps were bound on each arm and some fighters would immerse their bound fists into water before contests. The straps would tighten and harden upon drying, which was thought to increase both their ability to protect the fighter’s hands and to inflict more damage on an opponent. In some fights, as was common with the horsehair straps, fighters would immerse their hemp-strapped fists into glue and then into ground glass.
Muay Thai methods and training changed little through the ages, retaining most of the traits handed down through the centuries. Then, in 1868, the sport entered what many describe as its golden age with the ascension of King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V. He and his successor, Rama VI, helped to modernize the sport a great deal and to make it more organized. The first official Muay Thai arena was constructed by order of King Rama VI in 1920 at Suam Gularb in Bangkok and a huge tournament was organized. This modernization also brought many changes to the equipment being used.
Up until the 1920s Muay Kaad Cheuk was still in use, but following the tragic death of a fighter in the ring, the straps were eventually discarded in favor of gloves, which were safer and less brutal. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many elements of western boxing were introduced in order to make the sport safer and more enjoyable, both for the fighters and the fans. Along with gloves, proper groin guards were introduced, which quickly gained popularity due to their safety and reliability. Modern gymnasiums replaced their old training grounds and proper, well constructed Punching And Kicking Bags replaced palm trees. Practice gloves were also adopted, and slowly the equipment used in the sport has become more and more advanced.
Heavy Bags are now available in a variety of sizes and weights depending on the fighter’s preference. From 150lb Heavy Bags that help a fighter to develop his strength and maximize impact to the lighter speed bags that help a fighter focus on striking speed, there are many options. Because Muay Thai involves both punching and kicking all over the opponent’s body, a full 6-foot tall Heavy Bag is often favored by fighters in training, as it allows them to practice all their techniques without switching equipment. Modern Heavy Bags also come in a range of weights, the 100- and 150-pound variants being the most popular as they can best simulate a human opponent. Modern fighters also have the option of ordering a Heavy Bag pre-filled or ordering it unfilled in order to fill it on their own.
Muay Thai equipment has come a long way in the past century. Up until the 1920s and 1930s, ancient nature-oriented methods were prevalent in Muay Thai training. While fighters trained using equipment that did the job very well for centuries, such equipment is now deemed dangerous and unreliable by modern standards. In the last 90 years or so, modernization and world-wide acceptance of the sport has pushed the development of the right kind of training equipment that enhances a fighter’s effectiveness and longevity, while also helping him to develop more precise techniques with minimal risk of injury.