Muay Thai in the West is an interesting beast. Despite being the national sport of Thailand, it’s actually very easy to spend years training Muay Thai in the West and never having the joy of training with or learning from boxers from Thailand.
Muay Thai in the Europe and the US is also notable in that by and large the sport was brought to these countries by martial artists who were not actually Muay Thai fighters, and in some examples had very little real experience with Muay Thai outside of dabbling. When it came to non-fighters we have legitimate martial artists stretching the truth at best, and outright cult leaders at worst.
As a result, most peoples understanding of Muay Thai largely comes from stereotypes and examples of Muay Thai being applied to MMA. That and a few nonsense statements from Conor McGregor that make me stop and honestly assess how many fights he even watches.
Myth 1: Muay Thai is flat footed
Perhaps the most common myth associated with Muay Thai is that Thai boxers are plodding, flat footed fighters who lack any footwork or general movement ability. Instead they rely on raw power, and this is why Muay Thai is a poor style to adapt to MMA.
This often gets said by MMA fighters and coaches, as well as kickboxers more accustom to K-1 rules. Which is rather unusual given that Muay Thai boxers dominate international kickboxing competitions, and nearly every MMA gym on the planet uses Muay Thai as the base for its stand up.
The footwork used in Muay Thai is different from what you’d see in karate and MMA, that is by necessity. Being able to freely kick the legs, clinch and sweep means that a boxer has to be very aware of his movement. Bouncing around like a points based karate fighter is a poor fit in Muay Thai.
That being said it’s not flat footed, and never has been. Here is golden age legend Yodkhunpon teaching his galloping footwork to stadium veteran Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu.
For an example of this sort of footwork being used in an actual fight, we have Oley Kiatoneway who danced around his opponents like a matador does a bull.
These are not singular examples of exceptional fighters either.
Both fighters will spring in for moments of action and be sure to get out again to a safe distance, there’s a difference between bouncing around non-stop and being flat footed. Muay Thai requires a more measured approach.
Myth 2: There is no head movement in Muay Thai
I hear this myth a couple of times a week, from laymen and from people who should absolutely know better. Once again there is head movement in Muay Thai, it’s just subtler than in western boxing. The common idea is that if you slip punches, you will duck into a kick and get knocked out. Apparently nobody told Giorgio Petrosyan this.
I actually believe this myth stems from laziness, whenever Thai boxers with great head movement are cited, like Samart, Sagat, Lahkin, Somrak, Saenchai and so on, the excuse that is always given is that these are exceptional fighters and that is why they’re able to move their head. If head movement is such an exceptionally rare skill then why is the average nine year old in a boxing class able to do it? It’s not a matter of talent, it’s a matter of training.
Somrak’s head movement works because he doesn’t duck and weave which will leave you at risk of kicks and knees. The risks of weaving are just as common in boxing, as it’s far easier to duck into an uppercut than it is a knee.
Not to mention, the standard method for avoiding high kicks is to simply lean back rather than block them.
Myth 3: Thai Fighters have Weak Boxing
While it is true that punches are the lowest scoring techniques in Muay Thai, this doesn’t mean that the boxing in Muay Thai is weak. Firstly it needs to be stated that boxing is not the act of punching, boxing is what happens in between punches. The set ups, the feints, the movement is what makes boxing, boxing as opposed to a brawl outside a chip shop.
While we see kickboxers throwing punch heavy combinations, followed by a kick, this doesn’t make their boxing superior, it just means they are more likely to volume punch.
In Thailand the sports of boxing and muay thai are very closely linked. Boxing was properly introduced to Thailand in 1913 and since then we’ve seen numerous dual sport champions in both Muay Thai and Boxing.
Muay Thai Legends Samart Payakaroon, Somrak Khamsing and Yodsanan Sityodtong were all world title holders in boxing, Somrak himself held an Olympic Gold Medal, while Floyd Mayweather Jr. attained Bronze in that same tournament. Not to mention fighters like Sagat, John Wayne Parr had success as professional boxers too. Then we have a handful of legitimately excellent dedicated boxers from Thailand such as Khaosai Galaxy and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai.
In Thailand it’s not unusual for boxers and thai boxers to be training on the same camps or in close proximity with each other. While Thai boxers don’t tend to face the same rigorous opposition that boxers from other nations do, the few that have been exceptional.
Myth 4: The Baseball Bat Kick
Maybe I was wrong when I said that being flat footed was the biggest myth. The idea that the proper Muay Thai kick swings out and round like a baseball bat is a peculiar notion that only exists in the West. Western practitioners are frequently taught to step out and swing their leg round on a wide arc, frequently with a straight leg, because a ‘proper’ muay thai kick is like a baseball bat.
I have to wonder if this myth stems from the fact that Thai boxers don’t chamber their kick in the same way that karate fighters do, thus creating the impression of a ‘straight’ leg, as opposed to a relaxed leg.
In reality a good Muay Thai kick should come from a relaxed leg that is able to bend as it swings through. A stiff leg simply reduces power, wastes energy and is uncomfortable. A proper Muay Thai kick should be whip-like, the pivot and movement of the body will pull a loose (almost limp) leg through the target on a narrow arc.
A good way to practise this is to kick up, and then in, but an even better approach is to work on tracing the outline of your opponent on the kick. The kick should almost ride up the opponents leg and then hit an upwards angle on the target. Here’s a visual example:
Those who have been at Diesel long enough to have trained with Uncle Thai, may find this kick familiar.
Myth 5: Muay Thai Comes from Muay Boran
This might be the most controversial entry on the list, as there is a lot of money to be made in teaching ‘muay boran’. This could be an article in of itself, but in reality the Muay Boran taught today is largely a fantasy martial art that is in fact based on modern Muay Thai.
Muay Thai as we know it today does stem from styles of boxing that we sometimes today refer to as ‘Boran’ styles, but ‘Boran’ is a vague term like ‘Kung Fu’ that doesn’t really refer to anything specifically. Muay, when it was formalised in 1910 referred to a collection of (mostly the same) martial arts. These were Muay Lopburi, Muay Chaiya, Muay Khorat among some others. These names referred to the region of Thailand that the style belonged to.
While the styles would have no doubt had differences, they were largely very similar and have very little visually in common with what is often taught today as Muay Boran. In fact, while it’s less refined, it’s clearly Muay Thai:
As we continue to move further and further away in time, it’s becoming even harder to find genuine Thai TMAs. The truth is that most Boran you see, regardless of the instructors qualifications is some form of recreation, or in some cases fabrication, as is the case with the cult in Germany, who claim an entirely fictional martial art as the ancestor of Muay Thai, who spam the comments of any video on Muay Boran to further their fantasy.
The true origins of Muay Thai, and what these styles really looked like are probably never going to be fully known. South East Asian martial arts from Muay Thai, to Kun Khmer and Lethwei are all for the most part the same art and Filipino martial arts while more distant, still share many of the principles, unfortunately the numerous cultural revolutions, and lack of solid records mean that we may never quite know for sure what is real and what is simply fantasy.
See you next time.