Muay Boran: Everything You Need to Know


Muay Boran: Everything You Need to Know

We’ve talked a lot about Muay ThaiOpens in a new tab. on the site, but now we’ve decided to talk about another Thai discipline (or martial art) – Muay Boran. Muay Boran is globally less known than Muay Thai and is certainly less practiced, but it is by no means irrelevant and plays a large part in Thai national folklore. Muay Boran is different than Muay Thai in many ways and we are going to present you the basic outlines of this martial art and compare it to Muay Thai, so that you know the difference. 

So, if you’re interested to know, keep reading!

Table of contents:

What Is Muay Boran?

Muay Boran (Thai: มวยโบราณ) is, like kung fu, actually an umbrella term for a whole series of unarmed martial arts that originated in Thailand before the introduction of modern combat sports equipment in the 1930s.

It is also known as Toi Muay (Thai: ต่อยมวย). It is actually a term that refers to ancient Thai boxing, which is more similar to classical bare-knuckle boxing than to modern Western boxing. It is mostly a historical term – as Muay Boran was replaced with modern martial arts during the 20th century – but the art of Muay Boran is still practiced today. 

The Term “Muay Boran”

The phrase “Muay Boran” literally means “ancient boxing”. The term “muay” signifies boxing in the Thai language, while “boran” means ancient, or old. Muay Boran is a relatively new term that was coined to encompass the origins of Thai martial arts, as per the writings of historian Khet Siyaphai. 

We have to say something about the term in order to distinguish it from Muay Thai, which was originally known simply as “muay”. The addition of the word “Thai” was done to differentiate the style from western boxing in the early 1900s, when Thailand opened up to Western traditions.

With the increasing popularity of Muay Thai in the 20th century, nationalistic supporters of Muay felt a need to establish a history of the martial art, resulting in a sometimes-unfounded account of the background of Muay Thai and Muay Boran.

Although not often, you might see the term “Muay Thai Boran”, which means “ancient Thai boxing” and also refers to this umbrella term. 

Origin and History of Muay Boran

According to Thai folklore, when the ancient Siamese capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom fell to Burma in 1767, the invading troops rounded up several thousands of Siamese citizens in the city. They then decided to organize a seven-day, seven-night religious festival in honour of Buddha’s relics.

The festivities included lots of entertainment, such as the costume plays, comedies and farces, and sword-fighting matches. At one point, the Burmese King Hsinbyushin wanted to see how the well-known Thai boxing would compare to Lethwei, also known as Burmese boxing. The Thai people chose Nai Khanomtom to represent them against the Burmese champion and a boxing ring was set up in front of throne. 

According to legend, Nai Khanomtom did a traditional pre-fight dance, to pay his respects to his teachers and ancestors, dancing around his opponent. The Burmese were so confused by this dance that they thought it was black magic. When the fight began, Nai Khanomtom charged out, using punches, kicks, elbows, and knees to beat his opponent until he collapsed.

According to the story, the referee said the Burmese champion was too distracted by the dance, and declared the knockout invalid. The King then reportedly asked if Nai Khanomtom would fight nine other Burmese champions to prove himself; he agreed. Nai Khanomtom fought them all, one after the other with no rest periods, winning each fight. His last opponent was a great kickboxing teacher whom Nai Khanomtom defeated with kicks.

After that, no one else dared to challenge Nai and the Thai people achieved something spectacular and extraordinary. Wholly impressed, the King granted Nai Khanomtom freedom, offering him either riches or two beautiful Burmese wives. Nai Khanomtom chose the wives as he said that money was easier to find; they then departed for Siam.

This is, of course, just a legend so there are different variations of this story; some of these variations had him also win the release of his fellow Thai prisoners.

In the early 20th century, one of the sons of the Thai King Rama V died. The King then commanded his officers to gather exceptional and skilled fighters to perform as part of the funeral ceremonies. Three of them stood out and were granted titles of muen as a means to promote the quality of muay, which had been diminishing at the time due to different historical reasons. It is important to note that each of the fighters came from a different part of the country, which proved essential in the formation of specific Muay Boran styles, as each name meant and today corresponds to a specific style of muay fighting: 

  • Changatchoengchok means “effective style of punching”; 
  • Muemaenmat means “skillful punches”, and;
  • Muaymichue translates to “muay with a reputation”. 

These three would later become distinct styles of muay – Lopburi, Khorat, and Chaiya, respectively. Additional varieties came to be later on, but these three styles were originally actualised under the Muay Boran umbrella. 

Muay Boran as a martial art was originally developed as a self-defence technique and was later taught to the Thai military for use in combat. The martial art utilises many deadly techniques, grappling techniques and ground fighting techniques apart from its stand up techniques.

This differs strongly from modern-day Muay Thai, which consists only of stand up and is only a ring sport. After these demonstrations, Muay Boran became a formal competitive sport. These fights soon became an integral part of Thai culture, with fights being held at festivals around the country, and fighters from the different areas testing their styles against each other.

Muay Boran was initially fought bare-knuckle, but fighters soon began wrapping their hands and forearms in hemp rope which not only protected their fists from injury but also made their strikes more likely to cut an opponent. The best Muay Boran fighters enjoyed star-status, some of them even becoming members of the royal guard. 

In the first half of the 20th century, King Rama VII modernised the Thai martial arts competitions, introducing referees, boxing gloves, rounds, rules and western-style boxing rings. This led to many Muay Boran techniques and styles being banned in the country, as they were considered to be overly brutal and against the rules of contemporary combat. This is how it all developed briefly, now we’re going to see how it functions. 

Today, the World Muay Boran Federation (WMBF) regulates this martial art internationally and sets the necessary rules and guidelines. 

Muay Boran Styles

There is a saying in Thailand that describes Muay Boran and its styles: “The powerful fist of Khorat, the spirit of Lopburi, the posture of Chaiya, and the speed of Thasao” (Thai: หมัดหนักโคราช ฉลาดลพบุรี ท่าดีไชยา เร็วกว่าท่าเสา). This simple phrase describes not only the four main styles of Muay Boran and their most important elements, but also the general idea of what Muay Boran is like. Now let us see how these styles actually work: 

  • Muay Chaiya (or Muay Giow) is a style that originated in south Thailand during the 19th century. Its main element is the posture, but it also emphasizes speed and strong elbow and fist shots. Is also has a very developed system of defence, but also a weapon-based style called Krabi Krabong. It has a lot of moves that resemble animal moves and postures. The style derives its name from the town of Chaiya and the province of the same name.
  • Muay Khorat is the style of the eastern and north-eastern part of Thailand. Its focus is on force and the use of punches, particularly strong shots. It derives its name from the informal name of the Nakhon Ratchasima town and province, and also shares it with a people living in the same province.
  • Muay Lopburi stems from central Thailand. It is the most philosophical of the four styles, which makes it the best example of an Oriental martial art. It focuses on developing your spirit and your fighting intelligence, focusing mostly on smart boxing. Like the other styles, this one also derives its name from the town of Lopburi.
  • Muay Thasao stems from the north and is the youngest of the four main styles. The word “Thasao” means “monkey feet” in Thai, which gives you enough clues about the style itself. Despite being the youngest, this speed-based style best represents Muay Boran because of the fluidity of its moves, the practicality of its postures and a good defensive approach. This is the only style that does not derive its name from a town or region. 

These are not the only styles of Muay Boran, but are the most common and best known. There are a lot of lesser known styles that focus on thematic movements (e.g. the Hanuman White Monkey), but their number is so big we cannot discuss them individually in this specific article. Now, we shall see how Muay Boran compares to Muay Thai. 

Similarities Between Muay Thai and Muay Boran

When compared, Muay Boran and Muay Thai are quite similar to one another, but only in terms of utilising all the extremities in both offence and defence. Since Muay Boran can be considered the core of Thai martial arts, it is by no means a surprise that Muay Thai utilises a lot of these core elements.

In short, we could state that Muay Thai is just a modern version of Muay Boran, adapted to Western rules and guidelines.

Still, it is exactly this process that led to several Muay Boran moves being removed from Muay Thai, because they were not in accordance with the newly adopted rules that came from the West. 

According to these rules, Muay Thai considers several shots – a kick to the groin, gouging the eyes, and hitting a grounded opponent – to be illegal and penalises them; Muay Boran is not that restrictive. Yet, let us see some common points of these two arts:

  • Utilising different punches and combinations such as jabs, hooks, uppercuts, and crosses;
  • Constantly using kicks such as the axe kick, front kick, diagonal kick, push kick and roundhouse kick;
  • Throwing knees in close range such as the diagonal knee, horizontal knee, straight knee, knee bomb and knee from a clinch;
  • Performing the Wai Kru dance as part of the pre-fight ritual, and;
  • Fighters of both Muay Thai and Muay Boran also use twisted hemp ropes, also called chuak, to cover their knuckles.

Muay Boran also uses clinching as an effective weapon to setup strikes and locks, much like Muay Thai does. Both martial arts also target the opponent’s joints and pressure points to wear down their opponent in a fight. This concerns the common points between these two martial arts. Now we are going to take a look at some of the differences.

Differences Between Muay Thai and Muay Boran

We’ve already seen that there is – essentially – no difference between Muay Boran and Muay Thai. They are basically the same discipline, with the latter being a modern version of the former. Namely, both heavily rely on the utilisation of all limbs, including the knees and elbows, and not just the fists and the legs. Muay Thai fighters call these limbs as the “eight deadly weapons.” 

However, Muay Boran uses an additional part of the body – the head.

The main difference between Muay Thai and Muay Boran is that striking with the head is allowed in Muay Boran. Therefore the nickname “Art of the Nine Limbs” is used for Muay Boran, instead of “Art of the Eight Limbs” which is used for Muay Thai.

Muay Boran doesn’t have a single unified ruleset and different parts of Thailand seem to have their own, distinct styles. Aside from being less restrictive in movements and incorporating headbutts, Muay Boran also differs in a lot of other things from Muay Thai. Among them are:

  • The basic form of Muay Boran follows a centreline to which the fighter tends to align his fists. In contrast, Muay Thai uses a less compact stance where the fighter’s fists are on the outside of the head’s centreline;
  • According to some theories, Muay Boran’s centred stance makes it easier to deflect the opponent’s incoming strikes. It also allows the defence to instantly morph into a grapple. Moreover, it also protects the fighter from blows aimed at the vitals;
  • Muay Boran’s stance is also lower and wider compared to Muay Thai. Fighters usually assume a more defensive and wider stance that helps cover the groin and other vulnerable spots;
  • Muay Boran fighters must protect themselves from strikes that may be called illegal in Muay Thai. For this reason, a wider and more defensive stance is a better strategy, and;
  • In terms of offence, what is Muay Boran famed for is its emphasis on hitting the opponent’s limbs until they became numb. The simple reason behind this tactic is that if you take away your enemy’s limbs, you are taking away their best weapon against you.

In addition to all of this, Muay Thai has attacks and techniques aimed at the limbs. These shots are present in Muay Boran too, but they won’t give the fighter any points, which is why they are highly underused. Muay Boran also promotes flashy, potentially devastating and serious strikes. Several of these attacks often have a wider swing to generate more power. However, this also opens more vulnerable spots and exposes the attacker to more potential danger.

For example, Muay Boran uses a lot of flying elbows and flying knees to take down an opponent. This Muay Boran style also centres on getting in the greatest number of strikes even if it means exposing the attacker to more risks. Additionally, Muay Boran centres on barehanded combat. As such, Muay Thai Boran techniques favour fast-paced fights.

The goal is to knock the opponent as quickly as possible. In essence, this is what Muay Thai Boran is famed for – it often favours explosiveness rather than pacing oneself during matches, which is one of the essential traits of modern Muay Thai. Muay Boran matches also require fighters to quickly evaluate the opponents they face rather than probing them on the early rounds.

An Overview

Now that we’ve analysed this in writing, let us see how it looks in table form:

CategoryMuay BoranMuay Thai
PunchingVariety of combinationsVariety of combinations
KickingConstant reliance on kicksConstant reliance on kicks
Knee shortsClose-range knee shotsClose-range knee shots
HeadHeadbutts are allowedStrictly prohibited
StanceLow, wide and centredUpward, standing, narrow
DefenceMore import and complexImportant, but simpler
ShotsFlashy, wider, strongerBetter systematises, similar to Western combat sports
GlovesBare-handed fightGloves
SpeedVery fastGenerally slower
EquipmentHemp ropes (chuak) for the handsHemp ropes (chuak) for the hands
Pre-match ritualsWai Kru danceWai Kru dance

Muay Thai and Muay Boran in Modern-Day Martial Arts

One of the most common questions that arises when Muay Boran is mentioned, is how much of it can still be found in contemporary Muay Thai? The only precise answer is that no one actually knows, but we can be sure that it is a substantial amount. If you compare the moves of the two arts, as we’ve done, you’ll see that the moves in Muay Thai are just a modernised shadow of the moves present in Muay Boran.

However, a lot of Muay Boran has been lost in modern Muay Thai, with it a lot of the old techniques and moves. Today, Muay Boran is not as popular and there is only a small group of people practicing the old skills, though some of the commercial Muay Boran schools may also not have the more traditional techniques in their curriculum, which you can utilise to see how the old masters fought. 

This covers the essential elements of Muay Boran. You’ve seen how it functions, what it focuses on and how its offence and defence work. Follow us for more of the same and we hope we’ll see you back very soon. Until next time!

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