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MUAY THAI UNLEASHED
LEARN TECHNIQUE AND STRATEGY FROM THAILAND'S WARRIOR ELITE
By Erich Krauss
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Erich Krauss
All rights reserved.
INTRODUCTION TO MUAY THAI
The Evolution of Muay Thai
Thousands of years ago, Thai soldiers struggling to defend their land against invaders created a martial art that transformed their hands, legs, elbows, and knees into deadly weapons. Responsible for countless victories on hillsides and deep in the jungle, their system of fighting, now known as Muay Thai or the "science of eight limbs," was embraced by kings and the general populace from its inception. With the most competent warriors being hailed as heroes and adored by society, eventually the art was taken from the battlefield and adopted as a sport so young men with the determination and desire could experience a similar glory. Dirt fighting pits sprang up around the country, allowing practitioners to test their skills against one another. Wrapping their hands with hemp rope, and then sometimes dipping the rope in glue and then shards of glass, it was not uncommon for participants to fight to the death.
For hundreds of years Thai boxers laid everything on the line. It wasn't until the twentieth century that a more rigid set of rules was established to increase the longevity of the fighters. Cotton wraps and gloves replaced the hemp rope hand wraps, and the more vicious strikes such as head-butts and groin strikes were outlawed. Time limits and weight classes were also established. Although some die-hard fans and fighters felt such restrictions tainted the sport, the bouts only got more entertaining as fighters were allowed to hone their skills by avoiding serious injuries. Today, the sport harbors not only the best fighters in the world, but also some of the most impressive athletes.
Hundreds of training camps scattered throughout Thailand currently accept young athletes and transform them into world-class fighters. Unlike in most martial arts, practitioners are expected to fight on a monthly basis. The most technical and competent combatants compete in Rajadamnern, Lump-inee, and Channel 7 stadiums in Bangkok, and millions watch their aggressive, highly technical matches each week on television. And with competitors constantly refining and adding new techniques to their game, such as punches from Western boxing, practically every match guarantees a plethora of signature moves and nonstop action.
While for years the heart and dedication of Thai boxers and the ferocity of their fighting system was known by only a handful of foreigners, the advances in video technology and the country's booming tourist industry have introduced the sport of Muay Thai to the world. Now thousands of foreigners travel each year to Thailand to live in a traditional camp, acquire the techniques of champions, and then return home to share their newfound skills. They have passed Thai boxing training regimens on to kickboxers and mixed martial arts (MMA) competitors, and in world-renowned fighting competitions such as K-1, PRIDE, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the strikes and stratagems of Muay Thai can now be found in nearly every bout. Although such skills can be acquired in a gym in nearly every major city in the world, the choice place to learn Muay Thai is still its birthplace, where techniques haven't been watered down or altered and the average native one-hundred-forty-pound fighter can push the top foreign heavyweight to his limits.
A Day in the Life of a Thai Boxer
There is no clock on the wall, but you know it's time to wake up because underneath the small wood shack in which you sleep two stray dogs are fighting, and off in the distance roosters are booming their early morning wake-up call. Sitting up on the cement floor, you look around. Some of the other boys, all between twelve and eighteen years of age, are already breaking down their mosquito nets.
It's four o'clock, and back in your hill tribe your mother, father, and siblings are still asleep, getting their rest for a hard day of labor. It's been over a year since you have seen them, and you long for the smells of home and the hours running free through the jungle. Life back there was kind, but with no money for your education, your options were few. Your parents knew your life would get progressively harder as the years went by, and they made the difficult choice to send you away. The twelve boys with whom you share this hut are your family now. You go to them when sad or in need of advice. You take care of them, and they take care of you. It is warming to see that most of them have smiles on their faces at this early morning hour.
You follow the crowd out into the darkness. The trainers are off somewhere, but for the first part of the morning you need no instruction or supervision. All of you know exactly what is expected, so you begin to run. Across the cement platform that holds two rings and a dozen heavy bags, down a winding trail through the jungle, and out onto the road. Your legs are sluggish from the day before and your lungs feel tight, but all the motivation you need is the boy directly ahead. You match his strides, and eventually your legs warm and your lungs loosen. After an hour meandering through the mountains, enjoying the wildlife that will take to hiding as the sun comes up, you finally return to camp and your ten-kilometer warm-up run is out of the way.
Hunger pains set in, but you push them aside. You follow your twelve brothers into the ring and begin shadowboxing, throwing jabs, uppercuts, elbows, kicks, and knees into the open air. You visualize an opponent, but instead of throwing knockout blows, you dance around him, focusing on grace and timing and fluidity. For fifteen minutes you become a butterfly, and then you climb out of the ring and take position in front of one of the heavy bags dangling from a steel pole. Rain comes suddenly and pounds down on the straw roof, filling the open-air gym with freshness. Your body is warm and your mind alert, and with the chime of a bell you tear into the old, chafed leather of the bag with punches and kicks. The bag is your adversary for the moment, and every punch has the capability to shatter your opponent's jaw. Every kick has the capability to crack ribs. For fifteen minutes straight you unleash. There can be no laziness, no half efforts. The instructors have turned up, and each is armed with a whomping-stick, an instrument they are not timid to use.
The bell chimes again, and you take a step closer to the bag. Two years ago, when your parents first sent you here at the age of twelve, your body fought against your mind at this stage of training. After the run and the rounds, it seemed impossible to go on. But now your muscles are stronger, your bones harder, and, most important, your mind unrelenting. You wrap your arms around the bag as if it were an opponent's neck and shift from punches and kicks to knees. You drive your left knee into the solar plexus of the bag, and then the right. You do this over and over with no end in sight. After three hundred repetitions, an instructor tells you to stop. You take a step back, but there is no time to catch your breath. You lift your front leg and drive the ball of your foot into the bag. A hundred push kicks with your right leg and then a hundred with your left. With that out of the way you drop down, welcoming the cold cement on your back. You blast out the two hundred sit-ups in a matter of minutes because if you're slow the other boys will beat you to the shower outside the temple. The last to the showers is the last to the breakfast table, and the last at the breakfast table rarely gets enough food to feed his belly.
As you join the crowd around a mat on the floor after your shower, two of the younger boys arrive with food from the market. When you first arrived to the camp, it was your job to fetch the food and clean up afterward. But you have moved up the chain, and now only five boys are above you on the hierarchy. You pay respect to the more experienced of your peers and allow them to help themselves first, just as the younger boys pay a similar respect to you. When you get your helping of soup, you gulp it down because seconds are up for grabs. This day you are too slow and will have to make do with your hunger until supper. You hand your bowl to a kid of twelve years and thank him kindly as he hurries off to the washbasin.
There is no chitchat after breakfast because everyone is rushing back to the hut to put on their school uniform. As always, everyone is late. The three-mile walk to school quickly turns into a run, and your body doesn't get a rest until you finally slide into a chair in front of the teacher and turn your mind to something other than fighting. For the next six hours, you try to learn what nearly every other child in class has all evening to study. Many of your fellow students come from richer homes, and although a few of them can be considered acquaintances, none of them have ever invited you over to play. Under the bright lights of an arena you are admired by hundreds, but in the classroom you are known to be poor and considered lower-class by those with money. It bothers you at times, but in your heart you know you're special. You send the money from your fights home to your parents, allowing them to buy necessities they never before had. Maybe some of the money will help put your younger brother through school when the time comes. And besides, living in a room with twelve other boys, you are never alone.
It is pouring rain on the walk home from school, and you're hunched over your book bag, trying to keep your homework dry. When you finally step into the hut, you set down your bag and stare at your sleeping mat for a long while. You have time for a fifteen-minute nap, but you come to the conclusion that it will only make you more tired than you already are. A few of the other boys are wrestling in a corner, and you opt to join in. Laughter circles around, but it comes to a halt just as quickly as it began. It is time for afternoon training.
The rain is coming down harder now, but despite the distraction, the five-kilometer run comes much easier than the run you did that morning. You conclude your warm-up back in the gym by skipping rope for half an hour. With your body warm and relaxed, you do another twenty-five minutes of shadowboxing and another twenty-five minutes relentlessly attacking the heavy bag. The true hell is yet to come, but every strike on the bag is a knockout blow, because the instructors are circling with their whomping-sticks. They don't put down their sticks until everyone is finished on the bags, and they only put them down because their hands and skills are required. Onto their arms they strap heavy Thai pads, and the nearest instructor calls you into the ring. This middle-aged man has been around you eight hours a day for the past two years. He knows your weaknesses and strengths, and he knows just what it takes to get the most out of your mind and body.
He holds up the pads at shoulder level on his left side, and instantly you throw a right Thai kick. The pads quickly shoot over to his right side, and you throw a left Thai kick. Then the pads are down low, positioned in front of his belly, and you dig in with a rear knee. You throw ten, twenty, fifty strikes before the round is over. You get a minute to rest, and then it's back at it, launching a series of combinations into the pads and toughening the bones in your shins and knuckles in the process. After you do five three-minute rounds, the instructor takes a step back and calls over one of your peers. The two of you wrap your arms around each other in the center of the ring and begin fighting for the most dominant clinch position. The boy in front of you is your friend, a brother, but for the moment he is your opponent. You work your technique and timing, trying to throw him to the ground or open him up so you can land a knee to his ribs or an elbow to his jaw. After ten minutes of nonstop grappling, you break and another boy steps forward. You go through the same exhausting battle for another ten minutes. By the time you step out of the ring, an hour and a half has passed. Your lungs are on fire, and your neck feels like jelly from all the pushing and pulling. You want to go to the hut and lie down, but the instructors have picked their whomping-sticks back up.
It's back to the heavy bags to do another four hundred straight knees and another hundred Thai kicks. You get a few whomps from a stick because your legs are wobbly and your arms are too heavy to hold up to protect your face. You eventually reach your quota and then drop down for push-ups, sit-ups, and a host of other strength-building exercises. By the time you make it to the cooldown and stretch, your body has nothing left. You want nothing more than to go to the hut and lie down, but several of the boys have gotten injured during training, and you go to them to rub tiger balm on their joints and offer emotional support. You help carry them over to the showers and then the dinner table. You will pamper them in the days to come because they have done the same for you. The majority of you will be stepping into the ring this weekend, just as you did the weekend past, and all of your survival depends upon your ability to fight. And what allows you to fight, to keep up this grueling regimen day after day, year after year, is the support of one another.
After supper, you return to the hut and find a place to spread out your mat and hang up your mosquito net. Your body and mind are exhausted, and tomorrow you have to do it all over again. You fall asleep dreaming of one day becoming a champion of your province, and then getting picked up by a gym in Bangkok and fighting under the bright lights of Rajadamnern or Lumpinee stadiums. The likelihood of one of you making it that far is slim, yet you never give up hope. Becoming a champion is your one chance to escape poverty. It is your chance to achieve greatness.
There are still a few Muay Thai training camps that can't afford protective gear to ensure the safety of their fighters or modern equipment to enhance training. They have little more than the environment around them, and they make use of it, kicking banana trees, punching dangling coconuts, and fighting bare-fist with one another. Although this method of training has produced some exceptional fighters over the centuries, there is no reason for someone who has a little bit of money to ignore the advancements in training gear. The majority of Thai boxing camps now utilize gloves, shin guards, kicking pads, and a host of bags to get the most out of their fighters and to keep them injury-free for their upcoming bouts. With the popularity of Muay Thai soaring around the world, dozens of companies are producing quality equipment that can endure the rigors of a Thai boxing regimen at an affordable price. However, you must be careful of what you purchase. While some equipment is well made and will be beneficial to your training, much of it is shoddy and will only slow you down. The essential gear to get started is listed below.
Hand wraps are a must when training in Muay Thai. Most of the bags and pads you will be hitting during training are hard and not very forgiving. If your hands aren't wrapped, all it will take is one wrong punch to injure your knuckles or wrist. It is also just as important to wrap your hands when fighting or sparring in the gym. Crashing your fist into an opponent's face can be the same as punching a wall, and few fighters can punch a wall with full force and not injure their hand. When sparring, wrapping your hands should suffice because your goal is not to knock your opponent out, but rather practice and hone your techniques. However, when you step into the ring, your goal is to do as much damage to your opponent as possible, and this means striking with bad intentions. Most fighters pack layers of tape over their hand wraps before competition to create a cast-mold for added protection. This is a detailed science and should be done by an experienced trainer.
While in the past Thai boxers used hemp rope to protect the fragile bones in their hands, more practical hand wraps can be purchased at almost any athletic store. Deciding which type to buy largely depends upon your personal preference. Nearly all wraps are made from cotton or elastic and range from five to fifteen feet in length. If you plan on doing some heavy hitting, then you will be better off purchasing the longer wraps. They won't be as easy to put on, but they will provide better protection. The most popular brands are Twins, Fairtex, and Windy. Price will depend upon where you purchase them, but they shouldn't cost more than ten dollars.
Once you have the wraps there are several different ways to put them on, depending on how complete a wrap you want and what style of wraps you're using. When first starting out, you should have an instructor take you through it step- by-step until you can do it on your own. Wrapping your hands isn't as easy as it sounds, and when doing it unsupervised for the first time you're likely to wrap them too loose or too tight. Your goal is to make sure the wrap covers all areas of your hand, providing the main protection to your knuckles, wrist, and thumb. If you've wrapped your hands correctly, you should be able to make a tight fist without any discomfort, yet also have the wrap tight enough that it doesn't come loose during training. Listed below are two methods of wrapping, but if you get confused or find the wraps uncomfortable, consult an instructor.
Excerpted from MUAY THAI UNLEASHED by Erich Krauss. Copyright © 2006 by Erich Krauss. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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