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Muay Boran is an older, more traditional ancestor to the modern Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing. Muay Boran is usually translated simply as Ancient Boxing, and contains a number of regional styles, such as Muay Chaiya, Muay Korat, Muay Lopburi, and Muay Thasao. Although an ancient style, Muay Boran is still widely practiced in Thailand. Muay Boran was featured extensively in the popular Hollywood movie Ong Bak. This has led to a sudden interest in the art, especially in the West, where it is both practiced and taught in small schools both in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Muay Thai was the result of a more formalized system of Muay Boran, which integrated many ideas from Western boxing. Most notably, Muay Thai fighters wear gloves, and are subject to a fairly dense array of rules. Although still more freeform than actual Western boxing, in the late 1930s many Thai people found Muay Thai to be too limited, and so began to focus on retaining the more ancient style of combat.
Muay Boran is also sometimes referred to as Bound Fist Combat, because it does not use gloves. Instead, hemp is wrapped around the fingers and wrists. This allowed for hard punches, but protected the fairly delicate wrist and finger joints, so that they wouldn’t break as often. Historically fighters would dip their hands in water before fighting, allowing the bindings to harden and produce more stunning blows. It is said that some fighters would even dip their hands in resin and broken glass, although this is not seen today.
Many of the rules developed for Muay Thai were created to protect the fighters from serious injury and death. Muay Boran doesn’t have these protections, making it both more free and substantially more dangerous. As a result it is rare to see major fighting academies in Thailand that teach Muay Boran, and it is usually learned one-on-one with a teacher. Some schools say that they teach Muay Boran, but in fact just teach the gentler Muay Thai under the ancient name.
A number of techniques are allowed in Muay Boran that can cause serious physical damage. The entire body is an allowable target, which includes the groin, opening the possibility of serious injury. Knee strikes are allowed, which can cause internal damage or break limbs. Headbutting is also allowed, which may cause concussions or severe bone damage on contact.
While Muay Thai is conceived of much more as a sport, with strict rules and physical protections, Muay Boran is much more of a raw fighting style. The emphasis in Muay Boran is on fast, hard attacks, and an economy of energy. Every attack is looked at in terms of its payoff of physical damage for energy used. As a result, both knees and elbows play a large part in Muay Boran, as they are capable of inflicting serious damage with a minimum output. At the same time, Muay Boran is an energetic and beautiful martial art to watch practiced, and Muay Boran exhibitions have become relatively common at Muay Thai events.