Chris Romulo Explores the Bare Knuckle Roots of Muay Thai

(An old-timey photo to illustrate an old-timey art. Props to Thai Martial Arts.)

Americans are more familiar with Muay Thai than ever before, mostly because it is the favored stand-up technique of many top MMA fighters including Anderson Silva, Mauricio Rua, and Kenny Florian. But what few actually know is that muay Thai is an evolved form of an older art called Muay Boran. Boran is a lethal art that was banned from being taught to anyone outside of the royal guards and army in the early century, so several historians preserved the art in a form of dancing seen in the beginning of many muay Thai bouts.

“You’re not going to find many American-based fighter who can tell you the correct differences,” said Chris Romulo, who is a New York-based muay Thai instructor and has The Ultimate Fighter finalist Phillipe Nover as one of his students. “I’ve trained around several muay Boran ‘artists’ for years on and off.”

Romulo, who won several muay Thai titles — U.S. National Championship, North American Championship and the Bonze Metal in Bangkok, Thailand at the World Cup – said he believes he has the experience to explain the differences between the two styles:

The Basics: Boran fighters weren’t regulated by rules and restrictions since it was used by Thai military to end a fight. Muay Thai is a sport in the ring, so it’s more regulated by rules and fighters try to end the fight while entertaining the crowd.

Gear: Muay Boran never used gloves. It was bare-knuckle or hemp wrapping over the hands. Muay Thai fighters used gloves to protect the small bones that are easily broken during an actual street brawl.

Stances: In Boran, your stance would be lower because falling down and fighting on the ground was more common on the battlefield. This required fighters to have greater agility, flexibility and speed, as well as allowing them to jump off their opponent’s knee to deliver a blow to the head.

With Mauy Thai, Romulo said, “It’s a modified boxing stance. It’s not a wide or narrow and you’re more up-right, but your legs aren’t locked.”

(Muay Boran stance, left, Muay Thai stance, right)

Footwork: According to Romulo, Muay Boran footwork is no longer evident in Muay Thai. “I’m not talking about jumping up and down here, but rather slides, short hops, diagonal twists, low crouches, etc.,” he said. “Even if you were to view old tapes of muay Thai, not many fighters knew of the footwork.”

Striking: Romulo explained that there are several similarities in striking. Boran techniques are more “extravagant.” “You were launching yourself off the ground to get closer to your opponent,” Romulo said. “The opponent’s head and throat were common targets.”

With Muay Thai, fighters phased the flying and launching because they didn’t want to learn moves that were illegal in the sport, so they practice “less lethal” moves allowed in the ring. “In Thailand, people wanted to see the art of it,” Romulo said, “Muay Thai utilized more of the clinching, punching and kicking, which is more effective to keep the fight going.”

Your Body: While muay Thai is often called the “science of eight limbs,” Boran is said to make use of “nawa awut,” which means nine weapons and refers to the hands, legs, elbows, knees and head. The photos below help illustrate the differences (Chris Romulo photographed at Church Street Boxing in downtown Manhattan):

(Romulo flies forward with elbows in a Boran style fight, left. To the right, he demonstrates how elbows are normally used in a muay Thai bout.)

(The head is used as a weapon in Boran. A head butt is an illegal move in muay Thai competitions, left. The knees in close range are used often in mauy Thai as a primary weapon, right.)

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