The indomitable spirit of Muay Thai
by Marco De Cesaris

The human body, adequately trained and encouraged by the warrior spirit that pushes it to act without fear, is comparable to a weapon: that is the credo of the majority of the Eastern Arts of combat. The legends of the martial traditions of India, China, Japan, Korea, and of Southeast Asia are full of tales that “brush up against” the paranormal, tales in which the hero defends against lines of armed and unarmed adversaries with the help of his limbs and his courage. Devastating blows executed with the palm of the hand, fingers as hard as iron that penetrate muscles and bones, heel strikes that hit the head of the bad guy in question like axes, all of that forms a part of an ancient tradition transmitted throughout centuries in the Martial Arts circles of the Far East.
In Muay Thai, the most emblematic figure of these traditions, among the legends and history, is undoubtedly the founder of all the adept fighters of this Art, the celebrated warrior Nai Khanom Thom. The history of his life represents the archetype of the feats of the warrior loyal to is homeland and to his own Martial Art, who, at the moment of maximum discouragement and difficulty, is inspired by his fundamental values in order to get over obstacles apparently impossible to get over, regaining his own freedom as well as that of his companions, and indirectly, all of his people.
Taken prisoner by the Burmese, the invaders of his country, captured in the course of the terrible attack on the ancient capital Ayuddhaya in 1774, Nai Khanom Thom was taken to prison in Burma (the current Myanmar) along with many other soldiers. During the fighting tournaments in which the Burmese made the prisoners engage like gladiators, Thom was noticed by the Burmese king, Mangra, who very much enjoyed watching him in action, watching the great combat skill of our hero. Desirous of putting to the test the effectiveness of the Siamese fighting style that caused many losses among the Burmese conquerors, King Mangra decided to do a combat without weapons between the best Thai prisoner and a group of the best Burmese gladiators in his army. The great power of the way of fighting utilized by the Thais could not of course be superior to the skill of the greatest warriors in Burma! There, history and legend mix: one speaks of an epic, empty-hands combat to the death between the Thai champion and 10 Burmese warriors (according to other sources, there were 12 or even 13). What is certain is that the combat style used by Nai Khanom Thom was very similar to what we today call Muay Kard Chiek, or fighting with the hands tied in ropes: Thom was accustomed to using all the resources of his being, as much physical as psychological in order to defeat his adversaries. The Muay Kard Chiek fighters of that epoch were compared to starving tigers; any offensive action was accepted, punches, elbow strikes, kicks, head butts, joint bars, chokes, throws, even bites and scratches on soft parts… all that formed a part of what a gladiator of that time used. With that technical baggage, Nai Khanom Thom confronted the toughest challenge of his career as a fighter and soldier, fighting not only for his life, but also to save his companions and to regain freedom.
It is told that the Thai hero managed to defeat the adversaries one after the other, intelligently utilizing his mobility and speed in combat. In fact, the Burmese were known for the power of their punches and for their strength in hand-to-hand combat. For that, Thom used his speed in the best possible way, striking with kicks, knee strikes and elbow strikes, executed with savage power; he threw tibias, knees, and elbows as hard as iron that struck the vital points of his adversaries. The traditional short, loin cloth pants of the Thais facilitated his agile movements and actions, allowing him not to fall prey to the attacks of the Burmese fighters. The legend tells us that, once defeating all the adversaries, it was the very King Mangra who decided to concede the freedom of the Thai hero and of his soldiers who were taken prisoners. It is said that the king observed with admiration the incredible test carried out by the Siamese fighter and came to affirm that “every part of the Thai body is poisonous, even without weapons they beat their enemies.”
The positive effect of Nai Khanom Thom’s feat—apart from gaining his freedom—was to give confidence back to the Thai people, who can be beaten down, but who never give up.
Since then, the figure of this great hero is the symbol of the indomitable spirit of the Thai Martial Art: the true martial artist is one who puts his sense of honor before self-interest, even though that forces great sacrifices upon him. Patriotism, the very Martial Art itself, the school where one has been trained, the Master, the community of fellow practitioners: these are the values for which Nai Khanom Thom fought and for that his figure is still current and worthy of great respect.
From centuries ago, March 17th is his day, and in Thailand, as in the rest of the world, the true Thai boxers honor him, as much today as they did back then.