Mae Mai & Look Mai Muay Thai
The secret forms of Muay Boran

by Marco De Cesaris

Paradox is the very essence of the Tao, so it doesn’t seem strange to anyone that it is through a Westerner that the essence of the Eastern Arts of Thailand are being opened up. Marco De Cesaris is making the difference. The very government of Thailand, involved in the organization and recuperation of their traditional Arts, permanently relies on this universal Italian to judge and re-organize the almost lost tradition. It was through his research and patience, the fruit of innumerable trips and continuous work, that Marco was uniting the skein of those old Masters to whom no one was paying any attention. The traditional forms had been passed over for novelty and the business in and around sports. However, there they were, silently, without first or last name, forming a part of the training that the greatest instructors used with their students. From among these marvels, the kata stood out, the Mae Mai forms in the Thai tradition, a secret at last unveiled in the recuperation of Thai boxing as a Martial Art. It will probably be in the West where all of that will really take shape since there are more and more students who are interested in the martial aspects and less in the sportive aspects as they are lived and understood in Thailand. The life of a Thai athlete is too sacrificial and distant to interest the Westerner much; however, the Martial tradition and its way of combat continue to interest and stimulate Western Martial Artists more and more for their wealth, power, and effectiveness. Now, at last, we have their forms, another success for Marco De Cesaris. Congratulations!
Mae Mai and Look Mai Muay Thai: The secret forms of Muay Boran
First part: The origins
In order to preserve what was forgotten, in a cultural context such as this, the wealth of Muay Boran—that is, the compilation of the fighting techniques developed by the Thai people and enriched by the experience of all the Siam Masters during centuries—the very Thai Ministry of Education gave precise instructions to the National Culture Commission, one of the top organizations in this country’s government, to group and order all the technical repertoire of the ancient Thai Martial Art. This restoration effort began the formulation of concrete study programs and a complete technical progression that could also be used outside the borders of Thailand in order to help students around the world learn the true Siam warrior Art in the best way possible and not a watered-down version of the same with a dubious origin.
The result of the codification work done by the Masters called together by the director of the Culture Commission at the time, Mr. Payungsak Jantrasurin, under the guidance of the maximum authority in the material, the Grand Master and university professor Paosawat Saengsawan, led to the subdivision of all the Muay Boran empty-hand martial techniques into the five groups that we will now show you.
The first group of principles and techniques, denominated Chern Muay, incorporates the methods for the correct use of the natural weapons of the human body (hands, feet, tibia, knees, elbows, and head) to attack various sensitive parts of the body of the adversary: the attacks can be direct or preceded by a feint or executed in combination.
The second group is the Chap Ko and concerns the work at short distance, also denominated hand-to-hand, in which the fighter specializes in percussion techniques with elbow, knee, head and joint-fracture techniques and throws to the ground.
The last two groups involve the techniques, the strategies, and the methods of use of the fundamental principles of Muay Thai Boran: the 15 basic techniques of Muay Thai are denominated Mae Mai Muay Thai (or Mai Khruu), and the 15 complimentary fighting techniques are denominated Look Mai Muay Thai (or Mai Kred).
The first as well as the second have been codified in a precise order, and the neophyte would have to learn them in accord with the set sequence, going from the simplest techniques to the most complex in order to build solid bases before being able to go more deeply into the most adequate strategies for their own morphology and psychological characteristics.
As with many other traditional Martial Arts “forms”, Mae Mai and Look Mai Muay Thai are susceptible to different readings with points of view that go ever deeper.
If, in fact, a superficial reading of these seems to give information only relative to offensive and defensive movements, with a more attentive examination, under the guidance of a true Muay Boran expert, they become an exceptional source of indispensable notions for martial combat, until today jealously guarded and never completely revealed to Western students.
These technical sequences, whose codification goes back, according to some specialists, to the XIX century, teach us, for example, the system necessary to develop indispensable skills such as the choice of timing in the student’s action of attack or defense from the first training sessions; furthermore, they teach us how to train the sense of distance, an element related to the last point, with offensive or defensive objectives (see the emphasis given to the study of this element in the techniques belonging to the mysterious Hanuman style, the mythical White Monkey); they supply us with a map of the sensitive and vital points of the human body, along with the angles that must be used for striking them in a more devastating way; in conclusion, they indicate in a precise way what natural weapons (hands, feet, tibia, head, also the back, elbows, knees) to use to obtain the greatest effect when we attack the different targets previously identified.
Furthermore, each Mae Mai and each Look Mai has to be studied not only in its basic, codified form, but also in its principle variations (from 3 to 6 variations for each form), and must be applied with one or more combined techniques, called by some Thai Masters “devastating combinations”. In all, the basic forms and the variations come to over 100 and represent the true technical platform of the style currently in use among members of the IMBA.
For us impassioned Europeans, the study of these principles and groups of techniques is practically an inexhaustible source of martial information of tremendous value, useful in primis for anyone interested in accumulating solid technical knowledge for self-defense, in secundis for the trainers of professional athletes who, through Mae Mai and Look Mai, can enormously improve the technical quality of their own students with short and long term benefits.
Thanks to the Grand Masters of the International Association AITMA (Association Institute of Thai Martial Arts) with headquarters in Bangkok and controlled directly by the Culture Commission of Thailand, especially by the Grand Master Paosawat and GM Woody and the IMBA (International Muay Boran Academy)—the organization presided over by the Italian Arjarn Marco De Cesaris, who is in charge of the diffusion of Muay Thai Boran in Europe in the name of and on behalf of said association (for which De Cesaris is the supervisor for Europe)—Western practitioners today can learn about these precious notions in a way that has never been possible until now. Finally we can go more deeply into the traditions of true Thai martial combat, on the surface easily interpreted but really very complex.
Second part: the traditional Mae Mai competitions
As we have provided evidence for in our most recent reports from Thailand, the fashion of competitions based on elements of the Siamese martial tradition is, in fact, exploding in the motherland of Muay Thai. It is with pride that we from the International Muay Boran Academy can affirm having had an important role in the re-discovery and valuation of an enormous technical and cultural patrimony that, according to the very Thai authorities, have been in decline for years and practically on the verge of being lost. For that, it was natural that the athletes of the IMBA were among the first to be officially invited to take part in the official competitions—that have been unfolding for some years—in the places most suggestive of Thailand, directed by the country’s Culture Commission and, most recently, organized by the AITMA, the entity for the conservation and the development of the Thai martial traditions.
In order to also be competitive under the “professional” profile, during these technical competitions, denominated “fights predisposed for the obligatory use of traditional Mae Mai and Look Mai Muay Thai techniques”, during this year the IMBA technicians have promoted numerous meetings among the European members (Italians, English, Spanish, German, Dutch, and French) to improve the provisions of the athletes who must confront their Thai colleagues during the international championships, like the last one done this year in Ayuddaya, the old capital of the Siam Kingdom.
Now we are going to look at some of the elements that can “make the difference” in terms of scoring on the part of the judges during an execution of Mae Mai.
- Utilizing sophisticated movements to neutralize various kinds of attacks, like, for example, the bridge movement in order to enter inside the strike facing semi-directs. It’s clear that for each Kon Muay Kee action—that is, each defensive action facing any strike and counterattack—there are innumerable technical possibilities among which the athlete can choose on the basis of his own skill and knowledge of the material. Furthermore, it is also clear that for better performance (and a higher score), technical solutions that demonstrate a great domination of the discipline are preferred.
- Executing the techniques in a correct and efficient way, also in the case of athletes with different sizes and weights: for example, we study how to get the most out of the circular kick, moving ourselves backward in diagonal in order to later react advancing. When one chooses an action, especially defensive, it is important to keep in mind the fact that the traditional fight with ropes, Muay Kard Chiek, or, without ropes (in a preceding epoch), was done among athletes of very distinct weights, the opposite of what now occurs in sports rings. A consequence of this is that some strategies and techniques, especially checks, blocks, and throws, in use today are not very appropriate for confronting adversaries who are much heavier than we are; for that, it’s important that when techniques are chosen to insert into the Mae Mai routines, to verify whether they respond to this requisite that, without a doubt, the judges value a great deal.
- Also introducing spectacular and efficient movements taken from the Hanuman style in the technical routine: for example, in the oldest forms, there are many jumping knee and elbow strikes enacted from the medium and short distances, often surprising for the adversary who is not accustomed to these devastating actions. Often the spectacular aspect is not synonymous with efficiency, but in many actions of the Muay Boran styles that have specialized in anomalous and surprising techniques, like the famous Hanuman style (the mythical White Monkey), one can find a wise combination of the two aforementioned elements, the spectacular and the efficient. In the majority of cases, the one who prepares a Mae Mai routine keeps the Hanuman elements for the last part of the performance, gradually increasing the difficulty of the technical executions so as to arrive at the hypothetical conclusion of the fight precisely with an attack taken from the technical base of that style. It’s also clear that the judges hope that at least one of those techniques will be included in the execution of the routine, and it often happens that the way in which one combines them with the rest of the actions favors the scoring of the whole exercise.
In conclusion, we can say that the correct preparation for participating in a traditional Mae Mai Muay Thai competition, not only provides a notable development of technical and athletic skills, but is also the most efficient method to dominate—also in real combat—actions that are potentially very dangerous if not trained with attention, and which reveal to us the true essence of a truly martial method such as Muay Boran.