Ancient Boxing in Southeast Asia – It’s Not What You Think

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Kung-fu Hillbilly
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Ancient Boxing in Southeast Asia – It’s Not What You Think

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Burmese boxing circa 1890s

Mark Jacobs
July 19, 2019,

While there are numerous modern accounts of ancient boxing matches, the most famous being about Nai Khanom Thom, a Thai who was alleged to have beaten ten Burmese boxers in a row back in the 18th century, all the details about what these matches looked like are modern embellishments that have nothing to do with historical fact.

But there is another source of historical boxing account.... A number of westerners did travel in the region prior to modern times and some left written accounts of their journeys. Of those, a tiny handful actually witnessed some local boxing and deemed it noteworthy enough to record what they saw. Below are nine surviving western accounts of local pre-modern boxing styles from Southeast Asia:

British diplomat John Crawfurd (1827) on Burma:
Captain Alves, in his inquiries in the province of Bassein, found a village which had been granted in perpetuity to a Karyen peasant, educated by a Burmese robber, on account of the peculiar skill he displayed as a boxer before the King. The condition of the grant in this last case was, that the grantee should instruct the village youth in the noble science of pugilism.

Captain James Low of the East India Company (1839) on what appears to be boxers attached to the royal court in Thailand:
They are tamers of elephants in times of peace, and are special boxers, fencers, and swordsmen. When boxing they wrap cotton tape around their knuckles to preserve them—and not out of regard to the adversary, for the tape or string is soft inside and hard outside. All sorts of advantages are taken, as it is allowable to use the knees and feet. Three rounds only are permitted. The victor receives a gift from the entertainer.

The attitude of defence differs much from the Anglo-Saxon, and is not so good; indeed, the object seems to be to plant the first good blow, and leave the rest to chance; but the agility and rapidity with which they dodge a blow, and put in one too, would be considered admirable any-where.

It is, perhaps, not coincidental that the one account which does refer to the boxing witnessed as being particularly “barbarous” and carrying a real danger of death, was James Low’s account of boxing at the king’s palace in Siam. It was not unheard of in the past for royal courts around the world to enjoy watching commoners engaging in bloodsports for their amusement.

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