For many, there has been confusion around the differences between Muay Thai and kickboxing. Two standup striking sports that combine kicks and boxing. But is Muay Thai the same as kickboxing?
While both sports are similar in some ways when we look at the techniques and intricacies of both combat sports. We can see that in practice the Art of 8 limbs Muay Thai and the umbrella term kickboxing are quite different.
Proponents of both sports have always been quick to argue which is better Muay Thai or Kickboxing? Both look similar and we do see fighters from the Muay Thai sometimes cross over into the kickboxing world.
So what are exactly the differences and why do people get so confused when they talk about how these two sports relate to one another. Well, I am hoping my breakdown will give you some insight into the history, rulesets and styles which make up these two world-famous styles.
What Is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai is a sport which originated in Thailand. Today it is recognised as one of the greatest standup striking sports on the planet. With many of the world top fighters sighting Muay Thai as the foundation on which their fight was built.
Referred to as the Art of 8 limbs, counting the 2 striking points of fists, elbows, knees and shins on the 4 limbs of the body. It’s regarded as being amongst the most brutal combat sports on the planet. And was popularised in the western world in the early 1900s.
Some years later a slew of movies set in Thailand featuring Thai boxing as their centrepiece. The 80s and 90s saw a wave of fighters travelling to the sub-Asian continent to test themselves and dramatically improve their fighting skills. Today Thailand is awash with foreign fighters looking to be the next big thing on the world stage.
Before ever being a sport, Muay Thai was a martial art that was refined on the battlefields of ancient Siam, now Thailand. With records dating back to the 12th century, what at the time was called Siam boxing was created and refined by the Kingdom to train their soldiers in hand to hand combat.
The purpose of the martial art was for it to be used a situation where a soldier had lost their weapon and now had to fight for their life. The technique served a purpose, with the hands being used as the cutting weapon. The elbows swung to concuss and cut the enemy while the knees would cut through the guard. The shins were to inflict blunt force trauma and block strikes.
The popularity of the martial art continued through the following centuries and numerous kings. But it would be in 1887 when King Rama V would establish the Ministry of Education. Decreeing that Muay Thai become an integral part of the physical education curriculum in the Physical Education School and Royal Military Academy.
The years which followed right up until the 1990s became known as the Golden era in Muay Thai. A time which saw the sport become ingrained in every corner of society, from rich to poor. Firmly establishing it as the main sport of the nation right o this day.
What Are The Rules of Muay Thai
The main aim and what both fighters try to do in Muay Thai is go for the knockout. The next best thing to this is to go for a stoppage or if that does not work, a points or decision win.
To compete professionally a fighter must be over 15 years of age and weight over 100 pounds. There are specific weight divisions ranging from 105 lbs at mini flyweight up to 209+ lbs for super heavyweight. And unlike many combat sports we see in the west, fighters are not allowed to drastically cut weight and there must not be more than 5 lbs difference in the weight of competitors come fight night.
- The fighters must wear sanctioned gloves which need to be the correct weigh for their division.
- The fighters must also wear a groin guard and mouth guard for protection.
- As well as some shorts which hare usually worn halfway up the thigh.
- Clinching, grappling and sweeps are allowed.
- Elbow, knees, shins, feet, fist strikes are allowed
While the 10 point system is used in Muay Thai is similar to that of boxing. So the influence from outside its borders to standardise the sport can be seen here in effect.
- 10:9 fighter A is deemed to have won the round.
- 10:8 means a fighter has clearly won the round.
- 10:7 when one fighter wins the round decisively and their opponent has hit the canvas and received a referee count.
The Pace of A Fight
In Muay Thai both the pace of the fight is quite measured, at least for the first two rounds. In these are the rounds are where the opponents will probe one another’s guard for weaknesses. The two first rounds also allow for the gamblers to lay down their bets after getting a better look at both fighters.
When the fight moves into the third round the pace of the fight will begin to pick up, as now both fighters are aware of one another’s perceived capabilities and they set about executing their gameplan.
While the strikes are often thrown with blinding speed, the actual pace of the fight is relatively slow when compared to kickboxing. It’s like a series of explosive bursts set amongst a constant tempo of the Sarama. The music you hear being played throughout a traditional Muay Thai fight.
It could be argued that the pace has changed over the years in line with the rise of gambling on the sport.
Muay Thai Techniques
The range of tools in terms of mean that Muay Thai fighters have a lot to think about inside the ring. With elbows and knees being allowed, as well as clinching and sweeps. In a situation where a fighter would be in a safe position in a kickboxing fight. Not so lucky in Muay Thai as there may be a knee or inside elbow on its way.
The kicks in Muay Thai are known the world over for their precision and beautiful brutal destruction. In competition, the kicks are worth more on the scorecards than punches. And so the fighters are more inclined to choose kicks of punch combinations.
The Thai’s train their whole career fine-tuning their kicks, whether in the gym on the heavy bag or in the fields on a banana tree. It’s something they have become renowned for through the combat sports world. And when compared with American kickboxing specifically, which does not allow any kicks to the legs. This is where the artistry of Muay Thai fighters truly shines through.
The Round Kick
The round kick in Muay Thai is quite different from that of kickboxing. Here the fighter does not tend to bend overly bend the leg at the knee. Instead, the kick is thrown almost like swinging a baseball bat. It leaves the floor and travels as though it is being swung in one fluid movement.
Thai Low Kick
When it comes to the Thai low kick vs that of the kickboxing low kick, there are some discernible differences between the two. The Thai fighters will tend to lean their head into the kick.
The lead leg bends a little which does not happen when throwing mid and high kicks. And the lead leg bends, the shoulders turn into the kick, with the same side leading the kicking leg in. This kick will usually land centre of the shin first, which again is different from the kickboxing (Dutch kickboxing) style.
The Teep Kick
The teep kick is traditionally used in Muay Thai. You do sometimes see it in kickboxing, but it is really not as common. Used in a number of ways this technique mainly used to create distance, either when a fighter is looking to set something up. Or simply trying to keep their opponent at bay if on the defensive.
We do sometimes see the teep being used with success as an offensive weapon. Then a fighter lands the ball of their foot usually to the face area of the opponent. And depending on the impact, this has sometimes resulted in knockouts.
The Thai clinch is one of the defining techniques in the fighters arsenal. Which allows them to control the position and equilibrium of their opponent. As then the clinch is executed, with both gloved hands clasping each side of the head. It allows the fighter to drag the head and disorientate, which in turn sets up an elbow or knee strike.
The Thai clinch is not seen very much outside of Thailand as in American kickboxing clinch leads to an immediate break and reset of the fighters. While in K-1 style kickboxing, which very much leans toward the Dutch style of kickboxing where clinching was allowed. But in a limited way only giving the fighters a short time to execute some inside strikes before breaking the clinch.
One of the most brutal and effective tools in the Thai fighters toolset is that of the elbow. These strikes allow for unequalled blows in terms of damage inflicted. The point of the elbow used in a slicing motion results in some of the most devastating cuts seen outside of head kicks.
While the inside elbows which are thrown can often result in some vicious knockouts or at the very least inflict some serious damage. The elbow techniques used in Muay Thai are another one of the main features which separate it from traditional kickboxing and K-1 kickboxing. Once again drawing a line between these two styles.
Spinning elbows in Muay Thai are one of those moves that can easily end a fight if done correctly. Some Thai fighters will throw them quite often, while others only on rare occasions. But this spinning technique is very much about misdirection.
As the fighter steps in with a combination, the opponent is very much focused on the incoming punches. When a fighter turns the trailing hand into a reverse elbow, spinning on the balls of their feet with the intent of landing the back of the elbow on the head.
In much the same way as the elbows, the spinning backfist is all about misdirection and landing a strike on the opposite side of the original point of attack. In the split second that the fighter turns away to throw the shot. If not switched on, it takes the opponent a split second to realise what is happening.
Again the technique is used in the same way as the elbow. With the difference being that its a strike that which be thrown from the outside, allowing for some distance. Again the trailing hand is spun around, but instead of the elbow landing. The forearm and fist are snapped out in a whip-like movement, with the back of the fist landing on the target.
It’s not an overly common move in Muay Thai, but we do get to see it quite a lot in K-1 style. Where the blending of styles allowed for different moves to be incorporated into the fighters toolkit.
Boxing in Muay Thai
As mentioned briefly before, Thai fighters excel in kicking and this is where the vast majority of their fighting is done. But that is not to take away from their boxing ability. The inside work which includes clinches and elbows mean that there are other facets to consider in Muay Thai.
In contrast, kickboxing does not allow elbows and only minimal clinching. Allowing the fighters much more flexibility when it comes to their boxing combinations. But while boxing is less favoured, especially in Thailand. Plenty of its Muay Thai fighters have made the transition to traditional western style boxing and been very successful.
When it comes to head movement in Muay Thai, its fighters generally use less than in kickboxing. Ther are some exceptions like Somrak, who ‘s head movement was legendary in the sport. An Olympic Gold medalist with over 300 Muay Thai fights and 200 boxing fights. His fight IQ inside the ring was mesmerising to watch.
He very much took much of his head movement from western-style boxing, managing to meld it with his Muay Thai game. Another stand out Thai fighter with amazing yet very unorthodox rarely seen head movement is that of Sanechai, one of the most elusive and fun fighters to watch.
The stance in Muay Thai is very square on to the opponent. With the feet shoulder-width apart, then the trailing leg placed another shoulder width to the rear. This effectively creates a box stance, where the lead and trailing foot are at opposing diagonal corners.
This style of stance allows for fighters to be able to always be in the correct position to throw a kick of the rear leg, pushing off and generating the power from the floor. Keeping the weight balanced between both legs allows for being able to block kicks off the front leg as well as throw form the rear. With too much weight on either nullifies that leg.
The footwork we see in Muay Thai is generally less active than in the western styles of kickboxing which borrow a lot from boxing. Thai fighters tend to move around less and move around the ring rather more methodically.
As a fighter moves forward they do so by moving the lead leg first, then the trailing leg beings up the rear so that they are back to and even stance. If going backwards, then the trailing leg moves first with the lead leg following. All of this is done while staying on the balls of the feet and maintaining a marching style left-right, left-right rhythm.
With the squared hips and with the distribution of weight on the back the Muay Thai fighter can lift their lead leg to instantly check or block kicks with their shins.
It’s not something we see used that often in kickboxing unless the fighter is cross-training in muay Thai. Dutch kickboxing does actively use checks and we have seen many examples of that is k-1. But for most kickboxers, blocking kicks with the shin is not an active part of their game. Like in American kickboxing where there is no kicking below the waist.
What Is Kickboxing?
Kickboxing is an umbrella term that incorporates many forms of standup striking. And while Muay Thai can be considered a form of kickboxing, the term more widely represents a combination of styles that fit the description.
While there is some overlap in terms of techniques. For the most part the nuances and additional strikes in Muay that help to separate it out from the pack in terms of what makes it unique.
While traditional Muay Thai uses a kicking centric style. Kickboxing tends to allow for much more boxing owing to its mix of different styles including Karate, Chinese kickboxing, American kickboxing, Muay Thai and Western-style boxing.
History of Kickboxing
The first-ever world kickboxing championships were held in 1974 and were organised by the Professional Karate Association. But it was in Japan during the 1950s when kickboxing first materialised, then later in the United States in the 1970s.
Regarded as a hybrid of several stand up striking martial arts. Kickboxing became increasingly popular throughout the 1970s right up until the current day. But surprisingly never really took off in the US as boxing had done.
Today there are multiple promotions and no single governing body which oversees the sport. The result of which being that there is no such thing as an undisputed world champion in the sport. As each of the individual promotions has their own champions that don’t compete under other promotions.
For many, the golden period was during from 1993 up until the early 2000s when we had K-1 heavyweight kickboxing and later K-1 Max for the smaller fighters. This period saw the very best in standup strikers from multiple disciplines, all competing for the K-1 Grand Prix title. However, with some financial issues, in more recent years the promotion’s popularity has significantly decreased.
The Different Styles in Kickboxing
As previously mentioned there are several styles that come under the catch-all kickboxing title. Some of these styles were more popular and far more successful than their counterparts. Some styles took elements from another, then fine-tuned their interpretation to create a whole new style.
Chinese / Sanda Kickboxing
Referred to as Chinese kickboxing in the west, the correct name of this style is Sanshou or Sanda. Like so many other martial arts it was originally developed by the military for their training in hand to hand combat.
It’s a combination of kickboxing that borrows heavily from Kung Fu. But also allows for a range of sweeps and throws from the clinch, quite similar in that way to Muay Thai, also allowing for the use of elbows and knee strikes.
The style was developed by the Chinese government along two lines, with one created as a form of self-defence and sport for their citizens. While the second is used widely by their own military.
American kickboxing was developed from a combination of Japanese Kyokushin Karate and western-style boxing. This version of kickboxing was a late bloomer and took its lead from Karate as this was the main martial art to which American’s had previously been exposed.
However, there are some distinct differences which help to separate the American style from its counterparts. And the main obvious one being that there are no strikes allowed below the waist.
So while this is a kicking sport, the fighters are not allowed to kick or punch their opponent below the waistline? There is no clinching or throws allowed and the fighters must also strike with their feet as opposed to their shins. Along with there being no use of knees or elbows.
I think you can see from this information just how impractical this style would be outside of its own realm. And while the better boxing may help balance out the fight. Not being able to adequately block low kicks is a game-changer.
Dutch Style Kickboxing
The Dutch style of kickboxing was created in the 1970s. It followed on from the Dutch that had travelled to Japan to learn Japanese kickboxing, a style heavily influenced by Kyokushin karate and Muay Thai.
Dutch fighters took what they had learned and began to incorporate their own techniques by adding western style boxing and more Muay Thai. This blend in styles saw the rise of what would go on to be one of the most successful standup striking styles on the planet.
Mixing in Kyokushin, boxing and Muay Thai, proponents of this style use powerful leg kicks alongside a strong boxing pedigree. And the combination of both leg kicks and boxing is what helps to separate this style say form that of American kickboxing and even pure Muay Thai.
Fluid boxing combinations are used to break the guard, lower the hands. Where the vicious range of both low and high kicks are then used to great effect.
The Japanese style of kickboxing originated in Japan during the 1960s. This style was comprised of a combination of Karate, western-style boxing and Muay Thai. It’s very much seen as the original kickboxing style from which others such as Dutch and American kickboxing developed.
Conceived by Kempo Karate fighter Tatsuo Yamada. He originally took a keen interest in Muay Thai and wanted to bring full contact rules into Karate, something which at the time was unheard of as opponents could not strike one another.
Originally called Karate-boxing, Yamada took heavily from Muay Thai, studying the array of strikes. During this period of learning, there were a number of cross over fights. With Karate fighters going to Thailand and vice versa.
In the end, it would be a boxing promoter named Osamu Noguchi who was interested in Muay Thai that would go on to develop the final style and name it kickboxing. Absorbing some of the rules of Muay Thai, while mainly taking its techniques from that of Kyokushin karate.
By the 1980s it seemed as though kickboxing had somewhat lost its appeal. Infrequently covered on television it appeared as though the popularity of the sport had been lost. Right up until a new promotion came on the scene when K-1 kickboxing first aired.
The History Of K-1
The first-ever K-1 event took place in 1993 in Tokyo Japan. And while the sport had been on a downward trajectory, the arrival K-1 signalled a new golden era and a revitalisation in the interest of the sport.
K-1 looks to pit the very best stand up heavyweight fighters on the planet against one another. Allowing for pure Karate fighters, Muay Thai fighters, Dutch kickboxers and their own homegrown talent all to compete under the one promotion.
The impact that K-1 had in breathing life back into the flagging sport cannot be overestimated. As the best fighters from around the world firstly competed in regional qualifiers, before moving on to the Grand Prix final event in Japan.
This period from 1993 until the early 2000s gave us some of the greatest names in kickboxing. And allowed us to see which style was most dominant inside the ring. The answer to that question ended up being Dutch kickboxing, which won no less than 15 Grand Prix titles.
The Rules of K-1
The rules in K-1 allowed for a variety of techniques to be used, maximising what was possible across the competing styles, but keeping it different from Muay Thai by not allowing any elbows.
- Each round is three minutes long and there can be from three to five rounds.
- Three knockdowns in a round end the fight.
- Knees and sweeps are allowed.
- The fighters can clinch for a short time, strikes in the clinch are allowed until the referee breaks it.
- 6 points of contact are allowed meaning punches, knees and kicks.
- Both low and high kicks are allowed.
- The fight is scored using the 10 point must system.
The Pace of The Fight
There is a definitive difference in the pace of the fight between kickboxing and Muay Thai. While the Thai 5 round format usually begins slowly for the first two rounds. There is no such luxury in the K-1 format.
During K-1 as well as the other kickboxing styles, the fight starts from the moment the first bell is rung. While the Thai’s allow for some time for fighters to feel one another out, as the gamblers set the odds. In kickboxing, the fighters waste no time in putting their gameplan into effect.
Another difference between how the fights are scored means that in Muay Thai a fighter can be losing he first two rounds, yet still come back toward the end of the fights to win. If a fighter is losing the majority of rounds in kickboxing the only way back is via stoppage.
What techniques are used in kickboxing and how do they differ from that of Muay Thai? As we already looked at the range of strikes available in Muay Thai it is also important that we take a closer look at how things are done in the kickboxing sphere.
While kicks are not used to the same degree as those in Muay Thai where the fighter is a kicker before a puncher. In kickboxing, especially K-1 kickboxing, we have a mix of different kicks and techniques we don’t see used in Thai boxing.
Dutch Style Low Kicks
As previously mentioned Dutch fighters dominated in K-1 and for good reason. Their style was tailor-made for the K-1 ruleset and the combination of western style boxing along with devastating low kicks led to repeated success.
When watching the Dutch low kick being executed you can see how the fighting steps more to the side than that of the Muay Thai fighter who tends to stay square on. As they drop their head they bring the kick around then down in a chopping motion, allowing them to throw the kick in close.
This kicking technique is well suited to the Dutch style, owing to the fact that they tend to use more boxing than Thai fighters. So that when they are inside fighting they always have this ready to unload on their opponent.
By executing the kick in this way, it allows the fighter to be in closer and throw it following a combination. Bringing the leg down at an angle also means the a there is more force behind the blow as it lands using the side of the shin.
Spinning Heel Kick
There are two types of kicks that involve spinning around and landing the ball of the foot. In one technique we see what can be described as a liver or shot to the solar plexus. This style of kick is rarely seen in Muay Thai fights but is used a lot in Taekwondo and Karate.
The second style of kick means that the fighter lands their spinning reverse style kick up high in the head area. If landed correctly this technique does knockout the opponent. As the fighter take their trailing leg and whips it around from behind at the opponent in front.
They will usually have turned their head first to face the opponent just ahead of the landing blow to try and adjust in mid-throw. It’s a strike that has been used to devastating effect a number of times in big fights.
Axe kicks are without a doubt one of the flashiest kicks used in kickboxing. You do not normally see them being used by a Dutch-style fighter as they are usually reserved for fighters with a Karate background.
As the kick is limited to the karate practitioners and not the other styles. When it was thrown, much of the time it would indeed land. And as the fighter is using a down cutting motion, like hammering a nail. It was often a very successful kick to use as the other fighters were not used to dealing with the technique.
The level of boxing used in kickboxing is markedly of higher quality than that of Muay Thai. As Thai fighters very much focused on their higher scoring kicks, even elbows, the boxing aspect is often secondary, or third.
However, in kickboxing, especially Dutch style, boxing is very much a staple of the style. The punch combinations are often used as a setup for the kicks and a lot of the time can lead to a knockout in their own right.
In terms of pure boxing, Dutch fighters rate very highly in their proficiency and can hold their own in a pure boxing fight if needs be. It’s this balanced approach to their craft which separates their style from the others. Which, in turn, made them so successful inside the K-1 ring.
Muay Thai fighters over-reliance on kicks means that their style did not transfer well when it came to the K-1 arena. And a ruleset which was designed to show which is the king of stand up techniques without the use of elbows.
We see significantly more head movement in Kickboxing than we do in Muay Thai and there are a number of reasons for this. In Muay Thai the fighters need to worry about additional strikes like elbows and knees. This means that they don’t want to put their head in positions where they are more vulnerable. The guard is also higher when compared with kickboxing.
In kickboxing, the heavy influence from western-style boxing means that its fighters tend to follow many of its feints and angles, whilst being conscious of kicks. Where knees are allowed in kickboxing we can see how in say the Dutch style was adapted to allow for the clinch and avoiding knees.
When it comes to footwork in kickboxing, there is a distinct difference in how kickboxers move versus that of the Muay Thai fighter. While Thai fighter uses a fairly methodical tempo-based marching style.
Dutch or Japanese style kickboxers take their footwork prompts very much from western-style boxing. The footwork is often faster and with more variations. Moving side to side as well as cutting angles.
They appear lighter on their feet and ready to avoid trouble at any moment. This differs a lot from the Muay Thai take one to give one style we see in many fights. Kickboxers seem busier almost in every aspect, using more footwork and constant movement.
Comparing Muay Thai and Kickboxing
When comparing Muay Thai and Kickboxing we have two sports which appear on the surface to be quite similar but are substantially different in reality.
Muay Thai is a singularly refined standup striking martial art which allows the use of elbows and knees. Muay Thai has a long and illustrious history of development and refinement that dates back hundreds of years.
Kickboxing covers a number of different styles all under one umbrella term. The term kickboxing could also include Muay Thai as it too is a form of kickboxing. But amongst those in the know, they would never refer to Muay Thai as kickboxing.
Muay Thai is a very distinct style that offers a range of its own tools not available in other kickboxing styles, where their rulesets do not allow for it.
These are two different sports with many overlapping similarities. And while the Dutch style did well under the K-1 ruleset, it may not have had the same luck under Muay Thai rules owing to the addition of the elbow strikes, but I may be wrong!
While there are many similarities between the two styles. Muay Thai is the more complete package in terms of the array of strikes open to its fighters. Kickboxing’s catch-all term for the different forms of standup which most famously found a home in K-1, are really just a melting pot of styles.
If trying to decide what is best for you, there is no reason that if given the opportunity you could not cross-train between say Muay Thai and Dutch-style kickboxing. The Dutch style excelled when put to the test under the K-1 ruleset and its fighters are amongst the very best in the world.
With so many similarities between both styles, both would complement one another. And with some great techniques being used by both styles, both can offer you something the other cannot.
Training in Muay Thai will improve your overall clinch game, allowing you to deliver crushing knees. In terms of Dutch-style kickboxing, you will no doubt improve your boxing, something which you can take with you into Muay Thai to gain the upper hand.
While Muay Thai is a complete martial art, being able to take some of the best elements from kickboxing to add to your game can only be a good thing. But whatever you decide to do, I hope I have given you a good overview of the differences and similarities between Muay Thai and kickboxing. Now go out there and get it!