The belt ranking (dan) system was first introduced in martial arts in the late 19th century when it was applied to the grappling art of Judo. The practice then spread to other Japanese and Korean martial arts like Karate, Taekwondo and Jiu Jitsu over the century that followed. The belt systems as we know them today were formalized sometime in the early 20th century.
Does Muay Thai have belts?
Belts in martial arts like Judo or Taekwondo indicate the attainment of a certain level of competence (not mastery) that is tested through standardized assessments or examinations. Muay Thai, as it is practiced in Thailand, does not have a belt or ranking system the way Karate, Taekwondo or Judo do. Like western boxing, the sport of Muay Thai does not confer ranks to an athlete but let their fight records speak for themselves.
Muay Thai Ranking System
Since its introduction in the western world around the 1970s, there are now some Muay Thai schools outside of Thailand that have adopted the belt and ranking system.
Such schools often replace the traditional colored belts of the martial arts system with colored Muay Thai shorts or Prajiads (Muay Thai armbands). One such renowned Muay Thai gym with ranking systems is Bang Muay Thai in the United States.
It is essential to know that some of these systems, like the one in Bang Muay Thai are not authentic Muay Thai but modified versions. That is not to say that they are ineffective as a striking art. For example, Bang Muay Thai has produced two-time UFC Bantamweight champion, TJ Dillashaw.
Bang Muay Thai took elements of Muay Thai techniques, blended them with a more frenetic footwork, pace and rhythm to create a visibly different style that is more applicable in MMA than in traditional Muay Thai fighting.
Another notable organization that promotes the ranking system in Muay Thai is the WTBA (World Thai Boxing Association). Its mission is to “promote and preserve the traditional martial arts of Thailand”.
WTBA provides a complete and proper learning structure. This USA association has an armband system, affiliate membership, annual training camp, instructor courses and certifications.
There are many schools outside of Thailand where you can learn the pure, authentic form of Muay Thai as they are taught in Thailand and as it is competed in the prestigious stadiums like Lumpinee and Rajadamnern.
In fact, these may represent the majority of gyms who prefer to retain the original style and cultural roots of Thai kickboxing.
To Grade or Not to Grade
Many Muay Thai purists are against the idea of the ranking system for Muay Thai. They believe that Muay Thai should retain its roots and culture as exported directly from Thailand.
Some call out the Muay Thai ranking system as a money grab promoted solely to profit from the sport. Some McDojo gyms are charging extra for colored shorts and fees for grading examinations. This behavior holds little regard for the roots of the Thai martial arts system.
However, the opposite side argues that for kids and people who do it casually/recreationally, the grading system allows them to check their progress, and motivate them to train more regularly.
They are also training with a peer of their level. This is not the case in traditional Thai gyms where everyone can spar with anyone. In this aspect, martial arts like Taekwondo and Judo, with international federations and bodies to regulate and systematize the sport. This approach provides a structured and organized way of learning.
There are pros to both sides. As it stands today, the ranking system remains an outsider to the Muay Thai sport. This is something that’s unlikely to change soon (at least not in a massive way).
Kru Muay Thai Association
The Kru Muay Thai Association (KMA) is a registered organization founded in Thailand in 2003. It was set up to promote the Muay Thai (Muay Boran) culture and develop a standard curriculum for learning the Thai martial art. KMA has members from all over the world.
“Kru” means teacher in Thai and the word comes from the Sanskrit word “Guru”. Inspired by martial arts like Karate and Judo, KMA adopts a ranking system that grades teachers of Muay Boran and Muay Thai. The system uses Mongkhon in place of traditional belts for grading to retain elements of Thai culture.
The system begins with Khan level one (white Mongkhon) and goes all the way up to Khan level 19 (golden Mongkhon).
Muay Thai Championship Belts
The only recognized belts in Muay Thai are championship belts, awarded to the winners of prestigious super fights contested by the best in their respective weight classes.
Besides their fight records, these championship belts represent achievements of the highest honor as a professional Muay Thai athlete.
Championship belts are perhaps the closest thing to a belt system in Muay Thai. A title holder of any of these championships can be acknowledged as a “Muay Thai black belt”.
Here are the most prestigious championship titles in Muay Thai:
Many regard the Lumpinee championship titles to be the most coveted titles in Muay Thai. Anyone who is regarded as a legend in Muay Thai has held a Lumpinee title(s) at some point in his career. You can identify Lumpinee belts by the Lumpinee logo on the metal plate and the red-green strap.
Rajadamnern stadium is the oldest Muay Thai arena in the world, holding its first boxing match in 1945. Like the Lumpinee title, Rajadamnern champions are among the world’s most eminent fighters. Rajadamnern belts use blue-yellow-red straps.
Fighters compete for Thailand championship titles often at either of the two prestigious stadiums. The belts are distinctive by the use of the Thai flag colors on the plate and strap. It is held with great esteem as a national title.
Channel 7 is a Thai national broadcast station which houses its own stadium referred to as the Channel 7 Stadium. It is just a tier below the three titles but still highly-regarded. Many Channel 7 champions would go on to compete at the top 2 and win titles.
WBC Muay Thai
World Boxing Council is the authoritative governing body for classic boxing. WBC Muay Thai is the Muay Thai branch which sanctions events as well as championship title bouts around the world.
Due to its global outreach, WBC Muay Thai world champions cover a wide demographic of nationalities. It is not uncommon for a non-Thai to win a title. WBC belts are referred to as “Green straps” for the distinctive green leather.
Both the traditional and the modern ranking systems have their place and appeal in today’s Muay Thai landscape.
I do not fully subscribe to the idea of such a thing as a Muay Thai black belt (or Prajiad). But as a fan of Muay Thai, I support any system that promotes the sport to a wider audience.
If more people can reap the benefits of Muay Thai such as better fitness, mental strength, respect and self-defense skills, it is definitely a good thing in my books. Train hard, because end of the day, that’s the only thing that truly matters.
Special Thanks: Championship Belt Graphics by Sam Noritakam www.instagram.com/sam_noritakam/
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