Kung Fu vs Muay Thai: Which is Better?

Martial arts fans love pitting one fighting style against another. It’s the proverbial “style versus style” match-up. In the past, we have compared Muay Thai against kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. How about Kung Fu vs Muay Thai?

Now that’s an interesting match-up. One represents traditional martial arts while one is arguably the more practical and competitive style.

Some would argue that it’s not the martial arts style that matters but the person practicing it that does. 

That makes a lot of sense and maybe the best explanation for any combat art comparison. But the style’s got to matter, right? It has to play a role in determining which martial art is more effective in actual combat situations.

So on with our comparison, then. It’s Kung Fu vs Muay Thai – which is better? Take your pick as we look at the arguments for each art.

Most importantly, it is always fun to discuss and dissect these types of match-ups. 


The Origins of Kung-Fu and Muay Thai

Before we pit the two arts against one another, it’s important to look at each one’s origin.

Perhaps it will help us understand how they arrived at their present state. It might even give us a clue as to which will prevail.

How Kung-Fu Started

As everyone knows, Kung Fu started in China. 

Tradition has it that the art of Kung Fu (Chinese: 功夫) was created and developed in the Shaolin Temple. There is a popular saying in Chinese folklore that “All martial arts originated from Shaolin”. 

The fact is that Kung Fu originated almost 3,000 years ago, dating back to the 5th century BCE. References of hand-to-hand combat was found during this period including striking systems and sportive wrestling.

There are hundreds of fighting styles in Kung Fu with Shaolin being the most widely-practised and well-known style around the world. It is the largest system among Kung Fu styles with the widest range of sub-styles and techniques.

Shaolin Kung Fu is believed to have started when an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidarma arrived in China around the 6th century CE.

Bodhidarma found that the monks there were not in peak physical shape. He thus developed the physical exercises that he based on Yoga which would later become the basis for Kung Fu.

The main aim of Shaolin Kung Fu was to help provide a stronger body that can endure long hours of meditation each day. But over time, monks and lay practitioners adapted it for combative and self-defense purposes. 

Modern Kung Fu

Kung Fu became more accessible and widely practised in the late-19th to early-20th century. Chinese martial arts academies and associations were formed throughout the country during this period.

Throughout Kung Fu history, “Lei Tai” (Chinese: 擂台 translation: elevated boxing stage) full-contact competitions were held. These tournaments allowed Kung Fu practitioners to pit their skills against each other of different styles with no protection or weight class. 

Kung Fu and “Lei Tai” fights suffered a setback in China during the Cultural revolution when martial arts were allowed only for performance.  This lasted for a decade until 1979. 

Outside of China, Kung Fu continued to flourish in Taiwan and Hong Kong through the cultural revolution. Competitions where Chinese martial artists tested themselves against practitioners of other martial arts were regularly held in the region and even around the world.

In modern Kung Fu, there is often more focus on the beauty of techniques and forms more than its application in real world situations. 

These days, Shaolin Kung Fu is largely practised for performance and entertainment. Kung Fu styles like Taichi (Chinese: 太极) and Qigong (Chinese:  气功) are practised as a mainstream fitness/health exercise.

The one exception is Sanda, the Chinese kickboxing style developed by the Chinese military. It combines traditional martial arts with modern kickboxing techniques. 

How Muay Thai Started

Muay Thai is more recent than Kung Fu. 

Thai martial arts’ origins date back to about 600 years ago and it was created out of a need for a fighting art on the battlefield.

The traditional Thai martial art is now referred to as Muay Boran. It is an umbrella term for all the martial arts of Thailand before modernizing into the sport that we know today.

Fists, elbows, knees, and shins/feet substituted for weapons in Muay Boran. Head butts were also part of the original arsenal but it has been restricted in the modern sport. 

Competitions were also held using the art to determine who would be qualified to be among the King of Siam’s guards. And even ordinary folk practiced the art as a form of self-defense.

Muay Boran transitioned into Muay Thai around the 1920s with the introduction of gloves, referees, rounds, time limits and boxing ring.

So Muay Thai was intended to be a fighting art from the very start. Muay Thai training focuses on developing devastating striking power and sparring practice which in contrast with Kung Fu.

If you want to learn more about the history of Muay Thai, please check out this comprehensive article, “Blessed with Venom: History of Muay Thai”.

Kung Fu vs Muay Thai Match-ups Over the Years

Muay Thai and Kung-Fu have already been tested against each other. In fact, the two have had several memorable match-ups over the years.

Yes, you read that right. The two fighting arts have been pitted against each other. Not in ancient battlefields or long forgotten wars, but in combat sports in more recent years.

Early 20th Century
kung fu vs muay thai

A string of Chinese-vs-Thai contests were held in the 1920s. These are the earliest documented match-ups between Chinese Kung Fu and Muay Thai that I have found in my research. 

Renowned Kung Fu masters of the time were all defeated by the Thai Nak Muays. All by KO in matter of few minutes. 

In 1924, “Crane fist” practitioner, Tian Ling was knocked out by an elbow strike in another Chinese-vs-Thai meet. The blow proved to be devastating as Tian died from the impact.

The tragedy marked the suspension of martial arts competitions between the two nations for many decades until the late 50s. 

(*NOTE: Source is challenged and disputed by many Chinese as having no proper citation or documented evidence. Take this with a pinch of salt.)

The 1970’s

The date was 21 December 1973 and a landmark battle was about to take place. The venue, the fabled Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok – perhaps the most hallowed stadium in all of Muay Thai. (Source)

The event – 2 Chinese martial artists from Hong Kong travelled to Thailand to fight in challenge matches against Muay Thai fighters.

The results – Huo Guang (Chinese: 翟光) and Kuang Han Jie (Chinese: 邝汉杰) were knocked out respectively by their Thai opponents in the first round. 

The following year, a team made up of five Kung Fu practitioners from Hong Kong and Taiwan returned to Thailand in an attempt to even the score. The Thai media promoted the high-profile event as “The Revenge of Kung Fu”. 

The results were equally disappointing for the Chinese team who suffered yet another humiliating defeat with 5 out of 5 losses -all via knockouts. 

The results proved the superiority of the Thai fighters at least up to that point in time.

Buakaw vs Yi Long
muay thai vs kung fu

A more recent and more publicized battle between Kung Fu vs Muay Thai was the one between Buakaw Banchamek versus Yi Long.

Buakaw needs no introduction in the world of striking as he has been one of the major reasons for the growth in Muay Thai’s popularity in the last decade.

Yi Long the “Shaolin Monk” has also managed to become a well-known name in the world of martial arts. He is said to have trained in Shaolin style Kung Fu.

Buakaw and Yi Long have met twice in the ring. They fought for the first time in the Wu Lin Feng World Championship in 2015 in what was dubbed the “Fight of the Century” . It was an action-packed fight that saw the two fighters exchanging exciting strikes throughout.

In the end, though, Buakaw was declared the rightful winner as he clearly won two of the three rounds.

Their rematch occurred the very next year in 2016 and was billed the “Fight of the Century 2”.

This second bout seemed like a continuation of the first one but with one glaring difference. And that’s the fact that Buakaw was winning even more clearly.

When the decision was announced, it was clear that the judges were watching a different fight as Yi Long was declared the winner. The two were then 1-1 and that seemed to warrant a third and deciding fight. It was originally scheduled for 2019 but never materialized.

The two fights between those superstars symbolized the battle between the two arts. One representing Muay Thai and the other representing Shaolin Kung-Fu.

There is no dispute over who the winner of both fights is. To some, it also indicated that Muay Thai is the superior style. Or it is just a matter of one fighter being more skilled than the other.

Yi Long has also taken on several other renowned Muay Thai champions including Sudsakorn Sor Klinmee, Sitthichai Sitsonpeenong and Saiyok Pumpanmuang. The Chinese monk lost on all occasions.


Kung Fu vs Muay Thai: Which is More Effective?

Now, let’s dissect which is more effective of the two martial arts.

Traditional vs Modern Martial Art

kung fu vs muay thai
Source: facebook.com/BanchamekGym

Combative fighting is no longer the focus in modern Kung Fu. Or at least not the priority. That’s why you’ll see Kung Fu practitioners putting more emphasis on their form when they practice. This is especially the case since the Cultural Revolution.

Muay Thai was originally developed for use in war and combat. It was meant to be practical and effective on the battlefield. This continues to be the key focus in modern Muay Thai sport.

The moves are simpler but more direct. It lacks the grace and fluidity of Kung-Fu’s moves, which are more pleasing to the eyes.

Muay Thai can be classified as a more modern martial art because of its prominence as a combat sport. It’s practiced both as an amateur and professional sport.

The way the two arts are trained is also notably different. Again, Kung-Fu places its focus on forms while Muay Thai embraces sparring as a major part of its training.

This allows Nak Muays the opportunity to have a taste of what actual combat is like. Kung-Fu practitioners only get to taste a real fight if they turn to professional fighting, as Yi Long has done.

In conclusion, a Kung Fu practitioner stands very little chance against a trained Nak Muay in the ring.


Streets Fighting and Real-Life: The Ultimate Judge

So which of the two is more effective in the streets? Which of the two arts is more suited for real-life situations?

Some consider this to be the ultimate arbiter in terms of answering which one is truly better. After all, what better way to test the effectiveness of a particular martial art than in an actual fight in the street, right?

Remember, there are no rules in a street fight. 

But there are still several factors to consider. Some of these are the experience of the individual when it comes to fighting. Physical condition and size are also important.

In answer to the question of which is more effective, we would have to give the nod to Muay Thai. However, the belief that it depends on the individual also has merit.

A person might know all the fighting skills in the world but doesn’t have the heart or willingness to fight in a street fight or real-life situation. But one that’s not as skilled but has heart and willingness to defend himself and his loved ones can and might succeed.

So Muay Thai is king, but keep in mind that ultimately, it also depends on who’s fighting!

What are your thoughts?

1 Comment
  1. WChan says

    depends what you want.
    I practice Muaythai as it’s suits me most, mentally and physically.

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