Understanding Muay Thai Rules and Scoring

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Muay Thai might be considered by many to be an art but it’s also a combat sport. And because it’s a sport practiced by many, it’s governed by a set of Muay Thai rules. 

This is a major reason why the sport is organized and able to be participated in by practitioners around the world.

Of course, not everyone is cut out to be a fighter. Especially a Muay Thai fighter, where the physical and mental demands of the sport are so tremendous. In fact, being a Muay Thai fighter is thought of as a lifestyle. It consumes a person and requires total dedication.

Therefore, it’s important to know the rules of Muay Thai by heart. This is particularly important for those who are just entering the sport.  As beginners, it would help you tremendously if you know what the sport allows you to do and what it doesn’t allow you to do in the ring.

Then there’s the Muay Thai scoring system. 

Scoring in combat sports has often been a contentious subject as. And it’s no less so in Muay Thai where scoring is misunderstood. The judges in a Muay Thai match look for certain things to base their decision on that casual viewers may not comprehend.

To get a better sense of how Muay Thai fighters -and how you can- secure a victory, let’s go a bit deeper into Muay Thai rules and scoring. 


Muay Thai Rules

muay thai rules

There is not a single global governing committee for Muay Thai. Most of the top professional Muay Thai promotions are based on the same or very similar rules set forth by the World Muay Thai Council (WMC). WMC was set up in 1995 “by parliament resolution, and is incorporated by the Royal Thai Government and sanctioned by the Sports Authority of Thailand.”

Here is a summary of some of the key Muay Thai rules: 

Attire

Boxers will wear colored shorts (typically provided by promotions) according to the color of the corner (red or blue). They are not allowed to wear tops (this has been relaxed for transgender fighters) or shoes.

Ankle guards are allowed as are prajiads (Thai armbands). It is mandatory to wear a groin protector.

Proper Muay Thai decorum mandates that competitors keep their nails short, hair neatly worn and faces cleanly shaved. 

It is compulsory to wear a Mongkhon (Muay Thai headband) and perform the Wai Kru ritual for all fighters competing at the stadiums in Thailand. 

Weight Class

Muay Thai Weight Classes are weight limits put in place so competitors will only be matched against opponents of similar weights. 

There are 15 weight classes adopted by the stadiums in Thailand. The weights range from Mini Flyweight at 105lbs to Heavyweight which covers weights above 175lbs. 

Weigh-ins (weight checking) are typically held on the morning of match-day. If the fighter’s weight exceeds the weight limit, he is given a certain amount of time to cut weight. Failure to meet the weight limits will result in automatic disqualification from the fight.

Check out “Muay Thai Weight Classes” for more information on this topic.

Rounds & Boxers

Looking at Muay Thai’s rules, we got to start with the boxers themselves as well as the rounds of each fight.

Muay Thai fights are usually 5 rounds each, with each round lasting 3 minutes. Breaks between the rounds are 2 minutes. Bouts on made-for-tv promotions are scheduled for 3 rounds of 3 minutes each with 2-minute breaks in between rounds.

As for the boxers themselves, they should be at least 15 years old to fight and weigh no less than 100 pounds. They are also allowed to have two cornermen in the fight and up to three for championship bouts.

Referees and Judges

Aside from the fighters themselves, the other people who are essential in a Muay Thai fight are the referee and the judges.

They make up what is known as a decision committee. They’re responsible for scoring and officiating each fight and can also heavily influence the outcome of each bout.

The committee is usually made up of 4 members including 3 judges plus the referee. Needless to say, each member of the decision committee should be experienced and knowledgeable about Muay Thai.

The referee is responsible for controlling the fight according to the rules and with fairness. He has the full power and authority to make decisions in the ring and no one can change his decision or object to it.

Part of the power of the referee is to stop the fight in certain circumstances. In case one of the fighters is no longer able to continue after absorbing heavy punishment from his opponent. Or when a fighter is not really trying to fight.

Another case is when one of the fighters is counted out after being knocked down. Lastly, the referee can stop the fight if a fighter or both fighters are disqualified for repeated fouls and violations of the rules.

As for the judges, there are three for every Muay Thai fight. They are seated at three separate sides of the ring so as not to influence one another. Each judge is also free to award points to each fighter according to the rules.

Round after round, the judges will award points to every fighter according to their performances. After the fight, the points of each fighter would be added up and the judge would write the name of the winner on the card and add his signature. The card would then be given to the referee.

KO’s, TKO’s, Decisions and Points

A fighter can gain victory in several ways. The first is through a Knockout (KO).

This happens when a fighter is struck down by a strike and loses consciousness on the mat or along the ropes. A KO also occurs when a fighter gets knocked down and fails to beat the 10-count that the referee will give.

A TKO occurs when one fighter has already sustained severe punishment and the referee decides that he can no longer continue. The losing fighter may have sustained a serious cut or no longer able to defend him/herself.

It can also happen in between rounds when a fighter is ruled unable to continue. Or when a fighter is injured due to the strikes of the opponent. The referee can also consult the ringside physician.

In the event that a fighter gets knocked down three times in a single round, the fight is also ruled as a TKO. 

Fighters can also secure a victory through points or decisions. The scoring system used in Muay Thai is discussed more in-depth below. But the bottom line is that, in cases where there are no KO’s, then the fighter that earns the most points after the fight is declared the winner.

There are cases when both fighters become injured in the fight and both of them can’t continue but this is rare. If the fight is not past the halfway point of the agreed or specified number of rounds, then the fight will be declared a draw.

If the fight is already past the agreed upon or specified number of rounds, then the result will be based on the points accumulated by each fighter. (See Muay Thai Scoring below)

Fouls

Just like any other combat sport, there are also fouls in Muay Thai. Needless to say, these foul moves are not allowed. Fouls would result in a warning, points deduction or outright disqualification, depending on the severity of the foul.

Headbutting, biting, stabbing the eyes are all fouls in Muay Thai. Fighters are also forbidden from locking down the arms of opponents and then throwing them down. The use of judo and wrestling moves are also not allowed.

Even holding the rope or at least trying to hold the rope to benefit in any way is not allowed during the fight.

Kicks (including roundhouse, inside leg and teep) to the groin are not illegal but they are frowned upon and the offending fighter usually apologizes by offering to touch gloves.

Intentional knee strikes and straight up kicking the groin (à la self-defense style) are illegal. The referee will also give the affected contestant time to recover if needed.

Sportsmanship

Sportsmanship is also a big deal in Muay Thai. And because of that, fighters are expected or even required to shake hands or rather touch hands or gloves before the start of the 1st round and the final (either 3rd or 5th) round.

This gesture is all about sportsmanship between the two fighters and is a general expression of the culture of respect that pervades the art of Muay Thai.


Muay Thai Scoring System

muay thai rules

We now move on from Muay Thai rules to the complex art of Muay Thai scoring. Incidentally, in the eyes of many, it’s one of the most controversial aspects of the sport.

Muay Thai scoring actually differs from other combat sports like boxing or MMA. This is why fight fans who are more familiar with the two sports are prone to misjudge Muay Thai bouts that are closely-fought.

This guide here will serve to clear some doubts and help you understand how fights are scored in Muay Thai. However, do note that it isn’t always clear-cut as fights tend to be very close especially at the elite level where fighters are closely-matched in skills.

The Scoring Criteria

In order to understand the way a Muay Thai fight is scored, you need to know the criteria used in scoring. 

These are basic but established rules that every judge utilizes in every fight to help them decide the outcome.

As to how points are awarded, a judge gives 10 points to the fighter that is thought to have won the round. The fighter who lost the round is given 9, 8, or 7 points accordingly (depending on number of standing 8-counts given). If a round is considered a draw then both fighters will be awarded 10 points each.

There are a few things that judges look for, namely:

Effective Strikes

This is the most important criteria for judges. What this means is that the fighter is able to land clean and powerful strikes while using all of his weapons. It doesn’t matter if the fighter is moving forward, side-to-side, or backward. The strike is still going to score.

It is also about quality over quantity when it comes to effective striking. Effective strikes are clean strikes that inflict damage, throw the opponent off-balance, or leave them wobbly.

Unchecked kicks to the arms can and do add up in terms of damage. Arms can and have been broken this way sometimes in Muay Thai. 

Aggression

A fighter who is good at forcing the action and going after an opponent who is always moving backward is going to score.

However, this (aggression) can also happen when a fighter knows he/she is losing the fight on points during the later rounds and needs to score a knockout/knockdown in order to win or close the gap. 

Ring Control & Dominance

A fighter will be rewarded for the ability to control the opponent and set the tempo of the fight. A technically superior fighter can score in this aspect by defusing aggressive attacks as ring control is favored over aggression.

He will also be more poised to win when he shows dominance with sweeps and effective counter moves.

Another appearance of dominance is antics like smiles and shrugs after getting hit which show that they are unaffected by an opponent’s attack. Such antics are also attempts to invalidate the opponent’s clean strikes on the judges’ scorecards. 

The Strikes That Score

muay thai scoring

It’s essential that a fighter knows what strikes actually score in a fight. This is important in Muay Thai, particularly since you have a lot of weapons at your disposal. 

In the art of 8 limbs, a fighter can score using strikes with the hands, feet/shins, elbows, and knees. The cleaner and more technically proficient strikes will score, as well as the more powerful ones.

The judges are keen to see how the strikes are disrupting the movements of the opponent. Also important in their eyes are the balance as well as the timing of each fighter. If a strike can knock a fighter off balance, then that scores highly for the judges.

Fighters should aim to land more kicks and knees to the opponent’s midsection and legs as judges like to see that. All things equal, kicks and knees do score more favorably over punches but boxing does matter when effectively utilized.

Combinations and strikes that lead to heavy blows are also favored.

The First and the Last Round

If you’re watching a Muay Thai fight for the first time, you also need to take account of the first and the last rounds of each match. Each of those rounds is important and figure heavily in how the fight is scored.

In Western boxing, fans are used to seeing fighters come out smoking from the opening bell. Most boxers are aggressive from the very start of the fight. That’s rarely the case in Muay Thai.

Fighters use it to size up their foes and feel each other out. Meaningful exchanges between the fighters are rarely done, if ever, in the first round.

The fifth and final plays out a little like the first in that there is not as much action. So when does all the action in the fight take place? In rounds 3 & 4, that’s where most if not all the action is but every single round do count towards the final score. 

The fighter who feels that he’s already done enough to win will opt to cruise in the last round. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when you see fighters who presume themselves to be the winners of the match raise their hands even before the final bell rings.

Both fighters will tone it down halfway into the final round and do what is referred to as a “dance-off” as they just circle around the ring. They know that the winner has already been decided and there is no need to hurt anyone or get hurt at this point.

A Bout is Judged in Its Entirety

One defining characteristic of Muay Thai scoring is that each bout is judged in its entirety. It’s a far departure from the scoring system used in Western boxing, which is the 10-point must system.

Each round is scored as a single fight and the scores add up towards the final bout total score.

In Muay Thai, the fight is judged in its entirety. The fighters are awarded points after each of the 5 rounds that are 3 minutes in length. However, it’s only meant to aid the judges in knowing what happened in each of the rounds.

This is also where most viewers err in their scoring. Let’s take a simplified look at an example: blue corner edges marginally in rounds 3 and 5 while red corner dominates massively in round 4. Red and blue score evenly in rounds 1 and 2. No knockdowns in all five rounds.

Most viewers will superficially judge blue as the winner for winning more rounds than red (2 vs 1). This is not how it works in Muay Thai.

Judges constantly keep a mental scorecard of which fighter is winning and by how much. Red’s complete dominating performance over blue in round 4 gets him an “extra credit”. Judges pass on that credit to round 5 to ensure that red wins the fight.

In terms of actual numbers, the red-blue scorecard in the example would end up looking something like this: 10-10, 10-10, 9-10, 10-9, 10-8. 

You see, it can get confusing or subjective to those who don’t fully understand Muay Thai scoring. Muay Thai looks at the overall five-round performance more than how many individual rounds a fighter wins. This is what’s meant when it’s said that a bout is judged in its entirety.


Conclusion

These are the basics of Muay Thai rules and scoring system. There are finer details but these are considered the broad strokes that spectators need to know to better appreciate it. 

It can also serve as a base of knowledge for aspiring practitioners of the sport and even aspiring fighters. 

It certainly pays to know the rules and things that you can and can’t do in a Muay Thai match. Once you get a handle of these rules then you can start striking your way to victory.

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