Let’s revisit this popular age-old discussion of Muay Thai vs Kickboxing and get an insight into the deepening ties between the two sport scenes. What is the difference between Muay Thai and Kickboxing? Which of the two is the best stand-up striking martial art?
Styles of Kickboxing
Kickboxing is an umbrella term for which a number of stand-up striking combat sports fall under. This includes the American-style, Japanese, Dutch, Chinese and of course, Thai boxing, or Muay Thai.
As its name suggests, kickboxing involves/allows the use of both punches and kicks. Knee strikes are also accepted in most kickboxing styles too.
There are a few more styles than the ones listed below but here are some of the most prominent or popular styles of kickboxing:
Muay Thai (Thai Boxing)
Muay Thai (Thai: มวยไทย) can be said to be a pioneer of kickboxing sport. It was developed in the early 20th century by incorporating traditional Thai martial arts with ring fighting regulations brought over from western boxing.
Thai boxing is widely considered to be the most effective striking martial arts. Simple, to-the-point, no-fluff techniques that are designed to hurt.
It is a sport developed from the ancient Thai military martial arts known as Muay Boran use on the battlefields which explains its favor for straightforward strikes and movements.
Muay Thai’s most distinctive feature that separates it from other kickboxing style is the extensive use of elbows and the clinch (grappling).
The elbow is fully banned under modern kickboxing rules while the clinch is heavily restricted. This may have limited the full range of weapons possessed by the Thais when they transition to kickboxing. However, many of them have been able to work with what they have to a resounding success.
Check out an exciting all-out Muay Thai war below:
Japanese (K-1) Kickboxing
The roots of Japanese Kickboxing can be traced back to its Thai counterpart. The story begins on 20th December 1959 when the first Muay Thai event featuring Thai fighters was held in Tokyo, Japan.
Not long after in 1966, a boxing promoter, Osamu Noguchi was intrigued enough to hold the first kickboxing event. The event was successful enough that it soon became a weekly show broadcasted on national television. Osamu is now widely credited for creating the term and the sport of “Kickboxing”.
Japanese kickboxers practise a style that has its roots in Kyokushin Karate. Japanese kickboxing also take its influence from Western boxing and Muay Thai to become what it is today.
During the 70s , Thai fighters were often invited to compete in Japan. Japanese kickboxers also traveled to train and compete in Thailand. This cross-cultural exchange had a massive influence in the evolution of Japanese kickboxing style.
Japanese kickboxing tends to be more flamboyant with a diverse and theatrical range of strikes. This is due to its roots in karate which Japanese kickboxers may continue to cross-train in.
K-1 was one of the earliest and most successful kickboxing promotions on a worldwide scale. The promotion was started in the early 90’s and reached its peak around the early 2000’s.
This was also the promotion that introduced Muay Thai superstar, Buakaw to the world. Buakaw’s career on K-1 indirectly cemented Muay Thai’s status as the eminent striking arts.
K-1 struck the perfect balance between Muay Thai and all other Kickboxing of the time by disarming a few of the former’s weapons while introducing knees to the latter.
Modern kickboxing, as we see it on the major kickboxing promotions like Glory or ONE Super Series, is heavily influenced by K-1 rules.
Check out the might of Buakaw in this memorable K-1 fight:
American Kickboxing (AK) is believed to be a derivative of the earliest Japanese Kickboxing format, created around the 60s because karate practitioners then wanted to challenge each other in the ring via full contact fighting.
The sport’s key difference from other kickboxing style is its adherence to a above-the-belt rule. There is thus no leg kicks involved. No elbows, no knees, no push kicks either.
Additionally, AK is heavy on punches as it is also heavily influenced by the country’s top combat sport of boxing.
AK is no longer in favor, having been taken over in popularity by Dutch style kickboxing and Muay Thai in competitive combat sports. Fight fans tend to downplay AK as a watered-down kickboxing style, especially after the famous faceoff against Muay Thai in 1988.
In the historical event, American kickboxer Rick Roufus took on Thai fighter Changpuek Kietsongrit in kickboxing contest with modified rules.
Long story short, Roufus had to be stretchered out by the end after being subjected to Changpuek’s relentless devastating leg kicks. And that’s by a stripped-down Muay Thai without its effective knee and elbow strikes.
Check out the fight here:
Dutch Kickboxing is a particularly aggressive style heavy on punches and powerful low kicks. DK training is also somewhat notorious due to its partiality towards hard sparring, notably at the Amsterdam gyms like Mike’s Gym.
DK shares more commonalities with the Japanese K-1 style kickboxing than Muay Thai.
The story goes that a group of Dutch kickboxers traveled to Japan in the 70s to learn about Japanese kickboxing at the renowned Mejiro Gym. They exported the style back to Amsterdam, added more western boxing and low kick, thus Dutch Kickboxing was born.
Generally speaking, DK fighters focus a lot on footwork and head movement than Muay Thai, as well as an emphasis on power over technicality.
This fighting style is prevalent throughout Europe, even among the western fighters who compete in Muay Thai.
Dutch kickboxers have had prominent success in kickboxing promotions everywhere, even when transitioning to Muay Thai.
The late Ramon Dekkers is arguably Dutch Kickboxing’s most famous export, having competed around the world in numerous top-level promotions, including a stint fighting in the top stadiums of Bangkok.
Here’s a crazy match-up between Semmy Schilt and Gokhan Saki who are 2 of the best Dutch kickboxers of all-time:
Chinese Kickboxing (Sanda/Sanshou)
Sanda was developed by the Chinese Military, combining traditional Chinese martial arts (TCMA) with modern combat sports for more practical application. The name Sanda (Chinese: 散打) or Sanshou (Chinese: 散手) translates to mean “free fighting” as pretty much anything goes.
Full-fledged Sanda bears the resemblance to Muay Thai in terms of the range of weapons allowed. In fact, it bears even closer resemblance to mixed martial arts due to the inclusion of wrestling throws and Judo takedowns in its repertoire.
In cross-discipline competitions or exhibition fights where the throws/takedowns are allowed, Sanda fighters have been inclined to use them and with great effectiveness. Like the Muay Thai clinch, Sanda’s grappling moves often disrupt the rhythm of stand-up fighting, the same way Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu does in mma.
Sanda has never quite achieved popularity outside of China both as a competitive sport, or a martial art practice for regular folks. But for many Chinese fighters in kickboxing and mma, Sanda is often the foundational martial art upon which they build their career.
With the rise of Chinese kickboxing organizations Kunlun Fight and Wu Ling Feng, Sanda seems destined to be overshadowed by K-1 style kickboxing schools which is more relevant in the ring.
It doesn’t help that Buakaw is a mega fight star in China, as that has led droves of his Chinese fans to train Muay Thai.
Here is a classic Sanda match between 2 elite Chinese fighters:
Muay Thai vs Kickboxing
Now, let’s talk about the difference between Muay Thai vs Kickboxing and what happens in a showdown between the two striking sports. For this purpose, we are comparing Muay Thai with the K-1 rules (also adopted by Glory and ONE Super Series) kickboxing as it is the most prevalent form of kickboxing.
Difference between Muay Thai & Kickboxing
Both Muay Thai and Kickboxing allow punches, kicks, knee strikes, and sweeps.
The key difference between the two boils down to the two aspects: elbows and clinching. To put it simply, kickboxing is a stripped-down Muay Thai without elbows and restricted clinching.
Full-fledged clinching in Muay Thai allows fighters to be locked in the clinch as long as there is still action like knees or elbows. The ring official breaks up the clinch only when the two fighters are just holding onto each other and doing nothing else.
In Kickboxing, clinching is allowed very briefly and a knee strike (or strikes) has to be thrown immediately in the clinch. It will warrant a warning or foul to clinch without an immediate attack.
Some kickboxing promotions (e.g. Glory) allow clinching of up to 5 seconds as long as there is continuous attack between the two fighters. The referee breaks up the clinch instantly if there is no knee strikes.
Another important difference is the scoring system. Traditional Muay Thai favors kicks over punches while kickboxing scores all effective strikes more evenly. This is why you will see more kicks thrown in Muay Thai.
Besides rules and scoring, the most visible difference between Muay Thai (as seen in its native land) and Kickboxing (as seen in the West) is the rhythm of the fighters.
Muay Thai fighters traditionally adopt a more composed stance, favoring kicks, elbows, clinch and knees. Kickboxing and western fighters in general, tend to favor punches and adopting a livelier footwork similar to boxing.
Kickboxers fight with a faster pace with higher volume of strikes as kickboxing bouts are scheduled for 3 rounds (3 minutes each). Muay Thai bouts tend to play out slower because of the 5-round system (also 3 minutes each). However, some Muay Thai promotions have changed to 3-round bouts to cater to mainstream audience.
There are many combat athletes who compete in both sports due to their similarities. Fighters bring this style along with them even as they crossover into other territories, both with reasonable success.
Muay Thai vs Kickboxing: Which is More Popular?
Depending on who you ask, most spectators will favor one over the other even though both are equally entertaining.
Most Muay Thai fans or Kickboxing fans do invariably cross territories into the other sphere as the fighters do nowadays.
Buakaw is of course, one of the most famous Muay Thai fighters to cross over into the world of Kickboxing. In fact, it was really in the Japanese kickboxing promotion, K-1, where he got his big break.
As it turned out, Buakaw became the face of Muay Thai, the sport’s most famous icon even today. It was both K-1 and Buakaw that many Muay Thai practitioners actually got into the sport.
Muay Thai’s lengthy 5-round format, slower pace, the pre-fight dance rituals and traditional Sarama Thai music soundtrack don’t really sit well with the majority of mainstream/Western sport fan.
In terms of worldwide acceptance and popularity, Kickboxing has a more mainstream appeal than Muay Thai. Kickboxing is all action for full three rounds without the cultural aspects.
Muay Thai vs Kickboxing: Which is Better?
Whenever the subject of one style versus another arises, the politically-correct answer to give is that each style is more effective in its own arena.
Several Thais who have made the switch to kickboxing are showing that they are the best in the business (at least in their weight divisions). Some examples include Buakaw, Sitthichai Sitsongpeenong and Petchpanomrung Kiatmoo9.
The way many observers see it, it is a combination of several things. Muay Thai is effective due to its martial history, grit of the fighters from a tough background, and ring experience accumulated from competing at a very young age.
However, kickboxers in general, tend to outperform Thai fighters in boxing. The bigger upper body physique is apparent in western fighters and you will always see them trying to go for the KO.
There are exceptions to this such as the aggressive Thai fighters like Rodtang Jitmuangnon, Kulabdam Sor Jor PiekUThai and Yodlekpet Or Pitisak. These fighters are known for their heavy handed firepower.
All things considered, Muay Thai’s extended range of techniques gives it an advantage by virtue of having more weapons at disposal.
However, much of what is often billed as Muay Thai vs Kickboxing is essentially fought under one rule-set or the other.
An experienced kickboxer will always have the edge in a kickboxing bout over a Muay Thai fighter with little or no kickboxing experience. Likewise, the experienced Nak Muay will tear up a kickboxer under full Muay Thai rules.
The fact is that many kickboxers actually cross train and compete in both Muay Thai and kickboxing. That makes sense as it offers them more competing opportunities. The same is happening with Thai fighters looking for competing opportunities abroad.
Speaking of competing overseas.
Home-ground advantage is another factor worth discussing. Combat athletes take part in international competitions for many decades. Many continue to complain about getting robbed when they fight on an overseas promotion.
This phenomenon is more prevalent with fighters competing abroad for the first few times. It has more to do with unfamiliarity with the judging criteria or scoring system.
When crossing over to compete in a different sport, kickboxers carry with them the system they are more accustomed to. That is to say, they throw a higher volume of strikes which may or may not land cleanly.
This goes the same for Thai fighters. Despite their extensive fight records, many fail to find success when they transition to kickboxing. Thai scoring favors clean shots and the effect the strikes have on the opponents.
In short: it’s not about the player but how you play the game.
Hopefully this article gives you a better picture of the key difference between Muay Thai vs Kickboxing.