Is there really such a thing as the perfect striking martial arts? Or in this case, the best kickboxing style? Let’s revisit this (internet-) age-old discussion of Muay Thai vs Kickboxing and get an insight into the deepening ties between the two sport scenes.
Let’s Kick It
Kickboxing is an umbrella term for which a number of stand-up combat sports fall under. This includes the American-style, Japanese, Dutch, Chinese and of course, Thai kickboxing, or Muay Thai. As its name suggests, kickboxing involves/allows the use of both punches and kicks. Since the days of K-1 , knee strikes are accepted in most kickboxing promotions too. Full-fledged clinching is mainly found under full Muay Thai rules and occasionally allowed with some limitations depending on the promotion. The difference in the scoring system also contributes to the evolution of each sport. (More details in the next section)
Back when I started training Muay Thai, I followed the Thai stadium scene exclusively . Then at some point, I began to watch the Kunlun Fight and Glory Kickboxing shows since the fights were appearing on my Facebook feed consistently. This can be attributed to the similarities between the 2 sports and also the increasing number of Thai fighters transitioning to the international kickboxing scene. 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 many fighters do nowadays.
Buakaw is of course, one of the earliest and 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. While K-1 has lost much of the international popularity that it held during its peak years, it has set a precedence for kickboxing rules that are adopted in almost every top kickboxing events today.
Over the years, more Thai fighters have ventured outside of Thailand into international kickboxing promotions. This number has really taken off with China entering the game where many famous Thai fighters have fought, or are still fighting in. Some of them have been immensely successful and have dedicated themselves fully to kickboxing. The more lucrative fight purses, as well as a larger international audience have motivated a few Muay Thai gyms to focus on training for Kickboxing.
Styles of Kickboxing
Kickboxing is a fundamentally a sport that involves both punching and kicking as opposed to just punching in traditional boxing. There are far more styles than are listed below but here are some of the most prominent or popular styles of kickboxing:
Thai Boxing (Muay Thai)
Muay Thai can be said to be a pioneer of kickboxing sport, having developed in the early 20th century by incorporating traditional Thai martial arts with ring fighting carried 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.
Other than the 5-round format, Muay Thai’s most distinctive feature is the extensive use of elbows and of course, the clinch at which the Thais excel in. And for that overwhelming advantage in the ring, the clinch is disallowed in all Kickboxing promotions outside of Muay Thai. This may have limited the full range of weapons possessed by the Thais but they have been able to work with what they have to a resounding success.
Apart from Buakaw, some of the Thai names to watch out for in Kickboxing today include his protege Superbon Banchamek, Sittichai Sitsongpeenong, Petpanomrung Kiatmoo9 and Kaew Fairtex. These Thai fighters now compete mainly in Kickboxing promotions.
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 sport of Kickboxing.
K-1 was one of the earliest and most successful kickboxing promotions on a worldwide scale. This was also the promotion that introduced Buakaw to the world and 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.
Notable Japanese kickboxers include Masato, Tetsuya Yamato and rising star Tenshin Nasukawa.
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. In addition to that, AK is heavy on punches as it is also heavily influenced by the country’s top combat sport of boxing.
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. Enough said. 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. 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 among the western fighters even 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. Other notable Dutch kickboxers include Peter Aerts, Andy Souwer (beat Buakaw at K-1 2005) and Ernesto Hoost.
Here’s a crazy match-up between 2 of the best Dutch kickboxers:
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 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.
Famous practitioners of Sanshou include Liu Hai Long, Cung Le, and Wei Rui.
Here is a classic Sanda match between 2 elite Chinese fighters:
Muay Thai vs Kickboxing (K-1 rules)
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. Fighters bring this style along with them even as they crossover into other territories, both with reasonable success.
It’s interesting to note that many of the Thai fighters who have made successful transitions into Kickboxing have some background in boxing. For example, current top Thai kickboxer Sittichai has won a gold medal at the Boxing Army Tournament during his time as a soldier. Many Thai gyms have also incorporated more effective boxing training over the years.
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. However, the Thais who have made the switch to kickboxing are showing that they are the best in the business (at least in their weight divisions). The way many observers see it, it is a combination of Muay Thai’s effectiveness, a general grit, fighter’s heart, and ring experience accumulated from competing at a very young age. Many top kickboxers have also had reasonably experience training in Muay Thai, the most notable being Giorgio Petrosyan.
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. Thai fighters tend to be more patient, playing a more calculated fight strategy, due largely to their high competing frequencies. But Muay Thai fights do often end up in bloodshed because of the face-slashing elbow strikes. All things considered, Muay Thai’s extended range of techniques gives it an advantage by virtue of having more weapons at disposal. But as much of what is often billed as Muay Thai vs Kickboxing is typically fought at kickboxing rules, they really ought to be seen as just kickboxing vs kickboxing.
Top Kickboxing Promotions to Watch
Since K-1, kickboxing promotions seem to have found the ideal recipe of competition rules. The promotions these days can be thought of as UFC sans ground combat, bringing fighters from different disciplines to compete under unified kickboxing rules. In terms of following, Kickboxing has yet to reached the mainstream the way boxing or mixed martial arts have. Maybe they lack the historical significance like boxing and the high entertainment value of UFC or even WWE. Maybe kickboxing needs a bit more pomp and circumstance. It might even reach a wider audience with a good dose of trash-talking.
For now, kickboxing fans enjoy the fights for what they are: pure combat action minus all the popcorn drama. None of the draggy ground-fighting, just 2 exponents trying to KTFO of each other from start to end. Plus the productions are very professional which makes the shows really entertaining. If you are a Muay Thai fan new to kickboxing scene, here are the top Kickboxing promotions to follow:
Glory came about as a result of a failed attempt to take over K-1. The founders then decided to buy over a few smaller promotions sometime in 2011, rounded up their fighters and production team under what is Glory today. Glory events have been held in 15 countries to date and broadcasted in 175 countries. It is the top Kickboxing promotion in the west, and have fighters from around the world. Some of the more notable fighters in their shows include Sittichai Sitsongpeenong, Robin van Roosmalen, Simon Marcus, and Petchpanomrung Kiatmoo9.
Kunlun Fight (KLF)
This giant Chinese fight promotion came onto the scene only in 2014 but is gaining traction on its way to become the top kickboxing promotion in the world today. Televised to the immensely large Chinese market including Hong Kong and Taiwan, KLF’s audience has extended outside its base and into the rest of the world. The promotion operates mainly out of China with occasional show outside of the country but like Glory, it features top fighters from all corners of the globe. KLF’s notable fighters reads like a who’s who list that include Buakaw Banchamek, Sittichai Sitsongpeenong, Superbon Banchamek, Andy Souwer, Dzhabar Askerov, and many others.
Other notable kickboxing promotions include Wu Lin Feng, Glory of Heroes, Bellator Kickboxing and K-1.
Future of Muay Thai and Kickboxing
Muay Thai seen in the grand stadiums of Rajadamnern and Lumpinee represents the highest level of the sport. But since the turn of the millennium as the Golden Era came to an end, the sport has become almost synonymous with gambling in Thailand. It is bluntly pervasive and this has cast a brooding shadow over the future of Muay Thai in its land of birth. The blatant gambling around the ring has given it a seedy appeal which can appear crude to the average sporting/fight fan.
Young Thais these days are shunting what they perceive to be an outdated sport in favour of trendier hobbies/pursuits such as mma or even football. As a matter of fact, many Muay Thai fighters themselves are big fans of European football teams. Just do a check on their instagram pages and you will often see them adorning jerseys of the top football clubs.
Unfortunately for the sport, the lengthy 5-round format, a slower pace of game, the pre-fight dance rituals and traditional Sarama Thai music soundtrack don’t really sit well with the majority of mainstream sport fan either. Ask any hardcore Muay Thai fan and they will tell you that part of Muay Thai’s charm lies in this unique aspect which differentiates it from other fight sports. The truth is that the supposed outsiders, the farangs are growingly more passionate about Muay Thai than the Thais themselves.
This is where Kickboxing evens out the duel of the 2 sports. Kickboxing has a wider and more international appeal, supported by people who watch it because of a love for it. The fight promotions know exactly what fans want and they deliver it: 3 rounds (for non-title fights) of fast-paced action, dramatic walk-ins and all-round great event production made for TV and the short attention span of modern people.
In terms of worldwide appeal and popularity, Kickboxing clearly does a better job at promoting itself. With a more mainstream appeal than Muay Thai, we might start to see more camps in Thailand devoting themselves solely to kickboxing. Sitsongpeenong and Banchamek gyms are 2 of the most notable Thai camps who have had the most prominent success. Traditional stadium Muay Thai won’t go away anytime soon and would be a huge loss if it did. As it’s happening, people are starting to see more and more foreign fighters competing in the top stadiums of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern. Both Max Muay Thai and MX have adopted this formula with much success. The top Kickboxing promotions have got it right from the start and it looks like going international is the way to go.