Summary: It’s another faceoff as we look at Muay Thai vs Kyokushin Karate – two of the toughest martial arts on the planet. Let’s explore the history of Kyokushin, its connection to Muay Thai and finally, let’s decide which is the more effective of the two.
If you tell people that you train Muay Thai, some of them may ask, “Muay Thai? Is that like Karate” or some variation of that question. This is a question only someone who doesn’t train martial arts would ask, given the massive differences between Muay Thai and most Karate Styles.
However, there is one particular style of Karate that draws a lot of valid comparisons to Muay Thai. That style being Kyokushin Karate.
In this article, we explore the deep connection, similarities and differences between Muay Thai vs Kyokushin Karate. Let’s find out if one is truly better than the other.
What Is Kyokushin Karate
Kyokushin Karate (Japanese Kanji: 極真空手) is famous as being one of the hardest styles of Karate. The style is rooted in a philosophy of self-improvement, discipline and hard training.
The term “Kyokushin” (Japanese Kanji: 極真) came from Kyokukushinkai (Japanese Kanji: 極真会), which is the organization from where the style was established. Another name for the style is Kyokushinkai Karate.
Kyokushin translates to mean “the ultimate truth”, expressing the founder’s philosophy of discovering the nature of one’s true character when put to the test.
The style bares many surface-level similarities to other styles of Karate, using a traditional gi and incorporating Kata (form) training. Where the style differs from most other Karate styles is that Kyokushin is full contact rather than “points system” light-contact fighting.
Kyokushin matches and free sparring look closer to Muay Thai than other popular Karate Styles. However, they fight using bare knuckles with no gloves or even hand wraps.
The full-contact nature leads Kyokushin fighters to generally stand very close to their opponent. They fight in what looks like a stand-and-bang fashion.
Like with most styles of Karate, punches and elbows to the head are banned, kicks and knees to the head are legal. The close range that the fighters take means that the vast majority of strikes are to the body.
Kyokushin is also famous for its 100-man Kumite (free sparring). A fighter takes on 100 opponents, one after the other, with each round between one-and-a-half and two minutes in length. Less than 30 Kyokushin practitioners in history have completed the challenge to date.
History Of Kyokushin Karate
Kyokushin, despite its large membership base of 12 million practitioners worldwide, is one of the youngest styles of Karate. Kyokushin is only a little more than half a century old, being officially founded in 1964 although the style dates back to around 1953.
The style was created by a Korean expatriate living in Japan, Masutatsu Oyama (Japanese: 大山 倍達), more commonly known as Mas Oyama. Oyama was born as Choi Young-Eui during a time when Korea was under Japanese occupation.
At a young age, Oyama was sent to live with his sister on their family’s farm in Manchuria. There he began learning Chinese martial arts from a farmhand that Oyama called Lee in books about his early life.
After moving to Japan to join the Imperial Air Force, Oyama began to train in both Shotokan and Goju-Ryu Karate. Eventually, Oyama founded his own style of Karate and his own dojo, originally called Oyama Dojo.
To promote his new school, Oyama would travel around Japan, reportedly wrestling and -literally- knocking out bulls.
What Is Kyokushin Training Like
Due to Kyokushin’s focus on up-close fighting and body shots, a lot of Kyokushin training centers around conditioning. This not only involves increasing your stamina but also conditioning the body to normalize getting hit.
Unlike other stand-up combat sports, Kyokushin doesn’t use gloves in training and competitions. This makes body conditioning even more important than any other fight sports.
This means that there are a lot of drills where practitioners must stand there and take hits from other students, sometimes even with sticks.
Like in Muay Thai, Kyokushin fighters also spend a lot of time conditioning their shins. In fact, Kyokushin training sometimes incorporates padwork involving punches, knees and kicks.
Also similar to Muay Thai, sparring plays a big part in Kyokushin training, with multiple rounds every session.
Like I mentioned earlier, Kyokushin still incorporates kata training like in other Karate styles. Kyokushin also tends to be heavy on the kicks, as with most Karate styles.
This means that they dedicate a lot of training time to the many kinds of kicks in Kyokushin’s arsenal. This includes Roundhouse kicks, spinning back kicks and Kyokushin’s signature technique, the rolling thunder.
Muay Thai vs Kyokushin Karate: Differences & Similarities
As I mentioned earlier, Kyokushin has a lot in common with Muay Thai. Kyokushin doesn’t rely on quick blitzing footwork like other Karate styles.
Kyokushin’s footwork is similar to Muay Thai with moving forward being the main type of movement. Even the stances that both styles take are very similar, with square feet and somewhat high guards at the least.
Both styles also incorporate all 8 limbs of the body and use them as weapons. Kyokushin inherits many techniques from the original Karate including many of the fancy kicks.
The main difference being that Kyokushin fighters can throw elbows and punches only to the body but not the head. However, knees and kicks to the head are legal.
Foot sweeps are also legal in both styles but Kyokushin bans the use of the clinch, with any grabbing or hook resulting in an instant break. Too many grabs, holds or hooks by a fighter can even result in a point deduction.
Kyokushin practitioners train and compete in gi’s (Japanese-style uniform) that all more or less look the same as Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This differs from Muay Thai fighters, who train in the same style of shorts with individualized styles and detailing on the shorts.
As mentioned earlier, Kyokushin fighters train and compete with bare knuckles. They do not wear gloves or hand wraps like in Muay Thai or other kickboxing sports.
Muay Thai vs Kyokushin Karate: The Connection
Kenji Kurosaki is a key figure in the founding of Kyokushin Karate. Kurosaki actually trained with Oyama in Goju-Ryu Karate in the 1950s before starting their own style of Karate together.
Oyama became the face of Kyokushin and was mainly responsible for promoting the style while Kurosaki worked on the grounds, instructing students at their dojo.
They eventually split in the late 1960s due to the difference in opinion over the commercial direction that Oyama was taking with Kyokushin. Some say that because of this split, Kurosaki’s place in Kyokushin history is somewhat diluted.
Kurosaki left to start the legendary Mejiro Gym in 1969 not long after his defeat against Muay Thai fighter, Rawee Dechachai in Lumpinee stadium (1964). The Japanese walked away from the historical fight with realization of Kyokushin Karate’s shortcomings.
He then developed a new style of Japanese kickboxing fusing Kyokushin with elements of Muay Thai. Fighters from Mejiro Gym battle-tested the Japanese kickboxing style against Muay Thai with applaudable results.
One of the earliest and most notable kickboxers from Mejiro Gym is Toshio Fujiwara, the first foreigner to win a Rajadamnern stadium title.
As Mejiro Gym rose in prominence in the 70s, a number of Dutch fighters traveled to train with Kenji at Mejiro Gym in the 70s. The Dutch martial artists then returned to the Netherlands where they started the NKBB (Dutch Kickboxing Association) and that was when Dutch kickboxing took off.
Japanese kickboxing took the global kickboxing sport to its peak with K-1 in the 90s and early 2000s. The promotion set the tone and rules for all kickboxing promotions to follow till this day.
Muay Thai vs Kyokushin Karate: Which Is More Effective?
The answer to this question depends on the practitioner and the time. A few decades back there was a time where this might be a tossup. In 1964, three Kyokushin karatekas went over to Thailand to pit their skills against Muay Thai fighters.
Kenji Kurosaki himself and two Japanese fighters went to the famed Lumpinee Stadium in Thailand where they were matched against three Muay Thai fighters. Two of the Karate fighters, Tadashi Nakamura and Akio Fujihira won their bouts by KOs.
But Kurosaki received a different outcome when he took on Rawee Dechachai. The Japanese was at the receiving end of an elbow knockout.
There are a number of flaws present in traditional Kyokushin system and its training that makes it a less effective style than Muay Thai.
The first reason’s being that Muay Thai allows the use of the clinch, which can be vital in a self defense situation. The next is the rules of Kyokushin that forbids punches/elbows to the head.
Being used to and prepared to defend against punches to the head is very important in fighting. Your opponent in a real-life situation is going to probably go for your head first, so you need to know what to do.
Many of the earliest Kyokushin champions to fight in the K-1 kickboxing competitions were defeated in their quests. The late K1 World Grand Prix champion, Andy Hug was the most successful out of the Kyokushin fighters. But karatekas who find success in kickboxing are few and far between.
On the other hand, Muay Thai fighters have continually proven themselves against the best of other kickboxing styles. Thai fighters like Buakaw Banchamek, Sitthichai Sitsongpeenong, and Superbon Banchamek are all able to achieve success in kickboxing against their Dutch, Chinese and Japanese counterparts.
Which Should You Learn?
If you wish to learn a more complete stand-up striking martial arts, then Muay Thai is definitely a more practical choice. Kyokushin Karate is by no means an ineffective art and is certainly a very hard sport.
In terms of overall effectiveness for self-defense and fighting under unified kickboxing rules, Muay Thai edges as the more superior option.