Muay Thai vs MMA: Connection or Collision?

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Muay Thai vs MMA, is it more of a connection or a collision?

You can’t talk about the world of combat sports, without talking about these two in particular. 

Muay Thai is widely regarded as the premier striking art in the world. A traditional art from Thailand that traces its roots in warfare and has evolved into a modern sport.

Mixed Martial Arts or MMA is hailed by many to be the closest thing there is to how a real fight would unfold. An MMA fighter utilizes all kinds of martial arts, from striking to grappling, which leads some to say that it’s the most complete fighting art there is.

Read on if you want to 1) learn about the history of MMA, 2) understand the connection between the two foremost fighting arts, and 3) know which one you should choose to learn. 

What is MMA?

mixed martial arts

Mixed Martial Arts or MMA is a full-contact combat sport that also happens to be one of the fastest-growing sports on the planet. It allows and incorporates a wide array of fighting skills and techniques. Those skills and techniques come from a variety of fighting arts and combat sports.

MMA is a unique sport because it basically allows fighters from different martial arts backgrounds to compete under a specific ruleset. They may come from boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Karate, or Taekwondo background. Fighters will need to have some level of ability in more than one of these arts to be successful.

Fighters compete against one another using striking and grappling techniques. Those techniques include punches, kicks, elbows, knees, chokes, joint-locks, submissions, throws, and takedowns. They can use these techniques either while standing or on the ground.

A win in MMA can be achieved through knockout, decision, submission, or stoppage. Stoppage can be made by the referee, fight doctor, or the corner of one of the fighters.

MMA fighters compete inside a cage enclosed by a metal fence. The cage varies in size from 20 square feet to 32 square feet. UFC uses a octagon-shaped cage (trademarked) while others use a ring or pentagon cage. 

Matches can also be held inside a traditional (squared) boxing ring as seen on other promotions such as One Championship

As for the equipment used by the fighters, it’s made up of a fighting glove that’s unique to the sport. This glove is lightweight and padded. The fingers and the thumb protrude to allow for better movement especially when grappling. The sizes of the MMA gloves are between 4 and 6 oz.

History of MMA

Now that we’ve established what MMA is, it’s only fitting to know where it all began. So let’s talk about the history of MMA.

Pankration – Ancient MMA

Photo Source: Квайтуджим

MMA or at least a fighting art that’s similar to MMA, had its origins in ancient Greece. That art is known as Pankration – from the Greek words pan (all) and kratos (powers). So it basically means “all powers”. 

This fighting art combined the techniques of boxing and wrestling although other techniques such as kicking were also included. All strikes and holds are allowed and only eye-gouging and biting are considered illegal.

Pankration was considered to be the premier combat event in the ancient Olympic games. The first Olympic games were believed to have been held in the 8th century B.C. Pankration was introduced as part of the games in 648 B.C. although it was probably around a couple of hundred years by then.

MMA in the 19th and 20th Century

French Savate fighters were the first ones to challenge the practitioners of other martial arts. This happened in 1852 when a tournament was held where the French Savate fighters went toe-to-toe against English bare-knuckle boxers. This was perhaps the beginning of the trend of testing one martial art versus another and it would continue in the decades to come.

In the early years of the 20th century, the 1920s specifically, the Vale Tudo era began in Brazil. These fights had two combatants fight each other with the barest amount of rules. The fighters that competed in these small tournaments included boxers, Luta Livre or freestyle fighters, and Capoeira practitioners. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners joined the fray starting in the 1930s.

Fast forward to 1963, the year when the Boxer vs. Judo-Karate Black Belt challenge took place. Jim Beck, a writer, and promoter, gave an open challenge to any judoka who could defeat a top-level boxer would be paid $1,000.00 from Beck’s own pocket. Gene Lebell, a legendary judoka, and wrestler battled pro boxer, Milo Savage. Lebell beat Savage in the 4th round by rendering him unconscious with a rear-naked choke.

It was also in 1963 when Muay Thai was tested against another prominent martial art. It was one of the first instances when the art of 8 limbs versus another fighting art was promoted and displayed in a public spectacle. Three Japanese Kyokushin Karate practitioners traveled all the way from Japan to Thailand to challenge Nak Muays.

The cross-cultural martial arts exchange was a turning point for modern kickboxing. Muay Thai was a heavy influence on Japanese kickboxing which in turn led to the development of Dutch kickboxing

Bruce Lee – The Father of Modern MMA

The legendary Bruce Lee – martial arts icon and movie superstar – is considered by many to be the “Father of Modern MMA”. Through years of studying different fighting arts and philosophy, Lee was able to develop his own unique fighting philosophy known as Jeet Kune Do or the “Way of the Intercepting Fist”.

In Jeet Kune Do or JKD, Lee proposed the idea of taking what is useful from each specific martial art and combining it to form the most effective fighting style. This philosophy is credited by many to be a huge influence on the development of modern MMA.

The Rise of UFC and MMA Today

MMA, as we know it today, is largely an effect of the immense growth of the UFC or Ultimate Fighting Championship since its origin in 1993. The UFC held its very first event on November 12 of that same year in Denver, Colorado. 

In that initial event, the UFC held a one-day tournament that featured eight fighters. There were no rounds, no breaks, and no judges as well. Competitors didn’t have to wear gloves if they didn’t want to.

The promoters wanted to showcase matchups between different martial art styles under realistic unarmed combat situations. There were only two rules then – biting and eye-gouging were prohibited. Fighters could win through knockout, submission, or by the corner throwing in the towel.

The winner of that first event was Royce Gracie, a member of the famed Gracie family that helped develop and popularize Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu all over the world. That win helped explode the popularity and impact of both BJJ and MMA throughout the martial arts world. MMA’s momentum just started building up from then on and grew to its current huge status. 

UFC adopted additional rules over time to increase competitors’ safety under pressure from sports regulators. This helped to increase mainstream acceptance of the sport.

The UFC is at the forefront of that as the largest MMA promotional company in the world with the biggest names and some of the best talents. Some of those stars include Khabib Nurmagomedov, Connor McGregor, Jon Jones, Israel Adesanya, and more.

The Use of the “MMA” Term

A fun fact about the UFC and MMA is that the creation and the rise of UFC actually preceded the use and popularization of the term Mixed Martial Arts.

The first documented use of the term was in a review of UFC 1, which was also in 1993, in a review by Howard Rosenberg, a TV critic. So it’s safe to say that the term was coined in response to the first UFC event.

However, it would be 2 years before the term was used in an actual promotion and it took until UFC 17 for the promotion to actually use the term MMA.

MMA is now a widely-recognized combat sport all over the world with other notable promotions such as Bellator MMA, Invicta Fighting Championships and One Championship. 

Differences Between Muay Thai vs MMA

muay thai vs mma

As we have learned from the definition as well as the history of MMA above, it’s quite distinct from Muay Thai. Sure, it’s also a fighting and combat sport, but the differences are quite glaring. 

MMA incorporates a wide array of martial arts. Those arts are in fact quite distinct from one another. Wrestling has a different use and purpose from BJJ, just as BJJ has a different use and purpose from Muay Thai. 

Muay Thai is designed as a complete system for stand-up fighting. It adopted more rules and evolved over time as a competitive sport that we see today. 

Ground Fighting

The most glaring difference is the use of the ground game in MMA. It is an absolute must to have a ground game in MMA. You can’t expect to succeed in the sport while being only trained in striking.

In fact, many consider wrestling or BJJ to be the best base for MMA, and fighters can only add striking such as Muay Thai or boxing later.

Stance & Movement

The other difference between the two is in the fighter’s stances and movement.

In Muay Thai, the stance of the fighter is more square and upright. The fighter stands tall, with a high guard and the elbows flaring out from the sides. Their weight is more on the rear leg and the lead leg is light.

On the other hand, an MMA fighter’s stance is different. Their feet are spread farther apart and the weight is more evenly distributed between the two feet. The head and body lean forward a little more and the hands are held lower and looser to help defend against both strikes and takedown attempts.

In terms of footwork, MMA fighting tends to be more active and fluid. There is a lot of moving, prancing around, circling and feinting.  Muay Thai movement is more calculated and less dynamic. There is less prancing around, and fighters choose to block instead of backing away from an offensive.

Muay Thai in MMA

The similarities in the two arts stem from the fact that a lot of fighters use Muay Thai as their striking base in MMA.

Since Muay Thai makes use of the 8 limbs, it makes sense for an MMA practitioner to learn it so they would become adept at not only throwing punches, but also the use of their elbows, knees, and kicks.

The heavy use of the clinch in Muay Thai is also a major factor in why it works so well in MMA. The completeness makes it a more well-rounded striking base if you compare it to traditional boxing or East Asian arts like Karate and Taekwondo.

Therefore, it’s understandable why a lot of MMA fighters train in Muay Thai or something that is a semblance of it.

They love the fact that it offers one of the most diverse striking weapons available. Muay Thai covers every aspect of stand-up combat that is allowed under MMA rules. 

Mixed martial artists complement whatever they believe is lacking in Muay Thai with other arts, such as the head movement and footwork of Western boxing.

Notable Muay Thai Fighters in MMA:

Quite a number of fighters found success in MMA by incorporating Muay Thai into their striking skillset. Some of these mixed martial artists include Anderson Silva, TJ Dillashaw, Cris Cyborg and Jose Aldo.

Then there are those who started out in Muay Thai and transitioned to MMA later on. They found success in the sport mainly because of their striking although they also needed to learn grappling and wrestling.

Here are some notable Muay Thai Fighters who went on to compete in MMA:

Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke

Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke was a Muay Thai fighter with over 300 fights under his belt. He was a three-division Lumpinee champion before retiring in 2007 to become an instructor at Singapore’s Evolve MMA.

Dejdamrong returned to fighting in 2014 to compete in mixed martial arts on ONE Championship. He trained in BJJ before making his MMA debut and went on a 4-win streak before clinching the ONE Championship strawweight title. 

The Thai fighter was a vicious clinch-and-knee specialist. He finished 5 out of his 11 MMA wins with devastating knee strikes but more impressively, adding 3 by way of submission. 

Dejdamrong lost his title in 2016 but continues to compete at the age of 41.  

Sagetdao Phetpayathai

Sagetdao Phetpayathai is a formidable Muay Khao knee fighter. He competed in the elite Muay Thai scene between 2004 to 2014. He was a three-time Lumpinee champion, a 2007 Rajadamnern stadium champion and two-time WBC world champion during those years.

Sagetdao has fought and won against the biggest names of his time including Nong-O Kaiyanghadao, Petchboonchu FA Group, Singdam Kiatmoo9 and winning 3 out of 6 meetings with the formidable Saenchai.

He retired from competing and joined Evolve MMA around 2015 before staging a comeback to compete in MMA in 2017. Sagetdao gained 3 wins out of his 4 MMA appearances, all by KO or TKO.

Both Sagetdao and Dejdamrong proved the effectiveness of Muay Thai striking and clinching in mixed martial arts.

Loma Lookboonmee

Loma Lookboonmee was widely recognized as the best p4p female Muay Thai fighter in the world before her transition to MMA in 2018. She was a multi-time Muay Thai champion and IFMA (amateur) gold medalist.

The Thai native has over 300 Muay Thai fights on her record before making the career switch. She also has the honor of being the first Thai fighter to compete in the UFC. 

Like Dejdamrong and Sagetdao, Loma is able to capitalize on her superior striking and clinching foundation. She won 5 out of her 7 MMA appearances including her most recent win against former Invicta champion, Jinh Yu Frey.

Loma trains out of Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket.

Joanna Jędrzejczyk

Former UFC strawweight women’s champion, Joanna Jędrzejczyk was a five-time Muay Thai world champion before switching career to MMA. 

Joanna started competing in Muay Thai at 16. She won 5 IFMA World gold medals, 4 European championships and 5 world titles over a 10-year period. 

The Polish fighter made her MMA debut in 2012 and subsequently her UFC debut in 2014. She won the UFC Women’s strawweight title a year after with 5 successful defenses. She lost the belt to Rose Namajunas in 2017 after a rampaging14-fight win streak. 

Joanna captured many of her victories by her sheer striking prowess, out-striking her opponent by overwhelming differentials. Her Muay Thai background has proven to be the key to her success in the sport.

Valentina Shevchenko

UFC Women’s Flyweight champion, Valentina Shevchenko rounds up the list. The Kyrgyzstani-born fighter competed in Muay Thai between 2003 to 2015. She won the IFMA world championship gold medals eight times during this period. Many consider her to be one of the best Muay Thai fighters in the world.

Valentina made her MMA debut in 2003 and signed on with UFC in 2015. She failed to capture the Bantamweight title against Amanda Nunes but went on to win the Flyweight belt against Joanna Jędrzejczyk in 2018.

Her fast and powerful striking style combines her backgrounds in Muay Thai and Taekwondo with stunning results. Valentina has made 3 successful title defenses to date.

Muay Thai with MMA Gloves

muay thai vs mma

MMA gloves weight between 4 to 6oz. They are small compared to boxing and Muay Thai competition gloves (8-10oz). The small size and lesser padding contribute to a higher knockout rate. This makes the sport more exciting to watch for combat sports fans.

Caged Muay Thai was one of -if not- the first Muay Thai events to feature MMA-sized gloves. Australian Muay Thai legend, John Wayne Parr created the event in 2012 when he fought his retirement fight against Jordan Tai. The fight took place in a MMA-style cage and fighters wore fingerless 5oz gloves. 

Today, a number of Muay Thai promotions use MMA gloves for their fights, such as MX Muay Xtreme, Muay Hardcore, and ONE Championship. 

Muay Thai vs MMA: Which One Should You Learn?

So, which one should you choose if you want to learn a fighting art? The answer depends mostly on what your goals are.

If your goal is to learn striking, then you only need to learn Muay Thai. It covers all techniques of stand-up striking with the exception of headbutts (which could give you CTE anyway). There is no need to cross-train in other arts, especially those that are not related to striking such as wrestling or BJJ. 

If your goal is to go into MMA as an MMA fighter, then you need to learn MMA.

That means training in every martial art that’s used and essential for success as a mixed martial artist. This includes stand-up striking, and ground fighting. In this case, you would go far by including Muay Thai as your striking base.

The answer is that it all depends on you, but if you have the time and interest then train in both as they will lead you to the path of becoming a complete martial artist!

Photos courtesy of Jojo:

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