Muay Thai and Kickboxing

Over the past decade, Muay Thai has exploded internationally. Whether looking to compete, get in shape, or just have some fun hitting pads, practitioners and fans of the sport outside Thailand are at an all-time high. As passionate as many are, there is still some confusion over the distinctions that make Thai Boxing a unique art. Namely, people tend to conflate Muay Thai with a ruleset a bit more familiar to the international community: Kickboxing. It’s an understandable mistake, both are combat sports allowing striking with the hands and feet. Beyond that, however, they are entirely different games. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the basic differences you’ll see between a Muay Thai and Kickboxing fight.


The Clinch

A fundamental error people make when talking about Thai Boxing is labeling it a striking art. Muay Thai fighters, while focused on delivering powerful strikes, are outstanding grapplers. The most obvious difference you’ll notice immediately when watching Muay Thai as opposed to Kickboxing is the amount of time the fighters are locked up and wrestling. Much of the fight will take place in the clinch, where fighters will deliver devastating knees and elbows (a weapon not permitted in Kickboxing), as well as sweeping their opponents to the floor. That’s not to say that Kickboxing cuts the clinch out entirely. Many styles of Kickboxing will incorporate knees and permit a fighter to take hold of their opponent. The most common ruleset allows combatants to grab with one hand, deliver a knee, and break contact. Conversely, Thai Boxers will spend long intervals fighting for control and looking for opportunities to strike.


Style and Scoring

Aside from the distinct rules of the two sports, there are noticeable differences in how a fight will look and unfold. This is in part because of what a fighter must do to win on the judges’ scorecards. In this regard, Kickboxing is a little easier to understand, strikes are weighed roughly the same, and scoring is simply a matter of damage and volume. Muay Thai has a different system, with techniques not scoring equally. Though a damaging strike is recognized regardless, priority is given to body kicks and knees over punches. Accordingly, a Kickboxing fight will typically involve longer combinations and far more boxing, whereas Thai Boxers will spend more time trading simple combinations with powerful kicks and knees. Also, in a traditional five round Muay Thai fight, there’s more emphasis placed on winning the later rounds. This results in a slower pace that builds to the climactic rounds three and four. Alternatively, rounds are evenly scored in a Kickboxing fight. This is why Kickboxers, be it a three or five-round fight, start at a higher pace from the outset.



The culture of Muay Thai is on display from the moment the fighters enter the ring. Before the fight begins both combatants, adorned with traditional head and armbands, will perform the Ram Muay. This is a dance meant to pay respect to their teachers and families as well as to bless the ring before the match. Another difference you'll notice about a Muay Thai fight is the music, as a small group of musicians will typically be in attendance playing traditional instruments, keeping with the pace of the fight. Kickboxing, while not as evident in large, international promotions, does have its cultural influences. However, it is not quite as uniform as in Thai Boxing. Kickboxing is an umbrella sport, encompassing Japanese Kickboxing, American Kickboxing, Dutch style, Chinese Sanda, and more. Though we tend to group them together, as they are often seen on the same stage, each has its unique features and cultural traditions from their respective origins just as is the case with Muay Thai. Engaging with these sports as a competitor, casual practitioner, or just a fan, is a unique look into these different cultures and traditions.