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Muay Thai vs Kickboxing  –  Key Differences Explained and FAQ

Photo by Richard Kkok (Right pic)

Kickboxing and Muay Thai are two popular striking martial arts that might look the same at first glance. In fact, if you have ever wondered, “What is the difference between kickboxing and Muay Thai?” you are not alone, as this is quite a common question within the martial arts community.

Kickboxing and Muay Thai are two different combat sports, although they may look similar. The key difference is the concept and rules, where Muay Thai enables fighters to strike using eight points of contact (kicks, punches, knees, and elbows), while kickboxing focuses only on punches and kicks.

This is just a basic explanation of how these two martial arts differ from one another, so be sure to read this article to learn more about the differences in strategies, rules, and many others.

What is Kickboxing

Kickboxing emerged in the 1950s in Japan and is a combat sport combining traditional boxing elements with advanced kicking techniques. Although this may vary from style to style, kickboxers primarily rely on the high output of punches, pressure, footwork, and head movement. Most kicks they throw originate from Karate, primarily Kyokushin.

In terms of techniques, fighters can use punches and kicks only (limited knees and clinch in K-1 style). The sport’s rules and regulations may vary depending on the specific style, such as American, Japanese, or European kickboxing, but the fundamental principles of striking, defense, and strategy remain the same across all styles.

Top 15 Greatest Kickboxers of All Time – Ranked

What is Muay Thai?

Muay Thai, also known as the “Art of Eight Limbs,” is a martial art and combat sport originating from Thailand. The concept puts a strong emphasis on striking techniques utilizing eight points of contact: punches, kicks, elbows, and knees; and fighters compete at all ranges, including inside the clinch from which they can throw or trip each other down to the canvas.

Although it is a complex system, Thai boxers primarily focus on landing kicks from the distance and fighting inside the clinch using knees and elbows, while punches are often seen as the secondary weapon. The emphasis is on aggression, throwing each shot with the goal to finish the fight, causing as much damage as possible, and knocking the opponent out.

Difference Between Kickboxing and Muay Thai

Muay Thai and kickboxing are conceptually similar but also differ in various aspects, especially when it comes to a number of allowed techniques and rules.

Muay Thai is more versatile and has more techniques

Muay Thai is often seen as the complete striking system as it teaches a person how to use all limbs to strike with punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. It also includes fighting inside the clinch, from which fighters can apply basic throwing techniques.

Kickboxing is different because it only focuses on throwing punches and kicks without elbows, and clinch fighting in most styles.

Fighting styles are very different

Muay Thai emphasizes aggression, power, and damage because the rules favor this approach. That’s why most of the fighters throw each strike with full power, with the goal of finishing the fight. They primarily rely on landing hard roundhouse and front kicks from a distance and fighting inside the clinch using knees and elbows. Punches are often seen as a secondary weapon they use to close the distance, set up the kicks, or protect their space.

Also, Thai boxers prefer to stay flat-footed directly in front of the opponent and have a tendency to take shots at the guard instead of using head movement.

Kickboxing is a lot different because the emphasis is on advanced boxing combinations, fast footwork, head movement, and a high output of strikes. This further makes their offensive and defensive tactics and strategies quite different. For instance, kickboxers prefer to throw a three-punch combo and finish it with a low/high kick before angling out, while Thai boxers would throw only one power shot.

Kickboxing matches are shorter

Kickboxing matches usually have 3 rounds, with each round being 3 minutes long, and there is a 1-minute break between the rounds.

Muay Thai adopts the same format, but the matches are 5 rounds, with each one lasting 3 minutes, and the minute between the rounds is 2 minutes, which gives the fighter more time to recover.

Fighting gear and attire

Muay Thai fighters wear specialized shorts known as “Sak Yant.” These shorts are usually brightly colored and often include designs and tattoos (Sak Yant) associated with protection and spiritual significance. They also wear armbands known as “Prajied,” which are cloth armbands that are usually tied around one or both biceps of the fighter, and they hold cultural and spiritual significance in Thai culture.

Muay Thai fighters wearing “prajied” armbands

Kickboxing is a pure combat sport that doesn’t include any spiritual or traditional elements. Fighters compete wearing regular kickboxing shots, gloves, hand wraps, mouthguards, and groin cups.

Spiritual aspects

While kickboxing is traditionally taken as a pure sport, Muay Thai is different because of its long history and tradition.

For example, Muay Thai is accompanied by traditional rituals and ceremonies, such as the Wai Khru Ram Muay, which fighters perform before their bouts.

Wai Khru Ram Muay is a ritualistic dance that pays homage to the fighter’s trainers, teachers, and the sport itself. It is a way for fighters to show deep respect and gratitude for those who have taught and guided them in their martial arts journey.

Wai Khru Ram Muay dance

The dance also serves as a form of mental preparation, helping fighters focus their minds and calm their nerves before the bout. The rhythmic and controlled movements can help reduce anxiety and instill a sense of confidence. Muay Thai fighters believe that this ritual invokes the protection of spiritual and ancestral forces.

However, kickboxing is different, mainly because it was designed to be a pure sport; it has no element of spiritual aspects and follows no specific tradition. Kickboxing is a globally popular sport with a far more commercialized and entertainment-oriented presence than Muay Thai.

Muay Thai vs. Kickboxing—Technical Differences Explained

Although these two disciplines are conceptually similar, there are a lot of technical differences between Muay Thai and kickboxing, even when it comes to the same techniques that are executed in different ways.

Stances and Guard

Muay Thai fighters stand in a traditional upright stance, with their feet shoulder-width apart and hips facing forward, which on one side limits their mobility but on the other enables them to block and land kicks faster. Most of them hold their arms in a high guard with their hands slightly extended away from their faces and their palms facing forward toward the opponent. The lead hand usually stretches a bit further, which gives them plenty of space to defend.

Kickboxers usually stand in a bladed stance with their lead leg significantly ahead of the back leg, which turns the side of the torso toward the opponent. Rather than staying flat-footed, most of them prefer to stay light on their feet and bounce, which enables them to change directions quickly. They keep the guard tight, with hands close to their chin and elbows tucked in to protect the rib cage.

Execution of kicks

Both disciplines use very much the same kicking techniques. But the way fighters execute and land each one is way different. Muay Thai fighters throw roundhouse kicks with their leg fully extended, and they land with the lower part of the shin. Kickboxers use a different method as they would lift their leg with their knee bend before firing a kick and landing with their foot.

As a result, Muay Thai kicks are slower but carry a much bigger force, which results in more damage. In contrast, the same kick in kickboxing travels faster, but the overall damage is lower.

Footwork and head movement

Muay Thai fighters prefer to stay flat-footed and march forward using their traditional Yang Sam Khum movement. In most matches, Muay Thai fighters stand directly in front of one another right in the centerline, and they rely less on fast footwork and angles to create openings. The same stands for head movement because they prefer to take shots at the guard without moving their head off the centerline.

In contrast, kickboxers prefer to stay light on their feet and constantly move in all directions. They would rarely stick in one place for more than a few seconds, and they heavily rely on angles and upper body movements to dodge/slip punches, angle out, and counter.

Muay Thai footwork vs. Kickboxing footwork

Similarities between Muay Thai and Kickboxing

Although kickboxing and Muay Thai are distinct martial arts, these two share several key similarities that make them exciting combat sports and effective striking disciplines. These similarities include:

Same punching techniques

Both Kickboxing and Muay Thai place a strong emphasis on striking with a combination of punches and kicks. Fighters in both martial arts utilize the same punching techniques, such as the jab, cross, hook, and uppercut, and they throw similar punching combos.

Kickboxers rely more on their hands, and they usually throw more punches, while Thai boxers emphasize leg strikes, but as far as the techniques are concerned, they use the same ones very much.

Same Kicking Techniques

Both disciplines employ roundhouse kicks, front kicks, and low kicks as fundamental elements of their striking arsenal.

The roundhouse kick targets various areas, such as the head, body, and legs, and is executed with speed and force. Front kicks offer quick and long-range attacks, while low kicks aim to disrupt an opponent’s balance and mobility.

Kickboxers tend to throw kicks with more speed, while Thai boxers have a lower output but throw each one with full force.

Similar gloves

Both disciplines include the same glove design. The gloves are heavily padded, focusing on protecting the knuckles and fingers. This padding minimizes the risk of injuries to both the fighter’s hands and their opponent’s body or head. These gloves also have extended wrist cuffs with a secure closure system, usually in the form of hook-and-loop straps or laces. The wrist support helps stabilize the wrist joint and reduces the risk of sprains or other wrist injuries.

The weight of the gloves typically ranges from 8 ounces to 16 ounces. The choice of glove weight depends on various factors, such as the fighter’s size and training goals.

Same fighting area

Both kickboxers and Muay Thai fighters compete in a square-shaped ring that may vary in size in both disciplines. There is a pole in each corner, and the poles are connected by four ropes, which serve as the boundary and prevent fighters from falling out of the elevated platform.

The ropes in traditional Muay Thai rings were made of hemp, but today, many rings use synthetic materials. The size of the Muay Thai ring can vary, but a standard ring is approximately 6.10 meters (20 feet) on each side. The height is typically around 1 to 1.2 meters from the ground (3.3 to 3.9 feet).

Similar competition format

The competition’s format is very similar, which is the main reason why these two combat sports look similar in layman’s eyes. In both Muay Thai and kickboxing, the matches are split into rounds, and the length of each one is the same: 3 minutes.

The only difference is the number of rounds, as Thai boxing has 5 while kickboxing has 3. Matches also include three judges besides the ring evaluating the action and scoring the match using strict criteria.

Kickboxing or Muay Thai—Which is more difficult to learn?

Muay Thai is more difficult, mainly because it includes more techniques, and it is much harder to master overall. A dedicated student with average talent for the sport will need around 3 years to become a skilled Muay Thai practitioner, while a kickboxing student with the same talent and dedication will need around 2.

Muay Thai is harder because, apart from learning how to strike using punches and kicks, students also need to learn how to use elbows and knees, fight inside the clinch, and execute basic grappling techniques. Learning Muay Thai also demands mental toughness, as it can be physically demanding as it involves rigorous training. There are a lot of grueling cardio and strength workouts, long-distance running, and, of course, hard sparring.

Kickboxing, on the other hand, is easier to learn, and you will need less than a year to master all the basics. But like Muay Thai, training is also physically demanding and strenuous on your body, and you need to be mentally tough to go through years of training and become an expert.

Kickboxing or Muay Thai—Which one is right for you?

Kickboxing is a good choice if you’re interested in straightforward, fast-paced striking art that is not complex to learn. It focuses primarily on mixing punches and kicks, which makes it popular among beginners because it is quite easy to learn. In fact, most people start their journey in kickboxing. After getting in shape, mastering the basics, and learning how to fight, they would switch over to more complex and demanding systems like Muay Thai.

Muay Thai offers a more comprehensive striking arsenal and is the best option if you’re interested in developing all-around striking skills. However, bear in mind that training is hard and that you will be pushed beyond your physical and mental limits on a daily basis. Many people feel enthusiastic about training initially but quickly give up when they realize how demanding this sport is.

Ultimately, your choice between Kickboxing and Muay Thai should align with your personal preferences and goals. Consider trying both disciplines through trial classes to see which one seems better, which will help you make the right decision.