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Kickboxing vs Muay Thai: Same Same But Different
While many people think that Kickboxing and Muay Thai are very similar, in terms of technique and fighting styles, they are in many ways, completely different. Although there are universal techniques that are shared between the sports, the implementation varies depending on the sport and the individual fighter.
Muay Thai, in broad terms, fits under the category of ‘Kickboxing’ though there are more differences than there are similarities.
The most common way to explain Muay Thai to somebody is to say “it’s kickboxing with elbows and knees.” Unfortunately, that is like saying Kickboxing is Karate without a Gi.
This is wrong.
Depending on your own martial arts background and whether you train Muay Thai or Kickboxing, it is important to understand what makes your sport unique. Being able to recognize the differences between the two sports can also help you improve your own stand up game.
You might find that your own current fighting style leans more towards kickboxing than Muay Thai and that’s perfectly fine as long as you understand what you are doing.
It is important to know that every Muay Thai fighter has their own style — be it a hybrid of Kickboxing and Traditional Muay Thai or more of one than the other.
This article is a breakdown of traditional Muay Thai techniques used in Thailand at the major stadiums like Lumpinee and Ratchadamnern compared to Kickboxing (the various types, since Kickboxing has a number of styles under it).
Note that you might find that some Thai fighters have a hybrid style between the two arts, especially if you look at those fighters who compete under BOTH styles (K1 and Muay Thai).
What you actually find when you look at the history of Kickboxing is that Muay Thai often played a pivotal role in the foundation and influencing of many of the Kickboxing styles!
What is Kickboxing?
Kickboxing can basically mean any sport that includes the use of hands and kicks in a full contact setting. That is, kickboxing utilizes the 4-point striking system (punches and kicks) while Muay Thai utilizes the 8-point striking system (punches, kicks, knees, elbows) and the ‘full’ clinch. The clinch in kickboxing is a means of tying up the opponent for a positional reset. Some kickboxing rules (K1) allow for a partial clinch from which 1 strike can be thown before the ref resets the fighters. However, in Muay Thai, competitors are not reset once they clinch but must attack and defend while one party is active; a reset only happens when both parties are inactive in the clinch.
To confuse things a bit further, Kickboxing has a number of different martial arts grouped under the term. The short of it is that Kickboxing, in its original form, was a style of karate (Kyokushinkai) with boxing gloves thrown on that originated in the 60’s. It was often called Full Contact Karate. Kickboxing (or American Kickboxing as it was known) was popularized way back in the 80’s with movies like Kickboxer staring Van Dam. Kickboxing, eventually, became a catch all term for any sport that combined Kicks with boxing. To muddle the waters even more, Muay Thai fighters often participate in Kickboxing fights.
I want to point out that MODERN kickboxing has evolved over the past few decades. The style of kickboxing that was ubiquitous in the 60′-80′s has now evolved, as a sport, to a style more similar to traditional Muay Thai. The old style of Kickboxing (known as American Kickboxing) can still be found around, however, known as Full Contact Karate. It’s generally only practiced competitively in the Karate world, however. Kickboxing, in the modern sense, refers to the style found in K1/Glory.
There are a number of styles of kickboxing:
- American Kickboxing
- Dutch Kickboxing
- K1 Kickboxing
- Chinese Kickboxing (San Chou)
- Muay Thai
Let’s look at each of them briefly.
What is American Kickboxing
Full Contact Karate (Karate with boxing gloves) that was popularized during the 60′s-80′s. Unlike Japanese Kickboxing, American Kickboxing was not influenced by Muay Thai, but rather developed free from its influence (hence the kicks are completely different, the Karate movement and style very much present in the sport, complete unfamiliarity with low leg kicks, and kicks are not checked via shins).
American Kickboxing, itself, is a blend of (Japanese) Karate (usually the forms that include full contact sparring, this being mostly Kyokushin Full Contact Karate) and Boxing. As such, if you look at the Karate part, you can trace the roots back both to the ancient Asian roots in feudal Japan. But the blend of the two arts in the form of Full Contact Karate started appearing, in sport form across the US, in the 60′s.
Modernization of Full-Contact Karate. The kicks and punches are karate based.
- 4-point striking system
- Kicks only allowed ABOVE the belt (no low kicks)
- Throws, sweeps, and takedowns not allowed
- Clinch forces immediate reset of fighters’ position
Example of American Kickboxing
Here is the best example of a pure, untainted, American Kickboxing style in action vs. a pure Muay Thai style. This video is from the 80′s before there was any crossover between the two arts and huge amount of misunderstanding about Muay Thai from America. This is basically a blend of traditional karate styles and western boxing; there is NO Muay Thai influence.
For a good intro to this style of kickboxing, watch the fight below. One of the top American Kickboxers comes to Thailand to fight a Thai Muay Thai fighter, but under modified rules (no clinch, no elbows, no knees, no grabbing kicks, no kicking supporting leg).
Note the difference in each fighter’s movements and attacks.
Watch what happens with the absolute confusion when different languages, cultures, and styles clash in a fight :
K-1 / Japanese Kickboxing
What is K-1 Style Kickboxing?
These days, when someone refers to Kickboxing, they likely mean a K-1 style. K-1 is actually a Kickboxing PROMOTION (just like UFC is a promotion, while Mixed Martial Arts is the sport). It has since evolved from a tournament name with a specific rule set to an actual brand to arguably a martial art ‘style’. These days, K1 is pretty much used as the everyday term for a style of Kickboxing that’s sort of a marriage between Muay Thai and American Kickboxing — a bridge between the two distinct styles, if you will, though it was developed separately (and distinctly) from American Kickboxing (which did NOT have a Muay Thai influence).
The History of K-1
K-1 started off in Japan in 1993 as a tournament where the best kickboxers from a variety of backgrounds (dutch kickboxing, karate kickboxing, boxers, etc) were invited to fight each other — as sort of original UFC but for kickboxing artists.
K-1 had a number of tournament formats from the original Grand Prix to the K-1 World Grand Prix, to the K-1 World Grand Prix Final Eliminator (16 Man Tourney), and K-1 World Grand Prix Final. As of 2003, K-1 introduced the K-1 World MAX tournament which is the 70 kilo Middleweight division. K-1 ran into serious financial difficulties in 2011 and was sold multiple times to different companies before being restructured.
K-1 is directly tied into Japanese Kickboxing.
The History of Japanese Kickboxing
If we are looking at the actual style of Kickboxing found in K-1 (remember, K-1 is a Promotion not necessary a style), known as Japanese Kickboxing, what we actually have is a legit fusion between Muay Thai and Traditional Karate. This happened way back in 1959 when a Karate master Tatsuo Yamada became interested in making a full contact version of Karate, of which did NOT yet exist in Japan. Yamada invited a champion Thai fighter to Japan and began to train Muay Thai with him. Osamu Noguchi, a well known boxing promoter in Japan also studied with this Thai champion. This marked a burgeoning interest in Muay Thai . Several years later (1963), several Japanese Karate fighters were even sent to Thailand to fight in Lumpinee against Thai boxers in the famous stadium. Eventually, Noguchi, after studying Muay Thai, combined it with Karate to form a new style he called Kick boxing. In 1966, the The Kickboxing Association was founded by Noguchi and the first official Kickboxing event was held. This marks the start of Japanese Kickboxing and could be considered the beginning of the K-1 movement.
As you see, Japanese Kickboxing is a direct blend of traditional Muay Thai, traditional Karate, and Western Boxing. What’s interesting is Muay Thai played a direct role in it’s development and foundation! This is why, when you watch some of the K-1 fighters (especially Japanese fighters), their kicks look pretty similar to Muay Thai kicks in some ways.
The K-1 Rule Set
K-1 allows knees and a short clinch (where you can throw a knee or sweep the opponent).
- 6 point striking system (punches, kicks, knees)
- Kicks allowed to both high and low parts of body
- Limited clinch fighting allowed (a few strikes allowed from clinch such as knees before ref breaks it up)
Here is K1 style in action:
What is Dutch Kickboxing?
A style of kickboxing that emphasizes a strong western boxing style with frequent, devastating low (muay thai) leg kicks. The Dutch have a different take on the way low kicks are thrown, however, and often angle into the low kick more (this will be shown later in the article).
Dutch Kickboxing is often trained as a Dutch style of Muay Thai, with again, lots of boxing added into the classic Muay Thai arsenal. If you fight a Dutch Kickboxer/Muay Thai boxer, you better be ready for a barrage of hard low kicks and heavy boxing! Quite a few of the best K1 fighters have been Dutch Kickboxers.
The Dutch style started in 1976 when kickboxing was formally introduced into the Netherlands. Japanese kickboxing and kyokushin karate have had significant influences on the Dutch style over the years and later one, Muay Thai added to the pot. Indeed, the relationship to Muay Thai is quite strong — the founder of the 1973 Dutch Kickboxing Association, Harinck, also founded the WMTA (World Muay Thai Association) in 1983 and the EMTA (European Muay Thai Association) in 1984. So you can see the connection with Muay Thai and Kickboxing is quite strong.
Here’s a video of Dutch Muay Thai word champion / Kickboxing Champion and the only Westerner ever to be awarded the prestigious Thailand Fighter of the Year award, the late and great Ramon Dekker:
Other examples of a Dutch Style Kickboxing would be Ernesto Hoost.
For the purpose of this Article, I’m going to refer to a K1/Dutch style of kickboxing as the same.
Chinese Boxing (Sanshou)
What is Sanshou / Sanda?
A Chinese version of Muay Thai, but one that specializes on punches, kicks, wrestling, throws, and sweeps. Elbows and Knees are not emphasized like Muay Thai, but in some Sanshou rulesets, they are allowed. Unlike American Kickboxing which has it’s roots in Traditional Japanese Karate and Western Boxing, Japanese Kickboxing which was a fusion of Muay Thai, Karate and Boxing, or Dutch Kickboxing which merged elements of Karate, Muay Thai, and Boxing, Sanshou has it’s roots in Kung Fu. Sanda (as Sanshou is called in China) takes a number of KungFu styles and modifies them for Ring combat. You might think of Sanshou as an umbrella term for various blended full-contact KungFu styles. Indeed, Sanshou is not a specific style in the way that Kickboxing is not a specific style but an umbrella term for individual styles modified for full contact ring fighting.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to ignore Sanshou for the most part. You’ll often find Sanshou artists competing under Muay Thai rules (if Sanshou fighters fight OUTSIDE of China) and Nak Muay competing under Sanshou rules, if they fight in China. You can find plenty of Muay Tha vs Sanshou fights on youtube.
If you watch a pure Sanshou match, it kind of looks like a cross between Muay Thai and Wrestling and Judo. The straight out clinch game, knees, and elbows are not as developed as they are in Muay Thai, but on the other hand, specialized throws and wrestling sweeps are practiced by Sanshou artists — very different from the standard Muay Thai sweeps. I’ve seen a number of high level Sanshou fighters throw top level Nak Muay to the ground from the clinch.
Everyone typically knows the MAIN rule set differences between Muay Thai and kickboxing (Muay Thai has the addition of the full clinch, elbows, and knees). But at a fundamental level, there are differences even between the similarities.
Let’s explore these subtle differences.
Subtle Yet Important Differences Between Muay Thai and Kickboxing
Hands down, Kickboxing, specifically the K1/Dutch variety, puts a lot of emphasis on western boxing. Basically, if you take a good K1 fighter, they could at the very least stand their own in a PURE boxing match. The same does NOT go for a Muay Thai fighter who will typically be less trained in the art of pure boxing.
If you watch any K1 fight, you’ll often see a heavy use of hands – sometimes more than the kicks. This is completely opposite of Muay Thai (especially Traditional Muay Thai, as found in Thailand proper) which usually feature far more kicking. The lack of a clinch, forward knees, and elbows in Kickboxing also means it’s easier to engage in punching without worrying about being elbowed, straight kneed, or clinched.
Kickboxing tends to have longer hand combos (3-6 punch combos).
Kickboxing tends to incorporate more head movement (leaning for uppercuts, slipping punches, etc).
Kickboxing tends to have more boxing-style footwork
Example of boxing in K1:
Masato throwing boxing like 4-6 punch combos:
The Kick Techniques
Kickboxing kicks are completely different than Muay Thai kicks, in both the low kick and the high kicks. There is a fair amount of crossover here with Muay Thai fighters competing under K1 rules which mean Muay Thai kicks are utilized in some Kickboxing styles such as Dutch Kickboxing, but generally there is a difference, especially when you look at American Kickboxing vs Muay Thai.
Typically, kickboxing emphasizes swinging your hips while lifting your legs up then snapping out your foot. The impact may or may not be the lower shin but the top of the front foot.
Muay Thai kicks have the leg exploding from the ground without being bent with the power coming being driven from the torque of the hip and arms as you swing the opposite arm in a downward motion while twisting the hip. It’s important to keep the leg completely relaxed until impact for maximum speed and torquing of the hips. The point of impact is the lower part of the shin, which when combined with proper technique has the force (and impact) of a baseball bat.
American Kickboxing Round Kick (Non Muay Thai Kick):
Muay Thai Round Kick:
The Legendary Samart shows how a traditional Thai kick is done. Notice there is NO bending of the the knee like in the above example. The leg comes off the ground already very much already stiff.
One more example from Baukaw:
I want to point out some differences with the low kick as well. Thai low kicks are NOT necessary the same as a non-muay thai fighter would through in a K1 kickboxing match, ESPECIALLY if we are comparing Dutch Kickboxing to Muay Thai (many of the K1 fighters and champions were in fact Dutch Kickboxers). American Kickboxing does not allow strikes to the legs, so we won’t include it here.
Thai Low Kick
Note the Thai leans slightly into the kick:
Another example. Note a very slight lean inward as the kick is thrown:
Buakaw throwing a devastating leg kick. Also note how he leans into the kick slightly:
Another Buakaw example from a different angle:
Kickboxing Low Kick (Dutch Style)
This is referring to the Dutch style of kickboxing low kick (which you see used in K1 fights by NON muay thai fighters) NOT American kickboxing, for which leg kicks are not allowed.
Compared to the Thai style of low kick, Dutch fighters tend to step very much more to the side dropping their head downward and more forward with their center of gravity lowered while kicking around the body, hitting with the side of the shin rather than on the center of the shin. This is downward chopping motion. You should see a difference between the Thai style and the Dutch style.
Why do the Dutch do this? Well, this allows you to do a leg kick to the front leg at a MUCH closer angle than if you through a typical Muay Thai style leg kick. This type of kick cuts at more an angle and is more powerful since you are driving your full body downward in the same motion as the kick.
This is a devastating low kick and since you can throw it MUCH closer (almost within clinch distance) than you can with a Thai low kick, it works well with a punch combos when you get in very close.
Raymon Dekker delivering some chopping kicks:
Comparison between Thai Low kick and Dutch Low kick:
If you watch a kickboxing fight, you’ll notice a difference in the rhythm of movement. Muay Thai is very much a patient art – you wait for the right opening then strike. It often does not reward the ball-to-the-walls pacing of boxing, MMA, or kickboxing, where fighters overwhelm each other with rapid flurries. That’s not to say you can’t fight like that in Muay Thai, but if you look at the way the top in the sport fight, it’s often a very counter-fighting type of style.
At a fundamental level, you can see this in the way a K1 style kickboxer moves in and out and the way a Thai boxer moves forward to engage.
Look at this example which has a strict Thai boxer (one who has not yet fought and adapted to K1 rules) vs a K1 style kickboxer:
You can watch the full video here, which is a good masterclass workshop on how to fight a Kickboxers as a Muay Thai fighter.
Overall, Kickboxers tend to have a much more boxing style of movement than do Muay Thai fighters. More foot movement, more footwork, more head movement.
Pure K1 Foot Movement:
Pure American Kickboxing Foot Movement:
Pure Muay Thai Foot Movement:
Dutch Kickboxing Foot Movement:
Muay Thai, generally, has very little in the way of head movement. There are a few counter examples, however, such as Samart and Samrok who were both boxers and brought quite a bit of head movement to Muay Thai. Sanchai is also a fighter who is elusive with head movement. But in general, Muay Thai fighters don’t slip, duck, and weave punches.
Kickboxing on the other hand tends to incorporate quite a bit of head movement; fighters may duck, slip (slipping punches boxer style), and incorporate slight bobbing and weaving. If you watch any K1 fight, you note the matches are usually pretty hand heavy and the fighters move both the feet AND their heads to evade punches. You’ll often see some fighters (like Masato in the example below) lean forward at an angle when throwing the left uppercut.
Keep in mind that head movement, compared to boxing, is still quite minimal as you have to watch for kicks, knees, and one strike attacks from the clinch.
Watch as both Muay Thai fighters keep their heads fairly stationary as they throw and receive strikes:
Watch Masato unleash a a 6+ boxing combo as he leans his head forward to the side, creating an angle:
Different Striking Techniques
While both arts share the same punches and some of the same kicks (round kicks, leg kicks) and knees, there are a few striking techniques that are unique.
Generally, kickboxing, with it’s historical background from Karate tends to have more of a variety of (exotic) kicking technique. You may find Axe kicks, spin kicks, side kicks, and other such exotic attacks. You often will see spin kicks (depending on the fighter of course) in a K1 match. The other kicks, not so much.
K1 style spin kick:
It’s very rare to see these spin kicks IN traditional Muay Thai (however, fancy spinning kicks are present in the art-form of Muay Thai, known as Muay Boran). There have been some fighters such as Samrak Kamsing who successfully utilized spinning kicks in Muay Thai fights, however. I believe the technique does exist in the stylized dance for of Muay Thai, which is known as Muay Boran. But in practice, it’s not really used.
Here is someone who tries pulling a spinning kick off in a Muay Thai match at the local stadium:
The Teep (front push kick):
You don’t tend to see this utilized in Kickboxing so much. But it’s a staple attack in Muay Thai, used to create distance and in some cases as a powerful strike in it’s own right. Thai’s are the masters of the Teep.
Here is a non-thai doing a rear Teep to the face:
The Saenchai Cartwheel Kick:
Don’t think that only Kickboxing has fancy kicks! Muay Thai Trickster Saenchai effectively utilizes the Cartwheel kick in real fights:
Here is Saenchai knocking out a Norwegian friend of mine during a sparring session with his Cartwheel kick:
The Axe Kick:
Not an attack you’ll find used in Muay Thai. You may find it used (historically) in K1 by Kickboxers with a KARATE background.
Elbows are of course not allowed under Kickboxing rules of any sort. But you do see this special attack utilized once in a while in Muay Thai and it’s always entertaining:
One Thai boxer, Enriko Kehl, has practically made his career out of the spinning elbow:
Both kickboxing and Muay thai have this attack. I’ve not yet seen high level Thai guys utilize this attack in fights, though I do see sloppy foreigners throw this attack (usually unsuccessfully).
I’ve seen kickboxers use it in K1, however.
Another big difference you will note between Kickboxing and Muay Thai is the way defense is handled. Specifically, the way kicks are blocked. Pure Kickboxers often do NOT shin-check kicks. But in Muay Thai, kicks are readily checked. In fact, if you don’t check kicks, you will often lose a fight on points AND suffer some serious body damage.
While you do see some K1 Kickboxing fighters checking kicks (especially among the fighters with a Muay Thai background — i.e. Dutch — or who cross-train Muay Thai), for the most part kicks are not directly blocked. Certainly, Kickboxers have not developed the mastery (and body conditioning) of blocking kicks with shins that Muay Thai fighters have.
As a final point, I want to point out the differences in the fight pacing between Kickboxing and Muay Thai. They are often NOT the same.
Traditional Muay Thai, as found in Thailand (with 5 round fights), tends to have the first 2 rounds slower with the ‘real fight’ starting round three as both fighters start really attacking each other. If you’ve never seen a Muay Thai match before, this can often be confusing to witness as it looks like the fighters are barely hitting each other. There are three reasons for this:
- The fighters feel each other out, getting a sense of distance, and discovering how the opponent reacts to certain attacks. Think of this as putting together a game plan.
- Allows betters to start setting up the betting odds on each fighter. If one fighter looks superior during the first two soft rounds, the betting odds are re-adjusted.
- If a fighter has dubious cardio, it gives them a chance to conserve energy for the ‘real fight’
The Thai’s generally don’t score round 1 and 2 very high, so you can lose both the first couple rounds badly, win round 3 and 4, tie the 5th and still win.
I want to note that the the first rounds being soft is not ALWAYS the case, but it’s a general rule of thumb in Thailand. In quite of few of my own Muay Thai fights up here, the Trainers have told me to go soft the first two rounds. It took me a while to figure out that they wanted a chance for the gamblers to set odds on my fight. If you go all out balls to the wall and get a KO in round 1 or 2, which may happen if you go hard, there is generally NO real betting.
Outside of Thailand, fights start round one, usually.
Kickboxing tends to start pretty hard from the get go and it’s not uncommon to see every round hard. Under K1 rules, fights may be 3 or 5 rounds. Comparing 5 round K1 fights to 5 round Muay Thai fights, K1 fights usually start hard round 1, not round 3 as in typical Muay Thai matches.
Muay Thai vs Kickboxing: Can You Jump Between Arts and Fight?
Muay Thai is a more ‘complete’ fighting art than Kickboxing. The inclusion of full clinching, elbows, and full knees add more elements to it than pure Kickboxing and as such more possibilities of attack.
Since Muay Thai includes everything (minus a few exotic strikes, and stylistic differences aside) that Kickboxing has, it’s common to see pure Muay Thai fighters cross over and do just fine in Kickboxing matches (witness Buakaw, for example, and the recent crop of pure Muay Thai boxers from Thailand fighting in the new K1 Max and Glory promotions). Pure Muay Thai fighters adapt pretty quickly to K1 style rules.
However, if a pure Kickboxer fights under Muay Thai rules against a practiced Nak Muay, they are going to get fucked. The inclusion of the full clinch game, the elbows, and the knee strikes change the game completely and the pure Kickboxer will be completely out of his (or her) element.
The Final Word
Kickboxing and Muay Thai are two completely different martial arts. While there is a lot of cross over (especially now as both sports have arguably greatly influenced each other) between the two, they are NOT the same.
Both arts have a lot to offer each other, I feel.
Benefits of Kickboxing for Muay Thai:
- Muay Thai practitioners can benefit from learning strong boxing skills that Kickboxing can offer.
- Adding a spinning kick to your Muay Thai arsenal can be a powerful secret weapon, as most Thai boxers won’t expect you to throw one and it’s a chance for a KO if you land it.
- The devastating Dutch style low kicks are worth learning too as you can combine them with punches when getting right up into your opponents face (your opponent won’t be safe from your low kicks even if they close the distance)
Benefits of Muay Thai for Kickboxing:
On the other side of the coin, the strong clinching abilities of Muay Thai can be a powerful benefit kickboxers, especially if you fight K1. Even though K1 kickboxing does not have full clinch, if you have strong clinching experience, you can often still control your opponent and throw powerful fast knees as soon as you clinch. You can even sweep them from the clinch.
- Muay Thai knee abilities can give Kickboxers a powerful attack to utilize as a counter to punches or as a powerful strike from the clinch
- Muay Thai clinch can allow kickboxers dominant control as soon as you clinch