Both Kickboxing and Muay Thai are popular forms of combat-sports and martial arts. But what’s the difference between them?
The differences between Kickboxing and Muay Thai are their styles, their rules, and the techniques they each allow. For example, Muay Thai allows knees, elbows, leg kicks, and the clinch, whereas Kickboxing doesn’t. Their fighting stances and use of head movement are different too.
There are many other differences between Kickboxing and Muay Thai, including their origins and traditions. To fully answer this question as best as I can, I’ve broken this article down into the following sections:
- A brief introduction of both Kickboxing and Muay Thai
- The crossover between each of them
- 5 key differences between Kickboxing and Muay Thai
- And finally, the stylistic differences of each
It’s important to know from the start that the word ‘Kickboxing’ is a very broad term that is often used to relate to any form of martial art or contact sport that uses both punches and kicks. And it is often used interchangeably by many people when they are describing different styles.
However, Kickboxing technically is a style of its own. Originating from full-contact Karate with boxing gloves, which grew in western popularity in the 80’s with the movie The Kickboxer – which eventually became known as American Kickboxing.
But over the years, as Muay Thai’s techniques and style has influenced the sport of Kickboxing, we now see Kickboxing has diversified and evolved into different forms and styles of its own – but still referred to just as ‘Kickboxing’.
Each of these Kickboxing styles have differences in the techniques that they teach and the rules that are allowed in competition.
Some of these style variations include:
- Dutch Kickboxing
- Japanese Kickboxing
- French (Savate)
- Burmese (Lethwei)
- Chinese (Sanda)
Kickboxing today in its purest traditional form though (without any Muay Thai influence) is still taught and widely used all over the world.
Although some people still refer to Muay Thai as Kickboxing, they are two distinctly different things. Muay Thai is an ancient martial art originating from Thailand which has since grown into their national sport.
Many of the techniques that are taught and allowed in Muay Thai, are not used in Kickboxing and in some cases, are even banned.
For a full breakdown of what Muay Thai teaches – check out our article: Muay Thai: What Does It Teach You
Muay Thai also has a lot of tradition surrounding it which Kickboxing doesn’t. One very noticeable tradition is the Wai Kru, which is a ceremonial ritual and a sort of dance that Muay Thai fighters do once they enter the ring.
Preforming the Wai Kru before each fight is believed to ‘seal the ring’ and keep out evil spirits in order to protect both fighters and to also pay respect to the fighter’s trainer, their trainer before them and their ancestors.
Although the true origins of Muay Thai are not clear, it is known that Muay Thai began as a form of hand-to-hand fighting used by Thai soldiers in ancient close-quarter battles with neighbouring countries.
Because of its ancient military roots, Muay Thai can be a very brutal sport with an emphasis on causing as much damage as possible to an opponent. This can be seen in the differences in Muay Thai kicks vs Kickboxing kicks.
For example, Kickboxing kicks sometimes look more like a quick snapping kick (sometimes landing with the foot) – this style of kick is very similar to the style of point scoring seen in Karate (from which Kickboxing is said to of evolved from).
Whereas, Muay Thai kicks land heavy with the lower shin, and are aimed and fired at the opponent to cause maximum damage.
Its important to know that there is so much crossover nowadays between Muay Thai and Kickboxing that it can be hard to clearly distinguish between a single form or style.
Another (sometimes confusing) differentiating factor is the competition the fight is taking place in – in which case it will be the rules that layout what is and isn’t allowed – and therefore, it will be the rules of the fight that influence the styles of Kickboxing and the techniques that are used.
“There is so much crossover nowadays between Muay Thai and Kickboxing that it can be hard to clearly distinguish between a single form or style”
But in general, there are 5 key differences between Kickboxing and Muay Thai – and these same 5 differences are what we also see between different styles of Kickboxing, and from one ruleset to another.
Let’s break them down.
The 5 Key Differences Between Kickboxing & Muay Thai
1. Elbows & Knees
In Muay Thai, elbows and knees are used regularly and make up a vast majority of the techniques used. This is due to its origins on the battle field, and its necessity to be able to inflict as much damage as possible.
Muay Thai is known as the art of eight limbs because, as well as punches and kicks, it also uses both elbows and knees.
Meaning Muay Thai uses 8 limbs as weapons, 2 fists, 2 elbows, 2 knees, and 2 shins for kicking.The Art of Eight Limbs
Whether elbows or knees are allowed in Kickboxing, depends on the style of Kickboxing and the rules of the competition.
Elbows In Muay Thai, elbows are allowed to the head, the body and to the legs of your opponent. But in Kickboxing, The International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) – who govern Kickboxing events all over the world – have clear guidelines on the use of elbows in their competitions. In nearly all styles of Kickboxing, elbows are not taught and are actually banned.
Knees In Muay Thai, knees are allowed to the head, the body and to the legs of your opponent. The use of knees in Kickboxing however, are only allowed in some select styles and rulesets. Some allow the free use of knees, while others only allow them to be used to the body while in the clinch.
For more on elbows and knees in Kickboxing – check out our article: Does Kickboxing Teach Elbows & Knees?
2. The Clinch
In Muay Thai, a lot of the action takes place in the clinch. This is where both fighters close the distance and grab hold of each other – either in a body lock or with the hands holding onto the back of the head, known as the Thai Clinch.
Once in the clinch, Thai fighters are allowed to continue the fight with both elbows and knees to their opponent – and as long as the fighters keep working in the clinch, the fight will not be separated by the referee.
In some Kickboxing fights, when the fighters meet in a clinch, a knee must be thrown within a specified time limit – and only to the body – in order for the clinch to not be broken up.
In most Kickboxing fights however (much like in Boxing), the clinch will signal to the referee to stop the action, break up the fight and reset the fighters in the middle of the ring.
3. Catching the Kick
A very common way to either initiate a clinch or to trip and sweep your opponent in Muay Thai – is by catching their kicks.
This can be done in a number of ways.
First, by hooking under their leg with your arm as they throw a round kick at your body. This then places you in close proximity to your opponent from where you can close in on them and start a clinch. Once in the clinch you can strike with an elbow or step forward and trip them to the ground.
You can also grab a hook under your opponent’s leg from when you’re already inside the clinch. When your opponent throws a knee to your torso, you can step back and hook under their leg – and then trip or strike with a knee of your own or with an elbow.
Second is by stepping back just out of range of their straight push kick and catching their ankle. This puts you at a further distance away from your opponent but sets you up perfectly to kick their supporting leg out from under them.
In Kickboxing, you are not allowed to catch the kicks of your opponent or to kick out their supporting leg.
4. Leg Kicks
One of the most common attacks in Muay Thai are leg kicks. This is because they are an extremely effective way of slowing your opponent’s advance, to take away their movement, and to potentially even end the fight from leg kicks alone.
In Muay Thai, the round house (Thai style) kick is the most common. This is where the shin is used to strike either the inside or outside of the opponent’s thigh. Although straight push kicks are also allowed to the thigh, straight push kicks are not allowed to the knee area because it can hyperextend the knee joint.
In order to defend leg kicks to the thigh in Muay Thai, a Thai fighter will lift their knee so that the kick is absorbed into the shin and not the soft thigh muscle (known as ‘checking the kick’).
In Kickboxing, the use of kicks to the legs vary. For example, in the IKF’s Unified and International Kickboxing rules, kicks to the inside and outside of the thighs are allowed. However, in the IKF’s Full-Contact American Kickboxing rules, kicks to the legs are not allowed and must be “above the waist only”.
Because of this, it is also less common to see the use of the shin to ‘check the kick’ in Kickboxing.
5. Trips & Sweeps
In Muay Thai, you are allowed to trip or sweep your opponent to the ground from a clinch position. A common form of this in Muay Thai is to catch your opponent’s kicks, and then to use a sweeping kick to take out their supporting leg from under them in order to knock them to the ground (see number 3 above).
However, you are not allowed to use a Judo style hip-throw from the clinch or to grab the legs of your opponent with a wrestling style takedown.
In most forms of Kickboxing’s styles and competitions, trips and sweeps of any kind are not allowed and neither is catching your opponent’s kicks.
Stylistic Differences Between Kickboxing & Muay Thai
With all the differences in style types and rules between Muay Thai and Kickboxing, it causes each form to also look stylistically different.
When it comes to the stylistic differences between Kickboxing and Muay Thai, there are three main things that clearly stand out, including:
- Head movement
- Fighting stance
- The pace of the fight
Head movement Similar to Boxing, Kickboxing has more of a focus on head movement. For example, when your opponent throws a punch, its common to see Kickboxers evade the punch with a slip, before returning with their own.
In Muay Thai however, there is more of a one-for-one approach. Throughout a Muay Thai fight, it’s common to see a Thai fighter take a shot and then give a shot – while keeping their head in place and just covering up with their hands to absorb their opponent’s punches, before returning fire with their own.
Fighting Stance Muay Thai’s fighting stance is very solid, which lends itself well to the one-for-one type of fighting. The Thai stance places most of the weight on the back foot, with the front foot being very light and bouncy on the floor.
This is so it is instantly ready to be brought into action and used for a push kick to keep your opponent at a distance and stop their attack.
In Kickboxing, the stance is much wider and has many similarities to Karate’s fighting stance – with much more emphasis on moving in and out of striking range.
Pace of the fight Normally in Muay Thai, fights start off very slow before picking up momentum as the fight goes on.
It is said that this is to give time for the spectators to place their bets at the beginning of the fight without missing any early action and to also build up the suspense before an all-out war in the final few rounds.
This slow start though, seems to be more of a traditional approach to fights in Thailand and is not seen as much in western Muay Thai fights.
In Kickboxing, however – like in MMA and Boxing – it’s not uncommon to see the action begin from the first bell and to continue to the last.