What is the difference between Kickboxing and Muay Thai?
If you’ve ever trained Muay Thai, you’ve probably either had someone compare it to kickboxing. Alternatively, you’ve had to say that it’s a sport like kickboxing in order for a layman to understand what an Earth you’re talking about. Then they will mistakenly call it Tai Chi in a later conversation.
On paper the two sports allow for very similar techniques, kicks to the leg, body and head are allowed, so are punches and so are knee strikes. Muay Thai also allows for elbow strikes and unlimited clinching, which are prohibited in kickboxing, as well as being a longer fight with a very different pace to kickboxing.
While on paper they’re quite similar, those differences as outlined make a world of difference, especially when factoring in the general level of competition.
What obstacles do kickboxers face in Muay Thai?
Kickboxers are faced with several problems when trying to cross over into Muay Thai, but let’s get the biggest one out of the way, the clinch. The clinch is what I like to call the ‘default state’ of Muay Thai. In the same way ground game is the ‘default state’ of MMA. While a fight doesn’t START in the clinch, nor does it even necessarily go TO the clinch. The Clinch, like ground game is the deciding factor. Stand up striking always has an out, you can evade, but to get up from the ground in MMA, or to break free of the clinch in Muay Thai requires an understanding of clinching.
If you do not know how to clinch, you cannot escape it. Meaning that if you enter a Muay Thai fight with no clinch knowledge, against a Thai, you have already lost. As soon as the Thai boxer falls into the clinch for whatever reason, they will work out to have no skill there, and will likely elbow and knee you until they get the stoppage. All the while the kickboxer is not able to defend themselves.
A kickboxer HAS to adjust to the skills of Muay Thai, as opposed to the Thai boxer who simply just leaves some of their skills at home (again, on paper, but we will cover this more in depth in part 2).
The other difference is that the fights are longer. Muay Thai fights are always five rounds, regardless of whether or not it is a title bout. This means more cardio. Kickboxing typically favours more explosive fighters, like Masato, Robin Van Roosmalen or Badr Hari. While the greatest kickboxer of all time, Giorgio Petrosyan, is able to win fights at a slow methodical pace, he is himself a Muay Thai practitioner, who happens to compete in kickboxing.
This means that for most kickboxers, they have not trained for the type of fitness required for Muay Thai, and already come in at a disadvantage because they need to train for longer spans of time to adjust, as opposed to the Muay Thai fighter who is already accustom to that pace.
What difference does competition make?
I mentioned earlier the difference in the level of competition. The raw truth, with no sugar coating is that the level of competition in Muay Thai is much higher than in kickboxing. Despite kickboxing enjoying niche popularity in Europe, and being more famous in the Western world than Muay Thai, Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand and there are genuinely thousands of competitors in Thai stadiums. This means a higher level of competitor to compete against, but also the Thai ‘system’ for creating fighters is very different.
Kickboxers likely trained once or twice weekly as kids, and professional kickboxers likely train two to three times a week, up to five days a week depending on if kickboxing is their full-time career, which it usually isn’t.
In Thailand, kids as young as 5 will train twice daily, six days a week for their entire lives until retirement, and will have been fighting for the majority of that time. This means that a 16 year old Thai boxer, will have had more training time at that young age, than most adult professional kickboxers have had. It creates an interesting dynamic where even if you are the older fighter, you cannot necessarily claim to have more experience. Twenty-year-old fighters can be considered veterans in Thailand, before they’ve even risen to the very top of the sport.
This means that the technical ability is not only super refined, but it’s perfectly honed for that particular fighters strategy. This just isn’t true of kickboxers. The level of technique you see from the greatest kickboxers, is quite standard for Muay Thai.
So has anyone actually done it?
Kind of. In the golden era of Muay Thai there were several Dutch kickboxers, such as Ramon Dekkers and Gilbert Ballantine, who were able to have a modest amount of success in Muay Thai – but they were not particularly dominant.
Toshio Fujiwara, who I wrote about here succeeded in becoming the Rajadamnern Stadium champion – but he did spend the majority of his career competing in Thailand, so a lot of what is listed here doesn’t necessarily apply to him.
So given these facts, why is the same not true of Muay Thai? Why are boxers from Thailand able to come to kickboxing and dominate it? Next time we will find out.