What Is Muay Thai Kickboxing?

Boxer performing a roundhouse kick to the body in a Muay Thai bout. Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand and is well-regarded among strikers worldwide.

Every country has a national sport. If it’s not officially recognized as a national sport, then it’s so popular within the country that it’s hard to separate the national identity from the sport. In the United States, that sport is American football. In Canada, it’s hockey. For most of the world, it’s football. In Thailand, it’s Muay Thai, otherwise known as Thai boxing.

Thai boxing is an incredibly popular sport in Thailand, with numerous stadiums all over the country hosting fight cards. Sometimes, they’ll host multiple fight cards per week. It’s popular beyond its home country as well, with 3,800 gyms all over the world.

Thai boxing is a combat sport, a martial art that’s known as the Art of 8 Limbs because it uses hands, legs, elbows, and knees. It also makes use of close-quarter combat with its focus on clinching.

Muay Thai vs Kickboxing

This focus on clinching actually separates it from kickboxing, as even full-contact kickboxing forbids the use of clinching, knees, and elbows are against the rules.

The attire is also different. In kickboxing, combatants wear specialized trousers and protective shoes, whereas Thai boxers wear shorts and fight barefoot. While there is a lot of overlap as Thai boxing is one of the many styles that kickboxers use, the two sports have different rulesets.

It should be noted, however, that there’s no unified ruleset for kickboxing and different organizations can adopt different rulesets.

There can also be a difference in the way fights are judged. Muay Thai fights are occasionally judged as a whole so a fighter that loses the first three rounds can be declared the winner if they dominate the next two, even if they do not knock their opponent out.

Kickboxing often employs the same 10-point must system as boxing wherein the winner of each individual round gets 10 points and the loser gets 9 or less.

The Basic of Thai Boxing

Let’s go over some Muay Thai basics. It incorporates the techniques of western boxing which were introduced to it in the early 20th century—jab, straight, hook, and uppercut. It also makes use of the spinning backfist, wherein the boxer spins on their heels to deliver a blow with extra momentum.

The two main kicks that are used in Thai boxing are the roundhouse kick, which generates power with hip movement, and the teep, a front kick that’s used to control distance. The main defensive technique in Thai boxing is the check, wherein a fighter will raise their legs to better absorb the impact of incoming kicks.

Woman training a slashing elbow during mitt work. Thai boxing incorporates a combination of knee and elbow attacks.

There are three elbow attacks in Thai boxing: the first is a slashing elbow technique. The other is the forward elbow, which is a strike wherein the arm is perpendicular to the ground to allow the whole forearm to smash into the opponent.

The third elbow attack is the spinning elbow. Much like the backfist above, the boxer spins on their heels in order to hit their opponent with their elbow.

Thai boxing’s most notable difference from other striking arts such as western boxing or karate is the lack of footwork and head movement. Thai boxers tend to be more flatfooted than practitioners of those disciplines, though many modern practitioners incorporate the footwork and head movement of western boxing.

The History and Folklore of Muay Thai

There’s not much recorded about the history of Muay Thai before the 19th century. Its origins, like the origins of many martial arts, are murky at best. Folklore posits that after the fall of Ayutthaya, invading Burmese troops rounded up thousands of Thai citizens and organized festivities to honor Buddha’s relics. The Burmese king then wanted to see how effective Thai fighters were against his own.

A Thai fighter, Nai Khanom Tom, was selected and subsequently pummeled the Burmese king’s champion. Nai Khanom Tom then ran the gauntlet, defeating nine more champions with no rest periods in between matches.

While the story is largely unverified, Thailand does celebrate Nai Khanom Tom Day every year on the 17th of March.

What is known is that it developed from ancient unarmed combat disciplines in what is now Thailand and that a French diplomat was present during an exhibition in the late 17th century.

The umbrella term for martial arts in Thailand was Muay Boran. It wasn’t until 1913 that the term Muay Thai came about. It was also around this time that western boxing techniques were integrated into the martial art.

The Cultural Significance of Muay Thai

Thai boxing has major cultural significance for Thailand. Not only is it the national sport of Thailand, but it’s also an incredibly popular pastime. There are two main stadiums that host Muay Thai fights: Lumpinee Stadium and Rajadamnern Stadium.

Both stadiums host multiple fight cards per week and becoming a champion of either stadium is seen as the pinnacle of the sport in Thailand. Winning the championships sanctioned by either stadium can strengthen a fighter’s argument that they’re the best Thai boxer in their weight class.

A leg kick being checked in the gym. Muay Thai is often seen as the most complete striking martial art in the world.

Thai Fighters

Within Thailand, Thai boxing is so popular that stadiums will even host fights between children as young as 5. While mixed-gender matches are not sanctioned, women train alongside male fighters and there have been many female Thai boxers to achieve notoriety.

Thai boxers are sometimes referred to as Nak Muay and foreign practitioners are referred to as Nak Muay Farang, which literally translates to “foreign boxer.” Curiously, some fighters will eschew using their real names when fighting and instead adopt stage names. These stage names will be based on the gyms in which they train, so it’s not unusual for multiple, unrelated fighters to share a last name.

Fighters do this as a way to honor their gym, their trainers, and the other fighters who train with them.

International Adoption

Outside of Thailand, Thai boxing is also incredibly popular. This is because of how effective it is as a striking discipline. As opposed to other, more traditional martial arts, Thai boxing actively seeks full-contact competition in order to pressure test itself and demonstrate its efficacy in real-world scenarios.

As such, Thai boxing has been adopted by kickboxers and mixed martial artists, many of whom regard it as the most effective striking discipline in the world because of how complete it is and its relative simplicity to learn.

It’s particularly useful in MMA because its focus on clinching is perfect for a grappling-heavy sport.

Other than combat sports, many people all over the world practice Thai boxing for self-defense and general fitness.

The Culture of Muay Thai

There is no belt system in traditional Muay Thai. Whereas a traditional martial arts gym will bestow a belt upon a pupil as a symbol of their skill, Thai boxing gyms generally do not use the belt system.

The closest equivalent would be the pra jiad, an armband that fighters wear. Some gyms will use different colors on the armbands as a substitute for the colored belt system, but that’s not the traditional practice.

That’s not to say that there’s no belt system in Muay Thai. Modern systems, such as Bang Muay Thai, will use the belt systems that are prevalent in other martial arts.

Speaking of traditional wear, there’s the mongkol (sometimes spelled mongkhon), the headband worn by boxers. These are not given to a fighter until their trainer deems them ready for the ring. They then wear them out to the ring, perform the pre-fight Muay Thai dance or wai kru. After the wai kru, the trainer will take the headband off the fighter and place it in their corner.

Modern Training

Current training methods focus heavily on conditioning. This includes training to increase strength and stamina such as cardiovascular exercises, body weight resistance movement, and occasionally weight training as well. Many gyms have fighters run laps to warm up.

The cornerstone of modern training in pad work. The trainer will put on a chest guard and hold focus mitts. They will then drill combinations with their fighters. This is how fighters develop proper technique and muscle memory as well as condition them for in-ring fighting. A round of mitts typically lasts between 3 to 5 minutes and fighters will go multiple rounds in a single session. In between rounds, fighters will shadowbox as a form of active recovery.

There will also be heavy bag training to work on striking power as well as reinforce what’s learned in mitt work.

Finally, there’s sparring, which will help fighters acclimate to real-world fights, and improve their timing and their ability to control the distance. Active fighters are discouraged from sparring too often, as they have to protect themselves from being injured in training.

Thai boxers are also trained to control their breathing, to breathe out when their strikes land so as to not get tired too quickly.

In the past, Thai boxers would use woven ropes. But nowadays, they use regular boxing gloves, hand wraps, shin guards, headgear, and mouthguards when they train.

Watching Muay Thai

Watching Muay Thai in Bangkok is a simple matter of turning on the television and flipping channels until you come across it as it’s broadcast almost every day. There are two main places to watch it live in Bangkok, the aforementioned Lumpinee Stadium and Rajadamnern Stadium.

The former holds fight nights every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. The latter holds events every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Between the two, there’ll be a fight card every night.

Sport can be officially part of a country’s identity, as is the case of Thailand with Muay Thai. Or it can be unofficially, as is the case of almost every country in the world and football. Thai boxing is intrinsically woven into Thailand’s history and its modern culture.

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