Muay Thai and kickboxing are like first cousins. They are closely related but still very distinguishable from each other. Because they are the two premier kicking striking sports on the planet that include kicks, they are often compared to each other. Many fighters cross-compete both ways with a few adjustments to their game.
If we have to decide which is “better”, you might say that Muay Thai has the edge because it allows elbows and full upper body clinching. But the answer is not that simple, and I will try to quickly point out the notable differences in this article.
Rules and techniques
The major factor that determines each combat sport’s character is its rules. In Muay Thai, you can strike with any part of the body except the head. This means hands, feet, elbows, and knees, which are often referred to as an “8-point system of striking”.
Kickboxing is not as uniform as Muay Thai, as there are a myriad of styles that are all broadly grouped under the term kickboxing. We will refer to kickboxing only to the most popular style, called K-1 style kickboxing, which is used in all the major organizations like K-1, Glory, One FC, and so on.
In kickboxing, you can punch and kick. Knees are allowed but only to a certain extent, and clinching is very limited. In kickboxing, a lot of emphasis is placed on punches, so boxing combinations, head movement, and footwork are extensively used. Kicks can be borrowed from different styles depending on the fighter, which can lead to some more exotic strikes like the axe kick, rolling thunder or the Brazilian kick being used.
Muay Thai fighters use more straightforward moves. Kicks are thrown with devastating power and are very rarely flashy. In most cases, punching is rudimentary and emphasis is placed a lot more on power and timing. A Nak Muay prefers to land a precise and devastating counter attack rather than build combinations.
The second aspect that differentiates the two sports is the philosophies and cultural norms of both. They actually shape the fights more than the actual rules.
Kickboxing is designed to be fast-paced and entertaining. This is the main reasoning behind the decision to limit clinching and to reward exciting techniques. Despite that, defensive techniques and movements are also very frequently employed.
On the flip side, Muay Thai is steeped in tradition and the flow of the fight is guided by it. Fights start slow to give the crowd time to gamble and to familiarize themselves with the fighters. Then the action ramps up with each round, with the 5th round being the culmination.
Defensiveness and backward movement are never looked at kindly by the judges, so Thai fighters always fight aggressively and try to keep their ground and balance. You need to keep in mind that there are different styles of fighting within Muay Thai, but the vast majority of Thai fighters fight as I’ve described.
Some details about the differences you can hear here:
Is muay thai or kickboxing better?
Both styles can learn from each other and, in fact, many fighters have when they go and compete in the other style or transition into MMA. Muay Thai has heavily influenced modern kickboxing after the legendary fight between Rick Roufus and Changpuek Kietsongrit in the 80s, and some of the greatest Thai champions learned more intricate western punching en route to their titles.
To summarize, Muay Thai is more complete in terms of weapons used, but the variety in all the strikes, in addition to the footwork and movement in kickboxing, makes the field very even between the two.