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Muay Thai vs Kickboxing: What Are the Differences?

The terms “Muay Thai” and “Kickboxing” are so often interchangeably used that so many people no longer see if there is any distinction at all. The confusion between Muay Thai vs Kickboxing lies mainly in that the latter is an umbrella term encompassing any stand-up combat sport that allows both punching and kicking. Muay Thai is one of the most popular Kickboxing styles, though there are other well-known systems as well.1  

Muay Thai vs Kickboxing - Can you identify which kickboxing style this picture is?

The traditional Muay Thai stance is squared (facing forward), so it’s safe to assume that this is a kickboxing match.

Aside from Muay Thai, for example, American and Dutch Kickboxing (also inaccurately called Dutch Muay Thai) are popular alternatives. All three of them may seem similar to the average onlooker. Once you know what to look for, however, it becomes plain to see how their complex histories influenced each distinct Kickboxing style. 

Since Muay Thai vs Kickboxing (both American and Dutch) have many things in common, they don’t differ much in their effects, fitness-wise. The decision, then, boils down to a matter of preference. If you can’t decide which specific discipline would be best to enroll in, here are a few steps to help you:

  1. Learn more about the similarities and differences of each kickboxing style so you can make a well-informed choice.
  2. Ask yourself this: Is there even any Muay Thay gym near me? How about Kickboxing? If the closest gym to you is about an hour away, it’ll be tough for you consistently turn up at the gym
  3. Enroll in beginner Muay Thai lessons to get a feel for it. Join American and Dutch Kickboxing sessions too. The best way to make an accurate assessment of your best fit is to try each of them out at least once. 

In this article, we will explore the similarities and differences between these three Kickboxing styles.

  • Overview

    American Kickboxing is a hybrid art that began in the 1970s. Karatekas (i.e., karate practitioners) disagreed with the traditional Karate point-fighting system. Thus, they branched out and created full-contact karate, establishing the Professional Karate Association.2 

    Full Contact Karate is the origin of American Kickboxing.

    Full Contact Karate is the origin of American Kickboxing.

    The PKA’s World Championships of Full Contact Karate brought together a mishmash of diverse fighting styles. Later, it instituted a standard set of rules to unify these styles, and so American Kickboxing came to be.

    On the other hand, Dutch Kickboxing has a long and convoluted history that began at around the same time.3 Dutchmen traveled to Japan to learn Japanese Kickboxing, which is the amalgamation of Muay Thai and Kyokushin Karate into a single fighting system. They brought Japanese Kickboxing back to the Netherlands and incorporated Western boxing. Years of refining this system resulted in the modern rules any Dutch Kickboxer would play by today.

    Muay Thai came to the Western world almost two decades after American and Dutch Kickboxing did.4 Muay Thai or Thai Boxing is also known as The Art of Eight Limbs. It is an eight-point striking system, using hands, elbows, knees, and shins to inflict damage. 

    In the late ‘80s, a Thai’s tenacious display in a match against one of the most popular American kickboxers at the time sparked the interest of the public and a few influential people.5 A few decades (and several American Muay Thai fighterslater, Muay Thai has become one of the most prominent fighting systems in the world.

  • 1 Philosophy

    Frankly, there is no known ideology to American Kickboxing. It earned the term “karate without philosophy,” though that’s not to say that its practitioners have no beliefs of their own. Generally, people who compete in Kickboxing already have foundations in other martial arts.6 In that case, their personal philosophies would then be greatly influenced by that of their original school. 

    Dutch Kickboxers (and the Dutch population, in general) have a mindset of “if it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much.” Aside from that, though, they also seem to have no overarching philosophy.

    The Muay Thai philosophy is the core of all traditional practices in Muay Thai.

    The Muay Thai philosophy is the core of all traditional practices in Muay Thai.

    On the other hand, traditional Muay Thai philosophy remains significant today. Muay Thai is a very orthodox martial art very deeply rooted in its core beliefs. This philosophy affects everything from the day students join their beginner Muay Thai lessons. The Thai believe that you can only grow as a fighter if your heart, mind, and body are all in sync.7 No amount of physical conditioning will prepare a fighter with little dedication and concentration for combat. This belief is why Thai practitioners follow a strict daily routine of training (at least) twice daily and immersing in Buddhism.8 

  • 2 Grading System

    The similarity in Muay Thai vs Kickboxing (both American and Dutch styles) is that there are no formal rankings. Instead, each practitioner’s performance and record speak for themselves. However, such a vague measurement of skill level makes it difficult for instructors to make accurate assessments. It isn’t uncommon to see schools ranking their students through a belting system for the sake of assessment.

  • 3 Rules

    WgMuay Thai rules are very generous. The use of hands, elbows, knees and shin are all fair play. Even groin strikes are legal moves (Yikes!), and while they do advocate the use of groin cups, it’s still pretty painful. Sure, international rules have since banned it, but traditional Muay Thai has been laxer since teeps can easily miss their intended target. Clinch fighting is common. Kicking the weight-supporting leg with the shin or top surface of the foot is also okay. However, the instep is a Judo technique and therefore not allowed.

    Muay Thai vs Kickboxing - Can you tell from the picture?

    Clinching (stand-up grappling) is a traditional Muay Thai technique illegal in other forms of Kickboxing.

    Dutch and American Kickboxing rules tone down the intensity and amps up the safety factor by implementing a few more restrictions. Clinches and grappling are not allowed. Sweeps are legal. The American Kickboxing rules ban elbows, knees, and kicks below the waist. These restrictions don’t always apply to Dutch Kickboxing. Compared to Muay Thai, which allows knees to virtually any body part, knees in Dutch Kickboxing are only allowed in body strikes.9

  • 4 Apparel

    Mouthguards, groin guards, hand wraps, and 10 oz (280 g) boxing gloves are standard in all forms of Kickboxing. Younger competitors and amateurs wear shin pads, kick boots, and a protective helmet for safety.

    Traditional Muay Thai Gear as seen in the film "Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior."

    Traditional Muay Thai Gear as seen in “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior.”

    Muay Thai vs Kickboxing is easily identifiable when it comes to matches. Clothing is usually limited to kickboxing trousers and Muay Thai shorts for men, and the same plus sports bra for women. (There may be some Kickboxing styles that dress more conservatively.) Muay Thai players may wear a mongkol on their heads and prajioud on their arms. Depending on the promotion, 4 oz open-finger MMA gloves may replace boxing gloves.

  • 5 Match Duration

    Kickboxing matches can have anywhere from 3–10 rounds of 2–3 minutes each, with a minute of rest in-between. Muay Thai has shorter matches, with about five rounds of 3 minutes each, with a two-minute rest in-between.10

  • 6 Stance and Footwork

    Given the differences in rules, it only makes sense that the stance differs as well. If you watch (or join) beginner Muay Thai lessons, you’ll see that the instructors teach the squared stance rather than angled. The hips face forward, elbows angled out, and most of the bodyweight is on the back leg. It’s a very open stance—luring in attacks to set up a counter.

    The most notable difference between the traditional Muay Thai stance vs boxing stance is how the body is angled.

    The most notable difference between the traditional Muay Thai stance vs boxing stance is how the body is angled.

    It’s an immobile stance that is susceptible to takedowns and well-executed sweeps, and it can barely block punches. However, this stance also makes it easier to shoot teeps, check kicks at any level, and rapidly drop (and defend against) elbow strikes. The traditional Muay Thai stance amps up the defense from kicks and elbows at the expense of mobility, stability, and defense from punches. 

    The squared stance works best for Muay Thai, but that’s not the case for American and Dutch Kickboxing. American Kickboxing adapts a very defined bladed stance. The Dutch Kickboxing stance isn’t very bladed but isn’t very squared either, landing more somewhere in-between.  

    The bladed stance more typically seen in American Kickboxing than Dutch Style Kickboxing.

    The bladed stance more typically seen in American Kickboxing than Dutch Style Kickboxing.

    American Kickboxing is basically karate with more punches and guards, while Dutch is basically boxing with some karate and Muay Thai. Both usually deal and receive higher volumes of punches than kicks, so they keep their arms close to their sides. It works for better defense and swift execution of punches. However, Dutch Kickboxers also have to be wary of elbows, so they slightly angle their elbows out to deal and defend against elbow strikes.

    The semi-bladed stance offers greater mobility for Dutch Kickboxers to evade leg kicks, though kick check response time lags compared to the fully squared stance. 

  • 7 Techniques

    The distinction between the Muay Thai vs Kickboxing becomes more apparent when fighters of different Kickboxing styles step into the ring. Dutch Kickboxers are very heavily oriented to Western boxing and will outbox their opponents. However, their arsenal of punches has a little more variety compared to boxing. Superman punches are legal, for example. The Dutch style favors barrages of punches punctuated by knees and leg kicks. Body and head kicks are legal, as well as front kicks, but they’re not really preferred.11 

    On the other hand, American Kickboxing allows only hits above the waist. Those hits can be punches or kicks, but no knees or elbows. It has a preference for explosive, long-range kicks, which some people believe is because promoters wanted flashier demonstrations of power. It doesn’t allow backfists as Muay Thai and the Dutch style do.12

    The traditional Muay Thai stance makes it easier to throw a teep.

    The traditional Muay Thai stance makes it easier to throw a teep.

    Muay Thai makes use of all eight striking points and puts greater emphasis on clinching. Any type of kick is fair play, and teeps are very commonly used. The roundhouse is a common favorite. Elbows are the weapon of choice in close range, and effective use is taught even in beginner Muay Thai lessons. In fact, the mighty elbow has been responsible for KOs time and time again. Clinches are the most distinct style-specific techniques, and dumps and sweeps are good scorers in Muay Thai.13

    Compared to Dutch Kickboxing, however, Muay Thai just doesn’t put as much force behind its fists. The Dutch style allows dumps and sweeps but doesn’t favor them as much.

    There is a lot of overlap between Muay Thai, Dutch Kickboxing, and American Kickboxing, so it’s plain to see why they aren’t so easy to distinguish from each other. Once you know what you’re looking for, though, it becomes much simpler.

  • Join the Family

    In Person

    If you’re in the area, come train the combat sport of your choice at the TFC in Logan, Brisbane. This martial arts gym offers Boxing, Muay Thai Kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It is home to to WBC World Muay Thai Champion Ben Johnston and his team of elite instructors, so you can rest assured that the quality of instruction is top-notch. 

    Online

    You can still enjoy quality instruction from Ben and the team even when you’re outside Brisbane. (If you’re having trouble with keeping motivated when training alone, check out this article.) Whether you’re a novice or an adept, you can check out our online Boxing program. Try it out, you won’t be disappointed. Find out more here.

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