Differences between Kickboxing and Thai Boxing

Many people, too many people, confuse Kickboxing with Thai Boxing (also called Muai Thai): perhaps it is because of the generalization that many schools do in defining any fighting sport that uses upper and lower body strikes (e.g. punches and kicks) as Kickboxing.  I used the term fighting sport to indicate a martial art that gets practiced according to some sport rules: these rules define, among other things, what can be used as a striking weapon and what areas of the opponent’s body can be hit.

In general the correct definition for Kickboxing is what is also called American Kickboxing, the style initially defined in the late sixties / early seventies as Full Contact Karate.  The pioneers of this sport where people like Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis and Benny Urquidez: they eventually renamed it Kickboxing to indicate a Boxing fight with added kicks when got into disagreement with the traditional Karate people that were (and are) still fighting with little or no contact.  Several other styles get called Kickboxing while being obviously something else: Thai Boxing, topic of this post, is the typical example but Savate, a French style with some obvious differences gets called Kickboxing and even Sanda, a sport application of Kung Fu gets sometimes called Chinese Kickboxing.

Although there are some very obvious differences between Kickboxing and Thai Boxing I will try to make them very obvious for the neophyte:

  • Kickboxing is American and Thai Boxing is Thai… not that easy to spot to the untrained observer but the most obvious aspect of this difference is in the uniform that is generally adopted although there are exceptions.  The former one uses (and imposes during tournaments) long trousers while the latter uses broad silk shorts, usually in very bright colours.
  • Kickboxing uses the same range of punches from standard IBF Boxing plus back fist and knife hand strike together with all most obvious kicks: front, side, round, axe and so on, including all variations of jumping, spinning back.  Thai Boxing allows all of the above and adds elbow and knee strikes: in reality knees are considered kind of preferential weapon and they tend to deliver a high percentage of the most devastating blows.
  • In Kickboxing you cannot grab and hold any of the opponents limbs or body parts: Thai Boxing allows for example grabbing the opponent’s leg and hold onto it while striking at the rest of the body; it is also allowed to clinch and strike at the same time.
  • Kickboxing’s techniques can land on the opponent’s torso, face and head: no strikes are allowed to the legs, back or back of the head.  Thai Boxing can strike everywhere excluding the groin area.
  • Kickboxing is practiced wearing full protection kit made of gloves, mouth guard, groin guard, shin and foot pad: Thai Boxing fighters wear just gloves, mouth and groin guard.
  • Kickboxing’s competitions can follow Semi, Light or Full contact rules: Thai Boxing just applies to Full contact.

Just because video are better than words, now that a bit of explanation has been offered please have a look at these two examples I found.  The first is a friendly demonstration fight between Bill Wallace and Dominique Valera: please notice the variety of techniques and how spectacular they look.  If they were in a competition they would have been less spectacular and much more violent:

The second video shows a Thai Boxing fight.  Although the number of techniques available to Thai Boxing fighters is larger than most of the other fighting sports the actual number of techniques effectively used is generally smaller:

I hope you enjoyed this post and the video I selected as examples: any comment is, as usual, highly appreciated.

14 thoughts on “Differences between Kickboxing and Thai Boxing

  1. I agree for the most part with your article but I think your article isn’t entirely accurate.
    The Japanese developed their own brand of kickboxing in the early 60’s. Several karateka (I think from Oyama’s school) went to fight in Thailand and the sport grew even more popular then.
    There were other technical differences but the main one with American kickboxing is the use of the leg kick. In the US version, you had to kick above the waist all the time. The Japanese also incorporated the leg kick like the Thais do. This changes the whole game, as many US kickboxers experienced when they fought in Japan and Europe in the late 70’s and 80’s. Benny Urquidez was one of the few US fighters who also fought under those rules.

    Kenji Kurosaki, one of the fighters to go to Thailand in the early 60’s, established his Mejiro Gym and trained a lot of excellent fighters (the legendary Fujiwara amongst others) but also foreigners. Dutchman Jan Plas studied with him and brought kickboxing to Europe, where it took off and then paved the way for muay Thai.
    American kickboxing (no low kicks) was popular here during that era but it was overtaken by the Japanese version and then muay Thai.
    It took the US more than a decade to catch up to this evolution, as it continued to promote it’s own version where as in most other continents, the Japanese one and muay Thai kept replacing it.

    The whole evolution of the sport is something I’ve always been interested in. It’s changed a lot in the 20 years I’ve been following it.


  2. @Wim thanks for your comment and for the description you added to my article: I am aware of the different history that Holland had in the development of Kickboxing and how it managed to develop some of the top Thai Boxers in the world. I wasn’t aware of the intricacies of the Japanese kickboxing being developed. At the same time I have to say that in my experience I found, in the various European countries I have trained and with the variety of students that arrive in my club from overseas, many schools and associations of American Kickboxing while very few of the Japanese one. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

  3. Perhaps it is, I don’t know. That said, there quickly came a rift between the practitioners of the US version and the Japanese/Thai camps in the 80s. Simply because the latter are compatible with each other and not with the US version:
    many Japanese style kickboxers fought in muay Thai matches and vice versa. But only very few American style fighters crossed over to the other versions. So they ended up evolving into different directions, with the Japanese/Thai versions becoming more popular.

    Mind you, the US version is still alive today, I didn’t mean to imply that it wasn’t. Only that you find a lot less US style practitioners and galas today. Now it’s mostly Thai and MMA.


  4. @Wim it would be interesting to have some statistics and compare numbers about this topic: when I was still in Italy (1994), Wako Italy had about 30,000 members, all practicing American Kickboxing, between semi, light and full contact. Just in the last 10 or so years they started to add low kick and other styles that also includes Muay Thai.

  5. Thank you for this, It’s helped me understand the difference and the video’s helped as well the only thing I would change is the thai boxing video as it no longer exists. I think you wrote this wonderfully, Well done 🙂 xx

  6. I think the rules were a kind of compromise for two entirely different style of kick-punch fighters Massimo.

    They took the boots away from the Savate fighter, and they took the knees and elbows away from the Muay Thai fighter.

    After that, the rules were pretty similar to what they are in modern-day K1 I reckon.

  7. Yes, the video you posted shows some nice combinations. And, as there are no leg kicks, they can stand in front of each other and fight. There is not as much need need for the lateral movement seen in Savate.

  8. Pingback: Hvor kan man træne Kick-boxing og Muay Thai i København? « Muay thai i ministørrelse

  9. Hi Massimo.

    Greetings from Brunei! Great article on the differences between Kickboxing and Muay Thai. Having been practicing M.T. for a few months now, I agree with your observations on the differences between these two fighting sports.

    In addition, I think that the differences in rules lead to differences in the application of various techniques. Here are a few differences that I have noted between the way certain techniques are used in kickboxing at CARISMA and how they are used in my Muay Thai club. As I have only trained in one club of each sport, I can’t say whether these are general differences between KB and MT or just idiosyncrasies of one or other of the clubs:

    1. The guard position is more open in MT, especially with the front hand. This seems to be because of the vulnerability of a very tight guard to:
    a. A clinch which can trap the arms.
    b. An elbow strike, which can smash a tight guard into the face.

    2. Side kicks are not used very often. This seems to be because of the risk of the leg being caught and then struck with the elbow.

    3. High kicks and double kicks are also not used very often, for the same reason.

    4. Round kicks (medium and low) are used a lot, but the preference is to strike with the shin rather than the foot. This seems to be intended to keep the vulnerable striking foot away from the opponent’s elbow. We all know how painful this can be when it accidentally happens in KB – deliberate elbow strikes against the foot can legitimately be used in MT.

    5. Spinning techniques don’t seem to be used very often. I can only assume that this is because of the risk of being struck in the back while turning.

    The result of all this is that, as you correctly noted, although MT has more techniques available to the fighter, the actual number used is often smaller than in KB.

    See you around late October-ish!


  10. Hi Scott,
    thanks for your comment; as you point out rules and regulations of what can be done actually dictate strategy in the fight because of the various what/if scenarios. In my experience I notice that Thai Boxers actuall punch very little and in many occasions when you have a good boxer putting good combinations of punches in a Thai Boxing fight he/she manages to our score their opponent usually because of their relatively loose guard.

    Enjoy your staying and looking forward to seeing you back soon!

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