For somebody who has been practicing kickboxing since before it was given this name I find somehow irritating when people confuse it or, worse, deliberately misuse its name for commercial reasons. Most martial arts, despite attracting some time interesting numbers of keen followers, failed to attract the real interest of the masses in terms the education systems, TV coverage and commercial sponsorships. The only exception, over the last decade or so is the growing popularity of MMA.
If we can thank Bruce Lee for creating a huge awareness and interest for martial arts thanks to his movies in the 60ies and 70ies we could thank Jean Claude Van Damme for helping Kickboxing becoming a main stream martial art and sport thanks to his movies of from the late 80ies and early 90ies. So while if you are practicing Tang So Do or Wing Chun you still have to explain to people what you do when you tell people to be training Kickboxing most of them will have at least a clue of what you do.
For this reason many organizations are promoting their martial arts as Kickboxing even when they are practicing something else and they should really keep its original name. I will list below the 5 martial arts to me known that are all confusingly called Kickboxing while just one of them should be it.
Original called Karate Contact to differentiate from the no-contact karate competitions that still take place nowadays. This martial art was initially practiced as a form of freestyle karate that allowed contact during sparring and competitions; it then developed into adding more appropriate boxing punches and combinations of kicks and punches. Targets for all punches and kicks are the front part of the body and face, no low kicks are allowed. American Kickboxing is practiced with full protection kit, boxing gloves, mouth guard, groin guard, sheen pads and foot pads. The uniform usually includes a t-shirt or jacket and long trousers.
Muay Thai, also called Thai Boxing or Thai Kickboxing is a form of sport fight originated in Thailand and it allows one of the most complete and harsh fighting scenario for a sport bout. Muay Thai allows punches, kicks, elbow and knee strikes to all parts of the body. While training is usually performed while wearing a reasonable level of kit such as gloves, mouth guard, groin guard and sheen pads, fights are performed without any leg protection.
The origins of Japanese Kickboxing are rooted in Muay Thai. It all started in th 60ies when a Japanese Karate master, after seeing a Muay Thai fight decided, to adopt a similar style fight full contact sparring. Japanese Kickboxing has now evolved into K1 a world popular fighting sport that looks similar to Thai boxing, excluding elbow strikes; that means it allows punches, kicks and knee strikes to all parts of the body, excluding groin. K1 has regular followers and practitioners in Japan, Europe and USA with TV coverage and large sponsorships. Typical uniform for Japanese Kickboxing is just shorts and perhaps a vest.
Also called French Boxing (or Boxe Française) is a French version of fighting sport with a number of differences compared to the rest of similar martial arts. In Savate both punches and kicks are allowed but they limit the target for the formers to the front of body, above the belt and face, e.g. similar to IBA boxing; quite confusingly kicks are instead allowed to hit the whole body, including back and legs. The uniform used for Savate is also very typical as it’s a Lycra fabric full body suit and they wear boots instead of foot pads.
Sanda or Sanshou
Sanda, also called Chinese Kickboxing, was originally developed by the Chinese military based upon the intense study and practices of traditional Kung Fu and modern combat fighting techniques; it is a full contact form or Kickboxing usually practiced as a fighting application of various kung fu styles like Shaolin or Wu Shu. Its freestyle philosophy embraces a sport fight with little rules, where kicks and punches to any area of the body (excluding groin) are allowed; throws are also possible but the fight gets stopped as soon as the fighters hit the ground (e.g. no grappling and submission).
So in my opinion just American and Japanese Kickboxing have the legitimate right to be called Kickboxing while the remaining three are getting free publicity by the big popularity that the name Kickboxing has gained over the last 20 years or so. This list is the most accurate to the best of my knowledge; it relies on my over 30 years experience in martial arts and research I did online, both on Wikipedia and other sources. If you have any suggestions for amendments please leave a comment.