Boxing vs. Muay Thai: Who Would Win?

January 17, 2022

Boxing and Muay Thai are the two most prevalent among the many striking martial arts. While boxing has been the main striking art in the western world for the good part of the last two centuries, Muay Thai quickly rose to prominence since people discovered its great practicality and transfer of skills to mixed martial arts.

But when we compare the two as separate disciplines and not as building blocks for MMA, it’s safe to say that Muay Thai wins the direct battle with boxing. The art of 8 limbs brings too many weapons for even a very proficient boxer to deal with.

But as usual with these debates, we won’t be satisfied with a single sentence answer, so we will go deeper into boxing and Muay Thai and dissect their advantages and shortcomings.

What Is Boxing?

Unless you’ve lived under a rock, you at least have a good idea of what boxing is. We know that competitive fist fighting has been a part of human society from at least 3000 BC.

Then it has been an essential part of the ancient Olympics from 776 BC to 393 AD. The tradition of gentlemanly fist fighting is continued to this day. However, the modern incarnation of the sport evolved in England during the 17th century.

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Boxing is a combat sport where the goal is to knock out the opponent using only the fists in a match contested in multiple timed rounds. If no one manages to do that, the result is decided by judges based on a few different criteria.

The sport has great traditions and has long been an important factor in western culture. Many famous boxers transcended the sporting world and became influential celebrities.

The limited number of techniques allowed in boxing makes it harder for fighters to penetrate their opponents’ defenses. This forced them to employ more and more footwork and various other movements to find and create better openings. This emphasis on subtle techniques and tactics gave the name “the sweet science” to boxing.

What Is Muay Thai?

Muay Thai or Thai boxing is a striking martial art and the national sport of Thailand but nowadays is practiced extensively worldwide. Muay Thai is the “art of 8 limbs” because it allows striking with eight body parts- punches, kicks, elbows, and knees (two on each side).

Muay Thai can be traced back to 13th century Thailand. Its early form was used for warfare, much like any old martial art. Over time it evolved into Muay Boran, which can still be seen today, albeit only in demonstrations, and the sports version-Muay Thai. The current version of the sport was formalized in the 1920s by adopting many aspects of western boxing, like the timed rounds, boxing ring, and padded gloves.

On top of the rich, striking arsenal, clinch fighting, sweeps, and throws are permitted and even rewarded by the ruleset. This makes Thai boxing the most diverse striking style by far, and it has proven to be a great fit and the preferred striking discipline for many MMA fighters. 

Key Differences Between Boxing and Muay Thai

Muay Thai vs. Boxing

Muay Thai has adopted some crucial aspects from boxing. Still, the eight limbs of Muay Thai make quite a different spectacle. Let’s make a direct comparison between the two.

Rules

As I already said, Muay Thai has a lot in common with boxing regarding the rules. Both sports are contested in a square ring in 3-minute rounds with 1-minute rest in between. Muay Thai matches are always five rounds long, while boxing fights range from 3 rounds for amateurs up to 12 rounds for high-level bouts.

Knockouts and knockdowns are the most desired outcome in a fight. Still, if none of the fighters manages to incapacitate his opponent enough, the fight will go to the judges. At first glance, it may look that the scoring fights in boxing in Muay Thai are the same, but this is not true.

Each round is scored separately in boxing on a 10 point must system. At the end of the fight, each round score is summed. In Muay Thai, every successive round is more important. This often leads to the first two rounds being more of a feeling-out process, and the fight usually picks up from the 3rd.

In Muay Thai, kicks are scored better than punches, and sweeps, throws, and dumps are highly appreciated. Because of this, the accent on punches is greatly overshadowed by kicks.

Equipment

The main difference in the equipment used in both sports is that boxers wear shoes. In contrast, nak muay (term used for Muay Thai fighters) fight barefoot like most combat sports that allow kicking.

The padded gloves for Thai and western boxing are almost the same, with a few subtle differences that allow Muay Thai fighters better control in the clinch and when catching kicks.

Techniques

An indisputable fact is that boxers are the best punchers in the world. Other sports like Muay Thai use the same set of punches- straights, hooks, and uppercuts, but are light years away from the proficiency of boxers.

The extensive use of kicks in Muay Thai means that the subtle punching nuances are lost, and the hands often serve more as a setup than the main attack. Where boxers learned to transfer all their power into the punches, Thai fighters are known for the most powerful roundhouse kick of all styles.

Their kicks are not as diverse as the ones used in kickboxing but are by far the most powerful. For this very reason, the Thai-style roundhouse kick has been recognized and adopted as the “default” style used by the vast majority of kickboxers and MMA fighters.

The other staple attacks of Muay Thai are elbows and knees. The elbow is one of the hardest bones in the body and can cause heavy concussions and cuts and is expertly used by nak muay.

The other aspect that distinguishes Muay Thai from other striking arts is the clinch. As the judges handsomely reward throws and sweeps, fighters use them extensively. In boxing, the referee quickly separates the clinch, and there are strict rules about what is allowed during the clinch.

In Thai boxing, some fighters base their entire style around clinching and become very dangerous in close range, especially when they incorporate the elbows and knees. These skills lend themselves greatly to both self-defense and MMA.   

Footwork

One of the most telling differences between Muay Thai and boxing is the stance and footwork. The boxing stance is very sideways to give the opponent a smaller target, allow quick movements, and prepare the rear hand for powerful shots. The usual boxing stance also is lead-foot-heavy.

On the contrary, Muay Thai fighters mainly use a square stance and keep their weight mainly on the back foot to quickly fire a front kick or check an incoming kick.

Boxing’s footwork is elaborate and very complex. At the same time, in Muay Thai, fighters are generally flat-footed. They do not move as much, preferring to defend using blocks and checks and firing back a vicious counter immediately.

The extensive head movement from boxing becomes dangerous when knees and kicks are involved and if it’s used at all is much more subtle.

This does not mean there aren’t some high-level technicians in Muay Thai, with the likes of Saenchai and Lerdsila producing some mesmerizing matrix-like sequences.

But the general strategy in Muay Thai relies more on power and toughness than on finesse and precision. 

Strength & Conditioning

There’s a reason both boxing and Muay Thai structure their non-boxing conditioning work around high volumes of roadwork. High-level boxers and Muay Thai athletes have high VO2max values (an indicator of aerobic fitness), and both arts are highly aerobic.

Boxing conditioning should focus on the lower end of intensity with aerobic training and the very high end of intensity with alactic power intervals. Conditioning for Muay Thai should follow a similar conditioning structure to boxing.

The structure of strength training is similar between boxing and Muay Thai. Both arts require immense speed and power for striking, with most of the strength coming from the legs. Lifting weights for boxing is traditionally shunned. But as people become more educated and move away from traditional bodybuilding and powerlifting routines, they see considerable gains in punching power.

Muay Thai strength training has a similar approach to boxing, where the focus is on speed and power of the lower body. However, the addition of the clinch makes upper body isometric strength a vital aspect of strength training.

Boxing vs. Muay Thai For Self Defense

Boxing vs. Muay Thai For Self Defense

Both boxing and Muay Thai will give you a great set of skills for self-defense. In highly competitive full-contact combat sports, training without competing will condition your body and mind for violent confrontations.

But in pure versatility, Muay Thai wins for self-defense. The legs have a much longer range than the hands, which you can significantly use in a real fight. Getting inside the range to land powerful punches means you can also get hit by one.

But probably even better for self-defense are the clinch skills Muay Thai teaches. Too often, street fights end up in this position. With even modest knowledge and awareness, you will be able to dominate an opponent that has no idea what to do.

The fast movement and powerful punches of boxing, on the other hand, may be more useful in many situations. There is no quicker way to dismantle an opponent than blasting him with a fast 2 or 3 punch combination and then removing yourself from danger.

Keeping your distance and kicking the attackers’ legs and body may be too slow a tactic for the frantic chaos of real-life combat.

Boxing vs. Muay Thai For MMA

Boxing vs. Muay Thai For MMA

The comparison for effectiveness and transferability onto MMA, Muay Thai is the clear winner. MMA has the freest ruleset in combat sports. The many strikes and clinch work from Muay Thai transition easily with a few adjustments.

As I’ve already said in a previous paragraph, the Thai-style roundhouse kicks are the norm across all MMA.

Boxing indeed removes 80% of the available arsenal in the body. Still, the punching, distance control, and evasion are an excellent fit for MMA, so we mustn’t rule out the many benefits it brings to the cage.

As with all other martial arts, some adjustments have to be made for it to work in MMA. But the immense variety of strikes and the extensive clinch capabilities in Muay Thai makes it a better overall fit for mixed martial arts.

Fighters like Anderson Silva and Shogun Rua have successfully used a heavy Thai style. Sam-A Gaiyanghadao, a very accomplished Muay Thai champion, holds the Strawweight MMA title in One FC.

Can Boxing Beat Muay Thai?

It will be tough for a boxer to beat a Muay Thai fighter in a fight. We have a heap of evidence of boxers trying to fight in mixed rules, but they simply can’t find an answer for the kicks. The range of the legs is much longer, and the boxer cannot enter into a range where he is the most dangerous.

And if in the battle between boxing and kickboxing, the clinch is a bit of a no man’s land, against Muay Thai boxing loses badly in that position.

But if there is a big weak spot in Muay Thai, it’s the defense against punches. Traditional Muay Thai awards heavily emphasize kicks, and a strong defense against punches is usually not needed. This is one big area a boxer can exploit and win against Muay Thai.

As you can see in the following video, usually, the low kick proves to be the game-changer when fighting pure boxers.

Is It Easier to Learn Boxing or Muay Thai?

Both boxing and Muay Thai are complex and demanding combat sports that require years of dedication. It’s safe to say that boxing is both easier and harder. As a beginner, you can relatively quickly learn boxing basics and how to punch correctly.

This is great for self-defense and will give you an edge even after a short training period. On the other hand, high-level boxing is exceptionally nuanced and intricate. The competition is fierce, so reaching the higher levels of the sport is harder than in Muay Thai.

Make no mistake about it, though; boxing and Muay Thai are challenging and very rewarding. The analysis above is just for the argument about which is harder, not to say that winning a title in Muay Thai is easy in any way.

Should You Do Boxing or Muay Thai?

Choosing the right martial art for you depends entirely on the person’s preferences and sometimes even what gym you have closest to you. There is no correct answer to which of the two arts is better.

Both will teach you valuable physical and mental skills and are well worth your time. Hopefully, this short article has helped you decide which one is better for you.

About the author 

Plamen Kostov

Plamen has been training for the last 14 years in karate and kickboxing, before settling in for MMA for the last 5 years. He has a few amateur kickboxing fights and currently trains with and helps a stable of professional and amateur MMA fighters.


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