Karate vs. Muay Thai: Which Is Better?

December 13, 2021

On paper, Karate and Muay Thai share a lot of techniques in common. But on the other side, these two differ a lot when it comes to rules, emphasis, the concept of training, and strategies. And if you wonder which one is better, you are in the right place. 

Muay Thai is an aggressive system where the primary objective is to hurt the opponent as much as possible with every punch, kick, knee, or elbow strike. Karate’s primary focus is on light contact, speed, and movement rather than power.

Is this enough to say that Muay Thai is better? Keep reading this article to find out all the answers and how these two compare in various aspects.

What Is Muay Thai?

Muay Thai is one of the most effective martial arts and a national sport in Thailand. It is also known as “Thai boxing” and is a part of the culture and identity of Thai people. Its origins go back to the 14th century, the Siam Kingdom, and the combat system called “Muay Boran.”

Siamese soldiers used this hand-to-hand system to fight against armed or unarmed enemies. Later on, Muay Boran matches would become popular among ordinary people and were a part of various festivals. It was like that before King Rama V had decided to support the creation of rules in the 19th century.

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They set an outline for what would later become known as a sport named “Muay Thai.” So in some way, you can look at Muay Thai as the sport version of the military system “Muay Boran.”

In modern times, Muay Thai is known as one of the most brutal combat sports that is very hard to learn. Fighters use kicks, punches, knees, and elbows to throw strikes with full power and cause injuries. Of course, the most significant events are held in Thailand, and being a champ over there means you are the best in the world.

What Is Karate?

Karate is, perhaps, the most famous martial art. It is well spread in all parts of the world, and its earliest origins come from various Chinese martial arts. It emerged in the Ryukyu Kingdom in modern-day Okinawan Islands in Japan in the 15th century. But it would come to the main islands when Japan annexed the Kingdom in 1895.

Karate has many styles and forms in modern times, with most centering on striking using arm and foot strikes. Original forms also teach elbow and knee strikes, the basics of grappling, and how to attack vital points. But, modern-day Karate is all about striking, and some of the most popular styles are:

  • Shotokan
  • Kyokushin
  • Goru Ryu

Karate has changed a lot over the years, and its emphasis moved from self-defense to competition. Most modern forms emphasize light contact, fighting under the rules, beating the opponent without power strikes, and causing damage. Though this sounds good on paper, it is not practical in real-life fighting. The only exception is Kyokushin which is the most complex style of Karate. 

What Are The Differences Between Karate And Muay Thai?

Differences Between Karate And Muay Thai

At first sight, it may look like Karate and Muay Thai share similar techniques like kicks, elbows, and knees. But these two are a world apart if we talk about the history, rules, strategies, and emphasis.

History And Origins

Muay Thai emerged in the 19th century in Thailand. Its origins come from the art called “Muay Boran,” a combat system used by Siamese soldiers. Over the years, people trained in Muay Boran would start fighting in matches in various festivals.

These matches were so popular that King Rama V decided to make them legal. Along with other people, the King supported the creation of the first rules and events. Later on, they would change the name to Muay Thai.

Karate has a long history, and its origins go back to the 14th century in the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawan Islands). It started to rise on Japan’s main island in the 19th century, where Karate quickly became a national sport.

Strategies And Emphasis

Muay Thai is one of the most aggressive martial arts that many people find too brutal. Like some other systems, it trains you to use all limbs as weapons to strike. But it differs a lot due to its emphasis on power, aggression, and damage.

The main goal is to throw each strike with full power and knock the opponent out cold, which is why most fights are brutal, bloody, and violent. The emphasis is on hard kicks and doing damage in the clinch with elbows and knees.

Karate strategies and emphasis differ a lot between different styles. Most focus on punches, kicks, and elbow and knee strikes. Yet, the emphasis is on light contact, speed, and beating the opponent with technique rather than sheer power. You are not allowed to throw power strikes in most styles.

Techniques

Muay Thai students learn basic western boxing combos, advanced kicks and mix these strikes with elbows and knees at close range. They also practice some basics of grappling like trips and throws, but these moves are not as important as striking. Here are the most popular Muay Thai techniques:

  • Punches (hooks, uppercut, jab, cross)
  • Kicks (roundhouse kick, teep, front kick, axe heel kick)
  • Knees (straight knee, curved knee, diagonal knee, flying knee)
  • elbows (spinning back elbow, horizontal elbow, vertical elbow, downward elbow)
  • Sweeps, trips, and throws

Karate is more versatile and includes many hand strikes, kicks, movements, stances, and blocks. Here is a brief overview of what type of techniques students learn in training:

  • Punches (Rising punch, hooks, eagle/open hand, parallel/scissors/flowing/mountain punch)
  • Foot techniques (front kick, jump kick, side kick, back kick, round kick)
  • More than 15 different stances 
  • Advanced blocks
  • How to attack vital points

Karate vs. Muay Thai For Self-Defense

Karate vs. Muay Thai For Self-Defense

Muay Thai is much better in self-defense since its emphasis is on power and damage. Once the fight breaks out, you need to finish the fight as fast as possible. There are no rules on the streets, points, or winning decisions, and you need to be a bit violent to stay safe.

On the other hand, Karate is not bad for self-defense, but its concept is just not as practical, and here is why. First of all, most karate styles focus on light contact and learning how to fight under the rules.

Training doesn’t include hard sparring. In fact, students do a lot of katas where they practice techniques alone. The main idea of Karate is to win a fight with technique, speed, precision, and fast movement rather than using power. This way, you can protect yourself on the streets without hurting the attacker and causing severe injuries, which on paper, sounds good.

But in reality, street fights are chaotic brawls where you can lose your life in a split of a second. The last thing you need is to worry too much about the amount of force you are using.

Like Karate, Muay Thai trains you to fight under the rules, and students rarely learn self-defense tactics. How does that make it better than Karate, you may ask? It is a much more complex style where fighters throw each strike with violent intention to hurt the attacker.

Training includes a lot of heavy sparring where you trade strikes in a spontaneous action with the partner. This is crucial because full contact sparring is the best way to mentally and physically prepare for actual combat. There is no way to develop automatic reactions or feel for distance doing katas.

Sparring at least once per week is the best way to prepare for actual combat. You would learn how to keep the fear and adrenalin low, assess your situation, and effectively apply techniques you learned in training.

Karate vs. Muay Thai For MMA

Karate vs. Muay Thai For MMA

Muay Thai fits much better within the rules of cage fighting. Though it won’t teach you how to grapple or defend takedowns, it is a total package when it comes to striking. In this day and age, just about every fighter must have at least basic Muay Thais skills to succeed in the game.

You may get through the regional scene, but sooner or later, the lack of top striking defense would backfire on you. MMA is a combat sport where fighters can use all limbs as weapons to throw kicks, boxing combos, elbows, and knees.

They also fight at all ranges, including in the clinch, as much as they want. Does all of this sound familiar? Yes, Muay Thai trains you for all of this, which is why it is the most effective striking art for MMA. Other combat systems like boxing or Karate are also sound. Still, these are a bit limited and less versatile and efficient than Thai boxing.

What Thai boxing brings to the table are fast and powerful kicks which play a significant role in MMA. In fact, we can see MMA fighters finishing a fight utilizing this specific technique in just about every event in this day and age.

The other significant aspect is the vicious elbows and knees in the clinch. These strikes can cause deep cuts, severe bleeding and instantly force the ringside doctor to stop the fight. Karate is also present in cage fighting, but not as much due to its emphasis on light contact and point fighting rules.

Karate vs. Muay Thai — Which One Is Harder To Learn?

Karate is a more versatile martial art and involves far more techniques, which is why it takes more time to master. Due to belt ranks and strict promotional criteria, the progress is also much slower. All things considered, it takes close to 1 year for a beginner to learn all the basics and around 4–6 years to reach a black belt.

Of course, this is based on the style of Karate, your talent, and many other factors. Training is not that hard, and the risk of injuries is low since the emphasis is on light contact.

It takes more time to master Karate, but this doesn’t mean that it is more complicated than Muay Thai. The thing is, Muay Thai techniques are quite direct, and as an amateur, you won’t struggle too much with the basics.

An average person needs around six months to learn stances and mix strikes. If you stay dedicated to classes, expect to reach an advanced level after approximately 2–3 years of training.

Remember that Muay Thai training is cardio intense and challenging on your body. It would push your mind and body over the limits in just about every training session, and not many people can keep up with this relentless tempo.

It is hard, and we are not going to lie, you would suffer a lot in training. But at the same time, this is the price you need to pay to learn everything about actual combat.

Karate vs. Muay Thai — Who Would Win In A Street Fight?

Karate vs. Muay Thai  Who Would Win In A Street Fight

This one is a tricky question to answer since both arts have many pros and cons. Who would win in a street fight comes down to the individual skillset and place of the fight.

As a more brutal style oriented towards power, Muay Thai has the upper hand if the fight is in a closed space. By this, we mean inside the bar, room, hall, or any other closed area where Thai boxers could grab the neck and pull the famous Thai clinch. Once in this position, all karateka would have difficulty escaping or blocking the strikes.

On the other hand, Karate has an edge if the fight is in an open space, like a parking lot or a street, for instance. Most karatekas need space to operate to perform at the best of their abilities.

They make up for the lack of power with fast footwork, angles, blitz attacks, precision, and speed. Once you give a karateka a space to work, Thai boxers would have difficulty closing the distance, cutting their movement, or landing anything clean. Despite the lack of power, karate fighters can easily overwhelm them with speed and precision.

Just look at skilled karateka in MMA like Stephen Thompson. It’s tough to catch them or predict what they will do next.

Muay Thai vs. Karate — Which One Is Better For You?

Both Muay Thai and Karate have many pros and cons and to say which one is better is not easy. In the end, which one is better for you depends on what you want to achieve with your training. But overall, it’s fair to say that Muay Thai has an edge in most aspects.

Most karate schools in modern times focus too much on competition, fighting under point fighting rules, and doing a lot of katas. Training is safe and very popular among kids as their introduction to the world of martial arts and combat sports. You rarely see grown adults joining karate classes; they usually choose Muay Thai or boxing instead.

Muay Thai should be your option if you want to learn how to fight and defend yourself on the streets. It will teach you all about the physical and mental aspects of intense combat and prepare you for most scenarios you may face on the streets.

Training doesn’t include any belt ranks, promotional criteria, or traditions and uniforms. The only thing you need to do is to stay consistent, leave it all on the mats in every session, and the results will come in a brief period.

On top of that, Muay Thai is also excellent if you want to lose weight and get your body in top shape. Working on the heavy bag, sparring, or hitting the pads burns many calories and activates all the muscles in your body. 

About the author 

Tomislav Zivanovic

Since 2017, Tomi has been working within the martial arts media, writing unique and creative articles about martial arts, and covering the most famous combat sports events. He works with some of the biggest martial arts blogs and websites like Middleeasy and Martial Arts Unleashed.


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