Muay Thai vs Kickboxing – What’s the Difference?

Muay Thai and kickboxing are two martial arts that are similar in ways, but with many differences too.

Both focus on kicking, but in Muay Thai you can also use your elbows and knees as well as your hands like in kickboxing.

Clinching, throws, and sweeps are also allowed in Muay Thai but these are illegal in kickboxing.

In this breakdown, we’re going to cover the basics of both and then highlight the similarities and differences.

Also, don’t miss the legendary video of the Muay Thai vs Kickboxing fight between Rick Roufus and Changpuek Kietsongrit at the end.

Muay Thai Basics

Muay Thai stems from the martial art created by the Thai army in the 13th century when it was defending the kingdom.

Many of the soldiers were unarmed so they needed to be able to fight with their bodies as well.

This is why Muay Thai is referred to as 8 limbs as fighters can use the following:

  • 2 hands
  • 2 elbows
  • 2 knees
  • 2 legs

In Muay Thai the aim is to deliver powerful kicks to the opponent to try to knock them out. There’s also a point scoring system so judges can determine who wins a fight if it goes the distance.

Muay Thai translates to Thai Boxing but kicks are more prominent in the sport.

Fighters aim at the calves, thighs, and torso of the body to injure the opponent and score points. You will see experienced Muay Thai fighters going for the head too.

The fact that knees and elbows are allowed makes this one of the deadliest martial arts.

An elbow to the face can cause a nasty cut and the close-range knees in the clinch can end in a knockout if delivered to the liver area.

Muay Thai does teach defense as well, especially if you learn the Muay Femur style, one of the five styles of Muay Thai.

The Burmese martial art, Lethwei, has many similarities to this. See our article on Lethwei vs Muay Thai.

Kickboxing Basics

There are different varieties of kickboxing which mainly change based on the country.

For example, American kickboxing stems from boxing and karate. This is why if you’re a good kickboxer then you can easily apply what you know with your hands to boxing.

You need to have great footwork in kickboxing as the aim is to bounce on the tips of your feet and then strike an opponent with a heavy kick to the head or chest.

There are also a wide variety of kicks in kickboxing compared to Muay Thai such as the axe kick and spin kick.

You’ll often see kickboxers take a few steps back after an attack too unlike in Muay Thai where a fighter will carry on the offensive at close range.

A kickboxer’s head movement is more similar to boxing than Muay Thai too. This is because you want to remain a moving target so it’s harder to get hit.

Similarities between Muay Thai and Kickboxing

There are a few similarities between Muay Thai and kickboxing and these are obvious in the basics of each.

As they are both striking martial arts the six basic boxing punches are used in both.

Then, some of the kicks are also similar. For example, the left and right foot jab in kickboxing are almost the same as the teep kick in Muay Thai.

The roundhouse kick is also the same. Although fighters in either discipline will execute it slightly differently.

Differences between Muay Thai and Kickboxing

Now it’s time to look at the differences between Muay Thai and kickboxing.

Types of Kicks

We’ll start by looking at the main focus area of the kicks themselves.

In Muay Thai you always want to kick with the middle of the shin to inflict the most damage with the least amount of pain to yourself.

In kickboxing, you also kick with the middle of the shin like with roundhouse kicks, but you mainly kick with the lower shin area and your foot too.

This is why your shins need to be conditioned for Muay Thai more so than for kickboxing.

In Muay Thai, you’d never kick with your foot as you don’t want to risk breaking any bones in it.

Also, kickboxers make use of more exotic kicks like axe kicks, the side whip kick, and spinning kicks.

Some Muay Thai fighters will use these too sometimes, but not as often as in kickboxing. You can see this when seeing Saenchai’s impressive cartwheel kick.

Use of elbows and knees

One of the main differences is that in Muay Thai you can use your elbows and knees to strike your opponent.

This is against the rules in kickboxing which only allows the use of your punches and kicks.

With the use of these, it makes it a much more brutal and bloody fight.

Clinch, sweep, and throws

The other moves that are illegal in kickboxing are clinching, sweeps, and throws. 

In Muay Thai clinching is a key part of the fight. You’ll even see kids in Thailand practicing this with a partner every day that they train. One of the aims of the Muay Thai clinch is to deliver powerful blows from the knee at close range.

Sweeps are another important move in Muay Thai. You’re allowed to take an opponent’s legs away by sweeping their standing leg when you catch their kick.

The aim is to land them on the floor of the ring. Throws can be used too for the same objective but remember all these moves aren’t allowed in kickboxing.


Kickboxers are light on their feet and seem like they’re constantly bouncing around on tiptoes.

This allows them to attack and then withdraw to dodge any strikes from the other fighter. There are many similarities in the movement of kickboxing and taekwondo.

Muay Thai fighters don’t bounce around as much as kickboxers, but they aren’t stuck to the ground either.

You’ll see that Muay Thai fighters will remain light on their front foot so they can teep (push kick) or move back quickly if needed. Or, even switching between feet stances to distract the other fighter.


Muay Thai rounds are fixed at 5 rounds of 3 minutes with a 2-minute break between each round.

This can be the same in kickboxing for professional fighters, but it depends on the jurisdiction of the fight. Usually, there is only a 1-minute break between rounds in kickboxing like in boxing.

Also, amateur kickboxing fights are 3 rounds of 3 minutes.

The scoring is also different. In Muay Thai you’ll get fewer points for a clean punch than you will for a clean kick, elbow, or knee. This also applies to clinching and sweeps too.

Also, in kickboxing a fight can end by a TKO if a fighter is knocked down three times in a round, this isn’t the case in Muay Thai.

Muay Thai vs Kickboxing Fight

In 1988, Rick Roufus a famous American kickboxer at the time fought the Muay Thai fighter Changpuek Kietsongrit.

There were rules in place for this fight that didn’t allow knees, elbows, clinching, sweeps, or throws as is common in Muay Thai.

It’s an interesting video to understand the differences between kickboxing and Muay Thai.


There you have it, our Muay Thai vs Kickboxing overview which compares the two martial arts side by side.

The key differences between the two are that some Muay Thai strikes and moves are illegal in kickboxing.

These are the elbow and knee strikes, as well as the fact that there’s no clinching, sweeps, or throws allowed in kickboxing.

Another thing you’ll notice if you watched the video above is the movement of the two fighters.

Kickboxers move around the ring constantly on the tips of their toes ready for a quick strike. Whereas, Muay Thai fighters are agile but do not hop around the ring like a kickboxer.



Which is better kickboxing or Muay Thai?

It’s hard to say that one is better than the other as the rules are different. In Muay Thai you have the chance to hurt your opponent with knees and elbows which aren’t allowed in kickboxing.

Should I learn Muay Thai or kickboxing first?

It doesn’t matter which one you learn first just go to your local Muay Thai or Kickboxing gym and get started.

You’ll be able to take some traits from one to the other if you decide to switch in the future.

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