Difference between Kickboxing & Muay Thai

(Originally published at Muaythaipros)

What is Kickboxing?

Kickboxing can basically mean any sport that includes the use of hands and kicks in a full contact setting. That is, kickboxing utilizes the 4-point striking system (punches and kicks) while Muay Thai utilizes the 8-point striking system (punches, kicks, knees, elbows) and the ‘full’ clinch. The clinch in kickboxing is a means of tying up the opponent for a positional reset. Some kickboxing rules (K1) allow for a partial clinch from which 1 strike can be thown before the ref resets the fighters. However, in Muay Thai, competitors are not reset once they clinch but must attack and defend while one party is active; a reset only happens when both parties are inactive in the clinch.

To confuse things a bit further, Kickboxing has a number of different martial arts grouped under the term. The short of it is that Kickboxing, in its original form, was a style of karate (Kyokushinkai) with boxing gloves thrown on that originated in the 60’s. It was often called Full Contact Karate. Kickboxing (or American Kickboxing as it was known) was popularized way back in the 80’s with movies like Kickboxer staring Van Dam. Kickboxing, eventually, became a catch all term for any sport that combined Kicks with boxing. To muddle the waters even more, Muay Thai fighters often participate in Kickboxing fights.

I want to point out that MODERN kickboxing has evolved over the past few decades. The style of kickboxing that was ubiquitous in the 60'-80’s has now evolved, as a sport, to a style more similar to traditional Muay Thai. The old style of Kickboxing (known as American Kickboxing) can still be found around, however, known as Full Contact Karate. It’s generally only practiced competitively in the Karate world, however. Kickboxing, in the modern sense, refers to the style found in K1/Glory.

There are a number of styles of kickboxing

  • American Kickboxing
  • Dutch Kickboxing
  • K1 Kickboxing
  • Chinese Kickboxing (San Shou)
  • Muay Thai

Let’s look at each of them briefly.

American/Western Kickboxing
What is American Kickboxing

Full Contact Karate (Karate with boxing gloves) that was popularized during the 60’s-80’s. Unlike Japanese Kickboxing, American Kickboxing was not influenced by Muay Thai, but rather developed free from its influence (hence the kicks are completely different, the Karate movement and style very much present in the sport, complete unfamiliarity with low leg kicks, and kicks are not checked via shins).


American Kickboxing, itself, is a blend of (Japanese) Karate (usually the forms that include full contact sparring, this being mostly Kyokushin Full Contact Karate) and Boxing. As such, if you look at the Karate part, you can trace the roots back both to the ancient Asian roots in feudal Japan. But the blend of the two arts in the form of Full Contact Karate started appearing, in sport form across the US, in the 60’s.


Modernization of Full-Contact Karate. The kicks and punches are karate based.

4-point striking system:

  • Kicks only allowed ABOVE the belt (no low kicks)
  • Throws, sweeps, and take downs not allowed
  • Clinch forces immediate reset of fighters’ position

Example of American Kickboxing

Here is the best example of a pure, untainted, American Kickboxing style in action vs. a pure Muay Thai style. This video is from the 80’s before there was any crossover between the two arts and huge amount of misunderstanding about Muay Thai from America. This is basically a blend of traditional karate styles and western boxing; there is NO Muay Thai influence.

For a good intro to this style of kickboxing, watch the fight below. One of the top American Kickboxers comes to Thailand to fight a Thai Muay Thai fighter, but under modified rules (no clinch, no elbows, no knees, no grabbing kicks, no kicking supporting leg).

Note the difference in each fighter’s movements and attacks.

K-1 / Japanese Kickboxing
What is K-1 Style Kickboxing?

These days, when someone refers to Kickboxing, they likely mean a K-1 style. K-1 is actually a Kickboxing PROMOTION (just like UFC is a promotion, while Mixed Martial Arts is the sport). It has since evolved from a tournament name with a specific rule set to an actual brand to arguably a martial art ‘style’. These days, K1 is pretty much used as the everyday term for a style of Kickboxing that’s sort of a marriage between Muay Thai and American Kickboxing — a bridge between the two distinct styles, if you will, though it was developed separately (and distinctly) from American Kickboxing (which did NOT have a Muay Thai influence).

The History of K-1

K-1 started off in Japan in 1993 as a tournament where the best kickboxers from a variety of backgrounds (dutch kickboxing, karate kickboxing, boxers, etc) were invited to fight each other — as sort of original UFC but for kickboxing artists.

K-1 had a number of tournament formats from the original Grand Prix to the K-1 World Grand Prix, to the K-1 World Grand Prix Final Eliminator (16 Man Tourney), and K-1 World Grand Prix Final. As of 2003, K-1 introduced the K-1 World MAX tournament which is the 70 kilo Middleweight division. K-1 ran into serious financial difficulties in 2011 and was sold multiple times to different companies before being restructured.

K-1 is directly tied into Japanese Kickboxing.

The History of Japanese Kickboxing

If we are looking at the actual style of Kickboxing found in K-1 (remember, K-1 is a Promotion not necessary a style), known as Japanese Kickboxing, what we actually have is a legit fusion between Muay Thai and Traditional Karate. This happened way back in 1959 when a Karate master Tatsuo Yamada became interested in making a full contact version of Karate, of which did NOT yet exist in Japan. Yamada invited a champion Thai fighter to Japan and began to train Muay Thai with him. Osamu Noguchi, a well known boxing promoter in Japan also studied with this Thai champion. This marked a burgeoning interest in Muay Thai . Several years later (1963), several Japanese Karate fighters were even sent to Thailand to fight in Lumpinee against Thai boxers in the famous stadium. Eventually, Noguchi, after studying Muay Thai, combined it with Karate to form a new style he called Kick boxing. In 1966, the The Kickboxing Association was founded by Noguchi and the first official Kickboxing event was held. This marks the start of Japanese Kickboxing and could be considered the beginning of the K-1 movement.

The K-1 Rule Set

K-1 allows knees and a short clinch (where you can throw a knee or sweep the opponent).

6 point striking system (punches, kicks, knees) Kicks allowed to both high and low parts of body Limited clinch fighting allowed (a few strikes allowed from clinch such as knees before ref breaks it up)

Dutch Kickboxing
What is Dutch Kickboxing?

A style of kickboxing that emphasizes a strong western boxing style with frequent, devastating low (muay thai) leg kicks. The Dutch have a different take on the way low kicks are thrown, however, and often angle into the low kick more (this will be shown later in the article).

Dutch Kickboxing is often trained as a Dutch style of Muay Thai, with again, lots of boxing added into the classic Muay Thai arsenal. If you fight a Dutch Kickboxer/Muay Thai boxer, you better be ready for a barrage of hard low kicks and heavy boxing! Quite a few of the best K1 fighters have been Dutch Kickboxers.

The History

The Dutch style started in 1976 when kickboxing was formally introduced into the Netherlands. Japanese kickboxing and kyokushin karate have had significant influences on the Dutch style over the years and later one, Muay Thai added to the pot. Indeed, the relationship to Muay Thai is quite strong — the founder of the 1973 Dutch Kickboxing Association, Harinck, also founded the WMTA (World Muay Thai Association) in 1983 and the EMTA (European Muay Thai Association) in 1984. So you can see the connection with Muay Thai and Kickboxing is quite strong.

Chinese Boxing (Sanshou)
What is Sanshou / Sanda?

A Chinese version of Muay Thai, but one that specializes on punches, kicks, wrestling, throws, and sweeps. Elbows and Knees are not emphasized like Muay Thai, but in some Sanshou rulesets, they are allowed. Unlike American Kickboxing which has it’s roots in Traditional Japanese Karate and Western Boxing, Japanese Kickboxing which was a fusion of Muay Thai, Karate and Boxing, or Dutch Kickboxing which merged elements of Karate, Muay Thai, and Boxing, Sanshou has it’s roots in Kung Fu. Sanda (as Sanshou is called in China) takes a number of KungFu styles and modifies them for Ring combat. You might think of Sanshou as an umbrella term for various blended full-contact KungFu styles. Indeed, Sanshou is not a specific style in the way that Kickboxing is not a specific style but an umbrella term for individual styles modified for full contact ring fighting.

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to ignore Sanshou for the most part. You’ll often find Sanshou artists competing under Muay Thai rules (if Sanshou fighters fight OUTSIDE of China) and Nak Muay competing under Sanshou rules, if they fight in China. You can find plenty of Muay Tha vs Sanshou fights on youtube.

If you watch a pure Sanshou match, it kind of looks like a cross between Muay Thai and Wrestling and Judo. The straight out clinch game, knees, and elbows are not as developed as they are in Muay Thai, but on the other hand, specialized throws and wrestling sweeps are practiced by Sanshou artists — very different from the standard Muay Thai sweeps. I’ve seen a number of high level Sanshou fighters throw top level Nak Muay to the ground from the clinch.

Originally published at Muaythaipros.