It’s with a certain resignation that Muay Thai is described as ‘kind of like kickboxing, but with more clinch and elbows are legal’. This is the explanation that often gets thrown around in lieu of a lengthier description by savvy people tired of articulating accurately too often to audiences with fleeting interest. The truth is that much of the difference lies in the details and traditional aspects of the sport that ultimately results in a different spectacle entirely. It’s a little bit like comparing American football to Rugby, the resemblance is apparent enough and one could certainly imagine the skills in either game transferring to the other, but they’re very different beasts in practice.
Muay Thai fighters enter the ring with a groin protector, shorts, and gloves (varying typically from 6-10 ounces based on weight class and age) as well as a tight fitting top for female competitors. Typically they’re covered in the distinctive smelling Thai boxing liniment giving them with a shiny slickness and a menthol scent. Before the fight begins the referee checks the fighter’s equipment and the head trainer places the Mongkol (a traditional Thai headdress often blessed by Buddhist monks when they are woven) on their fighter’s head and the fighters begin the Wai Kru Ram Muay (a dance-like sequence to pay respect to your trainer, that doubles as a means to warm up and stretch) which is set to distinctive traditional Thai music called sarama. Once the Wai Kru ritual is complete the mongkol is removed and the fight begins with the sarama music playing and changing tempo along with the pace of the match. Competitors are allowed to strike with punches, kicks, knees, and elbows over the course of five 3 minute rounds with a two minute break between rounds. During the break fighters are coached and receive water. One of the things that distinguishes Muay Thai from so many other striking sports is the extended clinch exchanges. Whereas in western boxing and kickboxing matches the referee quickly breaks combatants up when they are grappling and pummeling on the feet, in Muay Thai they are allowed to work from that position. Muay Thai fighters (particularly Thais) are noted for being EXTREMELY strong and effective at this range where crushing knees, slicing elbows, and distinctive trips, sweeps, and throws are employed. It is legal to catch kicks and sweep the opponents legs from under other them, these techniques are high scoring, demoralizing, and exhausting signatures of a Muay Thai fight. There are several ways that a fight can end. A fight can be finished by knockout, where a fighter is completely incapacitated or is unable to stand composedly within the count of 10. In the case of technical knockout the referee(in the case of seeing a fighter not intelligently defending themselves), the fighter’s coaches (throwing in the towel), a ringside doctor (typically in the cases of a cut or extreme swelling), or the fighter himself can call a stop the fight both during the fight or between rounds. In the case of rule violations disqualifications are possible and end the fight immediately. If the fight lasts all 5 rounds the ringside judges render a decision, this is an area subject to some considerable misunderstanding. While judges will often take note of the impactful moments in each round, the fight is not necessarily scored to the fighter who won more rounds, it’s judged holistically. The round by round scorecards are used by ringside judges in many Muay Thai fights, but they exist only as a sort of reference point for the judges scoring. Muay Thai scoring is sometimes likened to a race in that it’s seen in the entirety of the match that it’s scored, particularly in the latter portion of the bout. What constitutes scoring is fairly intuitive, but the algorithm by which a judge renders a decision is naturally going to be somewhat variable. Agreed upon factors that determine how a fight is scored include the fighters poise, the effect that landing strikes have on a fighter, ring generalship, control of the fight, the amount of clean strikes landed, quality of techniques, and damage. Muay Thai is so much more than just a set of rules, but the for purpose of defining the art’s basic form this should provide some clarity.