Boxing and Muay Thai share some similarities, but there are just as many differences between the two sports. Muay Thai includes some elements of boxing. But. You can’t fight like a boxer when you switch to Muay Thai or bad things happen. I’ve actually seen pure Russian boxers (who take Muay Thai training for a couple weeks while in Thailand) jump into a pro Muay Thai match down here and get absolutely annihilated by the other guy who would viciously leg kick the poor boxer at will.
Note, this is the first in my three part Boxing for Muay Thai series:
- Boxing vs Muay Thai
- How to Use Boxing Effectively in Muay Thai
- Best Boxing Combos Wickedly Effective for Muay Thai
Why should you care about the differences between Boxing and Muay Thai?
If you have a boxing background, knowing the key differences can help you better understand how to more effectively use your hands during Muay Thai sparring or fights.
Some of the best muay thai fighters in the world from Thailand have been high level (western boxers), which I fully believe helped them dominate Muay Thai during their careers. So, if boxing helped the best at Muay Thai become the best and stay the best, then maybe we should pay attention to this — the fundamentals of boxing can help your Muay Thai!
So what are the main differences between Boxing and Muay Thai besides the obvious fact that Muay Thai also includes kicks, knees, elbows, and clinching?
Well, that’s what we need this 2000 word article to find out!
Differences Between Muay Thai and Boxing
When you break both sports down a bit, you find there are a number of differences that have to do with the stances and hand positions.
Boxing vs Muay Thai Foot Stance
A basic overview of the difference between the boxing stance and muay thai stance.
[photo credit: picture on right taken from Johnny’s ExpertBoxing.com]
The Muay Thai Leg Stance
The Muay Thai stance is typically very forward and square, hand straight with the tops above or just below forehead and forearms pointing towards opponent with elbows pointed out slightly, hips facing forward. This stance is allows you to throw lead and rear kicks, check kicks, and also throw elbows and knees. Because Muay Thai includes kicks, knees, elbows, punches, and clinching, the weight on both feet must shift back and forth at a split second notice.
IF you look at the two GIF pictures above, you’ll notice the boxer on the bottom picture (Canelo Alvarez) has a much longer foot stance than does Damien Alamos. Boxing tends to have a narrower and longer stance than the traditional Muay Thai stance, which is quite a bit shorter.
- Feet will be roughly shoulder width apart
- Front foot slightly curved in, 10 degree angle
- Rear foot slightly curved out, about 45 degree
- Hip angle about 30-45 degrees; more traditional Muay Thai stances have you facing more forward while more hybrid stances have it towards 45 degrees
- Weight slightly on the back foot and lighter on front foot.
- Heel of rear foot slightly lifted
The Boxing Leg Stance
The basic boxing stance may typically be a bit more narrow than the Muay Thai stance with the hips much more pointed back at a 50-80 degree angle and the head and back slightly leaning forward. The stance tends to be longer than the traditional Muay Thai stance.
The placement of the hips is the major difference between boxing and Muay Thai stances, with the hips being MUCH more forward and square for Muay Thai so as to allow the checking of kicks and the ability to quickly kick from the back leg. Boxing stances generally aim to give as small a target to the opponent as possible (while still allowing stability) by turning the hips outward, counterclockwise. This means there is less body area shown to the opponent offering less of a target and more protection. This is not done in Muay Thai as it opens up the front leg to easy leg kicks.
[photo credits: Images taken from Rival’s Boxing Videos, others source unknown]
- Feet a few inches wider than shoulder width
- Lead foot curved at a 10-15 degree angle
- Lead foot firmly planted on the ground and flat
- The heel of rear foot lifted off ground slightly. Allows for quicker movements
- Rear foot curved out at least 45 degrees and sometimes even 90 degrees, depending on the type of stance you maintain. In boxing, the back foot tends have more of an outward angle than in a muay thai stance.
- Weight should be evenly distributed between front and back legs. This distribution can change — when approaching you rest a bit more weight on front foot for faster attacks and when defensive you rest more weight on your back foot to lean back faster.
- Spine/back slightly bent; it should not be completely straight
Boxing Vs. Muay Thai Hip Placement Difference
Muay Thai Hip Position: While the foot position between Muay Thai and Boxing is somewhat similar. Traditional Muay Thai foot positioning favors allowing the hips to be very square, so the feet may be more forward than you would find in boxing, which allows for the rear foot to be turned out more and in some cases almost rest at a 90-degree angle.
Boxing Hip Position: The hip position is where the biggest difference exists between Muay Thai and Boxing. In Muay Thai, to throw left and right kicks and to check kicks with your shins, you must have a very square stance with hips about 45 degrees.
Boxing allows a LOT more leeway here than Muay Thai with the hips often turning more outward around 60-80 degree angle. This presents the boxer’s side as a target rather than directly exposing the stomach and chest as it is exposed in Muay Thai. Keeping the hips outward also allows the boxer to easily utilize slipping to the right or to bob and weave by slightly ducking the head down then in a half circle motion back to the left. It also allows the boxer to move the head back out of punching range.
Basically, the boxing stance allows much more flexibility for head motion than does the Muay Thai stance.
Boxing Vs. Muay Thai Hand Positions
Muay Thai Hand Position: Muay Thai has a number of different hand positions, but typically you often see a very square, high guard style hand position with either the hands close to face or extended out a bit. This basically entails keeping both your hands up over your face with the outside forearms pointing towards the opponent. There are a number of very good reason why this is the case with the two biggest ones being protection from elbows to the face and protection from head kicks. If one of these lands cleanly, it’s likely to be a fight-ending strike. Hence, a lot of emphasis is given in Muay Thai to keeping the hands up very high.
Often there is a fist or two fists of distance between each arm. This allows for some leeway for protecting your face from head kicks since they are not help touching your face. It’s also easier and faster to throw elbows since the hands are held high and out — the distance to your opponent is closer and you don’t need to raise your elbows as much when throwing one.
Boxing Hand Position: There are a number of different hand positions. You have the high guard which you keep hand very high and covering the front of your face. Boxers often utilize this hand position when in very close or when on the defensive.You also have some more fancy hand positions where the lead arm is lowered to the waist while the right hand his held high protecting the chin (Philly shell, etc).
In the typical traditional boxing stance, however, the right hand is touching the lower part of the right chin, the left arm is kept high with the chin tucking being the left arm’s shoulder and the head down, and the hips are pointed outward so that only the side of the body is exposed not the vulnerable stomach areas.
Boxing vs Muay Thai Foot Work
Muay Thai: Footwork does exist in Muay Thai, but it’s not as utilized as it is in boxing due to the way Thai boxers have to deal with not only hand attacks, elbow, attacks, and knee attacks, but kicks and clinching. This means that footwork in Muay Thai is usually kept pretty simple, with Thai boxers creeping forward on the lead foot (same as boxing) but ready to check kicks or teep with the front foot at any moment. This means that the front foot usually has a lot less weight on it compared to the weight boxers put on the front foot. When stepping away from an opponent, the back foot leads backwards, then the front foot follows (same as in Boxing). However, Thai boxers don’t tend to lean back hard on the back foot like boxers do unless stepping back from a kick.
Boxing Footwork: At a high level in boxing, practically a dance, with each opponent jumping around lightly, pivoting, and bouncing, each boxer reacting to the rhythm of their opponent’s dance. Even at lower levels of boxing, there is a heavy emphasis on footwork in fights. If you train pure boxing, you can tell right away how much emphasis is put on footwork — it’s drilled into you almost as much as punch technique is!
Just look at Muhammad Ali’s Legendary footwork. The man looks like he’s dancing while fighting:
There is also a difference in the position fighters place themselves to throw strikes. Muay Thai tends to be very square with opponents delivering strikes on a linear path. Fighters go forward or backwards and only deviate from this ‘line’ occasionally. Boxing, however, is about fighting from angles and non-linear positions (where often the most powerful punches can be thrown and where it’s possible to sneak around the opponent’s defense).
Muay Thai Angles: There are angles in Muay Thai made possible by footwork, but usually (as an orthodox fighter facing an orthodox) this is limited to stepping back with the back foot and rotating in a counter-clockwise position to throw a rear kick or rear knee.
Boxing Angles: Boxing is all about the angles and it’s not uncommon to see boxers rotate clockwise or counter clockwise on their feet to create additional angles. Good boxing makes an artform of utilizing angles to deliver effective strikes. Watch any proper boxer and they will take advantage of or directly create angles to deliver punishing blows. Some examples of angle fighting: uppercuts thrown by leaning to the left or right creating an angle for more power and penetration; slipping or weaving under punches create angles to strike from, etc.
You’ll notice there is a different ”Rhythm” between Boxing and Muay Thai. In boxing, there’s a lot of bouncing movement in boxing, a lot more foot movement, and hands are thrown like machine gun bullets. It’s not uncommon to see 4,5,6 punch combos. Just look at James Toney batter his opponent with a shoeshine punch flurry:
Muay Thai moves to a different beat, with fighters engaging for a burst of powerful 1-2 or 1-2-3 combos then either retreating back to guard or moving into the clinch position.
Watch these two boxers go at it and notice the pacing and rhythm is not the same as Muay Thai:
Another example of boxing rhythm in Manny Pacquiao‘s first pro fight:
Muay Thai, at least the traditional version as exists in Thailand, tends to move at a slower pace. There is a rhythm to it, but it’s not the all-out balls-to-the-wall striking battles of a boxing match. Punch combos are usually short 1-2, or 1-2-3 (with the third being a hook or kick) with the fighters returning back to guard or moving straight into the clinch immediately after the hand combo ends.
Compare the movements of the two Muay Thai fighters below to the Pacquiao example above:
Muay Thai Defense: One of the biggest differences you’ll see between the two sports is how defense is handled by each. Muay Thai has very little in the way of defensive movement; I would say it’s far more offensive than boxing, with 6 more limbs to deal damage with and limited defensive moments available. You don’t dodge punches, you block them. The Muay Thai defensive skill set pretty much consists of: stepping away from your opponent, leaning back to avoid kicks or punches, blocking kicks with shins, and blocking punches with your gloves. Basically, you don’t avoid damage. You tough it out and deliver it back in equal measures to your opponent.
Here’s a good Thai fight — watch how much damage these guys soak up and deliver during the fight (note, Traditional Thai matches don’t really get started till round 3):
Between the less skilled fighters, Muay Thai fights often come down to who can soak up the most punishment while still delivering enough return punishment to squeeze out a KO or a point win. Few people walk away from a five round Muay Thai fight without pretty much limping from the ring (or being carried out).
Some of the highest level Muay Thai guys do add boxing defensive movements once in a while, but it’s rare. Here is one guy who is able to slip punches like a boxer during Muay Thai fights: Samrak Khamsing. However, Samrak, besides being a legend of Muay Thai also won the Olympic Gold Medal for boxing, so he is, in fact, a boxer.
Boxing Defense: Boxing, on the other hand, elevates defense to an art-form. You can for example slip, bob & weave, parry punches, block punches, duck, lean away, shoulder roll punches, and step back from strikes. Boxing can be defensive at its core where it’s not just about blocking but avoiding the strike entirely to deliver a counter punch. Some of the best boxers were/are in fact purely defensive boxers with strong offense: James Toney, Sweet Pea, Floyd Mayweather Jr, etc.
Let’s look at the boxing defense movements of a famous Thai boxer, Samart, who managed to become the WBC Boxing Champion of the World while also being a Muay Thai Lumpinee champion. Here’s a clip of his defensive movements during a (western) boxing match:
Here’s another clip showing just how a good boxer can’t even be touched:
And just look at Tyson’s amazing defense. It doesn’t get more beautiful than this:
Check out the master of boxing defense, James Toney, show how it’s done right:
Check out Tyson’s Defense:
The Final Word
Boxing and Muay Thai are two different sports — you have to modify some of the boxing techniques if you want to box effectively in Muay Thai. I see too many people caught up with arguing which one is the better martial art. But this is comparing apples and oranges — Boxing and Muay Thai are NOT the same sport. Should you cross train boxing to improve your hands? I feel the answer is, absolutely, yes! A proper foundation in boxing can make you a more dangerous Muay Thai fighter. Of course, it’s not necessary to have good hands to be effective when you spar or fight Muay Thai, but having good hands will make you a more dangerous and more well-rounded Thai Boxer.
If you enjoyed reading this article you should check out our new books Muay Thai Strategy and Counters. These books are designed to help you build a complete Muay Thai game and Counter any opponent you might face in the ring (including good boxers.)
Make sure you read our follow up article on How to Use Boxing Effectively In Muay Thai.
If any of you have done boxing then switched to Muay Thai or Kickboxing, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about the differences between the two arts in the comment section!