Have you ever wondered why some Muay Thai fighters look so dominant in the ring, yet when they face certain opponents they look like a completely different fighter? The old Boxing adage that styles make fights is especially true in the world of Muay Thai.
To the untrained eye, fighting comes down to size, strength, and grit. People will often bet on the bigger, stronger, scarier looking fighter if they don’t know anything about either fighter. Appearances can be very misleading, which is how gamblers at local Muay Thai stadiums can hustle foreigners who bet on the fights in Thailand.
I’ve witnessed countless steroid looking foreigners who get their asses beat by out of shape Thai fighters who don’t train regularly. Skill and technique can overcome size advantages if there is a big gap in experience levels.
Besides a fighter’s skill and technique, one of the biggest things that can determine the outcome of a fight is a fighter’s style. Some fighting styles are natural counters to other styles. This is why it is important that you understand matchups and how to neutralize advantages that opponents might have against you.
In the sport of Boxing, fighting styles are referenced by fighters tactics in the ring. The 5 main boxing styles are Swarmers, Out-boxers, Counter punchers, Sluggers, and Boxing-punchers. While each of these fighting styles can be applied to Muay Thai fighters, they are not inclusive enough because Muay Thai is the art of 8 limbs, which includes kicks, knees, elbows and clinching.
While all high-level Muay Thai fighters can throw perfect kicks, knees, and elbows in the ring, their fighting style is often determined by their strengths in the ring. Some fighters are naturally more aggressive, while some fighters prefer to counter.
Additionally, a fighter’s style is shaped by their trainers. If you train with a trainer that emphasizes pushing forward with knees and clinching, you will probably end up with that style. Similarly, if you train at a Kickboxing gym, you will develop a Kickboxing style. Your style is developed by your trainer.
The following are the 6 main types of fighting styles you will encounter in Muay Thai. While there will be variances within each style, these are the Thai names of the fighting styles of Muay Thai.
#1. Muay Mat – The Aggressive Fighter
One of the most popular fighting styles for casual fans is Muay Mat fighters. Muay Mat fighters are aggressive fighters that rely on punches and low kicks to overwhelm their opponents. While they might not win every fight by knockout, their aggression gives them a psychological advantage over their opponents who are often afraid of their knockout power.
Famous Muay Mat fighters like Kulabdam and Saeksan are known for their relentless pressure and aggression in the ring. Muay Mat fighters will never back down and always keep pressing forward against their opponents. One thing that sets them apart from other fighters is their devastating power in their punches.
In addition to their heavy punches, some Muay Mat fighters are skilled at low kicks. Pornsanae Sitmonchai was known for his devastating low kicks that would often stop his opponents. A handful of clean kicks on a leg is all it takes to change the course of a fight.
- Power and Aggression
- Best style for finishing opponents
- Psychological Advantages in the Ring
- Causes a lot of damage to the Opponent
- Most Entertaining Fight Style (high chance of knockouts)
- Can be countered by technical fighters who have good Boxing defense
- Must have elite level cardio/fitness to be effective (cannot gas out)
- Take a lot of damage to the head (shorter careers due to many wars)
#2. Muay Femeu – The Skilled Fighter
The Muay Femeu fighting style is one that relies on skill and technique to win fights. These fighters possess the highest level of skill and are extremely difficult to counter at a high level. The top three greatest Muay Thai fighters of all time Saenchai, Samart, and Somrak are all Muay Femeu fighters.
Muay Femeu fighters are able to combine all of the weapons of Muay Thai to beat their opponents in a number of ways. Against an aggressive fighter, a Muay Femeu fighter can sit back and outpoint their opponent, and against a Muay Khao style (Knee fighter) they can utilize footwork and sweeps to counter their opponent’s knees.
While every fighter wants to be a Muay Femeu fighter, only the most skilled fighters have the combination of skills to excel in this style. Most Muay Femeu fighters come from gyms that emphasize skill and technique over brute force and power.
- Evasive and hard to hit
- Difficult fighters to counter
- Rely on skill and technique to outsmart opponents
- Can counter any fighting style with enough experience
- Can be beaten in the clinch
- Do not like getting punched
- Can get tired in later rounds against pressure fighters
#3. Muay Sok – The Elbow Hunter
Another variation of the aggressive fighter is the Muay Sok fighting style. Muay Sok (elbow) refers to fighters who like utilizing elbows in the fight. These fighters are often referred to as head hunters, and they have an uncanny ability to land elbow strikes in close range.
Fighters like Lamsongkran Chuwattana and Muangthai are two fighters who excelled with elbow strikes. If a fighter does not have good elbow defense, Muay Sok fighters can end fights by either elbow cut or elbow knockout.
While these fighters can utilize all Muay Thai weapons proficiently, they are specifically known for their dangerous elbows. This gives them a psychological advantage over opponents who are worried about their faces getting cut up after the fight.
- Psychological Advantage over some opponents (fear of getting cut)
- Very dangerous Elbow Strikes (always land their elbows)
- Pressure fighters that do not let up
- Can be neutralized by skilled opponents with good elbow defense
- Must close the distance to land elbows (take a lot of punch damage)
- Can get knocked out by Punchers (Muay Mat fighters)
- Must be aggressive to win fights
#4. Muay Tae – The Kicker
The fourth fighting style in Muay Thai is the Muay Tae fighters. These are fighters who rely heavily on their kicks to win fights. Since Muay Thai is a sport that scores body kicks higher than other strikes, the Muay Tae fighters have an advantage when it comes to scoring from a distance.
One of the most favorite Muay Tae fighters was young Buakaw Banchamek. While Buakaw might be considered to a Muay Mat fighter know since he likes to push forward with punches, if you watch his early fights from K-1, his left kick was one of the best in the game.
Another great Muay Tae fighter is Disellek. He has one of the most explosive kicks you will see in Muay Thai, and it is very effective. Muay Tae fighters often land powerful kicks that are fast and accurate. These are not the fighters that you want to use your arms to block kicks.
- Powerful, Fast, and Accurate Kicks
- Scoring points in Muay Thai Rules
- Powerful Strikers who can beat opponents with many techniques
- Can be countered by Muay Femeu fighters with good kick defense/evasion
- Can be neutralized by clinchers and Knee fighters who come forward
- Need to fight from range to be effective
#5. Muay Khao – The Knee Fighter
The fifth Muay Thai fighting style is the knee fighters. Knee fighters are pressure fighters that are known for coming forward with their long knee strikes. These fighters tend to be taller fighters who have a reach advantage with longer knees.
Yodwicha is a perfect example of a high-level Muay Khao fighter who was good at coming forward with relentless pressure and grinding his opponents down with knees. Muay Khao fighters are often very good in the clinch and will initiate their knees as the enter the clinch.
The best Muay Khao fighter of all time was Dieselnoi. He was a 6’3 Thai fighter who had a massive reach and height advantage over every opponent he faced. Since he was so big, many Thai fighters didn’t want to fight him because he had such a size advantage.
Dieselnoi’s Muay Khao style allowed him to devastate most of his opponents with powerful knees from a distance and within the clinch.
- Ability to score lots of points with relentless knee strikes
- Can counter many fighting styles by pushing forward into the clinch
- Have a psychological advantage since they are always pushing forward
- Wear down opponents in the later round (win round 4 & 5)
- Very strong in the clinch
- Must have great cardio to be effective (relentless pressure)
- Take a lot of punches and elbow strikes as they engage (head damage)
- Can be countered by skilled opponents who neutralize knees/clinch
- Countered by Muay Plum fighters
Example: Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn (Sky Piercing Knees)
#6. Muay Plum – The Clincher
The final fighting style that you commonly see referred to in Thailand is the Muay Plum style. Muay Plum refers to fighters who excel in the clinch. These fighters are extremely skilled at maneuvering and dumping their opponent’s the moment they get inside the clinch.
There fighting style can be difficult to distinguish between Muay Khao (Knee Fighters) because both fighters often push in the clinch. My personal distinction between the two is that Muay Plum fighters are more technically proficient in the clinch with sweeps and off-balancing moves.
If you ever clinch with a Muay Plum fighter you will know what it feels like to be a beginner in the clinch. These fighters are so strong in the clinch and are able to constantly off balance their opponents while scoring points.
While Muay Khao and Muay Plum fighters both end up inside of the clinch, you can tell the difference between the two by how they fight in the clinch. Muay Plum fighters are technical wizards and will off-balance their opponents and shift them around, while Muay Khao fighters will often grind their opponent’s down and try to pound them with knee strikes.
- The best fighters inside the clinch
- Ability to sweep and outmaneuver in the clinch
- Very good at getting inside the clinch and closing the distance
- Need to fight in the clinch to win
- Have to absorb damage to get in the clinch
- Can be neutralized by Skilled fighters
Example: Petchboonchu (Could also be considered Muay Khao fighter)
When it comes to Muay Thai fighting, styles make fights. An extremely skilled aggressive fighter like Rodtang might be great against aggressive fighters, but he often suffers when he fights skilled fighters who are able to take his punches and return fire (usually they are bigger too).
A skilled Muay Femeu fighter might look amazing against a Muay Tae fighter who likes to kick but get destroyed by a Muay Mat fighter if he or she is mentally weak.
While these six styles represent the majority of Muay Thai fighters, it is important to understand that there is variance within each style. A Muay Sok fighter might also be a very good puncher and low kicker, and can also be considered a Muay Mat fighter by some.
It is important to understand that while a fighter might be able to utilize different styles in the course of a fight, every fighter has a specific style that they excel at most. A Muay Mat fighter can try to play the role of a Muay Femeu fighter against a less skilled opponent, however, if they are matched against a skilled Muay Femeu fighter they will lose. Their advantages lie in their aggression and punches, not in trying to outsmart opponents.
As a beginner, you might not identify with any particular style until you gain experience. After enough rounds of sparring, you will start to notice that you have advantages in different areas of sparring. As you start to identify these strengths, your fighting style will develop over time.