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Today we are going to talk about Muay Thai and its ranking system or, to be more precise, about the non-existence of its ranking system. Muay Thai is specific as it’s traditionally not part of the same circle as other Oriental martial arts like kung fu or Taekwondo. Although it is a martial art, it did not have the same influences as other arts, which is reflected in how the modern postulates of the art actually function. Today, we are going to analyse these postulates, so keep reading to find out more.
Traditional Muay Thai doesn’t have belts nor ranking system. On the other hand, some Western Muay Thai schools have belts and ranking systems.
That was a pretty simplified answer. To better understand the whys and whats of the question, let’s get deeper into the topic.
Belts in Martial Arts
Oriental martial arts have been practiced in the Far East for centuries, but the belt system is a relatively new phenomenon, just a little over a century old. Before belts were introduced, martial artists handed out certificates (or diplomas) to students who had reached a certain level of knowledge and ability.
But, at the turn of the 20th century, a man called Jigorō Kanō, best known as the founder of judo, decided to introduce coloured belts in his art. This was not a completely original idea, as he was inspired by a similar system present in the Japanese board game of go (similar to chess), but it was a revolution in the world of martial arts.
The essential idea behind the belt system was to enable students to advance more rapidly, but also to enable fighters to quickly identify the level of knowledge their opponent has, thus leading to a more levelled field in potential combat. Kanō’s original colours were blue, white, brown and black, but as the years passed the system had become more sophisticated and included a larger palette of colours.
Belts and Rankings in Traditional Muay Thai
Kanō’s system was – in one way or the other – adapted into most Oriental martial arts. But Muay Thai is an exception. Well, at least traditional Muay Thai is, but more on that later. Traditional Muay Thai does not have a ranking system, which means that it does not have belts eithers. Fighters do wear traditional armbands – called praciat or prajead – but they don’t symbolise a rank, they’re just symbolic pieces of equipment and nothing more.
Muay Thai, despite being a martial art, is perceived as a professional combat sport in Thailand, meaning that fighters practice Muay Thai as a job, to earn a living, and not as a specific art. One’s “rank” is thus determined by one’s individual abilities, their experience and their achievements in tournaments and fights.
The “rank” is just a reputation a fighter has, nothing formal and nothing very specific. Professional Muay Thai fighters in Thailand would probably laugh at the mention of a specific ranking system, since the idea is so abstract and unnecessary to them.
Belts and Rankings in Western Muay Thai
While Thailand explicitly shuns the idea of a belt system, Western Muay Thai schools tend to combine the traditional Oriental belt system with Muay Thai taught in their respective countries and schools. This is, as said, a common practice among Oriental martial arts so it’s no surprise that Western followers try to implement these traditions into Muay Thai.
While some schools use coloured shirts or shorts, the US-based World Thai Boxing Association (WTBA) combines the traditional armbands with the coloured belt system by having coloured armbands on the fighters’ hands. WTBA also has a specific curriculum and will organise promotional examinations for students to advance to a higher rank; thus, WTBA has managed to adapt Muay Thai to other oriental martial arts who use a similar (if not the same) system.
The armbands are divided into three groups, with the colours organised differently than in other martial arts. Beginner ranks have just three colours, while the advanced ranks consist of six colours, the black armband being the last among them. There are also four instructor ranks that combine black with different colours to signify the level of an instructor/master. Let us see these colours and ranks:
|1st rank (white)|
|2nd rank (yellow)|
|3rd rank (orange)|
|4th rank (green)|
|5th rank (blue)|
|6th rank (purple)|
|7th rank (red)|
|8th rank (brown)|
|9th rank (black)|
|1st instructor (black/white)|
|2nd instructor (black/red)|
|3rd instructor (black/silver)|
|4th instructor (black/gold)|
This is how it works. You can see that the colour scheme for instructor ranks is a tad different than in other arts and sports, while the trainee ranks have the same colours, although they are grouped a bit differently.
What we also have to state here is the fact that the WTBA’s system is not universally accepted in the West and that not all Western schools have such a ranking system, or one at all for that matter. It all depends on the school and the instructors, so you’ll have to inform yourselves beforehand before enrolling into a school.
People are not completely on board with having a ranking system in Muay Thai. Traditionalists don’t favour it because it largely deviates from the original teachings, while modern Western instructors and students think that a ranking system has a positive psychological effect on students as it motivates them to continue and improve their skills.
How to Get a Black Belt in Muay Thai?
As said, in traditional Muay Thai – there are no belts so you can never get a black belt. But, if you actually decide on taking up a school that uses ranks, you might wonder when you’ll obtain a black belt? It depends on the school, but let us say that you advance once per year and take a year to revise everything – you should be able to reach the black belt in about ten years.
This not a fixed term – you can reach it sooner, or you can reach it later – but it is some general outlook so that you know what you can expect when entering a school that actually uses coloured armbands as ranks in Muay Thai.
To summarise, Muay Thai has two different approaches – the traditional and the Western – and it is exactly because of that that you have to be careful which school you chose. So, inform yourself about the different approaches and have several options ready if you’re planning on starting with Muay Thai practice.
And this is the story of belts and belt colours in the martial art of Muay Thai. I hope you enjoyed our newest piece and that you’ll be following us for more of the same.
If you are interested in Muay Thai in general, be sure to check out our series of articles on Muay Thai. You will find some interesting and useful stuff. Enjoy!