Is Muay Thai Good for MMA? A Complete Analysis


muay thai

As you probably know by now, Muay Thai (or Thai boxing) is one of the most popular and useful martial arts in the MMA. Due to its unique combination of punches and kicks, Muay Thai is very useful in MMA fights, which often utilise such techniques as those taught in Muay Thai.

Muay Thai is one of the best striking martial arts for MMA. By knowing how to strike with eight different limbs, and how to clinch, will help with the transition to MMA a lot.

In order to give you a broader look into the topic, we are going to analyse the differences between these two sports and tell you how Muay Thai can benefit your MMA career. So, if you ever wondered whether Muay Thai is good for MMA, you’ve come to the right place to find out. 

Table of contents:

Muay Thai and MMA: Historical Development and Generalized Differences

Muay Thai (Thai: มวยไทย), literally “Thai boxing”, is an Oriental martial art and combat sport that originated in Thailand somewhere during the 18th century. It is a full-contact discipline that is also known as the “art of eight limbs” and is heavily reliant on the use of fists, elbows, knees and shins. It originated as a fighting technique to be used in wars, Muay Thai soon became a fighting sport used outside its original setting.

After more than a century of development in the Far East, Muay Thai became extremely popular in the West during the 20th and 21st centuries, when Western practitioners that came from Thailand started using the discipline in kickboxing and MMA competitions, thus introducing and popularising Muay Thai in the West. Muay Thai is, today, a global combat sports practiced around the world and is internationally governed by the IFMA. 

Mixed martial arts originated as mixed combat sports in Ancient China and Ancient Greece. The Chinese combat sport of Leitai is one of the first mixed combat sports and utilised elements of different kung fu styles, boxing and wrestling.

In Ancient Greece, such an example can be found in the art of pankration, a very specific martial art that combined boxing – which was very popular in Ancient Greece – and wrestling – which probably originated in Mesopotamia or Ancient Egypt.

Pankration was extremely popular (even the most popular sport, according to some historian) in Ancient Greece and there is vague evidence that similar mixed combat sports were practiced in Ancient Japan, Egypt and India.

Different hybrid martial arts developed as centuries passed, but despite a large number of historical influences, modern MMA is considered to stem from Brazilian jiujitsu and vale tudo; the latter is yet another full-contact hybrid combat sport that originated in Brazil. Vale tudo events date back from the 1920s.

MMA events continued to develop as decades passed until 1993, when the first official global MMA event – the UFC 1 – was held in Denver, Colorado. This is the official “birth year” of MMA and one of the most important events in the evolution of mixed and hybrid combat sports.

UFC 1 was televised and it was in a review by critic Howard Rosenberg that the term “mixed martial arts” appeared for the first time. And the rest is history.

This covers the essentials. As you can see, Muay Thai and MMA are quite different, although they have certain similarities. Their historical backgrounds and their approaches are very different, which is an important thing to know. 

Muay Thai and MMA: Practical Differences

Now that we have analysed the historical and theoretical differences, we’ll get down to the more practical elements – the fighting. In this section, we shall discuss the main differences between Muay Thai and MMA when it comes to the fights themselves. 

1. Stance

Although they might seem similar to you, the basic stances in Muay Thai and MMA are very different. Of course, there is no generalised rule, especially in MMA, where the fighters use modified stances that fit their personal fighting styles. The stances are more unified within Muay Thai, but that cannot be applied to MMA. 

Traditionally, Muay Thai’s stance is straightforward; the hips and the torso are completely straight, the chin is tucked in and the posture is completely straight.

Because it depends on kicks, the stance in Muay Thai puts more weight on the back foot than the front foot; that is to enable for a faster and more powerful shot. MMA stances, on the other hand, tend to be wider, more forward with the body tilted slightly down and the hands held loosely in front of the fighter’s head.

This, of course, has its practical reasons – it enables a better defence against a takedown, it allows the fighter to jump out of the way of strikes, but also to jump in for a potential attack. As we can see, the differences are not the same and this is the result of the different approaches these two sports have. 

2. Range

There is also a very big difference in fighting range between Muay Thai and MMA. Because of the different approaches, Muay Thai fighter fight differently than MMA fighters. The two sports are just different and although you have to beat your opponent in both of them, how you do it varies a lot. 

Muay Thai fighters fight at close range. A fighter tends to stick close to his opponent and just linger around, waiting for his turn. They don’t jump around and rarely retreat. They could be compared to two medieval knights having a one-on-one sword fight.

On the other hands, MMA fighters tend to jump around. They retreat a lot, they use a lot of wide stances and jumps, all to get a better position; this is due to the fact that MMA allows different moves and attacks, a lot of which are not permitted in Muay Thai.

If we continue our comparisons, MMA fighters could be compared to a pair of fencers, who use their legs to jump around and find an opening for their attack. 

3. Footwork

As for the footwork, the differences aren’t that vast, but the approaches are. Muay Thai is an art that requires patience. Thus, a fighter has to adapt his footwork to patiently follow the opponent and his movements in order to find the right moment to strike. MMA’s approach is completely different, as MMA is not a sport that likes patience.

MMA fighters move a lot, they jump and generally try different angles and positions to get into a better position. The movements themselves aren’t that different, but there are enormous differences in the way the fighters utilise these movements. 

4. Defence

Defence shows some of the biggest differences between these two sports. On one hand, you have Muay Thai – a standing martial arts that rewards patience and less movement. The defence in Muay Thai is based on block as retreating is generally frowned upon and considered as being against the spirit of the art. Also, since there are no ground moves in Muay Thai, there are no ground techniques when it comes to defence.

On the other hand, you have the high-paced, aggressive and flexible MMA, which rewards movements, retreats, jumps, etc. You can jump around, pull back, go into attach – MMA rewards every good move. Plus, there is a lot of ground fighting in MMA, which means that there are also ground techniques in defence. 

Now, let us see some of the best and most common defensive approaches in Muay Thai and MMA, disregarding MMA’s ground defence, of course:

Muay ThaiMMA
Blocking with shinsJump away tactic
Leaning back from kicksTakedowns
Blocks with high guardHead movement (sometimes)
Clinch when in range and strop strikesAngles

5. Clinching

The clinch occurs when one fighter grabs and tries to control his opponent’s body at close space so as to throw strikes more freely (in MMA, a fighter can use the clinch to shoot for take-down or force a submission).

MMA clinching is not the same as clinching in Muay Thai. Not the least. Using a Muay Thai clinch – often called a ‘Thai Clinch’ or a ‘Thai Plum’ – in MMA consists of someone getting both his hands behind an opponent’s neck.

This is only a simplified version, as the actually Thai clinch is much more complex; that is just one of several possible positions in a classical Muay Thai clinch.

Muay Thai fighters tend to fight for their position — getting both hands inside the other’s arms from which you can grab the neck to throw knees to the body/face or utilize a number of different elbow strikes.

But, the Thai Plum is literally just a fragment of a Thai clinch and that is a bit sad, because the actual Thai clinch is a largely underutilised area of Muay Thai that can give you a lot of tricks to utilize in MMA when in the clinch. 

Sadly, MMA fighters only know of that form of clinch and it is the only form of Muay Thai clinching used by actual MMA fighters. MMA fighters will typically go for the two hands behind the neck position and then start levelling their knees.

But, if you’re using that technique against someone who knows how to fight, against a Muay Thai specialist, you’ll achieve next to nothing simply because it’s too easy to defend against that position if you know what you are doing. 

Fighting Benefits of Muay Thai

In this section, we are going to tell you how and why Muay Thai is goof for MMA. Although they are different arts, Muay Thai can offer a lot to an MMA fighter and vastly improve his fighting technique. So, by analysing the differences and benefits of Muay Thai techniques when compared to standard MMA techniques, we are going to show you why Muay Thai can be so beneficial.

1. Elbows

Elbow shots are very important in both Muay Thai and MMA. But, while they form an essential part of your technique in the former, they are usually just supplementary shots in the latter. Yet, Muay Thai has far more elegant and effective elbow strikes than you will usually see in the MMA, which means that your MMA skills can vastly benefit from having a good elbow technique.

And although MMA fighters tend to use elbow strikes in clinches, the elbow strike is still highly underused in MMA, both in the implementation of the techniques, the timing (when to use them), and the types of shots. This is where Muay Thai can help you overcome the difficulties and become even better. 

2. Knees

Muay Thai is much more beneficial for knee shots than regular MMA, so if you train Muay Thai as part of preparing for MMA, you might have a solid advantage. Why is that? The knee is an essential weapon in Muay That; the fighters approach the fight with a number of different types of knee shots thrown from the leading leg or back leg.

You can fire a leading leg knee shot from a stance or incorporate knee strikes from the clinch. Knees are quite common in MMA too, but only the upward variety and only from the clinch position by the person who manages to do a Thai plum (see above) Rarely, if at all, do you see any other type of knee strike used in MMA besides the flying knee strike and that is exactly why Muay Thai is beneficial for MMA, as it can drastically improve your knee techniques.

3. Kicks

Muay Thai is a martial art where kicks are essential. In fact, they are so essential that one could say that Muay Thai completely depends on kicking. As such, Muay Thai emphasizes the usage of kicks in a fight. You can already imagine how a martial art so focused on kicking can improve your kicks; MMA also uses a lot of kicks, but there is no emphasis on that part, like there is in Muay Thai. 

Common kicks are the body kick and the leg kick. Teeps (the push kicks from front or rear legs with the foot in a vertical position) are also heavily utilized as are side teeps (teeps where you step aside and push out with your body in a horizontal side stance). Head kicks are also thrown, although not as much as in some other Oriental martial arts.

You typically don’t see much variation beyond the Thai round kick. MMA, on the other hand, incorporates a number of different kicks, from the Thai style round kicks to and assortment of different Karate kicks like spin kicks, side-kicks, etc.

The Thai teep is not actually utilised in MMA because it’s simply too easy to grab the leg for a take down in such a situation. Kicking in MMA is understandably much more risky than it is in Muay Thai, simply because there is a chance of your opponent going in for a takedown if your kick is caught or your miss. Leg kicks are the least risky and the most often thrown kicks in MMA, so you can focus your Muay Thai exercises on them.

4. Punches

Although Muay Thai is actually ‘Thai boxing’, punches are very underused in this martial art simply because they are scored less than successful kicks; the goal is to win, so the fighters chose shots that can give them more points. On the other hand, despite not being focused on boxing, MMA fighters tend to use punches and boxing techniques a lot more than Muay Thai fighters, who restrain from using their hands in combat. 

Still, the punching style in MMA is visibly different than the one in Muay Thai. Namely, MMA fighters tend to run forward when striking, then engaging in the clinch or jumping backward or to the side to avoid counter attacks. Muay Thai fighters, on the other hand, will stand firmly in front of each other and trade shots, be they punches or kicks (see above).

Muay Thai boxers tend to “gather” shots and block them, waiting for their turn to fully explode with a good counterattack; MMA fighters rarely do so. So, combining these two elements can be very useful in developing a strong boxing technique.

Conclusion: Is Muay Thai Good for MMA?

This conclusion has two aspects. One concerns whether Muay Thai is beneficial for MMA and the answer is – yes, it is. As you’ve seen in the paragraphs above, Muay Thai has several fighting benefits, more elegant shots and more possibilities, but is limited to fighting on one’s feet.

So, while it does have its benefits, you have to know that you need to improve your ground fighting as well, which means that you will have to take on another martial art (or combat sport) for that aspect. 

The second aspect is the question – which is better? The answer is not straightforward and it all depends on you and your approach. You have to know what you want, what you want to improve and how you want to develop your fighting techniques.

Based on your preferences, you will decide for yourself which one you prefer, Muay Thai or MMA, because each one of them offers something, so it’s up to you to make the final choice. 

Well, that covers the basic differences between Muay Thai and MMA. If you want to know more about the world of martial arts, please follow us and see you next time.

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