Muay thai is VERY effective striking martial art – this is why many MMA fighters have a background in Muaythai or incorporate muaythai into their Mixed Martial Arts training routine. However, the version of “muay thai” that is seen during MMA fights is VERY different to the muay thai you will see in a Muay Thai fight. This is because using muay thai in its pure form during an MMA bout would be ineffective from a defensive point of view – a mixed martial arts fighter needs to defend wrestling, judo and ju-jitsu takedowns and could quickly find themselves on their back if they chose to stand and trade blows as a muay thai fighter would.
Let’s take a look at some of the differences between the pure form of Muay thai as taught at Mulwaree Muaythai Goulburn, and the modified muay thai that is employed in Mixed Martial Arts bouts in NSW and throughout Australia.
It should not be surprising that the ‘generic’ MMA stance and Muay Thai stance are completely different. And they must be because the needs and requirements of each sport are different. In MMA there is the ever present threat of a takedown attack while in Muay Thai, the Muay Thai fighter must be ready to defend against a steady stream of kicks and straight knees and elbows without worry about a take-down.
A fighter stance, be it MMA or Muay Thai, will also reflect his or her preferred weapon. For example, an MMA fighter with a background in Muay Thai who throws a lot of kicks will have a different stance than a fighter with a grappling/wrestling background who shoots for a lot of take-downs during a match.
In a sport like MMA there is definitely a lot of individual variation when it comes to a fighter’s stance. But one thing that’s common to ALL MMA fighters, regardless of what sort of background they come from (wrestling, BJJ, boxing, Muay Thai, etc) is that MMA fighters are already ready to modify their stance at a moment’s notice to defend against take downs. Generally, the MMA fighter’s hands will usually be held a bit lower and more out to the front than you find in boxing, muay thai, or kickboxing (keep in mind the gloves are 4 ounce with finger grips, not the 10 ounce boxing gloves worn in Muay Thai). MMA fighters tend to stand a bit more forward with more weight on the front leg.
Muay Thai Stance vs MMA Stance
Traditional Muay Thai has a very forward stance with the hips square and straight forward, chin tucked in with the body posture straight. More weight is placed on the back leg with less on the front leg (so as to check kicks on the fly).
MMA stances tend to be wider, more forward with the body posture tilted slightly down with the hands held loosely in front of the face. This is to sprawl against a takedown, jump out of the way of strikes, or in need be jump in for an attack. Notice how much longer the MMA stance of Jones is compared to the Muay Thai stance with weight placed on the front leg. This gives Jones more of a solid base to push against a takedown or quickly shoot for his own takedown.
No matter what your background of martial art is, you’ve got to make some type of adjustment when you move into MMA.
Look at the following comparison showing some of the subtle changes in stances in these fighters as they’ve moved from their original sport into the MMA world.
For most of the fighters above, the stances get slightly wider, the hands are lowered and more weight is placed on the front foot.
Fight Range Differences
There is a big difference between the range guys stand and trade blows from between the two sports. Watch any Muay Thai match and neither guy will back away but will either sit there exchanging punches, kicks, elbows and knees or press forward. MMA fighters tend to sit back and jump in and out. They attack, then jump away OR shoot for a takedown/clinch.
MMA fighters are like fencers, dancing in and out to attack and avoid damage. They jump and push forward to attack then just as quickly dash away. Rarely do two guys just sit their and trade blows one for one.
Muay Thai fighters are like two guys fighting each other with sword and shields, standing their ground, blocking attacks, and waiting to find a hole in their opponents armor or a mistake to capitalize on. Thai boxing is ALL about standing in the pocket, soaking up the damage while giving back more than you receive.
Watch how in Muay Thai both fighters keep within striking range of each other at all times, blocking strikes on their gloves or shins (or just plain sucking up hits) before delivering return punishment:
Look at how in MMA matches the fighters (typically) jump back and forth attacking then retreating or just plain pressure rushing their opponent:
There is a clear difference in the movement patterns in MMA (stand up MMA fighters who utilize Muay Thai) and Traditional Muay Thai. In Muay Thai fighters often stand their ground and trade. In MMA, fighters are often bouncing around and leery about standing and trading blows. You don’t tend to see too much lateral movement and there is a subtle stigma when it comes to a Thai boxer ‘backing up’ to avoid damaging strikes, especially if it looks like they are ‘running away’.
The Fight Rhythm Difference
In Traditional Muay Thai, the fighters don’t bull rush each other. The ‘bull rush’ or ‘swarm’ tactic is all to common in MMA with fighters rushing towards each other swinging. Even witness someone with strong striking skills such as Jose Aldo, Hugo Alva, and Matt Brown approach their opponents.
Just look at how these style differ in the movements:
Watching a traditional Muay Thai match can be a bit of a shocker if you are used to MMA as the Nak Muay just often stand there waiting to counter attack.
Foot Movement Difference
Footwork in Muay Thai
Muay Thai, at least the Thai style, has very little defensive movement and little lateral movement. In most scenarios, fighters will stand their ground, statically defending against attacks by checking kicks on shins, blocking elbows and punches by covering their face with a high guard, and grabbing the head of an opponent to prevent strikes as the opponent moves forward. There’s a lot of emphasis in Thailand placed on not only on whether your strikes hit your opponent but also on HOW you throw your strikes. That is, if your technique is beautiful.
This is actually taken into account when Muay Thai matches are scored. This speaks to the artistic merit of Muay Thai as a performance for the crowd just as much as it is an actual fight.
There is also a show element of not giving ground when your opponent comes forward. To back off is to admit fear which is viewed upon as a negative thing in a Muay Thai match.
This is one reason why you’ll find a lot of Thai’s fighting on a straight line and not utilizing footwork to create angles.
Here’s an example of a typical Muay Thai fight where opponents tend to stand in front of each other and trade:
You can, however, find some Nak Muay who are exceptions to this. Saenchai, for example, has excellent footwork and movement if you check some of his videos out on youtube. This is an exception to the general rule though — the vast majority of Thai boxing matches have little in the way of footwork and angles.
Footwork in MMA:
MMA, on the other hand, is not a sport that rewards stationary fighters. MMA Fighters are all over the place, moving back, forward, and laterally.
While admittedly the technical footwork skills are (usually) lacking in MMA, there is a lot of running in to attack then jumping back out to avoid counter attacks. This is definitely not the same as Muay Thai where you are suppose to stand your ground.
While the level of technical footwork is not as developed as say Boxing, it’s there is definitely more footwork and foot movement than in Muay Thai.
Look at Dominik Cruz here as he uses footwork to jump in just of center towards his opponent’s power hand to set up an overhand right from one angle (in such a way where it’s hard for his opponent to hit him with an overhand right) then exiting another angle. If you watch Cruz’s fights, you’ll see this is something he regularly does. He even has a youtube video explaining his footwork strategy here.
You can see cruz using foot work here to move laterally out of a straight line to hit his opponent. Another nice example of some footwork in MMA.
And Eddie Alvarez using footwork to circle around his opponent and land a strike from an angle.
Defense Differences between Muay Thai and MMA
Defense in Muay Thai is usually very static — you check kicks with shins and block attacks on your gloves. There is often a stigma against stepping back to avoid attacks (the exception being if you step back from a head kick). There is little emphasis placed on lateral foot movement.
Let’s completely ignore the whole GROUND aspect of MMA and only compare the standup defense between the two sports.
Some of the Major Defensive Tactics in Muay Thai:
- Blocking with Shins
- This is usually what happens in MMA fights when a leg kick is thrown:
- Leaning Back from Kicks
- Block with High Guard
- Clinch when in Range to Stop Strikes
- Some of the Major Defensive Tactics in MMA against strikes
Defense is very much an important part of MMA with fighters jumping back from attacks, blocking with hands, utilizing head movement to avoid punches, going for take downs when opponents strikes.
Kicks are usually not checked on the shin as they are in Muay Thai — it’s possible that if you check a kick by lifting a leg to block it, your opponent can shoot for a take down and put you off balance. However, this is not a normal defense in MMA.
I mean when there is a public outcry saying high checks with the upper shin/knee are bad, you can conclude blocking with the shins is not all that common.
The Jump Away Tactic
If you’ve watched any MMA fight, you’ve seen this. Fighters tend to jump backwards to avoid damage. This is by far the number one defensive tactic in MMA — avoid any damage if possible. And the way MMA fighters go about that is to jump out of striking range as the opponent starts punching or kicking.
It’s common to see takedowns used as a defense against strikes. This means you have to be very careful when you start throwing strikes against someone with good takedown abilities.
Here are some examples of takedowns being used as a defense against striking:
(Sometimes) Head Movement
You tend to see more head movement in MMA as part of an active defense than you do in typical Muay Thai fights. Mind you, this is entirely fighter dependent — for both martial arts. Fighters like Anderson Silver and Jose Aldo have great head movement in MMA. In Muay Thai, fighters like Saenchai, Samart, and Samrak all had/have great head movement when they fight. Other fighters don’t move their head and eat shots.
Not every fighter utilizes Angles, but MMA fighters tend to circle each other more than in Muay Thai. Certainly, with the better strikers of the sport like Anderson and Jose Aldo, you will see angles utilized when striking. While angles are NOT always utilized in MMA, among the better strikers, they are.
Striking Differences between Muay Thai and MMA
I’m not going to list the different strikes that are used in MMA but not Muay Thai but rather introduce HOW the strikes are utilized differently between the striking that both MMA and Muay Thai utilize. Again, we are ignoring the whole ground aspect.
The main difference you’ll notice between the two arts is the difference in hip rotation when Knees, Elbows, and Kicks are thrown.
A Word About Hip Rotation
There is a fundamental difference in the way strikes are thrown in Traditional Muay Thai and the way they are (often) thrown in MMA. This is particularly the case when it comes to kicks, elbows, and knees. In Muay Thai, strikes are delivered with maximum power. Full rotation of the hips occurs when kicking or throwing elbows in Muay Thai. You are not just ‘throwing and elbow’ with your arm. You are not just putting your leg out there when you kick. The force and power comes from the rotational whip of the hips around the spine with your arms or legs being relaxed until moment of impact. Knee strikes too are not just thrown with the leg, but with the full power of the hip thrust forward diving the knee forward like a spear.
MMA strikers may often replicate the basic Thai kick, Elbow strikes, and Knee strikes, but they are often not thrown with the hip torque as in Muay Thai. You typically will see MMA fighters just throw an elbow out there without whipping the hips around — this probably explains why there are not too many elbow KO’s in MMA.
Why Strikes Have Less Hip Rotation in MMA?
For the images above, it should be pretty clear that Muay Thai emphasizes hip rotation/thrust when throwing kicks, knees, and elbows while MMA does not.
Why? Well this rotational torque of the hips is the secret behind the devastating power behind the Muay Thai strikes. However, it does come at a cost: you gain more power but it takes longer to reset your position. Torquing your hips requires committing your entire body to the motion. The more you whip your hips around to generate power, the longer it takes to bring reset yourself back to your stance.
Hence, torquing your hips (too much) may not be ideal for MMA where you can be vulnerable to a quick takedown attempt after throwing a strike — especially if you are out of position from the extra hip rotation.
There is also the risk that your opponent will wait for you to commit to your strike then make a take-down attempt with you unable to defend.
Muay Thai has far more of an arsenal of elegant elbow strikes than you typically see in MMA. We’ve seen a surge of elbow usage in the UFC, especially from the clinch. We will cover these specific strikes that convert to MMA in future articles. The elbow strike in MMA is HIGHLY underused in UFC, both in the implementation of the techniques, the timing (when to use them), and the types of elbows. We will cover Muay Thai elbow strikes for MMA in a future article.
Look at the hip torque Thai’s have when they throw elbows:
Watch a similar style of elbow thrown by Jose Aldo against an opponent coming forward. Note the elbow Aldo throws utilizes more arm than rotational hip torque of the thai’s elbow (Pakorn).
Let’s look at another example of UFC fighters using the right elbow. Here is Bones Jones throwing an elbow:
While I’m not going to argue it didn’t hurt, Jones is not utilizing the full rotational whip of the hips that a Thai uses when throwing the same elbow.
Here is how the Thai’s throw that same elbow. Look at the force of that rotation and the power generated (the Thai did not land it cleanly though as in the first example of the Thai elbow above):
Thai Elbow strikes is one area of Muay Thai that’s HIGHLY underutilized in MMA due to lack of knowledge. I’ll break down Muay Thai Elbows for MMA in a future article for this series.
Muay Thai: The knee is heavily utilized in Muay Thai matches with a number of different types of knees thrown from the leading leg or rear leg. You can throw a forward knee from a stance or incorporate knee strikes from the clinch.
Look at the hip thrust when Thais throw Knees:
You can bet that hurts when it hits!
MMA: Knees are commonly used in MMA, but only the upward variety and only from the clinch position by the person who gets the double underhand position (called the Thai plum). Rarely, if at all, do you see any other type of knee strike used in MMA besides the flying knee strike.
Muay Thai: Muay Thai is a sport that scores heavily on kicks. As such, Muay Thai emphasizes striking your opponent with kicks. Common kicks are the body kick and the leg kick. Teeps (push kicks from front or rear legs with the foot in the verticle position ) are also heavily utilized as are side teeps (teeps where you step to the side and push out with your body in a horizontal side stance). Head kicks are also thrown. You typically don’t see much variation beyond the Thai round kick.
MMA: MMA incorporates a number of different kicks, from the Thai style round kicks to and assortment of Karate kicks (spin kicks, side kicks, etc). The Thai style teep is not utilized in MMA as it’s simply too easy to grab the leg for a take down. Kicking in MMA is understandably much more risky than it is in Muay Thai with the 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 kick.
Look at the Hip Rotation when Thai’s throw body kicks
The above kicker is Apidej Sit Hirun, who is a legend of Muay Thai and known to have the hardest kicks in the sport. He even caused a fighter to retire after a match because he kicked the guy so hard.
Here’s an example of an MMA fighter who is known for his body kicks throw one. Notice the hips don’t turn over when kicking.
MMA fighters don’t throw their hips because they don’t know how to kick with proper Muay Thai technique. In this case, it’s more of an issue of not knowing the proper technique (which by the way, takes a long time and a lot of practice to throw kicks the Thai style) rather than choosing not to twist the hips. If you come to Thailand to train Muay Thai and your background is MMA, you can bet the Thai’s will be spending a lot of time re-teaching you how to kick.
You see a LOT more boxing in MMA than you do in Muay Thai, especially when looking at the Thai style of Muay Thai you find in Thailand. This is because punches are not scored as high as kicks or knees; because of this, Thai’s don’t utilize hands as much (with a few fighters being notable exceptions).
However, there is a definitely a different style of punching between MMA and Muay Thai. MMA fighters tend to run forward striking (hooks or straight punches or combinations of punches, kicks then knees) then engaging in the clinch or jumping backward or to the side to avoid counter attacks.
Muay Thai fighters, on the other hand, both stand in the pocket and will trade blows (see the Fight Range Differences section we looked at already for more info) — be them punches, kicks, and knees. There is even a different style of punching SOME traditional Muay Thai gyms teach, with the straight punches thrown with a slight tilt in the elbows as they throw.
Look at how MMA fighters engage in punching:
Notice how MMA fighters tend to run forward chasing with punches? Or they have a tendency to run in and out.
Now watch how Muay Thai fighters exchange punches:
Thai boxers have a tendency to cover up against attacks then explode with a counter attack once the flurry ends. They don’t usually jump out of the way to avoid being hit (the exception being with some of the more elusive fighters like Seanchai).
Keep in mind that you wear 4 ounce finger gloves in MMA while in Muay Thai you wear 8 – 10 ounce boxing gloves. There are some legit reasons why you don’t want to get hit with a 4 ounce glove — this makes it very favorable to punch in MMA as the punches have more chance of damaging your opponent.
Mind you, as a counter argument, there is a style of Muay Thai where the fighters wrap ropes around their hands and go at it. Bashing each other with rope wrapped around your hands is far worse than 4 ounce MMA gloves and the Thai’s will still sit there and trade:
Watch Yodsanklai stand in the pocket and engage, even while wearing rope gloves (see full fight here):
(There’s actually an entire style of fighting known as Burmese Boxing which is pretty much an more unrefined version of Muay Thai but without gloves and headbutts allowed! Talk about pain!)
It’s a well known fact Thai’s are tough as nails so many of them can and will trade punch for punch, kick for kick.
Witness this (there is another minute of straight punishment not shown and the Thai still does not go down but comes back to win):
Clinch Differences: The Thai clinch vs the MMA ‘clinch’
The clinch occurs when one fighter fights for positional body control at close space so as to throw strikes (or in context of MMA shoot for take-down or force a submission).
The way you clinch in MMA is NOT the same as the Muay Thai clinch. The Thai version of the clinch in MMA is often called the ‘Thai Clinch’ or ‘Thai Plum’ when someone gets two hands behind an opponents neck.
In reality this is only this is ONE part of a Thai clinch, it’s only one position of many in the Thai Clinch.
The MMA way of clinching:
The Thai way of clinching:
Notice above how the Thai’s both are fighting for position — getting both hands inside the other’s arms from which you can grab the neck (called the Thai Plum in MMA) to throw knees to the body/face or utilize a number of different elbow strikes.
MMA fighters only know how to utilize what they call the ‘Thai plum’ or ‘Thai clinch’ which in fact is simply ONE position of many the Thai’s utilize in their clinch game. MMA fighters will typically go for the two hands behind the neck position (Thai plum) then start leveling knees.
Witness Anderson pull this off on a woefully prepared Rich Franklin:
However, unlike poor Rich Franklin, you will almost never see Thai’s get a solid ‘Thai plum’ position on their (Thai) opponents simply because it’s too easy to defend against that position if you know what you are doing. Rich Franklin, did not know how to defend against this position and paid a heavy price.
‘Pure’ Muay Thai is a completely different sport than MMA.
While it’s clear from some of the recent examples (Jon Jones in UFC 172) that incorporating some of the more unfamiliar and under-utilized Muay Thai strikes (the variety of under-used elbows from the clinch and from regular stance), knee strikes, and Thai clinch work CAN be devastating when used correctly in MMA fights.
The next article we will look at one of the most devastating and underutilized strikes out there and how, when, and what type can be applied effectively in MMA fights.