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Is Muay Thai Safer Than Boxing?

If you’ve dabbled a bit in martial arts, you’ll know that competition is the best way to get better at what you practice. However, there are a lot of health risks involved when training and competing in combat sports. I wanted to find out how safe Muay Thai and Boxing are in comparison to each other, since they are two of the most popular striking-based martial arts. So in this post, I am going to be looking at the reasons why one is safer than the other.

For the average person who doesn’t compete professionally, I would consider Muay Thai safer than boxing due to Muay Thai’s lighter style of sparring. Even for professional competitors, Muay Thai fighters take less hits to the head during an average match, due to factors such as a lower number of rounds fought, the short length of the rounds, and the use of kicks. This is in comparison to boxing, where a majority of strikes are aimed at the head, and the number of rounds in a fight is usually greater than in Muay Thai.

In the following paragraphs, I will explain my reasoning for Muay Thai safer than boxing, as well as the differences between the two sports for competitors and beginners alike.

How the Rules Affect Safety

The most obvious factor that directly impacts the safety of the fighter is the ruleset of the sport. So in this section, I am going to point out the major differences of Boxing and Muay Thai rules, and how these differences affect the safety of fighters.

In boxing, the rules are pretty simple. Only punches are allowed, and most strikes above the belt are legal. The only exception are strikes to the back of the head, also known as rabbit punches. Rounds are three minutes in length with one minute rest in between, and number of rounds can range from four to twelve, depending on the fight. Clinching between the fighters is quickly separated.

In contrast, Muay Thai allows punches, elbows, knees, and kicks. Exceptions include strikes to the groin, as well as rabbit punches. Clinching is allowed, as well as sweeps, although fighting is not allowed to continue on the ground. Usually fights are five rounds of three minutes each.

UFC champion Anthony Pettis lands a liver kick on Donald Cerrone, which ends the bout.
UFC champion Anthony Pettis lands a liver kick on Donald Cerrone, which ends the bout.

The main factor that makes boxing more dangerous is the fact that a higher number of punches are landed to the head in boxing, not only because kicking is not allowed, but also because there are often more rounds.

In Muay Thai, kicks can help you earn points just as well as punches, and fights can be ended by kicks. This is done through kicks to the liver and in quantity to the lead leg, whereas in boxing this type of stoppage is not common.

Another big factor is clinchwork. When a Muay Thai fight is clinched up, the fighters take significantly less damage to the head when compared to a boxer. This is because Muay Thai fighters usually land knees in the clinch, while boxers will just throw punches for a few seconds before getting separated.

Also, rabbit punches are more common in boxing, especially during the clinch. Rabbit punches can disconnect the brain from the brain stem, resulting in death. Less serious injuries include vegetative state, paralysis, and respiratory failure.

Pacquiao lands a clear rabbit punch on Mayweather. Rabbit punches are very common in boxing due to this type of head movement.
Pacquiao lands a clear rabbit punch on Mayweather. Rabbit punches are very common in boxing due to this type of head movement.

Differences in Sparring

Now I will cover differences in training (sparring specifically) for each sport. Note that this is a generalization of a typical gym in its respective sport, and that what I describe here does not describe every boxing gym nor every Muay Thai gym.

For boxing, most gyms train hard. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, if it didn’t also apply to sparring. Many boxing gyms will spar at very close to 100% power, albeit while wearing headgear. There are significant problems with the use of headgear, especially in hard sessions.

Headgear was removed from olympic boxing matches, a practice starting in 2016. The decision was made due to evidence of higher concussion rates in matches where headgear was used. Headgear also does not prevent brain trauma, only superficial scars and lacerations.

There are several considerations as to why headgear would increase the likelihood of a concussion. Reasons might be because headgear makes the head a bigger target, as well as reduce field of vision, making it harder to dodge punches. Regardless, the fact of the matter is that headgear makes sparring dangerous, especially as it gets closer to being a real match.

This video demonstrates the mentality of Floyd Mayweather’s boxing gym.

Thai fighters do occasionally spar hard, as they do in boxing. However, Muay Thai sparring can sometimes be very light. This lighter sparring usually consists of tapping their partner to the head, and striking harder to the body. They save most of their hard striking for their competitive bouts.

Also, headgear is not very commonly worn in Thailand when sparring. This is because trainees are pulling punches to the head, and leaving their power for shots to the body.

I know this may sound as though I am stereotyping boxing gyms, which I am not trying to do. I can guarantee you that there are boxing gyms that spar more technically, with significantly less power than what would be used in a real fight.

However, there are many examples of just the opposite. Floyd Mayweather’s gym (seen in the video above) is a good example of hard and unsafe sparring, as it is not uncommon to get knocked out in sparring. However, many Muay Thai gyms also spar hard, albeit without the headgear or the knockouts, a prime example being Tiger Muay Thai.

In contrast to Mayweather’s gym, this Muay Thai gym has a much more respectful vibe to it when sparring.

Safety for Casual Trainees

I’m now going to cover safety for the average person who trains Muay Thai. This means a person who trains a few times a week, with the purpose of getting fit, learning some self defense, and who has no intent of fighting professionally.

Typically, the average gym member will not need to be as worried of brain trauma as a fighter, since they won’t be sparring. However, you may find yourself wanting to spar after spending some time hitting the bag. Here’s how you should do it.

First, you should find out the environment of your gym. By ‘environment’, what I mean is how hard they spar, how much focus is on fighter safety, and how many members are professional fighters.

You want the gym trainers’ prime focus to be the safety of their members, without them hindering your progress or ability. Members should be allowed and encouraged to spar, but sparring should be very light and respectful, with emphasis on technique.

You should also limit your sparring time per week. If you want to learn more about how often and how hard you should spar, I have an article about that here: How Many Times A Week Should I Spar?

Aside from that, make sure to stay safe while training on the bag. Hard martial arts training makes you prone to injury, with the main injuries being wrist and ankle sprains.

Wearing good hand wraps is important for wrist and knuckle safety. I prefer my wraps to be able to stretch, but stiff enough to where it secures my hand.

I say this because most hand wraps are very cheap and flimsy. However, I personally would recommend the hand wraps made by Pro Impact, which you can find on Amazon here. In comparison to the wraps by Everlast, these will last much longer and protect your hands much better.

Knee ligament tears are also fairly common. If you feel pain or discomfort in these areas, take a short break from training. A break is much better than a full-on injury, from which you have to spend time recovering. Recurring injury can be caused by overtraining, a topic which I go in-depth about in a previous article called, Is It Safe To Train MMA Every Day?

Safety for Professional Fighters

For professional fighters, the safety concerns revolve mostly around head trauma. Of course, there is almost no easy way to protect yourself from head trauma in either Muay Thai or boxing, as it is naturally a part of competition.

However, light sparring with focus on head movement and good blocking is a good way to start. Also, there is evidence to suggest that the risk of concussion is higher if you have had one recently. After a knockout loss, some athletic commissions require a 45-day suspension and medical clearance before being allowed to fight again.

However, I would recommend that fighters seriously consider their reasons for fighting, and whether the brain trauma is worth it. I would also recommend at least a few months before fighting again, which would minimize the chance of back to back KO losses.

In the end, brain trauma will always be a problem for a professional fighter, regardless of the sport. If you are just looking for a martial art to train in casually, then either one can suit your needs. However, hard sparring is a lot more common in boxing, but your particular gym’s training methods will vary from others.

For pros, Muay Thai bouts are usually shorter in length, with fewer blows to the head on average. Train hard but train safe.

If you are a beginner wondering about safety in Muay Thai, I have a post called, Is Learning Muay Thai Dangerous? made just for you! There are also several helpful posts for beginners on the Training Tips page. Thanks for reading!