Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

What Is The Best Striking Martial Art? (Boxing, Karate, Muay Thai?)

If you’re into martial arts, then you probably know that martial arts can be split up into two groups: Striking arts and Grappling arts. UFC 1 showed us that Jiu-Jitsu and Wrestling were the most effective ground arts. But one thing it failed to really show us was the effectiveness of striking martial arts. So in this post, I am going to answer the question: What is the best striking martial art?

As far as striking martial arts go, Muay Thai is the most effective. Muay Thai is a martial art that emphasizes simplicity and effectiveness. The leg kick is a strike unique to Muay Thai that is effective enough to end fights on its own. It also incorporates all the punches used in Boxing, while also including effective roundhouse kicks, push kicks, knees, and elbow strikes.

However, just because Muay Thai has more strikes in its arsenal, doesn’t mean it’s automatically the most effective style. In the rest of the post, I am going to cover the details on striking arts, such as details that make Muay Thai effective, what the other arts lack, and what we see most often in MMA.

What Makes Muay Thai The Best?

I must clarify of course that me saying Muay Thai is the “best” is only an opinion. No matter how much evidence and research I provide on which striking art is the best, you should take always try out other martial arts for yourself, and see the things you like and dislike about each one.

Every person is different, and will have their own natural inclination towards a certain style of fighting.

UFC fighter and Muay Thai specialist Donald Cerrone (left) lands a hard leg kick.
UFC fighter and Muay Thai specialist Donald Cerrone (left) lands a hard leg kick.

Time to talk about what makes Muay Thai the best striking art. First I want to explain what exactly Muay Thai is. Muay Thai is a martial art originating from Thailand, hence its name. It is a style of kickboxing, in which competition allows all types of punches and kicks.

In addition, Muay Thai allows fighters to strike with the knees and elbows, earning Muay Thai the name “Art of Eight Limbs”. Fighters are allowed to clinch with each other, typically using a technique known as the “Thai Plum”, in which the user wraps their arms around the opponent’s neck, pulling their head down while throwing knees.

And lastly, Muay Thai also teaches sweeps and trips. From the clinch, the user can push their opponent away while tripping one of their legs, causing their opponent to fall. A sweep works in a similar way, but instead of in the clinch, the user kicks out the opponent’s weight from their lead leg, again resulting in their fall.

A Thai Fighter sweeps his opponent in competition.
A Thai Fighter sweeps his opponent in competition.

As you can see, Muay Thai has a LOT of techniques to learn, which is part of the reason it eclipses other striking martial arts. Muay Thai teaches all the same combinations and punches taught in Boxing, which makes Muay Thai less restrictive when it comes to strikes that are allowed. It is also not too hard to learn, something I cover in the post How Long Does It Take To Get Good At Muay Thai?

On top of that, the kicks in Muay Thai are different from the kicks in Karate or Taekwondo, in that they are simpler yet more effective in dealing damage. One kick unique to Muay Thai is the leg kick.

The leg kick is an interesting technique because it is actually illegal in Taekwondo and Karate competition, making Muay Thai the only martial art that uses it. These kicks have become known for their devastating power, being able to end fights after recieving them consecutively.

Difference Between Karate Kick Versus A Thai Kick

Kicks are a staple of both Karate and Muay Thai. They are also a big part of Taekwondo, but Taekwondo and Karate can be used interchangeably here, as their kicking style is very similar. There is a major difference between the kicks used in Karate and Muay Thai, and it is mostly in power.

The Roundhouse Kick

A roundhouse kick is a kick that is thrown from the side, where the front of your leg hits the opponent’s side or head. First, let’s talk about the similarity in the roundhouse kicks of Muay Thai and Karate. I’m going to describe the steps of the kick from an orthodox stance (left side forward) and kicking with the right foot.

Initially, the kick starts out the same, with the front foot turned out to the left, as the hips also turn over left. As the hips are turning, the right leg is picked up off the floor, getting ready to hit the target. This is the point where the kicks become different.

In Karate, once the hips are turned and the right leg (in a bent position) is up, the right leg is extended to hit the target, with a quick flicking motion. Once the target is hit, the leg is brought back down to the floor.

In Karate and Taekwondo, students are taught to “chamber” their leg before they kick, which means they only throw the kick once their leg is completely off the floor. They are also taught to hit with the foot, so as to maximize their range.

A Taekwondo practitioner demonstrates his roundhouse.
A Taekwondo practitioner demonstrates his roundhouse.

In Muay Thai, the leg is brought up and extended simultaneously, putting a lot more momentum into the kick. This way, instead of flicking the opponent with the kick, the kick is driven into the opponent through the turning of the left foot and the hips.

In the gif below, notice that he strikes from a closer range than the Taekwondo student. This is because he is mostly landing the kick with his shin, rather than the foot.

Online Martial Arts instructor Shane Fazen demonstrates a Muay Thai Roundhouse.
Online Martial Arts instructor Shane Fazen from FightTips demonstrates a Muay Thai Roundhouse.

Why Are They So Different?

Comparing the two gifs above, we can note several key differences. First, notice the difference in arm swing. The Muay Thai kick has much more, adding more momentum to the kick. Notice the power generated through the heavy bag, compared to that of the Taekwondo kick.

Another reason there is more power in the Muay Thai kick is because of the follow-through. In Muay Thai, students are taught to kick the bag as if you were trying to kick through it with your shin. This is a simpler version of training Muay Thai kicks, as in Thailand fighters literally chop down banana trees with their kicks as training.

It is common for Muay Thai fighters to kick down trees to condition their shin bones.
It is common for Muay Thai fighters to kick down trees to condition their shin bones.

However, in Karate and Taekwondo, the emphasis is mostly on hitting the opponent, no matter how light the kick is. This is mostly due to the competitive system, where winners are decided on points, which are earned by landing strikes. In fact, the Karate World Championships have a rule that does not allow “excessive contact”; which makes Muay Thai style roundhouse kicks illegal.

I want to make it clear that this breakdown of the difference between Muay Thai and Karate Roundhouse Kicks is not for the purpose of bashing Karate or Taekwondo. They both have their place in fighting, as many MMA fighters come from these traditional styles.

In fact, one of the best MMA fighters with a background in Karate is UFC fighter Michelle Waterson, also known by her nickname “Karate Hottie”. Despite being a Karate-style fighter, she herself has stated that the “chambering” of kicks taught in Karate takes too long in a real fight.

Despite having a Karate background, UFC Strawweight Michelle Waterson still incorporates Muay Thai style kicks into her game.
Despite having a Karate background, UFC Strawweight Michelle Waterson (left) still incorporates Muay Thai style kicks into her game.

In a video published by popular Youtube channel FightTips, which featured Waterson demonstrating her techniques (link to the vid), she explained that chambering kicks is a good way to understand them and how they should be used.

She then explains that once you learn the technique in-depth, you can start modifying it. On throwing kicks the traditional Karate way she states, “If I do it the traditional way that I’ve learned, and I step in, and I chamber, and I pivot out, then my opponent knows what’s coming”. Her solution is to do the steps simultaneously so that she can strike before her opponent can react.

The Biggest Difference Between Boxing And Muay Thai

There are many obvious differences between Boxing and Muay Thai, the most blatant one being the lack of kicks in Boxing. However, there are less obvious differences that matter more in a real fight, which I am going to address here.

The lack of kicks in boxing creates a style of fighting that has disadvantages against other styles. For example, the boxing stance is very bladed, meaning that they stand with their shoulders in line, facing towards their opponent.

Former boxer Floyd Mayweather's stance is very bladed, his right shoulder is always further back than his left.
Former boxer Floyd Mayweather’s stance is very bladed, his right shoulder is always further back than his left.

Stances are a very important part of fighting, as it is a fighter’s base, their source of power, and their center of balance. The way that Mayweather stands (shown above) makes him very susceptible to low kicks and sweeps, since a lot of his weight is on his front leg.

This is the problem with the wide stance, as used in boxing. However, your stance shouldn’t be too close either, as your opponent could easily drop you with a simple push. Instead, the Muay Thai stance is just narrow enough to keep your weight on your back foot.

Notice how narrow these fighters' stances are. This allows them to pick up their front leg to protect themselves from kicks.
Notice how narrow these fighters’ stances are. This allows them to pick up their front leg to protect themselves from kicks.

But you may be wondering why the stances even matter. So what if your weight is on your back foot or front foot? You can still get hit with low kicks, right? Well yes, but there are several reasons why the stance can help defend low kicks.

For one, the chance of the kick throwing your weight out from under you is very high when using a boxing stance. To see just how effective Muay Thai is against Boxing, I linked a video below that shows us just that: A Boxer vs a Muay Thai fighter.

At the 1:35 mark, just as the match begins, the Thai Boxer lands a heavy low kick on the wide-stanced boxer, causing him to fall. This happens often during the fight, partly because of his wide stance, but also because he is not aware of the defensive maneuver used against low kicks known as checking (blocking) a kick.

In Muay Thai, “checking a kick” is when one fighter attempts a low kick on his opponent, but the opponent blocks the kick by raising his leg. This type of block is very painful for the person throwing the kick, because their shin comes into direct contact with the opponent’s knee, which makes it an excellent defense against low kicks.

The shin bone has many nerves running along it that make it very susceptible to pain. A bent knee however, does not feel as much pain (if any), meaning that a knee beats a shin when they hit bone-on-bone. In fact, just twisting your lead foot outwards a bit is an effective defense against a low kick, at least if they are aiming for your knee.

The fighter on the right checks the kick from his opponent.
The fighter on the right checks the kick from his opponent.

In order for a boxer to survive a fight under Muay Thai rules, the boxer would have to narrow his stance, slightly turn his lead foot out, and check incoming kicks. Checking kicks is so effective, that some fights have ended due to a checked kick breaking the shin of the person throwing the kick. This was the case at UFC 168, when Chris Weidman checked a kick from Anderson Silva, which resulted in Silva’s shinbone being snapped.

What Karate and Taekwondo Do Better Than Muay Thai

Although I might sound biased towards Muay Thai, I am only comparing the martial arts by what we can see and their success rate in real combat. And although this post may make it sound like Taekwondo and Karate are less useful than Muay Thai, that could not be further from the truth.

The fact is, Taekwondo and Karate techniques have been used with great success in MMA. There are several aspects of the martial arts themselves that make them useful in real combat, such as an emphasis on flexibility and nimbleness. However, the techniques are what makes a martial art unique, so I’ll start with some basic ones that are not seen in Muay Thai.

Side Kick

The Side Kick is a very strong kick that is similar to the Muay Thai Teep. The Muay Thai Teep is basically just a push with your foot on your opponent’s midsection. The Side Kick also hits in the midsection, but it has more advantages over the teep.

For one, the side kick is faster. The side kick is thrown from a more bladed style stance, and picked straight up to hit. This is compared to the teep, which takes more time to draw sufficient power. Also, the side kick is stronger, because it uses different muscles.

Karate fighter Stephen Thompson (right) drops Jorge Masvidal with a side kick.
Karate fighter Stephen Thompson (right) drops Jorge Masvidal with a side kick.

If you look at the side kick thrown by UFC Welterweight Stephen Thompson, we can see some of its advantages. First, we can see the obvious amount of power the kick has, especially because Thompson caught his opponent on one foot and unbalanced. Second, the kick prevented Masvidal from landing his right punch, since the kick can land from farther away.

Spinning Back Kick

The Spinning Back Kick lands similar to the side kick, around the midsection. However, this kick is a bit harder to land and has devastating power. To land the kick, the user spins on their front foot, putting momentum into their back foot. Then, they raise their back foot and land it on their opponent’s stomach, as seen below.

A perfectly landed spinning back kick can end a fight, as seen here.
A perfectly landed spinning back kick can end a fight, as seen here.

This is by far one of the most powerful kicks you can use, because there is so much momentum from the spin. I will say that it is a bit difficult to land, and it takes time to land at will. Despite the learning curve, it is pretty obvious that the reward for learning this kick is a good one.

Wheel Kick/Spinning Hook Kick

Lastly, we have the Wheel Kick and the Spinning Hook Kick. I am including these two together because they are very similar, with the only difference being that the Spinning Hook Kick is a little bit more bent, whereas the leg is straight in a Wheel Kick. The kick starts off similarly to a spinning back kick, as you’d imagine. The main difference is that this kick is aimed at the head, and can end in a devastating knockout when it lands.

Uriah Hall (left) lands a perfect spinning hook kick, knocking his opponent out.
Uriah Hall (left) lands a perfect spinning hook kick, knocking his opponent out.

The kick in the gif above is a spinning hook kick, identified by the bend in the knee as it lands. This allows it to hit opponents from a shorter range, versus a farther range with the straight wheel kick.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I opine that Muay Thai is the most effective (and therefore the ‘best’) striking martial art. However, that doesn’t mean Karate can’t beat Muay Thai in a real fight, as they both have different advantages and strengths.

I just personally feel that the Muay Thai low kick is the most simple, yet effective strike in all of MMA, and it is a kick unique to Muay Thai. Combine this with all the punches in boxing, and Muay Thai a very complete striking art. If you want to know more about martial arts training, check out the Training Tips page. Thanks for reading!