Updated: Oct 31
No. Well, maybe I should elaborate. When John Wayne Parr decided to set up his Caged Muay Thai promotion, he did it with a clear idea. To grab people who like MMA, but complain when the fights go to the ground.
His promotion sported four ounce gloves, and it took place in a cage, just like MMA, it had all the hallmarks of MMA aside from anything involving a submission or ground work.
While the competitors trained and fought Muay Thai rules, and were allowed the same techniques, in reality the fights ended up looking quite different to traditional Muay Thai.
There are a few reasons that make this a different sport, but first there’s a distinction that we have to make, as Muay Thai is both the name of the martial art and the sport. In conversation we like to distinguish between different martial arts styles.
Muay Thai is one style, Karate is another. However in practise all these martial arts actually are, are a collection of techniques that are used for fighting. There is actually nothing stopping you entering and possibly even winning a karate tournament without having ever studied the art.
If you’re familiar with the rules, and are a good enough competitor, it’s entirely possible for a Muay Thai practitioner to do just that. As a matter of fact, it has actually happened before. With Sakmongkol winning local karate competitions, mostly off his decades of Muay Thai training. Equally, there are a few knockdown karate practitioners who have competed in Muay Thai, under muay thai rules and have had some success.
So when we talk about whether or not cage muay thai is really Muay Thai, what we’re actually talking about is, is it the same sport? And the answer to that, for me, is a resounding no. While competitors like Rodtang have fought well in the cage, and they’ve done so using their Muay Thai – it doesn’t alter the fact that Rodtang in the cage, and Rodtang in the ring are completely different beasts. So why are these different sports?
The Arena We’ll get the most obvious part out of the way. The cage. Fighting in a cage and fighting in the ring are two very different beasts, a ring favours the offensive fighter, who can shepherd their opponent to the ropes or into the corner.
The cage favours the defensive fighter. I spoke about this at length in Rodtang and the Woes of Ring Cutting, and touched upon in the Adesanya/Pereira pre-fight breakdown. In short, where the cage is open and lacks real corners, it’s far harder for a fighter to trap their opponent. The level of lateral footwork needs to be much higher to accommodate for not only the lack of corners, but the abundance of space.
The Gear Caged Muay Thai nearly always features four ounce gloves used for MMA competition. Muay Thai is a style that lives and dies off clinching. If you’re not able to clinch well, you won’t have any success in the sport.
MMA gloves with their open fingers allow for far more precise and accurate clinching, that far more closely reflect how Thai boxers train. Usually, you would train clinch without gloves, despite competing with gloves and not being able to access the same grips. This is something that has caused a lot of debate amongst western fighters, on whether or not you should practise clinching without gloves at all.
When you’re competing with MMA gloves however, it really makes no difference. Having more freedom to pummel for position, and being able to more easily access gable grips, S grips etc. mean that clinching is already different from what you see in traditional Muay Thai.
The Scoring While the aspect least talked about, the scoring of caged muay thai is probably the biggest factor that changes it from the traditional sport. Caged Muay Thai is scored round by round, under the 10 point must system.
This scoring system has been used for boxing and MMA for years and while it’s ever present it’s also never quite worked. I could complain about how the scoring system turns fights into a game of tag where it becomes more about who touched who the most, as opposed to who was more effective – or how a fighter can lose round 1, 2 and 3, but completely dominate the 4th and 5th rounds and dictate how the fight ends and still lose, but for now I’ll just say promotions that show caged muay thai use this flawed system.
Meanwhile Thai Stadiums use a radically different scoring criteria that is better in some ways and far more frustrating in others. On paper, fights are scored as a whole, and it’s less about who hit who more, but who fought better, who landed cleaner, who was able to dictate the pace of the fight and who was able to deal more damage.
Thailand benefits from having judges that are actually familiar with the sport and strategies they’re judging, as opposed to having Cecil Peoples and Adelaide Byrd. There is however a few problems with the scoring system. The first is that while on paper the fight is scored as a whole, in practise, the 1st, 2nd and 5th rounds are rarely that important. This is partly due to the influence of gambling in Muay Thai (although again that is a factor that makes the two sports very different), but what is absolutely a flaw in the scoring system is that stadiums have historically not scored punches, elbows or leg kicks unless they have a visible impact on the opponent.
A punch will not score, if it doesn’t rock the opponent, whereas body kicks score just for landing cleanly. There iscredibility to this idea in that punches don’t do the level of damage body kicks do – but it completely ignores the attritive effects of punches and low kicks.
While I won’t say if one scoring system is better than the other, it influences the way fighters compete. Caged Muay Thai that you’ll see in John Wayne Parr’s promotion, or in One Championship is fought at a pace more akin to kickboxing, it’s more focused around punches, and for many that will be more exciting than Stadium Muay Thai. Stadium Muay Thai was best described by my Dad, a guy with no interest in combat sports at all, but had somehow seen some fights either on TV or on the internet: “It starts off really slow, but as it goes on it gets really fast”
That pace is also dictated in part by the music playing during every fight. Something absent in caged fights.
I think that people will innately have a preference between stadium muay thai and caged muay thai, should indicate more than any of these analytical reasons, that the two aren’t really the same sport. They will both utilise the same martial art, but they’re tools being used for different tasks.