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Kyokushin vs Muay Thai for Kickboxing

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

When we talk about kickboxing, we are usually talking about K-1 Rules, formerly known as Oriental Rules, or even better known as ‘the one where you can kick in the leg’. This style of kickboxing has a few influences but generally we can say that it stems from Kenji Kurosaki’s particular approach to Kyokushin karate, and his experiences in Thailand against Thai Boxers.

As a result, we often see professional kickboxers coming from one of three backgrounds, the first and most common background being a gym specifically teaching K-1 rules kickboxing. This is the case for most dutch fighters, and many Japanese fighters. The other two are fighters that come from either Muay Thai or Kyokushin karate, who then adjust for kickboxing rulesets.

Today we’re going to examine those two bases and the pros and cons of each of them when adjusting to kickboxing, and decide which, if any, is better for K-1 rules.

Kyokushin Founded by Mas Oyama and frequently billed at ‘the strongest karate’, Kyokushin is the progenitor of what we now call ‘knock down karate’. There are multiple styles that train for this specific ruleset, be it Ashihara, Shidokan or Seidokaikan to name a few examples, but Kyokushin is the most common of this approach.

Knockdown karate is won by, you guessed it, knock out or knockdown. Where it differs from other karate styles is it’s explicit prohibition of face punches. This has proved controversial amongst practitioners of other karate styles due to it being ‘unrealistic’, although these styles usually don’t practise hitting each other whatsoever.

Mas Oyama decided that he’d prefer to lose face punches in order to keep fights bare knuckle, and while we can argue whether or not he made the right decision, we cannot argue that Kyokushin hasn’t produced tough, capable fighters in spite of this limitation. Kickboxers like Glaube Feitosa, Fransisco Filho and Tenshin Nasukawa all developed initially in this style of karate before moving into kickboxing. So what are the pros and cons when adjusting to kickboxing?

Pros: Kyokushin is above all else known for tough physical conditioning. Kyokushin fighters are used to taking bare knuckle body punches, and hard low kicks resulting in high pain tolerance and a general lack of fear when it comes to damage. This undeniable produces strong fighters and a Kyokushin fighter is unlikely to be knocked out in a three round kickboxing bout, save for a particularly severe or well timed blow. Furthermore Kyokushin is fought at a very close range and fast pace. This is beneficial when it comes to kickboxing, as fights will usually consist of three rounds of three minutes. The ability to score often and score well in that short span of time is essential to winning a decision. For a Kyokushin fighter, adjusting to kickboxing may as well be a matter of adjusting to head punches, which brings us to the draw backs.

Cons: Like it or not, the lack of head punching in Kyokushin is a problem. Every major Kyokushin fighter from Filho to Hug, have all talked about the difficulty of learning to defend their head consistently in fights. While defending your head should seem like a given, especially considering high kicks are humorously legal in the sport that pans face punching – the reality is that training routinely in hard sparring situations without head punches, dulls your reaction to dealing with them. A lot of time spent in Kyokushin will be spent on traditional martial arts skills such as kata and bunkai, which while useful are simply not optimal for kickboxing training. There is a lot of time spent on forms that could be better served spent on sparring and partner drills in order to directly develop fighting skills.

Muay Thai The art of eight limbs and usually cited as the most effective striking art on the planet. Muay Thai needs very little introduction, it’s the national sport of Thailand and Thai fighters have always dominated the top levels of kickboxing. Muay Thai allows for unlimited clinching, sweeps and elbows in addition to the punches, kicks and knees allowed in kickboxing. As a result training in Muay Thai fundamentally trains you to compete in kickboxing with a fairly smooth cross over. Despite this however there are still things to consider when making the cross over.

Pros: Training in Muay Thai teaches you every thing you need to know about kickboxing. It also teaches simple, fundamental techniques such as the teep, which are rarely seen in kickboxing. A big part of why Thai boxers dominate in kickboxing simply comes down to their use of the teep to control the distance in kickboxing bouts. Kickboxers rarely have to deal with the teep and as a result are usually pushed around by great Thais.

Cons: Unlike Kyokushin, you will not be gaining techniques in kickboxing, you will be losing them. Kickboxing prohibits unlimited clinching and elbows, meaning that a Thai boxer who specialises in these techniques is going to have a much harder time adjusting their game to be more boxing heavy to compensate.

The limited clinching can also cause problems for fighters who like to tie up to avoid damage, as excessive clinching to smother punches can cause point reductions. This can make it harder unable to dictate the pace of a kickboxing bout. Finally, lets elaborate on that pace. Muay Thai typically favours a slow start as two fighters get used to their opponents. Kickboxing starts fast and stays fast, which means that slow starting fighters can and have been caught early and suffered losses as a result

Conclusion While I’ve tried to give a balanced view of the pros and cons of both styles, Muay Thai wins this one. Kyokushin absolutely does work as a base for kickboxing and plenty of great fighters have come from this discipline, but they have to do a lot more work in order to adjust. Whereas Muay Thai training has essentially already prepared you for kickboxing competition and the adjustments have to come from what you can no longer do, as opposed to learning to defend some of kickboxing’s most basic techniques. That being said both of these styles have absolutely, historically worked and no one should feel discouraged from trying out kickboxing if they’ve come from either of these two brutal styles.

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