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How to watch a Muay Thai fight.

By Marco De Cesaris

Muay is the traditional form of barehanded fighting developed by Thai people over time to protect their land from enemies. At the beginning of the 20th Century, traditional Muay started to be combined with Western Boxing: the result was the “creation” of a new combat sport, Muay Thai or Thai Boxing. Being a combination of ancient combat principles developed for warfare and a sporting activity, a set of rules and regulations had to be developed in order to preserve the physical integrity of competitors. The frame that was used to create that set of rules was mostly borrowed from Western Boxing which had a long history of trial and errors as a combat sport. In the first place, a lot of maneuvers that were part of the technical syllabus of most old Muay styles had to be banned. In fact, modern Muay Thai quickly started to be viewed as a profession and professional sportsman’s health must be enforced above all. The boxing ring was introduced as well as a 3rd person who operated inside the square fighting area, the referee, a fundamental figure that completed the set of actors of any fight event. A time limit was also established together with the introduction of a panel of judges whose job was to evaluate the outcome of a fight in case it went to the limit.


Similarly to what had happened in the West with Boxing, Muay Thai quickly became the perfect spectator sport, particularly when it started to be televised. Nowadays, thanks to the incredibly fast growing of technology systems used to broadcast sport events, everywhere in the world spectators are exposed to all kinds of combat sports and Muay Thai is no exception. Everybody can watch a Muay Thai fight but without a throughout knowledge of the specific rules and regulations employed, many times the outcome of a match is difficult to understand. In fact, in order to decipher the how’s and why’s of a judge’s scorecard a good knowledge of Muay Thai rules is certainly needed.
First of all, just like it happens in Western Boxing, two similar but different set of rules are used in Amateur and Professional fighting. In this article, only Professional Muay Thai will be analyzed.


The core of the “Rules and regulations for Professional Muay Thai” is about what should a boxer do to win a fight. In other words, what kind of actions bring a score on the 3 Judges’ cards. According to the official set of rules applied in Thailand, the Standard Scoring Practice in Professional Muay Thai is as follows.
“In a Professional Muay Thai fight, scoring comes from a strike by a punch, kick, knee or elbow strike”.

Article I. Scoring from a strike:

1.Points will be awarded for a correct Muay Thai Style, combined with hard and accurate strikes
2.Points will be awarded for aggressive and dominating Muay Thai skill
3.Points will be awarded for a fighter actively dominating the opponent
4.Points will be awarded for using a traditional Thai style of defence and counter attack

Article II. Not scoring strikes:

1.A strike which is against the rules
2.A strike which is blocked by the leg or arm of the opponent (in defence)
3.A weak strike

Article III. Fouls and strikes against the rules:

1.Biting, eye gouging, head butting, spitting
2.Wrestling, body or arm locks or any similar Judo or Wrestling hold
3.Deliberately falling on the opponent
4.Deliberately striking the groin area


This is what is written in the rule book. However, in order to really understand what goes on during a Professional Muay Thai fight, one has to consider a few more elements. In fact, not all the rules are written. Intangible elements, often rather difficult to assess, are nevertheless a crucial part of the judging procedure. In fact, while respecting the official rules, many a times a judge will score a fight also according to consolidated judging habits, not explicitly listed in the rule book. Let’s analyze a few of these unwritten rules.

-Comment to the general statement that: scoring comes from a strike by a punch, kick, knee or elbow strike.

While points should be awarded for any punch, kick, knee or elbow strike that connects, in practice this doesn’t happen. In fact, for a Muay Thai judge, punches, elbows and throws always score less than kicks or knees. Because of this “unwritten rule” many a times non-thai boxers (especially in the first period of international contests) complained about the outcome of their fight against a Thai opponent. They thought that a hard punch was just as effective as any kick or knee delivered by their Thai opponent but the Thai Judges saw things differently. Who was right? While the written rules didn’t say anything about the different “weight” of the various kinds of strikes, the officials considered this difference as a main element to score a Muay Thai fight.


Thai boxers know this unofficial rule very well. In fact, a research made by Khun Klongchak Ngammeesri in 1996 showed that the use of body weapons in a Muay Thai fight (in percentage) is as follows:

-Roundhouse Kicks (Tae Wiang) 45.61 %
-Knee strikes (Ti Kao) 24.41%
-Punches (Chok) 22.12%
-Straight kicks (Tiip) 7.40%
-Elbow strikes (Ti Sok) 0.46%

This analysis clearly shows that Kicks and Knee Strikes are by far the preferred attacks employed by the average Thai Boxer in the ring. As previously stated, this depends on the high scores these attacks guarantee.


-Comments to Article I.

Point 1: Points will be awarded for a correct Muay Thai Style, combined with hard and accurate strikes. This sentence is apparently clear but what’s the real meaning of hard strike? This point regards the fundamental difference between Professional and Amateur fighting. Quality of strikes against quantity. A judge in a pro fight will only register strikes that clearly cause a reaction in the target, while an amateur judge will essentially care for the number of strikes that land. That is to say, the pro judge will watch carefully if a boxer’s attack:
-Moves the opponent (because of the impact)
-Marks the opponent (on the body or face)
-Breaks the opponent’s balance
-Knocks the opponent down (leading to a count or not)
Simply put, in a professional fight a series of light strikes, even if they land, will score less than a few hard ones that cause an evident effect on the target. This point is obviously connected to the body mechanics of properly executed Muay Thai strikes: in fact, a correct Muay Thai attack should maximize the use of the executor’s body mass. Light strikes that don’t involve the whole body are also employed but their use is limited to luring and faking tactics and they should always be followed by a proper blow involving the whole body of the boxer.

Point 4: Points will be awarded for using a traditional Thai style of defence and counter attack. Slipping, dodging or side stepping a blow scores much higher that blocking with shins, knees, elbows, forearms on a judge’s card. Evading the opponent’s attacks and swiftly countering with accurate blows is ranked first among scoring maneuvers in a Muay Thai fight. This definitely shows a fighter’s superiority over the opponent. Muay Thai is considered one of the hardest combat sport: however, this doesn’t imply that Thai Boxers are sluggers who only care about beating the hell out of each other. On the contrary, both judges and fans favour by far a demonstration of effective and elegant style over head-on brawls. Muay Fi Meu, or stylish boxing, is considered the best expression of this Sport and is appreciated by all followers.


-Comments to article II.

Not scoring strikes.Generally speaking there is a big difference between a fighting technique that is against the rules of a given combat sport and one that is perfectly legal but that doesn’t score. In Muay Thai a typical example of the latter is a push: allowed by the rules but not scoring. Other techniques that belong to this category are Thai Style throws (see also the Comment to article III). In fact, as long as they are executed without employing the hips or legs to take the opponent down, several kinds of throws are allowed. Nevertheless, if a fighter focuses on throwing techniques to win a Muay Thai fight he will be disappointed. As a matter of fact, he can throw the opponent in order to wear him down and possibly to knock the wind out of him but these maneuvers will not affect much the judges’ scorecards.

-Comments to article III.

Point 2:Wrestling, body or arm locks or any similar Judo or Wrestling hold are against the rules. This point regards the question of Grappling. Muay Thai is generally considered a striking combat sport. Wrestling holds and maneuvers are partially included in the modern form of this fighting Art. However, as a matter of fact, according to the place (Thailand or abroad) and the panel of ring officials, Grappling happens to be partially or totally prohibited. As the rule goes: “Judo or Wrestling holds are considered fouls” but nothing is written about Thai Grappling holds and throws. As a result, Thai Referees tend to allow specific wrestling maneuvers and stop others. Outside of Thailand, a big confusion exists regarding this subject and most of the times Western referees tend to stop clinches before throws can be executed. Moreover, throws don’t score on the judges’ cards. An experienced Referee will allow holding and unbalancing as long as this is aimed at scoring with a knee blow or at throwing the opponent (in proper Muay Thai style). Otherwise, as soon as the action (striking) stops, he will break the clinch. As a side note: the reference to Judo in this rule was introduced to make a clear distinction between the Thai Art of fighting and the Japanese Art of Self-defence so popular in the ‘60s. Also, Judo throws were allowed in the mix fights that pitted Thai Boxers against Japanese Kick Boxers at the beginning of the ’70. Many fans and observers disapproved that and the rule that explicitly banned Judo techniques was introduced.


As a final word, I would like to thank all the Thai Officials from Lumpini Stadium, Rajadamnern Stadium , Om Noi Stadium and WMTC (World Muay Thai Council) who helped me to learn the subtle Art of judging and refereeing a professional Muay Thai fight. Thanks to their teachings I was privileged to work at ringside as a judge or to step in the ring as a referee with some of the great champions of this sport.