5 Differences Between Muay Boran and Muay Thai

IMG_4014What is Muay Boran? It’s “ancient boxing,” and is considered an ancestor to the more well-known Muay Thai. Muay Boran isn’t a single unified system. Practicing Muay Boran is a bit like practicing “Karate,” which is to say there are a number of different and distinct systems that go by that generic name—some of which bear little resemblance to others. Muay Boran was originally a combat martial art, but came to be practiced as a sport as well. The latter practice included some rules, though relatively few in comparison to Muay Thai. Instead of padded gloves, they fought with their hands and wrists bound with hemp rope.

When I was in Thailand, I had an opportunity to participate in a couple rudimentary Muay Boran classes. I’d just read about this system in the June/July 2013 issue of Black Belt magazine, and was interested in seeing for myself how the discipline was distinct from Muay Thai. I’m fascinated by how martial arts that are more jissen (real combat) oriented differ from systems whose primary objective is something else (e.g. sport, wellness, etc.)  If one looks at a sport martial art such a Muay Thai, one can see how the nature of the rules and equipment subtly shape the nature of the movement. For example, if crotch attacks are illegal and one wears a cup to handle the occasional accidental crotch shot, one won’t worry about that vulnerability and–as one focuses on gaining advantages or minimizing disadvantages–one may end up with a vulnerability that would be disconcerting in jissen martial arts.

Before anyone gets huffy, I should point out that this isn’t a criticism. Sports must have rules so that they can be enjoyably practiced (and watched.)  Given the rules that are in place, one should optimize one’s performance to being as fast, powerful, and effective as possible. In other words, it would be silly to make one’s stance optimized to protecting one’s groin if the opponent can’t attack it (plus one has a little insurance policy against accidents) and if protecting that [non-existent] vulnerability made one any slower, less powerful, or otherwise less effective. I’m also not saying that combative sports are completely ineffective as self-protection. For sports like Muay Thai or MMA there is a huge space of overlap with the no rules combative situation, and—furthermore—the athleticism developed will allow one to adjust to the non-rule environment quickly.

That being said, I’m curious about how Muay Boran is different from Muay Thai and what that might mean in terms of jissen-optimized fighting versus sport-optimized fighting. Here are a few things that I noticed both in the classes that I had at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, in the aforementioned Black Belt article, and from a few videos and articles that I could find on the internet from what I believe to be reputable sources. [I should disclaim that I’m far from an authority here. Full Disclosure: I’ve had 3 hours of MB training and done some reading and research.]

1.)    The basic Muay Boran guard covers the centerline. In other words, one’s hands are one fist in front of the other with both fists aligned on one’s centerline. This is as opposed to the boxing or Thai boxing guard in which either hand is to the outside of one’s head. Practitioners of Wing Chun or the system I am most familiar with, Gyokko-ryū will be familiar with what I’m talking about. I have vague theories about why protecting the centerline might be more advantageous in combat than sport. For one thing, it might help one make contact with incoming limbs in a way that supports transition into grappling. For another, it allows one to protect against coup-de-grace attacks more efficiently.

2.)    The basic stance of Muay Boran is lower and wider than in Muay Thai. I suspect this has to do with ranging and protection of vulnerabilities (e.g. the groin is harder to hit.)

3.)    While Muay Thai is considered the style of “8 weapons”: (leg (X2), knee (X2), elbow (X2), and fist (X2), Muay Boran is based on 9 weapons (i.e. it includes the good ole head-butt.) This isn’t a surprise. Without a head-butt prohibiting rule, one would expect people to use this devastating close-range weapon.

4.)    Muay Boran utilizes attacks against the limbs. In sport Muay Thai, there is little to be gained from this, but in a combative art if one can deaden limbs one gains a big advantage.

5.)    One thing that perplexed me at first is the fact that Muay Boran supposedly uses flying knees and flying elbows prolifically. (I should note these are used in Muay Thai occasionally as well, but they’re relatively rare as they are hard to land and to use without having mid-air vulnerabilities exploited.) What I found strange about this is that jissen martial arts tend to be much less flashy and rely on much simpler techniques than do sports. The old motto of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is often spoken in jissen martial art dōjōs. However, I do have a theory about why the power generated by such tactics might have made them appealing. One mindset difference between sport and jissen martial art practitioners has to do with the role of time. In combat, time is not on your side, and pacing yourself can be a lethal strategy. You want to try to land strikes that have a high probability of putting the enemy out of commission, even if at a risk. That is, of course, just a neophyte’s theory.

I enjoyed learning a few Muay Boran techniques, and I can see how it was an effective combat system.

39 thoughts on “5 Differences Between Muay Boran and Muay Thai

  1. Hey man that was a good read. Just a couple of things, Muay Boran isn’t really a pure art it’s like saying you’re learning kung fu. There are hundreds of different styles of kung fu and similarly there are a number of style of Muay Boran e.g. Chaiya, Lopuri, Thasao, Korat each with their own distinct flavour. As for the flying knees/elbows I’m not entirely sure but my guess is they were used for knocking people off horseback since they are ancient battle arts and enemy cavalry would not be an uncommon sight

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do not forget that King Naresuan designed these forms to be taught to an individual or group easily. You can also use the forms with weapons in hand. Most, if not all, the moves are based on counter-attacks, plus it was designed for war. The flying moves help take down mounted soldiers, as well as groups of attackers. Therefore providing a gap for others to take advantage and open. As far as varying styles like Kung fu, each region has their contribution to the forms. King Naresuan gathered the best fighters from all eight corners of his kingdom in order to create this style. Even though the different regions have their strengths, they are all put together in the thirty different forms consisting of Mae Mai and Luk Mai techniques.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello,
    Thank you for visiting and liking my book review blog. I learned something new by visiting your blog today and reading the above article. I never thought of boxing being around in ancient times. Amazing.
    Shalom Aleichem,


  4. Fascinating to read the content of this post and gratifying to see your love for this. The sphere is remote from me, but your involvement is something to emulate for me. I pray that I may have more years to see things I haven’t seen and see enthusiasm such as yours. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am a brown belt in Shou Shu (kung-fu) or Karate if you like. The hand position in front of your face and on center IS the most effective way to block. From my experience, it’s like a parry. It’s easier to deflect than it is to block ESPECIALLY when someone comes at you with a straight punch because they are hard to see or when your opponent is a lot heavier than you are. You can “put up your dukes” but if you’re little like me, even the best block can be painful and not always the best choice unless you don’t have one which then you’d use a block more like a weapon than just a block.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My experience about not guarding the center line in a sport sparring is based on the fact that you are protecting yourself against point hits, which can be shoulders or side of your body. In a real situation, the most important protection points are soft spots like groin, neck, eyes, nose, liver… If possible you wait for an opening, while protecting yourself and then disable the attacker in a single strike. Of course to be able to actually do that, it takes a lifelong practice. 😉

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yeah. I can see that. I am more aggressive. I was taught to get in close and use my elbows, shoulders and other parts to block as well as my arms so that my “money makers” remain protected. For sure though, to actually do all that in any situation takes lifelong practice.

        Liked by 1 person

      • My sensei (traditional shotokan) is emphasizing the best defensive is evasion and if you can’t, then you block. Block at a higher level becomes a strike. Is that what you were talking about?
        I agree that blocking with body parts that can take harder blows is the way to go.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Wanted to tell you I enjoyed your post about Muay Boran. I’d never heard of it before and learned some good things. My like button doesn’t work for some reason so consider it liked! And thank you for reading my little post too!

    Liked by 1 person

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