The landscape of combat sports has seen a significant shift in the last 30 years, from boxing to kickboxing to MMA. While boxing is its own entity, MMA has taken its place and the hearts of many kickboxing fans as the second most popular combat sport. But what sets them apart?
Kickboxing is a combat sport combining punching and kicking from different martial arts, producing high-paced striking battles. On the other hand, MMA combines aspects of all martial arts and combat sports because it has striking, wrestling, and grappling.
While you may find MMA and kickboxing very different at first glance, they share more similarities than you might imagine. Today we will look at all the little details of both.
The sport of mixed martial arts does precisely what its name says it does: it mixes martial arts into a concoction of regulated mastery of violence. MMA includes striking, wrestling, and grappling.
Fighters can hit each other while on their feet. Still, they can also strike while on the mat and apply submissions and different painful positions. MMA is the closest thing we have to real fighting while remaining a sport with all that this entails.
With that said, MMA today is a highly regulated sport with many rules and regulations in place. Not so long ago, though, this was not the case. MMA was created to allow fighters from different backgrounds to clash against each other with no rules.
Early instances of mixed martial arts can be found throughout the 20th century, most notably in Vale Tudo in Brazil. Still, the first few UFC events skyrocketed and created what we know today.
The early UFC battles in the 1990s were held without rules. Still, the sport quickly grew, and rules were gradually implemented to make the battles more exciting and competitive, then to make the sport more mainstream-friendly.
Even the name “MMA” was not widely used, and the sport was commonly referred to as “cage fighting” or “no holds barred fighting.
Today, however, MMA is a respected athletic endeavor, and the most prominent names transcend the limits of the sport and become mainstream celebrities. MMA has also caught up with boxing, at least in popularity and viewer interest.
Kickboxing is an umbrella term for all striking martial arts that use punches and kicks. Kickboxing includes different styles and rule sets, including light contact fighting, full contact kickboxing (the old American kickboxing that lacks low kicks), and other variations.
But what most people think of when they hear kickboxing is the K1 version of the sport.
Before K1 was created and started blooming in the 1990s, kickboxing first began in Japan as an attempt by karatekas to improve their style by implementing elements from Muay Thai and boxing.
Kickboxing was developed simultaneously in Japan, Europe, and the USA. At the same time, each of these schools was also influenced by Muay Thai.
When K1 was created, the idea was similar to MMA—clash different styles and schools against each other and decide which is the best, but under strict striking-only rules.
Early attractions included masters from karate, Dutch kickboxing, Muay Thai, Taekwondo, Savate, Kung Fu, and other martial arts competing for the highest honors in the ring.
With time, styles blended, and the best fighters used a distinct style that is what we know today as kickboxing.
Today, kickboxing has lost some of its fame due to MMA’s meteoric rise in popularity. However, in the East especially, the sport is still highly esteemed.
K1 in Japan, Glory in Europe, and ONE FC still hold kickboxing competitions at a level equal to that of the best days of the sport, even if the glamour is not quite there.
MMA vs. Kickboxing Key Differences
Just as cultural specifics shaped traditional martial arts, the rules are what define them. They mold modern combat sports, which makes them extremely important.
Kickboxing takes many rules from boxing, like the 3-minute rounds with 1-minute breaks, the 10-point must scoring system, the boxing ring, and the overall fight format. But alongside punching, kickboxers can also use kicks and knees.
What sets kickboxing apart from Muay Thai is the absence of elbows and clinching. A short clinch and a single attack while holding are allowed in kickboxing. Still, to guarantee fast-paced action, clinches are generally not tolerated.
Fights can be won via a knockout, a judge’s decision, or a referee stoppage. Another factor that contributes to the pace of the action is the relatively short fight time compared to other sports. Most kickboxing fights are just 3 x 3-minute rounds, and only championship battles go for 5 rounds.
MMA gives much more freedom to the fighters. They have strikes with every part of the body except the head. Of course, eye pokes, groin shots, and similar “dirty” techniques are forbidden.
Aside from striking in MMA, fighters can wrestle, throw their opponent to the ground, and continue striking, except for kicks to a downed opponent (which are allowed in some organizations like ONE FC).
Submissions can also be used and are a viable way of winning the fight. MMA fights are commonly fought in a cage, but a ring can also be used, although the ropes are awful for ground fighting.
Fights can be won via a knockout, TKO, submission, referee stoppage, or a judge’s decision if the fight time has expired and no fighter has managed to finish his opponent.
As I’ve said, kickboxing and MMA have a lot in common because both pit different martial arts against each other. This creates an amalgamation of techniques that becomes unique in its own right and can be recognized as the style of MMA or kickboxing.
Many specialists have competed in kickboxing, including karate, Muay Thai, Savate, taekwondo, Dutch kickboxing, and other styles. So, punches, kicks, and moves from all of these styles are evident in modern-day kickboxing.
MMA techniques include the same striking styles but add wrestling takedowns, judo throws, catch wrestling pins, and BJJ submissions allowed under the rules of MMA.
Then all of these techniques from different martial arts are modified and changed to address all the dangers of cage fighting.
For example, many positions considered good in BJJ become very dangerous when the other person is allowed to punch and strike with elbows.
The wrestling aspect of MMA changes the training required for MMA fighters from that of kickboxers, not only in the technical aspect but also in terms of physical demands.
Conditioning and endurance are equally important in both sports, and the gas tank is too often the decisive factor between winning and losing. Strength is much more critical on the ground.
This is why MMA fighters need to spend more time building their strength and conditioning for different types of demands on the body.
In the striking department, training in kickboxing and MMA is very similar. All must do technical drills, bag work, mitt work, and spar regularly to be competitive.
Any competitive full-contact combat sport is an excellent preparation for self-defense, making MMA and kickboxing efficient. The more liberal the rules, the better suited the sport is for real-life encounters.
This is why MMA is the best combat sport for self-defense, at least when considering unarmed combat. Lethal skills with weapons are another topic.
Kickboxers are very dangerous and can handle most attackers in real-life situations. Still, if the fight goes to the clinch or the pavement, then things radically change. MMA prepares you for many more scenarios and wins the self-defense efficiency comparison with kickboxing.
Kickboxers do very well in MMA but have been late to the party. BJJ and wrestling dominated early on, and Muay Thai and karate formed a generation of MMA champions famous for their striking.
Pure kickboxers have always been poorly represented in the cage aside from Mirco Cro Cop, Mark Hunt, and a couple of other names.
This was because kickboxing as a separate sport was still at its peak, and athletes preferred competing in the ring. But the rapid decline of kickboxing in the west and the rise of MMA left elite-level strikers without the stage they desired.
So, kickboxers started transitioning to MMA with varying degrees of success. The current crop of successful kickboxers to go and make their names in the UFC are fighters like Dustin Jacoby and Giga Chikadze, as well as Bellator’s Raymond Daniels and Michael Venom Page.
The man who made the biggest splash in his transition from kickboxing is the current UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. The most dominant champion in the division since his idol, Anderson Silva, lost his title.
A bitter rival of Adesanya from their days in kickboxing, Alex Pereira is quickly rising through the UFC ranks thanks to his world-class skills honed in the rings.
In a fight without rules or an MMA battle, the fighter with more versatile skills wins.
MMA has shown that no stand-up specialist has hopes to win consistently without at least decent ground fighting skills or the skills to keep the fight standing. If the battle remains on the feet, the kickboxers have a higher chance of winning.
Still, many MMA fighters have elite-level striking, in which case, even on the feet, he has a good chance of emerging victorious.
As you might expect, an MMA fighter wins under MMA rules, and the kickboxer likely wins a kickboxing battle.
Choosing a martial art to devote yourself to always comes down to personal goals, motivations, and availability in your area. High-level professionals’ lives revolve around their chosen sport.
They can move around and pick the best academies and training partners, but having a relatively decent gym nearby is crucial for most people.
If you have the choice between MMA and kickboxing, choose the one that motivates you more. MMA will always win in terms of variety and practicality, but this comes with some notable negatives, like the overwhelming amount of techniques you need to learn.
If you were motivated to start training by the feats of a legendary striker, you should pick a kickboxing gym and become the best striker you can be.
However, it is always a good idea to have some ground fighting skills that may be decisive should the need to use them in real life arise.
Both sports will build your mind and body. And both can be done as a career or just for leisure and overall health. So the choice will be the right one either way.