The sport that we call ‘kickboxing’ actually has a long and complex history, to the extend that it is difficult to call it a specific sport at all.
Most of the countries that play it have a different set of rules – whilst the names that they give to the sport differ wildly too.
So, if you were struggling with which style of kickboxing to go for – either for your physical fitness or for your interest in martial arts training – then we understand. It isn’t necessarily straightforward for those not in the know.
But here we’ll look at the three main types of kickboxing that you are likely to find in the UK. And whilst we’ve added a fourth – in which you might be a little more interested – these three are the major styles of kickboxing across the world today.
So, let’s learn something: it’s important to be prepared before you step into the ring!
What Precisely is Kickboxing, Then?
When you see ‘kickboxing’ advertised in a class at the gym, it is worth finding out what sort of kickboxing they are referring to.
Because, whilst there is a specific sport that goes under this name – with a whole load of variations including Japanese, Dutch, and American kickboxing – it is also a generic term for any martial art that uses both the hands and feet, both punches and kicks. Not really very precise at all.
This is the thing. Because whilst going to the boxing gym for fitness kickboxing might sound appealing, sparring in Muay Thai boxing may well sound a little less fun. We’ll come to that precise style – which uses elbows and knees too – later on.
A Generic Term.
But kickboxing begins as a generic term – one that includes everything from taekwondo to full contact karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu to mixed martial arts, kung fu to British kickboxing. Each of these individual fighting styles has its own set of rules – and very rarely do fighters from different styles fight against each other.
This hasn’t always been true, however. During the sport’s relatively brief formal history, the different styles have come about through their contact – literally – with other martial arts.
Only since the sixties have different styles we now know as kickboxing – such as the American and the Dutch, for example – developed. And, now, the style that most of us know as ‘kickboxing’ per se, is the American variant.
With the establishment of institutions such as the International Kickboxing Federation, a global set of formal rules were developed that promoted competition and brought the sport into the public eye in the west.
Now, of course, you’ll find kickboxing classes all over the place. And whilst a lot of people learn the sport to take part in proper competitive bouts, most use it for the great workout it offers – for strength conditioning and for improving stamina, self-confidence, and a general fitness level.
(You can read more, by the way, on the health benefits of kickboxing in another article.)
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American Kickboxing: A Bit of History.
Kickboxing itself started, we can say, in Japan in the 1950s. Whilst karate was widely practiced and publicly enjoyed, it wasn’t much of a thing at the time to make actual contact with your opponent.
This changed when Tatsuo Yamada decided to bring Muay Thai into the ring. With the combination of the full contact elements of Muay Thai and the grace and dynamism of karate, a new style was born.
This was kickboxing – and the problems of definition, formal rules, and style were born right there with it. With each fighter taking different bits and bobs from the two different styles, it was never exceptionally clear – in the first days at least – which moves were allowed and which weren’t.
Kickboxing’s first ruling body was set up in Japan in 1966 and, after this, the sport went global. By which we mean, it went to those countries primarily who did not already have an established tradition of martial arts – such as the US, where this mix of karate and Muay Thai became hugely popular.
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The Rules of American Kickboxing.
Let’s take American kickboxing as the fighting style to look at in a bit of depth, as this is what we generally are referring to when we talk about kickboxing in the UK. Here's a full-blown explanation of the kickboxing rules too.
In American kickboxing, the emphasis is on reflexes and agility, and, as such, the ring is kept quite small to ensure close contact between the fighters.
Where American kickboxing differs from other forms of kickboxing is that you are limited to the use of fists and feet and you are prohibited from using the low kick. People have said that this rule – no kicks below the waist – is a deliberate attempt by promoters to ensure that fighters perform dramatic high kicks. The torso and head are the only legitimate targets for strikes – and no throwing is allowed.
American kickboxing developed out of the Japanese style of full-contact karate and western art of boxing – during the sixties and the seventies.
Here are the biggest names in kickboxing.
French Kickboxing, Savate, or Boxe Française.
In comparison, savate or French kickboxing has its own distinct tradition. Unlike many of the other kickboxing styles in the west, it is not based on an Asian martial arts technique. Rather, it is a specifically French phenomenon dating back to the nineteenth century.
That means that you won’t find savate everywhere in the UK. Unlike its American counterpart – and the hugely popular Muay Thai – French kickboxing is a little more niche.
Whilst that doesn’t mean you won’t find it, it’s a fact that is important to remember.
A Distinct Sport.
Savate comes out of two traditions: the style of hand-to-hand street fighting that was popular across France in the nineteenth century, and traditional English boxing.
Whilst it came to be a respectable sport in the 1920s, when it featured in the Olympic Games, like all folk sports the rules differed from region to region in France. Whilst some traditions favoured open-hand slaps, others developed rules and fighting techniques that permitted the knee strike and strikes to the groin. Punching was not necessarily allowed because, under French law, this was seen as a weapon.
In France, originally, the kick – including low kicks – was the most important weapon. And it wasn’t until French fighters had organised bouts with English boxers that savate as we know it now was born.
What to Expect in the Ring.
Whereas American kickboxing is close contact, savate demands a bit of distance between the fighters. It’s actually thought of as ‘fencing without the swords’, as it has developed into a style with elegance, thought, and athletic moves: the style favours excellent footwork, jumps, and movements.
In the ring, savate fighters wear special shoes that allow kicks with the toes. The roundhouse kick, the reverse, and the shin kick are all popular moves for the feet, which it involves familiar moves with the fists too: the uppercut, the jab, and the cross.
When fought well, it is actually a beautiful spectacle. And if you are looking for a total body workout, savate is the place to come.
Check out our beginner's guide to kickboxing!
And Muay Thai Kickboxing – What Is That?
Of all the different styles of kickboxing found in south-east Asia – Pradal Serey in Cambodia and the ‘Burmese’ or Lethwei style from Myanmar – Muay Thai has become the most popular in the western world.
Ascribe to it historical reasons, perhaps – as Muay Thai, as you’ve seen, was one of the great inspirations behind what we call kickboxing generically these days. It’s a combat sport that uses shins, knees and elbows, and fists – as well as the clinch or hold.
Muay Thai is almost as popular in the UK as American kickboxing. Yet, given the intense contact that it requires, injury is pretty common.
Elbows and Knees.
The main difference between kickboxing and its Thai variety – ‘Muay Thai’, by the way, literally just means ‘Thai boxing’ – is in its use of lots of different parts of the body. You are not just limited to feet and fists as you are in French, American and western kickboxing more generally.
In the same way, Muay Thai is not a sport that has been refined into something gentler and more palatable for a general audience. It remains intense, full contact and the risk of injury is high: you really need to be in exceptional physical fitness to perform it well.
Check out the gear you'll need for kickboxing!
Kickboxing for Fitness.
Whilst these are the three main styles, a lot of people these days prefer to do kickboxing just for fitness. By that we mean, rather than actually sparring, practising the moves in the gym.
Whichever you prefer – the real fight or the fitness regime – both are amazing fun. So, give it a go!
Find out the health benefits of kickboxing!
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