Today’s Muay Thai focuses mainly on training for ring fights so is seen rather as a sport than a form of self defence.

Ancient Muay Thai however, such as Muay boran focused mainly on self defence and was used by Siam warriors in the battle field when they had to drop their weapons and result in hand to hand combat.

Although modern day Muay Thai and ancient Muay Thai have similar moves such as punch, kick, Elbow, knee;

These moves are mainly taught in a ring fight scenario rather than in a street fight for self defence for example.

So would modern day Muay Thai be sufficient enough for self defence or has it adapted over time to be more of a sport ?

  • MT and Dutch Kickboxing are the two most prominent striking arts in MMA, which is the best possible simulation we have of a real fight. So yes, MT is excellent for striking self defense. Go to BJJ and wrestling class too and you're good to go.
    – coinbird
    Jan 4 '19 at 20:21

So would modern day Muay Thai be sufficient enough for self defence or has it adapted over time to be more of a sport ?

Amongst the martial arts, MT is still widely considered one of the most practical for self defence, and if combined with some form of jujitsu or wrestling (whether premixed in an MMA class or studied by you separately) the combination's especially highly respected, even by most of those studying martial arts (as distinct from sports). That's not to say you couldn't find martial artists of other backgrounds who'd back themselves (realistically or otherwise) against a well trained MT, MT+wrestling or MMA fighter, but they'd probably take the challenge seriously.

On a more conceptual level, consider:

  • if you learnt MT to a high standard, then considered/studied (on your own or by looking at other arts) what else you might want to do in a self-defence situation and adopted a good way to practice it enough to get proficient, then obviously you're better prepared for a self-defence situation that you used to be

  • in practicing something for sports, you might form some bad habits that will make it harder for you later to adapt to good self-defence (e.g. the sparring in most schools of kyokushin karate doesn't engender good habits for protecting the head from hand/elbow attacks, as they're not allowed under the rules)

  • counter balancing that, if you try to build a foundation specifically for self defence and never find a good reasonably-safe way to practice a core subset of your skills hands-on with a competitive, resisting opponent, then you're unlikely to ever become great at many of your moves, and therefore not great at self defence

The key point: someone else who's practising in a very practical, hands-on way with a genuinely resistive, competitive opponent/partner - even though their techniques may be limited to a safe-enough subset - can sometimes become better overall through the extra hands-on experience they acquire

In my opinion, a mix of training is best: practice what's safe under some set of rules, find various other sets of rules to practice the rest of the moves you think you need to know for self defence. Some of those "rules" might be "the opponent will wear this protective gear", other times it might be some other gear, or different moves being allowed, or the "opponent" will be a punching bag, pad or even completely imaginary.

That said, you're unlikely to find everything optimally handed to you in one practice environment, and picking an optimal mix of places and arts to train in is a bit of an art and a huge investment in time and effort (and often money).

But, it's better to be on some trajectory than none at all. If you want to learn self defence, I wouldn't worry about picking MT versus Muay Boran - just start training and if/when you're an advanced student you can learn some extra techniques yourself if you feel the need.

For example, when I started in what I'd call a "bastardised karate" form of taekwondo I wasn't taught good body mechanics in many moves - my punch, ridge hand, side piercing kick, roundhouse, front kick, elbows, knees, and many blocks are all fundamentally different and IMO superior now - but I found it easy enough to retrofit improvements as I've learnt them from other arts and lots of practice, experimentation and reasoning - it's not the end of the world. It's nicer not to have to revisit old habits, but if I hadn't learnt something I wouldn't have recognised other things as being superior. Doing anything reasonable (i.e. perhaps not at a McDojo) earnestly is much better than pondering some intangible ideal from a position of ignorance. Knowing what's actually important takes insights that only come with lots of practice, study and hands-on experience.

  • Thanks for that answer :). Don’t know why someone downvoted me though.
    – Dan Khan
    Dec 27 '18 at 14:21
  • 1
    @DanKhan: Oh well, it's one of those questions most old-timer martial artists get sick of, as it's hard to answer well and can lead to a lot of disagreement. That doesn't mean it's fair to penalise you for asking. Consider Andrews answer for example - I'd warn against going so far down the path he suggests - you end up like some ninjutsu or hapkido schools trying to study so much you end up good at nothing at all. A solid foundation in hand-to-hand fighting is a backbone for more general self defence, and IMHO deserves focus before branching out. This site's best for less controversial Qs.
    – Tony D
    Dec 28 '18 at 9:24

The style makes no difference. You can be in the best MT school in the world, but if they don't teach you self defense, then whatever you learn isn't going to help you.

That said, the style has evolved into a sport as you noted. Much of what is practiced today will only go so far. The problem with niche sports today is that they are not well-rounded, that by definition makes them niche. That means, a typical competitor will be like the proverbial hammer as the only tool in the carpenter's toolbox, and what happens is that all of the carpenter's problems will be handled as if they were nails.

The way to tell if your school teaches self defense is to just ask them. Some will be upfront and say "no, we teach for the ring, not the street". Others will say "yes", and then let you figure out for yourself whether what you're learning is helpful on the street.

Some things I would look for are: are you being taught weapons use and disarm? Multiple foes? Multiple friends? Striking (including hands, elbows, head, knees, feet) and grappling (including locks, bars, chokes, trips, sweeps, throws)? Are you taught how to fall? How to get up? Are you taught to use your environment? Do you get to practice in different environments - asphalt, grass, etc? Do you practice in street clothes - including shoes? What about non-fighting techniques, such as verbal de-escalation, and changes in lifestyle? So, like, walking alone, driving, being in a bar, or being at a party; your choice of clothes and shoes; how to use everyday items as weapons; keeping your home safe. What about using a hand gun?

Do you even get a primer on what self-defense is? Many people have this idea that self-defense is all about a mugging. Any date rape victim can easily set the record straight. What will you do in defense of others - like your spouse or child?

The point is, things you learn to use in the ring are only a subset of what real self-defense is all about. It's not just about a mugging, or a one-on-one thing. Sometimes, it's about looking for escape routes, or talking your way out. Sure, there are overlaps. But self-defense is self-defense, and sport is sport. They are not the same. A hammer should only be used for some circumstances.

So it doesn't matter what Muay Thai used to be about. What matters is what your instructor will teach you today.

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