What is Muay Thai?

Muay Thai (or Thai Boxing) is the national sport of Thailand and is widely known as one of the most effective stand-up martial arts in the world.  In Thailand where Muay Thai has been a huge part of Thai culture of well over 100 years, this exciting, dynamic martial art has had time to cultivate a rich cultural heritage of its very own, making it much more than just a sport.

Thai Boxing is a “stand up” martial art that takes place inside the same four sided, roped boxing ring most of us in the West are already familiar with. Combatants can use any one of their fists, elbows, kicks or knees to try to out-score, or “stop” their opponent by landing shots with sufficient force that the opponent can’t continue.

What are the basic rules of Muay Thai?

Muay Thai takes place over five three minute rounds with a one minute  break between each round.  There are always three judges at ringside who
adjudicate each fight. On judges scorecards, both fighters start each round with 10 points and can only lose points if their opponent is seen to land 
clean, unanswered Muay Thai techniques that are seen to be effective. For example, if those blows are also seen to affect their opponent through loss of position, visual damage, negative reactions as a result of a blow, knockdowns etc, then these techniques will be given more weight when judges are considering their end-of-round scores.

How is Muay Thai scored?

Each round is scored as a 10 point must system, meaning that both fighters start with 10 points, only losing points if they allowed their opponent to outscore them. All three judges add up their scores from all five rounds at the end of the fight. The winning fighter being the one with more points. 

The two junior judges then hand their completed scorecards to the referee who then hands them to the head judge. The head judge counts his own card and then looking at his colleagues cards tells the referee who won based upon the collective decision of all three judges. The referee can officially announce the winner based on the judges results.

Understanding the results

  • If all judges agree on the result (all their cards say the same fighter won) – Unanimous decision win
  • If two judges say red and the other says blue – Red wins a split decision.
  • If one judge said red win, the other said blue win and the third thinks a draw – Split Draw (the fight is announced a draw)  – 
  • If two judges say draw and the other says win either way – Split Draw (the fight is announced a draw)
  • All three judges say a draw (rare) – then the fight is declared a draw – Unanimous draw

Understanding the judges scorecards

How rounds are typically scored by the judges usually boils down to the scores you see below. R = Red, B = Blue.

R – B
10 -10 – Both fighters scored equally, there was no advantage either way
10* – 10 – Both fighters were pretty equal, red slightly edged the round, but not by enough to give him the full point. 
10 – 9 – Red clearly outscored blue convincingly over the length of the round
10 – 8 – Red totally dominated blue over the round and/or knocked down his opponent for an “eight count” where the blue corner couldn’t continue for a short period so the referee gives them 10 seconds to recuperate and decide if they want to fight on.
10 – 7 – A rare occurrence, but would usually be the same as a 10-8 round but with the added indignity of having a point removed by the referee for foul play.

All fairly straight-forward so far, but how these scores are applied isn’t something you can learn so easily by reading a simple blog post. You really have to watch a lot of fights and start to understand how and why fighters are scoring to really start to see the reasons judges come to the decisions they do.  There are sometimes disagreements as to whom won a fight, especially if it is close, but the way Muay Thai is scored, judging is remarkably consistent compared to a lot of other fight sports so it is definitely worth trying to understand how it all works as this will only improve your enjoyment of the sport.

So how are those points applied, and why the need for the 10*?

There’s a slightly simplistic, but great visual metaphor that explains how Muay Thai applies the 10 point must system in that it is quite unique within fight sports.  In Muay Thai technically, you could lose 3 rounds, win only 2, but still win the fight.  So how does this work?  Think about a Muay Thai fight like a 5000 metre race at the Olympics – you can be in the lead across the whole race, but if you do not cross that line in first place, then you do not win the race. So it’s a crude analogy, as Muay Thai is not a race and there is no line to cross, but if you watch the race I’ve posted below of Mo Farah winning the Men’s 5000m race at the London 2012 olympics, you can see he starts slowly, almost tactically sitting languidly at the back of the pack, only pushing forward for the front when he tactically feels it necessary. A lot of Muay Thai fights have a similar pace and feel about them.

Mo Farah gives a perfect example of how Muay Thai is often paced.
5000 metre races in terms of finish time are similar to a  Muay Thai fight.

So this can work in a similar fashion in a Muay Thai fight with both fighters often not wanting to give away too much of themselves earlier on in the fight, only later in rounds 3, 4 and if it’s still close 5, you will see the pace pick up. 

This isn’t to say a fighter can’t just dive in all guns blazing from the start if he wants to, but he’d better be confident enough he has enough in the tank to cross that finish line strong, otherwise he risks letting the opponent back into the fight and giving them the opportunity to out score him as the fight progresses.  That said, the reverse is also true, so if the fighter who comes out all guns blazing pulls out enough of a lead on the other fighter, the fighter who started slowly must make sure he has done enough to tip the scales in his favour by the end of the fight.  Muay Thai is often a game of tactics to keep up the pace with the other fighter, no matter the pace, always looking to gain that tactical advantage and catch the other guy off guard. 

I really didn’t forget about that *

So with Muay Thai fights often starting at a slower pace, those earlier rounds can often be quite hard to split the fighters, as judges can often not be very sure how much of an impact some of the shots are having until much later in the fight. Judges are almost trying to mentally to keep things close enough on their cards so that even in the final two rounds a fighter who is behind can numerically come back and win the fight. 

So that 10-10* is a way of helping to remind the judge that the round earlier in the fight was close, but definitely weighted towards one fighter (think of it as half a point if you like). It can help the judge decide in a further close latter round cumulatively to give the fight to one side or another.
So because 10*-10 is read on the cards officially as 10-10, it allows the judge to refer back to this later in the fight if needed so that he can weight his score accordingly.

Fight score breakdown

This can be a difficult concept to grasp, but think about leg kicks – a great Muay Thai weapon.  Red corner may be landing lots of leg kicks in an earlier round which don’t seem to have any effect, as his opponent is countering well with his own shots, a lot of them nice-clean body shots (which score well in Muay Thai).  Both fighters are scoring and it’s pretty even, but you give it an even round with the * to the Blue corner as he is  countering as he is not affected by the leg kicks he is taking and is scoring well with the body kicks.

By round 3 later on in the fight Blue has had a great second round, continuing to score with his body kick and is clearly ahead at this point.
Round three is fairly even.
Here are the scores so far:

         R – B
Rd1 10 – 10*
Rd2   9 – 10
Rd3 10 – 10

So in round 4, Red is still throwing lots of low kicks and having a lot of success with them, and now after the cumulative effect, you can see that blue is starting to lose  position and is limping showing that red’s low kicks are having a negative effect on blue. Red has a great round four making the fight even. He smells blood in round 5 and thinks he can stop his opponent with more leg kicks. The fight is all square at this point and can go either way at this point, but the momentum is certainly with Red.

Rd4 – 10-9

In the final round everybody knows the fight is close, so they both need to do their best to win.  Red continues with his leg kicks as he sensed Blue is hurt, but blue knows what red is up to and manages to skillfully protect himself and doesn’t yield, ultimately keeping the round fairly even with nobody taking control.

The fight seems close, but is it?  There is a way for the judges to make their decision here by using the dot.

So looking back you can see that Blue got himself ahead initially. Red fought back impressively with his leg kicks having a cumulative effect, visibly hurting blue, but Blue did enough to avoid more damage in the final round, skillfully parrying and avoiding further damage, but crucially, countering himself with good shots to keep the round overall fairly even.
Overall the final round was a draw. 

So how could you score this?

Well, in this case a judge could just score the fight a draw, but we know that over the full fight this isn’t a true reflection of the whole fight.
In our example, we think that even though Red fought hard, Blue was more skillful throughout the fight as a whole, getting himself clearly ahead earlier on in the fight with his body kicks, so even though later in the fight Red’s low-kicks started to show their effect, by hurting blue, red could not quite capitalise on his success in the final round, meaning that although it was close, blue’s strategy, skill and resilience kept him ahead in the final round.

So, the fight was close, and to the layman, because blue got hurt, maybe red should win, but how would a judge look at this?

In this case a judge can refer back to his * note from round one and use that to retrospectively award the final round to blue in the knowledge that blue got himself ahead and managed to keep and protect that lead across the entirety of the fight.  The judge refers to his * from earlier in the fight and awards the final round to blue.
Rd5 – 9-10

Blue Wins. 
48 – 49

This is just one example of where the dot could be used to help split a close  fight. There are many other scenarios, but ultimately what the * does do is give judges flexibility in latter rounds to refer back to ground work done in earlier rounds.

It is worth remembering that in Muay Thai the margin of victory on the cards is not really important so long as the result is correct. In well matched fights 1 point wins are extremely common and it’s only really if a fighter has truly dominated that there are points wins of 3 points. More than a 3 point gap would usually have seen a referee stoppage so you rarely see those scores in top level Muay Thai anyway, and three point wins would certainly be uncommon as well.

Try for yourself

Watch the following fight and see if you can score it and figure out who should win? It’s not too close in the end, so you should be able to tell who wins quite easily, but it should illustrate for you all of what I have said above along with the pacing and the general outline of the scoring.

Saenchai (red) vs Petchmorrakot (blue)
Rajadamnern Stadium – Bangkok
Video courtesy of Timo Rouge at Muay Ties for the video.
If you want so spend some time watching lots of Muay Thai from the Bangkok Stadiums, check out his channel here: