A Layman’s Guide to Scoring a Muay Thai Fight

The scoring practices of Muay Thai are unique amongst all combat sports.  Typically in combat sports events, fighters are judged on the amount of legal strikes that are landed and on how effective the fighter is.  While this is also true in the sport of Muay Thai, what are considered to be scoring strikes and effective strategies are often misunderstood, especially in the West.

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Further compounding the misunderstanding of Muay Thai scoring practices is that many Thais simply are unable to effectively express what is different and/or unique about Muay Thai scoring.  When asked, most Thais will often insist that all strikes in Muay Thai score equally.  What they are *really* saying is that all strikes in Muay Thai have an equal opportunity to score.  In other words, many strikes count more “equally” than others.
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In most combat sports, a strike that lands is a strike that scores.  In Muay Thai, not all strikes that land count, and some that don’t land do (more on this later).
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To begin, one must first understand what strikes score, and what strikes don’t.  In a nutshell, the strikes that consistently score in a Muay Thai match are Roundhouse Kicks and Knees to the torso and head.  Other strikes such as Punches, Push Kicks, Elbows, and Roundhouse Kicks to the legs typically do not.  While these do not TYPICALLY score, they *will* count if they have a VISIBLE effect on one’s opponent.  For instance, punches will count if they stagger one’s opponent or cause him to show pain.  Merely snapping one’s opponents head back with punches is not considered enough to score.  Push Kicks count if they cause an opponent to lose their balance.  As in the case of punches, a fighter who moves back in a controlled manner upon receiving a Push Kick will negate the liklihood of it scoring.  Elbows typically only count if they cause a cut, and Roundhouse Kicks to the legs will only count if an opponent’s leg buckles, or if the fighter begins to favor the leg or starts limping.
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All things being equal, strikes in Muay Thai fights are typically scored similar to the following “sliding” scale (explained below) from highest to lowest scores:
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These first 7 strikes are the technques that consistently score:
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1.  Sweeping an opponent off of their feet
2.  Knee strike to the head
3.  Roundhouse Kick to the head
4.  Straight Knee to the body
5.  Roundhouse Kick to the body
6.  Side Knee to the body
7.  Roundhouse Kick to opponents arms
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These next strikes are techniques that only score under given criteria (mentioned above)
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8.  Push Kicks to the body
9.  Side Knees to the legs
10. Roundhouse Kicks to the legs
11. Push Kicks to the legs
12. Punches/Elbows
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*Please note that the above list is not official in any capacity, but is merely the result of years of study and observation.
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As stated above, the above represents a “sliding” scale.  The power and effectiveness of a given technique can cause it to move up or down the list accordingly.  A strong punch that staggers one’s opponent may score higher than a weak roundhouse kick to the opponent’s head.
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A fighter’s balance is a hugely significant part of determining one’s score, but unfortunately this is often underrated in the West.  A fighter who maintains his balance as he moves, attacks, and defends throughout the fight will appear to be a stronger fighter who is more in control of the match.  Therefore, any attack that disrupts an opponents balance will be worth significantly more on the judge’s scorecard.  As an example, one fighter lands a roundhouse kick to his opponent’s torso, but his opponent maintains balance and counters immediately with a punch that forces his opponent to stumble.  The punch, which normally does not not score highly (if at all), is now worth more than the roundhouse kick, which normally scores well.  Another example would be an elbow strike.  As previously mentioned, elbow strikes typically will not count towards your overall score unless they create a cut.  When they *do* create a cut, this is often a very high scoring technique because a cut has an immediate and lasting impact on the rest of the fight.
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What’s more, for any attack to be considered a scoring strike, it must be thrown from a balanced position, and the fighter must successfully return to a balanced position.  For instance, if a fighter throws a kick, but is clearly off balance, it is likely to not count towards the score even if it lands successfully.  Likewise, if the kick is thrown properly, but the force of impact causes the fighter to stumble as he regains his position, the strike may not count as highly, if at all.
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This is why any strike that causes your opponent to fall, regardless of whether a referee begins to count, is a very highly scoring technique.  However, please note that there is a distinct difference between putting your opponent to the canvas with a strike vs. a throw.  While they are legal techniques and *can* count towards your score, throwing techniques typically do NOT score as the fighter is being pulled/pushed off balance.  (more on this later)
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Also, please make special note of the technique of landing a Roundhouse Kick to your opponents arms.  Earlier when it was mentioned that some strikes that do not land have the potential to score was referring specifically to this.  In other combat sports, a kick to your opponents arms is considered a blocked kick, even if one’s opponent is staggered.  In Muay Thai, however, a kick to your opponent’s arms is considered a scoring technique!
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Finally, please also note that the strikes that do not typically score will count in the absence of other scoring strikes.  For example, if one fighter is landing punches while the other fighter is merely trying to evade (but is otherwise unaffected), the fighter using punches will score.
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Now that you have a basic understanding of how the individual techniques score in a Muay Thai bout, it is essential to know that striking techniques alone are not enough to win the round.  Below is the criteria, in order of importance, for determining the winner of each round of a fight:
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1.  The fighter who lands the most scoring techniques.
2.  The fighter who lands the most effective techniques.
3.  The fighter who causes the most damage.
4.  The fighter who controls the pace of the round.
5.  The fighter who has the best defense.
6.  The fighter who fouls the least.
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In most instances, the winner of an individual round can be determined by examining the first 2 (or 3) criteria.  As a reminder, please remember that to score, a technique must be thrown with power from a balanced position, and meet any additional criteria outlined above.
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In regards to clinchwork, it was previously mentioned that throwing one’s opponent from the clinch typically does not score.  The reason why is that throws take your opponent off their feet by pushing/pulling them, rather than striking them.  Any fall inititated by a strike, regardless of what kind of strike, will score very highly.  In regards to throws from the clinch, a fighter who throws his opponent with ease from the clinch does give the ‘appearance’ of being the stronger fighter, which can sway the judges.  So while throwing one’s opponent does not directly score, it does give one the appearance of being the stronger fighter, especially if one is able to throw their opponent down multiple times throughout any given round or during the fight.
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Another facet of clinchwork to bear in mind is gaining the dominant position.  If a fighter is able to demonstrate a dominant position in the clinch, such as the double-neck tie, then he is demonstrating himself to be the stronger fighter and can sway the score in his favor even if minimal strikes are landed from this position.
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Unlike International Boxing, when a fighter is put to the canvas with a strike, the referee does not immediately begin a 10-count.  In Muay Thai, there is what is called a “Flash Knockdown”.  Typically, when a fighter is knocked down, the referee makes a split second judgement call if the fighter was truly hurt, or merely knocked off-balance, by watching the fighters eyes.  If the referee determines the fighter is not genuinely hurt, he will wave the standing fighter out of the way to allow the downed fighter to regain his feet.  If the fighter immediately pops back to his feet, the referee will signal the fight to continue, otherwise the referee will begin his 10-count.  If the knockdown is deemed a “Flash Knockdown”, this does not result in a point deduction on the scorecards, though the fighter who caused the knockdown will have scored very highly.
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One of the things that makes Muay Thai scoring truly unique is the ability for a judge to change the score of an earlier round later in the fight.  A perfect example would be if during round 2, a fighter lands a powerful kick to his opponent’s leg.  At the time, the fighter receiving the kick did not display any outward sign that the kick affected him and wins the round 10-9.  In round 4 and 5, however, it becomes obvious that the fighter’s leg has stiffened, hampering his mobility.  The judges then have the option to go back and change the score of round 2, indicating that the powerful kick in round 2 had a lasting effect on the fight, and that the fighter who threw won the round 9-10.  (This ability to change scores of earlier rounds does not apply to title fights, or outside of Thailand)
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This illustrates another important factor when judging a Muay Thai contest, watching the fighters for any sign of weakness.  Fighters are trained to maintain a “poker face” while they fight.  They show no pain or fatigue.  This is not always possible, though, and this is also taken into account when tallying the score.  A fighter who winces in pain when struck will cause his opponent’s strikes to become more valuable.  A fighter who shows signs of fatigue such as gasping for breath or allowing his guard to sag will likely find his score reduced.
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In traditional Muay Thai fights in Thailand, fights are 5 rounds long.  Standard practice is for judges to score the first 2 rounds as even (10-10) as most fighters use these first two rounds to feel one another out and gauge each others abilities.  Though these rounds are typically scored 10-10, judges will mark their scorecards to indicate which fighter *should* have won the round, and these indicators will come back into play when the outcome of the fight is very close.  Rounds 3, 4, and 5 are scored normally.  It is standard practice in Thailand that the 4th round of a fight is the most important round.  A fighter who wins the 4th round will typically win the fight, and the 5th round often sees both fighters doing just enough to keep the action going without hurting one another (unless there is a significant prize at stake, such as a title belt).  The reason for this is that many fighters support their families with the income they earn in the ring, and therefore avoiding injury is paramount.  Another reason for this practice is that Thais view Muay Thai matches as though they are a footrace.  It is not as important how you start the race, but how you finish it.  The early rounds are akin to a warm-up.  Rounds 3 and 4 are the actual race, and round 5 is the cool-down period.
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*Special Thanks to Tony Myers, Liam Harrison, Stephen Strotmeyer, Fred Fitzgerald, and Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) for their guidance over the years in helping me understand Thai scoring practices.
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About khunkaogym

Kru Brooks Miller has been training in both Muay Thai & Boxing since 1992. He is a 3x Muay Thai champion in 3 different weight classes. His "Khun Kao Promotions" was the first to feature full rules Muay Thai competition in the state of Virginia (DC Metro Showdown - Feb. 23, 2008 in Lansdowne, VA). He currently assists Operation Octagon Productions promote the "Thai Championship Boxing" Muay Thai series and coaches his fight team in Alexandria, VA Kru Brooks is available for Muay Thai seminars. For more information, contact khunkaogym@gmail.com
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