I often get the question, “which martial art is the best?” I’m not always sure how to answer it because martial arts vary considerably, and each has its own strength. I’m just as curious as to the answer to this question, so I’ve decided to compare them.
It’s one thing to match karate and kung-fu, but what happens when you pit two completely different disciplines against each other?
Today’s match is Muay Thai vs BJJ. In the red corner, it’s Muay Thai, revered for being “the art of eight limbs.”
In the blue corner, it’s BJJ, the son of judo; a fan favorite that has paid its dues.
Let’s get ready to rumble!
A Look at Muay Thai and BJJ
Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) don’t have a lot in common when it comes to fighting style, but the histories are similar. They’re both modified versions of classic styles that preceded them.
Muay Thai’s origin is a little more complex than BJJ’s, though.
The History of Muay Thai
There are two sides to Muay Thai’s story; the ancient history, and modern development. Muay Thai, in its first incarnation, is said to date back to as early as the 14th century. However, its true history was lost in a period of unrest.
It’s been suggested that the fighting style developed as a means to use your entire body as you would weapons in combat. Modern Muay Thai is far more Western than we originally thought, though.
In the years between the two world wars, soldiers from Western countries were so fascinated by Muay Thai that they adopted it. Its rules then began to resemble boxing. Gloves were introduced, as were rings, rules, and regulations. This is the Muay Thai we know today.
It’s often seen as a “street rules” type of boxing, since fighters aren’t limited to their fists, and hits below the belt (with a few courtesies) are permissible. It’s a striking form, that isn’t graded. Fighters are ranked and classed by titles and weight respectively.
The History of BJJ
BJJ came to be out of necessity rather than entertainment. This might be tricky to wrap your head around, but BJJ is a modified version of a modified version of an ancient form. Confused? It’s quite simple actually.
Japanese jiu-jitsu is at the top of this family tree. It evolved for the Samurai, who were initially powerless if they were disarmed, thrown from their horses or had to fight hand to hand. In the 1800s, a man named Jigoro Kano—the founding father of martial arts as we know it—tailored jiu-jitsu to better suit him.
He was smaller and weaker than those around him and was relentlessly bullied for it. His desire to grow stronger and defend himself led to the creation of judo. A style he went on to teach; a movement that inspired how almost all martial arts are taught.
BJJ spread to Brazil in 1914, and soon after BJJ was born. For this, we can thank the Gracie family. Much like judo, BJJ was created to supplement physical inadequacy.
Hélio Gracie, although he participated in judo, could not keep up due to an unexplained illness that made him weak and fragile. BJJ developed as his very own style, one that accommodated his “inferior” strength.
When his family emigrated to the United States, BJJ (or ‘Gracie,’ as it’s sometimes called) rose in popularity and is now the legendary sport that it’s become. It’s a grappling form that places a lot of emphasis on self-defense. It’s graded, and belts are awarded for each rank.
A Comparison Between Muay Thai and BJJ
Muay Thai is more offensive and violent, while BJJ is defensive and submissive. Muay Thai is a striking style, BJJ is a grappling style. BJJ is graded, Muay Thai isn’t. Muay Thai uses specialized equipment, BJJ doesn’t (apart from clothing).
They do share some traits, though. They’re both massively popular in MMA, they’re both recognized and regulated as official sports, and they’re both favorites in effective self-defense.
Now that you know how they weigh up against each other, it’s time to determine which is superior.
Round One: Muscular Strength Development
Brawn is not the be all and end all of the martial arts, but let’s all admit it’s a big part of it. I’m not going to pick a winner based on which fighters have more muscle, but rather which fighters have stronger bodies.
One note here, one that applies to all martial arts, is that the fighting itself won’t make either fighter particularly buff. What matters more is the conditioning fighters use outside of their skill training. Still, different styles will work on different muscles.
Muay Thai Muscle
Muay Thai has a bit of a paradox when it comes to muscle. Since a fighter should generate as much force as they can muster to power their strikes, they should focus on building a lot of strength. But Muay Thai is classed by weight, so the fighter shouldn’t build too much muscle, lest their entire career is affected by it.
If you take a look at Muay Thai fighters, you’ll notice that while they do have strong muscles, their bodies are far more toned than buff.
A typical Muay Thai regimen for muscle involves a lot of strength training. The goal of strength training is to develop your muscles without necessarily building them. I have to emphasize that there is a difference between weight training and bodybuilding, and Muay Thai fighters by no means participate in the latter.
Muay Thai, as a whole, develops your entire body, so it’s excellent for fitness, too. Since you use most of your appendages to fight, you have to keep each one conditioned. Muay Thai will actively work on your muscle strength and tone in almost all areas of your body. It also develops your core strength.
BJJ, however, is not a sport that relies massively on muscle to fight. Remember that it’s not a striking art; it’s grappling. While weight and power do matter, technique often trumps size.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll be a successful BJJ fighter with chicken wing arms and a bean pole physique. BJJ still takes an immense amount of strength to utilize. BJJ is one of the most exhausting martial arts you can train in. Grappling exerts way more energy than you’d think. And so, having muscle strength is necessary.
One other thing you have to consider here is that BJJ, or at least its Gracie style, places a lot of emphasis on defense. This involves using your opponent’s weight against them and often forcing them into submission.
In terms of training, BJJ conditioning might not be as rigorous as Muay Thai, but you’ll still do a lot of resistance training. This, combined with the fact that, in a way, grappling is resistance training, is sure to improve your muscle capabilities immensely.
Verdict: MUAY THAI
I’m inclined to give BJJ a point here because of the use of muscle in the sport itself. However, since Muay Thai training outside of the ring is a lot more intense, it wins this round.
Round Two: Cardiovascular Endurance
Both martial arts are high energy and will require fitness. You’ll be no good in either if you run out of breath as soon as the fight starts, so we have to test the endurance of each fighter.
The first thing we have to take into consideration is how long each fighter will be in the ring.
A Muay Thai match lasts for 25 minutes or so. Rounds can be as long as three minutes each, and there’s a maximum of five rounds per match. Don’t forget about the two-minute interval in between each bout.
A BJJ round only lasts for 10 minutes, because as we saw in the previous round, it’s exhausting. This point really hits home when you realize that 10 minutes is considered extreme. Matches are typically shorter for fighters who are ranked lower than black belt or aren’t considered advanced.
So which is more intense? Using a lot of stamina for an extended period of time with breaks in between? Or exerting yourself all at once in half that time?
Verdict: MUAY THAI
Again, Muay Thai wins this round, but by no fault of BJJ. Both of these styles are high intensity, but it’s the science of BJJ that has caused it to lose here. The reason why it’s matches are so short is because, scientifically, you will run out of gas by the end of the match. Often, this is due to an imbalance in the fighter’s anaerobic and aerobic efficiency.
Still, this was a bout of endurance. The fact remains that Muay Thai fighters have to go on for longer than BJJ fighters do, regardless of the intervals.
Round Three: Self-Defense
I know that trying to compare the two here is a case of apples and oranges, but we can’t ignore this aspect. Many people are interested in martial arts for self-preservation, so which one is more effective?
First, I just need to remind you that neither is perfect. The verdict on this one is based on a simple, unarmed, one-on-one fight. If a situation were to escalate beyond that, both styles have flaws that could worsen the fight instead of end it.
BJJ is the clear winner in this round. Muay Thai is an extremely effective self-defense fighting style, but grappling has proven to be better for defense with its heavy emphasis on techniques, rather than pure physical dominance alone.
If you get into a brawl, chances are your aggressor will know the basics about throwing a punch or landing a kick. Most of the time, however, grappling comes as a surprise, and putting an opponent in a hold they can’t escape from could end the fight instantly.
There’s also the fact that most brawls end up on the ground eventually (due to inexperience and, also, flaring aggression). In this case, grappling, which teaches you exactly how to incapacitate a fighter on the ground, wins.
Lastly, BJJ (again, with emphasis on the Gracie method) is a defensive martial art. It’s designed for self-defense, whereas Muay Thai is not.
Round Four: Ease of Training
This is a very, very difficult round. Again, we’re comparing apples and oranges here.
In Muay Thai, as with all striking arts, most people enter a class for the first time with an accurate expectation of how to get started.
BJJ is grappling, and for someone who has never grappled before it can not only be difficult, but uncomfortable too. Grappling goes against most of your instincts at first, and many trainees are surprised by how awkward, tiring and confusing grappling can be.
But there are other considerations too. BJJ is far less restrictive of who is fit to join a class. Muay Thai, however, can be practiced alone, whereas in BJJ, if you don’t have a partner to practice with, it’s no good.
That’s not all. BJJ doesn’t really require any specialized equipment. You might want to use some safety gear (like a mouth guard) but it’s not necessary. Muay Thai requires gloves so you might spend more money getting into it.
I have to give this one to BJJ, but it’s a close call. Although it’s almost impossible to practice on your own, it’s cheaper, indiscriminate of its beginners and it generally saves you money. Remember what I said about training, and how Muay Thai fighters have stricter regimens? This factors in as well.
Yes, BJJ will be uncomfortable at first, but the point is it’s easier for those who are starting out.
Round Five: Decider
Now equally matched, the two begin to spar. They waste no time in going in for the kill. BJJ strikes first, attempting to take down Muay Thai. For a second, it seems Muay Thai will go down, but it resists. They grapple, attempting to overpower each other, but they’re both too strong.
Muay Thai takes a risk, gets a hit on BJJ. BJJ’s hold is broken, and Muay Thai goes all out. In the onslaught, BJJ is hit everywhere it’s possible to be hit. It attempts to yet again take Muay Thai down but only opens up to a headshot.
BJJ, gallant as its attempt was, goes down.
This discussion on these two martial art disciplines was hypothetical based on their techniques, but there is enough evidence to show that BJJ is just as powerful if the circumstance works to its advantage. In many cases, Muay Thai may be just too fast and too violent for BJJ to manage.
This isn’t always the case, and the above match would’ve played out differently if BJJ managed to get Muay Thai to the ground.
Ultimately, both are excellent martial arts, and this is by no means a statement that Muay Thai is better. Learning either one of the two martial arts (or better yet, training in both!) would help you become an highly effective fighter.