Muay Thai vs Lethwei - Which One is Better and Why?

If we are going to match Muay Thai vs Lethwei together, then we are speaking of the two most brutal fighting styles. Still, these two arts are not just about violence as we dare to go even further saying they are complete striking styles. To find out which one is better, we must first see how they differ from one another.

Muay Thai is often seen as the “art of eight limbs” as it teaches you how to throw kicks, punches, elbows, and knees. Lethwei, however, is the “art of nine limbs” as it adds vicious headbutt strikes on top. And the other big difference is that Lethwei fighters fight bare-knuckle while Muay Thai fighters wear gloves.

Stay with us as we are bringing you all you need to know about Muay Thai vs Lethwei. We will give our best to find out which one is better by matching them in various fighting scenarios.

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Muay Thai vs Lethwei – What are the main differences?

Look at just a single Lethwei and Muay Thai match and you can easily spot how they differ from one another before the match has even started. Even though they are similar in some aspects, they differ a lot when it comes to these elements:


This may sound weird to some people, but Lethwei is more brutal than Muay Thai. Fighters fight bare-knuckle and can use kicks, punches, knees, and elbows to do damage. But what makes it even more brutal are vicious headbutt strikes that play a key role in Lethwei. On top of that, it teaches you how to use trips and throws, but those are not seen as important weapons. 

Muay Thai is a standup art that is less brutal, but in some way, more technical than Lethwei. Fighters learn how to fight using all limbs, and to generate huge power in every strike. They are using punches, elbows, knees, with the emphasis being on kicks and counter-attacks.

Rules of the matches

In Lethwei, we have traditional and modern rules which differ a lot. Traditional rules are more brutal since the only way a fighter can win a match is by KO as there are no decisions. A fighter who gets KO’d has 2 minutes to recover from it, and go back to keep on fighting.

Modern Lethwei rules are like the ones in Muay Thai and matches last from 3 to 5 rounds. Each round is three minutes long with 2 minutes break between them. Each match includes judges sitting beside the cage and fights can end in a decision win, KO, or draw.

In both types of rules, Lethwei fighters fight bare-knuckle and can use headbutts to do damage.

Muay Thai rules are very simple as matches last from 3 to 5 rounds, with 1-minute break between them. All fighters must wear boxing gloves and strikes like headbutts are illegal. There are three judges sitting beside the cage using a famous 10-point scoring system to score a match.

Place of origin

Lethwei is a fighting style that comes from Myanmar where it is also a part of the culture of its people. Its roots date all the way back to the Pyu Empire where fighters fought in sandpits and matches were very brutal. The biggest changes came in 1952 when Kyar Ba Nyein put together a set of modern Lethwei rules that made it much safer. This allowed it to grow in the modern world and outside of Myanmar as well.

Muay Thai is a younger style that comes from Thailand where it is a national sport. Its roots date back to the Siam kingdom in the 16th century where the matches were a part of various festivals. But the sport would start to rise in the 20th century when Thai fighters started competing against foreign newcomers. This opened the doors for Muay Thai to grow in the western world and become very popular.

Which one is better for self-defense or street fighting?

Both Muay Thai and Lethwei are great for self-defense or street fighting. In fact, fighters from both arts are, perhaps, the last persons you want to encounter on the streets. But, which one is better?

On paper, Lethwei should be your option when it comes to self-defense. This is because it is slightly more versatile than Muay Thai. Like Thai boxing, it teaches you how to use kicks to do damage from a distance, or use punches, elbows, and knees to fight at close range. But on top of that, it allows you to use wild headbutts strikes. Even though they sound crazy, these strikes do big damage and can surprise the opponent.

Lethwei also might be better since it teaches you how to strike bare knuckle. This is crucial for street fighting where most people end up breaking their hands. Landing power shots without the gloves can easily break your fingers or wrist, and this is the last thing you need in street fighting. 

On the other side, Muay Thai fighters are always wearing gloves and they are not trained to fight without them. So this is where Lethwei has a big advantage over Muay Thai when it comes to self-defense as its fighters know how to strike bare knuckle without hurting their hands.

Don’t get us wrong, Muay Thai is also great for self-defense. In the end, it is more technical than Lethwei, but, it is maybe slightly less useful.

muay thai sparring head kick

Can a Lethwei fighter beat a Muay Thai fighter and vice versa? 

Without a doubt, fighters from both of these arts have all the weapons and skills to beat each other. And we are not talking just about street fighting without the rules. No, Lethwei fighters can cross over and beat Muay Thai fighters in their sport and vice versa.

This is mainly because, in the end, Muay Thai and Lethwei share a lot of techniques and rules. Yes, Lethwei fighters fight bare knuckle and use headbutts. But, putting on the gloves and not striking with their head is not a big change for them. They still know how to do huge damage with strikes like kicks, and vicious knees and elbows in the clinch.

The same stands for Muay Thai fighters who won’t have a huge problem with fighting bare knuckle. They might have a hard time defending against headbutts, but these strikes are not easy to land and rarely end in a KO. As long as Thai boxers stay technical and do what they know best, they have a really good chance of beating Lethwei fighters on their field.

In modern times, we can see a lot of Muay Thai vs Lethwei pro matches. Fighters from both arts are often crossing over to test their skills and represent their sport. And as for the results, they are mixed most of the time. Fighters from both arts can truly beat each other in any type of fight.

muay thai fighter praying

Which one is better for fitness and weight loss?

Training in both of these arts tends to be very intense and even exhausting at times. You won’t learn or gain anything in both Lethwei and Muay Thai without leaving your entire soul on the mats. They both embrace a hard method of training and put a big focus on endurance. Still, we must say Muay Thai should be your option when it comes to fitness.

When you look at the matches from both arts, you would never guess that cardio is the #1 priority in most gyms. But throwing hundreds of punches and kicks per match asks for a lot of energy. That’s why you will spend a lot of time doing cardio workouts. For instance, Muay Thai fighters often run up to 6 miles just to warm up, which gives you a great insight into how exhausting training can be.

But even though you will suffer a lot, the benefits of this type of training are huge. For instance, an hour of Muay Thai training burns around 800–1000 calories, which is a lot. The ones in Lethwei are also cardio intense and burn the same if not more calories per hour. This means you will get in top shape in a very short time span.

But we must say Muay Thai is better when it comes to fitness and weight loss. This is mainly because it is less brutal and it is well spread in all parts of the world while Lethwei is still growing. Just about every town in the world has at least one Muay Thai gym while you may have a hard time finding a Lethwei gym.

And most average people looking to get in shape by training martial arts are not fans of bare-knuckle fighting and headbutts.

Muay Thai Fitness

Muay Thai vs Lethwei – Which one is safer and more fun to train? 

As said earlier, training in both of these arts is hard, cardio intense and it will push your mind and body over their limits. Even though this does not sound like a lot of fun to most people, trust us, you will get used to it after a couple of months. When it comes to safety and fun in training, we have to go with Muay Thai.

The reason why Muay Thai is a safer option is rather simple and we don’t have to spend many words explaining it. It is a much safer style simply because fighters must wear boxing gloves both in training and while competing. You won’t spend any time learning how to throw punches bare knuckle. In the long run, this prevents many hand injuries from happening.

Muay Thai puts a lot of emphasis on sparring with the partner. But these sessions are very safe since both parties must wear protective gear like shin pads and headgear. And we don’t mention how fun it is to trade strikes with the partner. It’s one of those rare things that will give you a huge rush of adrenalin and fear. In some way, it makes you feel alive and will put a huge smile on your face after it’s over.

Lethwei is also safe and fun to train to some extent and for certain types of people. Although they fight bare knuckle, you will wear gloves in training most of the time. But there are parts of training where you have to hit a heavy bag or pads bare knuckle, which can be painful at times.

muay thai knee to stomach

Muay Thai or Lethwei  –  Which one is better for MMA?

At first sight, it seems like Muay Thai is much better than Lethwei for MMA since it doesn’t include head butts. And, Muay Thai has already built a strong reputation in MMA for being the best when it comes to striking. Although Muay Thai is better in our opinion, Lethwei is certainly not far behind, and here is why.

Muay Thai plays a big role in MMA because its techniques fit well within the rules of the sport. Fighters can use long kicks to do damage from the distance or go for a Thai clinch to unload with vicious knees and elbows. And let’s not forget they also know how to stop or execute certain takedowns like trips and throws. Here are some of the most famous MMA fighters with a strong Muay Thai base:

  • Anderson Silva
  • Paul Felder
  • Donald Cerrone

We are yet to see an MMA fighter with a strong base in Lethwei succeeding in MMA. But despite being less popular, this doesn’t mean it is less effective. No one can deny it teaches you similar techniques you learn in Muay Thai, except for headbutts that are not allowed in MMA. And Lethwei might be better than Muay Thai in one aspect and that is the lack of gloves.

You see, Lethwei fighters fight bare knuckle and this might play in their favor. MMA fighters wear small, 4 OZ gloves that are much smaller than full padded Muay Thai gloves. For Muay Thai fighters, this means they can’t rely on blocking the strikes with their gloves. But Lethwei fighters won’t have such a problem because they already know how to defend and block strikes without gloves.

mma fighter training

Muay Thai vs Lethwei  –  Which one is better?

As we have seen in this article, both of these martial arts are great and deciding which one is better is not an easy task. But, we must say Muay Thai is a more popular choice among all ages and genders for various reasons.

First of all, it is well spread all around the world and just about every town has a Muay Thai gym. These gyms, notably on the west, are oriented towards the modern way of living. Or in other words, they include fitness programs, private training sessions, or pro training if you want to compete. Its doors are open for all types of people.

Lethwei is not that popular yet in the western world and there are not many schools. You may have a hard time finding one in your town, which may force you to pick Muay Thai instead. It should be your choice if you want to train martial arts for self-defense, but bear in mind it is more brutal than Muay Thai.

Overall, Muay Thai is a better choice for average people who want to join a gym for fitness, have fun training, and learn good self-defense tactics. It’s also great for people who want to be pro fighters and shift to MMA later.

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Sawasdee krap!
I'm Timmy and I'm the chief-editor and co-founder of Muay Thai Street. When do you don't see me kicking pads of heavy bags, you can also find me training BJJ and functional fitness. I created Muay Thai Street as a passion project and also to help grow the community and share this sport with the world.

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