The martial art of Muay Thai, originating in Thailand, is now practiced all over the world. However, unlike other martial arts such as karate, traditional Muay Thai does not have a ranking system. Ranking is determined by winning in the ring. Many Western schools and gyms have implemented their own ranking systems for those who don’t necessarily want to compete but want to track their progress in the sport.
Discover the reasons why Muay Thai differs from other martial arts with regards to their ranking system, and explore the challenges it can create.
Why Doesn’t Muay Thai Have a Belt Ranking System?
Muay Thai (also known as Thai boxing) originated in 16th century Thailand as peacetime hand-to-hand combat training for soldiers under King Naresuan. In the 1920s King Rama established codified rules for Muay Thai, creating a professional sport with scheduled fights, protective equipment and referees. Only in the recent 20th and 21st centuries has Muay Thai become popular internationally due to the rise of Westernized mixed martial arts.
In Thailand, as opposed to Western countries, Muay Thai is very much a career and not a hobby. Gyms are established to produce professional fighters, and as such, only winning fights and championships matters. As professionals, rankings by colored belts do not matter-what matters is winning championships, representing their gyms, and providing for themselves and their families.
Belts and Rankings in Modern Muay Thai
In Western countries such as America, gyms and schools recognize that the majority of people interested in Muay Thai aren’t necessarily looking to compete. Being a professional fighter is dangerous and fighters are often injured. Most people are simply looking to learn self-defense and get some exercise. For these folks, a ranking system makes sense for motivation and as a way to safely learn the sport.
As a result, most gyms and schools outside of Thailand have established their own ranking systems to guide and motivate their students. It’s important to note that there is no centralized ranking system in Muay Thai – one school’s ranking system may be completely different from another’s. Some gyms use colored armbands called “pra jiad”, others may use colored shorts or shirts.
In the U.S. and several other countries, the World Thai Boxing Association (WTBA) has implemented a colored armband (pra jiad) system for its affiliated gyms. The pra jiad ranks start at white for complete beginners and progresses to black and gold for the most advanced instructor ranking. Affiliated schools have an established curriculum for progression and hold ranking tests similar to other martial arts.
How To Get a Black Belt in Muay Thai?
There is no “black belt” in Muay Thai. In traditional Muay Thai as practiced in Thailand, fighters are professionals who work their way through the ranks by fighting in competitions. Many fighters start their training very young, and it can take ten years or more or fighting, winning championships and gaining notoriety to be considered an expert fighter.
In western Muay Thai gyms, as you increase in skill you can “rank up” using a gym-specific system of ranking. The timing will vary from person to person depending on how frequently you train and the gym’s ranking system. Using the WTBA’s curriculum, it can take about 10 years to work your way from a white armband (complete beginner) to a black armband (expert student).
In the WTBA you can also progress from student to instructor, or “Kru”. It generally takes 3-5 years of additional training as an apprentice, attending instructor camps, and demonstrating your proficiency as an expert fighter to earn the title of Kru. An expert instructor or “Ajarn” generally has 25 or more years of experience teaching.
As a reminder, there is no worldwide or even country-wide standard of belts or rankings in Muay Thai. Each school or gym will have its own system. The WTBA is a large Muay Thai fighting association so there is consistency in rankings through WTBA-affiliated gyms.
Why Does Muay Thai Use Armbands and Not Belts?
Muay Thai armbands, known as pra jiad, originated during a time when Thailand (or Siam as the country was known) was constantly at war. Young soldiers would take a strip of a loved one’s clothing and use it as a headband (“mongkol”, “mongkon”, or “mongkhon”) or an armband (pra jiad) before heading off to fight.
These tokens were meant as a reminder of their loved ones and as good luck charms to ward off evil spirits. Nowadays, in traditional Muay Thai, a fighter wears the pra jiad or mongkol as a tribute to their gym. A gym will often present a pra jiad or mongkol to a young fighter when it’s deemed they are ready to enter the ring.
The Future of Muay Thai and its Ranking System
Muay Thai is a unique martial art because it is practiced as a profession in its homeland. In Thailand, Muay Thai is deeply embedded in the culture of the country. Fights are held frequently and are woven into the daily life of children and adults alike. With the growing popularity of Mixed Martial Arts, many Westerners now travel to Thailand to learn and fight traditional Muay Thai.
Outside of Thailand, for those who want to pursue Muay Thai recreationally, it can be frustrating to not have standardized programs of instruction and advancement. The WTBA and other associations around the world have created curricula that are standardized throughout their affiliated gyms. When joining an affiliated gym, you can at least be sure other gyms within that association will use the same ranking system.
As a potential student, it is important to research which gym offers quality instruction and doesn’t just advance pupils on an arbitrary basis. These gyms are only interested in taking your money by enticing you with quick advancement. The danger of this practice is you may think you’re more skilled than you actually are! It also dilutes the quality of Muay Thai as a martial art.
A positive development for the future of Muay Thai was the establishment of the International Federation of Muaythai Associations, or IFMA almost 30 years ago. The IFMA has worked diligently to promote Muay Thai and was rewarded in July 2021 with its acceptance as an Olympic Sport. This will be sure to advance Muay Thai and perhaps lead to a more standardized version of ranking world-wide for amateur fighters.
The “Art of Eight Limbs”
Muay Thai is elegantly known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” due to the use of two shins, two elbows, two knees, and two fists for combat. It is feared as one of more brutal and deadly martial arts, but in spite of that (or perhaps because of that) it has become a draw for people looking to gain self-defense skills or simply pick up a new sport.
For those looking to begin practicing Muay Thai, don’t be discouraged by the lack of a standardized ranking system. Instead, do your research and find a reputable gym that will advance you when you are truly skilled enough to progress to the next level. A good place to start your research is by visiting the WTBA or IFMA websites and searching for affiliated gyms in your area.