I wanted to write this article after seeing the scorecards for the Saenchai vs Kevin Ross fight and also in light of the scoring on the Cosmo Alexandre vs Cyrus Washington fight which was held in the US earlier this year.
Before I get started I should make it clear that I am not a qualified judge. For a definitive guide to how a Muay Thai fight should be scored you should check out this article by Tony Myers:
This is only intended to be a quick and rough guide for those who (like the judges in the US...) don't understand how a Muay Thai fight should be scored.
Muay Thai is not scored in the same way as boxing, K-1 or MMA so trying to apply the same criteria to a Muay Thai fight that you would any another combat sport is a waste of time.
The first two rounds of a Muay Thai fight are always scored a draw, unless one fighter absolutely dominates or visibly hurts his opponent. The opening rounds are only intended to be used as a feeling out process and good fighters will almost always treat them as such. Rounds one and two are an opportunity to size up your opponents and to begin to demonstrate your superiority to the judges BUT will generally have no effect on the scoring of the fight.
Rounds three, four and five are the decisive rounds and the result of them will settle the outcome of the fight unless there is a stoppage. Muay Thai rounds are not scored in isolation though so, for instance, if one fighter looked stronger in rounds one and two but round three is even the judges will often give round three to the fighter who looked stronger in the opening rounds.
A fighter who is already ahead normally seems to get the benefit of the doubt in a close round which means that once a fighter has taken a lead on the scorecards he only needs to be as good as his opponent to win the fight, whereas the opponent needs to clearly demonstrate that he is better. This may seem like merely a semantic difference but it is never the less an important one.
Another way that Muay Thai differs dramatically from other combat sports is in the way that different techniques are scored. Any strike which lands cleanly scores points but straight knees and kicks to the mid section seem to score more points than any other techniques.
Read more after the break...
It is a fairly common misconception that punches don't score points in Muay Thai. This isn't entirely true but punches are perhaps the strikes least likely to make a good impression on the judges. For a punch to score highly it needs to land very cleanly and preferably visibly hurt the other fighter. For this reason punches to the body are virtually worthless as scoring techniques.
Control is extremely important in a Muay Thai fight and for this reason teeps and sweeps also score a lot of points. Putting an opponent on the canvass by catching a kick and sweeping out his standing leg a couple of times will win almost any round and knocking an opponent off balance will also score highly, this is something Saenchai is very good at
Elite Muay Thai fighters in Thailand are always incredibly sensitive to the scoring of a fight they are in and will know blow by blow how the fight is being scored. That's why you will often see fighters exchange knee after knee or kick after kick and might think to yourself 'why don't they mix it up with some different techniques?' The answer is because every kick scores points and landing that extra kick could be the difference between winning and losing the round.
Once a fighter knows they are well ahead on the scorecards they will often employ a risk free strategy. This can be frustrating for uninitiated spectators but in Thailand obscene amounts of money are gambled on Muay Thai fights. It is not uncommon to see bundles of notes amounting to hundreds of thousands of Baht changing hands at Lumpini Stadium or Ratchadamnern Stadium and when winning is about money, rather than more old fashioned values such as glory or pride, it becomes much more important.
This is why, if a fighter knows they have won rounds three and four, they will often spend the entire fifth round in retreat mode. The losing fighter, knowing that they have to win the round in spectacular style, will attack relentlessly while the winning fighter will box defensively and typically try and use teeps or sweeps to keep them at bay.
To the average spectator it might look like the fighter who is being aggressive and finishing strong is clearly winning the fight but anyone with a good working knowledge of Muay Thai knows that their aggression is actually a form of desperation because they know they are well behind.
In elite level Muay Thai fights it seems the scorecards almost always read either 49-48, 49-47, or occasionally 48-48. It's important to remember that there is a distinction between how fights are scored officially and the etiquette of how they are scored. For instance there is nothing in the rules to prevent a fighter winning every round and being given 50 points but in practise judges never seem to give the winning fighter more than 49 points.
So when I look at scorecards such as 48-46, 47-47, 48-46 (Ross vs Saenchai) or 50-45, 50-45 and 49-46 (Cyrus vs Cosmo)I know straightaway that the judges involved don't really know how a Muay Thai fights should be scored. It's not a problem that is unique to the US. When John Wayne Parr 'beat' Yodsaenklai in Australia even JWP admitted that he would have lost if the fight had been scored in the Thai style (ie properly).
If this is a subject which really interests you I strongly suggest you read the Tony Myers article. I have been writing about Muay Thai for years and have also done some TV commentary and worked as a stadium announcer for a bit but I am not qualified to actually be a judge, whereas Tony Myers is and can write about the topic with far more authority than I can.
One final point is that Muay Thai is a traditional sport, and Thai people tend to be more protective of tradition than most. If you show no respect for the traditions of Muay Thai, for instance if you try and win a fight using techniques which come from Karate, Taekwondo or even boxing, then you need to win by knock out. If the fight goes to a decision and the other person has used traditional Muay Thai techniques and you haven't you are probably going to lose, regardless of how much damage you might have caused them.
Muay Thai scoring is not without controversy, the general consensus was that the draw between Sam-A's and Kongsak earlier this year should have been scored to Kongsak for instance. However virtually all top level Muay Thai fights go to a decision and, inside Thailand at least, controversy is relatively rare, much rarer than in MMA or boxing, which would suggest that the scoring system works.
The problem is that everyone involved in Muay Thai in Thailand, the fighters, the gamblers and the judges, grow up with the sport and so develop an understanding which is intuitive. People who have not spent extensive periods of time in Thailand are much less likely to have such a sophisticated knowledge and will probably need to undergo some sort of intensive training before they are capable of judging a fight.
The scorecards handed in at the end of the fights between Kevin Ross and Saenchai and Cosmo and Cyrus are a little embarassing. Fortunately the right man ultimately won on both ocassions but Muay Thai promoters outside of Thailand need to do more to either find educated judges or educate the judges they already have.
Disclaimer: this article is based entirely on my own experience and observations. It is not a definitive guide to the Muay Thai scoring system and should not be treated as such.
Dave Walsh has been covering MMA and Kickboxing since 2007 before changing his focus solely to Kickboxing in 2009, launching what was the only English-language site dedicated to giving Kickboxing similar coverage to what MMA receives. He was the co-founder of HeadKickLegend and now LiverKick. He resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he works as a writer of all trades.
His second novel, Terminus Cycle, launches on March 24th.