A Black Belt In Muay Thai? Is There A Belt Ranking System?

Have you ever wondered if kickboxers and Muay Thai students wear or earn belts? The sport has been around for hundreds of years, but like many martial arts during the 20th century, they had to choose whether or not to follow the trends of color ranking started by the founder of Judo.

Muay Thai doesn’t currently award black belts nor does Muay Thai have a belt ranking system in traditional schools. Sport fighting records are the main proficiency designation. Some Instructors outside of traditional schools have implemented Jigoro Kano’s color system to recognize achievement.

There are differences in the training, philosophies, and rank recognition between the different Muay Thai associations and instructors. Some still hold to the older ways set by it’s roots in the Krabi Krabong weapons style and its subsequent sport competition development. Others follow a more western tradition, which is more apt to include some sort of color ranking.

Are There Ranking Systems Other Than Black Belts?

There are many styles for numerous reasons that don’t use the widely accepted forms of students leveling that we see today. From the traditional to the practical, some considerations make it a better choice to use jewelry, armbands, or clothing than black belts.

Some of the newer styles of outwardly displaying of student proficiency levels are not actually new. For centuries clothing has designated military leaders and teachers alike. These could be in how or what was worn. The fact is, this type of practice has been around as long as humans have been gathering in groups.

The History Of Black Belts And Color Ranks Developed Separately From Muay Thai.

Styles like Karate, TaeKwonDo, Jiu Jitsu and many more adopted a successful system implemented by the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano (1860-1938). When trying to tell who in his popular classes were beginners and who were seasoned competitors able to help with instruction, Kano came up with three colors: White, Brown, and Black.

Why Did Ranking Systems Come About?

From these practical beginnings the practice exploded. It was not only a way for martial arts instructors to tell the ability level of a student instantly and visually, it also was a tremendous help to the student.

Humans love goals. Students of the martial arts thrive with short and long term goals and that is exactly what a belt ranking system is. It doesn’t confer any ability. It simply states things like time in the art and which sets of techniques can be demonstrated. There is no equivalent number of ninja someone can defeat solo associated with each belt.

There are different ways of assessing a students ability though. Most styles had unique spins on it before Kano’s invention. Muay Thai is one of these systems.

How Did Styles Like Muay Thai Show Advancement Before Black Belts And Color Ranks?

Krabi Krabong is an ancient Thai style that militaries utilized for its double sword and spear techniques. The movements of Muay Thai still have traces today of these motions. Though it is a strongly sport based system today, in its earlier forms it was a component of melee style battlefield methods.

As can be imagined, ranks in the military already existed in most every age. The need for other ranking systems was just not there. As the system dropped the use of weapons and split from Krabi, it also went down a route that traditionally shunned designated rank in favor of sport based win/loss records.

These competition records, martial arts community status, and notoriety served the same purpose as belts, bands, or shorts. More on the role of invisible hierarchies later, but there were very real forms of unspoken ranking systems among and even between competing groups.

This usually works fine for styles that are small or confined to a specific group of people. Yet, it ceases to function adequately when people from all over the globe and with varying degrees of skill and athletic ability begin to regularly train.

We can see a trail from military fighting system, through sport to today where millions train in the various forms of the system. Instructors are increasingly finding those that want to train for other reasons than sport.

Some of the reasons that many in the western style schools are adopting color ranking systems revolve around these types of students. They look to Muay Thai for a variety of reason other than a stand alone sport.

  • Fitness
  • Self defense
  • Recreation
  • Cultural/Historical
  • As a part of other sports like MMA

These students are demanding another form of progression other than sport competition. It is only a matter of time before a unified system of rankings emerges.

Is Muay Thai The Only System That Hasn’t Integrated Black And Color Belts?

There are several styles that use other level designations rather than belts. Sometimes this is for practical reasons like the absence of a uniform to begin with or something like an ancient traditional way of doing things.

Along with traditionally based Muay Thai gyms, there are some notable styles that don’t utilize an explicit black belt ranking system…

  • Kali martial arts
  • Mixed Martial Arts
  • Submission Grappling
  • Boxing
  • Wrestling
  • Catch Wrestling
  • Krav Maga

One way these students can earn rank is when these styles are incorporated into another. Their techniques will be divided among belts for that style and be included when ranking student progress.

There is another way as well. Many of these systems have come up with level based frameworks that are designated with other articles of clothing. Some of these are…

  • Scarves/Saris/Patches – Kali Martial Arts
  • Pendants – Escrima
  • Sashes – Kung Fu/Wushu
  • Levels with no outward symbol – Submission Grappling
  • Patches/Shirts – Krav Maga
  • Shorts/Armbands – Muay Thai

When a style that does not have its own ranking system like MMA incorporates several other styles, many times the students and instructors are known by their rankings in these various styles.

For instance, in a MMA competition group many of the competitors could have belts in Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Karate, and rank in a western version of Thai Boxing. It is not uncommon for people to cross train now.

Make no mistake. If you were to take away the belt and ranking systems in these styles, student populations would drop dramatically. One of the reasons people give at the top of the list when asked why they started training in a martial arts style is belt rank. It may not be the main one, but it is usually always at the top if they are honest.

Does Muay Thai Have Ranks?

So, if it is true that Muay Thai doesn’t have a belt ranking system, does that mean they don’t have ranks at all? Or, do they utilize some other form of student achievement recognition?

Of course they do. It is dishonest when some students and fans of the sport claim there are no ‘belt ranks’. It may be true that few if any wear cloth belts around their waists (though read on and you will see many have begun to simply tie them on their arms). But all humans base their group dynamics on hierarchies and martial arts styles like Muay Thai are no exception.

Not only are there ranks and colors that some use, but there is always a hierarchy of knowledge, skill and achievement. This is just more openly displayed in some Thai schools than others.

In a study done by researchers from New York University and North Western University and published in the Academy of Management Annals, the foundational aspect of power and status in all social interactions is underscored. It is so accepted as part of the human experience that they are principles that most other studies on society are based on.

The Invisible Ranking Systems Of Muay Thai

This can be seen in training groups of Muay Thai fighters, Mixed Martial Arts students and others. Whether or not outward clothing designations are seen, all students in the group and even regular spectators like family and locals in the area know the hierarchy.

Let’s take the example of a MMA group of competitors and students. In the same classes there will be students and instructors of varying skill levels. Though there is not a belt system per se in MMA, everyone in that building knows where on the hierarchy each person sits.

There are the new students, wide eyed and looking around. There are the novice ones in their own group mimicking the more advanced students. These more advanced students enjoy their status (perceived respect given because of their hierarchical standing), but give way to accomplished competitors. Instructors hold the top points of this pyramid.

This exact thing happens in a Muay Thai gym. Make no mistake, there are ranks in Muay Thai even if top students don’t wear a black cloth belt around their waist.

If this is the case, why don’t all schools in the style adopt a method of showing it through outward signs? One main reason is an elitist mindset that enjoys the superior nature of sport competition vs ‘normal’ training in a martial art. But that is a subject for an entirely different article.

There is a Muay Thai system based in Thailand used around the world that has one of these more open, but ‘invisible’ systems. These have become popular not only in Muay Thai, but in styles like Kali and submission grappling. Sityodtong Muay Thai has a ‘level’ based system.

Here is the framework that the Sityodtong Muay Thai curriculum uses.

RankOutward DesignationProficiency Level
Level 1NoneNovice
Level 2NoneIntermediate Novice
Level 3NoneAdvanced Novice
Level 4NoneIntermediate
Level 5NoneAdvanced
Level 5NoneExpert
Level 7NoneKru (Instructor)
There is no outward symbol like a black belt for levels.

This is similar to the systems of levels used by MMA gyms teaching submission grappling like the Hayastan MMA in North Holywood, CA. The sumbission Grappling system there goes even further and has three tiers of 10 levels. There is a student 1-10 level system. There is also a separate one for instructors and even another for competitors.

Though at many of these schools you will also find students with ranks in several styles of other martial arts as well. It is not uncommon to have kids and adults alike holding rank in Karate, Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Submission grappling and Muay Thai all at the same time.

Thai Armband Ranking System In Place Of Black And Color Belts

Do some Muay Thai schools and associations have belt ranking systems? You bet they do. They just wear them on their arms. Of course they call them ‘bands’ and not belts.

One way that some schools and instructors have begun to use outwardly seen ranking frameworks is to use the armband colors. They have chosen to use the things that Thai fighters have traditionally worn, and designed a color system based on these.

Many systems of Muay Thai are adopting versions of this around the world. It is a question of openly displaying achievement that is already there, not creating respect or status with cloth.

One of these organizations is the World Thai Boxing Association (WTBA). They have a system of 13 armband colors and even incorporate stripes. They have come to understand what Judo and Karate instructors have known for a hundred years. People come in all shapes and sizes, with their own natural abilities and levels of mental fortitude.

Here is a breakdown of their color armband system that is frankly genius. I have even personally seen this type of thing take off and show up in martial arts schools of all styles around the world for other systems.

Muay Thai Rank Colors

WTBA arm band or rank colors and their level of proficiency.

Arm BandColorProficiency Level
13BlackApprentice Instructor
14Black/RedAssociate Instructor
15Black/SilverFull Instructor
16Black/goldSenior Instructor

Does this look familiar? It does doesn’t it? Do you think Muay Thai has its equivalent of a black belt? That is obvious, even if there isn’t the exact same belt worn on the waist.

I have articles about the color belts of Jujitsu, Karate, and TaekwonDo. You can check them out at these links and you will recognize where this comes from. It will only be a matter of time before all Muay Thai and MMA gyms adopt something similar.

To be honest… those armbands are cool. They will take off once the normal student population wrest control of the style from the elitists.

Thai Shorts Ranking System

Some Muay Thai gyms are electing to go the route of colors for the traditional boxing style shorts worn in modern Muay Thai boxing matches. This is similar to the ideas tried by Kali and escrima in the 90s using colored t-shirts. The student starts out with one color and then is required to test in front of instructors.

This is very similar to the black belt and color belt organizing other ranks in martial arts around the world. There is a sense that they are giving a nod to the sport that it has become. As well, this is also a part of the regular workout attire.

It is a very close reasoning and implementation that Jigoro Kano established over a hundred years ago. Just like then, in the beginning this will be very school and instructor specific. Later there will be organized methods that most follow in the art.

If you would like to see some of the most popular Muay Thai shorts, here is a link to the Fairtex brand on Amazon.

How Long To Get A Black Belt In Muay Thai Or Its Equivalent?

As we can now see, there really is an equivalent level in Muay Thai to the black belts in Karate, Jiu Jitsu, and other martial arts. There are also similar times one can expect to reach that level of competence. This is measured in years.

The sport of Muay Thai bases itself more on body conditioning than evading incoming damage. Considering the ‘trading’ that goes on between competitors until one cannot hold up to the damage, it is not hard to imagine that many years of conditioning of the body and building up resistances will be required.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for instance, we saw a reaction to some forms of traditional martial arts awarding belts on simple knowledge of techniques rather than proficiency in their use. Because of a feeling that this is watering down the martial arts, the BJJ road to black belt sometimes takes 10 years.

When you compare this to the 2.5 years it takes to learn all of the basics of TaeKwonDo in some systems and earn a black belt, you can see what happened. The grading in BJJ was based on competency and not simply knowledge of the techniques.

A student earning a first degree black belt in BJJ did not spend the same amount of time as a first degree black belt in TKD. They spent the time that a fourth degree black belt or higher would in TKD.

In order to force proficiency in order to compete with the techniques in a variety of forms, they lengthened the time. The first degree black belts between the styles can’t be adequately compared… they are not the same.

What this means for us here as an example for Muay Thai black belt equivalents? Muay Thai unlike Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has a small grouping of techniques and their variation. Yet they would hold to the notion of proficiency rather than simple knowledge as well.

This would tell us that in the future as these ranks become more normalized in Muay Thai, that the time frame will look more like a BJJ road to black belt than the one for TaeKwonDo students.

Because like TKD the technique base isn’t nearly as big it may not require 10 years, but it will not be too much less. It will definitely not resemble the time frame in TaeKwonDo.

Competition Vs Achievement Belts In Muay Thai

There are belts that have been around in Muay Thai at least as long as the color ranking belts have been in other styles. These belts honor an achievement of a different kind.

Championship belts are awarded to competitors that work their way up the ranks in Muay Thai bouts and become the ‘best in their weight class.’ This comes with a few caveats.

First, there are numerous groups that give out these titles. The vast majority of these championship bouts are based on a specific arena in Thailand. The World Boxing Council is main source of these bouts outside of Thailand. It is not common to have a champion hold these belts that isn’t a native Thai.

Second, there is gambling, mafia involvement, and even easily identifiable criminal activity that surrounds many of these organizations. There have been competitors poisoned, fights thrown, and people have even disappeared. The WBC is the international agency that oversees the sport outside of Thailand, but it has little control within.

Here in lies the problem of the average person wanting to earn one of these belts. Those looking for self defense, health and fitness, and other goals are simply not going to be able to compete with professional full time athletes. Then there is the problem of nafarious activities that surround the pursuit of these belts in the first place.

One sure way to make anything dangerous is to attach large sums of money in gambling environments to it. This is compounded by the unregulated nature of it and its ties to illegal organizations.

Now you may get the picture and understand when I talk about the ingenious ideas like the armbands. Sure, some will begin to give them to adult students who can simply demonstrate techniques without proficiency. Yet, there will be schools that get it right and they will rise to the top.

What Do Muay Thai Fighters Wear On Their Arms And Heads? Are They Like Black Belts?

The pra-prajiad are the bands worn for luck and to give respect in a religious ceremony.

These bands worn by competitors before matches are religious items that designate luck and favor of their chosen deity. They are religious faith expressions and should not be mistaken for level ranks. Though the sport is separate per se from these religions, it is strongly connected with the culture.

Culture is directly affected by the majority religion in its history. The same can be said of politics as well, even if some don’t recognize it.

This expression of respect for gods is a request for favor and luck in the upcoming bout. These bands are not only representations of that religious request, but have been ‘blessed’ by a religious official. They are in no way associated with martial arts black belts or ranks.

The armbands used for ranks may take their inspiration from these, but without the religious intent, they aren’t the same. When Muay Thai instructors award armbands as rank, they are without any religious intent.

To see a selection of these pra-prajiad on Amazon, follow this link.

The Black Belt In Muay Thai Takeaway…

What can we say about black belts and ranks in Muay Thai? Black Belts are a relatively new invention in the martial arts. It is really barely only a hundred year old concept. The idea that Muay Thai is one of the few styles that developed without them is an errant view. Nearly all styles known today developed without a belt system centuries ago.

Belt systems are implemented after the fact and they can be done well or lazily. Muay Thai today has some systems giving black belts and in the future this will increase. Many believe it is more authentic not to have ranks, but this is simply a reaction to those that abuse the practice.

The path to black belt, black arm band, or other designations can be found or you can simply train without them for other reasons. If you are looking for rank though in a kickboxing style there are also other options.

One example is Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez’s Ukidokan system. If you are wanting a black belt rank in Muay Thai specifically, you will have to search it out, but it is available.

Mathew Booe

Mathew Booe is a father of four, husband to Jackie since 1994, retired international competitor with over 50 wins, an international seminar instructor, a master instructor of hundreds of Little Ninjas each week, and the one bringing you the great content like you just read. Sign up for the newsletter to hear about his upcoming books before they are released to the public.

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