Kickboxing, also known as sport karate, is a fullcontact sport that combines the fist blows of boxing with various forms of kneeing or kicking with the feet. It is a standing sport; a match ends when one of the two fighters falls or is knocked to the ground (or when the referee ends the match). Kickboxing is also defined as a martial art or a combat sport. Women or men may be kickboxers.
The purpose of professional or semiprofessional kickboxing is to win a match against an opponent. One school of kickboxing states, “The focus of kick-boxing is to be as efficient as possible with accurate kicks and punches to specific areas that will render the [other] fighter unable to provide defense.” Amateurs may participate in the sport to learn self-defense or for overall physical fitness rather than to compete in formal matches; kickboxing is popular among military personnel for these reasons.
Kickboxing has spread around the world since the modern form of the sport was first developed in Japan in the 1950s. Estimates of the number of participants vary because there are at least 14 different national and regional variations, some of which consider themselves mixed martial arts rather than kickboxing in the strict sense. The most common forms of kickboxing practiced in North America are Japanese kickboxing—the first sport to use the name—and American kickboxing.
Kickboxing is practiced almost entirely by adolescents and young adults. It is a potentially dangerous sport that requires more speed, agility, coordination, and muscular strength than most older adults possess. Although it is difficult to estimate the total number of kickboxers either worldwide or in North America, about 90% in all countries are male.
Kickboxing in its modern form is a hybrid martial art that was developed in Japan in the 1950s by Osamu Noguchi (1934–), a promoter of sports events, and Tatsuo Yamada (1905–1967), a karate expert. Noguchi and Yamada were interested in Muay Thai, Yamada because he wanted to establish a form of karate that would permit full contact between the fighters. In November 1959, the two men drafted a provisional set of rules for a sport they first named karate-boxing; Noguchi introduced the name of kickboxing in 1966. The first true kickboxing match was held in Osaka, Japan, in April 1966. The new sport quickly became popular in Japan because matches were televised.
Some early promotional kickboxing matches were held in the United States between 1970 and 1973, but the sport was slow to catch on in North America because the rules were unclear and the fighters were not classified by weight. Various national and international organizations came into being in the late 1970s and 1980s to try to bring some kind of order into the various martial arts categories and competitions. Two major international organizations are the International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) and the World Kickboxing Federation (WKF). There are also national kickboxing associations in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine, as well as Thailand and Japan.
Muay Thai has a long history that predates the emergence of modern kickboxing in Japan in the 1950s. It is considered the national sport of Thailand and is thought to be about 2,000 years old. Some historians think that it developed from hand-to-hand combat tactics used by the ancient Thai army. In the medieval period, Muay Thai matches became a form of entertainment at local festivals, especially temple celebrations. When Thailand was opened to the West in 1868, the kings of Thailand not only took a personal interest in Muay Thai but also encouraged the development of standardized rules and regulations for the sport.
In the 1920s Muay Thai contests began to be held in formal boxing rings with referees and timed rounds. The fighters started to wear boxing gloves like those worn by Western boxers after a death in the ring occurred in the early 1920s. The primary differences between Muay Thai and Western forms of kickboxing are that Thai kickboxers fight in bare feet and wear only shorts rather than long pants. Muay Thai kickboxing also permits striking one's opponent with the knees and elbows—moves that are not allowed in American kickboxing. In Thailand itself, a Muay Thai match is preceded by ritual prayer, and Thai music is played during the match. Matches are usually five 3-minute rounds in length.
The first American-style kickboxing match was held in 1962, but the sport did not become widespread until it was popularized by the Bruce Lee (1940–1973) television shows and movies of the late 1960s. Americanborn martial artists who had trained in Bruce Lee's school in Oakland, California, began to combine the punches and tactics of boxing with the kicks of karate. The intention was to create a sport that allowed full contact (unlike karate) and was timed with rounds like boxing. American kickboxing is sometimes called full-contact kickboxing or full-contact rules kickboxing.
Fighters in American kickboxing are matched by size and weight. As of 2017, the weight categories are flyweight (100–112 lb. [45–50 kg]), bantamweight (113–118 lb. [51–54 kg]), featherweight (119–126 lb. [54–57 kg]), lightweight (127–135 lb. [58–61 kg]), welterweight (136–147 lb. [62–67 kg]), middleweight (148–168 lb. [67–76 kg]), light heavyweight (169–175 lb. [77–80 kg]), cruiserweight (176–190 lb. [80–86 kg]), heavyweight (191–210 lb. [87–95 kg]), and super heavyweight (over 210 lb. [95 kg]). The length and timing of the rounds in a match depends on whether the fighters are amateurs or professionals. Amateur matches may be as short as three 2-minute rounds with a one-minute resting period between rounds, while professional matches may be 4, 6, 8, or 10 rounds, with some championship matches lasting for 12 rounds.
American kickboxing rules allow hitting or striking with hands or feet above hip level. Front leg sweeps inside or outside the opponent's foot are also allowed but the use of knees and elbows is not allowed. A fighter can win during the match if the opponent submits, is knocked out, or the fight is stopped by the referee. If the match continues to the end of the last round, the winner is decided by a panel of three judges.
Japanese kickboxing is similar to Muay Thai in that matches are usually five three-minute rounds in length; striking with elbows and knees is allowed; and fighters may kick below the belt. Japanese kickboxing also allows head wrestling (holding the opponent's head and neck in order to attack the lower body with knee strikes) but banned head butts after 1966 as a safety measure. Japanese-style kickboxing differs from Muay Thai in the absence of the ritual prayer before the match and the playing of Thai music during the match.
Preparation for American kickboxing includes agreements between the fighters (or their managers) before a match regarding the number of rounds, the length of each round, and what types of kicks or hand strikes are permitted. Preparation also includes wearing any prescribed protective equipment.
In American-style kickboxing, protective gear includes a mouth guard, hand wraps, 10-oz. boxing gloves, a groin guard, shin pads, kick boots (sometimes called foot pads), and an optional protective helmet (usually for those under 16). American-style kickboxers typically wear long pants, unlike Thai boxing, in which the fighters usually wear shorts and fight in bare feet. Female kickboxers must wear a tank top and a chest protector in addition to the protective equipment worn by men.
Individuals should train with a qualified instructor. In addition, due to the physical nature of kickboxing and the need to use multiple muscle groups and limbs, participants should be physically fit, be able to move quickly, and have a good sense of balance.
Kickboxing matches conducted according to American rules regarding safety equipment, length of matches, and the presence of referees appear to be relatively safe, at least in comparison with football and other full-contact sports. Although severe injuries or death are rare in kickboxing, there are reports in the medical literature of such injuries as ruptured testes, blunt trauma injuries to the colon, fractured jaws, head injuries, and temporary impotence caused by injury to the pituitary gland. There are no studies as of 2017 comparing rates of injury among the various national styles of kickboxing.
Kickboxing is an unsuitable form of exercise for pregnant women and seniors. Some martial arts schools offer kickboxing classes for children that emphasize safety and self-defense rather than fighting per se; however, parents should check the credentials of any school offering such classes before enrolling their children. Reputable martial arts schools will encourage parents to visit a kickboxing class.
In addition to periodic checkups by a physician, kickboxers may need emergency medical care if injured. They may also require treatment from orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, physical therapists, or specialists in sports medicine. Kickboxers injured during a match should seek immediate medical attention, particularly if they have had a head injury or been knocked out.
Parents of children should consult the child's doctor as well as a qualified martial arts instructor to see whether their child is emotionally ready and physically fit for kickboxing. Adolescents and young adults who are considering kickboxing should have a complete physical examination before enrolling in a martial arts school. They may also wish to consult an expert in sports medicine to determine whether kickboxing is a suitable sport for them.
People who enjoy kickboxing usually report improved muscular strength and coordination as well as overall physical fitness.
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American College of Sports Medicine, 401 W Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 637-9200, Fax: (317) 634-7817, http://www.acsm.org .
American Kickboxing Academy, 7012 Realm Dr., San Jose, CA, 95119, (408) 225-9000, email@example.com, http://www.akakickbox.com .
International Kickboxing Federation (IKF), PO Box 1205, Newcastle, CA, 95658, (916) 663-2467, Fax: (916) 663-4510, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.ikfkickboxing.com .
WAKO USA Kickboxing, (847) 530-8334, http://www.wakousa.org .
World Kickboxing Federation, PO Box 50805, Montecito, 93150, email@example.com, http://www.worldkickboxingfederation.com .
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD