The world of MMA is ever evolving, and in recent years, there’s been a fascinating evolution in the stand-up aspect of the game. When Royce Gracie first started choking people out back in the early 90’s, everyone represented a unique discipline. Over the years, those unique styles all came together to form one style – true Mixed Martial Arts. Now, with fighters like Lyoto Machida leading the way, we’ve seen some return to those traditional forms being more prominently featured in MMA.
So what is the difference between all these striking arts? How is Tae Kwon Do unique from Shotokan Karate from Sanshou from Muay Thai and on and on and on… It can be daunting for viewers looking to appreciate the subtleties of the striking game.
More from Bloody Elbow
More from Bloody Elbow
And so, we bring to you our newest series: striking styles. Connor Ruebusch and myself will break down different styles, working to show you what makes them unique. For each, we’ll give you some examples, plus focus on three primary areas: offense, defense, and movement. Hopefully, with these descriptions, we can better detail what different fighters bring into the cage.
Today, we kick things off with one of the oldest and most common styles in MMA – Muay Thai. This is part 1 of a 3 part Muay Thai series, as we will focus strictly on traditional, Thai-style Muay Thai here. Join us next time for a look at how Muay Thai evolved into a Dutch style, and a Brazilian style. Let’s do this.
MUAY THAI (THAI-STYLE)
Fraser: This sounds obvious, but Muay Thai’s offense is largely based on maximizing power. Like I said, obvious right? Not necessarily. All striking arts want to maximize damage, but where a style like Savate focuses on precision attacks to vulnerable points, Muay Thai is more about using every aspect of the attack to maximize the power behind it. Kicks are thrown by twisting the entire body to maximize torque, knees are thrown while stepping in, elbows are whipped around like a baseball pitcher. All of it meant to hit as hard as you can to use your best power.
As for what kinds of offense are used, this is a stand-up art, but most all attacks on the feet are allowed, which is why many Muay Thai advocates feel it is a more “pure” and authentic striking style. Its nickname – “The Art of 8 Limbs” – reflects this idea: two feet, two fists, two knees, two elbows. In Thailand, those different limbs score differently, with punches being particularly low scoring. As a result, while punches are used in Thailand, they are pretty infrequent as compared to kicks.
Connor: Muay Thai’s emphasis, above all else, is placed on the legs. Kicks and knees are highly valued because they demonstrate balance, and balance is very important to Thai judges. Many believe that low kicks are a staple of Muay Thai, but in truth there are very few fighters in Thailand that specialize in low kicks–most Thais are experts at avoiding them, and many Thais consider them to be a “low” technique–forgive the pun.
Throws and dumps score big points; if you can demonstrate that your balance is superior to your opponents by putting him on his back, then you’ll be rewarded. Few nakmuay can boast a dumping game as impressive as that of Pajonsuk SuperPro Samui, and I encourage you to watch this highlight video.
In that video, you’ll notice that there is a unique style of throwing in Muay Thai. One may only use the striking surface of a leg to assist in a throw or sweep: the shins, insteps, knees, and thighs are employed to bump, sweep, and block the opponents legs while the arms and upper body push, pull, and twist him off-balance. You’ll see some very Greco-esque clinching in Pajonsuk’s highlight there, and in truth a lot of those throws are technically illegal–lifting the opponent is against the rules–though most refs will allow quite a bit of leeway in the clinch, because that’s what the crowd likes to see. And, of course, to show off how much better than your opponent’s your balance is, you are encouraged to stand over him on the ground or casually walk away like a boss. And whether a dump is entirely successful or not, it’s always a good idea to sneak in a knee or kick before the opponent completely lands, or at least before the ref can pull you away.
As Fraser said, punches are not scored very highly in Thai culture, perhaps because of the erroneous notion that the padded surface of the gloves make them a less dangerous weapon. Most Thais resort to handfighting and clinching in boxing range, and this explains why more Thais are not successful in international kickboxing competitions, which limit the clinch greatly.
Fraser: Just to add one last point – Conor covered Thai dumps nicely, and for my money, that’s the aspect of Muay Thai that is currently criminally underutilized in MMA. Here’s Alistair Overeem using a Muay Thai style dump to toss Brett Rogers (GIF). I think a lot more MMA fighters could find success with this kind of technique.
Fraser: This is related to the next category of movement, but Thai fighters tend to just stand in front of each other and duke it out. There’s an idea that evasive, backwards movement is in some way contrary to the spirit of Muay Thai. As a result, defense is seldom based on evasion and movement. Instead, it’s done by checking an attack. This leads to Muay Thai fighters being very light on their lead leg – they keep the weight off of it so that they can quickly bring it up to block a kick. You see this emphasis on absorbing blows in other aspects of the stance as well. Elbows are kept tight inside to protect against body blows. Hands are kept high and tight to the head to block punches and headkicks. Check out Shogun’s stance here (IMAGE). Note the light lead leg, and the position of his right hand and elbow. He has his lead hand out more than you would see in a traditional Thai stance.
One area where they do use movement for defense is in head movement to evade punches. Think of Anderson Silva famously leaning back to avoid Forrest Griffin’s attacks, or less successfully leaning back to (not) avoid Chris Weidman’s. This slipping is typically done solely with the head and upper body, keeping the feet planted. Here’s the great Saenchai demonstrating it in one of my personal favorite Muay Thai images of all time (IMAGE).
Connor: As Fraser said, the Thais are fond of relatively static defense. Checks and blocks predominate, with head movement being limited to the fading/leaning Fraser illustrated above. Nonetheless, the best Thais seem to have a preternatural ability to see strikes coming and check them. Shin conditioning is a must, as at least as many kicks are checked as landed cleanly in the average bout.
Much of the Thais’ defense is preemptive, however. The arms are kept high and outstretched to facilitate clinching, which is quickly becoming the most important phase of modern Muay Thai fights. As the opponent enters range, a nakmuay will cover his hands or bicepses, or grab a hold of his neck to deny him the posture he needs to throw an effective strike. The disruption of balance is a key element in Thai defense as well as offense, and Thai fighters are notorious for their strong necks and imperturbable bases as a result. Lapses in defense in the clinch are quickly punished with short strikes, such as this short elbow from Kem Sitsongpeenong (GIF).
Connor: This is probably the aspect of true Muay Thai that stands out the most to the casual observer. If you’re used to watching kickboxing, your reaction to your first Muay Thai fight is probably going to be something along the lines of, “why the hell are they just standing there?” In truth, footwork and movement in Muay Thai is subtle. As Fraser mentioned above, there is a stigma placed on backward movement, and side-to-side movement is lacking as well. Instead, Thai fighters move from the upper body while keeping their feet in more or less the same place, looking for openings within the opponent’s stance rather than moving around him to try to create those openings. Muay Thai is the game of refusing to give ground, and capitalizing on an opponent’s mistakes.
It has not always been this way, however. One of my personal favorite Muay Thai fighters is the hilariously named Poot Lorlek. Poot was a masterful kicker in his day, and his use of angles and footwork was very impressive, including his ability to kick moving forwards or backwards. Poot still trains fighters, and though you can see the effects of a Thai fighter’s diet on an inactive fighter in his paunchy appearance, he can still kick heads with ease. Here you can see him teaching his classic angles and counters to some young modern fighters.
Connor: Fraser has some excellent examples for you to look at below, so I’ll just keep it brief and recommend to you one of my personal favorite fighters and, in my opinion, the most technically sound nakmuay on the planet. This is Sam-A Kaiyanghadaogym, and when it comes to distance control and counter kicking, he can’t be beat. And, like almost every great Thai fight, this one just gets better as it goes along.
Fraser: I hope to leave you with a good example of some fighters using this style in MMA, but frankly, they are hard to come by for traditional Thai Muay Thai. Because of the style of movement we discussed, the stance, and the overall “stand in front of your opponent until you can’t stand anymore” methodology, pure Thai Muay Thai does not provide the greatest transition to MMA, as it leaves the Thai fighter far too open for takedowns. Better suited is the Dutch style, which we’ll cover next time.
That said, there are a few good examples. I already mentioned him once, but Shogun Rua uses a lot of traditional Muay Thai in his fights with Lyoto Machida. Alistair Overeem has brought in the Muay Thai clinch work and dumps at times. Amir Sadollah uses this approach. Plus there was the great Josh Neer vs. Keith Wisniewski UFC fight from 2011 where both men just grabbed a Thai style clinch and started throwing elbows. That is maybe the closest thing to a pure Thai fight we’ve ever seen in the UFC.
Outside of the UFC, there’s Bellator fighter named Cosmo Alexandre, who has a very good career in straight Muay Thai, and made the transition to MMA a few years ago. Here’s a HL video of Cosmo in Bellator – note how he uses Thai elements, but has made a lot of changes, particularly to the stance:
And finally, if you want to see real Muay Thai in action, there is no shortage of incredible fights available on YouTube. I’ll leave you with two. First up, a fantastic, fantastic fight from 2010. Seriously, you have to watch this. It’s Pornsaneh in red vs. Pakon in blue:
And we leave you with, in my humble opinion, the best Muay Thai fighter on the planet today: Saenchai. Here he is, doing his thing in spectacular fashion.
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