MMA 101 – Muay Thai

MMA 101 Cover
Muay Thai Tradition
Muay Thai is filled with tradition

Muay Thai…that particular pair of words is foreign to all but true fight nerds. Sure, some have heard of it, but most don’t understand what, exactly, it is.

So what IS Muay Thai?

Muay Thai is a martial art native to Thailand and known as ‘the art of eight limbs’. Before you get all worked up and start searching for some Vishnu-shaped fighting mutant, or being frustrated over your own four measly limbs, it’s important to know the knees and elbows are considered ‘limbs’ in Muay Thai. Two arms, two legs, two knees, and two elbows. That’s eight for the math-impaired. Muay Thai is an art based in efficiently using all available weapons.  It incorporates nicely into MMA because it makes the fighter not just dangerous with his hands, but with his whole body.

A skilled Muay Thai striker can absolutely throw devastating punches and vicious kicks. But don’t get too hasty writing off elbows and knees – Gaston Bolanos scored Bellator’s 2017 Knock Out Of The Year with a nasty spinning right elbow that knocked his opponent off his feet. Elbows are incredibly effective, and incredibly dangerous. The benefit of elbows is that they can be utilized from different angles and work well when the distance of the fight is too close for kicks or punches. Many of the deeper facial cuts you’ll see in an MMA fight are from well-placed elbows to the head.

Muay Thai emphasizes attacking all available limbs. This emphasis on seemingly benign (at least from a Western perspective) attacks on nonessential body parts like arms and legs seems counterintuitive. No one’s ever been knocked unconscious from shin to shin contact, so why do it? I know what you’re thinking. ‘Big deal, how bad can a leg kick be?’ Think back to the last time you ran your shin into a coffee table or a trailer hitch. Remember how bad that hurt? When your bone met the solid immovable object, remember the immediate, searing, eye watering pain that left you rubbing ineffectually at the affected limb in desperate agony? That feeling? Now multiply that about 100x.

Muay Thai Kick
Professional Muay Thai Fighter Kuchlong Kuchlong connects a high kick at Driller MMA Mecca XI

The shin is essentially a baseball bat attached to a knee and a foot. When thrown with force, it’s devastating. I’ve seen fights end from leg kicks and people knocked entirely off their feet from a well placed low kick. It’s hard to really sit into your punches if your legs have been quite literally kicked out from underneath you. Defending your head from a high kick is no picnic either,  as repeated blocks will leave your forearms and elbows almost inoperable. The key in any fight is accumulated damage. You might not be bothered too much by the first leg kick that lands, but fail to check a few more kicks and you’re going to find out what it’s like to defend yourself with your leg dragging behind you.

Muay Thai Clinch WorkOne of the other nuances very specific to Muay Thai is the clinch. In boxing, you’ll see fighters wrap their arms around each other as a way to grab a quick breather, or use it to get a couple of short shots off on the separation. In Muay Thai, the clinch is much different. The Muay Thai clinch involves one fighter securing a grip behind the back of the head of the other and pulling their head down, with their arms tight around the neck. This is a great position to make your opponent carry your weight while opening their body up to knees. No big deal though, right? It’s just a bit of extra weight to carry around if you’re the one trapped in someone else’s clinch.

Not so fast tough guy.  

Carrying around the weight of another human using just your head sucks. It is draining, disorienting, and surprisingly hard to disengage from.

Wait, there’s more.

It takes a tremendous amount of hand fighting and body positioning (which is basically stand up grappling) to simply dislodge one’s hands from your head, especially as they are launching their knees into your body. It’s like a psychotic game of ‘rub your belly and pat your head’. You will try violently to remove their hands from your head and neck while simultaneously trying to defend your spleen and liver from a maliciously thrown knee. Being in the clinch for too long is a guaranteed way to end up on the floor.

If a fighter can develop even a respectable competence in Muay Thai, couple it with a decent ground game and great conditioning, they can go from tomato can to a real handful real fast.

We’ve talked about stand up, and we’ve talked about grappling. In the next installment of MMA 101 we will talk about how to get a stand up guy to the ground.