There’s an old saying in combat sports that “styles make fights.” Fight aficionados and martial artists have long sought to answer the eternal question of which system of strategies, tactics and techniques provide the greatest likelihood of victory.
Historical Precedents of Styles Make Fights
Hailing back to the Romans, gladiators were divided into different classes, each equipped with specific sets of weapons and armor and trained in distinctive fighting styles. One classic match up is the Retiarius, a lightly armed gladiator with equipped with a trident, dagger and net, and Secutor, a heavily armored short range fighter with a gladius and rectangular shield. This pairing was designed to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of an agile lightly armored long range fighter has against a strong but immobile heavily armored in fighter effective at close range.
Boxing and Muay Thai Styles
Although not endowed with different equipment, unarmed combatants still tend to fall into a few classic fighting styles based on physical endowments and personal proclivities. Style classifications are generally based on a fighter’s preferred range of combat, favored techniques, and whether they like to lead or counter.
Boxing analysts use three major archetypes to classify fighters: the out-fighter (boxer), in-fighter (swarmer, pressure fighter), and the brawler (puncher, slugger). Roughly translating this to muay thai styles, an out-fighter would be a muay fimeu / muay classic, an in-fighter a muay bouk / muay khao, and a brawler a muay maat. It is often thought that out-fighters tend to beat brawlers, brawlers overcome in-fighters, and in-fighters prevail over out-fighters in quasi rock paper scissors hierarchy.
Grappling with the Out-fighter Styles
In a couple earlier articles, we took an in depth look at Panpayak Jitmuangnon, a multiple time Lumpinee and Rajadamnern Champion and Sports Writers of Thailand Fighter of the year for 2013 and 2014. He is a brilliant out-fighter with a prodigious rear round kick.
Muay Fimeu vs Muay Bouk
Although the conventional wisdom is that in-fighters tend to prevail over out-fighters, Panpayak was able to deal with the pressure from skilled muay bouk like Wanchalong and Prajanchai because of his ability to attack while moving forward, backwards or standing in the pocket. His ability to manage distance and attack off the back foot ensured that their relentless forward progress did not hinder his offensive output.
Muay Fimeu vs Muay Khao
In Panpayak’s June 5, 2015 Lumpinee Featherweight title defense (link youtube video), he was paired with Saenchai Paranchai, a different type of in-fighter known as a Muay Khao (มวยเข่า). A muay khao is a clinch specialist who often attack with knees (khao in Thai). It can be a very stifling and frustrating style to deal with. If a Muay fimeu is unable to stop the muay khao from initiating the clinch, his opponent will be stuck on him like a wet blanket for the duration of the match.
“You should not have any special fondness for a particular weapon, or anything else, for that matter.” ― Musashi Miyamoto, The Book of Five Rings
The key difference between Saenchai and other in-fighters Panpayak previously fought, is that Panpayak’s primary weapon, the rear round kick, is rendered useless at clinch range. Panpayak failed to prevent Saen from initiating the clinch and his defense against clinch attacks was ineffective. In a shocking 50-47 upset, Saen was able to smoother Panpayak, pin him up against the ropes and knee him with relatively impunity.
Saen appeared the more physically stronger fighter in this fight. Saen often forced Panpayak against the ropes and bludgeoned him with straight knees. Panpayak was unable to reverse the position or match Saen’s offensive output. In the middle of the ring, Saenchai often pulled down on Panpayak’s neck with his bodyweight, breaking Panpayak’s posture pulling him into knees strikes.
Muay Khao primary
The Muay Khao primary objective is to quickly intiate the clinch while minimizing the damage while getting into range. Fights begin at striking range and referees will often break up a clinch due to inaction. Thus, the clincher needs a diverse repertoire of clinch entries to avoid becoming too predictable. Saen initiates some of these clinch entrances while others are cued off his opponent’s actions.
One simple but effective clinch entry is to simply walk forward and tie up your opponent’s arms. Slowly shuffling forward can sometimes be more effective than a rapid advance; any fighters will cue off fast forward movements to fire a reactionary push kick. The chances of success a slow advance tends to be higher in the early rounds when the fighters are still feeling each other out.
Saen’s advance becomes much more aggressive in the later rounds. To facilitate rapid clinch entry, he takes a quick switch step (right foot forward) into a temporary southpaw stance instead of methodically shuffling forward in an orthodox stance. When he is in range, he quickly grabs a collar tie with his lead arm to prevent Panpayak from firing off more punches.
One way to reduce the perils of clinch entry is to feint or throw uncommitted strikes. This gets your opponent reacting defensively and less prepared to strike back. Saenchai will often throw an uncommitted punch or knee to get Panpayak to raise his guard and / or move back. This buys him a precious moment of safety during which Saen grabs a collar tie or under hook to bring the fight to the clinch.
Here we see Saen throw a couple crosses with no hope of landing. He is, however, able to illicit the desired defensive reaction from Panpayak. This enables him to rush forward and tie up without absorbing any damage.
Saen also likes to walk forward with a tight closed guard and launch knee strikes in Panpayak’s general direction. Even if they don’t land, Saen usually comes close enough to tie Panpayak up in the clinch where he can attack with more knees.
Evade and Clinch
There is a brief moment after an missed attack in which a fighter is vulnerable and out of a position to attack. Saen takes advantage of this by waiting for Panpayak to attack, then evade and clinch. Here, we see him leaning back from round kicks and ducking under punches before tying up. While it would be safer to pull back completely, his use of head movement allows him avoid the attack, stay in range and more easily initiate the clinch.
Block / Catch and Clinch
If Saen unable evade an attack, he will block or catch Panpayak’s kicks and knees and continue to move forward to clinch.
Rush Forward, Absorb Attack and Clinch
In the more hotly contested rounds, Saen will simply rush forward with his arms extended to grab a collar tie. While this may seem reckless, there is some method to the madness. As established earlier, Panpayak’s favored weapon is his rear round kick. Even though Panpayak is capable of throwing round kicks while retreating, Saen’s charge doesn’t give him enough time and space to set his feet and kick. By simply charging forward, Saenchai essentially neutralizes Panapayak’s most dangerous weapon.
Panpayak resorts to throwing short hooks, some of which do catch Saen but fail to him from initiating the clinch. A hook is a also poor choice of technique against a charging opponent as it only effective at a very specific distance. As seen above, Panpayak often throws too late and his arm harmlessly wraps around the back of Saen’s head, missing his jaw and temple. He also misses his opponent entirely when he throws too early. As we’ll see later, linear attacks into the opponent’s line of advance are far more effective at stopping the clincher.
Boxing the Clincher
Based on what we’ve seen thus far, one might think the muay khao will always dominate the muay fimeu by simply suffocating him in the clinch. However, there are many occasions where out-fighters, using appropriate strategies and tactics, beats the clincher. One good example of this is Saen’s bloody decision loss to Yodthongthai Kiatcharoenchai on 30th September 2014.
“Those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Yodthongthai had a great gameplan to deal with Saen’s aggression. He played wily matador to Saen’s raging bull. Whenever Saen came forward to clinch, Yodthongthai kept him at distance with straight punches, evasive movement and bloodied his face with sharp uppercut elbows. Even when Saen was able to initiate the clinch, Yodthongthai neutralized Saen’s knees and throws with the knee shield and defensive clinching and broke away when the opportunity presented itself.
Thwarting the Clincher
Clinchers need to come forward to grab onto their opponent and this means they movement patterns will be quite linear. The only real variable the clincher can play with is the speed of his advance. As we saw earlier, Saenchai alternates between creeping forward slowly and bull rushing opponent.
Arcing strikes like hooks and round kicks have the potential to miss when an opponent penetrates rapidly and moves past their effective range. Saen tends to skip forward with the knee of his lead leg raised. This creates a barrier and also makes leg kicks and teeps less viable weapons to stop his advance. The most effective strikes are therefore short linear attacks, like straight punches and uppercut elbows, thrown into the path of the clincher’s advance. They can split the guard and damage the clincher regardless of whether he advances quickly or slowly.
The Matador’s Cape
As Saen advances, Yodthongthai peppers him with light jabs and crosses while backing away from his quarry. He uses his gloves like the bull fighter uses a cape to distract his charging quarry and uses footwork to keep his body at a safe distance.
Even though Yodthongthai doesn’t put to much power in these punches, he is able to snap Saen’s head back on a couple occasions because of the momentum from Saen’s forward movement. Further, Yodthongthai’s evasive footwork prevents Saen from grabbing ahold of him even after he makes it past the punches.
The Matador’s Sword
Throughout the fight, Yodthongthai makes masterful use of the uppercut elbow to split Saen’s guard and cut his forehead as he comes forward to clinch. Yodthongthai’s timing is impeccable. He waits for Saen to come into range and launches forward with the elbow just before Saen grabs ahold of him. Attacking with the elbow at the last possible moment makes it difficult for Saen to slip away from it.
The fact the both fighters move forward make the impact of these elbows all the more devastating. Over the course of the fight, Yodthongthai was able to inflict 4-5 separate cuts over the course of the fight and transformed Saen’s face into a bloody mess. After hitting Saen with the elbow, Yodthongthai diligently pushed his opponent away to prevent him from clinching most of the time. Interestingly enough, Panpayak was also able to score an uppercut elbow on Saenchai and cut him open in one of the later rounds. However, this was too little to late for him to win the fight.
“One defends when his strength is inadequate, he attacks when it is abundant.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Although Yodthongthai punished Saen every time he came forward, Saen absorbed the punches and elbows and still clinched up with him a number of times. In the clinch, Yodthongthai wisely decided not to go knee for knee with the knee specialist. Rather, he neutralized Saen’s offense with the knee shield and tight double underhooks grips and waited for the ref to break up the clinch.
When Saen has him in the clinch, Yodthongthai will often grab a single collar tie, stick his right knee against Saen’s left hip bone and hook his right knee inside Saen’s left thigh.
With this tight upper and lower body control, Yodthongthai denies Saen the space he needs to generate power for clinch knees. Putting forward pressure on Saen’s left hip reduces the stability of Saens left leg, making it difficult for him to attack with the right knee. In this position, Saenchai resorts to attacks with the left knee but they are unable to reach Yodthongthai’s body because of the distance created by the knee shield. Yodthongthai neutralized Saen clinch knees with this relatively simple defensive position.
Ineffective Use of Knee Sheild
Panpayak also attempted to use a knee shield to defend against Saen’s knees in his fight. He often transitioned to this position after landing round kicks. You may notice that Panpayak’s foot is on the outside Saen’s hip rather than hooking the inside of his thigh. While this is still a viable defensive position against clinch knees, Panpayak failed to establish good control over Saenchai upper body. This means there is very little pressure on Saen’s torso from Panapayak’s knee. Saen is able to simply come forward, push past the knee shield and initiate the clinch.
Here we see Saen attempt a turning throw by pushing on Yodthongthai’s shoulder with his left hand, pulling with his right arm and turning his body clockwise. If Yodthongthai didn’t have the knee shield in, Saen would also sweep Yodthongthai’s right leg with his left foot to eliminate a post and create a weak plane on Yodthongthai’s right side.
However, with knee shield in place, Yodthongthai substitutes the support from his right leg with that of both of Saen’s legs. By gluing himself onto Saen’s upper body, he has effectively created a tripedal base of support. Pushing into Saen’s stomach with right knee also allows him to keep his left foot far away from Saen, putting it out of danger from being sweep. In sum, with the knee shield in, Yodthongthai is actually in a more stable position than if he were standing on his own two feet and this nullifies Saen’s attempts to sweep and throw him.
As the fight progresses, Saen becomes more desperate and reckless. Again, Yodthongthai, playing the wily matador is able to avoid the bulls horns by holding, Saen close and denying him the space he needs to land effective clinch knees.
It is very difficult for Yodthongthai to prevent Saen from clinching when he is cornered or has his back against the ropes. Yodthongthai makes the best out of a bad situation by lowering his posture and grabbing a double underhook grip. After stabilizing the grip, Yodthongthai straightens his posture to further reduce space between their bodies. This makes it difficult for either party to initiate any offense and the referee will quickly break up the clinch. Yodthongthai will also grab a tight collar tie with the crook of his elbow behind Saen’s neck. He uses his bodyweight to pull Saenchai down, break his posture and wait for the referee to separate them.
Escaping the Clinch
Although Yodthongthai usually waits for the referee to break up the clinch, he occasionally broke away on his own by pulling away / pushing off his opponent or attempting throws.
Push Off, Pull Away and Strike
In the arm clinch, Saen’s opponent’s were able to simply retract their arms and land parting shots from the clinch. Note that Yodthongthai and Panayak pull their entire body back to engage the leg and back muscles in the movement. Walking back also creates some distance which makes it more difficult for Saen to reinitiate the clinch. When Saen has a firm grip of the arms, a quick shove of the biceps or knee to the stomach can help create enough separation to pull away.
Pushing away becomes more difficult when Saen has a collar tie grip. In these situations, Yodthongthai attempts a clinch throw. Even if he isn’t successful in tossing Saen to the ground, he creates enough separation to break away from the clinch.
Parting Shots and Random Thoughts
“What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
If the clincher’s objective is to avoid damage while initiating the clinch, the out-fighter should take a pound of flesh every time they come forward. If the clincher wants to attack with knees and sweeps from the clinch, the out-fighter should neutralize their offense and break away whenever possible. This is the essence of attacking the opponent’s strategy.
When comparing Saen’s fight with Panpayak and his fight with Yodthongthai, we see one match where the muay khao style was clearly dominant and another where Saenchai was beaten and bloodied. This does not necessarily mean that Yodthongthai is a more skillful fighter than Panpayak. In fact, Panpayak is a multiple time Raja and Lumpinee Champion and Yodthongthai is currently unranked in those stadiums. Rather, this illustrates the importance of deploying the right strategy over raw technical skills.“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
While Panpayak may possess a faster and more powerful round kick, Yodthongthai’s straight punches and uppercut elbows turned out to be far more effective against a clincher like Saen. It makes little sense to use a long range weapon on a short range target.
“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
While Panpayak tried to exchange knees with Saen in the clinch, Yodthongthai focused on nullifying Saen’s offense and wait for the break. It is foolhardy to engage with an opponent in their area of strength.
Panpayak failed to make the adjustments to deal with Saen’s clinching style. However, his loss is not an indictment of the out-fighter but rather, his inability to adapt and strategize. Panpayak success comes from technical excellence, but not strategic brilliance. His extraordinary technique and timing has allowed him to employ the same simple game plan of repeatedly attacking with his rear round kick for most of his fights. However, if he wants to defeat clinchers like Saenchai, he will need to adapt and heed the blueprint for fighting the muay khao laid out by Yodthongthai.
With the right strategy, an out-fighter can defeat a clincher, and a clincher can beat an out-fighter. I would contend that there is no dominant fighting style per se. Rather, there are adjustments you need to make to ensure you dominate a given match, whatever your fighting style.