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Heath White
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Muay Thai meditations

I greatly enjoyed and benefited from Zach Zinn’s “advice for boxing” thread.  About six weeks ago I began taking Muay Thai lessons, and I thought I would start a similar thread.  So this will be some reflections on karate and martial arts more generally, stimulated by my experience practicing Muay Thai. 

About myself: I currently hold 2nd dan in Tang Soo Do, a Korean form of karate.  After my first dan test, I decided I wanted to understand my forms better, and that led me into the wonderful world of bunkai and onto this forum.  My martial arts understanding grew leaps and bounds.  Meanwhile, shortly after my 2nd dan test, my dojang closed.  It was a pretty 3K place, I wanted more sparring experience and more sparring partners, and so after COVID restrictions lifted, I took up Muay Thai. 

The gym I joined also teaches jiu jitsu and originally I thought I would learn both.  But my first inter-disciplinary martial arts discovery (haha!) was that serious rolling and serious impact work is way harder on your body than 3K karate, and my 49-year-old body can only take so many hours a week of punishment.  So I decided to specialize in the discipline closest to my karate roots.  The students at my gym range from rank beginners to amateur fighters, but I am old enough to be parent to nearly all of them.  Because I have a martial arts background, I am better than the beginners but not nearly as good as the fighters, so I’m somewhere in the respectable middle skills-wise.

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I thought I would start the thread with the only thing I’ve learned that approaches a bunkai insight.  In the second central pass of Pyongan Edan / Heian Nidan / Pinan Shodan, there is a sequence that goes reverse inside-to-outside block, front kick, reverse punch.  In the flavor of TSD I was taught, the block is delivered with a body twist in the opposite direction.  (This traditional Shotokan form is about the same as what I was taught.  What I have discovered in looking at different versions of this form, is that across karate styles and even within the same style there is a wide variety in how much twist is used.)  The resulting stance—a front stance but with your hips and shoulders over-rotated--is pretty awkward.

A high-ranking member of my organization once told me that the stance was used to block a groin kick by pressing the thighs together.  Some, um, cautious pressure testing convinced me that even if this technique would work for meatier thighs than mine, I was going to remain vulnerable in this stance.  But my Muay Thai training has convinced me there is a better explanation.

The twisted-stance block is, or would be better interpreted as, a slip.  That is, you are deflecting an incoming punch but mainly twisting your body so as to avoid it.  The move doesn’t look like a familiar slip because in boxing, a slip usually involves more up-and-down vertical motion (often followed by a roll, with even more vertical motion).  In Muay Thai, however, lowering your head will get you a knee in the face.  So a Muay Thai slip is much more upright: it basically involves a pivot around a vertical axis, which points your near shoulder towards the incoming punch and moves your head offline.  If you are not delivering a counter shot with your near-side hand, the hand stays glued to your head for protection.  That is approximately where the karate block winds up too.  (I’ll have more to say later on covers vs. forearm blocks for defense.)  The stance is not nearly so awkward, if you hunch your shoulders forward a bit, and let your rear heel come up, as you would in a fighting stance as opposed to a traditional karate stance. So my Muay-Thai-inflected interpretation of this sequence is: slip his right cross to the outside, counter with a groin kick, followed by a liver shot. 

For what it’s worth, I was never taught slipping in karate class.  However, if there's anything to my suggestion, it’s there in the very first form Itosu gave his students.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Cool stuff Heath, excited to hear more.

Learning Boxing really opened up the idea of evasion being "built in" movement for me. Something as simple as punching or striking from a Shikodachi or Naihanchin stance becomes someting much more useable when you realize that the stance itself often implies evasion or shifting of some kind, just of a much more general variety than is found in combat sport. Of course as you mention, something like a full roll or the extreme-forward position used in Boxing is probably not great in some ways for self defense or even more open-ended combat sports, but the basics of moving your head offline constantly are there in kata too, albeit in a different, less specific way.

For instance, a Kata like Seuinchin is a differnt beast once you realize that in addition to whatever else is going on, you are going underneath the opponents weapons - which also fits one of the explanations given for the Kanji. I've been experimenting with the "weaving" motion from Boxing, I actually think it is implied in a couple places in Kata, it's just much shallower and usually also accompanied by a shielding/limb control motion. The motion itself is pretty natural against rounded strikes coming at head level though.

I think I get the Peian Nidan technique you are talking about, If I'm visualizing it right it also would be the motion as you cross step and "middle block" in Naihanchin, is that basically it?

I think that a sort of pre temptive evasion was probably always a part of Karate, built into most of the techniques, but over time the training method became so narrow that people let it get dusty. I have trained with one very old school Karateka who taught these kinds of concepts, but I think they are regrettably rare.

Anyway, I'll be interested also to hear about the elbow techniques you learn. Other than the high stance Muay Thai has always seemed pretty similar to Karate to me, I'm stoked to hear about what you get to learn on this journey.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

Zach, 

About the technique ... the block is the same as in Naihanchi, but the step is forward rather than across, and the body twist is different.  I really can't explain it better than the video I linked to demonstrates it.  Or here is some vintage TSD.

While we are on this topic, though, this Shotokan instructor and this TSD instructor have virtually eliminated the "slip." (BTW, their technique is very sharp.)  I am sure that somewhere along the line, someone asked "Why am I in this awkward stance?", did not have an answer, and changed the form.  So we are looking at a "lost" technique here.

For me, the penny dropped on evasion when I realized that turns in forms were not turning to face an opponent but taking an angle to the opponent in front of you.  That means most of the blocks in forms involve some evasion.  I don't know any Goju katas but I will keep looking in the forms I know for this principle ... there are parts of Bassai that seem relevant.

As far as elbows go, my coach hasn't taught them so far.  They are banned in kickboxing, amateur MMA, and some amateur Muay Thai, plus they would be impossible for us to spar safely with.  I will ask my coach though.  

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Ah ok yes, now I know exactly the kind of thing you are talking about.

I have learned this technique directly as a "slip" of sorts - including the use of the stance- from an old school Shorin Ryu guy, one of the best Karateka I've met. I only got to train with this guy probably six or seven times total, but it was enough to show me how much more detail existed in certain areas of Karate i'd neglected.

He taught kind of pivoting on the balls of the feet this stance as you move to adjust your angle, in addition to the "slip" bit. It also resembles some footwork i've seen in FMA and Bagua.

On the elbow sparring, I just bought one of these:

https://rdxsports.com/rdx-t1-head-guard-with-removable-face-cage/

It's probably not relevant to a combat-sport level of moderate to heavy contact, but I bought it precisely to do limited elbow drilling and sparring at low contact levels. I wouldn't want to take hard shots, but someone can clip you with mild contact wearing one of these and it's fine. I'm going to slowly experiment with it, with much contact the elbower would need to wear elbow pads themselves I imagine, die to the grate.

I actually looked up Muay Thai elbow sparring prior to doing this, the only stuff I found was very light contact involving one person with a High Gear helmet, which is what inspired the purchase:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgJlvgWCyO0

Anyway, something at this pace and contact level seems pretty viable to me, but the right partners would be everything.

PASmith
PASmith's picture

So one way I interpret that section of Heian Nidan/Pinan Shodan/WonHyo (the ITF version of that kata) is as a kick catch.

In Won Hyo it starts with the feet coming together and then you move forward AND across. I see that as coming inside, and away from, the power arc of the kick (or getting off line on a more vertical type front kick). The circular "blocking" arm encircles the kicking leg. The turning of the body and arm position means you take the kick across the back/lats and then properly grip the leg (rather than just cupping with the hand). You then kick the leg/knee/groin and/or punch them when they are off balance. Advancing forward after the front kick also starts to move them backwards. This is called "ploughing" in Muay Thai and has been banned because of how often people fell out of the ring with it (iirc). I think you can only step forward 2 steps before you have to drop the leg and throw a technique of your own?

Heath White
Heath White's picture

So, I asked my instructor about elbows this morning.  As I figured, he said he was reluctant to teach them until he was very sure about the control students had.  You could work them on the bag all right, but as soon as you started hitting pads in partner drills, all it would take is one guy to miss a pad and the other guy to not pull back on the power, and then pad guy is going to the hospital for stitches or a broken jaw.

This actually is relevant to a broader point about training methodology.  In karate class, I spent a lot of time punching the air.  In Muay Thai, we spend approximately zero time punching the air.  Some people will shadowbox as a way to warm up, on their own time.  But when you are practicing strikes, even as a raw beginner, you are on a bag.  When you can do that, you practice with a partner, sometimes just lightly touching but eventually hitting pads with power.  The point of the partner drilling is that they move around and throw strikes, unlike the bag.  And the partner work is not "advanced," it is essential.  I think my coach would tell you he is in the business of training fighters, either in a ring or on the street, and if you can't fight he has in a sense failed.  If you can't train with a live partner, you can't learn to fight.  If  you can't train a technique safely with a partner, including with some degree of power, you can't train the technique safely.  

(I guess the gym could ask all the students to buy more protective equipment, but as a practical matter that would be prohibitively expensive.)

On the mechanics of elbow strikes, my coach emphasized that it's just like a punch.  Thus there are as many varieties of elbow strikes as punches: straight, round, uppercut, overhand, straight down, etc.  Some are for cutting, some are for smashing, etc. In one dojang I was in long ago we were taught six different elbow strikes; the impression I got from my MT coach was that maybe you could enumerate them for early training purposes but as a practical matter, there was a huge variety of ways to throw elbows, just like punches, and you should just take what you can get in a fight.

On the hand position, he said palm out, for three reasons.  One was that it "connects better with the lats," which I am not sure I understand except that it means more power.  Second reason was that you get a sharper/harder striking surface with the palm out.  The final reason was that you can trap down their guard with the open palm and then elbow over the top.  

Heath White
Heath White's picture

PASmith, 

I like that interpretation as a creative use of that sequence.  

As far as "plowing," I poked around and yes most MT and kickboxing rulesets seem to have adopted a 1-step rule.  Reasons given are (a) plowing doesn't take any talent, and (b) plowing is dangerous on an elevated stage with a concrete floor beneath.  On the latter point, I found this video; note that it is the plow-er who lands out of the ring.  Start around the 4:30 mark:

https://youtu.be/hFopXQcDQ3A?t=270

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

PASmith wrote:
As far as "plowing," I poked around and yes most MT and kickboxing rulesets seem to have adopted a 1-step rule.  Reasons given are (a) plowing doesn't take any talent, and (b) plowing is dangerous on an elevated stage with a concrete floor beneath.  On the latter point, I found this video; note that it is the plow-er who lands out of the ring.  Start around the 4:30 mark:

The "doesn't take any talent" thing never fails to crack me up - it's basically saying the technique is too efficacious for the competition. I think some strikes were banned from Boxing in the early days a long similar lines of thought.

When i was in Judo they did the same thing, some of the highest percentage throws were deemed "sloppy" or "bad Judo".

Heath, have you done sort of partner training yet? I learned a ton over the lockdowns from watching Muay Thai sparring and trying to study up on how they spar progressively. I finally found a couple videos that hugely helped with my students, as I have a few people that are (much as I love them) somewhat heavy handed and have as such always been an issue for live work, using some of the Muay Thai sparring advice combined with other stuff from Karate (mostly Iain's stuff and things I learned from Kris Wilder) I found I have been able to get these guys to train live without resorting to just putting forth more effort when they are frustrated, getting all herky-jerky and random when in bad positions, and other habits that would impede things before.

Anyway, I get the impression that Muay Thai has really excellent training in this regard, I've seen a lot of stories about people sparring Saenchai (sp?), and how technically excellent their sparring is. Getting older as I am I am really interested in methods that are reasonably safe but still allow for fairly "open" live work.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

OK, about training with partners.  I don’t know if this will answer your questions, Zach, but here’s what we do.  Classes during the week are mainly bagwork (alone) and partner drills, interspersed with calisthenics (which is a topic on its own).  On Saturday there is an hour of more-or-less open sparring.  So that is less sparring than some gyms.

When working with a partner, you are expected to keep them safe.  Everyone in my gym is very good about this, and I don’t think there is any substitute for people being careful of their partners.  Here are some examples of partner drills we have done:

* A simple drill is partner A throws a pre-arranged combo and partner B defends it.  Jab-cross-hook is met by parry-cover-cover.  Partners take turns.  You can then introduce a few variables: let A throw a hook to the head or the body.  Let B parry or slip the jab.  The more variables you introduce, the closer it gets to live sparring.  (Maybe it's just left-right-left.)  Start with light power and get harder as both partners feel comfortable. 

* Today we were training slips.  One partner throws either a jab or cross.  The other partner sees the punch coming and slips either inside or outside, then throws a counter shot.  This was just touching, no real power, since the point is mostly to train vision.  Note there are some variables: whether A throws jab or cross, whether B slips inside or outside; what counter B throws.

* A common drill is 3-2-1.  This is used to train combinations, defense and counters.  A throws a 3-strike combination of his choice.  B defends, and immediately counters with a 2-strike combination.  A defends and immediately throws a 1-strike counter.  The point here is that you can’t throw your counter combo if you’ve backed up (the natural reaction), so it trains you to stay in the pocket and defend with your hands or head movement or lateral motion.  Also you get to practice your combinations.  Variations on this drill are 5-3-1 (more advanced) and hands-only (less advanced).  You could also constrain some of the combinations if you want.  This drill is often done light-to-medium power; not enough to really hurt but enough to make defense a serious issue.  Obviously there are lots of variables in this one.

* A lot of class time is spent holding pads for a partner.  These are generally full-power drills.  There can be various degrees of flexibility for the padholder.  The simplest drill is a fixed combination, where A strikes and B holds the pads.  Padholding (a) is a skill of its own, and (b) you may still be taking considerable force.  One early class, I was holding for a big guy throwing powerful kicks, and I went home with a big bruise on my inner arm.

* A variation on this gives some discretion to the padholder.  For example, the combo might be jab-cross and then either left or right round kick depending on which side the padholder puts the pads on.  Both A and B need to be fast and aware to keep this drill smooth.

* The most discretion is simply having the padholder call out combinations and put the pads in the right place.  This calls for the most padholding skill and some trust in the striker too. 

 Sparring on Saturdays is for an hour.  It’s done in three-minute rounds with a minute rest in between, for a total of 15 rounds.  The format is, generally, find yourself a partner and spar.  If you get tired, sit out a round.  The first few rounds are declared warm-up rounds and contact is just hands and very light.  Then gradually restrictions are removed.  Sometimes we do a round of just clinch work.    

The expectation is you will hit only as hard as your partner wants, and if they are hitting you too hard, you tell them.  If they can’t control it, walk away—this would be publicly embarrassing for them.  That said, there is kind of a spectrum across the mat, where the left side is beginners and the right side is amateur fighters.  You only drift right if you are interested in pretty hard contact.  But I went a couple rounds with some of those guys and they were all considerate and polite.

“Fight camp,” which trains people who want to fight in the ring, presumably has more and harder sparring but I have no direct experience here.

The bottom line is that if you are hitting hard, you are hitting a pad or bag, and if you are hitting a person, they are not taking any more force than they want. 

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

That sounds really great Heath. Unfortunately, that kind of progressive training is (as far as I can gather) a fairly new thing in Boxing gyms. I have seen some great gyms on Youtube that do it, my own gym the coach basically thought that sparring should be heavy contact or it "wasn't boxing".

I am strongly considering joining a Muay Thai gym should my own Karate class fold at some point, they seem to have the most enlightened attitude about sparring and I really imagine one can learn a ton in this environment. I'm somewhat envious but looking forward to living vicariously through you:)

BTW that 3-2-1 drill or a variation of it is pretty much my favorite basic sparring drill. I think it has some flaws timing wise for self defense, but it makes up for them in other areas.

If you don't mind me asking, how old are you these days (I seem to recall you are middle aged too?), and what are the age demogrpahics of your class like?

Heath White
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I am 49.  I am definitely the oldest person in the gym with the possible exception of the coach.  I could be the parent of most of my training partners, who are generally college-age to late-20s.   Most of the people are young men but there are a handful of young women or young mom types too.  Everyone has been very friendly and welcoming although I wonder if some of them don’t secretly regard me as some kind of exotic fossil.

Class would be really hard if I were not in reasonably good shape.  The coach has a huge mental library of calisthenic exercises and a typical class has at least 5-10 minutes devoted to these, sprinkled throughout the class in ~1 min increments.  This is in addition to hitting bags or pads with power for much of class.  There is virtually no “standing around” time.  It is a way harder workout than the average karate class I am used to, although maybe that just says something about my old dojang. 

The one thing I would say to an older person joining a gym like this is to know your limits and don’t be ashamed of them.  I just can’t go more than three classes a week—my body needs the recovery time.  I get exhausted sparring—so I sit out a round.  I need water—I take some.  Sometimes I can’t do 50 crunches in a row—so I take a rest midway.  I’m too slow when doing my 75 assigned kicks per leg on the heavy bag—so I shave off a few reps.  The coach gets it and he knows I’m working hard.  (And I am hardly the only student doing this kind of stuff.)  But I’m not 20 anymore and I have to train accordingly.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Heath White wrote:

I am 49.  I am definitely the oldest person in the gym with the possible exception of the coach.  I could be the parent of most of my training partners, who are generally college-age to late-20s.   Most of the people are young men but there are a handful of young women or young mom types too.  Everyone has been very friendly and welcoming although I wonder if some of them don’t secretly regard me as some kind of exotic fossil.

Exactly what the Boxing gym was like for me. Minus the coach, 30 was "old" at the Boxing gym, I just turned 45. I remember some of the younger guys being amazed I could make it through some of the workouts at all! A few times I did class that was nothing but me and the Coaches most successful amateur fighter (I think), I barely made it through, and this guy was ready for another class, unfazed by what almost killed me.

e wrote:

Class would be really hard if I were not in reasonably good shape.  The coach has a huge mental library of calisthenic exercises and a typical class has at least 5-10 minutes devoted to these, sprinkled throughout the class in ~1 min increments.  This is in addition to hitting bags or pads with power for much of class.  There is virtually no “standing around” time.  It is a way harder workout than the average karate class I am used to, although maybe that just says something about my old dojang.

Sounds similar. Boxing is definitely the toughest workout I've ever done, it made Judo classes look compartively mellow, and they were no walk in the park. I think that generally a combat sport is going to be a tougher workout. It tends to attract a different, younger, fitter crowd looking to mix it up. In all the Dojos I've been in you get a more ecclectic mix of people. Definitely has it's good and bad sides. One thing I really learned is that, truthfully we should be exhausted after a good training session. I knew this at one time and had moved away from it. Sometimes it's good to get that kind of reminder.

e wrote:

The one thing I would say to an older person joining a gym like this is to know your limits and don’t be ashamed of them.  I just can’t go more than three classes a week—my body needs the recovery time.  I get exhausted sparring—so I sit out a round.  I need water—I take some.  Sometimes I can’t do 50 crunches in a row—so I take a rest midway.  I’m too slow when doing my 75 assigned kicks per leg on the heavy bag—so I shave off a few reps.  The coach gets it and he knows I’m working hard.  (And I am hardly the only student doing this kind of stuff.)  But I’m not 20 anymore and I have to train accordingly.

Yeah this is exactly what I would have to do when they did v-ups with medicine balls. Sometimes I just had to take a break. Once the assisstant coach literally told me "you should stop now if you're over 30"...lol, and since I am 15 years over 30, I figured I'd take his advice. 75 Kicks...my word. I do maybe 25-35 when I work on the heavy bag!

PASmith
PASmith's picture

Back when I did Thai we did elbows on pads all the time and then occasionally we'd put those fabric shin guards on our arms and spar with them. But always very lightly and as an addition to regular clinch sparring which was mainly knees, escapes, turns, grip fighting, sweeps, etc.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

My first class of Muay Thai, I was given a basic drill where one partner throws jab-cross-hook and the other defends with parry-cover-cover.  Most of my sparring experience was without gloves, and I tended to block punches with my forearms.  Don’t do that, I was told (more on this in a minute).  When the cross comes in, cover by gluing your fist to your forehead, and taking the punch on your glove/forearm in front of your face. 

Well, I “covered” by holding my glove in front of my face but a few inches out from my forehead.  The cross came in and knocked my glove into my face.  I improved my technique after that, but I went home with a black eye and my wife had a good laugh.

Now, you could argue that karate includes some covers in its forms, but I think it’s fair to say the emphasis is on forearm blocks for defense.  In Muay Thai, the emphasis is on covering and you don’t use forearm blocks much.  Why is that?  It’s the gloves, and also some tactical differences deriving from ring sport vs. self-defense contexts.

The Muay Thai style of cover against the cross would not work well if you weren’t both wearing gloves.  When you both have big pillows on your hands, the cover will shield your face.  If you are both ungloved, however, there is way too much risk of the punch sliding past the covering arm.  The holes are too big and the fist is too small.  Plus you could easily break the bones on the back of your hand if his knuckles struck there. 

My Muay Thai coach once said that when he is training people for MMA, where the gloves are much smaller, he trains a lot less covering and a lot more forearm blocks. 

On the other hand, forearm blocks are discouraged in Muay Thai because they are a larger, less conservative motion, where your hand comes relatively far away from your head.  An opponent who sees you do that once will feint the next time, drawing the block, and then take advantage of the opening your block creates.  But that only works in a ring, where there will be many opportunities to hit the opponent.  In a self-defense context, you don’t have time to learn from one reaction, then create a feint, then hit for real.  Every shot is a power shot, the encounter will be quick, and if the attacker backs off the defender can get away.  So in that context, forearm blocks work fine.  Plus, it is much easier to grab the opponent’s arm off a forearm block than off a cover, which leads into a whole bunch of techniques that Muay Thai (or any gloved sport) can’t do.   

Bottom line: I’ve had to make significant changes in the way I defend in sparring in Muay Thai.  But I think the traditional karate defenses make sense, and work better, in their intended context.  It’s another way the consensual vs. non-consensual distinction shows up in technique.     

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Heh, yeah. One of the hardest things for me to get used to in Boxing was the high gaurd, for similar reasons. I've pretty  much dropped using  it now that I'm doing Karate again, it has little to no utility in Karate/Self defense in my opinion. I have even heard some boxers say that it is advocated too heavily, that having the gloves there doesn't always help, and that it would be a better idea to work on more "active" defenses. I don't know about that advice for boxing, but for more self-defense oriented uses of Boxing techniques, it's more in the ballpark.

My understanding is that it's a kind of cost-benefit analysis for them, you get hit so many times through the gloves and it takes a toll, but having the hands glued there saves you from complete knockout much of the time. Nothing comparable in self defense because we would never choose to take repeated blows by covering, rather we would clinch, grab etc.

Some of the Muay Thai defenses have always looked very Karate-ish to me, just with different timing and gloves. A lot of times I see fighters use a cover that looks a lot like a Yama Uke, or the movement at the beginning of Pinan Shodan. I don't know if this will be the same, but I found that a lot of the basic Boxing hand positions and uses actually were very close to some Karate (think cross-arm gaurd, or the way some Boxers stuff the other fighters strikes with their elbow, imagine what that would look like if you were allowed to do something like a shuto or hammerfist), only with radcially different timing, and then completely different tactical decisions following due to the sport.

I got chewed out for using my forearms in the only partner work I did in Boxing - bagwork while a bag holder tries to punch you. I ran into exactly what you are talking about, which is that my defenses worked absolutely flawlessly the first time, but then the person would just create an opening with my block afterwards.

Does Muay Thai  drill "catching" punches with gloves? I think I have seen them doing this. That's another example of a sport-specific skill, and one which I think doesn't function at all without gloves, it was taught as a core defensive boxing skill at my gym. I think even parries are somewhat doubtful for self defense.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

Zach, the Yama Uke guard you are referring to is called long guard.  We haven't trained it at all, but it's an interesting topic and I'll ask my coach about it.  There is one advanced student who uses it in my gym.  

It's worth noting that Choki Motobu supposedly used basically this guard--the opening move of Pinan Yondan--in his public fight with the boxer.

I've never been instructed to "catch" punches on the gloves.  I have seen this technique in an old boxing manual.  I don't think it would work without gloves though.

When I learned parries, I was first struck by the similarity to the outside-to-inside block.  However the muscular emphasis is a little different: instead of blocking hard across (delts, pecs) we are taught to make a small circular motion (lats).  I think the big difference here is again that in the ring, you want to be making minimalistic defensive moves, where this is less of a concern in self-defense.  Also you can't attack the guy's bone with the block when you both have gloves on.  

Heath White
Heath White's picture

Another place non/consensual violence affects technique is the stance.  I tend to fight in a rough boxing stance and I’ve had to modify it somewhat in Muay Thai.

Muay Thai has a distinctive stance: relatively high, square, and heavy on the back leg.  The stance is driven by the need to defend against the round kick to the front leg.  The best defense against that kick is to check it by lifting the shin and pointing it outwards, into the kick.  So the front leg has to be very light to get the leg up to check, and the stance has to be square to allow you to point the shin outwards.  You don’t see this stance in MMA (anymore) because it’s too vulnerable to double-leg takedowns, which are illegal in Muay Thai. 

Should a karateka worry about leg kicks?  From a self-defense perspective, I don’t think so.  Leg kicks are one of those techniques that are designed to wear the opponent down.  You can absorb one leg kick pretty well; you can’t absorb ten.  In a ring, you are going to eat ten if you don’t defend them.  But in a self-defense context, there’s no time to wear the opponent down.  You aren’t going to eat ten kicks.  Just eat one, and punch him in the mouth.  Also, in a self-defense context, you do have to worry about opponents diving at your legs.

So I’ll square up my stance a little for Muay Thai, but I’ll keep my old stance for karate. 

Zach Zinn
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Heath White wrote:
Another place non/consensual violence affects technique is the stance.  I tend to fight in a rough boxing stance and I’ve had to modify it somewhat in Muay Thai.

What's a boxing stance to you? I would say that the general-use stance I favored prior to boxing was similar, but I wouldn't consider a Boxing stance because I wasn't as hunched over and scrunched up, my stance would be too tall by boxing standards I think. That's one thing about the stance of modern boxing, the forward lean/curl is something of a liability outside of Boxing - the obvious thing mentioned by combat sports people is knees, but I think the risk of getting snapped down, easily pulled off balance or hit in the back of the head more easily are issues too. That said, it IS the more powerful stance for punching, hands down. I treat it like a Karate stance, something that is just a transitional stance, might be useful if I am just offensive punching, but has downsides beyond that.

e wrote:
Muay Thai has a distinctive stance: relatively high, square, and heavy on the back leg.  The stance is driven by the need to defend against the round kick to the front leg.  The best defense against that kick is to check it by lifting the shin and pointing it outwards, into the kick.  So the front leg has to be very light to get the leg up to check, and the stance has to be square to allow you to point the shin outwards.  You don’t see this stance in MMA (anymore) because it’s too vulnerable to double-leg takedowns, which are illegal in Muay Thai.

Yeah the stance has always seemed impractically high to me, but if you did the high/long gaurd thing and "got smaller" instead of taller, it seems like it would basically be a Karate stance. Other than the height, I've always thought it seemed sensible, but maybe that's because I am looking at it with "bunkai brain", almost as if it's a kind of swiss-army knife application, which is probably wrong. Interesting about the takedowns, I almost feel like the standard hunched over high gaurd stance taught in some Boxing is vulnerable in other direction - being pulled off balance, or even all the way down via a head snap type motion.

e wrote:
Should a karateka worry about leg kicks?  From a self-defense perspective, I don’t think so.  Leg kicks are one of those techniques that are designed to wear the opponent down.  You can absorb one leg kick pretty well; you can’t absorb ten.  In a ring, you are going to eat ten if you don’t defend them.  But in a self-defense context, there’s no time to wear the opponent down.  You aren’t going to eat ten kicks.  Just eat one, and punch him in the mouth.  Also, in a self-defense context, you do have to worry about opponents diving at your legs.

So I’ll square up my stance a little for Muay Thai, but I’ll keep my old stance for karate.

Yeah, if we are talking a self protection paradigm, I think "defending against kicks" is very nearly a non-entity. I do remember seeing them on a list of Act of Habitual Violence from the UK years ago, but they were mentioned as "lashing" kick and I think it was something like a crappy soccer kick, the context wasn/t mentioned either. Anyway, I'm skeptical that there are even many self-defense situation where truly having to "defend" a kick while vertical is common...I think you are more likely to face someones foot on the ground, where it's way worse. It's also about timing, because real encounters don't tend to have the staccato rhythm of sparring that allows people to more easily do things like manipulate space well enough to get in a solid roundhouse kick. In my experience violence happens much too quickly and chaotically for that to be a thing most of the time.

If someone is initiating a non-consensual violent act or mugging by throwing a nice roundhouse, hopefully their  second-rate competence at effective violent behavior will give us the edge we need to get away - being facetious of course, but seriously. ..

Heath White
Heath White's picture

My general-purpose stance is relatively high, although my shoulders are hunched and my chin is down.  My body is angled about 45 degrees to the opponent, rear heel is up, feet about 1.5 shoulder widths apart,  front toe pointed forward or slightly in.  I feel like I've seen plenty of boxers and kickboxers use that stance but I won't claim any expertise here.  

I've also seen plenty of boxers hunched over farther, and I agree that stance is vulnerable to knees/kicks to the face, snapdowns, and shots to the back of the head.  I think MMA has sort of evolved the ideal "fighting stance" although it has to be said there is some variation in MMA stances.  There's always tradeoffs and people emphasize different things.

If you got in neko ashi dachi and stood up a little, you would have a pretty good classic Muay Thai stance. 

I did not mention that Muay Thai often uses a distinctive rocking motion, which serves sort of the same function as the bouncing in TKD or point karate: it keeps you in motion, agile, hides initial movements.  However it uses a lot less energy.  Again, probably not needed in a self-defense context, where you should just explode and keep going.

As far as kicks go, the only thing worth worrying about in a self-defense context, I think, is a big soccer kick to the groin.  Shouldn't be too hard to defend, though to be fair I've never actually tried it.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Heath White wrote:

My general-purpose stance is relatively high, although my shoulders are hunched and my chin is down.  My body is angled about 45 degrees to the opponent, rear heel is up, feet about 1.5 shoulder widths apart,  front toe pointed forward or slightly in.  I feel like I've seen plenty of boxers and kickboxers use that stance but I won't claim any expertise here. 

Yeah, it's  pretty close to what I'd think of as a boxing stance too.

e wrote:
Ive also seen plenty of boxers hunched over farther, and I agree that stance is vulnerable to knees/kicks to the face, snapdowns, and shots to the back of the head.  I think MMA has sort of evolved the ideal "fighting stance" although it has to be said there is some variation in MMA stances.  There's always tradeoffs and people emphasize different things.

Yeah, of all combat sports I think MMA is the closest to what we'd look for in Karate, at least the MMA of right now.

e wrote:
If you got in neko ashi dachi and stood up a little, you would have a pretty good classic Muay Thai stance.

Yeah that was I was thinking, kind of squish yourself down and get small with somethign like long gaurd and it looks just like a kokutsu dachi or oldschool neko stance.

e wrote:
I did not mention that Muay Thai often uses a distinctive rocking motion, which serves sort of the same function as the bouncing in TKD or point karate: it keeps you in motion, agile, hides initial movements.  However it uses a lot less energy.  Again, probably not needed in a self-defense context, where you should just explode and keep going.

Ah yeah, I'd wondered about that. I was always terrible at the sport Karate bouncing.

e wrote:
As far as kicks go, the only thing worth worrying about in a self-defense context, I think, is a big soccer kick to the groin.  Shouldn't be too hard to defend, though to be fair I've never actually tried it.

I have actually kicked someone in the groin in self defense 20 - something years ago, but never had anyone try to kick me.  Nothing hugely serious, basically a non-consensual "fight" (he wanted to, I didn't, and he just attacked) it worked -really well- and immediately dropped his head, and I then ended up punching him in the eye (I wasn't aiming the punch there but that's where it went) - almost the classic tactic kick/punch as you see in some kata, the only difference being that there was a bunch of really sloppy grappling (on both our parts) preceding it and it happened immediately once the distance increased a bit, I think he was trying to grapple and push me into a nearby window, I just kind of got him at arms length and did it - straight up the center. This was back when my training was pure sport Karate, but we actually allowed light groin contact (yes, seriously), I always wondered if that's why it came out.

Then seconds later we both got pepper sprayed, and that was that, then it was all just getting our eyes washed out by EMT's, looking really dumb, and getting scolded by my future wife.

It was something akin to a soccer kick with a straight-up motion, kind of like the front kick you see in some chinese arts, the leg is a little bent and just goes up. Thrown at distance I think it would be super telegraphed, but in the middle of the chaos at longer gripping length it worked.

I have played around with it in Karate like so: you end up in a head and arm type clinch position but not that close,  if there is enough space just send it straight up the center,  while trying to maintain enough control to "frame" however you need, almost like a long range version of a knee to the groin.

It seems situational to me, and has it's risks but I have to admit that it at least that one instance it worked pretty well "for real".

I think as an attack it's probably more likely to happen a similar way, not an initial attack but something that could happen with people scrambling around, same with people kicking shins, stomping etc. all of it messy and arguably somewhat different from combat sport kicks. It's still way less likely than hands of course, but I can see it being here and there.  "Defensive" measure against a groin kick, I think it's basically the turned in foot of your boxing stance and perhaps a slight "check" with the knee, which I've seen as an application for the wave kick in naihanchin,

PASmith
PASmith's picture

One thing I think Muay Thai gave me, far better than TKD or Karate ever did, and it's something that stays with me to this day, is a good basic tool box of techniques.

In terms of techniques that fit well into the "martial map" and can serve as self defence, fighting and martial arts techniques you can't go far wrong with a jab, cross, shin block, basic forearm cover, knee, elbow, low round kick and the collar tie clinch. Those things exist in TKD and Karate if trained properly but Thai does a much better job of making them the bread and butter arsenal without "hiding" them in patterns/kata.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

I’m glad you wrote this, PASmith, because I’ve been having similar thoughts.  One difference between karate (in my organization at least) and Muay Thai is the sheer number of techniques.  This affects training more than I was aware.

Karate has a huge variety of techniques.  Pyongan Edan (Pinan shodan) alone has about five stances, five hand strikes, four or five blocking techniques, and two kicks.  That is what you have to know just to do the form, never mind learning the form itself.  The bunkai revolution has amplified this tendency; maybe the form has locks and throws in it too!  But this is not new; Morinobu Itoman’s book boasts several times that karate has 600 techniques.

The upshot is that you spend a lot of time in karate learning just to do the techniques, and the kata, and maybe the prescribed one-steps. 

Beginners in my Muay Thai gym get one stance, four punches (jab, cross, hook, uppercut) and three kicks (front, round, side, with minor differences for front and back legs).  There is the knee strike.  There are three defensive options (parry, cover, slip).  That is your basic toolkit and it can be learned in an afternoon. There are no forms or one-steps to learn, although you will start picking up common combinations. 

As a result, beginners spend their time learning the gross motor skills to perform this handful of techniques.  They are hitting the bag, developing power.  They are working with partners, learning to use the techniques in a more live setting.  So they get better, faster, at the things that make for effective fighting. 

Now, to be honest, that oversells Muay Thai’s simplicity a little.  Clinch work introduces a whole different set of skills.  Elbow strikes are saved for advanced students.  Spinning backfists, back kicks, and hook kicks are used occasionally.  But those things are not even introduced (in my gym, anyway) until the student has a pretty good grasp of the striking fundamentals.

There is a downside to the focus on a handful of techniques.  It is cool and fun and in some sense useful to learn a bunch of hand strikes, a variety of kicks, joint locks, throws and so on.  Muay Thai’s rules constrain the techniques you can use (or that you have to defend against) and there are all sorts of grabs and hand formations you can’t make with big gloves on.  One example: my coach will once in a while touch on the ability to defend yourself.  However, karate’s specialized strikes to eyes and throat are impossible with gloves, and the snap kick to the groin is not taught.  I regard these as the most simple and obvious self-defense techniques. 

So where am I going with this.  I’ve seen martial arts “technique collectors” criticized many times; I guess what I’m saying is that a curriculum with dozens of techniques lends itself to technique collecting.  Bruce Lee was not afraid of the man who practiced 10,000 kicks, but maybe that man had to know them for his next belt test. 

I think one of Iain’s great points is that martial artists should know the goal of their training.  In Muay Thai, the goal is very clear: developing people who can fight in the ring and, secondarily, in the street.  More than I used to appreciate, I think one contribution to this goal is keeping the number of techniques small for the beginner, focusing on the most useful and effective ones, and early on making sure these techniques are effective in a combat situation.

colby
colby's picture

If your enjoying the Muay Thai then this might be interesting mind candy for you. And i just think this guy is really cool, his views on meditation are also really interesting: https://youtu.be/JdEW1ADFsOU

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

PASmith wrote:

One thing I think Muay Thai gave me, far better than TKD or Karate ever did, and it's something that stays with me to this day, is a good basic tool box of techniques.

In terms of techniques that fit well into the "martial map" and can serve as self defence, fighting and martial arts techniques you can't go far wrong with a jab, cross, shin block, basic forearm cover, knee, elbow, low round kick and the collar tie clinch. Those things exist in TKD and Karate if trained properly but Thai does a much better job of making them the bread and butter arsenal without "hiding" them in patterns/kata.

I think this is a good point, but risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater a bit if we stop there.

To use the Martial Map model, part of the issue is that learning a bunch of kata and applications is a "martial arts" skill. Generally speaking having an encyclopedic knowledge of Karate application is useful neither for fighting, nor for self defense. It is Mostly useful for the Martial Arts bit. One the downsides of the "bunkai" movement that I have seen become an issue since it came to the fore in the 90's is (often combined with a total lack of progressive resistance in training) that a lot of bunkai is essentially an intellectual exercise, that never get's "burned in" to the practitioner enough to be useful, and never gets tested anyway.

Combat sports are the opposite of this, you take a small number of fundamental movements and constantly hone and test them. There's the ring craft and strategy, but then there's the fundamentals which often don't even take that long to learn.

So, it logically follows that if we want Karate that follows a similar practical trajectory we need to 1) cut down the number of techniques being actively drilled - at least at first. 2) eventually understand principles above techniques so that we are flexible - relates to #2 really 3) Make sure that the small number of techniques we choose is geared towatrds our purpose - for most "applied Karateka" I will assume that's self-defense.

This, combined with the understanding that Karate training by it's nature will always be a broader box, and a bit slower than something like combat sport training.

I do think that this is a good reason to not have many Kata. I mention this in another thread because I think in many ways that Karateka start off from a place of complexity simply by being expected to know so many things. This is fine for preservation of Martial Arts knowledge when combined with a competent basic skilset, but if it is the only goal we end up with training which can be very impractical. Of course I speak from personal experience here, and do feel like I spent years focused on the wrong areas for parts of my training. Nothing to do but move forward and try to grow.

I would argue a lot of the "600" techniques is appearance though, there are not actually that many different techniques in Karate in a functional sense, or at least there shouldn't be. As an example take an out-inside  hammerfist, this is one technique that can be expressed in a number of ways (just like a hook punch let's say, since they are similar). If you learn a hook punch in boxing, it's well understood that there are a bunch of different ways to use it. The issue in Karate is that instead of looking at it this way very often people take the kata example as if it provides some grouping of definitive and exclusive answers, it doesn't, the Kata uses are expressions of the use of hammerfist technique, they are not supposed to be limitations.

In that sense, even though they might not do much bunkai wise, etc. style like Kyokushin, Ashihara etc. are worth examining for how much the emphasize some basic techniques - and how effective simply knowing how to do basic techniques well can make a Karateka. On a practical level someone who can throw a hard kizami-zuki gyaku-zuki combo and protect themselves a bit is light years beyond someone who has only intellectually studied bunkai.

After the Boxing gym, I came to the conclusion that it is only worth longer term students studying bunkai very much (well, that's all my students currently but it still affects how I will do it from here on out), and then when we do it will begin with small numbers of techniques I feel are optimal and widely practicable, that can easily be drilled on bags, etc. Not to say that is all we will do by any means, but in terms of having a core set of 4 or 5 things to do, I think a "base" like this, combined with some live drilling of striking and grappling probably puts people in a much stronger place for the "martial artsy" study of bunkai. The knowledge there becomes more useful.

Do you teach people Heath? If so I'd be really interested to here if anything has changed yet for you there since starting Muay Thai, or what your teaching perspective is on Karate vs. Combat sport.

For me this has been the biggest thing, the self-protecton vs. sport techniques thing really is real (I feel like a lot of combat sport people will give this short shrift, but they are wrong to do so in my view), however there really is no question in my mind that combat sports have incredibly efficient trainthing methods and that Karateka should learn from them.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

I have my instructor cert but never ran a dojang.  I currently have one black belt TSD student whom I teach at my home.  He is 17 and I have known him for years, the reason I mention his age is that his training was kid-focused if you know what I mean.  My goal when we started training two years ago was to fill in some holes in his training.  I’ve had to sort out my own thoughts on self-defense vs. combat sport fighting as part of this (part of the reason I started this thread). 

We’ve done a number of things together.  One of the first things I did with him was teach how to hit hard, on a bag.  This is obviously a core skill.  What my Muay Thai training added to that was (a) throwing more combinations, (b) basic defense with the gloves as opposed to forearm blocks, (c) exiting after the combo.  I think these are all more sporty than self-defensey but they don’t hurt either way. 

I’ve also done a little clinch fighting with him recently.  He practices a little jiu-jitsu fighting with a relative and so this is rounding out his training.  Clinch fighting is a whole subdiscipline of Muay Thai but the self-defense basics are extremely simple:  it really sucks getting hit with a knee.  We also covered some basic throws and defenses.  I think more karateka should train this for self-defense purposes. 

Another thing we did a while back was go through all the bunkai for the forms he knows.  We’ve practiced some, not all, of this with resistance.  Part of this is I lack mats for takedowns; part is that it is hard to train elbows to the face, knifehands to the neck, kicks to the groin or knees, etc. with real force in a sparring situation.  (Although come to think of it, perhaps I should revisit some of this after experiencing some of the progressive drilling/sparring from Muay Thai.)  Part is just what we chose to focus on. 

I agree that focusing on fewer techniques, and focusing on what you can train with force, is the best way to make quick progress.  Ideally you need a sparring context too, because no matter how much you drill, things feel way different when someone else is throwing heat at you.  And I would say that these training insights have been strongly influenced by my Muay Thai experience.

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Heath White wrote:

I have my instructor cert but never ran a dojang.  I currently have one black belt TSD student whom I teach at my home.  He is 17 and I have known him for years, the reason I mention his age is that his training was kid-focused if you know what I mean.  My goal when we started training two years ago was to fill in some holes in his training.  I’ve had to sort out my own thoughts on self-defense vs. combat sport fighting as part of this (part of the reason I started this thread).

That's pretty interesting. I haven't taught kids in years but some of the most rewarding times I did was with kids who eventually transitioned to the adult class.

e wrote:

We’ve done a number of things together.  One of the first things I did with him was teach how to hit hard, on a bag.  This is obviously a core skill.  What my Muay Thai training added to that was (a) throwing more combinations, (b) basic defense with the gloves as opposed to forearm blocks, (c) exiting after the combo.  I think these are all more sporty than self-defensey but they don’t hurt either way.

Yeah, I think some of the "exiting" techniques from Boxing, Muay Thai etc. might actually have some utility as escape techniques in a self defense training paradigm, even if they need modification there.

e wrote:
I’ve also done a little clinch fighting with him recently.  He practices a little jiu-jitsu fighting with a relative and so this is rounding out his training.  Clinch fighting is a whole subdiscipline of Muay Thai but the self-defense basics are extremely simple:  it really sucks getting hit with a knee.  We also covered some basic throws and defenses.  I think more karateka should train this for self-defense purposes.

I agree 100%, I use both the plum clinch drill and the underhooks drill as a base for practice with my students, I see it as a fundamental skill, though when we use it most of the time (not all) our goal is grappling as a means to an ends, and not an end of and within itself. It's interesting how much that stuff changes with gi vs no gi too.

e wrote:
Another thing we did a while back was go through all the bunkai for the forms he knows.  We’ve practiced some, not all, of this with resistance.  Part of this is I lack mats for takedowns; part is that it is hard to train elbows to the face, knifehands to the neck, kicks to the groin or knees, etc. with real force in a sparring situation.  (Although come to think of it, perhaps I should revisit some of this after experiencing some of the progressive drilling/sparring from Muay Thai.)  Part is just what we chose to focus on.

Yeah some of that I think can be handled with gear, but I will say after a while experimenting with it, I think that the most important safety equipment is other people who know how to train safely. Seriously, it seems like this is something combat sports people know intuitively because they can't fight when injured. The whole "progressive" resistance thing is paramount I think, especially because there are always some people who are much slower than others to build those skills of being able to do dangerous stuff safely. I have found that I have to tailor my method to the person who is the worst/ most dangerous in class, and just move slowly and incrementally. I tested out that helmet by letting someone elbow me periodically while kind of "grappling at them" again yesterday...I wouldn't want to take a hard shot but I confirmed that it works for moderate and light ones. So, once again a huge part of it is just the people involved. I have another student whose control is so good I wouldn't even have to "coach" the drill at all with him.

I think bunkai with resistance is a bit tough, mainly because (from my perspective) most bunkai is stuff you do to other people, there are some flinch reactions, etc. there, but a lot of bunkai I view as "here's how to take someone out", which by defintion means you have successfully bypassed the phase of "resistance" by the time you execute it. I have had some luck using some of Iain's KBS drills, where you fight for a few seconds following a certain kata position, etc. The other thing I will do is have one person attack - say two to three punches (this is with gloves and whatnot, not ippon-kumite style) and the other person try to use a technique from a given Kata, draw from a set of techniques, etc. I've found it's artificial at first, but eventually people get more natural with it.

I also use Rory Millers "one step" drill as a basic, slow way for people to "flow" with bunkai. If you've never played with this it's really worth doing, it's turn-based and is not 'sparring' in any real way, but it will definitely help people naturally figure out bunkai positions. It can be found in his "drills for sudden violence" book.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0MKCXk4sGI&t=355s

I actually found this Boxing drill recently (this guys channel is great in general) that is essentially the same drill only for Boxing - specific stuff.

e wrote:
I agree that focusing on fewer techniques, and focusing on what you can train with force, is the best way to make quick progress.  Ideally you need a sparring context too, because no matter how much you drill, things feel way different when someone else is throwing heat at you.  And I would say that these training insights have been strongly influenced by my Muay Thai experience.

Yeah, like I said I am a little envious. I wouldn't mind learning the MT technique, but the thing I am most interested in from a teaching perspective is their sparring, which seems really well developed. I think it's a crapshoot with boxing, some places seem to have flexible and progressive programs, other places just seemt to beat the crap out of eachother.

It's been quite an adventure to try to get my Karate class to full, safe, self defense-oriented sparring. We are still a ways away for most of the students, when things get intense enough a couple of them still just get really conservative and/or just start hitting way too hard, so right now we work on conditional sparring drills and always have one person monitoring for safety, etc.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

Zach Zinn wrote:

Yeah some of that I think can be handled with gear, but I will say after a while experimenting with it, I think that the most important safety equipment is other people who know how to train safely. Seriously, it seems like this is something combat sports people know intuitively because they can't fight when injured.

Yes, there is no substitute for careful training partners.  My impression is that the combat sports world (even, like pro MMA) is becoming more aware of the dangers of CTE and limiting their hard sparring.  

Zach Zinn wrote:

I think bunkai with resistance is a bit tough, mainly because (from my perspective) most bunkai is stuff you do to other people, there are some flinch reactions, etc. there, but a lot of bunkai I view as "here's how to take someone out", which by defintion means you have successfully bypassed the phase of "resistance" by the time you execute it.

Good point ... it is obviously going to be hard to realistically train taking someone out! 

Zach Zinn wrote:

I have had some luck using some of Iain's KBS drills, where you fight for a few seconds following a certain kata position, etc. The other thing I will do is have one person attack - say two to three punches (this is with gloves and whatnot, not ippon-kumite style) and the other person try to use a technique from a given Kata, draw from a set of techniques, etc. I've found it's artificial at first, but eventually people get more natural with it.

I also use Rory Millers "one step" drill as a basic, slow way for people to "flow" with bunkai. If you've never played with this it's really worth doing, it's turn-based and is not 'sparring' in any real way, but it will definitely help people naturally figure out bunkai positions. It can be found in his "drills for sudden violence" book.

These are good suggestions, I am going to explore some of this in my own training.

Zach Zinn wrote:

I wouldn't mind learning the MT technique, but the thing I am most interested in from a teaching perspective is their sparring, which seems really well developed. I think it's a crapshoot with boxing, some places seem to have flexible and progressive programs, other places just seemt to beat the crap out of eachother.

If you decide to go back into another gym, my advice would be to check out the clientele.  If everybody is an aspiring fighter, it's going to be tough to get what you need out of it.  If there are a few women in the class, or older men, or kids--anybody but athletically-prime males--the coaches will already know that they have  to accommodate people who aren't aiming to be professionals, and have some techniques and strategies for that.  

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Heath White wrote:

 

If you decide to go back into another gym, my advice would be to check out the clientele.  If everybody is an aspiring fighter, it's going to be tough to get what you need out of it.  If there are a few women in the class, or older men, or kids--anybody but athletically-prime males--the coaches will already know that they have  to accommodate people who aren't aiming to be professionals, and have some techniques and strategies for that.  

Yeah I hear you. There is only one Boxing gym in town, and that's where I went. Outside of the sparring (where yes, everyone but me was a 20-something competitive hopeful or younger) the instruction was really good, I still got a ton out of it, I just didn't get to do much partner work. Part of that was Covid too of course.

If I decied to try out Muay Thai at any point in the future I plan on the MMA school here that sort of markets itself to a wide audience, where I imagine I might get some sparring, etc. in, For now I'm busy with my Karate class, but I always have a  plan in my back pocket for when/if it goes dormant.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

Muay Thai is one of the only striking sports with a clinch game, and it has been really interesting to learn a little bit about it.  For example, in Muay Thai you don’t see a lot of the tight infighting uppercuts and hooks that boxing has, because at that distance it will be head grab-knee strike (or elbows) instead.  Since the topic of clinching is getting more visibility in karate, here’s a few thoughts.  I am by no means an expert here, these are just my observations.

So from what I’ve learned, here is what a Muay Thai fighter is looking to do in the clinch:

* Plan A is to break the opponent’s posture and bring his head down, then knee the face.  You don’t see this in professional Muay Thai much because the fighters are too good, but it’s not uncommon in say Muay Thai-kickboxing cross-style bouts.  The defense is to keep your spine straight.

* Plan B is to knee him in the gut.  This opportunity may present itself, or you can create it, and there is a whole science to that.  You can knee a lot of different ways, but ideally you use a thrusting knee, where the power comes from pushing the hips forward.  You will likely bend him in half with this move, then you are back to Plan A.  (Variation for self-defense: knee the groin.)  The defense is to stay close, almost belly-to-belly.  Toward the end of this karate grappling video, Andy starts throwing knee strikes.  That’s the idea, and his uke’s best defense is to close the distance.  Note that uke actually tries to push away, when Andy breaks his posture and starts kneeing the face.  Plan B to Plan A!

* Plan C is a takedown.  If you are close enough to stifle knee strikes, you will feel very unbalanced and tippy.  Lots of wrestling/judo takedowns present themselves in this position.  You see only a small sample of these in Muay Thai, because most are illegal.  It’s my impression that you don’t see a lot of clinch work in the middle of the octagon in MMA, and that is probably because the position converts quickly into either striking or a takedown attempt.

* For all of these cases, inside position (aka plum tie, double collar tie) is useful but not essential, and it is vulnerable to body lock takedowns and double-leg takedowns.  (Think Funakoshi’s ude-wa in Bassai.)

One other variation on Plan A: in this karate grappling video by Iain, around the 5:00 mark, his opponent is doomed.  Iain can reach his left hand over and trap his opponent’s head down on his shoulder, then right knee to the face.  It’s a high knee but I promise you can do it.  (Ask me how I know…)  When clinching, you have to keep your head up. 

I am teaching some of this stuff to my student, and emphasized the need to keep the “plan” in mind: if there is a knee strike available, throw it, and if the opponent is close, what takedown (or other exit strategy) do you have?  As Zach said earlier, clinching is a means, not an end.

PS.  I found the video below on BJJ vs Muay Thai in the clinch.  Pretty interesting … note how many knees get thrown, and how close the BJJ guy has to get to avoid them.  Commentary between rounds and at the end is instructive.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hd43jhTVWG4

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Heath White wrote:

Muay Thai is one of the only striking sports with a clinch game, and it has been really interesting to learn a little bit about it.  For example, in Muay Thai you don’t see a lot of the tight infighting uppercuts and hooks that boxing has, because at that distance it will be head grab-knee strike (or elbows) instead.  Since the topic of clinching is getting more visibility in karate, here’s a few thoughts.  I am by no means an expert here, these are just my observations.

So from what I’ve learned, here is what a Muay Thai fighter is looking to do in the clinch:

* Plan A is to break the opponent’s posture and bring his head down, then knee the face.  You don’t see this in professional Muay Thai much because the fighters are too good, but it’s not uncommon in say Muay Thai-kickboxing cross-style bouts.  The defense is to keep your spine straight.

* Plan B is to knee him in the gut.  This opportunity may present itself, or you can create it, and there is a whole science to that.  You can knee a lot of different ways, but ideally you use a thrusting knee, where the power comes from pushing the hips forward.  You will likely bend him in half with this move, then you are back to Plan A.  (Variation for self-defense: knee the groin.)  The defense is to stay close, almost belly-to-belly.  Toward the end of this karate grappling video, Andy starts throwing knee strikes.  That’s the idea, and his uke’s best defense is to close the distance.  Note that uke actually tries to push away, when Andy breaks his posture and starts kneeing the face.  Plan B to Plan A!

* Plan C is a takedown.  If you are close enough to stifle knee strikes, you will feel very unbalanced and tippy.  Lots of wrestling/judo takedowns present themselves in this position.  You see only a small sample of these in Muay Thai, because most are illegal.  It’s my impression that you don’t see a lot of clinch work in the middle of the octagon in MMA, and that is probably because the position converts quickly into either striking or a takedown attempt.

* For all of these cases, inside position (aka plum tie, double collar tie) is useful but not essential, and it is vulnerable to body lock takedowns and double-leg takedowns.  (Think Funakoshi’s ude-wa in Bassai.)

One other variation on Plan A: in this karate grappling video by Iain, around the 5:00 mark, his opponent is doomed.  Iain can reach his left hand over and trap his opponent’s head down on his shoulder, then right knee to the face.  It’s a high knee but I promise you can do it.  (Ask me how I know…)  When clinching, you have to keep your head up. 

I am teaching some of this stuff to my student, and emphasized the need to keep the “plan” in mind: if there is a knee strike available, throw it, and if the opponent is close, what takedown (or other exit strategy) do you have?  As Zach said earlier, clinching is a means, not an end.

PS.  I found the video below on BJJ vs Muay Thai in the clinch.  Pretty interesting … note how many knees get thrown, and how close the BJJ guy has to get to avoid them.  Commentary between rounds and at the end is instructive.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hd43jhTVWG4

That's interesting, I have a kind of priority list for tactics in self-defense oriented Karate, clinching is down the list for me, and I personally think it can be over- emphasized in Karate. Here's my priority list:

1) pre emption 2) Flinch/cover into striking 3) Clinch into striking 4) Clinch into vertical grappling, throws, etc. 5) Ground tactics

The idea being that if you fail in one area you may very well find yourself in the next. To my mind grabbing someone else is an invitation to a certain kind of party, and not a party I want to spend my time at -if- I can avoid it. I came to that conclusion mainly from Judo and Jujutsu. I also used to train occasioanlly with a guy who was just a really big human being, the clinch is a completely different thing when someone else's shoulders are 4 or 5 inches higher than your own!

So if I'm self-defense mode to me being in the clinch is a thing to know, but a thing to use to avoid to vertical grappling or the ground, if possible, or a tactic to use when overwhelmed or caught unawares.

I like Andy's video, I think the part you point out also illustrates the utility of the head and bicep/wrist control position, where you can manage distance by pushing or pulling. I feel like the plum clinch drill is useful to me mainly because in my experience if the initial conflict is not decisive, people just grab one anothers head or body (underhook drill for the body), but I agree that as a position it is not ideal. I see it as a thing that goes along with number 3 or 4 on my list, you are being overwhelmed and your only response is to close distance and grab a head.

The MT vs. BJJ vid is interesting, but it also illustrates a problem I've run into with that kind of drilling. Namely that the "grappler" can just barrel through strikes because we are training safely. In other words the grappler can full implement his stuff while the striker cannot. The only way I've found around this is to assume some effectiveness on the part of the striker, and reset the drill once the grappler gets hit a  few times, so that the grappler has to keep in mind to not get hit.

I think the video also possibly illustrates the issue you mentioned previously with the high stance and high knees, this would possibly look a little different with a lower center of gravity, knees to the groin or legs, stomps, etc., and use of clothing grips. To me the results of this "experiment" were kind of a foregone conclusion because of how they set it up.

Have you learned any of the Muay Thai takedowns yet? How do you contextualize those into your Karate?

Heath White
Heath White's picture

Zach Zinn wrote:

I have a kind of priority list for tactics in self-defense oriented Karate, clinching is down the list for me, and I personally think it can be over- emphasized in Karate. Here's my priority list:

1) pre emption 2) Flinch/cover into striking 3) Clinch into striking 4) Clinch into vertical grappling, throws, etc. 5) Ground tactics

That would be my list too, with the exception that I would have said that if you are “clinching” you are also “grappling vertically.”  I mostly think of throws as finishing moves after the striking has been effective.

Zach Zinn wrote:

To my mind grabbing someone else is an invitation to a certain kind of party, and not a party I want to spend my time at -if- I can avoid it. I came to that conclusion mainly from Judo and Jujutsu. I also used to train occasioanlly with a guy who was just a really big human being, the clinch is a completely different thing when someone else's shoulders are 4 or 5 inches higher than your own!

Here I agree partly.  My primary discipline is striking but if I can throw safely and effectively, why not.  On someone significantly bigger than me, it’s dangerous.  However I have gotten a real appreciation for the knee strike in Muay Thai – it exists in karate but I practically never trained it or used it in sparring – and the most effective knees involve grabbing your opponent somehow.  Done right, it works great. 

Zach Zinn wrote:

I feel like the plum clinch drill is useful to me mainly because in my experience if the initial conflict is not decisive, people just grab one anothers head or body (underhook drill for the body), but I agree that as a position it is not ideal. I see it as a thing that goes along with number 3 or 4 on my list, you are being overwhelmed and your only response is to close distance and grab a head.

So I feel like there are a couple cases here.

One, you might grab someone offensively.  For example you throw a couple punches and they shell up.  A great follow up is to trap their hands and knee the gut.  You can go for a stronger clinching position like plum but it really isn’t necessary.  If you want to keep throwing knees it might be useful.

Two, someone is overwhelming you and so you initiate a clinch just to trap their arms and get a break.  Now you have to figure out what to do.  Getting a dominant clinch position like plum might be one plan, but there are a bunch of other possibilities too.

Three, you were overwhelming him and he initiated a clinch just to trap your arms and get a break.  Again, what to do.  One option is to swim for a dominant position, but again there are several other options.  Even if he got a plum clinch on you, you can simply change levels and go for a body lock takedown (legal in MT) or a double-leg takedown (not legal in MT).  If he is at the usual, instinctive distance for clinching you can almost certainly knee him.

There is nothing at all wrong with having the plum clinch, it’s probably very good, but it’s not essential and it’s not invulnerable.

Zach Zinn wrote:

The MT vs. BJJ vid is interesting, but it also illustrates a problem I've run into with that kind of drilling. Namely that the "grappler" can just barrel through strikes because we are training safely…

What I took away from that video was that if the MT guy had been throwing his knees seriously, the BJJ guy would have been in major trouble.  I thought it was also a good illustration of how, once knee strikes are involved, you cannot grapple at the distance most grappling sports (and most grappling drills) use.  Wrestlers, BJJ, judo guys are not planning for knee strikes and if you take your drills directly from those sports, you’re missing a variable that should be key for karateka and self-defense.

Zach Zinn wrote:

Have you learned any of the Muay Thai takedowns yet? How do you contextualize those into your Karate?

There are two basic takedowns I’ve seen in Muay Thai (with some variations).  One is a body lock takedown and the other looks like a no-gi version of sasae tsurikomi ashi or maybe hiza guruma.  (I don’t know any judo, that’s just what it kind of looks like.)  I am not good at either, but I’ve been thrown by them, and it’s like working with a skilled judoka, you’re on your back in seconds.

I think practical use of these would be rare, because they require you to be standing upright very close together, and that doesn’t happen much.  Most people instinctively either go for the legs, where you need a good sprawl, or they do some stand-up wrestling, where you should throw knees.  Only if they really close the distance do those takedowns become useful.  But at that distance they are a great option.  And I can imagine a case where you might clinch to shut down an attack, and continue with one of those throws.  Somebody trained in judo or wrestling would have a lot more options.

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