The Subtle Science of the Muay Thai Clinch
By Roberto Pedreira
Arguably the most effective weapon in the Muay Thai arsenal is unquestionably the most overlooked. It is the last technique (or collection of techniques) that Thai trainers think to teach their farang pupils, and even the otherwise excellent reference book Muay Thai by Panya Kraitus and Dr. Pitisuk Kraitus, which covers every other conceivable aspect of "the most distinguished art", is silent on the subject of the Muay Thai clinch. This is remarkable in view of the fact that clinch training is what Muay Thai fighters in Thailand spend more of their training time doing than anything else.
The Muay Thai clinch (hereafter referred to simply as "the Clinch"). is not however a unique Thai invention. The Clinch is rather Greco-Roman wrestling, but with obvious differences. In the Clinch you can also attack your opponent with punches, elbows, and especially, knees. You can of course throw him to the ground and while this doesn't score points, it can help you win the fight. It tires the opponent out and demoralizes him, and it might leave a favorable impression in the minds of the judges. And while he is picking himself up off the ground, he isn't attacking you.
For non-Muay Thai applications, there is a lot to be said for the Clinch, but the two best things are that (1) your opponent can't do much to hurt you if you are Clinching correctly and (2) you can throw him without banging your knees on the ground, without bending over or otherwise bringing your mug closer to his knees, without turning your back, and without needing cloth to grab. These are excellent reasons to learn the Clinch, and if you need other reasons, ask Randy Couture, who despite being a 41 year old fossil, is still spanking bad boys and young studly guys on a regular basis, thanks in no small part to his superb Clinch skills.
It is worth digressing on this point. In the recent UFC 49, Randy essentially gave Vitor Belfort a serious spanking. Randy has solid basic boxing skills, but Vitor's are better and moreover Vitor is young and fast. Being older and wiser, Randy was not going to try to match boxing hands with Vitor.
But he didn't have to. In round 1, Vitor threw one punch, Randy clinched with double underhooks and eventually forced Vitor to the ground where the fight remained until the bell rang. In round 2, Vitor threw one punch, Randy clinched with double underhooks and eventually forced Vitor to the ground where the fight remained until the bell rang. In round 3, Vitor threw one punch, Randy clinched with double underhooks and eventually forced Vitor to the ground where the fight remained until the bell rang.
A pattern seemed to be emerging. We don't know what would have happened in the 4th round because the fight was doctor stopped due to a cut over Vitor's eye. But there is more than a small possibility that rounds 4 and 5, and 6 through 100, if there has been rounds 6 through 100, would have been very much like rounds 1 through 3. Vitor simply had no answer for Randy's double underhooks. Obviously, Randy is very good at his game. Not many of us can do what he did. But not many of us are going to be fighting Vitor Belfort. If your opponent is more or less at (or below--wouldn't that be nice!) your own level of skill, superior clinch skills will put you over the top.
There is no way to learn to throw from the Clinch without actually doing it, but a reasonable place to start is with the tie-ups. There are four main tie-ups used in Muay Thai. They are pictured below. Clinch throwing is actually not unlike the upper body element of judo, minus the gi (as Judo Gene LeBell pointed out a long time ago), and if you have a judo or Greco background, the only difficult part to the Clinch will be dealing with the knees that are never far away. You can quite effectively toss an off-balanced opponent a considerable distance simply by using his head as a handle.
The tie-up most commonly associated with Muay Thai is the Double Collar tie. Holding the opponent's head high gives you more leverage to pull him down into knees. But holding lower gives you more leverage for throwing him. Be sure to keep your elbows tight together, both for better control of the head and also to leave less space for him to pummel inside.
Controlling your opponent in this way is highly advantageous in Muay Thai. There are several easy and effective counters, but these are prohibited by Rule 18:2 ("acts which are deemed to be violations of the rules and constitute fouls" include "throw [ing] the opponent with a judo or wrestling method" (Kratius & Kratius, 1988, p. 212). Two examples are (1) whizerring into an armbar, and (2) turning into a hip throw. Acceptable methods would be (1) to cross-face the man, which nullifies his leverage, (2) to clear out (using the one arm-up, one arm-down technique, for example), (3) to pummel into a Pinch Grip (or into your own Double Collar), or to (4) drop into either Double Underhooks,or Bear Hug.
If he does manage to get one arm under, you will then be in the Pinch Grip tie (picture 2).
This position is excellent for spinning your opponent down. You lift with the underhooked arm while turning away from it and down, while pulling in the same direction with the other arm. It isn't necessary to grab your own hand (and of course with gloves it won't be possible, but if your hands are free, use any of the grips recommended in Grappling Master by Gene LeBell). You can grab the man's chin (from behind), shoulder (from behind), or near arm (pulling down and in). Obviously, you will also step away from the side to which you want him to go. Result: he corkscrews to the mat. Despite Rule 18:2, this is wrestling (Greco) and judo. Technically against the rules, it is a move that all Thai boxers use as often as possible.
Obviously, unlike the Double Collar, in the Pinch Grip, both players have basically the same position. Who does it better and sooner determines who goes to the floor.
Now if you can pummel your outside arm inside, you will have Double Underhooks (picture 3). Little Thais use this much more often against farang challengers than the more familiar Double Collar. It is easier to get Double Unders if you are shorter because your arms are already in a sense "under" his, i.e., lower than his--you just have to insert them. The purpose of this position is simple. You lift the man slightly off his feet. At this point he has no base, and you can put him wherever you want him to be. Obviously, it is a terrible position to be in, as every wrestler knows. To defend, check your opponent's hip while moving your own hip (and legs) away. Cross-facing while turning to the side often works too. Another often effective method is to bring your arms down and clasp them together low and in the center. This will bring his arms down too, and he won't therefore be able to lift you. The draw-back is that a good wrestler won't let you do it. But you can try. Again, it's a bad position to be in and if you don't neutralize it fast you are most likely headed for the floor.
If the Double Unders aren't working, or if the opponent has brought your arms down (as described above), then the next obvious option is the Bear Hug (picture 4). The Bear Hug is a more limited variation of the Double Unders. You lift and toss. Crack-backs are very possible to do, but are prohibited by Rule 18:2. (However, you can break the rule twice without penalty--the third time you forfeit the fight). Of course, if your game is vale tudo or self-defense, you will want to use crack-backs. Defenses against crack-backs involve turning. Cross-facing while turning outside is recommended. There are a number of options for armbars and throws here as well, if this is your game. But in any case, as with Double Unders, a rapid response is advised.
Question: Why are Thais so good at Clinch fighting? (See answer under picture below)
Answer: Because they start young and do it a lot. Based on my extensive observations in Thailand between about 1991 and September 2013, I'd estimate that Thai fighters do between 3-6 hours per week of Clinch sparring (which incorporates light teeps and jabs to facilitate entries and keep it real). You probably can't start as young as they do, but there is no substitute for ring time.
Photographed live and on location September 1, 2004, at the Sityodtong Boxing Camp, Nongphrue, Pattaya, Thailand.
More GTR articles about Muay Thai
(c) 2004, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.
Revised November 2009.
Revised October 5, 2013
Note: The Greco terminology comes from Mike Houck's USA Wrestling Greco-Roman series. This is a pretty good tape for learning the basic Greco tie-ups. Obviously, when someone is trying to drive knees into your ribs it makes things a little more complicated (but not that much). Darrell Gholar's tapes are also very good, and Rodney King has some serviceable material on his Clinch 101 tape. Mick and Rodney's DVDs don't seem to be avalable from amazon, but two of Darrell's are. By the way, there's an account of GTR's meeting with Darrell Gholar in Rio in 2006 where he was teaching wrestling at BTT, here.
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