Muay Thai as Self Defence


“Follow not in the footsteps of the masters, but rather seek what they sought”
– Basho

“One of the most devastating arts to come out of Asia is that of Muay Thai. This lethal martial art is dedicated to pure fighting.”
– Peter Lewis “The Way to the Martial Arts

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There is little doubting the ferocity of an average full contact Muay Thai or Thai Boxing bout. The sport, when under full Thai rules, is one of the toughest around. Kicks, punches, elbow and knee strikes are all allowed, as is upright grappling and even some throws. The amount of hardship expected in the sport is demonstrated by the structure of the matches. In Thailand the longest professional bouts last no longer than five rounds with two-minute intervals between rounds. This is in stark contrast to Western Boxing and Kickboxing, which can go as long as twelve rounds with only one minute rests between rounds. However, the extent of conditioning and generation of force is only part of what makes up an effective martial artist in the modern world and it is on this note that we look at some of the criticisms made against Muay Thai’s effectiveness as a self-defence orientated combat art.

The following is a quotation from the 1989 edition of “Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts”, originally published in 1980, by the well-travelled martial arts scholars, Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith:

“How effective is Thai Boxing? First, it must be noted that its punching is at least as telling as its more flamboyant kicking. But the punching is not of a high calibre: the left jab is poor, the uppercut is non-existent, [and] the hook is inadequate. Gloves prevent the use of the fingers and the palm. The kicking is done by using the lead foot to jab with, but this is invariably weak, relatively slow action, which would prove the attacker’s undoing if grappling were permitted. The rear foot is slammed into a variety of arching hooks speedily and powerfully. The direct kick with the rear foot, although permitted, is not used effectively (this technique is so dangerous that was barred from in La Boxe Francais – more popularly known as Savate – during the heyday of the sport). The knee is viciously brought into play by pumping it up into the head of the opponent. The elbow is also used effectively either by crossing short with a punch and delivering it, or by bridging it down on the base of the opponent’s skull. Absence of grappling seriously weakens Thai Boxing – as it weakened early Greek boxing which prohibited fighters from closing – as a combat technique. Another failing is the current tendency toward dives and “show” performances – a result of betting and television.”

In 1995 Geoff Thompson released the controversial book, “Animal Day”, designed to promote the pressure testing of the martial arts. In his analysis of the various arts being taught Thompson had this to say about Muay Thai:

“What a ferocious art. Thai is one of the few systems that nearly has it all and no one can doubt the power of the techniques. The punching in Thai is not so good as in western boxing, but it is a lot better than any of the other systems. Its only real flaw is vertical and especially horizontal grappling.

In vertical grappling Thai is good though slightly unrealistic, not in its power or technique but more in the fact that, because it does not allow ground fighting, the exponents are too vertical and so easy to take to the floor by a system that does allow ground fighting. The atemi in vertical fighting is very strong and very effective, in reality it would be very difficult to apply the same techniques to someone who is not fighting to Thai rules, vertical grappling, in a real situation is usually only there for a fleeting moment before it goes to ground. Against someone with knowledge a Thai boxer, the same as other trained or untrained fighters, would be taken quickly to the ground.”

One of the core arguments addressed here by these very well respected martial artists are Thai Boxing’s limitations within a sporting environment. This is a common criticism of many martial arts in the civilised world. Sport fights have rules and are organized in a very different way to your average real life situation. A further point made on from this argument, and this is not just directed at sporting martial arts, is that many modern martial arts classes only teach students how to fight against attackers of their own style, which, of course, is unlikely to happen in a self-defence situation.

To Muay Thai’s credit, many Thai boxers readily fight students of other styles and under different rules. In fact Muay Thai has a history of fighting Burmese boxers, Chinese stylists and Japanese karateka. Over the last decade we have seen many Thai boxers confront kickboxers and even enter Mixed Martial Arts tournaments, such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship. From personal experience I’ve found Thai techniques to be very effective when used against a good practitioner of another style. When sparring Taekwondoka I used a classical Thai block against a turning kick, using my shin. The result was devastating.

Likewise when I first sparred at Hayes Thai Boxing I was happy, at first, to be “thrown in at the deep end” as Kru Tony Hayes put it. However, I was to experience a quick sobering lesson in humility. Sparring was controlled, but very different from other semi and full contact training I had practiced. Muay Thai’s attacks on the lower parts of the body are an effective strategy, at least against natural practitioners of other strike-based arts. Snappy turning kicks (also known as roundhouse kicks) didn’t seem to faze the Thai Boxers, and their defences were always strong both high and low, taking most shots to the mid section with little concern. The side thrusting kick was the only tool I found had any effect, but it often compromised my position, as the Thai Boxer, who always comes square on, took advantage of my exposed hamstrings with those devastating low turning kicks.

Such experiences are not isolated affairs. Other martial artists may have brought the style into question, but its influence is certainly widespread across the combat community. Mas Oyama’s Kyokoshinkai Karate makes full use of a free flowing turning kick that is not found in Chinese Kempo, Shotokan Karate or Goju-Ryu Karate, the strike-based arts Oyama practiced before formulating his own style. It is known that his students fought Thai Boxers and it would seem they absorbed this very efficient tool. The technique is delivered with the shin; again this is unusual for the martial arts Oyama practiced, which use the foot for their turning kicks. It is often used against an opponent’s thigh, a common area of contact in Muay Thai.

American and Japanese Kickboxing are the most obvious borrowers from Thai and more fighters are using the aforementioned turning kicks in their bouts. The Thai front push kick (the technique Draegar and Smith criticised as “invariably weak” and “relatively slow” when utilising the front leg and “not being used effectively” when using the rear leg) is also gaining popularity in full contact combat sports. As well as Kickboxing, full contact WTF Taekwondo makes good use of the front push kick, although it is not often found in the semi-contact form of this art. It would appear that this particular technique has been somewhat underrated by Draegar and Smith.

Another criticism made in both quotes is Muay Thai’s hand techniques. Draegar and Smith are not impressed with any of the punches thrown and inaccurately point out that Thai doesn’t use palm strikes. Palms are actually used a considerable amount to release clinches. Geoff Thompson, a personal hero of mine, considers Thai punching to be good but not as good as Western Boxing. The authors could perhaps be forgiven for making these arguments; if they have based them on the stadium fights seen in Thailand. It is also worth noting that styles alter dramatically from one Thai school to another. The reason for this difference probably stems from the amount of Thai instructors who have a foundation in the Korean martial art of Taekwondo. Although Taekwondo contains more hand techniques than kicks, it is the latter it has become famous for due to the structure of its competitions.

My Thai instructor, Tony Hayes, explained to me that punches are not scored in Thailand and therefore they are not used a lot in bouts. However, this doesn’t stop Tony from teaching an extensive amount of hand boxing in his lessons. Tony’s school teaches most of its techniques from close to mid-range, whereas some other gyms work from long range. Tony’s background before studying Muay Thai was in Western Boxing, which he both enjoyed and excelled at, however, he is fast to point out his preference for Thai punching techniques. I was surprised to discover the punching techniques were mainly delivered at closer quarters than in Western Boxing.

Thailand has produced some excellent world-class fighters in the lighter ranks of professional Western Boxing, fighters who have backgrounds in Muay Thai. It seems logical that Western Boxing has had some influence on Muay Thai techniques over the years, but there is also evidence that Muay Thai has given back. Cuba is another country that does well in the lighter weight categories of professional Western Boxing and the hook punch that has become peculiar to their fighters is clearly derived from the “step in” version found in Muay Thai. Such Asian influences on this western sport are not unheard of. Larry Hartsell and Dan Innosanto, former students of Bruce Lee, claim that Filipino Boxing influenced Western Boxing with bobbing and weaving techniques at the turn of the twentieth century. Of course, one has only to look at a map to see how geographically close the Philippines are to Thailand.

At Hayes Muay Thai the punching combinations are mostly taught close in, closer than Western Boxing. All streetfights will happen at this range. Tony Hayes’ students are taught to “take ground” in an aggressive and relentless manner, encouraging students to dominate and be confident; again essential ingredients for real life fighting. There is little margin for error within this range and comparisons can be drawn with the no frills streetfighting discipline of Wing Chun.

If there is one thing Muay Thai lacks in self-defence it is groundwork. This form of grappling has been present in wrestling since land animals began fighting, yet gained considerable popularity in the commercial martial arts world during the 1990′s when Royce Gracie saw off world class competition using these tactics. It is important to point out that; generally speaking, if a streetfight is not finished within the first ten seconds it will quickly go to the ground. Thai Boxers use high stances with their feet close to each other to enable fast footwork and to reduce telegraphing techniques. This is a sound strategy when you are delivering strikes, however, it becomes a different matter when someone wants to throw or tackle you to the ground.

So, why then does Muay Thai lack groundfighting? The answer to is that as a military martial art, soldiers were rarely taught about ground defence skills. Any self-defence instructor worth their qualifications will tell you that the ground, although a desired area to be in the Mixed Martial Arts arena, is the worst place to end up in reality. Therefore Thai soldiers would have been taught to not intentionally go to the ground and to regain their feet as quickly as possible. Nevertheless we cannot ignore that it is sometimes inevitable that you will end up fighting from your knees, on your back or on top of your opponent. In order for us to look into how Muay Thai deals with this we need to delve deeper into the art.

Muay Thai is closely related to the old military art of Krabbi Krabong (sword and staff fighting). When we see both these arts together we reveal a more complete picture of Thai self-defence. Up until 1930 headbutting was allowed in Muay Thai, and is still found in the closely related sport of Lethwei (Burmese Boxing). In addition to this Muay Thai contains palm strikes to the face, downward elbows to the spine, hip throws, locks and techniques that involves the boxer landing on their opponent. This last technique brings us closer to the idea that perhaps Muay Thai did involve groundwork at some time. The rare art of Muay Boran does incorporate ground defensive work, but you would be hard pressed to find an authentic version of this system being taught even in Thailand.

Tony Hayes still teaches the techniques banned from competition in seminars and occasionally in classes. His style of Muay Thai is a combination of the two attitudes, Muay Lak and Muay Kiew. The former teaches patience and the latter relies on psychology. He adapts the techniques found in traditional Muay Thai and applies them to the ground. This is very feasible as the armlocks, headlocks and chokes found in the non-sporting side of Muay Thai can easily be transferred from the horizontal position to a vertical situation. Other information he gleans from personal experience with different martial artists and many years of practical knowledge working in the military and as a doorman. It is through this latter experience that Tony has developed a course he calls “Confrontational Management” that deals with violence prevention and self-defence, including basic law.

It is a failure of many martial artists to think of self-defence in purely the physical sense. The greatest martial artist in the world may beaten by an average streetfighter, simply because the latter has had all his experiences tried and tested in real life situations and not within the comfortable confines of the martial arts gym. Acknowledging these facts along with the knowledge that most traditional martial arts, including Western Boxing, were once and still can be fully comprehensive fighting disciplines, makes the argument that one art can be the superior to another fall apart. This is why Tony set up the Confrontational Management course in the first place, explaining all the intricacies of pre-fight psychologically, identifying an aggressor and learning how to handle the stress of a real life encounter. It is also why Hayes Muay Thai has a relaxed attitude to any person entering the door who has practiced or still practices another martial art.

Personally I refuse to admit that Thailand doesn’t have some form of wrestling that was, in some way, connected to Muay Thai. Thailand is set between countries that all have a rich wrestling heritage. Thailand has fought and beaten many of its neighbours throughout history, so some Thais must have taken on board knowledge of their various fighting disciplines. For that matter wrestling is an instinctive fighting style present in most animals that possess four limbs. Today grappling is popular in Thailand, as can be seen by the success of Judo and Shuai Chiao (Chinese wrestling). I find it a pity that Thais have to look outside their country for this “lost art.” After all Muay Thai uses a grapple and strike approach while vertical that can, with little difficulty, be applied to ground fighting.

As it stands Muay Thai’s effectiveness can vary from club to club, and be judged as such. Being a full contact sport it at least gives you the advantage of understanding giving and taking full power strikes and some grappling. It also allows more techniques than most other full contact sports. Taking Thai a step further we see it as comprehensive a traditional art as your particular instructor will allow. I am fortunate to train at Hayes Muay Thai, a school that not only encourages further research into the art, but also promotes an open mind to training.