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Last week I put up a Jongsanan Fairtex fight on Facebook I had found on YouTube that really seemed to demonstrate where I have been going in the evolution of my fighting style lately, counter to much of the direction many of my loved and respected teachers had been trying to get me to go in since the beginning, basically. I have been blessed with great instruction by very special people, but throughout most of my advancement through Muay Thai has felt like I was letting them down because I continually don’t do the things that they were asking of me. I believe that part of this, although not all, has been due to the style of Thai fighting I was attempting to emulate.
I was asked about posting the video above on my Facebook by Joe Miller in a recent podcast interview, and about what tactics I’m taking to change my style. The question lead to some post-podcast reflection, since the discovery of the Jongsanan model was actually quite recent without having had much time to bring much of my realizations into training yet – though slowly here in Thailand we have been feeling our way towards becoming a close-quarters fighter. I brought the Jongsanan fight to the gym for Den – my main trainer – and Daeng my 2nd main trainer to see on a tablet, so they could grasp the difference between what we have come to call a “Saenchai style” of fighting in contrast to a “Jongsanan style” of fighting. I realize that this struggle may be something that a lot of people face, so I wanted to write a post in detail describing how fighting style has been taught to me, and how I’ve come to start changing it.
One of the advantages of fighting so frequently in Thailand is that the quick turnaround and feedback on what you’re training is nearly constant, so there are realizations and consecutive adjustments pretty much every 10 days or so. As such, the frustration of training any given technique or style and then testing it in the ring to failure – by not bringing it to the ring, not by it failing in practice – has gradually lead me to question whether the deeper struggle is in fact trying to accommodate a “style” that simply isn’t mine.
Can One “Choose” a Muay Thai Fighting Style?
Following your Teachers, Finding Yourself – an evolution of style instructions
a timeline of my main style influences
Master K – fast, evasive, explosive fighting
For those who haven’t been following me closely, my Muay Thai training in earnest began around February 2009, when I first started taking one-on-one lessons from Master K in his New Jersey basement. I have put close to 100 hours of these private lessons on my YouTube channel, and some people have been following me since the early days.
Master K’s Muay Thai is incredible. There may be no other Muay Thai like it on the planet and it is uniquely and strongly his. He is now 75 years old and has been practicing, inventing, drilling it into the wee hours of the night for maybe 50 years. It isn’t just the Muay Thai of his 70+ fights of his youth. It is a Muay Thai of a passionate artist, a teacher of half a century, involving older forms of attack and defense that have been largely lost from modern ring Muay Thai, and he’s adopted new influences from western boxing. Nothing has inspired me more than Master K’s particular Muay Thai and trying to achieve it. I have often talked of it as Ph.D-level Muay Thai, and a big reason why we wanted to come to Thailand is so I could get all the elementary and base-level repetition practice into my muscles so that I could make the most use of very powerful and beautiful “internal” truths he teaches. But because I came to Master K as a novice, and did not learn with other fellow students, it also was frustrating for me to try so hard to emulate his fast, explosive, weightless style – but it always eluded me when I got into the ring. Part of this is the way I practiced, without heavy repetition to get the movements into my muscles but probably more so it was lack of sparring and actual contact which allows you to perform these movements under pressure, so in a fight there was just no chance. But part of it still, perhaps a bigger part than what I could acknowledge or even know at the time, was that this style does not express me, no matter how beautifully it expresses what I love.
Below you can see examples though the years of how Master K tried to instruct me in how to effectively use the dodge and evasion to set up a dynamic and punishing counter attack. All this training has been quite useful, but I am discovering that evasion may be much less in my natural repertoire of movements in fighting.
dodge and fast counter attacking – August, 2009
jump back when attacked, then explode – September, 2011
elementary dodge kick counter kick March, 2012
Kaensak – a mix of evasion and firm attack, learning to play
Kaensak Sor. Ploenjit is also an incredible man. Not only is he a renowned champion whose name still excites Thais who can read his name in English lettering on my shirt here in Thailand, but when you watch him move you can see the years of Muay Thai in his body. You watch his old fights on YouTube and see him in person and it’s carbon-copy; he couldn’t not glide if he tried. His style employs a relentlessness that falls short of pure evasiveness by its forward pressure. He has firm attacks and a kind of cockiness about blocking and charging that is aggressive and really enjoyable to watch. On a scale of Saenchai to Jongsanon, Kaensak is pretty near the middle but leans toward Saenchai.
In training 1-on-1 with Kaensak I learned many things and I just loved being around him, but probably the greatest lesson he has given me is the importance of playing. When you’re in a Thai camp and there are young boys around, you see how important the act of playing is in their lives, in building masculinity as much as building technique, relaxation, aggressiveness and technique. It’s all of it – it’s identical in the puppies that cannot stop biting each other unless food is being served and you see it in the six-year-olds at the gym just as strongly as you see it in the retired-fighter trainers in their 50s. There is joy in the movements and a lightness that carries the powerful strikes through the air like you’re seeing shark in water. It comes from playing and it never goes out. Keansak would make me spar with him, generously allowing me windows and challenging me with counter-strikes at low volume, for nearly an hour straight (there is a 15 minute clip of this below). Exhaustion would creep in and I would keep going without the mental blockade of doing “right” moves, but just moving. He’d encourage me and let me practice jumping knees at him into the fence, a favorite finishing move of Thais everywhere. It was fun. It was play. Through the lesson of playing I inched toward the Saenchai aesthetic of just trying things and using technique to expose the weaknesses or embarrass an opponent, rather than simply making them look ineffective by standing in and not reacting to a strike. (The difference being a strike literally not making contact and a strike seeming to miss simply by there being no effect from it.)
dodge kick, block strong with noodles – May 2011
15-30 minute rounds of sparring, learning to relax – September 2011
Sakmongkol – First time I encountered “never back…forward”
(above) the strong, rolling coordination of shoulder and hip, on firm base
Sakmongkol (above) shows the whole body movement associated with clinch, stepping strong, holding position.
While the instruction of Sakmongkol only lasted a few days, it had a big impact on me as I left the United States for Thailand. His Muay Thai expressed forward strength, strong steps made in almost a Boran movement, not only in clinch but in all of his style. It was mesmerizing and beautiful, somewhat in the way Tony Jaa’s movments in Ong Bak appeared to me originally, when I first discovered Muay Thai. It cued in me that there was another way. On the scale of Saenchai to Jongsanon, Sakmongkol is nowhere near the middle – he’s near to Jongsanon and you can watch their old fights together with a seemingly unending stream of “ohhhhh!” vocalization at the exchange – and taking – of strikes. “The Elbow Fight” is just amazing:
Sakmongkol gave me the first taste of unshakeable Muay Thai, the balanced, stable and plodding movements forever going forward do not instruct with evasiveness nearly at all. If you’re going to avoid a strike it’s through blocking and parrying, not dodging and slipping. This is what I see as Boran about his style – in Boran, at least in Muay Chaiya as I’ve seen it practiced, you use the hardest parts of your own body to block and deflect attacks, causing damage to the striker – the offensive defense, so to speak. It’s like sword-fighting, the blades clashing together replaced by hard-boned limbs. I love it. There is something indescribably beautiful to me about not moving, about standing in and refusing to give quarter or ground. It’s very masculine to me in a core, beautiful and aesthetically dominant way. In my brief training with Sakmongkol I didn’t have to be nimble; instead, I had to be brave and perhaps a little bit wicked, not giving the satisfaction to your opponent that they might have hurt you but making damn sure you have something better coming back at them.
Andy Thomson – a head trainer and founder of Lanna Muay Thai. He was the first person who said to me that there is not one Muay Thai, there are thousands. Each and every person has their own Muay Thai because it is an expression that grows from an individual. Den, my main trainer now says it in a different way. “We all learn the same Muay Thai, like how in school we are taught the same [facts and figures], but how quickly we learn it and how we ultimately use it is up to each of us.” Both Andy and Den are treating Muay Thai as an expression of self – we’re all speaking English but the words we choose and our particular sentence structures are individual – the ideas we choose to express are through the tool of language but are not the language itself. Muay Thai is the language, how it looks or what kind of Muay Thai, what style, is an individual expression within that language.
Den – He’s a very evasive fighter, in and out, like Master K.
Den (in blue) employing crazy Matrix-style evasion of kicks in 2000
While Den has trained me in largely evasive fighting, he also has given me the building blocks for a more forward, closer fighting style as well. Den’s favorite thing is to make you miss and then charge in and punish you for it, kicking out your legs when you attempt to kick him, throwing you in spectacular arcs in clinching, pinning you to the ropes with punches and then at the moment you expect reprieve he headkicks you. He likes the look of disappointment at a missed shot – he’s a very psychologically aggressive fighter. He’ll accept my blocking of kicks, so long as I step in after the block and land my own attack. He refers to blocking a kick in a way that implies damage, he says “don’t take too much,” meaning block sometimes but avoiding is better. Evasion causes no damage at all and you get to defeat your opponent’s confidence to boot! He doesn’t appreciate the damage you cause to your opponent with blocks, but he does acknowledge the damage to an opponent’s confidence when his best shot didn’t affect you. On the Saenchai to Jongsanon scale, Den is sitting pretty close to Saenchai. He seems to see the “forward only” style as brutish, not clever. But as much as Den wants me to be a better outside fighter because that’s what he enjoys watching, what he holds higher esteem for and what he ultimately feels in his own person as being “good” Muay Thai, he does advise me toward my own abilities in fights. Between rounds he wants me to just go in, use elbows and knees and just drag my opponent into the depths of exhaustion – because that’s what works for me.
The Full Demo:
Den showed me the “4” block, variations of which (long block, X block, etc) Jongsanan uses in his strong block and clinch game.
Daeng – strong, solid blocks and forward movement with some back-bend kick evasion
I adore Daeng’s training and he is the most fight-oriented teacher I’ve ever had. Everything he’s ever shown me has been the result of him watching my fights, diagnosing what he sees to be a problem and then finding a solution. He sees that I’m strong, that I don’t easily get hurt and if I do get hurt I don’t stop and so he works to make that stronger. He falls much closer to Jongsanon than Saenchai on my imaginary scale, but he’s not terribly close. Daeng shows me the same elements of “incidental defense” that Master K teaches, such as pinching your shoulders up to your chin to make grabbing the neck in clinch very difficult and hitting the chin impossible. Daeng’s main doctrine in teaching me has been to never give up any ground. He wants me to step forward after a block or dodge and to press forward in general, but more important than any of that is his insistence that I never give up ground by going backwards. That’s Sakmongkol’s way as well. No matter what happens, for Daeng you block or dodge or catch the kick – it doesn’t matter so long as you swallow up space as a result and starve out your opponent by never giving them any ground. Because Daeng looks for my strengths and works to heighten them, I feel good training toward the style he’s teaching me because it’s not the negative, “you aren’t good at this,” or “you aren’t doing this,” but rather, “you’re good at this, so get better at it.” Sometimes Daeng disparages himself by saying, “I’m not a champion,” as a way to kind of humbly clarify that this is just what he thinks, how he sees it, his opinion. It is a fighter’s style, a practical, effective style. He says he has many scars on the top of his head from elbows when he just tucked his chin and came in – like it’s somehow unrefined. I don’t see it that way and I certainly don’t see him that way. Sometimes champions aren’t the best teachers because their prodigy kept them from having to solve things, fix themselves, struggle against disadvantage; talent makes for terrible teachers, I say.
Finding a Model – A Group of Techniques
In the history of my instruction it would be a simplification to say that there are two kinds of Muay Thai – there are not. But it is perhaps a helpful simplification. There are fighters that fight near the periphery of striking range, who deploy a variety of striking attacks, and defend themselves through a combination of evasions, blocks and preemptive attacks. Loosely this is what we are calling a “Saenchai style” of fighting, and it is much esteemed. It can be beautiful and jaw-dropping. Both my founding teacher Master K and my current head trainer fought and now train for this kind of style. Then there is another style which does not permit backward steps, works through blocks and guards to eat up the space between themselves and the opponent, and this is the style of fighting we’ve contrastingly called “Jongsanan style.”
One of the important things in trying to bring out your style, aside from finding trainers who are willing to train you in elements of it, is finding models for it. There is a basic grammar of techniques that work together to make both attack and defense possible, you cannot simply make up a successful style without a long and hard tutelage in techniques that work together. For me the Jongsanan fight below demonstrates some techniques that fit together, and part of the reason I recognize them and am now working with more focus towards them, is that in bits and pieces both Den and Daeng have been giving me these elements over the last year or so. The “figure 4” block, the very quick shin block and advance, the low-kick that JR originally taught me… when I see them in Jongsanan I see an example of how they can work together, and they remind me that there is more than one Muay Thai. And perhaps the most liberating or assuring aspect of that realization is that I can work toward forms, but that also and perhaps more importantly, there are forms within me that need to be worked to the point of confidence and intention, where they will become expressions of my Muay Thai.
the “4” block, or long block, defending the middle distance, complimented by high shin blocks.
the extended “4” block feeling out range while in retreat.
the lowkick used in combination with the high guard, chopping the middle space.
high shin blocks coupled with an advancing extended “4” block, X-block in high guard, smothering the space.
hip-arched wrenching on the caught kick, explosive forward drive.
high shin blocks with bowed advancing knees, eating the space.
advancing still, here a knee off of the caught kick, driving forward.
alternating, nearly marching knees, scoring repeatedly, with outside arm control.
loose “4” block, caught kick, hip-arch and attacking forward drive.
stabbing attacking knees, smothering extended high guard.
smothering with high, forward guard, scoring with straight knees
frustrating with high, long guard, executing the inside kick to defeat opponent lean
The Whole Fight
Training Your Triggers
Something my husband and I have been working on is what we call “training your triggers.” You can practice all sorts of positions, strikes, combinations on the bag, in shadow, in padwork and sparring, but if you don’t find yourself in those positions in fights then you can’t readily pull the trigger on a lot of that muscle memory. It can result in feeling that you didn’t do what you wanted to do in a fight, even though in the fight you are telling yourself to do it. Your body in fights needs to approximate the triggers you train, but more importantly you need to train your triggers to be close to body and emotional states you find yourself in when fighting. Everyone has weaknesses in their game and it’s up to the trainers and the fighter to figure out how to turn those into strengths or how to work around them. I don’t know that I’ll ultimately end up with the fighting style I’m growing into now – I think like all growth processes fighters go through stages. Maybe I’ll be able to pull in some of the “Saenchai style” that Master K and Den love so much, but ultimately feeling good about where I am now and appreciating the full spectrum of that scale is my best bet.
As the saying goes, “A confident fighter is a dangerous fighter.” Comparing yourself to what you are but in a higher form does wonderful things for confidence and comparing yourself to something you are not at a very high level is terribly disparaging. I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants”. I love Gladwell’s writing and generally find a great deal of worth in it, but this subject in particular is hitting home with me at every turn. Basically it’s an exploration of how advantages can be disadvantages and what seem to be disadvantages can actually be greatly beneficial, due to the profit that comes from struggle. By comparing myself to paragons that don’t look like me at all I end up feeling failure at high frequency. But by appreciating alternate styles at the acme of Muay Thai that resemble the style that I feel more naturally and have experienced success with makes me feel like I can both dig deeper and reach higher. Even if that means finding a medium between those two extremes.
These are some of the things I’ve been doing lately to train my triggers, ways of getting my body much more ready to pull the trigger on muscle memory when in fights and embracing my current abilities in order to strengthen them into a style:
HIIT style blocking drills
Daeng came up with this drill because my blocks were pretty slow and inconsistent in fights. Previously I had tried to improve my blocks by mixing them into my bag work. If I was working on my kick, for instance, I would regularly also pop my shin block up before and/or after the kick to smooth out the transitions from the block to strikes. One of the mental hurdles is to get the body to move from a defensive disposition, to an offensive one, quickly and smoothly, to not get stuck in one or the other. This bag work helped a lot. But Daeng wanted my block to come higher, stronger, out of pure reflex. The video below is I think from the first day we tried the drill, and I’ve gotten a lot better at it, doing it every day for two months. Because this fast, high block is essential for defense while closing distance it is important to have the reflex and flexibility to just pop it up without thinking about it. It is already helping me, especially against Thai kickers.
45 second bursts of continuous and varied striking
This drill is something that my husband Kevin came up with, inspired by a variety of sources. Perhaps initially it was from the Lucia Rijker documentary where Freddie Roach tells her during the fight to think “in 3’s”. Three strikes, not two, every time. Then, more recently, watching Iman Barlow’s fight, a fighter who not only trains strong cardio, but also who uses it to overwhelm her opponents with seemingly endless combinations as she does in that fight. The two thoughts are “add a strike”, and “don’t get stuck in your rhythm”. So most days, after regular training we set the timer for 45 second rounds, 20 second breaks and Kevin has me throw endless strikes for all of those 45 seconds, and to throw them with variety. Everything. Elbows, all knees, every punch type, teeps, high and low kicks, never pausing to reset and never simply gesturing toward the move. (I don’t “pull” punches or kicks – he’s twice my size – and even if I miss it should be a strong miss.) The purpose of it is to drill flow, and to drill it through fatigue. It forces you to throw even when off balance, not just when things are set. It forces you to “find the next rhyme” — as if you are freestyling. You are triggering and triggering again, and feeling how some particular strikes lead to others. Sometimes it is high to low, sometimes left side to right, elbows to knees and back. We’ve been doing this to help break out of any 2 or 3 punch combination habits I might be locked into, and to know that when it comes time to push in a round I can go get it. Sometimes we then shorten the round to 20 seconds, with 7 second rest (defense) to train the flows from offense to defense. (With only 7 seconds rest it remains active, my guard stays up and I remain in stance, just not striking or closing distance.) We’ve been doing this for about the last month and it seems to have really helped in the ring, if not yet in endless strings of combined strikes it is already present in spirit of relentlessness.
striking out of my most defensive posture
This is a big one I’ve been working on as well. I can get stuck in a defensive disposition in fights. A few attacks early on and my hands shoot up to protect myself, they can remain pinned there for much of the fight. Kevin noticed that this is a position I never strike out of in shadow, bag work or on pads. Thais can hold their hands very low, especially on bags, striking at shoulder or even chest level, and for much of the first year I imitated the best of the Thai fighters around me. Because of this we found that I had two hand positions: defensive with hands up, and offensive with hands low. In fights in striking range I seldom had my hands low, so my offensive triggers were not ready to go. To counter this I’ve been re-drilling everything with hands up. Hands in high guard can trigger strikes. This is something, as I mentioned above in the Sakmongkol section, that I absolutely love about Muay Boran – not only its cinematic Tony Jaa version, but also that of Kru Lek who teaches Muay Chaiya in Bangkok, who I visited on my first visit to Thailand in 2009. In Boran forms the defensive position is an attacking position. You attack and defend simultaneously with the advantage of the elbows and knees. So I’ve been getting my front hand high on the brow, and triggering my jab – with some falling-step Jack Dempsey influence – and hook out of this, as well as most of my other attacks, bringing my offensive and defensive triggers closer together. Not only does this hide attacks better, it also allows the body to respond flexibly. A nice thing about this is that it works very closely with the “figure 4” block shown above, and variations of which can be seen in the Jongsanan fight. This is an aggressive guard that very quickly transitions into slicing elbows or knees. The high lead hand can trigger with the glove in tight, or extended.
The Jongsanan Style Isn’t Master K’s Favorite
As I wrote before, Master K favors a very quick, evasive and explosive aesthetic in Muay Thai. It’s hard to believe that I can’t do it when he’s dashing about all over the place at 75 years old. But it’s not a cardio issue – I drag opponents into the deep all the time and outwork my own trainers in sparring and padwork sometimes. Rather, it’s an issue of feeling. When I try to move around like this, darting this way and that or attempting fancy footwork and head movement when boxing with Neung, I actually just get confused. I’m not stupid, it’s that the movements have no meaning for me. I’m just moving because I should but I have not yet done it enough to be accustomed to it, to anticipate what my movements will do to trigger my opponent and then countering that but faster.
Master K hates when I don’t move quickly. “Don’t stand there and sing a song!” he says. I want to honor his aesthetic because I love it, because I love him, because I can see and appreciate the finesse and fluidity of his style. But I’m not a “tricky” person – and this is not to say that how you fight is essentially who you are, but I am saying that a little bit. Den and Master K are quick witted, cocky, and high energy with great joy in harmless deception. Kaensak is a fun-loving spirit who will destroy you if you give him reason and then he’ll buy you a drink after. Pretty close to his fighting style. I and my experience of Sakmongkol are more of the hard-working, honest and straight-forward type. I’ve got a razor tongue and I enjoy a good verbal joust, but I’m even plodding in that game – I like a little back and forth, trading blow for blow so long as I get the last and usually better word. So these styles represent the persons using them – they express something fundamental about us, even if it’s not essential or exclusive. I saw an interview somewhere that Jongsanon didn’t want to be the Woodenman. He wanted to be a clever fighter and resented that his camp-mates teased him by calling him a buffalo and “block head.” But he was just too good at this other style. It worked. Not because he’s stupid, but maybe because of a honest, hard-working disposition (my thought, I have not met him yet) which often includes the ability to take a lot of impact without backing down – yeah, kinda like a beast of burden, I guess, as I can see honor in that for myself anyway – was something in his person that was expressed through this kind of Muay Thai. And I’ll take it. I think it’s beautiful.
The reason my husband and I first came to Thailand for training was to get a more basic foundation through repetition and rudimentary grounding upon which Master K’s Ph.D-level techniques could be grafted. And coming back to Thailand two years later, with the goal of staying as long as possible and accomplishing 100 fights in the pursuit of proficiency through the prolific, I’m still doing so with the ultimate hope that I can pull all that beautiful Master K technique into the ring with me. But Master K has also always told me to learn from many people, to take what I can from different sources, teachers and styles. More than anything, Master K appreciates good Muay Thai and that can mean different aesthetic and tactical styles – what he wants, I imagine, is for whatever style I settle into to be an expression of love for Muay Thai. So what I owe him, really, is the effort toward turning whatever style I have into dance. Kaensak’s movements express his endless hours of practice, the way Sakmongkol’s movements betray an incredible strength and brutality that contrast brilliantly with his gentle, almost shy disposition. What’s so beautiful about Master K’s technique is not necessarily the specific arc of a kick or devastating power of an elbow – those things are incredible; what’s so beautiful, what steals my breath away and makes me want to learn Muay Thai forever is rather the way these movements express Master K.
[Update 3/2014: Some of the thinking in this post inspired me to go ahead and train with Sakmongkol in Pattaya for 2 months. You can see my very detailed daily blog posts and video of that experience here.]
[Update 12/2014: In June 2014 I moved to Pattaya to further train in this style, joining both Petchrungruang gym and O. Meekhun gym which afford me regular practice in clinch and entry.]
I’ve also had many other trainers that have influenced me and I do not mean to leave them out. I streamlined the narrative for simplicity. I’ve had Ray Valez informatively teach me boxing and attitude out of TSMMA, Ray Cruz from North Jersey Muay Thai help with bag work philosophy and balance, Natalie Fuz of Chok Sabai Gym who coached me through my NY fights, Augie MK Muay Thai who worked though practical sparring applications, Robyn Klenk who taught me to train aggression, Andy Thomson who taught me how to train (a big deal), Neung at Lanna working this last year in boxing and Nook who has given me his Muay Thai wisdom, Big, Little Neung and JR who’ve helped me with techniques…. A fighter is a composite of everyone who has helped them.
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