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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Illegal Foot Sweeps in Muay Thai - Separations from Judo

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I think it's really instructive when thinking about the rules of Muay Thai to consider the influence of Judo, and the Nationalistic identities involved between the two sports. It's important to see that as Thailand moved toward modernity after the turn of the 1900s, just as "Boran" schools of Muay Thai were formalized by King Chulalongkorn (1910), Thailand was also encountering Judo which was being spread and internationalized out of Japan, as an act of modernity as well. (Judo's founder Kano Jigoro was a moral Educator, and was influenced by American and European philosophies of education.) Two years after Boran styles were official recognized, and teaching masters designated, royalty returned from study abroad in London, where Prince Wibulya learned Judo. He began teaching Judo to interested parties in Bangkok. By 1919 civil servants and officers were being taught both British Boxing ("civilized" fighting, as the world would see it) and Muay Boran, under a single discipline which is best broadly termed muay, they were also taught Judo. This is the cadre of a class of the modernizing, many would say, westernizing forces in Thailand, transforming its governance, and making itself open to the world. 

Read the Modernization of Muay Thai Timeline for more details.

In 1921 the first permanent Muay Thai ring was set up in Thailand, at the same Suan Kulap College, for not only Muay Thai matches, but British Boxing matches as well. You can picture the cadet, civil servant, internationalist feel it must have had. Before this time all rings were festival rings, set up just for events, the biggest ones staged at the Bangkok city pillar. To give an idea of historical perspective, This ring predates the introduction of Karate to Japan from Okinawa. That's right. A Siam prince was teaching Judo in Bangkok, and western boxing fights were being held in a fixed ring in the Capitol, even before Japan had received Karate. In fact, Judo arrived in Thailand a few years before it reached Brazil, where it would eventually grow into its own powerful tradition.

Not Judo - Why Some Throws Are Illegal

All this is prelude to say that that these euphoric, modernizing trends did not last in Thailand. Over the next decade Western Boxing would have a lasting impact on Muay Boran, for instance the civilizing adoption of gloves (formally, 1928), and it seems that Judo would also grow in this early time period, the Ministry of Education established inter-school Judo competitions (1927), but at a certain point while western boxing continued to influence Muay Thai all the way until this day (Thailand's biggest stars have been western boxing stars, not Muay Thai stars, one could argue), it became aesthetically paramount to make clear that Muay Thai is NOT Japanese, and therefore anything that gave a whiff of Judo in the ring was formally made illegal.

Restrictions On Foot Sweeps

This I believe is the key to understanding the meaning of the written prohibitions against certain moves that are found in the few written rule books available. The somewhat vague rule is no "leg sweeping the opponent using the calf or inside of the foot". What is this inside of the foot? It can be explained as "only use the top of the foot, not the instep", which is a pretty good description of the legal limit, but to really understand what is being talked about you have to look at actual Judo foot sweeps. The instep is connected up with the use of the bottom of the foot. This also illuminates the prohibition against "tripping the opponent with the ankle". If this isn't clear, it isn't any part of the ankle, its those Judo trips that use the back of the ankle. Thai officials and probably fighters - and I suspect this developed after the resented Japanese occupation of Thailand in World War II, which corresponds to the opening of Rajadamnern stadium (1945), and then Lumpinee (1956) - came to distinguish Muay Thai from Japanese Judo. There was a history of Judo in Siam, reaching back decades, but after Thailand was occupied by ultra nationalist forces, and used as a staging area for it's Greater Asian conquest, as an ally, ended up producing a chill between the two countries. At some point you did not want to "look Japanese" in any way, at least this is something I suspect from where we have gotten to today. You can read an enumeration of illegal moves in Muay Thai here. When you look at the Judo sweeps below you can see exactly what the later written rules were trying to bar.

These rules were likely not written rules for decades, but an unstated shunning of all things Japanese in the self-identity of Muay Thai as essentially a Siam, and then Thai fighting art. I can remember Master K admonishing Sylvie - Master K was in his 70s at the time, had fought in the 1960s, and older generation - "Do not be a shrimp (curled in posture), you are not Japanese". And even to this day when Sylvie was learning a borderline illegal throw if you do it incorrectly (it isn't technically illegal, but it has an unexpected force of a Judo like move, invented by Karuhat as far as I can tell), I heard a Thai yell out that it was "Japanese!" with some disdain. I've written about some of the tensions between Japan and Thailand, as Japan tried to assert it's martial, Karate-based fighting efficacy vs Muay Thai. It feels like even since World War II there is still a Thai combat self-identity that distinguishes itself from Judo.

There is another prohibition in the written rules that isn't completely clear, which involve locking an opponent's arm, (Sport Authority of Thailand, 2002) rule 16.2 (English translation) states that, “throwing, back breaking, locking opponent’s arms, using Judo and wrestling techniques” Using the same interpretative framework, it is actual locking of the arm as in a Judo "lock", and not just immobilizing an arm as you often have in Muay Thai clinch. Again, nothing Judo! Nothing Japanese.

Gradual Change in the Rules

Note: all the technical descriptions on the illegality of trips and throws can be bent, in practical terms, if a fighter is very artful about the trip, and distinctly gives the impression it was not a foul. There is an element of deception in real ring scoring.

I'm not quite sure when it was, but sometime around the early 2000s maybe National Stadium Muay Thai started to accept artful foot trips as long as the did not violate the kind of physical descriptions found below. I strongly suspect that the original prohibitions were not ever written down, but everyone understood and wanted nothing that even remotely felt Japanese (Judo-ish). For this reason there likely developed just an aesthetic prohibition against any foot-trips or sweeps, if only because they were ugly or low...not-Muay-Thai. This probably contributed to clinch attacks being much more continuous and fluid in style in the Golden Age. As fighters started to explore the legal and aesthetic lines with trips and throws, it seems that a much more grounded, strength-based and locking clinch style also co-evolved, something that a lot of people who love Thailand's Muay Thai bemoan. Foot sweeps came in (still technically not Judo-esque) and the clinchers became locking clinch fighters.

Artful Ways Around "Not Judo" - Developing Muay Thai

It isn't only clever but still legal sweeps, throws and trips that have developed inside the rule set, ex-fighters like Karuhat and Rambaa I've seen work out edge attack throws that remain legal, and skirt the "no hip throws" prohibition. You can see Karuhat's beautiful throw here:

And there is this total improvisation by Karuhat, which I filmed in real time of his wheels turning. You can see him develop the counter to the wall of china, moving it away from a waist grab tackle (which can be illegal), to his preferred attack of tipping the opponent, using the thigh as a fulcrum:

And Rambaa's trip/throw designs can be found below. Interestingly Rambaa is a Thai MMA World Champion who trained and fought in Japan, and perhaps was exposed to Judo, so his Muay Thai application may have come from inventively exploring that line between Judo and Muay Thai [update 2020, since writing this I've seen this trip from several fighters, including Luktum in the Muay Thai Library as well].

 

Here is a graphic I made for Sylvie's post on illegal moves in Muay Thai, which you can read here, Muay Thai Illegal Moves:

305283065_illegalthrowsinMuayThai.thumb.png.a1d31474bc500a129cbedce508b92ce1.png

The above narrative holds my conjecture, combined with facts I've researched over the years. Nothing authoritative.

 

 

 

 

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Actually been wondering about this for a while and didn't know how to ask it. Training in Europe, partners and coaches would get WAY more pissy, anal and chastisey over clinch takedowns that were greyish areas, but during time in Bangkok it was way more commonplace and done with laughing and joking around... like, if it's done smooth and quick enough and nobody saw how, and the ref didn't see, then it's all cool. To be honest...kinda liked that approach.

Or maybe it was just these Thai boys messing with me and I didn't have the language to ask what was legal and what wasn't. Actually never asked questions or even spoke much at all for months. But one that stuck in the mind?

Kinda similar to a wrestler's knee tap. Actually incredibly similar. Even done to me with an underhook on one side, and with his other arm the hand drops down to just rest on the back of the knee cap on the opposite side to the shoulder being underhooked. That shoulder raised up slightly with the underhook and his momentum forward to complete the takedown.

So... letter of the law, is that within the rules? If lower body attacks with the arms are out?

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27 minutes ago, Oliver said:

Training in Europe, partners and coaches would get WAY more pissy, anal and chastisey over clinch takedowns that were greyish areas, but during time in Bangkok it was way more commonplace and done with laughing and joking around... like, if it's done smooth and quick enough and nobody saw how, and the ref didn't see, then it's all cool. To be honest...kinda liked that approach.

Yes, definitely. And in fights. It is unclear if judges will simply ignore the point on throws and trips that technically break the rules (the rules on this are not something Thai fighters ever see printed out), or, if the gray area, or out-right flagrant fouls will even be awarded some sort of credit, if done with panache, if the ref in the ring doesn't warn. I've seen a lot of questionable back of the calf trips that can be done with flourish, and in fact one female gym in Chiang Mai regularly does them in fights. I think to pull these off you have to really dominate with them, and have style, at least outside the National Stadia. I don't watch enough National Stadia fights to see if fighters there get away with them. 

A notable gray area, as well, is not tripping with the inside of the foot (must be top of the foot). In training everyone uses the inside of the foot because it's not painful to you or your partner. I imagine that there are more than a few inside of the foot trips in fights, simply out of habit.

One element of the flair that Thais have learned to use is that the flair really takes these kind of moves, stylistically, away from the aesthetics of Judo, so it could be that that sense of style helps blur the line.

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The back of your calf to the back of their standing leg calf, same time as a double push on the shoulders when they do a knee? Glorious, gorgeous and yeah, because it's not muscled but timed.

When it happens to you by someone who knows how.....you're almost too distracted by him shoving your shoulders that you don't realise it's a calf to calf thing that pulled the rug from under you. Not being funny, but even if it is a foul, he almost deserves the point if he pulls it off with you not realising it was a foul. That's the most morally vacuous argument ever made, but hey.

But the wrestler's knee tap thing - is it legal or not?

 

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22 hours ago, Oliver said:

 

But the wrestler's knee tap thing - is it legal or not?

 

Good question. Theres this guy Charlie Johnson (tjthethinkingman on insta) who has pulled off the same or similar move and never been deducted a point for it. Granted its in Max muay Thai so I dont know if you can get away with more there, but he swears its legal. 

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Rambaa's move of bumping the knee in is something that I do quite a lot, it's not so much a judo thing as it is a freestyle wrestling thing - which may be where he picked it up from, that being said though, I've seen other Thai boxers do it, and when Alistair Overeem does it, it's normally considered a muay thai dump. 

I've spent a decent bit of time dabbling in Sambo - which is my favourite grappling art, and very similar to Judo - and one of the first moves I was taught (incidentally also taught in catch wrestling class too) was to hoist the opponent from behind and knee bump their legs while turning them towards the floor in mid air. I knew it as a muay thai move too - but by coincidence literally this afternoon the group muay thai class was training it!

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1 hour ago, Coach James Poidog said:

And Kevin, this is what I love about this forum and knowing you. This kind of info that is invaluable to knowing the sport I love. Thank you. 

Hey, thanks for that! The forum is nice because it gives everyone room to think and go on about things, and to cover topics that might not fit in a Facebook post, or even a blog post. Very cool that you enjoy it all!

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This is the electric tram that people would likely take to see the fights at the City Pillar in Bangkok, where the biggest fights would be put on in temporary circles (The city pillar was the holy center of a city, an actual sacred pillar). This is the City Pillar "Thanon Tok" line tram, 1887. We like to romantically think of Muay Boran in very antiquated terms, but people were literally taking cable cars to watch those fights for decades. This tram line was in operation for 25 years before the 3 schools of Muay Boran were even formally designated. And 41 years after this photo was taken the death of Chia Khaek Khamen when fighting Phae Liangprasoet at the city pillar (1928) would mark the end of legal, rope-bound fights in the Bangkok, by the decree of the King (Rama VII).

1645821624_Firstelectrictrambangkok1887.jpg.b29c805eae87035f6889b269c0acc415.jpg

 

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A Japanese tank passing in front of the Royal Palace in Bangkok in December of 1941, beginning the Japanese occupation of Thailand as a staging area for the war. Rajadamnern Stadium was being built slowly through this period, until being halted due to low supplies in August of 1945. Building would resume and the first Rajadamnern fight would be held December 23, 1945, four years after this photo. The resented-by-many occupation of Thailand would likely shape the future relationship with Japan in the decades that followed. In the decade after the war Thailand would embrace western boxing, with three magazines devoted to boxing started in a very short time: Kila banthueng (1948), Muay raisapda (1949) and Kila muay (1950).

705158919_JapanesetankalongtheThairoyalpalace1941.jpg.cd94fa9276a3502dc6bff728a285dea9.jpg

 

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This is a super interesting thread, love it. The change in rules reminds me of a podcast that I heard with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu big dog Robert Drysdale who is spending a lot of focus on the narrative of BJJ's origins because he thinks the art had the same sort of reaction to the massive influence that judo had similar to what you're laying out here for the Muay Thai sweep styles:

Here's the link if you're interested.

https://grapplingcentral.com/episode-268-robert-drysdale-returns/
 

I especially appreciate your connection between boxing and boran, that's such an interesting change in the art. 
 

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This is a good topic. Frustrating when there is so much "grey area" as a coach - should i be teaching my students defences to illegal moves that aren't enforced? 
I've seen people catch kicks and do full judo leg reaps with back of calf - both from the outside stepping across and from the inside - not pulled up or warned. See a similar thing with spine pressure techniques in the clinch.

I get it - sometimes the ref won't notice and can't make the perfect call all the time, i don't envy their role and i can't blame them for that. Some of the stuff i've seen is very obvious and blatant. 

I'm talking more about regional scene in my experience in australia rather than top level competitions.

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Adding to this thread after some time. Above I reasoned that the exclusion of Japanese/Judo techniques from Muay Thai likely stemmed from the Japanese World War 2 occupation of Thailand, which bred resentment, and that may indeed be true to some degree. Unwritten rules, fight aesthetics may have shunned Judo-like techniques without them being illegal, as they are today. But the timing was just conjecture. I noticed though this Judo-like throw in 1959 British newsreel footage of what is described as a Thai championship fight. The ref does not react to the throw as if it is unusual:

 

As my tweet suggests, the more austere shunning of Japanese techniques may have actually developed later, in the 1960s and 1970s, when perhaps Japanese Kickboxing was seen to have somewhat have appropriated Thailand's Muay Thai, with perhaps layers of other counter-Japanese cultural developments mixed in. At some point Thailand's Muay Thai developed distinct non-Judo aesthetics and rules.

 

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