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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Muay Thai Seen as a Rite: Sacrifice, Combat Sports, Loser as Sacred Victim

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Short Essay 1

This short essay series has been several weeks in coming. It will take being written in parts. It all began when I read the seminal article "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight"  by the influential anthropologist, Clifford Geertz [read it here: Deep Play Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, Geertz PDF.pdf] . As someone who has lived in Thailand for 9 years, very closely to the fabric of Thailand's Muay Thai, a documenting husband of a wife who has fought more here than any other westerner, from festival fights in fields in the provinces, to National television broadcasts, and as someone who has read pretty much every academic article in English examining the sport, historically, sociologically, I was stunned when reading Geertz's view of Balinese Cockfighting, much of it researched in the 1960s. I felt, instinctively, that in his descriptions he was pointing the reader to something that lay behind and beneath not only Balinese cockfighting, but traditional Muay Thai in Thailand as it has developed and thrived in the social fabric of 1,000s of villages, over hundreds of years, all the way through to high profile National Stadia celebrations and promotions of the sport. In reading the essay I felt someone was describing Muay Thai through a spyglass, capturing its structure and its truth, its reason for being.

Why in combat sports does losing feel so, irrationally bad? That is one of the lasting questions that floats behind the article shorts that follow. There is to losing some extra stain that goes beyond normal aspects of social loss. No matter how much consoling, or arguments about fairness to a decision, there is a powerful debilitation that comes with losing in a fight. The arguments behind these article shorts seem to go towards a possible explanation, uncovering parts of "the human" that sometimes have been lost to the modern conversation.

I read Geertz essay and I was swept up with associations, and avenues of interpretation for Thailand's Muay Thai, especially the Muay Thai that makes up its root system, the networks of festival fights all throughout the provinces in temporary rings on festivals and in seasons. This vast array of informal fights, which westerners seldom see or participate in, is organized around many of the social principles brought forth by Geertz. It's almost as if he's speaking about the Muay Thai of the villages which has fed the Tree of Thailand's Muay Thai for decades if not centuries, but in code. The masculinities, the representative symbolism of the fighter/cock, the bonds and dynamics of betting (making up the very fabric of provincial Muay Thai), all of it felt like "Muay Thai"...but expressed in a different culture, in a different rite or practice, witnessed and described more than 50 years ago. I of course am no expert in the provincial Muay Thai of Thailand. Sylvie's fought in maybe 30 of these kinds of fights, so we have a lived experience as a participant, and we have the advantage of having taken an ethnographic approach to the legendary Muay Thai of Thailand, documenting the men and the muay of that bygone era, so we are able to create cross-associations and perhaps identify important themes that hold the diversities of Muay Thai together. And, Geertz's descriptions ring resonant with some of my own thinking about the nature of Thailand's provincial and traditional Muay Thai, dovetailing perhaps with the narrative (agrarian) nature of Time (traditional Time discussed here: "The Essence of Muay Thai – 6 Core Aspects That Make it What It Is" and more philosophically, in a cultural criticism sense, here: How Duration Creates Meaning Through Narration with further thoughts found linked here: The god of Muay Thai - Phra Pirap: Where the Real and the Unreal Come Together), all this comes nicely against the kinds of arguments that Geertz is making.

I've read the Geertz essay carefully in 4 passes so far, each time uncovering more, but it kept defying me, not giving me a natural way into the unlocking mechanism it presents. Geertz as an anthropologist tried to steer clear of "systems" thinking about cultures, and advocated for what he called "thick description", trying to sink into the rich complexity of what is happening in a scene. He wants it to remain "wild" in some sense, not boiled down to a few academic principles. And this is part of what makes pulling the threads I sense are so illuminating towards Thailand's Muay Thai, difficult. You want to bridge, but not extract. The first thing that comes to mind though is the Thai gambler's perspective on animality. I say the "gambler", because I want to take the position of someone who is invested in a village Muay Thai fight, and a participant. The gambler's perspective really holds the fabric strings, more than even a referee's perspective might.

The Animal: Chon

The first challenge of seeing how or why Thailand's Muay Thai and Balinese Cockfighting of Geertz's description share an underlying structure is being able to move from the social rites of animal fighting (in Bali - yes, I know Thailand has a long culture of cockfighting, and that some of drawn parallels, but it's the Balinese description we are working from) can map onto fights organized between human fighters. How is an animal like a person? To understand this you need to understand "Chon".
In 2015 Sylvie and I had a tremendous night in Chiang Mai being taken to underground beetle fighting. Not only was it a pure revelation that such a thing happens (seasonally), we immediately started drawing parallels with the local festival fights and small stadia Muay Thai we were experiencing. We could see across the animal/human divide, into Muay Thai itself. You can read about our experiences in these two articles Underground Gambling, Beetle Fights, Heart and the Clinch of Muay Thai (2015) and ;more importantly Muay Thai Clinch is Not Boring – Gwang Chon – Battle Beetles of Thailand (2015). Some photographs from those articles are missing due to website problems, but the video below captures just what Beetle Fighting is. If you read the Geerz essay and watch the video just below, you'll immediately see themes and parallels.

 

Beetle Fighting is called "Gwang Chon", which literally translates to something like "Beetle Clash". To "Chon" is to clash together, a collision, a crash. It's used in "car crash" for instance. You search for a beetle with heart, desire, a beetle that will compete. A female beetle is placed under the wrestling log for inspiration and passion. You want a beetle that will chon.

This is a very important vector of Muay Thai judgement and celebration, what I'm calling animality. As someone said to us "Animals chon, men have muay". In the article linked above Sylvie touches on the very real ways the animality of chon directly is expressed in a fighter's "heart", one of the most prized aspects of a fighter. Legends of the sport like Samson Isaan, Namphon, Sangtiennoi, Samransak were fighters of tremendous heart. What is important here, for my perspective, is to understand that "heart" is expressed along a vector of animality. This is seen as an expression of a person's animality, something that presents them on a single chain of being which allows beetle fights, chicken fights, child fights, female fights, festival fights between beginners and National stadia fights all to be expressions of the same thing: a fundamental agonistic expression of heart, organized perhaps across animal kingdoms. This vector of animality creates the anchor of the fighting sports. It embodies the life force, the desire, the affective intensity of something fighting. It makes it "real". The further you go along this vector, the more real a fight is. But, importantly: animals chon, men have muay. There is another axis on which a human fighter is judged. The muay, its art. The fighter's technique.

The tension between muay and chon is a really important one, and in the next short essay installment I'll take that up, but quickly enough, Muay Thai can be read across these two axes. The "x" axis though is that of animality, the things that bind us together in the great chain of Being. And it is that animality that helps us see how present day Muay Thai fights in Thailand (their rites, their subculture) traditionally can be closely connected to something as far off as Balinese cockfighting in the 1960s. It is the underpinnings of that striving, the chon between beings.

It should be noted that even in the Beetle Fights we watched, the appreciation of their battles were not exclusively on the axis of animality. It was not pure chon. Beetles themselves are assessed, anatomically, by many physical factors including the length of their pinchers, which are related to their ability to do certain high scoring lifts. You can see this mentioned in this brief interview:

 

This is only to say that even in the "lower" animal kingdoms, thinking about techniques and their relationship to anatomy (as one does with fighters) enters into the appraisal. Even beetle fights are operating on more than one axis. I'll take on that second axis next.

 

 

 

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I cannot wait to follow this essay Kevin. I am preparing for a talk I'm giving at a danish festival in the fall on muay thai and masculinity, and will be drawing extensively on Nietzschean dionysus/apollo-muay khao/muay femeu dichotomy, and animality is most definitely the nucleus of the spectrum. Very, very excited for this. Thank you.

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Short Essay 2

The entry point to this series of thoughts was this small paragraph in the introductory pages of Boxing A Cultural History (2012, Kasia Boddy):

Quote

Discussions of the symbolic role of boxing and other forms of violent combat sport often draw on Clifford Geertz’s essay on Balinese cockfighting,and Réne Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. Geertz argues that the cockfight should not be seen merely as a form of popular entertainment, but as a blood sacrifice to the forces threatening social order. ‘Deep play’, a term that Geertz adopts from Bentham, is a game whose stakes are so high that, from a utilitarian point of view, it is irrational to play; this does not make the game unplayable,however, but elevates it. Instead of merely demanding the calculation of odds,the game works symbolically to represent the uncertain gamble that is life itself.5The competitors involved in such contests are simultaneously derided and honoured, acting, as Girard put it, as ‘substitutes for all the members of the community’, while ‘offered up by the community itself.’6‘The winner symbolically “lives” by winning the ritual contest, the losers “die”’, and the spectators are vaccinated ‘with the evil of violence against the evil of violence’.

It's a very tantalizing if elliptic string of thought, broad-ranging in its possible application to combat sports. It opens up an ethical vista which could suggest that combat sports - and by extension most other sports, in a more diluted way - perform a rite, a ritual what works to cleanse or protect the social group, psychically. Sport is too varied to be reduced to this, but perhaps there is a very dark root to combat sports, and in particular much more traditional fighting sport/arts like Thailand's Muay Thai, which is imbued with magical observances and is tightly woven into community patterns and ritual which likely go back centuries, if not thousands of years. In any case, it was this small paragraph above, that put me to a deep dive, out of which this series of short essays has arisen. I wanted to give you the impetus of these thoughts so it would be easier to follow along what may feel like a circuitous argument and description. What I'm pointing to is the perhaps likely possibility that the purpose of fighting arts rites is the actual production of the loser as the (sacred) sacrificial victim. While attention is inordinately paid to the winners, and the point of fighting sports feels as if it is to produce winners, the true, deeper aim is the production of losers...and we lose sight of this because of the very Nature of what the loser takes on, the shamefulness that brings them out of sight, and causes them to be forgotten.

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With that put to the side, in this short essay I'd like to take up the second vector of Thailand's Muay Thai, what I am calling "divinity". The first short essay outlined "animality" as a force and a value judgement, but animality only gains it's full relevance in tension with the second vector: the "y axis" of divinity. There is a certain sense in which it is very easy to see how this dichotomy fits perfectly within Thai Buddhism.  In this polarity that force of the fight, the dramatic import is ideally that of the hero (victor) playing the role of Vishnu, and overcoming the demonic, which in larger extrapolation would be the desires and weaknesses that Buddhism itself seeks to overcome. This explains all the parallels that are drawn between the endeavors of the Nak Muay and that of monks (written about some here), all the ways in the fighter seeks equinimity of mind, and even more importantly, the techniques and intelligence that one is trained in to overcome mere animalistic "chon". Animals have "chon", men have "art". The "femeu" fighter is the artistic one, the one who controls the animalistic within, overcoming himself/herself, and the animalistic without...the opponent, through art. Hence, this is a vertical vector. The artful fighter rises above the chon of the fight.

There is a great deal that has been layered into this dichotomy, which places one fighter on the side of the animal, and one on the side of the human/divine. We have the prototypical Matador vs the Bull (a historical dramatic performance very likely derived from animal sacrifice, reaching back to Mesopotamia), wherein human art triumphs symbolically over the animal. And in Thailand's Muay Thai one can see the heritage of "Muay Femeu" (evasive, artful, tactical fighters) vs "Muay Khao" (forward advancing, relentless, exhaustable knee fighters). The Muay Femeu vs Muay Khao tension is also played out in Thailand along sociological lines, wherein the femeu ideotype is anchored in the ideology of Bangkok, and Royal patronage, and the Muay Khao ideotype is seen as that of the agrarian provincial (less educated) "worker". The divinity/animality, art vs chon tension maps well onto this sociological divide. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. I bring up these larger sociological pictures - which are the lens through which so much of Thailand's Muay Thai is thought about and enjoyed - so we can look back into the original sources of this dichotomy, likely rooted in provincial, ritualistic, festival fighting stretching back perhaps centuries. From the beginning the values of animality (its energies, force and weaknesses) have been likely tempered by the values of divinity, in the ring, in every fight, reaching back into the origins of sacrifice itself, wherein sacrifice becomes sport.

If femeu fighting is the human (as it relates to, and even embodies the divine) enacts Buddhism's project of overcoming the passions of what is animal in all of us, this is done through specific arts and training. Techniques. Just as there are meditative (and magical) techniques, there are fighting techniques. Glorified fighters like Samart - who may rest at the acme of the femeu ideotype - at times feel like they are not even fighting. It is as if they float above the conflict, are never drawn in, but, they express their superiority over animality through the theatrics of techniques. At the time of conflict the technique (the blow, the slip, the physical freedom in a specific execution) stands out. It shines. While the criticism of Muay Khao fighters almost invariabily falls to the idea "no IQ" (and this is said of very great fighters, as well as by great Muay Khao fighters leveling critique on other great Muay Khao fighters), "just a bull" (an iconic animal of agrarian provincial culture), femeu fighters are celebrated for their "eyes" and for the way in which technique is able to just stand out. You can see the art suddenly there, in moments of great drama, just as you can see the matador's sword go in, or the executioner's weapon fall. This is important. It points to the highly ritualistic dimension of the roots of Thailand's Muay Thai.

That Ladder of Being is scaled by human art and technique. The passions are overcome, no less than how a monk in meditation in a cave, through techniques of breathing and mind, overcomes the passions within himself. But, what is different is that supremacy of technique, the moment of the sword, is dramatically displayed and re-enacted, again and again and again, in this particular version (interpretation) of events. Leaving aside the difficult ideological dimensions of this (the urban vs the village, the royal vs the worker, it feels as if if we travel back to the rites themselves we will come upon a profound truth as to what fighting is, and what it does. What it enacts. If we can particularize the Ur-act of dramatic fighting around the mechanism of sacrifice, we can then untangle, productively, much of what has been built up upon that originary core, a core which likely operates, psychically, today.

 

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Source Interlude:

I'm still working on developing the arguments and descriptions in this essay series, but first a bench mark source post. These excerpts come from

Selfhood and Sacrifice Ren Girard and Charles Taylor on the Crisis of Modernity by Andrew O'Shea.pdf

This isn't an entry in the argumentation, but just a placeholder. What is important is Girard's theory of the doubling of the other (in the case of combat sports the opponent) and the equalization that such a doubling brings forth...and, according to his thinking, the (potential) crisis in unexpressed violence that any equalization produces. Equalizations produce destabilizations, which traditionally have been resolved through rite and sacrifice. The quotes jump around a bit, but you'll get the idea. You can always go to chapter 3 and read through.

 

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I have in mind the next entry which will enter into a descriptive resolution of the first two axes of traditional, (rural) Thai fighting as rite and celebration. With then to move onto the (possible) ritualistic logic of sacrifice that grounds combat sports in Thai culture, bending back to Clifford Geertz's ethographic captures of Balinese cockfighting in the 1960s. I set these quotes as a post in the ground, so I can find my way back to the conclusion I know I can reach. A bit of cave diving.

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Short Essay 3

Every Muay Thai fight fought in Thailand begins with an incantation. As much as the West, or even modernizing Thais might want to prevaricate over just what the Wai Kru and Ram Muay is (is it religious? is it just respect and tradition? is it animism?), antecedently, and one might say essentially, this is magic. It is actually magical combat. The battle has already begun, on the magical plane...if you hold the required beliefs and practices. You are not just thanking your teachers, I would argue, you are actively connecting to them. You are drawing into the ring the powers of the ones and things which created you, as a fighter. You are powering up, loading the chamber, in the Wai Kru. In the Ram Muay, even though you may not be aware of the full meanings of the figures you are impersonating, or the gestures you are repeating, these are magical in nature. To say that they are magical is not just to say that they represent supernatural powers, they are also the enacted devices to connect to those powers, those forces. And in this regard, they are wicha.

In many respects the Thai concept of wicha is close to the Anglo suffix -ology. It denotes a field of study, a knowledge. You find it in the name of the fighter Yodwicha, supreme knowledge. But the Southeast Asian concept of knowledge, in these contexts, isn't so much a thing of dusty books, or theorems. It is, in a sense, much more grounded in a more physical way. It is embodied, often. It pervades the body of the knower, and it connects to real world forces. It composes a technique, a series of techniques that bridge the individual to the world, and back. What you are seeing in the Ram Muay (and the Wai Kru) is a wicha. Much of the intentional (magical) nature of these techniques, wicha, have eroded with the changes in culture, but it is still important for the understanding of the meaning of Muay Thai in traditional settings to appreciate that what is happening before the fight is a wicha, just as the techniques displayed in the fight are also a wicha

When you take hold of what a wicha is in this contex, you can see how it draws a line between the two axes of Muay Thai performance, it brings together the reality of animality, and the esoteric art of divinity. It keeps animality from becoming blind and unguided, and it keeps divinity from becoming to ethereal, too unattached, too evaporated. It is the shoreline between animality and divinity, hopefully captured by the arrow in my illustration above. 

There is a wonderful moment in an as-yet-unpublished interview we did with Krongsak, one of the great fighters of the late 1980s. We asked him "Who would win between Samart and Somrak?" (these two fighters are two of the most femeu, artful fighters of Muay Thai history, but of different generations). Krongsak smiled. "What promoter would put on such a fight?...Who would pay to go to sleep?" It makes me laugh every time I think of this answer. It brings out the reality that the great eras of Muay Thai were actually constructed through the matchups they made, pitting contrasting styles against each other, but it also brings out one of the great problems with the femeu axis of Muay Thai. As stylish fighters like Samart or Somrak perform these absolutely brilliant ho-hum, too-cool-for-school victories, the femeu style itself ever threatens to be too far above the fight, too detached, too unreal. For Krongsak putting these too matadors in the ring together would be the most boring thing in the world - noting that Krongsak is telling a playful joke here, though a joke with reality to it. It is enough to say that if there are indeed Girardian sacrificial dynamics operating in traditional Muay Thai, there is a certain sense in which the sacrifice has to be real. It requires an animality balast to the rite, for it to have its psycho-social effect of purging the unlocalized violence in a community. This animality can come in the presence of a "bull", let's say in the classic "Muay Khao vs Muay Femeu" matchups, or perhaps more evocatively, it can be present in the wicha of a particular fighter, their unique marriage of art and violence, in their technique and their style, fighters like Wangchannoi, Wichannoi, Namkabuan perhaps, that combined both art and violence in a single form. In any case, what is important here is that the ring is a place of grounded art. It begins with magical, ritualized combat, and conducts itself with the techniques of power and art, as they have been taught by local knowledge. This is something I'll return to later, the way in which the wicha that is expressed come out of local wisdoms. The wichas are reflections of particular lineages, families, communities and regions. Wichas of technique not only ground divinity, but they also historicize it, and personalize it. This historicization is really important because it plays into the performative meaning of the display of wichas, especially when on the stage of the fighting ring.

Just what is Magic?

I believe, to understand wicha one is only aided by understanding what magic is. To this aim it's instructive to follow up where anthropology has been. Anthropology has long had this problem: How to study other cultures and their beliefs without imposing bias, especially the bias that one's own culture is superior. With magical practices and beliefs it was quite difficult to avoid the instinctive conclusion that magic was just underdeveloped, primitive "Science". It was just "wrong" Science that didn't get how the world worked, but nonetheless attempted to control and harness it. To this aim Anthropology, in examining otherwise exotic and primitive cultures attempted to work out the differences between magic and belief, or at the very least to see how they may be different.

If its not too far afield, I want to quote this graphic from the essay Science & Religion, Magic & Technique, from "Malinowski's Magic: The Riddle of the Empty Cell" (1976). It outlines the ways in which rite, ceremony, magic and technique intersect:

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My reason for including the above is in a certain respect a way of complexifying just what we think we see when we look at the fighting arts (the wichas) of Thailand, and the rituals of the Wai Kru and Ram Muay. In a certain respect, both the fighting arts and the magical arts are ways in which the individual, and the community, deal with and give meaning to unknowable circumstances. Wichas, traditionally, draw on all four quadrants of the above, and when they do so they historicize the agent in a lineage of knowers. Referring to the diagram I started with short essay with, they bind together the animality of reality, and the rarity of the divine, and most importantly, they do this in the context of performed battle. It is a battle of wichas.

I'm not going to go too much further into this - there is a great deal to be discussed under the Anthropology of magic - a great entry on Magic and Anthropology is found here - it is enough to simply understand that traditional Muay Thai, its performance, is a battle of wichas (composed of techniques) and that these wichas work to weave together the two axes of animality and divinity, contesting that new reality in a ritualistic, socially defined entertainment space, a space ultimately I hope to inform and define within Girard's sacrificial dynamics. (Don't worry we'll get there!)

I want to end this portion of my series with the thoughts on magic from the book Magic’s Reason An Anthropology of Analogy by Graham M. Jones. Jones is particularly interested in the magic of illusion, slight of hand, often in the western sense of magical entertainment. In this passage though he talks about the deeper meanings behind the techniques and display. For him the veritable skill of the magician performs something transcendent:

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And added to this I'd like to end with a modified graphic of 3 different kinds, or ends of magic, knowing that we can also apply these same categories and purposes to the technical displays of fighters in the traditional ring.

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A Case History

This is just an addendum case history for those who are interested in the role of magic in the argument's flow. It provides historical context to the notion of magical combat in Thailand, of which there is little. We do have the Burmese description from the Nai khanomtom verses, which attested that his victories were due to the beguiling nature of his Ram Muay, but aside from this the joining of martial and magical combat has very little written historical record in English (the Thai epic poem Khun Chang Khun Phaen, aside). Here is an essay on a southern Thai policeman, Khun Phantharakratchadet (1898–2006), who lived at a time of Siam's transition between local powers to Royal Nationalism, and embodied a masculinity that likely had very deep roots in Thailand's fighting culture.

Rural male leadership, religion and the environment in
Thailand's mid-south, 1920s1960s
Craig J. Reynolds

Rural_Male_Leadership_Religion_and_the_E(1).pdf

This essay provides a great overview of the man who would become the most famous policeman in Thai history. Because Muay Thai is a performance of hypermasculinity studying the historical masculinity of Khun Phan for me gives deep (but perhaps narrow) insight into the prowess that is being expressed in traditional Muay Thai settings. He is a man from time past (read more on Muay Thai and Thai masculinity here).

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But for our essay series, it's in particular the way in which Khun Pan studied and armed himself, magically, as a policeman, walking the legal line between officer and Nakleng, that helps fill out the gaps between "fighting techniques" and "magical techniques". For that another work by Craig Reynolds on Khun Pan is best cited. Below are relevant passages:

 

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AND

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AND...

 

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REYNOLDS, CRAIG J. Power, Protection and Magic in Thailand: The Cosmos of a Southern Policeman. ANU Press, 2019. JSTOR

 

The historical story of Khun Phan not only keyholes us back into vivid history, exploring the roots of Thai hypermasculinity, it also ties together the conceptual marriage of magical and technical knowledge in fighting. It teleports us into the values and concepts that likely structured rural Muay Thai, festival combat. As we seek the sacredness of Muay Thai combat, Khun Phan orients us toward principles that light the way.

If you want to be entertained on the myth of Khun Phan, this film and its sequel dramatize in a Thai heroic fashion the magical and masculine qualities of the figure.

 

 

 

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    • In my experience, strikes are more powerful when they're relaxed and not "trying to be hard." Trying to control power usually tenses up the limbs and makes you both less able to control them and too slow and too light. Loose, relaxed and still fast but controlling the impact. "Letting your strikes go," is almost always a trying less "hard" and being relaxed. 
    • Oooo! This has actually given me some ideas for my own training now! Did you do fighting specific footwork drills or general athletic footwork drills?   And the walking backwards thing, did you get this idea from a guy named "KneesOverToesGuy"? Or trainers/own research?
    • Ooooh what an interesting topic, grow through adversity.  I've had meniscus tears on both knees, I am almost fully healed and they have helped me get better footwork, stronger kicks and I'm more versatile. Footwork: agility drills are great knee strengthening exercises so I've been doing countless drills (walking backwards also helps) which has also given me lighter and faster feet. Stronger kicks: I've been doing low squat jumps, duck walks, single-leg balance drills to strengthen my knees. This has also given me a lot more kick power.  Versatility: To avoid putting too much stress on one knee I've practiced switching stances a lot which has helped me improve my southpaw stance. In sparring, if I feel any discomfort in one knee I simply switch stance.  I've healed my knees through my own research and help from trainers, traditional and new knowledge.   
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