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Narration In Thai Scoring - How Missed Strikes Can Benefit You, and Other Magic

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A lot of deserved attention is paid in the west to the scoring of individual strikes. Which strikes score, and why? Where did it land? Was it powerful, was it on balance, was it displacing? These are important qualities of Thai scoring which are not readily understandable to western eyes at times and Tony Myers has done an amazing job of clarifying these principles, leading the way toward more uniform and more Thai style scoring. I want to talk about an element of Muay Thai scoring that is less appreciated perhaps: How regularity works in relationship to reversal.

Narrative Arc - The Proving of the Past

I was watching Sylvie's latest fight against Faa Chiangrai, a Northern Champion she has now beaten 4 times in a row, and was thinking about the scoring in this fight. Faa has felt, more or less, that she's won most of these fights - or at least it is in her nature to protest - and this one was actually very close. What made the scoring really interesting to me is the role that early success and failure played in how later strikes are read. In a nutshell, Sylvie had taken a dominant lead with a power/knee game in the 3rd. Faa then started to control the distance better and landed kicks in the 4th to pull ahead. Starting the 5th Faa was well ahead in a narrative sense. She had been on top, but not dominantly so, when the fight was cresting in the 4th. All she had to do was maintain the impression of the 4th and she had it. The very pro-Thai, All-Thai audience of gamblers even had the odds 15-1, they were all betting on her. And then Sylvie landed this:

Now, this is the interesting thing. In order to understand the role this moment played in the scoring of the fight one has to know what happened before. There is nothing in this move/event that dictates its inherent value. First thing to understand is that visually this was by far the most dramatic/impactful move of the fight. If the fight had been filled with throws or drops it would have meant something else. Instead, the whole fight Sylvie had been trying to finish Faa off in the clinch and put her down to the canvas; and much of the fight Faa was trying to stymie Sylvie, and in the 4th it looks like she had too some degree solved Sylvie's power with movement, and had begun to score a little. But when this throwdown happened the entire illusion of Faa's control of Sylvie's power was broken - Sylvie's physicality suddenly re-appeared. All of the dominance of the 3rd round clinch game came back into play. In a single moment of the fight Faa's 4th round recovery and lead-taking was put into a new context.

This is the very un-western or at least un-modern nature of Thai scoring. Strikes are not blows that take away a fighter's vitality, like video game life bar points subtracted mathematically, which then are numerically compared in the end. It is instead a performance. A performance of skill, of heart, of Life. And as such story-telling is a significant part of the aesthetic and meaning of what is going on. A fighter can add points to his or her column throughout a fight. But there is a more important dimension to this kind of addition. The narrative of the fight must confirm the meaning of those added up points. The reason for this is that landed strikes are not numerical damage done (or, degree of difficulty wushu-like skill demos). They are demonstrations of dominance, the demonstrated control over the space around, and body of, your opponent. In fights you might very well show control over your opponent (dominance) through repeatedly landed strikes in a round, but if you are not able to maintain control over the space, the nature of that dominance comes under question. That is why later rounds are more important than earlier rounds, generally. In this particular fight Faa was able to cast some doubt on Sylvie's power game that looked so strong in the 3rd. She looked like she had come through it, began to control the space a little better, that it wasn't as effective as it appeared at the time. Only when Sylvie threw her to the ground in the final round did the promise of the 3rd round suddenly come to fruition. It wasn't an illusion after all.

How Missed Strikes Help, and Landed Strikes Hurt - Potential Dramatic Energy

So far I've been talking about a fight none of you have seen, so it probably hasn't been much help in establishing more universal principles or application. So let me take the counter-intuitive idea that missed strikes can help you, and landed strikes can hurt. One of the biggest focuses of attention in a fight in later rounds is looking for the reversal. It may be because audience gambling is so much woven into the fabric of Muay Thai in Thailand, but the shifting of fortunes (or powers) in a fight is really where the thrill or rush is for Thais, it is what raises Muay Thai up as a drama. Muay Thai at least in some buried, cultural sense is dramaturgic and thaumaturgic in nature. And because the eye is so sensitive to shifts in power or fortune any regularity that let's say is present in the first half or more of the fight is subject to meaningful and dramatic shift. When there is shift, there is emphasis. This means that if a fighter attempted to land a heavy cross over and over throughout the fight, and missed and missed and missed (the Thai fighter Thananchai fights like this), these are not just moments of ineptitude that count towards the proven impotence of the fighter, like so many demerits. They are also the build up of potential dramatic energy. In the very nature of narrative the questions begin to grow: Will the right cross eventually land?! If it lands will it be powerful, decisive? When the cross lands, heavily, late in the 4th round, suddenly everything comes alive. All those missed strikes grow into the promise that they implied. Now, a landed right hand after 15 misses does not win a fight, but it sets up a new context. The result of that excitement is that the fight can move into a phase of re-evaluation - it is in suspension. Suddenly everything that happened before that moment can be reconsidered. The onus on the cross fighter then is to suddenly prove the promise he just demonstrated. My rear hand just landed after all those misses, it was not a fluke. If he lands it again, and again, the tide of a fight can shift dramatically. Or, if he then suddenly brings in other weapons that indicate the aesthetic of power he was miming previously, this too can convince. It is not enough to just land something you missed repeated, but when you do positively break from a regularity you have bought yourself a ticket to a reevaluation moment. You are half way there to victory, a victory born of a sensitivity to shifts in efficacy and momentum. I've seen big leads erased rather quickly through the intensity created by the emphasis on reversal.

In this way a single strike landed, in the context of an already established pattern, can be far more potent in terms of dramatic narrative, then assorted strikes landed in a medley of attacks. It opens the door to a certain sort of perception and reevaluation.

The role of repeated strikes can work in the opposite direction as well. If you repeatedly land kicks to the body early in the fight (one of the more dependable scoring strikes in Thailand), and then later in the fight you start to be unable to do so (they start to be checked, or you start leaning back and hitting air) in terms of narrative your earlier prowess can certainly work against you instead of just acting like points added up in a bank. When the regularity is disrupted, in either direction, dramatic form calls everything into reconsideration. If you start landing those kicks again, let's say in the 5th round, all those earlier strikes can come right back into play - they have not been permanently erased. But the onus is on you to renew that regularity, to prove the dominance that they were previously indicating, or to provide a new regularity that redeems the previous one in some way.

Because the build up of potential dramatic energy works anytime there is a regularity, it can manifest itself in many areas of a fight. In fact it can manifest itself across fights when a fighter becomes known. A fighter like Thanonchai enters every fight with a "bank" of power punching regularity that can work for or against him in terms of narrative. A fighter like Yodwicha has the same in terms of clinch fighting. In a sense each fight for these fighters is a play off of that regularity, the attempt to produce the story of their dominance.

The Benefit of Legible Fighting Styles

Much is decried about the softer first two rounds of a Muay Thai fight in Thailand, but much of this is a play the fighters are having either with their own reputations (regularity) or with establishing expectation in the fight. When it is done right both fighters are setting up their independent stories, stories which will battle each other to be the "true" one. But I want to think about this entire narrative force in terms of strikes or styles chosen. It's not just "who is in the lead now" and "will they be able to hold it". It's what regularities are being set up, how is the principle of reversal being observed. A lot of western Muay Thai fighters in Thailand - at least that I've seen - do not have very legible fighting styles. By this I mean they do not seem to feel the importance of demonstrated dominance through repetition and readable tactics. Instead they often attempt to demonstrate their skill, the quality of their techniques (or their power) in a variety of fighting approaches. They may start out with a basic approach, but often by the 4th round it looks more and more just like "fighting" - drawing on whatever weapons that occur to them from their arsenal. The reason for this, if my observations are sound, is that the mentality is more one of scoring, and in scoring, often it is scoring as "damage done". It's a math of damage. Or, in some cases, western fighters are trying to just "demo" various techniques, showing how "Thai" they are in their balance and form. But often western fighters don't have a legible fighting approach, a sense in which strikes produce expectations. You want judges and audience to perceive regularities. Yes they are showing heart, yes they may even be showing sound technique, but it cannot be easily read from a perspective of reversal. Thai fighters on the other hand, just to generalize, have a much more legible approach. You can see where the early regularities are in a fight. As a striking tactic is attempted over and over its potential dramatic energy is built up. Will it succeed? I think for this reason there is a benefit for fighters to repeat strikes or tactical approaches, to increase the legibility of their fighting for judges.

The Change in Tactics - Reversal of Fortune

Due to the nature of regularity and reversal the power of reversal does not just play out in a single element of a fight. It is not just whether a cross lands after multiple misses. One of the more common narrative plays is the change in tactics. A fighter fights in one way for let's say 3 rounds with only middling success, and then in the 4th changes tactics and becomes dominant. This is for instance how clinch fighting is often used, to demonstrate dominance and power that was only promised previously in other ways: something to create the reversal from the regularity before. It isn't just the case of: "well, that didn't work, let me try this". Most of the time this is a narrative approach, one that builds up a regularity for the benefit of reversal. One of our favorite fighters JR (who fights in China) would start out Orthodox for two rounds or so, and then switch to his more natural, powerful Lefty - perhaps just a gimmick, but for him it is about narrative fighting, building in a reversal from a switch. If you are not fighting with regularities you may be missing out from some of the dramatic potential that is essential to Thai scoring.

Of course you can try to fight without pattern. If you are a virtuoso you can play above the fight, and let the regularity of your superiority become the storyline, but appreciation of pattern fighting is most of the time an essential component of Thai aesthetics. Because of the importance of legibility if you are fighting and you've missed your last 10 strikes, you are probably in a much better position if most of those strikes were of an identifiable approach, than if they were 10 different kinds of strikes with no readability. The first builds up potential dramatic energy, ready for the reversal, the other just looks like incoherent impotence. The first invites either the future cashing in on those kinds of strikes (will they eventually land?), or a change in tactics that calls attention to a moment of reversal, the second allows almost no firm dramatic way forward, no quality of contrast.

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I should add, these notions of regularity and reversal, the essential way that dramatic moments are perceived, are an important part of how the advancing and retreating fighter is scored in Thailand. Generally, and this is not always the case, the retreating fighter is seen to either be in the lead, or to be making a claim to the lead. The advancing fighter is at least nominally acknowledging this by advancing. This can be a very subtle demarcation of "lead" and "chase". Very often though when western fighters face Thai fighters fights can fall into very strong retreat and advance syndromes as the Thai lets the western aggressor be the bull to his lead-taking matador, usually without the westerner understanding his secondary position.

But these same advance and retreat scenarios play out in every Thai fight as well. In terms of Thai scoring a lot can be learned simply by looking at which fighter is retreating (often claiming the lead), and more importantly, when he/she is making that retreat. But in this topic I want to call attention to regularity and reversal in terms of advance and retreat. Think about this. If a fighter begins the fight in retreat (claiming the lead, slightly) and remains in retreat the entire fight, he has put himself/herself in a position that he/she CANNOT go forward and advance towards the end without there being a very stark sense of reversal. This is one of the big disadvantages Thais can face in Thai vs aggressive Westerner matchups, the inability to advance late without suffering the admission of being behind. Of course, if the western fighter is not aware of this dynamic and just keeps advancing til fight's end this builtin problem for the retreating fighter may never get exposed. The potential dramatic energy of that fight long regularity never is taken advantage of.

It of course goes the other way too. One of the benefits of being an advancing fighter for all or much of the fight is that you've built up a regularity that allows you to create a reversal by simply stepping into retreat at the right moment. This becomes a very strong visual claim and puts your opponent in a difficult position. They are left with two choices: trust that they have done enough and refuse to chase, or advance and admit that they are behind, and be forced to score dramatically in the end. These are extreme examples, but these kinds of established regularities in terms of reversing the advance or retreat of a fighter play out all the time in Thai fights, and are major keys to reading how 5th rounds are being judged, not only by the judges but by the fighters themselves.

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The factor of narrative is so important. It's such a huge aspect about watching fights, even if it's not codified in a rule book. But the difference between a fighter who is fighting for points, or to "score", versus a fighter who is creating a narrative - it's an entirely different game.

At my last fight against Faa Chiangrai, there were two other boys from my gym on the card. The last fight of the night was Alex versus a Thai guy who was probably 2 kg bigger and definitely stronger. The Thai guy was throwing these wicked right-side elbows, just lobbing them at Alex without mercy. They looked so powerful, even though almost 100% of them were blocked by Alex. But they were telling a story. And, unfortunately, they told it better than what Alex was trying to tell. Alex was staying on the outside anyway, he didn't change his approach from the elbows, but because the elbows kept coming and Alex kept staying out, the narrative became that he was staying outside because of the elbows. The elbows were a better story. If Alex had changed, if he'd reversed his tactic, and started closing up the space then the narrative would be that those elbows were impotent.

In another example, I watched these two little kids fighting a few cards ago, before my fight. In the first round it looked like a terrible mismatch. It looked like 2 fights versus 30 fights in terms of ring confidence and awareness, and indeed I called a KO within the first 3 rounds. That didn't happen. The kid who seemed such the underdog started to look more competent. By round 4 it was pretty even and the most incredible display of trying to take dominance played out in the ring: the blue kid was launching these leg kicks from a few feet away, like a full on penalty kick in soccer, at this kid's leg. And each time the other kid, red corner, would blast blue in the face with a cross when he kicked. They did this exact same move, with no change and without anything in between other than staring at each other, seven times in a row. Neither of these strikes scores very highly, a leg kick versus a hard punch - each of them have to show effect to be scored at all and by doing the same move over and over again they were both making the argument against the efficacy of the others' strike. It was brilliant.

The kid who fought Alex, he was asking over and over again, "these elbows are dominant, do you agree?" And Alex seemed to be agreeing. The two kids doing the same soccer-kick vs. punch move over and over again were asking the same of each other, and neither would agree. But if one of them had landed the last strike, unanswered by the other, he would have won the exchange. That's why a move that doesn't work 10 times might suddenly be the deciding, most dramatic move of the whole fight when it finally does work the 11th time. Or if it  works the first time and then never again, but you keep trying to do it and the continued failure changes the narrative to you having deteriorated. 

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