I learned a ton training with Sakmongkol in Pattaya for 7 weeks, as well in my time at Petchrungruang Gym. You can see my daily blog posts of my time with Sakmongkol here if you want to dig into the evolution of my lessons, the posts are pretty detailed with lots of video. Below are the lessons I learned, in particular the lessons or techniques I’m going to consciously work into my training at Lanna, now that I’m back in Chiang Mai. I’ll try to tell you why they were important for me and maybe they could help you, too.
1. Control the Kick in Shadow and on the Bag
Learning the floating block was perhaps the single biggest thing I learned with Sakmongkol. It was key to breaking down my kick and improving its control and balance, and I think this focus on controlling my kick has done more to change and improve my kick (as well as general balance) more than anything else up to now. It was one of the very first things that Sakmongkol began working on with my Muay Thai when he told me he wants to “change [my] style.” The more I work on this, the more my style does change – most certainly for the better.
2. Full Deep Return on Kicks
This is very important (and much neglected) in shadow, bag work and in pad work too. It’s an extension of controlling the kick, landing back not only in a position where you can strike again, but more importantly being able to strike again harder. For a long time I was bringing my kicking foot back to a fairly squared-up position and thus was never really on balance enough to throw another kick, to block, or anything other than a kind of wonky punch. This one change, while not easy to establish as habit, is certainly simple enough to be a single focus in shadow or on the bag, as well as getting used to it in padwork and eventually sparring. It makes a huge difference and I’m using a lot of mental energy to be diligent about it now so that it will be automatic soon enough.
3. “Play” Knees on the Bag
For someone who has struggled to get clinch practice and training, the “play knees” on the bag is invaluable in giving me a chance to improve my clinch without having to rely on a partner. To clarify, this do not replace clinching but are absolutely a wonderful supplement. A bag doesn’t turn the way a person does and a person doesn’t “swing.” A bag that’s hanging is lighter than a person, doesn’t have legs to contend with and won’t knee or grapple back. All those things make real clinching more complex, but what is so instrumental about this playing on the bag is the playing part. It gets you used to relaxing, having fun, timing your strikes and your pulls, getting your yanks and pushes aggressive and direct enough that when you go up against an opponent who has a will of her own, you’ve had some good practice imposing yours. I’ve been doing this at the end of my bagwork at both morning and evening sessions and people like to watch it. It looks fun, too. (For more on this technique and more videos visit my blog post “How to Knee a Bag”)
4. Dynamic Energy in Pad Work and Sparring
There are aspects of fighting which require training and practice but are often overlooked by the more obvious foci of technical form, speed, power and movement. But the thing that brings all those aspects together is the energy of a fight. The intention behind all of it. It’s like being able to pronounce words and put them together in proper order but never learning how to “express” anything – what language is actually for. Sakmongkol spent a lot of time working with me on this, without actually telling me. He just stopped talking to me and let me know he was going to be really hard on me. It was up to me to be tough, to figure it out. Because an opponent won’t hold your hand through it; they won’t tell you outright when you do something well or if you make a mistake – there are simply consequences for either case. I need to bring this to padwork, sparring and clinching. It’s not easy because my trainers are ex-fighters and their ego is often still very much in play, so I’m truly up against someone else’s intentions – which are not necessarily aimed at making me look or feel good. But it’s one of the most important things to train. Period.
Above was Sakmongkol working with me on energy and movement.
5. End Workout with 10 Minutes of Very Loose Shadow
Sakmongkol came after my shadow very early on. He hates how I move: it’s meaningless, one-dimensional, and tense. So for 10 minutes at the end of training he wanted me to just shadow very loose – like, really relaxed. He showed me and said, “just talk, talk.” meaning you can carry on a conversation while you do it. It actually feels really good. It’s a cool-down, but it’s also teaching how to do movements in a relaxed state, allowing it to be kind of mindless and automatic. No matter how tired I am after training, I can always do 10-20 minutes like this.
6. Interior Knee Blocks in Clinch
Daeng was actually the first to ever show me this trick, but Kru Nu at Petchrungruang was the one to really work on it with me and chide me for failing to implement it at times. When you’re locked up with the arms and you have some distance between your body and your opponent’s body, knees are going to be coming. You just bring your front leg up like you’re checking a kick and you can block incoming knees from either side. It’s so simple; it’s brilliant. I’m trying to use this in clinch practice now that I have partners who are bigger than I am less predictable – I had become a little used to the kids at Petchrungruang and they all learned this skill so there was a kind of agreed-upon ability to practice it, or, alternatively, using other tactics to make sure I can’t do this. I want to be adroit at it though, so practice I shall.
7. Practice “Last Hit” in all Sparring
I discovered that this is a key to my aggression. It doesn’t matter if the last hit was hard or even if it lands – it’s more like a game of tag – something that Ray Velez, my boxing coach back in NYC, used to tell me. (My first introduction to this was Jason Strout at Church Street Boxing in NY – he had his whole class practice “last hit” during padwork.) I rediscovered this principle and it has been unlocking a lot of technique for me. Even though the last hit doesn’t have to have force, it draws out my natural responsive power and wakes up my aggression.
8. Clinch Pull-Ups
I saw one of my clinching partners from Petchrungruang, who is only 40 kg but insanely strong and he got the better of me for about a week before I started being able to control him back, doing these pullups at the gym. Having felt his clinch strength first-hand, I knew immediately I needed to adopt this technique.
9. Loosen Up my 500 Blocks Drill
Daeng had me doing shadow blocks for a while as part of his changes to my training, including sprints instead of distance running. They helped at the time but when I was doing them at WKO with Sakmongkol he immediately wanted me to loosen up on them. (Daeng told me to relax also, but for whatever reason Sakmongkol’s message and demonstration were easier to absorb.) So rather than busting out 500 blocks as fast as possible, I now take my time and kind of integrate them into the relaxed shadow work, popping the leg up almost like a skip, nearly shoulder height. They get much better height, are less tiring, and much, much faster.
10. Rhythm Up in My Stance – High Guard
After my fight for Yokkao 7 when I got 28 stitches from two elbow cuts, I knew I had to work on my guard. My guard has improved greatly over the past year and is actually pretty good – and in fact it was up in my fight when I got the cuts, but it wasn’t tight enough (or quite high enough). So I’ve adopted a rhythm that a Thai kid who was at Lanna for a short time about a year ago did, which is that every time his front foot stepped forward, his guard came up in the same rhythm. It’s smooth. Making it automatic means I don’t have to think about it and it links coming in (which I do as an inside fighter) to being protected.
11. Flex Foot Up and Grasshopper Out on Blocks
Master K taught me to point my foot down on blocks and I’ve met folks who flex the foot. I always just equated the difference with style, and for the most part I still believe you can do either way. But for me, now, the way I fight and the things I’m implementing, the flexed foot is better, stronger. Blocking “out” is also a big deal and I’ve found that the “grasshopper” leg on blocks, so the knee is bent but the shin isn’t at a 90 degree bend from the thigh but rather forming a kind of obtuse angle is better. Looser, faster, covers more for your buck. I noticed that Sakmongkol conducts almost all his shin blocks this way, with foot flexed. He also kicks his low-kick, hitting behind on the thigh this way in some strikes. Flexing you foot brings a certain rigidity.
12. Clinch and Spar Frequently
I’ve known this forever, but Pattaya was the first time I experienced semi-regular clinch and sparring work. It is difficult to get this at Lanna for me because of the age and level of the Thai boys, who are pretty much the only people my size at any point. Now that I have more skill I can probably offer more to them in our work and I can definitely get more out of it, but clinching and sparring with whomever and whenever is really the main focus. Experience is experience.
13. Knock Down the Wall of China
The “Wall of China” is a block in clinch wherein the shin is placed like a bar across an opponent’s thighs or hips to keep them from kneeing. The women I fight in Chiang Mai love this technique and I’ve gotten a few different tips on how to defeat it. I do better with it now for sure, but it’s still a rough spot for me. At Petchrungruang they taught me to just push the leg down and immediately knee. It leaves you open to an elbow if you choose to do it from the wrong position, so it’s not an “every time” type of trick. But it’s amazing, very effective and you can knock someone out who thought they were getting a little rest from the lock up.
14. Two Knee Positions After A Caught Kick – Counter Moves
There are two basic position your opponent’s knee will find itself in on the standard caught kick to your left side (if you are right handed). The knee will either bend upwards, pointing more towards the ceiling, above the waistline with the opponent more square to you, or the knee will bend to be angled sideways/horizontal or slightly downward, with the opponent more hip forward. These are two natural results. Strongest for the kicker is if the shin is horizontal, at the waistline, but often this is not the case. Sakmongkol taught that the way you attack a caught kick depends on which way the knee is oriented. If the knee is angled/pointed more vertically just a very sudden drive forward (raising the leg high) will off-balance your opponent, making them suitable to a flying kick or knee. If the knee is pointed horizontally or slightly downwards, one has two options: either drive hard in a circle (to the outside of the leg, stepping left), turning your opponent. This will make them vulnerable to attack. Or, you can pull the leg backward with a couple of steps (“plowing” is only moving forward, so you can go backwards all you like), holding high, taking the bend out of the knee, re-positioning the knee vertically, and then drive the opponent forward, initially pulling the leg up quickly enough towards you that the opponent thinks they’ll be moving forward (you’re backwards), then driving forward resulting in an off-balanced opponent. Sakmongkol is much, much bigger than I am and I was able to get him flying backwards into the ropes a few times with this. It’s very effective.
Sakmongkol Taught This in 3 Successive Videos
15. Love of Muay Thai in All Work
Seeing Jozef at Petchrungruang and PhetJee Jaa at her family gym O. Meekhun had a lasting impact on me. I love Muay Thai and I never have questioned that. But showing that love is part of Muay Thai and I have not always been so keen at that.
On Jozef: he’s an 8-year-old Slovakian kid at Petchrungruang. He’s got over 20 fights already and at only 27 kg. he’s a little monster. He’s very skilled but more than anything he’s able to express the free heart and no-fear attitude of a little kid who just loves Muay Thai. And that’s what makes him so good. He’s never discouraged by being so tiny. He clinched with me a few times and launched himself at me, like all limbs in the air monkey-style, to try to take me down after I’d overpowered him. Awesome. Be like Jozef.
On PhetJee Jaa: she’s the best female fighter in the world, has over 160 fights at only 12 years old and is just my hero in nearly every way. But this was all before meeting her. Once I actually got to see her train – which is very different from seeing her fight, or do really anything else – I could see how much she loves Muay Thai. Generally she has a very serious expression, almost to the point that she seems unhappy or just incredibly reserved. I say “almost” because I was like this as a kid; I’m pretty much like this now but it’s more alarming for people to see serious kids, I think. Anyway, the moment she starts doing Muay Thai she just lights up. Really, anything that’s Muay Thai. She’ll just kind of lightly and mindlessly kick at her 13-year-old brother’s feet, like how you would to trip someone in clinching, and she has immense joy in her face when she does so. When they clinch or she holds pads for her brother, who is older but she definitely dominates most of it, she hollers and calls out point with “oi!” or just laughs and grins when he knocks her into the ropes with a kick. She loves Muay Thai. Be like Phetjee Jaa.