An upside down world where going forward can mean you’re losing, and retreat means dominance.
More people seem to be aware now that the first two rounds in Thailand aren’t so important, that scoring really begins in round 3 and the most important round is 4, speaking in a very general sense of the narrative structure of Thai scoring. The first time I saw a fighter “dance off” round 5, I was utterly confused – why are they not fighting anymore? I wasn’t aware that one fighter was ahead because I didn’t understand scoring in Thailand enough to know what was happening in the fight, nor would you ever see fighters kind of agree to stay away from each other for the remainder of a round in the west. It was crazy.
Learning how to fight a 5th round probably took me over a 100 fights. And I’m still learning it, really. I’ve lost many, many fights due to not knowing how the 5th round works and I couldn’t tell you which or how many, but now that my understanding has deepened, I’m quite sure I shot myself in the foot on many occasions by trying to “finish strong” when going forward and being aggressive was read by judges as the exact opposite of that. It was weird for me to start to be aware of my corner telling me to back off, which probably I didn’t even recognize the first few times it happened, but even when I realized what I was being told and that it was the correct thing to do, in the beginning it was like I was fighting against my own brain to pull back. I literally couldn’t do it. My style is very forward and even when I understood my trainers were yelling at me to stop trying to score and just defend, I would still kind of creep forward. I could not physically stay back.
above, a quick clip of a defining moment of defensive teeps which sealed the fight
Over the last few years of training with Pi Nu in Pattaya at Petchrungruang, I developed a pretty good defensive teep. I wasn’t conscious of the work on it, there was no announcement: “Now we are going to work on your teep!” He basically just would get really aggressive in his forward movement in our last round of padwork for a couple years and in response to that I developed this teep out of necessity – a lot of Thai style training is the kind of wordless, play-driven teaching. It was totally like a Kung Fu movie where the kid has been kicking open the busted screen door for years and then the muscle memory of that allows him to defeat a foe, without even realizing what it was for. I might argue as well that for a long while I wasn’t quite the kind of fighter who could dance off a 5th round. I just wasn’t relaxed enough, my checks were not fluid, I didn’t like retreating, so being told to do so wasn’t something that happened frequently. People gambling on me just told me to fight from my strength which often involved a lot of late fight stalking. Stalking to the end can result in additional losses because the aggressively advancing fighter can be read as desperate, and all the opponent has to do is deflect and minimize to appear in control. I do remember, though, the first time I was given the signal to retreat late which I clearly obeyed. It felt like a huge breakthrough. And since then I’ve learned to consciously train this – like the kid continuing to kick that screen door but now with the knowledge of what it’s for. There are very good trainers who will specifically and consciously work on that retreat as a skill: Kem, Ajarn Surat at Desjrat Gym, Attachai teach this in a formal way, and now my own trainers Pi Nu and Pi Mutt (WKO) have let me in on what we’re actually training when they come after me like that, because this is an essential part of Muay Thai in Thailand. Even the strongest fighter has to learn to fight backwards with the lead. They’ll say in a round “you win already” and then just bulldoze. Or, with Pi Nu I’ll be the one to kick off the practice by teasingly calling out, “you lose already!” and then back I go, teep teep teep.
This short clip (above) is from my 190th fight, against an opponent who outweighed me by 9 kg (about 20 lbs). I was far ahead on the scorecards and my corner had told me before the round started, “go for 1 minute, then stop.” You can look to your corner for the moment to start your dance-off in the round, but it’s not as simple as that. Bear with me as I go through some of the permutations. If you were an aggressive fighter for much of the fight, and you have the lead, what you are looking for in the 5th is an exchange that solidifies your dominance and exemplifies your lead to the point that your opponent is “out of the game.” At that moment you can step back and claim dominance. The shift from advancing fighter to retreating fighter provides a stark contrast. Barring that moment of a good, solid point it can be tricky. When should I back off? A fighter in the middle of the 5th who looks to their corner is saying: Do you think I’ve done enough? Or do you think I need more? The judges are watching. In a close fight if you look over and they tell you to keep going, it will look to the judges like you need to keep scoring (because your own team is saying “you need more points!”)…but they can be wrong. Sometimes gambling corners who believe in your power might urge you forward to seal the victory when, in fact, you’ve already done enough and if you just dance off you’ll win. I’ve seen many fights lost this way, by over aggressive corners. So if you just confidently start to pull away, after a score, without looking to your corner, it can be the right move. No reason to have the judges looking at you, looking at your corner. This takes some real sensitivity about where you are in a fight, not always easy to have in the ring. And, of course, you can be wrong. But, the additional reason why looking to your corner is so complex is that sometimes in a close fight your corner is being clever and will tell you to back off so as to attempt to steal the round and, ultimately, the fight. You aren’t really ahead, but if you act like you are you may be able to swing the judges. I’ve seen western fighters believe that just because their Thai corners told them to back off in the 5th they obviously deserved to win the fight, as this meant unquestionably that they had a big lead. This isn’t always the case, sometimes a corner is bluffing and does not want to risk losing points in the remaining exchanges. They just make a call and decide: the fight is close enough, let’s try to steal it. Lots of Thai girls I’ve fought are really good at this, styling away when in fact they are probably slightly behind. This is a big moment that a lot of westerners fall for. If you chase a fighter who has done this you are more or less admitting that you are behind, and if you don’t score significantly you may lose a fight you already had the lead in. (I watched one little kid, a very good fighter, who dominated his opponent in every round, then got thrown pretty hard in the 5th and instead of acting like it was nothing went into full berserker rage mode – wanting to get vengeance – and his emotional outburst lost him the fight because he finished out chasing. His corner was yelling for him to dance and he just kept trying to get a good throw or killer strike in. It looked bad, and all his previous dominance was lost.) Composure and performance is essential elements in many 5th rounds. In the fight above even though my opponent was probably pretty far behind on the score card she (or her corner) decided to dance off when I first stepped back after my strong point. They thought the chances of stealing (bluffing) a win were better than going out and trying to create a dramatic swing. This was also baiting me to chase, which more aggressive (western) fighters might do. If I come after her it looks like I don’t believe enough in my lead.
In this fight I just chose my moment according to how it felt and started to pull away, rather than getting permission from my corner first. I checked with them for a brief moment, but I had already decided. Kevin tells me that some in my corner were urging me forward even at that point, but when they saw me dance away after a solid display of dominance they put up their hands to indicate: Stay back, stay back! She danced around for a little bit under her corner’s direction but as the time wound down her corner decided that I wasn’t going to take the bait, and that she would have to come forward and have to score. Her corner ended up yelling for her to go and just land one good kick to try to steal the round at the very end, sniping a big point. In round 5, this can definitely happen. She had danced off for a spell indicating she believed that the fight was very close (it wasn’t really), but then decided to make a play for a late definitive score. In instances like this you can get a good throw, trip, taking the back, or one or two really solid kicks or knees and steal the whole fight, especially if your opponent does not react well. That was her aim when she came forward, she admitted her bluff of already having the fight was merely a bluff. As a westerner, fighting Thais sometimes in more nationalistic events the Thai can be really rewarded for these kinds of late moves, because they show art and style. A late score after dancing gives the judges somewhere to hang their hat if they want to decide for the Thai. This being said, the same strategies also work for westerners. It’s pretty fair and I’ve never experienced “robbery” in favor of Thai opponents in scoring my fights.
When it’s time for me to dance in a fight it can feel like forever and in that time, especially if you aren’t relaxed, you really can get caught with some good strikes. Reflexes rely on relaxation. I fought the next night against another big, tough opponent and found myself in the exact same position, dancing off the 5th after I put her down. She came at me hard, this time with hands and low kicks and I didn’t defend quite as well. But, as you’ve chosen to dance already you just have to brush them off and pretend they’re nothing. You can’t really reverse your decision once you’ve made the play to dance off, without signaling to the judges that there has been an important score reversal against you. Your body language needs to say: My lead is too big, your strikes are nothing. This is where the teep Pi Nu secretly taught me, without me being aware, becomes a vital weapon. Waiting for the kick, a favorite of Thai girls, and teeping the standing leg can produce defining moments. In this case I followed that up with a check and a teep which put her on the ground, the drama thoroughly resolved. Then, of course, I have to continue performing that my win is just so far gone that there’s nothing she can do. Arms up, shrugging off every attempt, giving her every opportunity to submit.
I’ve been on the receiving end of dance-offs and I still hate it. You’re supposed to. It’s someone saying “you’re out of the game, mate,” and if you touch gloves (don’t touch gloves!) and stay back you’re agreeing to that statement. If you keep coming, you’re showing heart but you are inwardly on a thin thread of losing heart because you’re more or less being mocked. What’s amazing to me, however, is that this takes practice, from both ends. It’s part of the art. You have to train how to keep coming forward without looking desperate when behind (I no doubt lost many fights by looking desperate – in the west “very aggressive” – in round 5) and you have to train going backwards with control and apparent relaxation. It feels weird at first – again, for a long while I could not get myself to stop creeping forward if the opponent wouldn’t chase me, but doing so risks losing the lead. It’s amazing that if you are ahead it’s kind of a gentleman’s win and if you’re losing it feels like quitting unless you control the way you’re coming forward. What’s mind-blowing to me is learning, slowly, how important the performance of Muay Thai is and how difficult it is to get it down right. An opponent with her back on the ropes can look like she’s controlling you, or it can look like you’ve trapped her, the only difference being who is pulling off the “I’m calling the shots” performance. I’ve won fights with small leads on the scorecards that look like blowouts due to the performance and I’ve lost fights where there are practically no points scored at all but my opponent makes it look like I shouldn’t even be in there with her. It’s just trained and untrained. So train it.
The full 5th round with commentary below: