Dieselnoi is incredible. He’s known as the knee fighter and one of the greats of Golden Age Muay Thai in the 80’s in Thailand. By all accounts, as an undefeated Lumpinee Champion, Dieselnoi is one of the greatest of all-time. But his experience of being undefeated during his Lumpinee run was more tragic than the fact of it on paper, as the champion was stripped of his title and forced to retire due to having nobody to fight. Not because he lost, not because he got into trouble, not because he was done fighting… because nobody wanted to challenge him. This may not sound like much to some, to be so good nobody would fight you, but for a fighter who hungered to fight in the way that Dieselnoi did, it was world-ending. I could feel the pain of this reality in the way Dieselnoi talks about his heyday.
My first and most persistent impression of Dieselnoi is that he’s just a very smart, kind and generous man. But what is the most profound impression I felt after training with him is how much Dieselnoi loves Muay Thai. I never thought I’d meet a man who loved Muay as much or as purely as Master K does, my founding teacher who pounds the bag every night into the early AM hours now well into his 70s, but I think Dieselnoi might even have him beat. Both men have this energy and obsessive attraction to the art that is manifested in their inability to not take part. After Master K had his heart surgery about 6 years ago he meant to take it easy and he would sit on a stool while instructing me in his basement. But he couldn’t help himself. He’d leap off the chair just to be able to kick the bag a few times, his eyes would light up when he put on his “turtle” body pad and would have me strike him. He wants to feel the fight. And Dieselnoi is like this, but with the hunger and excitement of a man half, or even a quarter of, his age (he is 54 now). Dieselnoi also had a heart procedure, fairly recently after a collapse, and told me he has to take it easy…but he wouldn’t stop. His lips were turning blue at times and he would lean over the ropes, coughing and sounding quite bad, but then he’d just come right back and hit the drill with the exact same energy and excitement as ever. He cannot stop; he cannot turn it down. And, in Dieselnoi’s case, I can feel that it’s because his Muay was stolen from him, because he was forced to retire. Unlike many of his contemporaries, like Samart, who got to have all this glory and esteem and then choose to retire when he felt he was “done,” Dieselnoi’s end was premature and imposed on him. It’s tragic. On two separate occasions during our session together, Dieselnoi pointed to a line of scars on his forearm and wrists, indicating his utter hopelessness and sorrow at being forced out of the ring. He’d tried to kill himself; he had nothing. He told me this story about how near the end every time he won a fight his thought was not of satisfaction and elation, but rather of dread… he told me that as his hand was raised by the referee he would think to himself, “now it will be another year before I can get a fight.” I think he still wants to fight. You can see it in his knees and the way he throws himself into every single movement of his body. He wants it like he wants to breathe. He is fucking incredible.
I love to ask these legends about what fighters they like in contemporary Muay Thai because the answer is always the same: a shrug and then the conclusion, “nobody.” Everyone sites the same reasons, that the fighters today don’t hold a candle to the Golden Age fighters of 20-40 years ago. And part of this, I think, is a somewhat universal tendency toward the belief that “things used to be so much better,” in virtually all parts of culture. But what was different about Dieselnoi’s answer was two fold. Firstly, he actually stopped and thought about it. Very few men I’ve asked actually even run through a mental Rolodex before giving the, “everybody sucks now,” answer. However, when I asked him why, his answer was actually illuminating and very interesting. He said that back in his day you had a champion here and a champion there and they’d fight each other. Nowadays, you have a champion here and a champion there and they will not fight each other in the same way. They’re protected by their managers and the promoters who want to have a money-making superhero. There are, in Dieselnoi’s view, much fewer superfights and therefore not fighters of the same caliber. And what’s really important about that, in my view, is that so many people like to rattle off this explanation that Muay Thai is on the decline now because of gambling. (Something that perhaps the most famous and loved fighter ever – who Dieselnoi defeated – Samart Payakaroon made quite a big deal about in a videotaped interview.) I always laugh at that because gambling has been part of Muay Thai since it came off the battle field. Dieselnoi himself showed me photos of a big mafia boss, covered in blood after an assassination attempt, the man who owned his contract when he was a fighter. What Dieselnoi’s explanation suggests is that money is a deleterious element, but it’s not the gamblers or even gambling per se, it’s the promoters – it’s the business of Muay. And that’s quite a consideration when it’s coming from someone who was forced to retire because nobody would fight him.
If you are not familiar with Dieselnoi, check out Lawrence Kenshin’s tribute to him:
This is part of my running video series of nakmuaynation.com private sessions film with the great instructors of Thailand
The First 10 Minutes With Dieselnoi
the first 10 minutes with Dieselnoi, with audio commentary is in the video above
The moment Dieselnoi started teaching me, it was on. There are only a few men I’ve met like this, so they really stand out. They have fight-mode, which is scary as shit, and then “off mode.” That’s it. Dieselnoi is like this and when he moves it is exactly like he’s in a fight, even if he’s imitating being hurt by something I threw at him. His shadow and drills looks exactly like a fight, if you were to just digitally remove the other person from the ring. It’s incredible. And that’s what he wants from me as well, this belief in every movement to be effective in hurting someone, in driving them backwards or forcing them in a particular direction or to a specific move. When you stand your ground you use defense first, then you attack with something that’s going to suck for your opponent, like his knee into the shin of a kick. It’s nasty and it would totally stop you from kicking again. He also showed me what to do when your opponent thinks they can keep you away from them with their back in the corner or against the ropes (a lot of Thai fighters do this and are great at it) and how to get through that without looking like a goober.
A lot of what Dieselnoi walked me through in our lesson was about distance and manipulation of the opponent. I’ve been told by countless trainers to think, and other kinds of demands for better ring IQ, but Dieselnoi was more specific. He’d chastise me for not thinking through what I was doing, for basically just stringing together moves that don’t make sense as a single strategy, and what he was asking for was for me to picture my opponent and use the appropriate pressure and strikes to get her into the ropes. Dieselnoi is most dangerous on the ropes and so his aim was basically to corral his opponent into the ropes or, better yet, the corner. He explained that once your opponent is on the ropes, their strikes are more limited. To be more precise, their strikes become more predictable. With your back against the ropes, your options for moves change – a Queen becomes a Rook… you know where he’s going to go and the strikes he can choose from are far fewer. It’s brilliant really.
With distance, you make a split-second call on how far away your opponent is and that determines whether you should kick or knee or teep. He seems to use the teep offensively, which I think is awesome (and am partial to) in combination with being a knee fighter. You essentially confuse the opponent with being too far away and then getting destroyed up close. He was emphatic about using that teep to kind “net” the opponent into the ropes, where you can smash them with knees (or whatever short-range weapon you prefer).
Watching Old School Dieselnoi Together
There’s something amazing about these older greats who can pull up videos of their glory days on their phones at a moment’s notice. Dieselnoi had been working with me on the energy and relentlessness of closing in on an opponent and then smashing them up, and then suddenly he could just grab his phone and show me how he used to train. I’d already seen this video a few times (you can’t watch it only once, it’s just so incredibly cool, you can see it above), but watching it with him was just awesome. And it illustrated what he was asking for in a strong way. He’s just kind of cutting off and closing at an even pace until BAM, he’s grabbed his trainer and his just shredding him with knees. What was funny was Dieselnoi’s sound effect for his knees, which was like “bup, bup,” which is the cutest sound effect for a breath-stealing knee to the body that I’ve ever heard. Bup!
The Art of Dieselnoi’s Knee – The Rising Knee
Everything that follows can be seen in this GIF of just a few of his knees. Dieselnoi is the knee fighter and he was so relentless and unbeatable in his heyday that nobody would fight him and he was forced to retire. Nobody knees like Dieselnoi, but it wasn’t just his height that made him so difficult. Yes, his height made the angles very difficult and his range impossible (his knees come up to your chest with very little effort, so it’s no wonder his nickname was “sky piercing knees”), but the angles of his knees and how they kind of plow up from below is a style that developed out of his height, not one that is dependent on it.
In the hour I spent with him I think I uncovered dimensions of what he was doing. When studying great fighters who have trained thousands of hours in a technique that they make their own, there are often “hidden” movements within their techniques that you can’t really see – not right at first – ways that they develop power or quickness. And sometimes in order to develop these within yourself, you sometimes have to train movements that are exaggerations of the movements, compared to what the fighter is doing. I think the secrets to Dieselnoi’s knees are something like that. There is an internal twist, and a vertical movement that becomes hidden against the body of an opponent, but they are foundations of his power. In the videos below I try to illustrate what he was teaching me, as best as I understood it, and as I’m trying to train it in myself.
You can see in the GIF above how this all plays out, but one of the more telling signs of mastery is balance. Dieselnoi’s balance is so beautiful and it comes from this straight line running from his head down through his standing leg. When he’s moving in the GIF, you can see that his feet practically replace each other in the same spot, like when you’re doing jumping knees on a bag, but he covers ground because that knee is out in front of his body and head. But he’s not leaning back. His shin is nearly vertical, which is partially to do with the height of his knee. You’ll see folks who stab the knee out (that’s a far more common long knee strike) and that causes the chest to point up and the hips to drive forward. He doesn’t do that. But he gets a lot of force out of his hips without the exaggerated angle of the lean-back. If you can picture a villain in an action movie who has a ball on the end of a string as a weapon, and he kind of whips them in circles to generate power and then cracks people with them, that’s what’s going on with Dieselnoi’s knees. They’re coming up with force and the shin being at this vertical angle is part of that power, but it also works as a block. Double option.
You’ve definitely seen people pulling their arms to either side of the body as they knee, but Dieselnoi’s comes more in a clamping motion. Like mandibles of a giant insect or something. His momentum comes from reaching up and swinging down and to the side, which you can actually see him doing in his fights with his very long arms. The twist allows for balance because his hips are driving in the opposite direction to the shoulder, but it also pulls whatever is in front of him down into the knee as well.
The Training of the Knee in the Corner
When Dieselnoi taught me this drill his main focus was on it being like a sprint. Once you’ve caught someone in the ropes or corner, you just turn your knees into a machine gun and end it. It’s not easy, man. I got the motion down a little better as we went on, but I couldn’t really get the kind of explosive burn that Dieselnoi can still generate out of his technique. It’s not a cardio issue (well, not entirely), as evidenced by his ability to do it at will despite his age and heart problem, so it’s important to get the technique right and then bring the energy from the mind and soul, really.
The technique is one of those things that you drill one way in order to have it kind of “come out” a little different in fights. My first “holy smokes, that’s weird” response was to the way his entire shin hits the corner pad. Keep in mind that in Dieselnoi’s day you could actually grab the ropes around someone’s body and throw knees almost exactly like how we’re doing them here. But even though the whole shin is hitting the corner pad, the reason it’s hitting is because the turn and drive of the hip puts the knee though the target and so the shin and foot touch the pad as well because they’re the “hilt of the blade that stabbed you” kind of thing. When using this knee on a person, you don’t hit them with your shin and foot, but there might be some minor contact. And when I tried to get my knees as high as Dieselnoi’s, he told me to stop being silly and pointed to what was essentially my own solar-plexus level on the pad and said to aim there. As such, my shin and foot touched less.
As I was trying to do what Dieselnoi was showing me, he’d stand behind me and hit my hip – kind of where the “side saddle” flank is – and yell at me to drive the hip harder. I had a hard time achieving what he wanted from me because in order to push my hips forward I lean my upper body back, which he doesn’t want. He kind of makes a big “C” out of his torso and the knees just come up through the hollow part, rather than being a plank that see-saws in order to get the knees driving forward. But it’s the hips kind of twisting, not going in and out but more rotating. Picture the arms of a sprinter as they pump across the body like blades. That’s what the knees do.
My Work at Petchrungruang
I’ve been working on these knees at my gym, using the corner of the ring as Dieselnoi showed me. What’s funny is that little kids are taught how to do repeated knees by holding the ropes when they’re beginners or too small to hold the bag. So, it’s a drill for babies. When people at my gym saw me going to the corner to knee, at first they chuckled or – if they didn’t know me – assumed I was a beginner. Then I’d cut up the corner and they were all like, “holy shit!” I’ve already improved in being able to drive the knee more upward than when I was learning from Dieselnoi for the first time and I was rocking my hips way too much for the drill. I also don’t turn my standing foot as much on each knee because the turn is coming more from the hip itself. You do have to angle your standing foot a little bit in order to be able to come up off your heel and onto the ball of your foot while rotating the hip, but it’s pretty subtle. Recently, after this video had already been made, I started experimenting by putting my arms straight out in a lock around the top pad of the corner, rather than holding the ropes, so that I could feel these angles in a position that I’m more likely to find myself in during actual clinch – the “long clinch.” It was difficult at first, but it’s become more balanced and I can really feel the way the knees are driving up and in and require much less “reset” between strikes, whereas a leaning back knee requires you to either move forward all the time (hard against the ropes) or to reset with valuable milliseconds.
A Comparison of Knees
In the video below is a short video I made trying to illustrate the difference between the Dieselnoi knee, and a variety of other knees that might be more familiar. They’re all good knees and this whole post about the Dieselnoi knee versus any other knees is not to illustrate a “right way” against other “wrong ways,” but rather to illustrate the subtleties of each knee. It’s the same as Dieselnoi’s insistence on understanding distance – you figure out which strike to use based on where you’re standing and it’s exactly the same with these different knees – make a call based on the situation. The biggest difference between the widely common knees and the Dieselnoi and, to some extent, Yodkhunpon knees is the lean back. The Dieselnoi knee can knock you out within the confines of a phone booth. It’s the “one inch punch” of knees.
video above, a comparison of different kinds of Muay Thai knees, including what I’ve learned from Dieselnoi
The Knee In Action – “Only Tall People Can Do This”
A lot of people say that the secret of Dieselnoi’s success and knees were because he was so tall. There is no doubt that his height and build led to him discovering and perfecting his style. But as someone who is smaller than most of my opponents, and certainly shorter, I have to say that the beauty and power of this knee technique has little to do with height. What Dieselnoi also had, besides height, was incredible drive and energy, and the kneeing he teaches holds internal mechanics which generate a great deal of power – he’s got good gas mileage from his technique. I can feel the difference and it’s huge. You have to keep in mind, the form you train is something that unlocks dynamics, but you do not necessarily knee exactly like this in fights. The form instead guides the power you use in fights. Look at this fight of Dieselnoi’s from the past (below). Watch the entire fight only looking at his knees, nothing else. You can see the form showing through. The shin acts as a shield or guard at times. The knees rise up. This is definitely something I can do, as a knee fighter. Yes, being tall makes it more effective or accessible, but many times a shorter person can bring their own dynamic to “tall person” tactics. I know I have.
The knees he is using are not always shin vertical knees (although you can see those in there and they look like they act as blocks as well), but the power and balance come from the training itself, the way the hip engages with each rising knee. You learn to stand on your toe in some techniques, but when you look at Thais they often look like they are fighting flat-footed. They are not. They absorb the principle and it expresses itself in a subtle way. I think that the principles of knee drive that Dieselnoi is teaching is just this sort of thing. These things can be used by anyone, regardless of height or build. In the fight above also look at how he uses his knees in space, to control the space, cut off his opponent. This is a big component of what he was trying to communicate to me in the hour as well. It isn’t just straight kneeing. It’s using your knees as a force.
Dracula Guard and Vader Grip
This element of his guard I really enjoyed because it connects up with my own Long Guard. In the fight video above you can see that Dieselnoi’s attacks are almost entirely submarine, from the lower half of his body. He gets tagged by some pretty good punches, which don’t score very highly, mostly when he’s leaning back. So his approach is mostly to stay tucked in. When you watch his training video, however, you see exactly what I’m calling the Dracula Block and Vader Grip are for. The Dracula Block, which was first taught to me a long time ago by Muay Thai legend Kaensak, protects the jaw and most of the face from punches and elbows (you can move the elbow up or down to protect from higher elbows if you’re a shorter person), while still being able to see and strike. The Vader Grip, I’d quite never seen before. It’s the extended arm of a basic long guard or “4 block”, but he makes a hook out of his hand inside the glove and uses that either on the forehead (picture the older brother keeping his younger brother at arm’s length while the kid tries to swing at him) or, something that is unique and was quite horrid to experience, he puts in on the throat and kind of chokes you – hence the Vader reference.
The full hour of our time together is available to Nak Muay Nation members. If you are member you can see the full hour with audio commentary by me here. One thing you will see in the full hour that is not present in GIFs is his big emphasis on positioning and fight-specific tactics, and of course his amazing personality and passion which come through in everything he is teaching.
If you enjoyed this post, check out my other Nak Muay Nation feature posts, all with trainers of Greatness.