What follows is just an expression of what I’ve personally seen in the two gyms that I’ve trained at in the last four years: Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai, which is a western-oriented gym but with Thai fighters who have been raised in the gym; and my current gym, Petchrungruang in Pattaya, which is a Thai-oriented gym which focuses on raising Thai boys to become top stadium fighters.
There’s an wide-spread assumption in the West that all sparring in Thailand is light, controlled and technical. Some of this assumption comes from word-of-mouth from people who have spent time training in Thailand and are just reporting what they witnessed, but the tendency to make this a universal, uniform practice about all of Thailand and all of sparring comes from a desire, I think, from the West to create a divide between the western “aggro” sparring and the more controlled, technical sparring they want to condone by saying it’s the “Thai way”. Sometimes this additionally explained by the idea that Thais generally fight very frequently, and so don’t need or want to spar hard.
The truth lies in variety. It’s not that the notion that Thai sparring is “technical” is inaccurate. It is accurate, it’s just incomplete. For the most part, when you see older, active fighters (“older” in Thailand means late teens to early 20’s) sparring with each other it’s usually at maybe 60-70% power and controlled. The dominance of getting in on your opponent and showing your own prowess is very real, but it’s toned down from the level you’d see in a real fight. But, if you are watching these kinds of fighters spar in a gym in Thailand you have to keep in mind that they learned this kind of control from years and years of sparring as little kids. When I watch the little kids in a gym, 6-12 years old, they spar without any shinpads on, or maybe just one shinpad on the leg they intend to block with but the kicking leg is bare. If it’s Orthodox against Orthodox, each clash of shins will have one shinguard to buffer. But totally bare shins is very common as well. Little kids don’t use a lot of power but they throw themselves into the play with a lot of zest. They “pull” the power enough to not get hurt, but they’re flying through the air on kicks. It’s not slow and it would never be described as “technical,” although they are absolutely learning and practicing technique in the process. They’re practicing and perfecting control, as well as lightness of heart.
At my gym, Petchrungruang, the kids who fall between the ages of 8-12 and are at beginning to intermediate experience levels (and sometimes older) are often put in “mock fights” for sparring. (There are two video examples of these below.) These exercises involve the whole gym and everyone has a part to play. The kids who are sparring are given shinpads and big gloves, then the timer is set for the rounds and Pi Nu or another authority acts as a referee while the rest of us gather around the periphery of the ring and play gamblers, hecklers, cornermen and judges. Sometimes a bellypad is held up at the start to indicate that this is for a title, “ching cham(p)” will be announced. (In pronunciation the “p” in champ is swallowed.) The two fighters are practicing focus and recovery from mistakes or being hit, getting used to responding to the noise and excitement of the crowd, becoming accustomed to hearing multiple voices all at one time and calling out contradictory advice, as well as being separated by the referee and starting back at center. It’s really good practice and the kids go pretty close to 100% power against each other, but because they’re wearing padding it’s like a tiny handicap and nobody gets hurt. (Knees are not 100% power and elbows aren’t thrown at all.) Pi Nu is right in there as referee or as close spectator, so he’s watching closely to pull the kids apart or call the fight if there’s any danger.
This kind of “mock fight” is mainly among less experienced fighters, those that need to get used to it all, or improve on how they handle these elements. But it’s not reserved for them only, as kids who are very experienced will be put against bigger and inexperienced kids in order to have someone to work with. Picture a blackbelt working with a yellowbelt, but because he’s got all this experience he’s got the control to not hurt the less experienced grade. Keep in mind, this kind of hard sparring is still controlled in that directives are very fight-focused – how to score, not be scored on rather than trying to hurt someone – but it’s not “light, technical” as people like to say. It’s hard and heart.
Team “Barbecue” (13) vs Kayroke “Ninja Turtle” (18)
[above] Team is significantly more experienced than Kayroke, even though Kayroke is bigger and older. Team is maybe 13 and probably 38 kg (84 lbs) whereas Kayroke is 18 years old and 49 kg (108 lbs). Team is put into this match with Kayroke because he’s so experienced, so the trainers know that he can 1) handle himself and not get hurt despite the size difference, and 2) handle himself and not get all aggro and hurt Kayroke who has less experience. The trainers have also put Kayroke in with older and bigger boys in mock fights, but he gets pretty well run over by those match ups. But the purpose is to get Kayroke more accustomed to fight energy; this exercise is good for Team also, but it’s not for him, it’s for Kayroke. But Team has been doing these “mock fights” for years as he’s grown up at the gym, which is how he’s gotten so controlled. It’s a little bit odd for 18-year-olds to be in this kind of mock fight, but mostly because it’s less common for an 18-year-old to be so inexperienced as Kayroke is. The most common match up for these events at my gym are kids in the 9-12 year old age range, who might be at the intermediate or even beginner level, which is appropriate for their age. By the time these same kids are 16 years old, they won’t be doing these mock fights anymore because they’ll likely be seasoned fighters. Kayroke learning how to fight through this method at his age is like watching an 18-year-old learning how to ride a bicycle for the first time. It’s the same process, but usually a much younger kid going through it. This “mock fight” episode is a little bit intense, partially because of Kayroke’s inexperience and his lack of emotional control. He gets a little “jai rohn” or “hot hearted,” as the Thais say. He’s a frequent sparring partner for me and he hits me just as hard, but after the first few times we sparred he’s never gotten emotional about it anymore. These mock fights are different than regular sparring because of the pressure of being on stage.
Alex (14) vs Mark (16)
[above] Alex is about to turn 15 and Mark is nearing 17, and both of these guys have quite a bit of ring experience. They’re both a little old for the “mock fight” exercise but they were selected on this day because neither of them had fought in a long time (more than a month). Both have fought at Lumpinee/Rajadamnern already and are good fighters, but this is a way to kick ring-rust and have some fun at the gym because we all get to play along. At this age, there’s a little bit of healthy competition instilled in boys who are teammates to have to dominate in the spotlight of this kind of sparring. For Alex and Mark, this exercise is to keep them fresh in how to keep cool under pressure, or how to keep cool and keep applying pressure. But due to their experience and actually really good match-up, the light-heartedness of this mock fight is much more bright and exciting than the example of Team and Kayroke in the video above. It’s still hard, it’s still sincere, but it’s equally important to stay cool as it is to be dominant. And you learn that through this kind of pressure.
There is a really strong social dimension to these mock fights. It isn’t just two people going at it, even when it gets heated. Everything is about the celebration of the fight, Thailand fight culture. The entire gym stops and participates. Fighters and mentors play the role of gamblers (yes, gambling is a very significant social part of fight culture, it’s fundamental audience investment and participation). Kids are cornermen, the gym itself is unified by the event. These are “real” fights, not the sense of I really want to hurt you, but in the sense of what really happens in a Muay Thai fight. There’s a lot of pressure, but no actual consequence at the end. Any excessive emotion by the fighters is cocooned by the entire gym, and steered back towards Muay Thai values. You can see the smiles of joy in the 2nd video, and no matter how many times these mock fights take place (it’s about once or twice a week at Petchrungruang), it never gets old.
Most of the older kids who are fighting at Lumpinee and other big stadia don’t do these “mock fights” any longer. I think the idea is that they already know how to fight, they have more or less graduated from the process. That said, the older boys in the gym do spar pretty hard. Not all the time, but far more often than what you might call “rarely.” And when it is hard, I’ve seen it go very hard. I’ve even seen PTT, the 19 year old star of the gym, very highly ranked at the stadiums and recently signed to Thai Fight, have an all out war in boxing-only sparring, leaving his opponent bloodied from a cut on the eyebrow, when he was sharpening up for a tournament finale. The point is that there is variety in how Thais spar; when the top level Petchrungruang fighters are in the ring, waiting for their padwork to start, they’ll kick each other with no shinpads and throw punches at each other to just mess around before the round starts, like they did when they were little kids. It’s very controlled, but it’s hard enough that you don’t want those strikes to land.
I think in the West we associate “technical” with slow and very low power; in Thailand “technical” is controlled – control means control, not necessarily light. And I’ve seen some amazingly hard sparring at different gyms. The times it looks sloppy or can get a little out of control is when the fighters are inexperienced, so they don’t have control when the power goes up. The difficulty is having control of the technique when power is added; if you’re inexperienced, when the power goes up the technique falls apart, which is why “technical” sparring in the West means taking the power down, whereas “technical” sparring in Thailand is about control. Due to my size, I’m often sparring boys who outweigh me by quite a lot. Pi Nu will look the boys in the eyes and give them a directive, “femeur,” which literally means “technical,” but he doesn’t mean “go light,” he means practice being defensive and evasive so I can practice moving forward. It’s a way to mitigate the difference in our skills and sizes. This is the kind of thing that might be said before sparring begins. When sparring between fighters with disparate ability starts to escalate out of control, you might hear an instructor say, “bao bao,” which means “light”. My point is, light means light, but technical means control but not necessarily without power.
A lot of what we see in Thai gyms is play. It’s fighters messing around and maybe it’s super controlled and technical, but it’s not necessarily “light” in power. And if you’re looking at Saenchai or Yodwicha, or some other top level fighter at the gym you’re at, they’ve gone through years and years of playing, as well as hard sparring, to get to the kind of control they have. So that they can have control and still go hard. It requires an incredible degree of finesse to match the control and power that these Thai fighters use in their sparring, something that they learned when they were very small. As westerners we’re much bigger and older when we’re at the same level of “beginner” students, so we have to learn how to be light and controlled in a different context than how these guys learn. And likewise, when we go hard it is with significantly less control and experience than when these guys go hard. So the aggro hard sparring of westerners is a good thing to avoid, but going the opposite direction and saying that one should only spar light and “technical” because that’s how Thais do it is an inaccurate/incomplete understanding of how sparring is practiced in Thailand, at least from what I’ve witnessed. Of course we have a tendency to talk about “the Thais”, and Thailand is a diverse country with very different gyms spread across the land. Different kinds of gyms, with different kinds of fighters, and probably a wide variety of training techniques. These mock fights are just one of the more interesting approaches to the training of kids, perhaps an insight into how unique Thailand is.
For more on Thai Sparring: How to Lose in Sparring, Anger and the Thai Way