The Inherent Nature of Thai Clinch
This video was shot about 25-30 minutes into a clinching session at the tail end of afternoon training. Initially, everyone jumped in to help Big with his clinch because he has some fights coming up, but by the time we get to this video everyone is working with “Godzilla,” who is significantly bigger than all the other boys and Den. They’re doing a “round robin” type drill with “last man standing” rules, so that two men are clinching and whoever gets thrown is “out” and whoever is still standing is still in, so the next guy just jumps immediately into the clinch. Godzilla had been undefeated for at least 10 minutes. It’s exhausting, but it’s also a game. It’s training and it’s a drill, but it’s also performance and the dramatization is based on very real dominance.
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This kind of play is fundamental in gyms all over Thailand, because it is fundamental in the performance of Thai masculinity and that’s what Muay Thai is, in many ways. Before we started filming Godzilla had withstood one of Den’s very tricky throws which can land a larger farang easily, managing to turn Den and put him on the ground with Godzilla on top. That’s dominance for Godzilla, landing completely on top. You see this in Thai fights, landing on top of someone (or taking their back) has a vague, sexual connotation to it. Not sexuality in sensuality, but sexuality in dominance. So in a later attempt Den had to get that back, so to speak. He turned Godzilla into the ropes and threw himself, full body, with his hips against Godzilla’s bent body in a very unmistakable, over-dramatized pelvis-thrust gesture of domination. Den threw a few of these thrusts with loud vocalizations for added measure, and everyone laughed. But Godzilla didn’t go down, so the clinch continues and that’s where the video kicks in.
As the video continues you see Big get the impression that a throw is imminent and he jumps up to ready himself for his turn. He springs up on the corner of the ring and splashes water over his arms, chest and face – like a mini-shower to prepare for his entrance into the clinch. But once Den gets Godzilla down, they both collapse and everything comes to a lull. It’s Off who goes over to Den and, slightly out of frame, actually pinned Den’s head between his forearms and dragged him up off the mat for more clinch. Den has just bettered Godzilla and has basically been led into another round by Off, so he has to maintain his position. This is the game of continued hierarchy adjustment or expression. It doesn’t just happen in the ring. It is woven, quietly, into nearly every Thai social exchange and social milieu. A Thai gym is structured and run by it, often unseen by westerners who just see autonomous people and not the bonds between them. The struggle for hierarchy in clinch, in a society where there is not a lot of social shifting, is maybe why the clinch (and fighting) means so much to a Thai audience.
Den is exhausted, so Off gets some pretty good pressure going, somewhat with Den’s allowance landing a far greater quantity of knees while Den is still able to stick in a few sharp belly shots. Den’s actually getting dragged around a bit but when he finally gets serious he pulls Off’s head down to a position that Off is pretty helpless in. He is helpless in more than one way though. He is in a weak position physically, but also socially this has to end one way, with his elder and superior on top. He can either drop to the canvas and give up, or he has to just take whatever Den throws at him – which in this case is pretty much everything Den has without actually hurting Off, dramatically, playfully finishing him again and again, and then pushing him between the ropes and sitting on top of him. That’s the domination equivalent of “overkill.” Big kind of goes over to turn it back into a joke by grabbing Den and dramatically kneeing him until he peels off to the floor, but you can see that Off is genuinely submitted, and then everyone is done for the night. High and low is restored.
There is no “pretend” domination among Thai men and boys in training or in fights. Even with a padholder who is just calling for combinations, if you manage to get something in on him that counts – even abstractly – as a point or as a moment, just a moment, of dominance, he’ll work to get that point back or dominate you until it’s back in his favor. Even tiny things. It’s not a joke, but it is playful. Everyone is learning and strengthening technique by actually doing, but part of that – the backdrop to all of it – is actually doing the act of dominating your opponent as well. And it is dramatized – there’s a lot of yelling and exaggerating movements that don’t have power behind them in order to avoid hurting each other, but the dramatization is meant to imply that in a real fight all of these things would be game-enders. Fighters will do this in a fight as well, dramatically performing a movement as a means of asserting dominance over their opponent in lieu of – or in very nasty cases, in addition to – hurting their opponent with full force. They’re not “pulling” shots, but rather they’re winking at the audience while they throw it.
An interesting example of this dramatization was the recent Kard Chuek (“roped hands”) fight for Thai Fight on Dec. 22, 2013 between Saiyok Pumpanmuang and Sudsakorn S. Klinmee. I won’t go into the whole mess of promotions like Thai Fight and Max Muay Thai, but they are good examples of dramatized Muay Thai – they are the soap operas of Muay Thai promotions. But this fight between Saiyok and Sudsakorn illustrates the dramatized performance very well because I believe, indeed, a “fake fight” (in the sense that it is not a fight in how westerners see fighting as war) – and in Muay Thai, the difference between a fake fight and a real fight can be very, very subtle. My disclaimer is that this difference is so razor thin that what constitutes a “real fight” for promotions and media might very well include this fight, but to me, watching it, there is enough of a difference that it seemed quite obviously not real. (As a bit of background, Saiyok and Sudsakorn were both coaches on a TV show that pitted western Muay Thai fighters against each other and at the last the two coaches have a match together, much like the set up of The Ultimate Fighter with a coach vs. coach finale. This was the fight between the coaches.)
Within only a minute or so of watching this fight on TV I felt it wasn’t “real,” but it’s one of the best fake fights I’ve ever seen. It’s basically superb sparring, similar to what you see the boys and Den doing in the clinch video above, but with a bit more intensity and precision. Both Saiyok (white shorts) and Sudsakorn (black shorts) are truly throwing strikes and with great Thai fighters like this they can throw powerful strikes at each other without it being a big problem – it’s still sparring. It’s intensity without intention. If you look at the elbows Saiyok throws at Sudsakorn at about the 9:00 mark, you’ll see that he is a) not attempting to cut but is purposefully throwing them a little “flat” with his forearm, and b) he throws one, lets Sudsakorn’s block go up and then throws his second with a bit more power into Sudsakorn’s block. If this were a real fight, that would have looked different, even if it were blocked. There’s a nastiness that is completely absent from this fight, but the playfulness is intact. I’ve seen endless comments on this fight on various different media, people trying to figure out “why Saiyok lost” or “why it went to a fourth round,” and I just laugh. There was a demo Buakaw fight, far more ridiculous than believable, on a Thai Fight or Max card a while back – I forget which – and people thought that one was real, too. But it was ridiculous. Which goes to show that the that the performed dominance that is practiced in every moment of Muay Thai for Thai boys and men is, to many, imperceptible from the dominance that is reserved for real fights. To me they look different; like how tigers playing and tigers actually trying to maul each other looks different. The movements are similar, but the intention is quite different.
The Clinch and Women
This is why it’s difficult for women, and even for western men as outsiders to Thai culture, to really learn the Thai clinch. We don’t perform in this way. We don’t play in this way. When I watch this video of Den and the boys clinching, I’m inspired by how much I love this kind of thing – how much I love the practice and the performance of Thai masculinity – but I’m also saddened by it because I am excluded from it. Even if I were incredibly skilled, more skilled than any of the men in this video, adding a female element to the mix would change it. This is true also of western males, although in a different way. It’s a demonstration of the relationship men have with each other, and moreover a relationship that these men have with each other, as teammates, friends, etc. Women don’t have that relationship inside a brotherhood or inside Thailand – not yet – and I don’t think it’s easy to find in the western world either. To use an extreme example Den’s theatrical pelvic thrusts into Godzilla cannot be performed with the same meaning against a woman. The way the boys can lay on each other and humorously pretend hump each other to demonstrate dominance would still demonstrate dominance when performed on a woman, but the meaning would be very, very different. One is sexual mocking, the other, however, is sexual miming. It may be hard to explain, but there is a significant sexual linking in much of Thai Clinch display. Taking someone’s back in a fight is a sexualized position in how it draws excitement and “oooh’s” from the crowd. Throwing someone down and standing over them has a “top” dominant component. And what few western women may realize is that the Thai common word for “clinch” (plum ปลํ้า), is also complicatedly the colloquial word for a kind of rape in which a male forces himself on a woman he knows (a common scenario in Thai soap operas, apparently). What goes for gestures of theatrical dominance runs through the entire coded action of clinching itself and is part of its natural pedagogy, it’s play. This pedagogy necessarily changes when training with women. For example, the standard position for many men to protect themselves and have control over their opponent is to bury his face in his opponent’s neck. The burying of the face in a woman’s neck is an erotic act, something western women may not even realize when they are subjected to it. As such, if men are training with women, they either have to perform this highly sexual/sensual act of nearly “sniffing the neck” and try to distance himself from the culturally erotic act, or he has to change the way in which he clinches to avoid it. This can be done. I learned clinch over a period of days with Sakmongkol WKO in Colorado and he was adroit in omitting all sexual innuendo from our training; but we definitely weren’t playing. We were learning technique, as one might learn rules of grammar without actually conversing.
Women are locked out of this kind of play. We could, obviously, perform like this with each other in an all-female clinching or sparring situation, but women don’t generally play like this. We don’t perform masculinity like this because we are not, in fact, men. Even the Toms I fight in the ring, and I’ve fought quite a few, are not woven from this fabric. The Art of Thai Clinch and it’s gestures of domination are to some degree essentially alien. And in the gym I’m twice removed from this kind of practice, first by being a westerner who is not on the “inside” of the relationships these Thai men have with other Thai men, and then by being a woman and having to attempt to perform Thai masculinity from outside of Thainess and outside of manliness. And to be sure – and it may be a surprise to some – most Thai female fighters don’t know how to clinch well, certainly not anywhere near the level of an average lightly skilled male, because they don’t have access to this kind of practice. The best of them have likely learned from family members, in relative isolation. (Even in my own experience with Master K, he would use body padding to separate our bodies and only clinch at distance; with Daeng at Lanna Gym, he straps on a belly pad when we clinch to offer a kind of “buffer” between us, something he would never think to do when clinching males.) When I clinch with women in fights, we are absolutely using real dominance against one another, but we haven’t trained it in the same way. We haven’t internalized it through play in the way that men have; the way men do.