You can read all of my Muay Thai clinch articles here.
Caley Reece, one of the best female clinch fighters in the world, said something interesting along the lines of “Always train clinch with gloves, you fight with gloves.” This is perhaps an obvious sounding point but at the time I heard this I was doing almost all of my clinch training without gloves, largely because this is 99.9% of how Thais train clinch, for a variety of reasons I’ll take a guess at in what follows. Clinch makes up a major part of my training here in Thailand, for 3 years now, and is the primary reason for me training at the gyms where I train: Petchrungruang and O. Meekhun.
Lately though I’ve come to train clinch with gloves, mostly because I was running into limits in my development and it was showing in fights. Often I can dominate in the clinch, I’m a clinch fighter, but a few high-level clinchers and opponents larger than me had been giving me problems earlier in the year – and when I see problems in the ring I look to my training. One of unexpected benefits of adding gloves to my training is that a lot of my training partners don’t want to wear gloves for clinch training (you certainly lose access to a large number of grips with gloves on), so it ends up with me in gloves and them without and having that “handicap” amplifies my training yet another degree I think, by putting me at an(other) disadvantage I have to overcome.
Of course when thinking about how ubiquitous barehand clinching in Thailand is, the question arises: why would you train in a way that you cannot fight? In some ways this argument is similar to the Gi vs No Gi BJJ debate in MMA. There are a few reasons why you want to clinch barehanded.
Why Thais Clinch Barehanded
Thinking about why Thais clinch barehanded it’s probably good to consider that some of this may have developed out of a simple shortage of equipment. In many gyms in the outlying areas not all fighters will have gloves, and in small gyms it could even be just one pair of gloves passed around. Believe or not not at O. Meekhun, a very small family gym and home of Phetjee Jaa there was just one mouthguard until very recently, and it was shared by Phetjee Jaa and her brother Mawin. Even at Petchrungruang, which is a financially “comfortable” gym, the gloves and shinpads are falling apart, and in sparring often the kids just wear one shinpad each. Not because the gym is too cheap to replace it, but because it still works as far as the gym is concerned – everyone having their own, fresh pair of gloves and gear would be like making sure everyone in your family had their own spoon. Equipment in Thailand more of a communal kind of concept. It would be natural in an equipment-starved setting for kids to learn to clinch barehanded – and even when clinching with gloves is ordered for whatever reason, those gloves are absolutely rank. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t great advantage in barehand clinch training – for instance learning to spar without shin guards makes Thai kids very controlled, fearless and accurate – but it could be that finances are part of it also.
Be that as it may, lots of clinch techniques have developed out of barehanded technique, both offensively and defensively. Challenges to balance and throws, super tight locks, an emphasis on transitions and the ability to escape or wiggle your way in through tighter angles than gloves allow all present themselves in barehanded clinching and it really is what has propelled the art form to its highest levels. Nobody clinches like the Thais, and it isn’t only the endless hours and early years that they devote to it. It has to come, to some degree, from the barehand itself.
With a hand unimpeded by the glove there is far more maneuverability in nearly every way – you can reach your hands through smaller openings, grip more tightly by having your fingers and thumb exposed, and you can literally “feel” more. It’s like going from trying to tie your shoes with mittens on versus with bare hands. You can just do a lot more
Transitions, Very Important
Perhaps the most important thing that barehanded clinching teaches is transitioning. With a hand unimpeded by the glove there is far more maneuverability in nearly every way – you can reach your hands through smaller openings, grip more tightly by having your fingers and thumb exposed, and you can literally “feel” more. It’s like going from trying to tie your shoes with mittens on versus with bare hands. You can just do a lot more. And so you learn these smaller movements, kind of fine-tuned shifts in grip and position. This transition freedom produces lots of snake-like rhythm, transitions on top of transitions, and you see the result of training like this in the ring. The best clinchers are relentless in transitioning from one advantage to another. Learning this constant movement and freedom of action as a model of clinch attack and defense just wouldn’t happen in glove-only clinch training. On top of transitions, you can also grip much tighter with your hands clasping your own wrists or each other, so you can make a far more “inescapable” lock when the technique is right, which forces your partner to work harder to get out than just popping your glove off their neck. It really demands a much higher level of understanding the angles of the body from a defensive standpoint.
It is far, far easier to control the arms without gloves. Using your hands as hands instead of muppet hands in gloves allows you to grasp the insides of elbows, the triceps, the forearms, the wrists, looping your arms more tightly around extended limbs, etc. Without gloves, clinch training is largely arm control, whereas with gloves the neck position is far more appealing. Defensively controlling the arms (and keeping your arms from being controlled) is a very important dimension of clinch, and barehanded clinch allows this to develop at a high level.
Clinching with Gloves – Why Train Differently?
Something to always consider when trying to “train like a Thai” is that Thai methods of training, which are quite proven, are proven under specific conditions. And some of these conditions are the thousands of hours spent in training, usually beginning in childhood. So indeed, if you really want to learn how to clinch do it like a Thai, which is endless hours in barehand clinching starting as a child, and often going against those who are superior to you, tossing you about to the point of teary-eyed frustration until you just get bigger or figure out a solution to their tricks or strength. Yes; lots of that.
But for those of us who have not begun in childhood and do not have 10+ years to develop an art, do not find ourselves in the situation where clinch can be practiced in the “traditional” way, sometimes methods have to be amended.
But for those of us who have not begun in childhood and do not have 10+ years to develop an art, do not find ourselves in the situation where clinch can be practiced in the “traditional” way, sometimes methods have to be amended. If you are a fighter there just are things you can’t do with gloved hands in fights, and building your offense (and defense) around those limitations makes some sense. If you have the luxury of a Thai path to development you may very well learn those principles through barehanded clinching and lots of fights, but gloved practice can really help build a short cut to them. Basically, spend as much of your time as you can simulating the conditions you’ll be in for fights. This is why so many people recommend running while wearing a mouthpiece, so you learn how to breathe with it in. Same principle. Practice what you are going to do.
What Gloved Clinching Emphasizes
You cannot lock as tightly with gloves on as you can with bare hands, but it’s still so much harder to get out with gloves on in certain respects as well. So you end up transitioning far less. You end up moving around and finding a good position and then trying to hold onto it. (Keep in mind that this might be the experience I have as a strong fighter. I can hold people. If you’re not as strong as your opponents or if you’re more of a distance fighter and want to get out of the clinch, it’s entirely possible that clinching with gloves increases your transitions because it’s harder to make a lock.) It’s much harder to grab behind the head with gloves on but once you get your forearm back there you can pull everything in and land knees without much objection from your opponent.
Because getting behind the head with a proper lock can be your best option with gloves on, you tend to clinch closer. There’s much less control of the arms, but only because you’re trying to do fine-tuned work with your mittens on; so you instead have to focus on using other parts of your own arms for control: you use your forearms inside the joints of the arms instead of being able to grip. You control with your own elbows more. You remember that you can use a great deal more of your limbs than just the digits at the very ends of them – you kind of get “extra” limbs because each arm can be broken down into sections that control differently, rather than being a lot of space in the way before getting to the real tools of the hands.
Because you use your forearms and elbows to kind of build a frame to your own defense, you are working for inside position much more than barehanded. With bare hands you can take outside position more often because you can still control from there; with gloves on control from the outside tends to require more sheer strength, not as much by technique. And since inside position is the “dominant position” for scoring, training yourself to be there is good practice. I found that from too much barehand clinching I got into habits of taking the outside position too readily, because I could control there from strength. But in fights I lacked the leverage of a good grip and against larger opponents I did not fair well. Part of why I switched to gloved training is to force me to fight for inside position more.
What I’ve Been Doing
In Thailand you don’t do clinch drills. Basically from the start you are just thrown in there and have at it. Given the complications of gender in clinch in Thailand, and that I’m small (47 kg, 105 lb), I found reluctant training partners at my first gym, Lanna, who not only did not want to clinch with me, they were also physically larger and vastly more skilled. It was a tough road, not only physically, but emotionally. Clinch sessions were sporadic and most often took place in the “men’s ring,” which meant my exclusion, and because I’m naturally shy they often came only after I had to overcome my hesitance and ask (always asking) to clinch – while western men were either invited or told to clinch quite regularly. To have built up the courage and resolve to ask and be then paired with someone who didn’t want to work with me and then could (and would) physically dominate me, it sucked. It was a needed exercise but certainly not a pleasant one. But in fighting it became more and more apparent that I’m just naturally a clinch fighter. My strength, my comfort with close attack, even when not paired with great technique, was winning me fights and my opponents just kept getting bigger. If you’re the small one, fighting on the inside is your game.
I’ve written about this transition in The Art of Choosing Your Muay Thai Style
My trainers saw this, especially Daeng, and they were determined to make me an inside fighter. This meant more clinching, but with the same boys that didn’t want to work with me and it still meant me asking. As I’ve mentioned before in writing, one partner in particular was unpleasant and he broke my nose twice in clinch practice, in moments of unwarranted aggression and unnecessary roughness. That’s okay, its part of the Thai experience as a female for me, and I learned a lot about toughness and overcoming my own urge to just train in my own corner in these years. I was getting better in clinch, very slowly, under non-optimum conditions. All of this was entirely barehanded clinching, in the Thai style.
Then I came down to Pattaya to scout out new training and stumbled upon Petchrungruang, a quiet family run gym that specializes in training young boys. In the beginning they put me with two very small kids, actually western kids Alex (Italy) and Jozef (Slovakia), and even against them I had a hard time despite having a huge weight and size advantage. It was immediately apparent that I was miles away from the technique I needed, even though I already was a clinch fighter and already was regularly beating girls my size with the limited skills I had. I could tell that I just didn’t know anything. I also clinched with Phetjee Jaa who was only 12 years old then, and quite small, but whose technique was maybe better than any other female fighter I know of. Her brother Mawin also is a very adept clinch fighter. This too reinforced the awareness of how much I had to learn. So much art and technique.
So I packed up and moved down to Pattaya to train in both gyms. The clinch was entirely barehanded technique, but this time instead of being paired with a bratty 17 year old who outweighed me by 5 lbs and had tons of technique on me, I was paired with boys (and Jee Jaa) who I outweighed by up to 12 kg, so I was constantly given the cushion, the space in which to make mistakes and recover from them, and for the first time in my life I could actually throw people to the ground. You just have to do something, over and over, if you are going to learn the technique and perhaps even more important grow the confidence. This was an invaluable change.
I improved, and as I improved I also got to train with Bank, who is Pi Nu’s 14 year old son, and who is incredibly strong. These are good kids, younger than the boys at Lanna, so even if they didn’t want to train with me, they didn’t have the freedom to refuse and they made good partners. But this is barehand clinch, I’m learning the Thai way, being tossed about and trying to toss others about. Bank in particular had an incredible lock he used, barehanded. He would just crush the neck (photo above) using the blade of his forearm as a leverage pin, and crank down. For a very long time I had great difficulty with this. In barehands he really was inescapable, so for a long while I just tried to stay out of it, never let him get to that point, which is a checkmate. This slowly improved my awareness of the neck, defensively. If he got anywhere near his lock I was finished, so I got better and better at defending early, feeling the danger and taking my precautions before he can set the lock – he is very good at finding and fighting for that position. This is something that I never would have experienced or learned with gloved clinching. On the other hand Mawin, Phetjee Jaa’s 14 year old brother, is masterful at throwing an opponent whose weight is too far forward. Barehanded he can set these throws up with lots of inside attack, where he gets you leaning in by constantly off-balancing you so you lean in for support. I’ve had to learn to fend these off and keep my balance neutral while still pressing in. Without his barehanded freedoms his throws are easier to defend. It has really improved me. Again, thanks to barehanded clinching. There are lots of little tricks and angles that I have repeatedly fallen prey to, over and over, which have forced me to learn better principals of balance, prevention and attack, as my training partners grow older and stronger themselves. In fact, nearly all the the boys at Petchrungruang – who I used to outweigh by a few kilos – are bigger than I am now, and Jee Jaa is getting very close to my size now. But, since my technique has improved as they’ve grown, I’ve managed to keep up a little bit. Bank still goes for that lock, but without gloves I’m able to keep working to get myself out, even when he’s settled into the hold. With gloves I’m just screwed, but without gloves I can make minute adjustments and sometimes get myself to an angle where I can at least attack with knees, if not get out of the hold entirely. I’ve learned to keep trying, rather than accept the immobility as defeat.
Now With Gloves
Earlier this year I began training exclusively with gloves. We even went out and bought a pair of 8 oz velcro gloves just for clinching to spare my partners the stench of my regular gloves and the scratching that comes from laces. As a side note, if you’re going to clinch with gloves, especially velcro gloves, you need to buy some packing tape, the brown or clear kind that has very minimal glue. That way you can keep your laces in place and avoid Velcro from opening up and scratching you or your partners. It really helps and the tape is non-sticky enough that you won’t ruin your gloves with excess glue and the tape comes off easily when you’re finished training. You can see the packing tape on our gloves at O. Meekhun below.
For the most part the approach Thais take is toward symmetry. If your opponent isn’t wearing a mouthpiece, neither do you. If I put my gloves on for clinching, my partners will immediately rummage around to find a pair for themselves. The kids I train with don’t like wearing gloves to clinch though – it’s limiting – so when we go one-on-one (and not a round robin) I tell them, “it’s okay, I’m wearing them but you don’t have to,” nine times out of ten they’ll happily go barehanded against my gloves. Sometimes Mawin (Phetjee Jaa’s brother at O. Meekhun) will adopt gloves when preparing for a big fight – this was actually where I got the idea that I should try gloved practice – but this is not something I’ve seen from others. The disadvantage of gloves has worked as a “handicap” in training at O. Meekhun sometimes, where Mawin and I in round robin would put on gloves but Jee Jaa got to be barehanded because she was the lightest in weight. That’s not true anymore, as she’s grown to be bigger than her brother, but she still goes barehanded. Generally my I only train in gloves approach is not reciprocated by my partners or my trainers. A few seem to see the gloved training as an at most once-in-a-while approach, sometimes when gearing up for a fight, most Thais I’ve never seen clinch with gloves. For some it may be like tire-drag sprints. They’re not a maintenance drill, they can be meant to boost difficulty in training in the lead up to a fight. I’m always fighting though, so it makes sense for me to always train with them.
The asymmetric training of me in gloves and my partners without helps me a lot, mostly because it forces me to work from yet another disadvantaged point. My partner is going to have better grip, is going to be better able to escape my holds and work their way to the inside easier than what’s likely in a fight, where we’re in gloves. It allows more possibilities, more scenarios to work with than might come up in a single fight, but what will likely come up at some point in some fight, some time. I have to be careful though to not give up on techniques (like arm traps) that might work well in fights, but with barehands are easier to slip out of.
For the past month I’ve been training with a hand that is likely broken (I probably broke it two fights ago). At first it hurt too much to try to cram my swollen mitt into a glove for clinching, so I clinched with bare hands for several days. After nearly every session I had more pain in my hand and after getting the back of my hand elbowed by Jee Jaa in a perfectly legal and realistic-to-fight move, I couldn’t close my hand after training. So I put the gloves back on for protection, like padding. With the glove on I can’t close my hand anyway, so I wasn’t trying to do so nor was I really upset that I couldn’t do so. In a very real sense I could feel the difference between the different practices, and helped me to not rely on something I couldn’t rely on with or without gloves anyway – at least not right now, until my hand heals. It helped me stop thinking about the hand being injured, that I can’t grip or close my hand because it’s broken; rather, I can’t grip or close my hand anyway because it’s in a glove. It took my mind off the impossibility and instead focused on what I could do with it, which always is the key to training.
If you’d like to enter a discussion on the benefits of each I’ve started a gloved clinch thread on the Roundtable.