Okay, the title is an overstatement, but I want to provide two substantial video examples (more than just a minute-long “clip”) from my recent training to show how size is not the determining factor in clinch success. If you’ve been around Thai gyms you probably have seen the little Thai fighter man-up on a huge farang (who thought he was pretty good because he was the top dog of his gym back home), and the larger bodied westerner simply gets owned. The two examples also show how much improved my clinch training has been since I moved to Pattaya, in particular since I figured out a way to join O. Meekhun Gym as additional training that follows my afternoon training at Petchrungruang (for extra padwork and clinch practice with Mawin and Phetjee Jaa).
A Word or Two About Clinch Technique
Thai clinch could analogically be called the BJJ of Muay Thai, which is to say, it is a complete art unto itself with its own principles and attacks that are not really part of its much more prolific, recognizable, practiced and pursued striking forms. Clinch is in a way the “inner” art of Muay Thai, the one that is not paid attention to by most westerners.
Western teachers who have spent only moderate lengths of time in Thailand are probably not be as skilled in the techniques and tactics of clinch as they are in striking, having learned a few dependable “moves” or positions which they pass onto eager students which give them an edge against opponents that know even less. It is generally not understood how to score the clinch outside of Thailand, so therefore emphasis is shifted away from it, and in the more extreme examples such as K-1 nearly eliminated altogether.
All this being said, it is very difficult to learn as a westerner and additionally as a woman largely because it is taught in endless hours of “play” sessions, sessions that in the context of a Thai gym are quintessentially masculine rites of training. For instance despite me being a clinch Muay Khao fighter, I was regularly kept out of clinch sessions at Lanna as they were held in the men’s only ring. I would watch as the lumbering western men – many of them non-fighters – were invited into the men’s ring to clinch with the Thais. It was pretty ridiculous. I was fighting every 10 days. My trainers knew I beat all my opponents with the clinch, but I just could not break into the Men’s Club of clinch practice, at least not with any regularity.
The western men who were pulled into the men’s ring though were also excluded from clinch training, in a way just acting as practice dummies. These were occasions which were basically where they learned only just how good Thais are. There was only very rudimentary instruction, if any, it was mostly an occasion of besting. But that’s not because the trainers suck or because Thais are assholes, rather it’s because this is how Thais learn, more or less. You simply do all the time for years and get better by doing; you get your ass kicked by better training partners for a long time before, gradually, you just figure things out, adopt techniques that work against you, get better, and then you’re maybe giving it back to them, too. The camp knowledge – and camps seem to have a family of techniques that are only a small percentage of the clinch technical knowledge in the wide art – gets passed on through years of repetition and play. A small piece here, a small piece there, it accumulates. Here, Muay Thai is a way of life, not a martial arts “class”. The westerners who undergo the play of clinch are just getting a drop of an ocean of experience, and sometimes it seems that Thais like to keep it that way. They’ll willingly teach and drill the kicks, the blocks, the striking strategy, they’ll even share some clinch basics, but there appears to be a kind of pleasure in that farang can’t penetrate the clinch. If you watch a Muay Thai fight in Thailand, especially a heated one, the fighters will exchange strikes for the first 2 or 3 rounds, but very often when it gets down to real business, and they really want to see who is the man, it’s all clinch. Clinch is extremely manly in the Thai armory. It’s dominance in close quarters.
As such – and this may surprise many people – Thai female fighters very often are not adept at the clinch. The reason for this is pedagogy. Clinch is learned in these play-pen session between boys, and unless a girl is raised in that context her gender will invariably push her out of the practices that produce the deeper knowledge. There are of course counter examples, in fact PhetJee Jaa – who you see in the 2nd video below – has been one of those girls who was raised among the boys and is viewed in her prepubescence more or less as a boy; she has probably the best clinch technique I’ve seen from a female, partly because she not only trained in the boys play-pen setting at Petchrungruang (my current gym), but also because she had a slightly larger brother she could train with daily. Aside from the top female Thai fighters who have a nice compliment of clinch techniques, most Thai female fighters (at least that I’ve seen and fought) have a defensive clinch, one that is largely used to neutralize the opponent, while scoring only a few small points.
One of the big reasons I moved down to Pattaya was so that I could join the boys play-pen of clinch every day at Petchrungruang. For a woman my size there just is no substitute, and my clinch has gotten immeasurably better, which is a big deal because I’m, as I said, a clinch fighter. Usually I’m matched up with a pre-teen or early teen about my size for 20 minutes and we just go at it. I’ve lately hit a wall there to some degree because I’ve started to own some of the smaller, less experienced boys, but when I clinch with Bank (Kru Nu’s son, who I outweigh by maybe 4 kg) he not only is incredibly strong, he also refuses to clinch with me while appearing to clinch with me. He has hit that age, right about to turn 14, when gender starts to matter, so he will just lock me up, not move, not knee. There are lessons to be learned in those cases like how to protect my neck, how to grow still and not just squirm while looking helpless, but it shows that even at this ideal gym I’m running right into the same gender and pedagogical limits that prevent women from learning clinch at a high level all over Thailand.
This is one reason why we decided to supplement my Petchrungruang training with clinch sessions at O. Meekhun gym with PhetJee Jaa and her brother. Not only is she the best technical female clincher I’ve ever seen, at the tender age of 12 years old and only 33 kg (73 lbs), but because she and her brother grew up clinching with each other, so Mawin also is very open to female contact and play. It never gets tense or serious, as is the case when I’m bettering young boys at Petchrungruang, who maybe feel their masculinity is at risk with so many other young boys and men watching them be dominated – even just in training – by a woman, even though I outweigh them. You’ll see the spirit of the play at O. Meekhun in the 2nd video below. My clinching with PhetJee Jaa and Mawin is probably the number one reason why my clinch has improved dramatically, and why I am now able to handle many of the boys at Petchrungruang.
Size Not Mattering
The footage is from a day about a week ago, just before my fight with Yod Cherry Sityodtong. In this case there was a large group of Russian teen fighters at Petchrungruang, and among them was a 14 year old female champion of some kind. She was bigger than I am (56 kg) and very aggressive, but definitely not as practiced or experienced in the clinch as I have become. This is the first half of the illustration that size doesn’t determine the outcome. I control her fairly regularly despite being 9 kg lighter (about 20 lb). She’s a fighter, she understands aggression and contact. She has a few clinch moves memorized, but she doesn’t understand the principles of what is going on and has no technique to fall back on when simply muscling it doesn’t work. She gets very frustrated and expresses this emotion visibly.
In the second video everything is reversed. I’m the man-in-the-middle against PhetJee Jaa and her brother (we usually each spend 15 or so minutes in the middle everyday, so it’s a total of 45 minutes of clinch). I outweigh PhetJee Jaa by about 13 kg (28 lbs) and her brother by about 11 kg (25 lbs). It doesn’t matter. The giddy voice you hear in the background is that of a promoter who is visiting from Korat – he is a little eccentric – so they are stepping it up a little more than usual in terms of performing the dominance that their skill establishes, but the bold fact is that I find myself in exactly the same place where the Russian girl found herself only a few hours before. (These videos are, in fact, from the same afternoon/evening.) I’m very strong, but I don’t understand the full principles involved. There is a LOT to be learned from these two sessions. You can figure out how I was able to control the Russian girl, but then look to see how PhetJee Jaa and Mawin are controlling me. If anything though, it shows how deep the art is, and these are just two – admittedly highly skilled – children. And take note as well how even though the dominance is real, the attitude in training with the O. Meekhun kids is very playful.
I’ll say that I’m extremely lucky to find myself in this training situation, being both at Petchrungruang, which specializes in producing young Lumpinee fighters, and at O. Meekhun with PhetJee Jaa, who is the best female clinch fighter I’ve seen. It is one of the reasons why I am so eager to remain in Thailand this year. I’ve been a clinch fighter my whole time here and only now have I begun to scrape at the art of it.
Clinching with the Russian Girl
Clinching with PhetJee Jaa and her Brother Mawin
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