Below is my husband Kevin’s photography series on clinch. These are photos he took from my last private session with Tanadet Tor. Pran49, who is teaching Long Clinch in Chiang Mai. I filmed a Muay Thai Library session with him, which you can see here (Tanadet Long Clinch), and decided the work was so good I’m going to try to do it once a month, on my regular visits to the city. These photos are from the first of those “just for me” sessions, building me as a fighter. Leaving aside how wonderful it is to train Long Clinch with him, Kevin tries in these photos to capture aspects of clinch that mean a lot to him. And, of course, they mean a lot to me too. When he posted each photo on Instagram he added rich captions to express what he sees in the photo. There are 14 aspects covered in the series. He calls it the “Nature of Clinch.” Clinch is often deeply misunderstood in the west. We don’t have eyes for it. Part of that is that because of how clinch is learned and practiced in Thailand takes a great deal of time to slowly absorb, and part of that is there have in the past been very few western fighters or coaches who are deeply knowledgeable. It’s a hidden part of Thailand’s Muay Thai, and can be just passed off as “wrestling” or “grabbing” or “stalling” or just “not fighting”. That though is changing. More western fighters are educating themselves in it, it’s becoming a key to fighting success, so the words that follow maybe can add to that deepening knowledge. After each photo I add my perspective to the aspect Kevin is trying to highlight. These photos depict study of the Long Clinch, but they are about the entire Art of Clinch.
Clinch is a parallel violence. It is filled with transitions from ease to tension, and one of the most difficult things to get comfortable with is that contact in clinch very often means power. It can be both to your advantage or your sudden disadvantage. It has a certain intimacy, it violates personal space. The vectors of control are not seen, they are felt.
My take on this: the beginnings of clinch, when you are first experiencing it or learning it, is all power. It’s all tension and freezing and struggle. It’s the wresting of movement from paralysis, whether self-imposed or from an opponent’s will. But the advancement of clinch, when you know you’ve gotten to another shore, is everything that isn’t tension, power, or struggle. It’s soft. It flows. It moves and slithers and slips. The tension is selective; the power is delegated to one wrist, a slight cock of the head, a locked forearm and completely relaxed hand. The best clinchers are soft.
Toes are perhaps the least appreciated aspect of clinch. It its height clinch is felt from the ground up. Everything comes from the ground. And you have to feel the ground, create a dialogue with it. I am reminded of the adage of the tree whose branches are whipped by the wind, but whose trunk is strong. Here the strength is in feeling.
My take: rules are fluid. They’re not meant to be “broken,” but they’re meant to be circumstantial. The wide base in clinch is a solid rule, it allows you stability and balance and strength; but it’s not flat or inflexible. Imagine if the Pyramids in Gaza were propped up on jointed fingers under their foundation – we think of the word “rooted” as meaning strong and immovable, but roots are like fingers, not like bricks. It’s taken me a long time to find that strength and flexibility.
You have to have Joy if you clinch. Clinch fighters are one of the most hard nose fighters there are, but the 10,000 hours to become what they are cannot be accomplished without Joy. Joy is the under secret of all clinch, the laughter of gravity’s sudden reversal, the humor that you are suddenly screwed once the arm gets there, and the boundless Tiggerness of endless knees that never stop coming. Joy.
My take: the physical tension at the start of learning to clinch is only one part of it. The mental and emotional tension is yet another, and it’s perhaps even more important. A rope can be used for a great many things, take on many shapes, be knotted or walked upon. But if all you ever do is pull that rope to the full extent of its tension, you can’t do a lot with it. The body and the mind are the same like this. Without joy, there is no experimentation.
Length. You don’t have to be long to do long. In fact when short lengthening can be an advantage, allowing you to leverage down and break posture. All clinch requires length because essential to clinch is changing distances. The secret to length is the triangle, perhaps no more explicitly revealed in the Long Clinch insect-like control.
My take: the living interpretation and flexibility of rules. Closer is better and safer, most of the time, but if you’ve locked the head of the snake there’s no need to be close to the rest of the body. In Long Clinch, you immobilize the head and they your dragon body is free, to create space that would otherwise be dangerous, but is what allows you to generate power, to dictate pace and movement.
#5 The Churn
The Churn. You have to love the churn. The churn is not the swim, it’s the chaos of unpredictability once you set the physics and intention into motion. The Churn requests you do not stop. You ride the chop of the waters on and on, swimming up on the White Water.
My take: there is a chaos in clinch, a disorientation and perhaps moments of panic as intention clashes with intention. But it reminds me of being in a wave. I didn’t grow up with the ocean, so my experiences with this are distinct and pointed: standing as the waves are lapping against me, enduring and resisting, until that bigger one hits and then you’re just knocked over and swallowed in a single moment. You can be tumbled and crushed in the wave, defeated by the next one simply because you haven’t recovered; or you can let go and be part of the wave. That’s clinching. Not submission, but integration.
#6 Pure Geometry
Pure Geometry. To give yourself over to clinch is to surrender to geometry, the brute fact that limbs and gravity fit together in a certain way. But it is a geometry that you must grope for and feel. You have to find how YOUR limbs fit together, how your balances treat gravity. It isn’t a math sketch, it’s organic geometry. This is the essential “Long Clinch” position. The head locks into the triangle of the arms, The weight flexes down and backwards via a wide yet buoyant base. There is no escape.
My take: there are strong positions that are called locks because they are hard to escape from, and then there are true locks. Picture the inside of a lock, a combination lock, the tumblers falling into place to create an impossible-to-break mechanism. That’s what the head under the jaw and the shoulders closed around is – it’s those tumblers falling into place and there is no way out. You can feel it. You can feel it and it feels like, “holy shit.”
#7 Head vs Head
Head vs Head. One of the hidden battles of Muay Thai clinch is the head battle and nowhere is is more true than in Long Clinch where the low position can exert great force on the posture and link whole body movements to to feet.
My take: the use of the head in the clinch is a total game-changer. It’s next level. The head and the shoulders are where all detailed proficiency lie. I’ve reached a level of understanding with the head, even though there’s a long way to go yet, but the shoulders are a whole other line. To have both is superhero level.
#8 The Centerline
The Centerline. The struggle in clinch is often over the centerline. There is a natural tension. A broad, outside base is the most secure, but can expose the centerline. Asymmetical attacks at the wings can be unstable, but can be used to expose the opponent’s centerline. This play between edge and center makes up much of the art of clinch, introducing timing and torque as essential tools.
My take: a straight line is strong. There’s power in the line itself. If you can force a bend where it isn’t wanted, you have an advantage. Taking your opponent’s head off-center decreases their strength. Even just a small bend. Imagine the axl of a car with just a little dent on the rod; it distorts the whole mechanism.
#9 The Trick
The Trick. The larger sense of the trick is the reversal, when expectation leads one to imagine the future, and then the pure pleasure of the unexpected happens. This is in contrast to the march of the inevitable, the story many Muay Khao and Clinch fighters portray, the inevitability of that stalkdown, the knees and twistings and locks that will not end. But in every clinch is the possibility of the Trickster, if only as the force that a clich fighter has to ward against by being fundamentally sound, and in the present moment. People sometimes wonder about the scoring of the throw or trip. It really is the celebration of the unexpected, and the art of bringing that reversal about.
My take: there’s always a “next move.” At my stage of development, a trip or a throw is still a bit of an “out,” almost as a way to stop the conversation and give me a break. But that’s not at the highest level what the trick is for, really. It’s the way to get the conversation escalating; a way to stop the stopping and ratchet it up. In this photo, I’m twisting Tanadet to the ground – my “end move” – and he’s grabbing my knee to trip me on the way down. Like grabbing the foot of the guy above you as you’re both slipping off a cliff and he’s got the rope in his hands. The trick is on the card up the sleeve that make the audience go “ahhhh”
Rupe. There is in Thai the principle and perhaps phenomena of Rupe. It means body, but more the image-of-the-body. Ancient societies had words for the publicly facing soul, for instance the Egyptians. In English it is maybe best understood by our word Figure. It’s the shape. Much of what you are doing in clinch is trying to disrupt or fragment the figure of your opponent, while maintaining yours. Yes, you are trying to score points, primarily by knees, but this occurs in a larger context of breaking the figure, or as some describe it, posture. It is more the give impression you are assembled, all the parts are in harmony and expressive. Your Rupe is your prize possession in clinch.
My take: I was watching a fighter who sometimes trains at our gym in a bout on TV. He was fighting hard in the clinch, he was moving and using both technique and power; but you could SEE him struggling. He was losing. And he was doing so in a way that I find myself struggling a lot with, too, overturning on the grab. It’s this over-turn that leads to passivity. When I talked to Kru Nu about the fight, he used this phrase I’d never heard before, but understood, translating to the problem with this fighter being that he lets his fighter-figure, his rupe, be spoiled. Like, breaking posture, but not quite. It’s the overall impression of the body. And he was doing it himself, failing to uphold his physical composure rather than being forced into a bad position by the strength of his opponent. That distinction says a lot to me. Maintain your figure; that part is on you.
#11 At Ease
At Ease. Perhaps the most difficult thing of all in Muay Thai clinch is being at ease. When you clinch up, strength against strength, the most natural thing in the world is to become tense and resistant. Each of the additional layers of skill are revealed to you by the degrees to which you can relax under pressure and threat. It is a microcosm, and a density point of fighting itself.
My take: I use this example of when you first start driving a car. You’re tense everywhere, your hands are at 10 and 2, you’re sitting too upright and your eyes are trying to focus on all the information at once so as not to hit a tree or a cat or another car. It’s exhausting. But once you’ve driven a car for a while, you ease into this state where you can control the wheel, reach for your coffee cup and see the cat darting out from the side of the road all at the same time, without looking for it. You can see this in great fighters. You can see the relaxation in Tanadet’s hand, tension only where it’s needed. I’m focusing on rolling my shoulders in, to close off the openings in this position, putting strength and tension just in the muscles that will keep them rolled in, not in the shoulders themselves. And my hands are soft; my neck is relaxed; my posture is in transition.
#12 Hand Fighting
Hand Fighting. One of the more subtle areas of clinch skill comes in hand fighting, just outside of clinch range. This is where the initial moves which determine paths of arm control, inside and outside position are made. The hands become cat whiskers, feeling and creating the avenues for control. Sometimes the clinch battle is already won or lost at this range.
My take: hands of fighters are like hands of stage magicians. They’re instruments of distraction rather than tools of practicality. In fights, you’re wearing gloves, so the grips and holds that you might get away with in training without them simply aren’t realistic to a fight. But you’ll see how people use them in training. Karuhat, for example, uses his to parry your guard here and there, almost like windshield wipers clearing rain. So many westerners who come through my gym and spend a few days clinching with me have heavily trained habits of how they use their hands and forearms to enter into the clinch and it never makes sense for fighting. They should be like antennae, or whiskers, or a blind walking stick. They let you feel, but they don’t really do anything. They distract the eyes, so you can make your move elsewhere.
#13 The Lock
The Lock. There is perhaps no bigger gun in the clinch fighter’s arsenal than The Lock. Every clinch fighter has a slightly different one, ways their head and wrists fit together to immobilize their opponent. While no lock lasts forever, it can wholly win a fight as seconds tick off in complete control, allowing unanswered scores. Because Muay Thai is ultimately about demonstrated control over space The Lock makes explicit the implicit. Golden Age fighters complain that the Lock has taken too great a role in Muay Thai, but the rise of the Lock probably developed in parallel to the foot sweep which once was illegal or frowned upon. The most stable and the destabilizing rising together.
My take: a lock, when not understood within the whole game, is mistaken for an end-game. But it’s transitional, it’s not a destination but rather a stone in the water that allows you to hope from one to another and get across. You don’t stay on the rock in the middle of the river and think you’ve reached your destination. You leap and balance, leap and balance, leap and balance. That’s the lock. It’s the stone in the river and you have to keep moving. Some stones are wobbly, terrible places to land – those are ineffective locks and you might fall in the river a bit. Some stones are flat and solid and wide – those are good locks – but you can’t stay there. I’ve had a tendency to think I’ve arrived when I get on those nice flat rocks, so understanding that they’re part of the path and not the destination is my current growth pattern.
#14 High and Low
High and Low. It isn’t just with head position, the dimensions of High and Low are forever in tension in clinch. You want to stand tall, unbroken, but “High” leaves you suseptable to low or torquing attack. “Low” is aesthetically inferior, so when establishing yourself low – for instance with head down, or in a mid or low clinch attack – you have to show dominance. If the position shows itself to be neutral or only slight the “Low” position will be read as inferior, frustrated or broken. Low can have devastating possibilities, but must be executed with powerful, or at least efficacious intent.
My take: when I was working with Tanadet, the very moment he got this position I could feel how useless any of my efforts were. The head pushing under my jaw takes away any possibility of using pure strength to escape, and the angles are all closed off so I can’t swim in. However, prior to getting into the “totally fucked” position, I figured out how to fight for this, forcing my head under his before he could really establish this lock. And I won a few times. “Yes,” Tanadet confirmed when my head would slip under his jaw, “whoever is under wins.”
#15 The Throw
The Throw. The Throw is a complex aesthetic moment. Occurring at any time it displays physical dominance, and usually scores nicely. Ideally though the throw is part of a larger conversation, the exclamation point on clinch exchanges that already display dominance. Much more of a drop-the-mic moment than an arm wrestling victory. How you appear after the throw is also impactful on the score. You want to create visible contrast between your bodily state and that of your opponent. That is because the more esteemed expression of the throw is not “I am more powerful than you”, rather it is: You crumbled due to internal flaw.
My take: imagine delivering a total burn insult in a battle of words with someone, but just after you say this no-comeback-imaginable thing, you stutter or accidentally call your verbal sparring partner, “baby,” or something that just kills what you might have accomplished with the insult. That’s what balance or non-balance after a throw means. Crumpling them, but remaining in composed “rupe” posture is the ultimate. The secret is using timing and their rhythm to make your move, rather than strength to force it. Kinda like all the rest of fighting should be also, but all put in a moment.
More on the Long Clinch
Long Clinch is a particular branch of clinch technique that is often used with many other positions and tactics. Rarely does a fighter specialize in it, as Tanadet did, but he brought it to a very high level. I can be helpful for any level of clinch because it gives you an alternate mode of control. You can see more on the Long Clinch in this video segment which includes my Long Clinch Session with Tanadet in the Muay Thai Library:
A film study compilation on Tanadet’s Long Clinch
Read my essay on the Long Clinch:
#56 Tanadet Tor. Pran49 – Mastering Long Clinch (63 min) watch it here
In in Chiang Mai, study Long Clinch in private sessions with Tanadet himself at PM Gym. You can message them here. It’s 500 baht and hour. You can contact him on Facebook. PM Gym is off of Highway 11: