I have heard some complain that Muay Thai is being ruined by gambling and modernization, and I do think that these are worthy concerns. But we in the West – with our western histories – are very detached from the history of Muay Thai itself. The idea that is put forward (at times) that there is no historic role of punching, or that clinch is not a major dimension of classic Muay Thai but rather a modern distortion, the result of gambling interests; but there doesn’t seem to be great historical evidence to support those claims, at least in the longer view of time by what I have found. When we look at old fights from any decade we see both of these elements, and for those that feel that clinch plays too heavily in today’s sport, how does one settle that with the career of Dieselnoi, arguably one of the greatest modern day Muay Thai fighters, a nearly un-fightable Muay Khao specialist. Clearly he was winning fights on score cards during what is considered Golden Age Muay Thai. And though very tall, he was not inventing a new fighting style with his relentless knees. This was a style of fighting that already existed. In clinch fighting, when facing a striker, this is essentially refusing to allow the fight to be fought where the opponent is most comfortable and effective.
In any case, for contrast I post here two fight videos from 1959. The first is a highlight of what is said to be a Championship match, but I’m really not sure and the clip is from a British broadcast that’s pretty offensive in its general tone. The audience cheers are a sound effect added in and it’s not clear what stadium or location it could be. And you can hear the racist exoticism in the Pathe narration, the fight looking like pure mayhem to the western eye. But as can been seen, clinch and punching are prominent (at bottom I also post a 1950 bout from Rajadamnern before the roof, and a 1961 fight as Lumpinee as well). Below the first video (the Thai fight) is the World Championship bout between Patterson and Johansson, just to compare the differences in sport and technique, in the same year. And yes it seems, the art of clinch fighting has been prominent in Muay Thai for a long time. It is, in a sense, a mixed martial art (a grappling art and a striking art) or a “complete martial art,” at least since Rajadamnern opened in 1945 – here is a 1946 fight, and a fight in 1967, again, with clinch and throws.
A Muay Thai “Championship” Bout in Thailand – 1959
Ingemar Johansson -vs- Floyd Patterson June 26, 1959
Yes, there are beautiful techniques in Muay Thai, histories of fighting knowledge that need to be preserved, but I do think we fantasize about these histories, tracing them directly back to ancient times. In terms of technique I’m not sure the Thai fighters in the older films (1940s/1950s) could stand up to even an average Bangkok stadium fighter in today’s Thailand. It’s true, there will always be a tension between the grappler and the striker, and we will always feel that this generation is losing something that other generations cherished and that there are forces at work that are degrading values of the past. It was always better in yester-year, right? And in some cases this is true and an important argument can be made: we need to hold onto what was. On the other hand, we should also keep track of how things really were, too. There has very likely been since modern, stadium fighting began in Thailand, a power vs finesse, grappler vs striker contrast. It’s the same in western boxing with defensive style vs. offensive style, the “boxer” vs. the “puncher.” Floyd Mayweather, Jr. didn’t re-invent boxing with his evasive style; Klitschko didn’t invent the jab and clinch style.
I’m okay if people would like to hold up, let’s say, the 1990s, or the 1980s as a Golden Age of Muay Thai, when there was a special confluence of technique, promotional vision, and country-wide participation, and the sport reached an apex. But perhaps it is a mistake to try to trace this golden moment back to how Muay Thai has always been, or give too much blame to modern tendencies or trends.
Of course I’m not a Muay Thai historian. I’m only a very interested fighter looking at what evidence I can gather, and listening to the stories told to me by ex-fighters that I know. Just offering a perspective. I also happen to be a lover of clinch fighting (not everyone is!), which has a depth of art all its own.
1950 Rajadamnern Fight – Clinch Prominent
1961 Fight – Clinch Prominent
If you liked this article, you may find The Origins of Japanese Kickboxing interesting.