PART I     



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by David Elkins

No one looks forward to fighting a Thai. This is one subject upon which proponents of almost any style will agree. What is it about Thai boxing that commands such respect? Why are Thai fighters considered virtually indestructible regardless of the rules of encounter? What gives them such enormous power to, intimidate?

This article will explore some aspects of the Muay Thai training philosophy that may contribute to the toughness that characterizes Thai boxers. It will address the issue of the absence of forms practice in the training program. An outline will be provided of a specific training program for Muay Thai approved by the USMTA . It will suggest specific elements that should be included in a Muay Thai workout. Qualities will be discussed that may be incorporated and refined in your training program regardless of the particular style you practice. This article will not tell you how to throw a Thai round kick or when it is best to use an elbow, a knee, or a hand technique. This information is contained in numerous articles, a few books, and several excellent videos. Real Thai champions are now giving seminars in this country. All of these modalities are highly recommended to those who would like to have more knowledge of the specific body mechanics and strategies of Thai boxing.

Muay Thai training is more than a simple prescription for various movements to be performed so many times in whatever manner. It is training strictly to prepare to fight. It is training for an indomitable will. It promotes the acceptance of pain. It is the type of training that prepared Chang-Pueak Kietsongrit to suffer a first round broken jaw in his fight with kickboxing great, Rick "The Jet" Roufus, and then to come back and annihilate his opponent in a stunning fifth round T.K.O. Keep in mind that this contest was governed by rules that did not allow the use of clinching, elbows, or knees; a situation that deprived the Thai of some of his most potent in-fighting weapons. Additionally, it caused his response time to be slowed by the need for conscious thought regarding the acceptability of technique. There is no "mind like water" under these conditions. Think of playing baseball under rules that forbid the infielders from throwing directly to the first baseman. You can imagine your confusion!

Most martial arts systems like to think that their training program fosters acceptance of inner conflict and develops resolve despite discomfort and discouragement. Achievement of these objectives is usually pursued though forms practice, limited or no-contact sparring, and other character or spirit building activities. These strategies do work as anyone who has achieved at least intermediate skill level can attest. They are not, however, focused exclusively to the development of real fighting skills and they are seldom done with the intensity that may be found in almost any Thai boxing camp. Most of us are simply not willing to take the program to the limits that characterize Muay Thai. The great Indian musician, Ravi Shankar, was required to tap out rhythms for the first few years of his training before he was allowed to pick up a sitar. How many martial artists do you know that are willing to pay that kind of price to perfect themselves?

Thai boxers begin their training at an early age. As the mind and body develops the fighter is gradually introduced to greater severity in training. This means more rounds of more intense training, more physical contact, and more demand in physical conditioning. You will note that every activity in the training curriculum is directly related to fighting and/or conditioning. There are no forms, no pursuit of belt rank advancements, and no concern about which uniform to wear for today's training; simply doing things that directly translate into making one a better fighter.

If Thai boxers did forms practice, I imagine that as a group they would rival the ancient masters who advocated doing a form sometimes until you fall on the ground in confusion, and then doing the same form again and again for three years before moving on to the next form. There are martial artists who might say..."I don't do roadwork, but I practice forms at an aerobic pace. This gives me conditioning plus it refines my moves!" This raises two interesting questions. The first point deals with intensity of training effort. When is the last time that you, or anyone you know, did your style's basic form until you fell down in confusion? Of course, it's not necessary to work at that level of intensity to achieve your next belt rank advancement or even to do well in your next sparring match, yet this is the way that our revered founders trained. It's the way forms champions train, and you can bet that it's the way a Thai boxer would train if he did forms practice.

The second point, and perhaps more controversial, deals with the validity of forms practice in a fighter's training. Yes, forms practice can build spirit. Yes, forms practice can build stamina, a healthy body, and a good physique. Yes, forms are beautiful, and as such have intrinsic artistic worth. But do forms enhance combat prowess? Western boxers, judoka, Olympic wrestlers, and Muay Thai fighters would all say no!

A basic law of athletic performance is specificity. That is, you get better at exactly what you do. Martial arts forms often contain highly stylized movements and static postures. Practicing forms can certainly enhance speed, balance, timing, and ultimately, power, in performing the specific series of movements contained in the forms. There are also some benefits provided by forms practice that can generalize to other motor activities. Forms can help develop better coordination. They can teach control of respiration and promote an increased sense of body awareness. They can lead to improved command of the body's musculature.

Will forms practice best prepare you for the fluid execution of the actual movements that work in real combat? Debatable. Will a majority of the stances and techniques used in forms practice work in the ring? Doubtful. Are you then, in fact, eng raining neuromuscular patterns that are at best tangential to development of skill as a fighter, and possibly impeding progress by promoting learning of irrelevant material? Quite likely. This is not a new topic and these arguments are certainly not the last or best words on the subject, but all other things being equal, my money is on the example of those who fight for real. None of the fighters mentioned above do forms practice as a serious aspect of their training programs. The physical and mental toughness and fighting skill of the Thais is not a product of forms practice. Of this there is no argument.

Thai boxers train to fight and they do little else for much of their youth. Their techniques are simple, combat applicable, and effective. They are in unbelievable physical condition. They know pain from their training so they are not shut down by pain in the ring. Most athletes ' will agree that the contest merely echoes the training. Statistically, as you train, so will you perform. How do you stop a fighter with Thai inspired preparation? Records demonstrate conclusively that few succeed.

The overwhelming majority of contests in which Thai boxers are pitted against others are chronicled by photos of the other fighters lying on their butts looking up at the stadium ceiling. This legacy encompasses generations of formal and informal bouts between Thais and others. incidentally, at least one series of matches was held in the big stadium in Bangkok between Thai boxers wearing boxing gloves and kung-fu men fighting without gloves. The outcome was the same as that described above. Food for thought for those who may be thinking... "Sure they're tough, but we have iron palm and empty hand technique which can't be used while wearing boxing gloves." Enough said!

The heart of Muay Thai training is physical conditioning. Perhaps 80% of any true fighting art is physical conditioning. You will never see a seasoned Thai boxer sucking wind. The daily Muay Thai training program has long ago pushed back the point at which most of us would be experiencing debilitating oxygen debt and lactic acid build up. There is no mystery to the apparent indefatigability shown by Thai boxers. They have simply worked harder and longer than almost everyone else.

If there is another "secret" to Muay Thai's aura of invincibility, it is the practice of body tempering that allows a Thai boxer to mete out and accept physical punishment that would cripple an untrained individual. More of this later.

There you have it! At the risk of being discounted as overly simplistic, Thai fighters are tougher than almost anyone else because they have worked longer and harder than almost anyone else. They have concentrated on fighting most of their lives and they are in super physical shape. They have tempered their bodies to be able to give and receive otherwise devastating blows.

Finally, their techniques are simple and designed to hurt, not to play tag. To be sure, there are intangible variables involved. Most Thai boxers are Buddhist and as such find their training efforts compatible with the Buddhist tradition of existential commitment. Their beliefs encourage involvement in activity such as training that tends to chip away at ego. As a group, they are "hungry," truly can not imagine losing, and suffer greater social and economic consequences than most should they fail.

We all did not have the good fortune to begin training at a tender age. Some of us may love forms and not wish to discontinue their practice. Certainly not everyone would want to engage in full contact fighting by Thai or any other rules. We all can, however, aspire to Thai-like toughness in whatever expression of martial arts practice we choose. In this sense, Muay Thai strength does not differ from kung-fu strength, Kali strength, or Karate strength. The capacity to be physically and spiritually strong, to be single-minded in pursuit of an objective, and to be able to strip away the nonessentials is not unique to Muay Thai, nor is it really unique to martial arts. But when it comes to the domain of martial arts, and more specifically to actual fighting, it's a fact nobody really does it like the Thais!



Copyright 1998 USMTA Inc.   All rights reserved. Revised: October 16, 2004