If you want to compete in Muay Thai at a high level, your defense needs to be on point.
Failing to block incoming strikes will lead to unnecessary damage that can impact you in the long term. While some fighters pride themselves on having a strong chin, after years of punishment those fighters often suffer from severe concussions and memory loss when they retire.
While it is important to know how to take a punch, that should be your last line of defense. A proper defense involves blocking, parrying, avoiding, redirecting, and countering strikes before they land.
Some fighters shield up and block incoming strikes, while evasive fighters like Saenchai make their opponents miss. You can utilize different defensive tactics, depending on your skill level and opponent’s style.
If you face a knockout artist, it is probably a good idea to keep your hands up with a high guard, just in case you don’t see one of the punches coming for you.
If you want to look at some of the lasting effects of concussions, read THIS ARTICLE
If you look at any fighter who competes in the top stadiums in Thailand, they have excellent defensive skills. You can’t survive five rounds with high-level fighters if you aren’t able to stop a lot of the incoming damage.
This article is going to look at some of the defensive skills that help these fighters compete with the best.
5 Defensive Skills for Muay Thai
1. Defensive Timing
Defensive timing is the most important skill you can have.
You may know how to block an incoming strike, but do you have the reflexes and timing to block at the right time? Timing is everything in Muay Thai or in any combat sport.
Defensive timing requires you to have the speed and reflexes to react to your opponent’s strikes. A good defensive fighter can block almost every incoming attack and anticipate when their opponent is going to strike next.
Timing is required to execute any defensive technique. It is what separates the best fighters from the average ones. The only way to develop timing is through experience. Hitting a heavy bag alone will not improve your defensive timing. You need to experience getting hit with different types of strikes in order to learn how to defend against those attacks.
This clip showcases Superlek defending and countering against the aggressive Seksan. Notice how Superlek (red) nullifies every strike that his opponent throws while throwing counter attacks. Superlek showcases perfect defensive timing.
How do you develop good defensive timing?
The best way to learn how to block a strike is to get hit with a strike over and over until you finally learn to raise your leg and block the attack.
Sparring is the only way that you will improve your defensive timing. Drilling can help you teach you the basics of blocking, but to be good at blocking you need to do endless hours of sparring with different people. By facing thousands of strikes, you will naturally start to develop the reflexes to be able to block them as they come.
In addition, you need to spar with people who are better than you. This means sparring the best guys in your area. If you don’t have the luxury of sparring with people outside of your gym, take a trip to Thailand. You will get a chance to spar with people from all over the world and ex-Thai champions.
The more sparring/fighting you do against good competition, the better your defense will become.
2. Footwork and Balance
When you start facing good Muay Thai competition, you will need to learn to control the position of the ring. Good footwork can help you evade a lot of the strikes and control the distance of the fight.
Your footwork can also help you control the range of the fight.
While some fighters like to stay in striking range and trade blows with their opponent, this is not always the smartest way to fight. Against hard-hitting, aggressive fighters, it can be advantageous to stay out of their striking range and attack from a distance.
In this clip, Panpayak (red shorts) showcases perfect footwork as he circles away from his aggressive opponent’s power shots and counter strikes. Notice how Panpayak’s slick movement looks like he is dancing as he moves around in the ring.
Footwork allows you to circle out from an aggressive attacker and stay in the right range. Like timing, footwork is a skill that requires practice.
Sparring in a ring can help you develop better movement and avoid getting stuck in the corners of the ring.
In addition to your movement in the ring, balance is an essential part of Muay Thai. When someone catches your kick or tries to sweep you in the clinch, a good base is going to keep you on your feet.
Balance requires you to learn how to transfer weight from one foot to the other, to maintain control. This is essential when your opponent tries to throw you on the ground.
In the following gif, Yodpanomrong (red shorts) utilizes excellent balance as he jumps on one leg to avoid being thrown to the ground by Littewada. This level of balance and body control is amazing.
Being able to stay on your feet can help you stay in better defensive positions and enable you to counter your opponent’s strikes.
How do You Develop Better Footwork and Balance?
Learning proper footwork starts in your first Muay Thai class. Once you develop your basic movements and learn how to move forward, backward and to the side with the correct foot patterns, you can then start to circle out when your opponent is moving in.
Advanced footwork requires a strong grasp of the basics before you can incorporate it into your sparring. If you are a beginner, you should focus on the basics and worry about footwork when you are comfortable sparring with different types of opponents.
While footwork requires you to practice with intent, balance is developed through sparring and clinching. Every time someone grabs your leg to sweep you, or tries to dump you in the clinch, your body will learn to adjust your balance and react accordingly.
The more you have people try to sweep you to the floor, the better you will become at staying on your feet in this situations.
3. Head Movement
When you face high-level competition, you will need to be able to duck away from elbow strikes and punches. If your head is always stationary, you will be an easy target to hit.
Fighters who have good head movement can avoid a lot of damage and have extended careers. When you look at all of the legendary skill fighters, they all possess excellent evasive moves.
Muay Thai head movement is similar to boxing, except fighters do not duck low. If you duck low, you are putting yourself in a position for someone to kick you in the head. Unless a fighter is toying with their opponent, Muay Thai fighters typically only slip punches and elbows and lean back.
How Do You Improve Your Head Movement?
Do you know that Muay Thai fighters in Thailand spend 50% of their time doing pure Boxing sparring? You would think that Thai fighters would only spar Muay Thai, but they don’t.
Muay Thai gyms in Thailand understand the importance of developing good hands and learning how to defend against punches. By sparring with only hands, it forces fighters to learn to slip, dodge and parry punches. This improves the defensive timing against punches and also teaches fighters how to avoid taking damage.
If you want to improve your head movement, you should also train Boxing, and spar only with your hands against good Boxers. This will help you learn how to deal with punches.
4. An Effective Teep
The teep is one of the most efficient defensive tools you have at your disposal. The moment your opponent tries to go off with a combination against you, a well-placed teep can knock them off balance. Similar to the jab, the teep can be used as a disruption tool to help control your opponent.
The moment your opponent tries to go off with a combination against you, a well-placed teep can knock them off balance. Similar to the jab, the teep can be used as a disruption tool to help control your opponent.
Your teep can be used to dictate how close your opponent comes into your strike range before you push them back. If you have an opponent charging forward with punches, kicks, knees, or even trying to clinch you, the teep will push them back.
The following clip showcases Panpayak (red shorts) pushing his aggressive opponent back with a well-placed teep.
The teep is the Muay Thai equivalent of the Boxing jab. While Thai Fighters also utilize the jab in the ring, the teep is the primary defensive tool that is considered to be effective against any opponent.
How to Improve Your Teep?
Your teep is developed in training from shadow boxing, bag work, pad rounds and in sparring. Learning how to perform a teep correctly is the first step to mastering the teep. A lot of people make the mistake of not thrusting their hips forward, which results in a weak teep.
Once you have good teep fundamentals, you have to work on teeping in sparring situations against different types of opponents. You will encounter some fighters who are good at catching teeps. This will help you snap your teep faster, to prevent it being easily grabbed by your opponent.
The more you utilize your teep in training, the better your teeps will become.
5. A Strong Guard
There will be many times in Muay Thai when you can’t evade or slip punches, and you need to shield up and take punches. An active guard is going to protect the vital areas of your head and keep you from being knocked unconscious.
While some fighters like Saenchai rarely have to rely on their guard, not everyone has next level evasive skills. Most people need to rely on their guard to block a lot of the incoming strikes that you will encounter.
A strong guard is going to keep you alive in a fight. Having your hands up at the right time will prevent you getting knocked out by those strikes that you don’t see coming.
The following clip showcases Superlek (red shorts) defending against Seksan with a high guard that is blocking most of the strikes. By keeping his hands in front of his face, Superlek can avoid a lot of damage.
This clip showcases Panpayak (red shorts) keeping a strong guard to avoid damage from his aggressive opponent.
The heavier a fighter, the more important it is to have a strong guard. Smaller fighters can get away with making mistakes because the punches aren’t as hard, but heavier fighters don’t have the luxury of taking as much damage to the head.
How to Improve Your Guard
There will be times during a fight when you cannot evade a strike and will have to block it. There are many drills you can do to help you focus on building a stronger guard.
The following drill can be used to help you get comfortable taking punches to the guard.
Sparring is where you will learn to shield up and protect your chin from punishment. While technical sparring should be used mainly in training, hard sparring can be beneficial to helping you improve your guard.
When you get hit with a shot that rocks you, it will teach you to keep your hands up. Every time your hands drop and you get hit, that is going to send a signal to your brain to keep your hands up. The best learning is often done through trial and error, which is why there is no substitute for hands-on experience.
It is better to be a good defensive fighter and have a mediocre offense, than a good offensive fighter with a bad defense.
The goal of every Muay Thai fighter should be to achieve their maximum potential in the ring. A good defense is essential to achieving this goal.
While heavy-handed fighters who are aggressive are often admired among casual fans, as a fighter you should strive to have a great defense.
The best way to improve your defensive skills is to train with people who are better than you. If you train with people who are good punchers, you will learn head movement after eating enough punches to the head. The better your training partners/opponents, the better you will get at defense.
A good defense can help you compete against any opponent regardless of their fighting style. While you need a good offense to score points, a good defense can prevent your opponent from scoring points against you. That is already half the battle.