When you are matched up against a fighter who comes from the same fighting background, the rules of the dance are understood. You already know what to expect from your opponent because you have danced with similar opponents many times before. Every technique your opponent uses is familiar because you also use the same weapons.
Kick, punch, block, move, repeat. Every fighting style has a rhythm that is unique.
However, if you face someone from a different fighting background, the rules of the dance change.
To become a versatile Muay Thai fighter, you therefore not only need to know how to face the different Muay Thai styles (kickers, elbowers, clinchers, punchers, swarmers, etc.) you also need to know how to face other fighting styles like Kickboxers, Taekwondo, MMA and Karate fighters. However, before facing someone from a non-Muay Thai background, you first need to understand your opponent’s techniques, movements, and rhythm. To do this, you need to gain experience sparring partners with different fighting styles, spend time observing high-level pros, and understanding your own strengths and weaknesses so that you can learn how to counter different types of fighters.
***Please note that this is an advanced tactic for advanced Muay Thai practitioners. First, learn how to counter the different Muay Thai styles, then you can worry about trying to face non-Muay Thai fighting styles.***
Sparring with Different Fighting Styles
The main way to become comfortable facing non-Muay Thai fighters in the ring is to spar with them.
When you fight in Thailand, you will either face a Thai fighter or a foreigner. With a Thai opponent, you know his or her style will be a traditional Muay Thai style, but with foreigners, fighters can come from different non-Muay Thai backgrounds.
Because of the diverse range of opponents you could end up facing, it is important that you gain experience facing a diverse range of fighters.
If you come from a traditional Muay Thai background, you might not be used to having someone throw a spinning kick at you. So, the first time someone throws a spinning kick, it will probably catch you off guard. It can be very uncomfortable sparring with someone who uses techniques that you are not used to blocking. The only way to get comfortable against these new techniques is to have someone use them against you in sparring.
If you currently train at a gym that doesn’t have a diverse set of fighters to spar with, contact other gyms and see if they have open sparring sessions. For example, if you want to get comfortable facing kickboxers, go to a kickboxing gym and spar with kickboxers. If you don’t want to visit another local gym, book a trip to Thailand. You will end up sparring with people who come from all kinds of striking backgrounds. The more you spar with new styles, the more comfortable you will become facing those styles.
Remember that learning often occurs when we push past our comfort zones. Pushing past your comfort zone might result in you sparring people that make you feel uncomfortable, but it will make you better.
Watch and Learn from the Pros
Besides sparring with different types of fighters, you should also be watching footage of different style-versus-style battles.
Organizations like Glory and One Championship (Kickboxing) are good places to start watching fights that feature high-level Muay Thai fighters versus Kickboxers.
Watching fighters like Sittichai completely dominating all Kickboxing competition can give you some insight into what kinds of techniques do and don’t work. Watch how Sittichai is able to counter some of the dangerous techniques that his opponents use, and effectively land strikes using his Muay Thai techniques.
In this fight, Sittichai beats Van Roosmalen using his left kicks and superior foot movement. Notice how Sittichai lands a kick every time Robin tries to jump forward with punches.
One thing you will notice when you watch style-versus-style matchups is that fighters always stick to what they know. If you try to fight a Kickboxer using that same fighting style, you will lose. You need to learn how to master your own style and use it effectively against other styles. That is why watching the highest-level Thai fighters compete against other styles can give you insight into how to effectively counter different opponents.
Be Your Own Coach
Another key to becoming versatile in the ring is to understand and analyze your own game. This means knowing what areas of striking you are good at, what areas you should avoid, and how to capitalize on your strengths so you can be adaptive in the ring. For example, if you know that you have terrible boxing skills, then you should try to minimize your exposure to punches to prevent that weakness becoming exploited by staying out of the mid-range, going to the clinch, etc.
Alternatively, you might be an excellent clincher, but if you are sparring with a kickboxer who avoids the clinch, you may not be able to use that strength. Or, if you only low kick in a fight, what happens when your opponent starts blocking all your kicks? Do you have other weapons you can use in the fight? You need to have other areas that you can fall back on.
Once you begin to understand your strengths and weaknesses, you can start targetting a few areas to strengthen and drill those consistently in training. Concentrate on practicing those moves when you spar and even record yourself on video. Watching sparring footage of yourself is a great way to see what you do well and what you need to work on.
If you’re able to train at a gym in Thailand, take privates with a trainer. A good trainer can help you break down your game and drill areas that you need to work on.
Taking an organized and analytical approach to improving your game will help to prevent you from becoming a one trick pony and improve your overall skill set. This puts you in a better position to win against different types of opponents.
When you look at the top Muay Thai fighters like Sittichai and Superbon who have transitioned successfully to kickboxing, the reason for their success is because of their experience. Both fighters had hundreds of professional fights under their belt in Muay Thai before starting their kickboxing career; they were overall experienced fighters in the ring, which made the adaptation process easier.
Unlike these seasoned pros, however, you don’t have the luxury of experience on your side. Because of that, you need to do as much sparring as possible, watch footage of the top level guys, and constantly break down your own game to improve. By actively working on these three areas, you will start to become a versatile fighter that can compete against anyone in the ring.