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This is the second article in my three part Boxing for Muay Thai series:
- Boxing vs Muay Thai (examines the subtle differences in movement, stance, hand position between the two sports)
- How to Use Boxing Effectively in Muay Thai
- Best Boxing Combos Wickedly Effective for Muay Thai (a study of some of the more effective boxing combos to use for Muay Thai, but looking at real examples)
How can you box effectively in Muay Thai?
And how can you adapt a pure boxing style for Muay Thai?
These are the main questions we will address in this article.
I’m a huge fan of Boxing myself, so figuring out how to use your hands to box effectively in Muay Thai fight is, and has been, of personal interest to me.
Adding a solid boxing skill set to your Muay Thai game can radically improve your Muay Thai and make you a much more dangerous fighter.
And while Boxing can improve your Muay Thai, you’ll need to modify some things to make it effective. This is especially true if you come from a traditional boxing background and are moving into Muay Thai or you want to make your boxing game more effective in Muay Thai.
Don’t believe that boxing can be an asset to Muay Thai? Well, two of the top 3 greatest Muay Thai fighters ever were in fact boxers of the highest level: Somrak Khamsing, who won the Olympic gold medal in Boxing, and Samart Payakaroon, the legendary Thai Lumpinee champion who was also the super bantamweight WBC boxing champion of the world.
If you watch these guys fight, you’ll see how they brought some of the boxing rhythm, movements, combos, and hand power to Muay Thai, helping them dominate the sport. There are other notable Thai boxers with good hands such as Ramon Dekkers and Buakaw Banchamek.
Many of the Thai boxers I’ve seen have a limited arsenal of combos (JAB-CROSS, JAB-CROSS-LEFT HOOK). As such, if you have a boxing background, you can fluidly unleash hell with some combos that your opponent won’t expect.
Too many people who train Muay Thai treat the hands as an afterthought — as a means to set up a kick, a knee, an elbow, or to close the distance for the clinch — and opt to focus their energy on other areas like kicking or clinching.
But in a pinch, boxing can be your best friend and deliver you stunning wins over fighters who are more technically sound Muay Thai fighters (i.e. more skilled at Muay Thai than you).
In Thailand, for example, if you fight a Thai, he will often outpoint you with kicks, and overall have much better timing with their counters than you.
But Thai’s are often weak when it comes to boxing. This is a weakness you, as a less technically skilled fighter, can take advantage of.
And if you can’t get a knockout, you can completely throw a Thai fighter off his game by landing hard punches allowing you to set up other shots with kicks, knees, elbows, etc.
If you have great boxing skills to fall back on (and a bit of power), you can win via knockout over a better and more skilled Thai opponent. And if you can’t get a knockout, you can completely throw a Thai fighter off his game by landing hard punches allowing you to set up other shots with kicks, knees, elbows, etc.
I recently was at a local Muay Thai event where a foreign Thai boxer completely turned around a losing fight against a much more experienced Thai by virtue of his boxing skills:
If you want to effectively user your hands (boxing) in a Muay Thai fight and you come from a BOXING background, you have to modify your boxing habits significantly to make them work for you. You can’t just walk into a Muay Thai fight and start fighting like a western boxer — you’ll you eat a non-stop barrage of kicks, knees, and elbows.
Keep in mind, and this is from my own personal experience fighting Muay Thai matches, that it’s not at all comfortable trying to throw punches with abandon and expose yourself when you know your opponent can kick, knee, or elbow your face at any given moment.
You might be an experienced boxer and have pro boxing fights under your match, but all that changes completely when you know you can be kicked or kneed in the face! This fact changes the punch game a lot, and I will say it takes some re-programming of your boxing habits to adopt a pure boxing style for Muay Thai.
Note that in Thailand under the Thai-style rules of Muay Thai, punches do NOT count for points for the most part. That means if you opt to go hand heavy and your opponent opts to throw more kicks than you or knees, you will LOSE on points unless you get a knockout.
10 Ways to Adapt Boxing for Muay Thai
First a disclaimer: these are GENERAL guidelines. You WILL see Nak Muay break them. I’ve seen Thai boxers fight with their hands down to their sides, Muhammad Ali style. I’ve seen Thai boxers slip punches, duck punches, and pretty much break every single one of these points. But, unless you are good enough to break these and get away with, you probably shouldn’t as a rule of thumb!
1. KEEP DEFENSIVE HEAD MOVEMENT TO MINIMUM (especially forward and side movements)
Particularly important ONLY if you come into Muay Thai from Boxing background.
This means no:
- deep bob & weaves
- slipping to left or right
- ducking punches
Western Boxing, especially at the higher levels of the sport, necessitates that fighters slip, duck, bob and weave their way out of the opponent’s strikes. It can be a real thing of beauty watching a good defensive boxer avoid punches with a slight flick of the head — like almost a dance in a way.
While the defensive aspect of boxing is effective in an all out hand’s only fight, it’s not so much the case when kicks and knees and elbows can be thrown. And certainly not when the opponent can clinch you at any moments notice. If you slip to the side, you could eat a kick. If you bob and weave under a punch, there is a very real possibility your opponent will grab your head and throw a knee.
Especially Avoid Slipping to the Outside of a Punch
It’s very dangerous if you slip to the outside (if you and your opponent are Orthodox, that means slipping to the right of the jab) because your opponent can set up a head kick.
You might slip one jab (slipping to the right), or you might slip to the outside of a straight right (slipping to the left) but all your opponent has to do is fake again and when you slip to the outside, throw a head kick. Lights out!
If you have to slip, keep it to the minimum, maybe a slight weave here and there with your hands HIGH. It’s better to slip to the inside rather than the outside as your opponent can’t directly head kick you if you slip to the inside of a punch.
But you have to be quick if you do this and there is a risk if you duck down too low, or your opponent is ready, you will eat a knee to the face as shown in the picture above.
Yes, there are a few all-stars Muay Thai fighters who can slip punches effectively during fights, but as a rule of thumb, I don’t recommend it unless you have an almost supernatural awareness of what your opponent can throw and cat-like reflexes.
There may be a few times when you can slip a punch here or there, but you have to have a keen sense of timing and know exactly when it’s safe to do so.
You don’t want to slip a punch and walk into a knee, for example.
Little movements like dipping your head slightly in a weave to the left or to the right can be effective WHEN your opponent throws a punch flurry.
But you don’t want to bend down DEEP like Western boxers do, lest you get a knee to the face. I have seen this before personally watching live Muay Thai fights here in Thailand.
A boxer once jumped into a Thai fight and tried bobbing and weaving, dipping his head low. He got knocked the fuck out with a knee to the face.
Now before you head straight to the comment section to tell me that X or Y Thai fighter would bob/weave, and slip punches in Muay Thai matches, let me say there are ALWAYS exceptions to the rule. But you need to be GOOD ENOUGH to pull this off.
Yes, there are a couple high level Thai fighters that have been known to incorporate boxing defensive movements into their Thai boxing, Somrak Khamsing (who won an Olympic Gold Medal for Boxing) and Samart Payakaroon (WBC champion and Lumpinee champion) being the most famous examples of Thai boxers who can slip punches in Muay Thai matches.
Somrak doing some boxing style slipping and weaving from punches during a Muay Thai fight. Don’t mimic this, though — this guy is one of the few in the sport who have been able to do this:
Sudsakorn Sor Klinmee is another high-level Thai boxer who makes a regular practice of slipping punches (particularly leaning back from punches):
Again, the guys above have almost cat-like reflexes and a lot of experience. I don’t recommend you try applying boxing-like slips and weaves in a Muay Thai fight unless you can pull it off (and you can’t!).
2. LEAN BACK FROM PUNCHES
Though you might have to toss away slipping and weaving away from punches, there are some other options if you want to do more than just block punches on your gloves. The ‘lean back’ for example can be used.
One of the natural defenses used in Muay Thai also shared with boxing is to simply put the weight on the back foot and pull back the head (‘i.e. leaning back’).
Saenchai, for example, is the master of this when it comes to avoiding a face kick:
But in addition to leaning back from kicks, you can also successfully utilize this cross-over boxing skill to lean back from punches in Muay Thai as demonstrated by Sudsakorn sor Klinmee.
Sudsakorn actually does this on a regular basis (he’s got very good hands as traditional Thai Boxers go and it’s worth making a study of his fights to see how you can use your hands with Muay Thai effectively).
It’s MUCH safer to lean back from a punch then it is to slip forward or to the side in a Muay Thai fight!
Sudsakorn can do a Muhammad Ali-like shuffle where he continually steps back while pulling his head just out of range of the punches:
Or he will straight out do a boxing-style pull back of the head:
And sometimes, he will lean back and deliver a vicious counter:
Getting good at leaning back from punches in a Muay Thai match takes some serious practice as the distancing won’t be the same as in Boxing and you have to be wary of follow up kicks.
But, this skill is more much doable in a Muay Thai fight than slipping and weaving. And you are much safer from being kicked since you are pulling back.
3. KEEP PUNCH COMBOS SHORT
One of the hallmarks of boxing is a rapid flurry of punch combos thrown. It’s not at all uncommon to see 4, 5, or even 6 punch combos thrown in a western boxing match, especially when on of the fighters shells up. In Muay Thai, however, you don’t want to make a habit of throwing a flurry of punches lest bad bad things happen to you.
If you get like to throw long punch combos, here are some of the bad things that can happen (and I’ve seen these happen, every single one of them):
- The main danger is that if you throw a long punch combo, the opponent may cover up for one or two of the punches, then throw a vicious counter elbow between your punches. I’ve seen this happen many times. These type of elbows are often the worst because they catch a person coming forward and thus do more damage because the person jumps into the elbow.
- One danger is that if you get caught throwing the same combo over and over (which happens), a good Thai boxer will pick up on the pattern, then time an elbow just right. If that happens, you can say good night to your fight. As a consolation prize, you’ll have your face stitched back together by the ring doctor after waking up.
- There is also the danger of your opponent throwing a straight knee to your chest while you punch. And of course, your opponent might step back from your flurry and hammer a kick into your side.
- One of the well-known defenses against a puncher is to throw a leg kick at the front leg (assuming your opponent is orthodox stance). To punch you have to commit weight on your front leg which means you are often leaning on it as you come in (this is especially true as you throw a straight right, an overhand right, or a right hook). It’s very easy to eat a kick to your leg when you are punching and NOT be in a position to block that kick or return a counter kick.
So, keep punch combos short and simple and often end the combo with a right leg kick or a kick to the head. JAB-CROSS, JAB-CROSS-LEFT HOOK, JAB-RIGHT UPPERCUT, RIGHT CROSS-LEFT UPPERCUT.
4. KEEP HANDS HIGH
This is a given for ANY martial art. In boxing, the only attacks you have to worry about come from the hands. You will sometimes see that boxers often adopt a loose stance where the right hand is held against the right chin (if orthodox) while the left hand is held down around the stomach area. Not a good idea to do this in Muay Thai or you are going to eat kicks to the face.
Muay Thai is called the Art of 8 Limbs for a good reason — you have to worry about 6 other attacks besides the two hands: elbows, knees, and kicks. You also have to be wary of the clinch — if you stick your head out and lean forward, your opponent might simply grab it and throw a knee to your face.
If you watch any good Muay Thai fighter, they have their hands help up high. The hands are often out elbows facing the opponent. This gives a lot of protection to the face area whereas the traditional boxing hand position is more of an overall shell. The hands are held high, elbows pointing forward, and hips square is also a good position to pursue the engagement of the clinch from a distance or short range.
The standard boxing hand position, with both hands held in front of your face (not the high guard) however, is not good for blocking elbows nor is it ideal for blocking head kicks, nor does it make for as easily engaging or resisting the clinch if your opponent comes forward.
5. DO NOT TUCK IN ELBOWS LIKE A TRADITIONAL BOXER
In boxing, the elbows are often sucked in and tight against the side of the body. While this is great for blocking punches, this is not so good for Muay Thai — you can’t easily CATCH KICKS with your elbows tucked in. I’ve seen K1 style kickboxers keep elbows tucked in, but Kickboxing is a blend of Muay Thai and Boxing, and there is no elbows or clinching, so the style of fighting is different. If you want a proper Muay Thai match, it’s quite common to see one fighter catch another fighter’s kicks, then perform a sweep or lunge forward with a knee or kick.
6. DON’T OVER TWIST FEET AND HIPS WHEN THROWING PUNCHES
If you watch Thai’s fight, they often throw straight punches without twisting their feet and hips too much. If you watch a boxing match, you’ll see boxers always twisting their hips and their lead foot to generate maximum punch power on certain punches from this rotational body movement.
Generally, it’s not a good idea to hyper-twist your hips and your feet after throwing a punch (left hook, right hook, overhand right, straight right) IN A MUAY THAI fight because you lose the ability to throw an immediate counter kick after a punch. In western boxing, twisting your feet along with your hips is a very good thing as it helps to generate additional punch power; but in Muay Thai, this will limit your ability to counter kick.
7. KEEP BODY STRAIGHT WHEN BODY PUNCHING WITH THE RIGHT
It’s important that you keep your body straight when you go down for a body shot with the straight-right.
This is to prevent getting KOéd by a knee if you bend your body at the waist and crouch down for a body shot with head bent down like some boxers do (Joe Frazer, for example).
If your opponent times it right, he can throw a straight right knee right to your head or grab your head and throw a knee. Keeping your body straight up will keep your head above knee-level.
Another example of how to throw a straight body punch:
8. DO NOT ONLY JUST PUNCH!
In Thailand, specifically, you will lose a Muay Thai fight if you go hand heavy but light on your kicks and knees.
The reason is that punches are not counted for points for the most part (unless a punch is hard enough to inflict visible pain on your opponent).
So if you want to win your fights in Thailand, you need to use punch combos mixed in with kicks. If you only punch, you will lose the fight unless you get a knockout!
Here’s how to lose a fight on points in Thailand that you ‘won’ by beating up your opponent WITH only your hands. Likely outside of Thailand, the puncher would have taken the win, but Muay Thai is scored differently in Thailand and hands don’t count for a lot compared to kicks and knees.
10. END PUNCH COMBOS WITH LEG KICK
This is a well-known and effective strategy for combining hands and legs. End your combos with a rear kick to the leg, body, or head. You see quite a lot of K1/Kickboxing type guys throw these type of combos. The classic combo is the JAB-CROSS-LEFT HOOK-RIGHT KICK TO LEG.
This basic combo is highly effective as the punches will force your opponent to shell up while you move in close then you throw in a powerful leg kick to their lead leg (assuming both of you are orthodox stance); the kick will often land because your opponent is covering up from the punches and won’t see the kick coming.
4 Muay Thai Counters To Watch For If You Box in a Muay Thai Match
If you want to use your hands effectively in a Muay Thai fight, then keep the following in mind. These are the main counters you’ll find used against you when you come in to strike with your hands.
1. Watch for Teep when moving forward to engage in punches
If you want to use your hands in a Muay Thai fight, then you have to be very wary of running into a teep (straight front kick). It’s very possible your opponent, if they are any good at all, will see you rushing in and teep you.
The result is you will run into the kick, and the impact will knock you on your ass. While not necessary too painful, it is embarrassing, and you can lose a close match if this happens. A good Thai fighter will time it exactly and wait for you to rush in with your hands and teep your body.
The way to avoid this is to open with a kick to close the distance.
2.Watch for leg kicks to lead leg when throwing punch flurry
You are most vulnerable to lead leg low kick attacks when you throw a combo, especially if you end on a straight right or hook. With the hook, your body is slightly twisted and the weight is on your front leg. This means it’s going to be a lot slower for you to bring that leg up to check a leg kick.
The same goes for when you throw a straight or overhand right. Your body will be twisted square with the weight on the front leg. This means that leg is very easy to attack since you won’t be in the position to raise it (too much weight on it and you’ll be off balance if you lift it up).
3. Watch for a lead arm or rear side elbow when the opponent shells up
I’ve seen Thai boxers shell up on a punch flurry for a couple seconds, then explode out with a rear side elbow or a leading hand side elbow, or a forward up elbow. Such a counter attack from your opponent can catch you off guard if you are committed to a punch combination.
4. Watch for straight right forward knee when you a punch
You are especially vulnerable to the right knee if you throw a right hook as the opponent can catch that hook on their left-hand glove and easily step forward with a right knee right to your stomach.
If you throw a straight right and your opponent times it right, they can hammer your stomach with a knee while leaning back, so the knee hits you while your punch doesn’t reach.
The Final Word
Both Boxing and Muay Thai are beautiful sports; there’s a lot Muay Thai practitioners can learn from Boxing to improve their Muay Thai game.
If you want to come into Muay Thai from a Boxing background, you will have a big advantage using your hands over those who don’t have a boxing background. But you’ll have to modify your boxing so it can work for you (and not get you KO’ed).
Make sure you read the final article, ‘Best Boxing Combos for Muay Thai‘ in this ‘Boxing for Muay Thai’ series I’ve put together.