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What it means to have “Heart” in Muay Thai



Kevin Ross Heart

Kevin Ross is a fighter with a lot of heart. He will always battle to the very end and will never give up – Photo credit: West Coast Muay Thai

After living in Thailand for a few years now, the most common phrase you will ever hear to describe a fighter is “him (Thai trainer shakes head back and forth)…. no heart.” People who are new to the sport think it is extremely unfair to say somebody has no heart- it definitely isn’t a term people use to describe someone in the west – but in Thailand, they use the word heart to describe fighters on a regular basis.

For people living and breathing Muay Thai, having no heart is the worst thing any trainer could say about you. It is the equivalent of telling a bodybuilder “you’re looking small” or telling a filmmaker that his film sucks.

Someone I know summed it up perfectly with the line, “you can teach technique and skill to a beginner, but you can’t teach heart.” A Thai trainer would much rather work with someone they feel is unskilled and has ugly technique, but has a “BIG HEART” over the most skilled fighter in the world with a small heart.

“I used to say that I had respect for anyone that had the balls to step foot in the ring but over the years that has changed. I’ve realized that there are plenty of cowards that get in there just so they can call themselves ‘fighters’. What I respect is the ones that go in there and give it there all. It has nothing to do with whether you are the best in the world or one of the worst, it’s all about your level of commitment, your passion and what you leave I that ring.” – Kevin Ross (Talking about having “Heart”) 

Heart is everything for a Thai fighter. It is the one thing that all the best Muay Thai fighters pride themselves on. Having a lot of “Heart” will carry a fighter through the toughest of battles, often propelling them to victories that were unlikely. A Thai fighter’s heart is everything he has.

The record of a fighter does not determine their heart. Just because a fighter has a very good winning record does not mean they have a lot of “Heart.” You will often find that fighters with 50/50 win ratios have some of the biggest “Hearts” ever. Your skill and record is not a factor when it comes to your “heart.”

While there is no one single word that can describe the meaning of heart, I will attempt to define the “heart” by using 4 key points. If you want to make sure that nobody ever questions your “heart,” make sure you follow these points.

Be a Fierce Competitor 

Fierce competitors have a number of attributes that set them apart from other people. A competitive fighter is someone who will find a way to win, no matter what the circumstances. Instead of looking for excuses as to why they lost the fight, they will find a way to get better for the next fight.

Win or lose, a fierce competitor is going to put up a fight. They are always game for competition and will always be ready for any challenge that stands in front of them.

Being a competitor will make you hate losing. People who are not competitive are happy with losses. You should never be happy to just survive a fight, you should always go out to win.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should never lose. Of course you will lose some fights, every fighter does (you might lose a lot), but you should always be fiercely competitive, even if the fight isn’t close, you should still give it your all.

Too many times I read blogs and posts where people say cliché lines about how they are happy to just fight for the experience win or lose, something I don’t agree with it. If you fight, you should fight to win or don’t fight at all. This what separates the real fighters, from the people who are fighting for the wrong reasons (aka: social media attention).

Refuse to Lose

Heart picture muay thai

A refusal to lose is one of the fundamental traits that every top fighter possesses. No matter what is happening in a fight you should always be looking to find a win.

Even if you are getting beat every single round of the fight, you will still come forward looking to find a way to win your fight.

Although no fighter who’s at a very competitive level will remain unbeaten, the fighters with the most heart will have a number of close fights that they won because they refused to give up.

When its round 4 or 5 and the match is hair splittingly close, you need to have the will to win in order to get your body to keep on fighting hard. The difference between close fights can be a couple knees or a single kick, this is what will really separate the fighters who have a lot of heart from those who don’t.

Fighters who don’t have heart can still win and be extremely good, however, when it comes to the close battles where they don’t walk over their opponent, they won’t have what it takes to win.

This is the number one factor that many Thai’s will judge a fighter’s heart. When you are in those tough fights that you are being overwhelmed in and you don’t give up. I’ve seen it so many times in the hundreds’ of Thai fights I’ve witnessed – foreigners who give up when they can push on and go harder. The Thai’s don’t care if you are barely on your feet; they want you to keep fighting and pushing forward.

Never, Ever, Quit

Never, ever, give up in a fight. I don’t care if you are getting destroyed, let the ref stop the fight, don’t quit a fight. Now I’m being very general with this point. Of course there are certain situations where you should quit in a fight, but your mentality throughout the fight should never give up.

Don’t give yourself a reason to give up in a fight, block any of those thoughts as soon as the appear. Most of the fights will come down to mental toughness, who is the stronger mental competitor. This is something that you need to focus on when you fight.

Imagine this scenario

It’s round 3 of your fight and you’ve taken a beating for all 3 rounds. Your opponent opens up a big cut on your forehead and the ref asks if you want to continue the fight. Your body is aching all over and you can hardly stand from all the leg kicks you have been taking. You wonder if you will be able to take two more rounds of this brutal punishment. You have no chance at winning the fight, what do you do?

Logical Answer: The logical and smart answer would be to go down after an easy shot or tell your corner you’ve had enough. Maybe don’t give, but let your opponent overwhelm you. You will let the ref step in when he sees in your eyes that you don’t want to continue fighting. Because you had no chance at winning the fight it is better save your brain cells for another day. (I’ve seen fighters take this path too many times I’ve lost count)

“Heart” Answer: A fighter who has a lot of heart would take a different path in this fight. Even though the fighter has no chance of winning, he will show his opponent that he won’t quit. Deep down inside he will try and find a way to win the fight, no matter what it takes, even though the odds are against him. It doesn’t matter if he gets cut again in the fight, he’s going to leave everything in the ring no matter what the circumstances. Never quit, never surrender.

Never, ever, quitting a fight is something that can be seen as logically stupid, but from a fighter’s perspective it means having “heart.” While it may not be the smart thing to do, you can’t be a champion unless you have that mentality.

If you end up getting a 14 stitch cut on your forehead you better expect to continue. Remember that common sense logic doesn’t apply to these “definitions of heart.” The logical thing to do when an opponent outclasses you is to either refuse the fight or go down early, but unfortunately this will earn you the reputation of having no heart and none of the Thai’s will ever respect you again.

The mindset of never quitting or giving up enables you to fight better because you won’t give voice to that thought in the back of your head that wants to quit – even when the fight is impossible to win.

Give It Your All

People can sense when a fighter is holding back and not giving it everything they have. If you are in the last few rounds and it looks like you are just riding it out, even when your down on points, it doesn’t look good to the people watching.

This is one of the reasons why Westerners are fun to watch in Thailand because they always go for the KO even in the last round when they are losing. Nobody will ever say anything bad about you if you are outclassed, but you gave it everything you had.

Giving it your all means leaving everything you have in the ring. If you lose a CLOSE 5 round fight on points and you find yourself having energy at the end of the 5th round, you didn’t give it your all. You should be ready to collapse when the fight is over because you tried everything in your power to win, but came out on the bottom.

Now that we’ve discussed these points lets go over a couple examples of some fighters who have a lot of heart:

Fighters With Big “Hearts”

Toby Smith – This is probably not a surprising answer for a lot of people who following the current muay thai circuit. He is the definition of heart. When he fights, you know that he is going to give it his all no matter who he is fighting and what happens during the fight. Whether Toby is getting cut, rocked or beaten up in a fight, he is going to try and go for the win till the very end.

Here’s a fight that showcases Toby’s Heart:

Victor Nagbe – Another Fighter that demonstrates a lot of heart is Victor Nagbe. Victor Nagbe broke on to the Muay that Scene last year when he won last year’s Thai Max even and beat the heavily favored Fabio Pinca in the final round of the tournament. He is from South Africa, but does his training in Australia.

This is a video of that fight below:

Kevin Ross – When describing fighters who have a lot of heart you have to talk about Kevin Ross. He always battles and will never quit no matter how bad a fight is going. Although he doesn’t have the best Muay Thai record, he always goes out into every fight and gives it everything he has. Leaving nothing left in the end.


Having Heart is Everything in Fighting

If you look at all of the great Muay Thai fighters throughout history they all share one common trait – they have a lot of heart.

If you want to have a reputation of someone who never quits, fights to the end, and always gives it their all, then you need a lot of heart. However, if you are a very logical person and don’t give a damn what anybody thinks of you, then you will probably argue the contrary. That being said, I will warn you now that having heart is everything in Thailand.

Trust me, you don’t want to be that guy that all the trainers talk about behind your back because you gave up, when you could have kept on fighting. It is better to be a sub par fighter with a lot of heart, then a skilled fighter who gives up in tough fights. Remember, don’t make excuses as to why you lost, just make sure you give it your all.

“You shouldn’t be proud of yourself for stepping in the ring, you should be proud of yourself for giving it everything you had and never quitting in a fight.”

If you enjoyed reading this article make sure you check out my Muay Thai Strategy and Counters books. These books talk about all the essential components to developing a complete Muay Thai game and countering your next opponent.

What do you think about his idea of having “Heart” in Muay Thai? Do you think fighters who quit after a couple rounds to save themselves are doing the right thing? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

About Author

In 2011, Stephen decided to move to Thailand in search of 'real' Muay Thai. After training MMA for 5 years, he wanted to focus solely on his standup striking. After gaining a few years of experience in the ring, he decided to start Muay Thai Pros with his brother Ben, to share their experiences from the land of Muay Thai. You can follow Stephen on Instagram or read about his Muay Thai journey HERE.



    Awesome article. Too many people are satisfied with getting in ring and not continuing to push when the going gets tough


    Loved the idea and the article. In the meantime you have to be realistic : having heart can also mean that you ‘ ll get a brain dicease at 50 years old because you take too much hits. That risk is a part of the game i guess and maybe ot should be mentionned because it’s a reality and a consequence of this attitude . Take a look at this testimony : . What do you think ?

    • I agree, having “heart” is not good for your long term health. Most fighters who have a lot of heart suffer from brain damage later on in life, no doubt. Fighting in general is not good for your health, but if you do decide to step into the ring, make sure you do everything you can to win.


    Nice article. I will direct it to people who ask why our gym is called JAI Thai and why our shorts have JAI Dee in Thai written on them. Re: having no JAI/heart. I would liken it to telling a film maker they have no vision and a bodybuilder that they don’t have the mental determination to be a top athlete – crushing. I do believe that it is possible to get a bigger heart. If you are surrounded by trainers and fighters and role models with JAI Dee, you will aspire to be like them and not let them down. This includes not wanting to disappoint them in the ring, and with their encouragement, developing into a fighter with more heart.


    Having Heart does NOT neccessarily mean going crazy in the ring and necessarily being a constant forward pressure one punch knockout stalking fighter. There can be defensive fighters who have a lot of “Heart”.

    You saying that “having “heart” is not good for your long term health” is utterly stupid because you’re basically saying that having heart means being reckless and this is simply not true.

    • In the article I gave 4 specific points on what it means to have heart, none of those points said you have to be an aggressive fighter. The bottom line is if you are getting destroyed in a fight, it is better for your long term health to give up and save your brain cells. Having “heart” means never quitting, even when the odds are hopeless.


    What does human blood – present in the above photos – have to do with heart?
    Are you interested in posting pictures of muay thai fighters that arent bleeding?
    The east are traditionally more aware of the fact that human blood is one of the life forces.
    Why are you interested in posting photos of fighters losing their life force in an effort to show that these are the fighters that have ‘heart’ ?
    We look down on the US and other major militant world forces, but war starts in the heart of each human, fighter or farmer.
    In essence, muay thai is war.


      That was the weirdest post I’ve read in a long time.

      From an illustrative standpoint, a bleeding fighter is a fighter who’s getting his ass kicked. In the context of this article, it’s a fighter who’s getting his ass kicked but isn’t giving up because he has ‘heart’. That is all.

      What are you on?


    Love the article, yes there are health issues involved, I am a Karate instructor and a competitor myself, and I certainly can echo everything said here (regarding myself and my students). The mental game is the most important one, not just in the ring (or on the Tatami) but in life, in fact this is where life training is done and the same attitude that goes down in the ring will be mirrored in life.
    As for health concerns, I believe properly defending oneself does not have anything to do with having heart or not as you said in the comments, it’s just having that “Indomitable Spirit”

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