When you think about Muay Thai, the first thing that probably comes to mind is probably the striking. From the deadly elbows, hard punches, sharp knees, to the punishing kicks, Muay Thai is famously known as the science of 8 limbs. While these weapons are devastating in their own right, what truly separates Muay Thai apart from is clinching.
If you put a good Muay Thai fighter in the ring against someone from another striking background, the Muay Thai fighter’s biggest advantage will come when they clinch. This huge advantage is the reason why you never see dutch Kickboxers fighting under full Muay Thai rules, even though you always see Thai fighters fighting in Glory and K-1 rules.
Muay Thai clinching is the equivalent to the ground game in MMA. If you don’t know how to clinch and you face a good clincher, you will get destroyed when the fight enters close range. The moment your opponent wraps his hands around you, you will probably experience panic as you realize that you are in over your head.
Some people have a false belief that clinching is simply wrapping both hands around your opponent’s neck and jerking it down as hard as you can, something that is often seen in MMA fights. While this might work against a novice, the clinch is much more complex.
For most Thai fighters, mastering the clinch is the hardest aspect of Muay Thai.
In a lot of ways clinching is similar to BJJ. Once you learn the basics you might be able to survive on the ground and submit a few beginners, however, if you want to become good you need thousands of hours on the ground rolling, to improve your timing, technique and strength.
The same is true for clinching. To be good in the clinch you need to put in the work and get hands on experience clinching guys who are better than you.
Why Most Foreigners Aren’t Big on Clinching
One of the biggest differences between foreigners who train Muay Thai in Thailand vs abroad is their clinching skills. While there are definitely foreign gyms that produce good clinchers outside of Thailand, those gyms are few and far between.
A reason for the lack of clinching skills taught in most Muay Thai gyms is because most Muay Thai instructors don’t focus too much on clinching.
Clinching is not something that you can do a few times a month and be good at. To be good in the clinch you need to spend the time working in the clinch to improve. This requires good clinching partners who you can clinch with on a regular basis.
The truth is that most people would probably rather work on their striking skills, then get all sweaty with their training partners up close in the clinch.
Another reason for the lack of clinching is a lack of time. If you only train for an hour-long Muay Thai class, it can be difficult to squeeze 20-30 minutes of clinching in this time slot.
To get better in the clinch you need to clinch with people who are better than you. This will force you to adapt your game and will make your neck, arms, and shoulders stronger in the clinch.
Western Muay Thai Referees and Judges
Another big reason why clinching is not big in Western countries is because of the judges and referees. Most of the time the rules many organizations use are a bastardized version of real Muay Thai.
How can someone referee or judge a fight without ever training and mastering a sport is something that has always boggled my mind. (In Thailand all referees and judges are ex-fighters)
From the judges, not rewarding points for clinching, to the referees breaking up fights that enter the clinch after a few seconds, Western referees and judges don’t understand clinching. Most judges use their own criteria (probably kickboxing/boxing criteria) in determining the winner of a fight.
So besides the lack of skilled clinchers and instructors in Western countries, the rules themselves make it difficult to spend a lot of time focusing on the clinch.
Factors that are Important for Clinching
Now that we understand a few reasons why clinching is underdeveloped in the West (there are plenty of other reasons), we will look at some of the keys to being effective in the clinch. If you can work on each of these areas, you will be able to improve your clinch game drastically.
Technique and Skill
The first and most important factor in the clinch is a fighter’s technique and skill. Fighters who have a lot of experience clinching know exactly where they should put their hands when they can go for sweeps, and how to stay balanced at all times.
It is important to distinguish the difference between technique and skill (being able to pull something off) vs someone with knowledge of the clinch. Someone may “know” how to pull off 5 different sweeps in the clinch, but can they apply that knowledge against someone who knows how to clinch?
Experienced and skilled clinchers are the Muay Thai equivalent to black belts in BJJ. They have next level experience and timing and allows them to make good clinchers look like beginners.
The only way to describe what it feels like to clinch a high-level clincher is to compare it to the first time you go ice skating. Every time you try to throw a knee or shift your position, they will knock you off balanced and you will end up on the ground.
One of the hardest skills to develop in the clinch is balance and control of your body. A good clincher is a master at staying on his fight. No matter how hard you try to sweep them off balance, they know how to shift their weight around.
The more clinching techniques a fighter has at their disposal, the better they will be in the clinch. By developing your skill and technique, you will be able to improve your clinch.
Size and Strength
Another factor that affects the clinch is your size and strength relative to your opponent. If you take a 100 lb (45kg) Thai boy and put him in the clinch with a 250 lb (120kg) foreigner, that size and strength advantage would make it difficult for the Thai boy to do anything.
The strength advantage in the clinch doesn’t always come from being bigger and taller. Some guys are naturally stronger, which makes them hard to move and difficult to control.
Every good fighter possesses a combination of skill and strength. I have never clinched a Thai fighter (adult) who was physically weak in the clinch.
These fighters start clinching as young boys, which means that over the years their bodies adapt to the rigors of the clinch and get stronger. Thais are hands down exceptionally strong for their size when it comes to the clinch.
Clinching strength is much different than weightlifting strength that you get when you bench press. Most Thai fighters never lift a weight in their life, yet they are far stronger in the clinch than their foreign competition.
The last factor that will determine your effectiveness in the clinch is your endurance. You will often witness old Thai fighters who have the skill and technique, but they have the endurance to last a few rounds in the ring. Once they get too tired, they lose any advantage that they had in the clinch.
The only way you can develop endurance is to do a lot of clinching. Clinching over and over will help you develop stronger clinching muscles and will make you last longer when you are clinching.
To develop more endurance the Thais will often clinch for 30 minutes everyday after training. Before a fight, you will see 3 vs. 1 drills with one person in the middle, while they rotate fresh bodies at them in the clinch. When you reach a point where skill and strength are equal among fighters, endurance is the factor that will often determine the outcome of the fight.
Now that you understand some of the basic factors that determine how effective a clincher is in the ring, the next thing we will look at are a couple of common clinching styles. While every clincher has their own set of techniques and moves they like to use on a regular basis, their overall style will usually fall into specific categories.
The first type of clincher that you will often see are the Grinders. These are the guys who constantly wear down their opponents, pushing into the clinch the entire fight with knees and elbows.
Grinders are workhorses in the clinch and rely on extremely good cardio to exhaust their opponents. In the early rounds of a fight these guys don’t have much of an advantage; however, when the fight enters the last few rounds, the grinder will usually turn up the heat and apply relentless pressure that is difficult to deal with.
Grinders are usually extremely strong in the clinch. They tend to be taller fighters relative to most of their opponents. They usually don’t do too many clinching techniques, but they have extremely strong locks that they use to immobilize their opponents.
Once a Grinder gets his hands around your neck or your body, you won’t be getting them off until the referee separates you in the fight.
Foreign fighters who are good clinchers in Thailand tend to be grinders. These guys are usually tall and skinny and almost always have a height advantage against their smaller Thai competition. They put on so much pressure throughout the fight that their opponents usually end up fading in the later rounds of the fight.
This is a very effective way to beat Thai fighters who are not in the best shape.
The next type of clincher are the technical clinchers who are extremely good with throws and off balancing techniques. They are masters at waiting for the right moment to off balance their opponents.
Clinching with a sweeper will usually result in you behind toss left and right until you realize that every time you throw a knee you will end up on the ground.
The clinchers are very technical and can be aggressive if they need to be, but prefer to save energy and win on points.
In addition to being good at off balancing their opponents, these clinchers are also very skilled at landing elbows inside the clinch. Any bit of room and these guys will find a way to land an elbow on your chin.
If you clinch with a technical clincher then you have to be aware of your balance at all times. One wrong move and you will probably get swept on the ground in the blink of an eye.
If you want to be good in the clinch, you have to work on the clinch as much as you do on your standup striking. Thai fighters in Thailand spend 20-30 minutes every session clinching. This is how the get good at clinching.
Being skilled in the clinch can give you a huge advantage against an opponent who doesn’t know how to clinch. If you face someone who a much better striker than you, the clinch is often your only chance of winning the fight.
Learning the clinch should be a priority for anyone who wants to become good at Muay Thai. The clinch is what makes Muay Thai the most effective striking style.
Read my next article: The 5 keys to Being Successful in the Muay Thai Clinch
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