The Muay Thai clinch is by far the hardest aspect of Muay Thai to learn outside of Thailand. Fighters who learn how to thrive in the clinch can gain a huge advantage over their Western opponents.
The sad truth is that most people view clinching as grabbing the back of your opponent’s neck, pulling it down and kneeing the the sh*t out of their face. This is one of the unfortunate side effects of watching too much MMA and not enough real Muay Thai.
I’ve already written an article that provides an overview of clinching, so if you haven’t read it make sure you check it out before continuing on. This article sheds an overview of the clinch and the importance of it.
If you have never been to Thailand before, you haven’t experienced what real clinching is like. Clinching in Thailand is a way of life. The Thais dedicate more time to clinching than they do to sparring. They spend thousands of hours in training honing their skills in the clinch.
If you ever get a chance to clinch with a very high-level Thai fighter, you will understand what it means to be completely dominated.
In Thailand, fighters are born into clinching. Starting out as young as 5 years old, Thai boys grapple with each other. By the time fighters hit 16 years of age they are already very experienced in the clinch. While there are a few foreigners who are good in the clinch, most people outside of Thailand have a lot to learn when it comes to the clinch.
For those of you who don’t have the luxury of training in a gym that emphasizes clinching, this article is going to break down the 5 keys to be successful inside of the Muay Thai clinch.
#1 – Arm Control
The first principle that you need to understand when it comes to clinching is arm control. If you have experience in BJJ, then you already know how it feels to try and battle for position against an opponent. In Muay Thai there are good positions, neutral positions, and bad positions.
If your opponent has two hands around your neck and has your head pulled down, that is obviously a bad position for you and a good position for your opponent. Most of the time when you clinch you will find yourself in a neutral position with one hand gripping your opponent’s neck and the other hand controlling their arm.
This clip demonstrates the two best clinchers in the world battling for arm control as they enter the clinch:
In every clinching position, you will find yourself battling for arm position and control. Good arm control gives you balance, and allows you to prevent your opponent’s arms, and can give you opportunities to sweep. A poor position can result in you being knocked out with a nicely timed elbow from your opponent.
Similar to BJJ, almost every move in the Muay Thai clinch has a counter move to it. This means that if your opponent has two hands around your neck (equivalent to escaping from under a mount in BJJ), there are many escapes that you can do to get out. Just because you are in a bad position, doesn’t mean that you will be stuck in that position for long.
This clip below showcases two talented clinchers playing this game of arm position.
If you can control your opponents arm, you can prevent them from throwing elbows. So if you don’t want to get cut or knocked out by an elbow while you are clinching, make sure you always know what your opponent is doing with his arms.
The key to clinching is trying to put yourself in a strong position so you can control your opponent. If you have a good grip on your opponent, you can off balance them when they try to sweep you, shift them when they try to knee you and put yourself in a good position to attack.
While this might seem easy on paper, the reality is clinching is exhausting and requires you to constantly work your arm position.
Clinching between high-level fighters often turns into a war of attrition. The fighter who has the best cardio is (often) able to grind down his opponent squeeze out a win on points.
You could imagine how tiring your arms get clinching for 5 rounds like these guys.
#2 – Balance and Body Position
Another important factor inside of the clinch is your balance and body positioning. Without good balance, clinching with an experienced opponent can feel like skating on an ice rink for the first time. The moment you stand up, you will get thrown right to the ground. Balance is the key to learning how to stay up on your feet.
One of the keys to staying balanced in the clinch is your body position. Keeping your hips square to your opponent’s hips will allow you to adjust your feet and shift your weight to prevent your opponent from sweeping you.
This clip showcases two top level fighters keeping their hips squared to each other and bodies in a well balanced position. Notice how their hips are tight together, this prevents your opponent from getting space to throw a knee down the middle.
Balance is something that you can only learn through experience. Just like learning how to balance on a snowboard, skating rink or surfboard, you need to get the experience of being able to shift your weight around to counter your opponent’s pulls inside the clinch.
Next level clinchers have amazing control over their bodies weight distribution and can shift it around on a dime. If you try to throw them, they will counter you and send you flying. This is a skill that is only developed through experience and learning how to control your balance and body position.
#3 – Knees Inside the Clinch
Before you even think about throwing a knee from the clinch, you need to make sure you have a strong lock on your opponent and in a balanced position. Throwing knees for the sake of throwing knees is a great way to get swept right on your butt.
Knees are going to determine whether you are winning or losing inside of the clinch. Different knee strikes score different amount of points in Muay Thai. If you throw side knees on your opponent, that will score less than an unblocked knee strike straight through the middle of your opponent’s abdomen.
This clip showcases a fighter gaining a dominant arm position and going to work on his opponent with strong knees.
You can either throw a knee when you are locked in the clinch or you can pull your opponent and throw a knee when they are off balanced. Your ability to throw good knee strikes at your opponent will be determined by your arm and body position.
You can win a fight by simply locking on to your opponent and throwing knee strikes. If you get into a good lock position, it will be difficult for your opponent to escape and he will be forced to wait for the ref to break up the clinch.
If you end up gassing out in the clinch there is a good chance you will get put down with knee strikes.
#4 – Sweeps and Off Balancing Techniques
As a general rule of thumb, if you can sweep your opponent in the clinch then do it. Sweeps score the most points if you can get a clean throw without ending up on the ground yourself. A good sweep showcases dominance over your opponent inside of the clinch, something that judges are looking for.
This clip showcases what happens when you rush into the clinch without good position against a skilled fighter.
Learning how to sweep your opponent is easy in practice, but harder in reality. When you are drilling with a partner it is easy to execute a sweep. However, when you have someone resisting and trying to stay on their feet it is a much bigger challenge.
While knowing how to perform a sweep is important, the key to sweeps is all about timing. Waiting for that right moment when your opponent is slightly off balanced and executing a sweep is a sure way to send them to the ground.
Saenchai demonstrates how you can off balance an opponent in this clip below:
The key to a good sweep is to keep your hips close to your opponent and twist with your hips as you pull with your arm. While I won’t break down specific techniques in this article, I will upload some videos on my YouTube channel in the future detailing some basic sweeps.
This clip showcases Pakorn using a nice sweep to throw his opponent Littewada off balance. Notice how he waits for his opponent to knee, then proceeds to sweep him when his leg comes back. Sweeps require good timing to execute effectively.
Pakorn is so tricky in the clinch because he is so good at throwing his opponent’s off balance. This clip below showcases Pakorn getting a good arm position and using his leg to sweep his opponent to the ground.
Sweeps are difficult to pull off but are very rewarding if you can land them. There is nothing more satisfying than sending an opponent flying to the ground. It looks good to the judges, the crowds, and it feels even better.
#5. Clinch Entry and Exit
The last important point I want to talk about is the entry into and out of the clinch. In my book Muay Thai Strategy, I talk about the different distances in Muay Thai and the importance of fighting in the right range.
Entering the clinch is a skill in itself. Clinch fighters like Petchboonchu need to master this skill to put the fight where they have the biggest advantage.
If you want to enter the clinch, you need to get past your opponent’s kicks, punches and elbows to get inside the clinch. While skilled clinchers are excellent at getting into the clinch, this is a skill in itself that takes practice to develop.
If you ever fight a good opponent, they won’t let you simply walk into the clinch. You will need to cut off their angle and try and force yourself into the clinch. Often that means absorbing damage as you come forward.
This clip below showcases Petchboonchu battling to get inside the clinch against the highly skilled Pakorn. Notice how Pakorn uses punches and footwork to try and evade the clinch.
One of the reasons why some people have a hard time entering the clinch in a fight is because they never work on it in sparring. A lot of gyms either spar or clinch, but don’t combine the two together. This means that when you get inside during a sparring session, guys usually just separate and back out.
While there are some benefits to focusing on one thing at a time, if you never work on your transitions in the clinch you will not develop the skills that are necessary to engage in the clinch.
High-level fighters make it extremely difficult to enter the clinch. Fortunately, most of you guys reading this will never encounter someone like Pakorn in the ring, who uses the lead leg to deny his opponent in the clinch.
Common Clinching Mistakes
Not Being Square to Your Opponent
A very common mistake that I see foreigners making in the clinch is they enter the clinch with one-foot forward and the other foot slightly back. Instead of having their feet evenly spaced apart and their hips square to their opponent, they step into the clinch using a variation of their fighting stance.
If you don’t keep your hips and feet squared to your opponent, you can be thrown off balance easily. This is why you need to create good habits from the start.
Trying to Knee When You Are Off Balanced
The best way to get swept in the clinch is to knee when you are not in a strongly balanced position. If you don’t have an establish arm position and you are not balanced, do not throw a knee. Only throw knees when you are locked in a good position or after you have thrown your opponent off balance.
Fouling your Opponent When you Sweep
When you go for a sweep, your leg cannot wrap around your opponents leg and go for a trip. Unlike a BJJ takedown, this is not legal in Muay Thai. Sweeps are made with a sweeping motion of your feet. Wrestling takedowns are also illegal in Muay Thai.
Trying to Use Your Strength to ‘Out-muscle’ your opponent
When you clinch you will naturally be inclined to try and outmuscle your opponent. This is especially true for bigger guys who are strong; they will want to try and use that strength to impose their will on their opponent. While this might work against beginners, if you try to out-muscle your opponent in the clinch, you will end up gassing out fast.
Part of being good in the clinch is learning how to conserve your energy and know when you should use your strength and when to save your energy. Beginners always freak out and try to use their brute strength to win.
Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel to see future videos on clinching techniques and drills
While clinching is very important in Muay Thai, you don’t have to be an expert in the clinch to win a fight. If you don’t have good clinching skills, you can learn how to lock up your opponent so that the referee will break up the fight.
As a beginner you can get away with bad clinch skills for your first few pro fights. However, once you start facing good Thai opponents you will notice a huge difference in their clinching skills. Suddenly that area you’ve been neglecting will come back to bite you hard in a fight.
The best way to improve your clinching skills is to book a one-way ticket to Thailand and stay as long as possible. This is one area where training in Thailand is far superior to anywhere else in the world.
It is important to clinch guys who are better than you, so you can learn how to defend against different locks, sweeps, and strikes. If you clinch daily for a few solid months in Thailand, you will notice huge improvements in your balance, strength, technique and overall clinching abilities.
Do you want to learn more?
If you enjoyed reading this article then I highly recommend you check out my two books called Muay Thai Strategy and Muay Thai Counters. These books walks you through everything that you need to build a complete Muay Thai game from the ground up, including how to counter different fighting styles.
Click here if you want to learn more about the Strategy bundle.