The Muay Thai clinch is an art. Just like MMA has stand up striking and the ground game, Muay Thai has striking and clinching. There is also the transition game (think takedowns for MMA) that allow you to get inside of the clinch. You can be a master in Muay Thai striking and still get completely dominated in a Muay Thai fight if you don’t understand how to clinch.
Thai fighters in Thailand understand the importance of clinching. Most camps in Thailand require fighters to spend 30 minutes every training session (two times a day) to work on their clinch game. They understand the importance of making sure their fighters develop strength, skill and stamina in the clinch.
While not all Muay Thai fighters in Thailand are experts in the clinch, they all have strong clinching fundamentals. You can’t make it to the top of the sport unless you have good clinching skills. There are simply too many good clinch fighters in Thailand who would overwhelm you in a fight.
In the West, clinching is an art that is rarely used. You would be lucky if you spent 30 minutes a week working on your clinch game at most Western gyms (not all). While gyms understand the importance of Muay Thai sparring, most gyms don’t clinch because of a lack of knowledge, clinching partners, and uneducated western referees.
While you can get away without clinching if you fight in most Western countries, if you come to Thailand with no clinching skills you will get destroyed. While you might go through a few easy opponent’s in the beginning, you will eventually run into a good clincher. I don’t care how good your standup striking is, the moment an opponent gets his hands around your neck the fight is over.
Now I have already talked about some of these concepts in my articles An Overview of the Muay Thai Clinch and the 5 Keys to Being Successful in the Muay Thai Clinch. If you haven’t already read those articles I suggest you pause this and have a read before continuing on.
This article is going to talk about some common mistakes people make when they are clinching. If you recognize any of these mistakes, try to work on fixing them before you develop any bad habits.
Common Clinching Mistakes
#1. Trying to Outmuscle your Clinching Partner
The most common mistake you often see beginners make is trying to use strength to out muscle their clinching partner. Now if you take two guys who don’t know how to clinch, the guy who is physically stronger will probably win off strength alone.
However, if you try to out muscle someone who knows how to clinch, they will just weather the storm and lock you in a position that you can’t get out of. Imagine trying to use strength to beat a BJJ guy, it simply doesn’t work.
Whenever I clinch with someone who looks like they have been hitting the gym hard, nine times out of ten they will try to use their strength to throw me around. Fortunately, Muay Thai clinching requires skill and if you don’t have skill your strength and size won’t matter.
Knowing my opponent is going to try and outmuscle me, I’ll usually just ‘weather the storm’ and let them tire themselves out. Once they have expended a lot of their energy, then I’ll take advantage of a completely gassed opponent.
The key to clinching is to be relaxed and to only expend energy when you need to. If you train BJJ you will be familiar with this concept. The best guys are so calm and relaxed when they are rolling and only explode at certain key moments.
Being tense all the time will only deplete your gas tank faster. You need to know when to use your energy and when to relax and work your game plan.
If you face a guy 30+ lbs heavier than you, expect them to outmuscle you like this guy:
2. Only Going for Two Hands Around Your Opponent’s Neck
One of the key signs of a beginner is when the ONLY thing they do the entire clinching session is try to wrap two hands around your neck. Clinching is an art of battling for position for arm and neck control. If you are up against a good clincher you will never be able to put both hands around his neck and pull it down without a major fight. This technique usually only works against beginners because good clinchers won’t ever let that happen.
Now don’t get me wrong, if you can gain control of your opponents neck and he is not defending it, go for it. However, if you are working with a beginner in the clinch you are probably better off working on other aspects of your game instead of trying to destroy their neck. In a fight, absolutely go for the kill, but in training the key is to work on everything.
The only time you ever see Thai fighters get their heads pulled down in the clinch is when they are completely exhausted in the later rounds. Everyone has a gas tank and when that gas tank runs dry, your opponent can pretty much do anything to you and you’ll feel helpless.
Work on changing your arm positions and try to block your partner from gaining inside control over you. Don’t spend your entire time trying to grab two hands around your partner’s neck because you will be missing out on developing your overall game.
If you can grab two hands around your opponent’s it can be devastating in a fight. Often in the later rounds you can KO your opponent as seen in this clip.
3. Always Grabbing Your Opponent’s Knee
I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve clinched with who try and grab my leg when I knee from a distance and trip my rear leg. Now there are some very effective sweeps that you can use inside the clinch that require you to quickly grab and throw your opponents leg. I’m not talking about those sweeps. I’m talking about grabbing a knee from a long distance (punching range) and trying to trip your opponent.
What these guys don’t realize is they are dropping their guard completely down every time they grab the knee, opening up themselves for an elbow or a punch to the face. Since you don’t use elbows and punches in clinch training, it is easy to get away with dropping your hands down and forgetting about protecting your face.
However, just because you can get away with something in training, doesn’t mean you develop a habit of doing it. Always grabbing your clinching partners knee and trying to trip them from a distance can leave you exposed if you are not careful. Remember that techniques that work on beginners do not necessarily work on guys who know what they are doing.
Good clinchers will have good balance and are difficult to sweep. You don’t want to develop a bad habit of constantly dropping your hands and grabbing because eventually you will get caught.
If you are going for a knee takedown, this is the how you do it:
4. Forgetting to Knee in the Clinch
Sometimes when you get wrapped up in the battle for arm position and balance it can be easy to forget that you need to score points. Remember that if you can score more points in the clinch than your opponent, you will win a close fight. It is quite typical to hear trainers yelling on the side line “Knee, Knee, Knee!” whenever they see you inactive.
Muay Thai is a sport that is about competition and winning. In order to win you have to score points. Forgetting that you need to score points is something that a lot of people do.
Having said this, you should be aware that kneeing can put you off balance against a good clincher. So if you are constantly getting dumped in the clinch, you are probably trying to throw too many knees off balanced.
When you knee make sure you knee with a purpose. Don’t knee because you should be kneeing. Get yourself in a good position and then throw knees on your partner. This will ensure that you don’t get swept off balance and can land clean effective strikes.
5. Letting Your Neck Break Posture (Bending Your Head Down)
As a beginner you will find your neck getting constantly tugged and pulled down inside the clinch. What you probably didn’t realize is that once you break posture in your neck (bend your head down) it is 10x harder to move it back up, than holding it up at the start.
Just because you feel someone tugging your neck down, doesn’t mean you should let your neck go down. When you feel an opponent grip his hands around your neck, you have to hold posture and keep your neck straight. Fight tooth and nail to keep your head up by squeezing your back muscles and tightening your neck.
Imagine you are doing weighted neck raises and are holding a weight at the top portion of the exercises. When your neck is straight and you are flexing hard, it is very hard to pull it down. However, once you neck bends down a little bit, good luck trying to keep it up.
Now I’m not saying walk around in the clinch with your neck squeezed together straight up, but when you feel two hands coming around your neck it is important to hold posture until you get into a better clinching position.
Besides holding posture, when you feel someone slip two hands around your neck you should immediately go for an escape. Don’t let them tug at your neck all day, you will get tired eventually. Focus on a quick escape out of the position and reset yourself to a more neutral position.
Here is an example of a fighter who is breaking posture:
6. Turning Your Back to Your Opponent
One of the keys to good clinching is to maintain a balanced position and remaining square to your opponent. When you face an opponent who is overwhelming you in the clinch, you will have the natural urge to turn away and give your back to your opponent. This is really bad.
Unless the referee stops the fight, turning your back to your opponent will allow him to rain elbows down on you without blocking them. Some fighters do this when they are being slaughtered by knees down the middle and want to turn away from the strikes.
If you ever feel the urge to turn your back away because your are being overwhelmed, try to move in closer and wrap up your opponent in a body lock or hold. This can give you some breathing room and allow the referee to separate you from the clinch.
Always try to remain square (hips squared) to your opponent. Never turn your back to them or turn to the side, unless you are going for a sweep. Good positioning is very important if you want to stay on your feet against good clinchers who are good at throwing you off balance.
Here is an example of what NOT to do:
7. Trying to Punch your Way out of the Clinch
This is more for MMA/Kickboxers who don’t know how to clinch.
You will see some guys who allow their heads to get pulled down and they try to punch their opponent while they have their necks jerked around. If you ever get yourself locked down in a clinch, DO NOT try to punch your way out of it.
While you may see the occasional time when a guy gets caught with a punch, it rarely happens and will put you in a more vulnerable position. Punching while your opponent has a dominant position will allow them to rag doll you into any position that they want.
In addition to trying to punch your way out of the clinch, a lot of MMA guys learn (incorrectly) to forearm block when you are in the clinch. By lowering your arms to block knees, you completely give up all control to your partner and have lost. You have to fight tooth and nail for arm position and control whenever someone gets you in a dominant position, that is the only way out.
8. Grabbing Your Opponent’s Wrist
I’ve clinched with a lot of guys who come to Thailand (mostly from MMA backgrounds) and try to grab my wrist to control them as we are about to engage in the clinch. While you may be able to get away with this with MMA gloves on, you can’t do it with Muay Thai gloves on.
Since you can’t grab your opponent’s wrist when you wear gloves, you shouldn’t try and do it in training. If you train MMA and are used to working on wrist control, it is easy to make this mistake without even realizing it.
Additionally, if you try to hold on to your opponent’s wrist he can easily move his hand and punch you in the face. Anytime your hand is out that far, it means you don’t have your hands near your face in a defensive position.
I couldn’t find an example of this so I decided to show you a beautiful elbow instead.
9. Illegal Throws and Takedowns
In Muay Thai you are not allowed to trip your opponent by bending your leg behind your opponent’s leg. Sweeps must be performed in a kicking or sweeping motion. Unlike Judo and Wrestling which allow you to do all kinds of fancy trips with your leg and takedowns, these are all considered fouls in Muay Thai. Anything that resembles a judo or an MMA takedown is illegal.
Now if you are clinching for MMA, go ahead and do whatever takedown you want. That is part of the sport and obviously something you can work on, however, when you train Muay Thai you should be aware of the rules and realize you can’t just try and go for a take down.
Guys who come from an MMA background are most likely to make the mistake and that’s fine. Just be aware of this when you are Muay Thai clinching and don’t try any takedowns on illegal sweeps.
If you face an MMA fighter in the ring expect them to take you down.
10. Leaving too Much Space in the Clinch
When you watch high level fighters clinching you will notice they have their heads and bodies closely together. Have you ever wondered why fighters don’t leave a lot of space between their clinching partners?
The more space you have between you and your opponent, the better the opportunity for them to wind up for a hard elbow to your head or a sharp knee down the middle. By being tightly compressed against your opponent, you don’t give them space to throw a hard elbow at your chin or knee down the middle. The only knees your opponent can throw are the side knees, which are less devastating.
If you leave too much space between you and your opponent you will invite them to throw straight knees right down your abdomen. While you might be a tough guy and be able to to absorb a few hard strikes, these knees will start wearing down on you after a while.
By keeping your body close to your opponent, you will be in a better position to prevent them from landing hard blows against you.
*Please note there are a lot more mistakes you can make. This is simply an overview of some of the common mistakes I’ve seen.*
Appearance is Everything
We’ve all cinched with guys who have overwhelmed us. These guys are relentless in the clinch and will continue to try and wear you down. When you face a guy who does this to you, it is a natural reaction to try and push them away when they get close in the clinch.
When it comes to scoring in the clinch, judges will take into account the quality of knee strikes landed, posture, and how you look. If you have your hands on your legs panting and pushing your opponent away from you in the clinch, this will make you lose points.
Once you are inside the clinch, you need to work on holding your own ground. Pushing someone away is a clear sign to the judges that you cannot hold your own and that you are weak. Weakness is a big negative when it comes to scoring in Muay Thai.
Unlike Kickboxing that is a simply tally of points being given, Muay Thai scoring looks at the big picture and which fighter is being more dominant over his opponent.
When your opponent wraps his hands around you, try not to back down. Focus on locking them down and tying them up. Move closer to your opponent and wrap them up with a body lock. That will help you reset to a more neutral position.
Examples of Clinch Dominance
If you learn to master the clinch you can truly dominate high level strikers without ever having to strike with them. Foreigners who are good at clinching can really take advantage of the skill against their Western opponents.
If you want to see what a good clincher can do to a striker watch this fight featuring one of the top Clinchers Petchboonchu vs. Brazilian champion Victor Nunez. I’ve seen Victor fight and he’s a top quality fighter, but when you put him up against a high calibre clincher he didn’t stand a chance.
In this next fight skilled fighter Craig Dickson runs into a beast clincher Chamuaktong who completely overwhelms him. Craig’s strength is in his powerful punches, which his opponent eliminates by swarming him in the clinch.
When you are a beginner, it is important to focus on the basics and try not to get carried away with fancy sweeps and techniques you see on YouTube. Basic arm control, balance, body position and knees are what you should be working on. Don’t worry about sweeps until you master the fundamentals.
Clinching is an art that requires years to master. Think of how long BJJ experts take before they reach the stage of blackbelt. The same is true for clinching. If you want to get better in the clinch you need to find good clinching partners to train with. Two beginners training together can work on the basics and drills, but to really improve you have to get used to being thrown around like a rag doll.
If you want to get better in the clinch you need to put in the time and clinch as much as possible. If you don’t have good clinching partners to train with at your gym, book a ticket to Thailand. Not only will you learn how to clinch, but you will get a lot of experience clinching with some of the best fighters in the world.
If you enjoyed reading this article then I highly recommend you check out my book called Muay Thai Strategy. This book walks you through everything that you need to build a complete Muay Thai game from the ground up. Click here if you want to learn more about the Strategy bundle