The Muay Thai clinch is the one area that sets Muay Thai apart from other striking disciplines. While elbows and knees are useful, the clinch gives a Muay Thai fighter the most significant advantage against other strikers.
Clinching is the reason why the largest striking organizations like Glory and Kunlun Fighting do no allow Muay Thai rules. If clinching was allowed, Muay Thai fighters would quickly dominate the competition (they still do anyway).
When I describe clinching to people, I often equate it to the ground game of MMA. Fighters who don’t know how to clinch, are the equivalent of MMA fighters who don’t have a ground game – they both can’t survive if the fight goes into close quarters.
Skilled clinchers have mastered the art of balance and timing in the clinch. This allows them to dominate arm control and pull off sweeps that require the perfect timing to execute.
In Thailand, they spend more time clinching than they do sparring. In fact, fighters rarely spar because they are fighting so often. Clinching in the top gyms usually lasts between 30+ minutes and takes place twice a day.
The Lack of Clinch Outside of Thailand
Most Muay Thai gyms around the world do lots of sparring, but very little clinching.
There are many reasons for this.
The first reason is the judging and refereeing outside of Thailand.
In a lot of organizations, the referees have no background in Muay Thai and do not understand proper Muay Thai techniques and clinching. The lack of Muay Thai knowledge can result in fights that get broken up after 2 seconds of clinching, regardless of how active fighters are.
Additionally, a lot of judges don’t know how to score clinching. While there might be some general guidelines they read about, the scoring in a lot of competitions is subjective to the judge’s opinion. Judges usually score similar to Kickboxing, which means that punches and kicks score more than knees in the clinch.
The only type of clinching you see in lower level fights is grabbing an opponent’s neck and trying to knee their face. This technique is often a clear sign that these fighters obviously don’t know how to clinch.
Another reason for the lack of clinching outside of Thailand is many instructors don’t know how to clinch themselves. Given the lack of clinching outside of Thailand, it is not surprising that trainers who have never lived in Thailand for an extended period aren’t that great in the clinch.
This leads to most gyms focusing on Muay Thai sparring, instead of clinching.
Even if a Muay Thai gym offers to clinch once a week, the quality is often lacking. If you don’t train at a proper Thai gym with lots of fighters, you end up clinching with a bunch of beginners, which is not going to make you better.
Lastly, a lot of people don’t like clinching in general. Striking is much more glamorous than fighting for position in the clinch. Most students think about trying to improve their striking, while the clinch is an afterthought.
To become good in the clinch, you need to want to. If you don’t have a desire to clinch, you aren’t going to improve your clinching skills.
Clinching in Thailand
The best way to learn how to clinch is to book a trip to Thailand.
Unless you have the luxury of training at a world class Muay Thai gym with top-level clinchers, you are going to need to step out of your gym environment to improve your clinch.
You can watch all of the clinching techniques on my YouTube channel, but no video is going to supplement the experience of clinching with someone who knows how to clinch.
Clinching is like learning how to roll in BJJ; you need to put in countless hours of clinching to develop the proper ‘feel’ for the clinch. If you just watch videos are practice techniques in slow motion, you won’t improve your clinching skills.
I can tell how long a fighter has been training in Thailand by their clinching skills.
Someone may be slick at sparring, but the clinch never lies. If you haven’t trained in Thailand (or at a world-class gym that has good clinchers), your clinching will be your biggest weakness.
If a fighter has a very strong clinch and utilizes specific head locks, has proper balance and sweeps, they have probably been in Thailand for a while.
Since most people arrive in Thailand with little clinching skills, a good month in Thailand is often enough to learn the basics of clinching put you above the people back home.
While you may be clinching with other beginners in Thailand when you first arrive, any clinching is better than no clinching.
Over time you will also get a chance to clinch with people who are better than you.
Clinching with Elite Level Partners
To become better in the clinch, you need to clinch with better people.
The amount of high level clinching partners and trainers you get to work with is the reason training in Thailand is so beneficial. Clinching with Thais and other skilled foreigners helps you develop through trial and error.
To improve your balance in the clinch, you need to get thrown countless times, until your body learns how to transfer your weight in the clinch.
Clinching with a variety of training partners allows you to learn how to clinch with taller, shorter, bigger and smaller opponents. The array of clinching partners is beneficial for improving your clinching game. Every person you clinch with presents a different challenge, which is why it is essential to clinch with different people.
Learning from the Best
In addition to being able to clinch with a variety of people, when you train in Thailand you also get to learn from Thai champions of have decades of experience.
When you clinch, Thai trainers will watch you and make corrections whenever they see a mistake. The constant feedback loop ensures that you get corrected when you make mistakes, so you don’t form bad habits.
Taking Advantage of Your Clinching Skills
The amount of experience and skill you gain in that short amount of time training in Thailand can do wonders for your overall Muay Thai game.
Since most people outside of Thailand are weak in the clinch, learning how to clinch can give you the most significant advantages over your opponents.
The advantage you gain in the clinch is obviously going to depend on your clinching skills. If you clinch for four weeks in Thailand, that is going to give you a slight edge, but it isn’t going to make you a master in the clinch. The longer you spend clinching with high-level fighters, the better your clinching abilities will become.
While most people spend their time on Muay Thai sparring, learning how to clinch properly is going to provide you the most gains.
Having lived in Thailand for many years, I can tell you the most significant difference between fighters training in Thailand vs. outside of Thailand is the clinch. You can develop excellent sparring skills outside of Thailand, but the clinch is where you are going to become head and shoulders above the competition.
By understanding the strategic advantage you can achieve by becoming good in the clinch, it makes sense to spend time in that area of your game.
If you clinched as much as you spar, imagine how good you would be in the clinch. Remember that Muay Thai without the clinch is simply just Kickboxing with Elbows and Knees. Don’t neglect the very thing that makes Muay Thai special – the clinch.