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Muay Thai: body or head shots?

by Marco De Cesaris

Body or head shots? What is the best way to knock your opponent out during a fight? What kind of attack is more damaging? The question obviously offers a wide range of possible answers, mostly depending on the personal experience of who is answering. In addition, if we turn to professional fighters the answer will mainly vary according to the rules under which the competition is being held: for instance take amateur Boxing or amateur Muay Thai fights. Athletes are basically forced to focus their shots on the head, rather than working their way to the opponent’s body since with amateur rules it is very unlikely to score with anything different from a head shot.
On the other hand, in professional fighting (be it Muay Thai, Kickboxing or Boxing) working both the body and head is widely accepted and guarantees high scores on the judges’ cards.
That being said, we observe that most fighters are generally sufficiently good at using effectively both head and body hitting techniques and can be considered as ‘hybrids’ in this regard. However, in the history of combat sports, just like in any other human activity, along with the vast crowd of decent and good individuals sometimes particularly gifted specimens appeared. Those champions have contributed actively to the development of a real specialization in their area of expertise.
The first ones are the so called “head hunters”, fighters who focus their strategies on keeping at a distance from their opponent so that, at any given time during the fight, they are able to aim at a head shot.
Nose, chin, jaw, temples, and even carotid sinuses (particularly in Muay Thai): these are the targets that the typical head hunter methodically manages to reach with craftiness causing irreparable damages to whoever dares to face him.


In boxing, classic examples of this technical category have been the great James J. Corbett (also known as the “inventor” of the Jab) and the even greater Muhammad Alì . Both of these champions are still considered two of the all-time experts of the straight lead. Both became famous for their great skill in hitting their unlucky opponents in the head from every possible position hurting them and causing devastating effects (who does not remember the face of the brave Henry Cooper ravaged by the jabs of Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali throughout their second epic fight which inspired the Rocky Balboa saga?). But both rarely engaged in attacks to the body.
In Muay Thai, one of the all-time great was Golden Leg Pud Pad Noi (see article
He was the typical Muay Thai head hunter. All of his actions and movements were always a mean to reach the same goal, that is landing his epic Tae Ken Ko (or roundhouse neck kick carried out with the shin or instep). This kick was an extremely powerful blow that even the toughest and most-used-to-getting-hit opponents couldn’t resist.


These great athletes based their fighting strategy mostly on Boxing’s “Side Stepping” o Muay Thai’s “Salab Fan Pla”. Such evasive maneuvers, once executed with the right timing, allowed them to hit with great power even when moving backwards. The accuracy of their actions, developed throughout hours and hours of training with their sparring partners, combined with the superb timing they possessed made these fighters’ head shots comparable to hammer or club strokes.
The second category includes those who believe in the ancient saying: “kill the body and the head will die”. The classic example in modern boxing is represented by the legendary Mexican fighter Julio Cesar Chavez .
In more remote eras, the heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons became so famous for his body uppercuts (which he skilfully employed to defeat the mighty Corbett) that he is now remembered as the ”inventor” of the solar plexus punch (see article ).
All of Chavez’ opponents can attest how painful can be trying to stand the ground when facing him. In fact, in his fights the champ used to move forward relentlessly since round one. Skilfully closing the gap he cornered the opponents and started a merciless body pounding which squished their ribcage and left them breathless. This procedure usually paved the way to brutal head shots which usually brought the fight to an end, abruptly. In the event that a body shot reached one of the three vital spots (liver, solar plexus or heart) the fight was over in a few minutes. On this very topic the great heavyweight champion “Smoking” Joe Frazier (who defeated Ali in one of their legendary fights) claimed that in his veteran fighter’s opinion, getting punched in the jaw is way less painful and handicapping than getting punched in the liver (you have to try it to believe it).


In Muay Thai the body shots which usually lead to the end of a fight are the knee strikes, mostly used during in clinches. As already analysed in other articles, the greatest representative of Thai Boxing’s knees destructive power of the modern era is undoubtedly Diesel Noi (see article
The extraordinary mixture between his fierce neck hold and his mighty knee strikes (Chap Ko Ti Kao) made Diesel Noi’s body attacks an extremely efficient method to wear down opponents and prepare a finishing head blow. The effectiveness of the neck grab and solar plexus knee strike technique has been analysed by a National Geographic Channel team which, with the help of the scientific equipment used for automobiles crash tests, demonstrated that Muay Thai’s Chap Ko Ti Kao is the most devastating attack in all combat sports.


However, in order to employ Chavez’ or Diesel Noi’s lethal techniques in a fight one must have the courage and the skill to close the gap with the opponent, constantly pushing forward and cutting the ring, forcing him to mix it up at close range.
‘It is clear that someone who wants to effectively land some telling body shots must not being afraid of in-fighting, especially if he wants to overpower the opponent. But once the close-range fighter has reached the right distance (even by using clinching techniques, like it is done in Muay Thai) and unloaded the full power of his body strikes it will be very hard for the opposition to resist.
Obviously, it would be ideal for every fighter to be proficient in the use of strategies, landing head as well as body shots. However, in reality, it is extremely unlikely to find such ‘complete’ fighters even among professionals.
In most cases, every good trainer knows that the best thing to do in order to put a fighter in condition to win by knock-out is to identify his strong points and work on them methodically. The final goal is to provide the fighter with a ‘secret weapon’ he can use anytime to knock opponents out. The ‘secret weapon’ could be a hook to the jaw or a liver knee strike, it does not matter; what really matters is that this blow represents a constant threat for the opponent – a hidden danger, always ready to crush his defences and knock him out.
Training systems.


The overall training systems that are used by both the head-hunters and the body strikers to refine their skills are the following (see also ) :
Heavy bag work
Pad work (focus gloves for Boxing and Muay Thai and Thai Pads for Muay Thai)
Sparring (Boxing sparring and Clinch sparring)
Moreover, for a specific development of the speed and accuracy of head punches both in Boxing and in Muay Thai, an intensive training with the small mitts (Focus Gloves) is highly recommended. The trainer must move around, feeding the boxer with the right mitt at the right moment. Accuracy, speed and timing will be greatly developed by this kind of pad work. These are the characteristic a head puncher must possess in order to become a real knockout artist.


On the other hand, for a body striker’s preparation the trainer must employ thick leather belts and body shields and allow the boxer to close the gap and unleash his attacks. Punches, shin kicks, knee strikes must be worked over and over against a pad man properly equipped with Thai Pads and body protector. Muay Thai body strikes are respected by all martial artists because of their power and lethal efficiency. Proper impact training with a pad-man is the “secret” of this effectiveness.