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Muay Thai: is it just a striking art?

Muay Thai is the Siamese art of unarmed fighting. The only “weapons” that are always available are our body parts, in particular: our hands, legs, knees elbows and head. Siamese Muay has made the use of those natural weapons a true science: a Muay Thai stylist is trained to skilfully attack and defend using those natural weapons in hundreds of extremely efficient ways . Because of this, all martial arts enthusiasts consider Muay as a typical example of a “striking art”. A striking art is a fighting discipline whose techniques are focused on using power strikes as the main system to defeat an enemy/opponent. Most experts consider Muay Thai striking techniques as some of the best as far as explosive power and lethal efficiency is concerned.
This is surely true: however, there is much more. In fact, Muay as long history dating back centuries. Along the years, this Art went through a series of transformations, going from a battlefield skill to a refined and well-regulated combat sport. The various versions of Muay before the great revolution of this style happened around the year 1930, were not centered on striking only but consisted of multiple fighting strategies such as grabbing, locking, twisting and breaking the limbs or the neck of the opponent. Moreover, ancient Muay stylists had to be well prepared to defeat enemies using throws and finishing techniques applied once the opponent was on the ground. A few of these maneuvers are still in use in modern Thai Boxing but the introduction of boxing gloves and the strict regulations enforced during fights on the ring led to a progressive forsaking of the more combative tactics. On the contrary, ancient Muay was rich in grappling techniques and strategies: one of the ancestral strategies used to dispatch enemies on the battlefield in combination with strikes, was to violently slam them to the ground. A follow up finishing technique was subsequently applied with a weapon (a sword), a stomping kick or a knee drop.
As a matter of fact, throws can be a devastating tool in the hands of a properly trained Nak Muay. As the old adage says: the ground hits harder than any punch or kick. Furthermore, well executed throws can be annihilating both physically and psychologically. For all of these reasons all Muay Thai students should become well versed in throwing techniques, thus adding a precious skill to their “tools of the trade”.
A proper learning process starts with a good understanding of the underlying principles of Muay Thai style throwing techniques. It is wise to remember that in the execution of almost all throwing maneuvers the executor has to go through 3 distinct phases:
1- The preparation
2- The execution
3- The follow up

As far as the preparation phase is concerned we have to distinguish between two starting situation: we are either the one who starts the action or we are defending the opponent’s attack and then we execute the throw as a counter maneuver. According to Muay Thai strategy, starting an offensive action with a throw is never the best choice. In fact, most of the times a Nak Muay’s attack starts with a leg or hand strike. On the contrary, when we are on the receiving end of an opponent’s attack, retaliating with a strike and/or a grab and a follow up throw, is a perfectly legitimate strategy for a Muay Thai stylist.
The opponent’s possible offensive actions usually belong to one of these two broad families of attacks: strikes and holds.
If the opponent strikes, you have to control the attack in order to prepare the subsequent throw. You can parry the blow, counter strike and then grab the attacking limb or vice versa, you can catch the arm or leg of the opponent, strike back and then throw. Against holds, your primary concern must be to weaken the hold by striking or by applying a counter-hold. Sometimes your first strike is a “fake blow” meant to distract the opponent and allow you to defend the hold and apply your own grabbing technique, before following up with a throw.
In Muay Thai, throws are mostly used against kicks, punches, elbow and knee strikes or as a counter to neck or body holds.
a. Throws against kicks. Many times swing kicks are countered by catching the attacking leg and, according to the defender’s position, by off-balancing and throwing the opponent right away. Sometimes, after grabbing the leg a counter strike is executed before off-balancing the opponent. The counter is usually a head punch or a leg kick. In some special techniques a hard downward elbow aimed at the thigh muscle is applied to hurt the leg before the actual throw. Also straight kicks are oftentimes grabbed: the best area to execute the grab is the back of the ankle. In fact this part of the lower leg offers a perfect handle for a strong grip. Once the leg has been grabbed, you can follow up with a strike (knee blow or swing kick) or you can you choose to throw directly. In the latter case, you should lift the trapped leg, taking care if keeping it straight: this actions will prevent the opponent’s defence and instantly off-balance him, making the throw much easier to execute.

b. Throws against punches. Punches are much faster than kicks: therefore, catching a punch in order to throw is very difficult, almost impossible with boxing gloves on. However, when fighting barehanded, grabbing the opponent’s punching arm becomes a matter of specific training and good reflexes. Round punches are easier to intercept, therefore many fighting strategies have been developed by Thai masters to execute throws against hooks or swings. If you want to grab the opponent’s arm when he attacks with a straight punch, you should quickly combine a parry and a counter blow before actually catching the limb and start the throw. For a detailed analysis of Muay’s strategies to catch a punch read the article Muay Pram: catching, holding and breaking the elbow.

c. Throws against holds. In Muay Thai two body areas are considered primary targets for holds: the neck and the trunk (waist or upper rib cage). Other body parts such as the arms or legs are secondary targets for a Nak Muay. When your opponent manages to get hold of your neck or waist area, you must react immediately by striking, stepping or applying a swift counter hold. As soon as your own hold is completed, you should waste no time and move your body to off-balance and eventually throw the opponent. Muay Thai stylists who train all the time with boxing gloves on, are forced to limit their throwing techniques in grappling situations to a few solid tricks. On the other hand, the Siamese grappling art known as Muay Pram was developed well before the introduction of western boxing gloves in Thailand and therefore it offers a myriad of throwing options to its practitioners. Neck holds (executed with or without boxing gloves) are one of the trademarks of Muay Thai: defending the double collar tie or Chap Ko is a must for Thai Boxers of all levels. Some of the most popular throwing techniques have been developed precisely to counter this fearsome neck hold.