I learned to kick box in Canada. It’s not a place synonymous with Muay Thai, but we produce tough fighters. Gabriel Varga, two time and reigning Glory Featherweight World Champ, regularly held seminars at the gym I trained at. Josh Jauncey, a Vancouver resident and up-and-coming name in the world of Glory kickboxing, is fighting at Madison Square Garden as I write this.
So, I thought, with luminaries like that hanging around, that a three-week training camp in Thailand would be just the polish I needed before taking a fight. Was I ever wrong. I quickly learned that Thailand, home of the Art of Eight Limbs, has significant differences in style from how I learned in Canadian Dutch-Kickboxing Style.
It seems so obvious that it is easily overlooked: the climate. The Thailand heat and humidity are oppressive. Within my first five-minute skipping drill I was pale and slipping in a literal pool of my own sweat. Drink liters of water, before and after class.
The gym the writer trained at. Those walls are sweating.
The predominant difference between Muay Thai and Dutch-Style kickboxing is how they utilize striking. “Dutch-Style Kickboxing”, popularized in the last twenty years through Glory and K-1, emphasizes combos – bunches of punches used to set up a kick. A common beginner combination was a jab-cross-left hook-right low kick, the “Dutch Treat”.
Heavy offense with the hands forces distance, or for the opponent to plant and guard, setting you up for a kick that keeps you out of counter-punch range. Low kicks are heavily utilized in the Dutch-style. Low kicks are an easily avoided technique, so a combo of punches helps set up the condition for a huge leg chop. The low kick is a great weapon – it hurts, and takes away mobility from the fighter.
In Muay Thai, punches are not as common, and low-kicks often checked or avoided. Punches score low in a Muay Thai fight, with preference given to kicks, elbows, and knees. Single, powerful strikes are more common in Muay Thai – high kicks, vicious elbows, and knees. Clinch-work is one of the most significant differences between the two styles.
Clinch work is heavily regulated in the west – most rules forbid a two-hand clinch, and elbow strikes are illegal in Canada. In Thailand, the use of the clinch limits the effectivity of punches, and makes elbows, knees, and throws more effective.
Throws are scored high in Thailand, as it displays a greater control of balance. Also, it drains a lot of energy having to continually stand yourself up after being dumped on your back from a huge trip.
A quick look at fight stances gives some clues as to why the weaponry and techniques differ. In the Dutch Style, creating openings through movement, lateral and backwards, is important. Light on the feet, with fairly equal weight distribution.
In Muay Thai, giving ground is viewed as against the spirit of the sport. Fighters stand in front of each other, plant themselves, and throw shots. Footwork is subtle, the weight on the lead leg is light, and arms are outstretched to grab the opponent’s hands when they close distance, for the clinch. Muay Thai focuses on waiting for an opening in the opponent’s defense, rather than creating an opening.
The reliance on small openings for single strikes is reflected in Thai training. I had to relearn practically everything I knew. Instead of going through several technical combinations on pads in a class, we would continuously drill one basic technique. For example, a teep kick (lead leg push kick).
In Canada, I was taught to lean my torso back as I threw the kick to create maximum torque and reach. In Thailand, one of the old Kru’s (coaches) made sure I kept my torso straight, throwing the kick like a step forward, a quick snap-movement that required more dexterity. Throwing your torso back puts you off balance, a deadly mistake in Muay Thai.
A typical class in Canada usually takes an hour, and may look something like –
Classes in Thailand went for four hours, going something like this:
First hour, warm up. Shadow box, pad work, technique focus.
Second hour, bag work. 200 push kicks a leg, 50 knees a side. Punches, elbows.
Third hour, continuous clinch-sparring.
Fourth hour, conditioning. Power kick on pads, speed kicks (50 kicks/side), push-ups, planks, pull-ups.
My main takeaway from Muay Thai was learning how much harder I can push myself. I was shattered after my first two classes, but quickly grew stronger. Each style has valuable technique. Muay Thai taught the importance of mastering a basic technique, while Dutch-Style showed how combos can set you up for maximum offense while staying defensively sound.