“Be first!” One of the most common phrases to be heard shouted during any Muay Thai fight. The idea of being first is that of getting the jump on your opponent, taking the initiative, launching an attack so ferocious and fast that they don’t see it coming, ensuring a quick and devastating victory. Of course, it is important to be both aggressive and technical during a fight. A fight is won by attacks and not necessarily by pure defense. However, it’s important to note what you can, and cannot know in a fight. For example, if I advance on my opponent, what will he do? Will he retreat? Will he attack? Will he try and counter? Will he clinch? Kick? Punch? Elbow? Who knows! There is no way to be certain. What we must do above all else is to observe, nullify what the opponent is doing, and act accordingly. Having a variety of rock-solid defense options in Muay Thai is integral to this as it gives you the breathing room to focus and decide on your method of attack.
This is the absolute key to defense in Muay Thai and deserves its own category. Observation is a passive form of both offense and defense. By intently watching and reading the opponent’s movements during the fight, you can create patterns of movement which you may exploit later on.
Take this as an example. You advance on your opponent and close the distance a little to elicit some type of reaction. As soon as you make your move, they jab quickly, straight down the line towards your face. Now, you didn’t move in to attack, you moved in to observe, and by doing this, you were able to pull from your opponent a little bit of their reaction to pressure, their game plan. You can test this out during the next minute or so a few times to make sure that you were right in your observation. If the opponent jabs every time you advance, then you know you’ve got an opportunity.
The next time you advance and they jab, you can launch an attack with a right kick to the body, or even slip the jab and punish them with an overhand right of your own. Through careful and attentive observation of the opponent, you can make a mental map of their fighting style. You can then exploit any mistakes or bad habits they may have. Professional Muay Thai fighters take this one step further by often studying footage of their future opponents. In a more basic sense, you can do this too in the gym, sparring with your training partners who you most likely know quite well. Next time you train, don’t just attack blindly, try and read them before making a decision. This can take years to perfect so don’t be surprised if you don’t get it right the first time! It’s among the hardest skills to learn for not just Muay Thai fighters but any martial artist.
Classic shell defense
Exemplified by many of the greatest Muay Thai fighters of this generation, the shell defense is the tightest and safest form of defense available to you. Stomach sucked in, knees a little bend, ribs closed, shoulders high, gloves tight to the head, and lead leg ready to block. You resemble a turtle that has retreated into its shell, protected by your posture and forearms. But don’t be fooled, this posture is one of the best to launch a strong and explosive offense from.
As this position puts you directly in striking range with an opponent, it’s important to trial it relentlessly with partner drills before taking it into live sparring or competition. Any holes in this defense can be bad news for a Muay Thai fighter.
Firstly assess your balance. When you shell up and take a few shots from your training partners, do you lose it? Do you rock back into your heels or stumble back and to the side? If you can stand firm with straight punches, get your partner to throw hooks. If you pass that test and hold your ground, see if you can withstand kicks too. You need to be able to stand strong no matter what they throw at you.
Now check your adaptability in this position. Hands in front of the face make it hard to see. Can you move them a little now to watch your opponent from inside your shell? What about hooks? Get your partner to throw them at you and adjust your guard to block accordingly. You need to be able to modify this defense with tiny movements in order to stay protected from every shot coming your way.
It is also possible to fight extremely aggressively with pure defense. Consider two fighters facing off in the ring. One is launching everything they have at the other, expending lots of energy to try and land a perfect shot. The other remains calm and within the shell, marching forwards and walking the other down closer and closer to the ropes. Over time, the initial aggression of the first fighter will fade. This will coincide with the forward movement of the defender. They’ve taken the best that the opponent could throw at them, and are still there, and have claimed the center of the ring. From here, the defender can switch to an offensive mode, having worn out the overly aggressive fighter purely with forward movement and defense.
A definite crowd pleaser, the highly mobile style of a Muay Femur fighter is a pleasure to watch. Through heavy observation of the opponent, lightning reflexes, and foot movement, the elusive fighter almost dances around their opponent.
This style of defense is very difficult to master, and en route to getting good at it, be prepared to take a few shots in training.
Instead of simply shelling up, as shots come in you need to make micro adjustments in your posture to avoid them. You don’t necessarily block punches, you slip them, parry them, glide out of the way of them. For kicks, you leap out of the way and sway back, rather than block them hard against the legs and arms.
Because of the nature of this style, and the basic fact that you are making the opponent miss by a large margin, you create counter-striking opportunities constantly. This style of defense opens up a continuous line of holes in your opponent’s game as they swing and miss you throughout the fight.
To practice this takes a lot of time, and you need to start very slowly to refine your movements. Get your training partners to throw a variety of single shots at you, the full range of kicks, punches, knees, and elbows (carefully). Once you can dodge one or two, get them to string combos together and work on avoiding them. After you’ve mastered each of these, start looking for opportunities to attack yourself, within the timing of your defense.
If all of the above sounds like a lot of information, that’s because it is! Defense is an extraordinarily under practiced art within the art of Muay Thai. It’s worth dedicating a large portion of your time in your Muay Thai gym to studying. Think of it this way: what is the goal in a fight? To hit, and not get hit. Well, what better way to not get hit than a rock solid defense.
So, next time you’re thinking of being “first” in training, take a moment and consider being second, so that you can really work on refining those essential defensive maneuvers.