Clinching in Muay Thai

Is clinching cool?


Tony Jaa doing his thang

Clinching isn’t the first thing which springs to mind when you think about Muay Thai.
More likely it’s:

  • Tony Jaa in Ong Bak
  • Spinning back fists
  • Buakaw kicking down coconut trees
  • JCVD in any one of the Kickboxer movies

So, to the uneducated eye, clinching is not cool. It may even be perceived a cop-out or that “hugging” which goes on when the fighters are too tired to actually fight.

When standing in the crowd at fights, we’ve heard people say things such as:

“Are they gay? Why do are they holding each other?”
“He’s too tired to fight, so he’s just using the other person for support.”
“That guy obviously doesn’t know how to fight.”
“What a chicken. He’s just scared of being hit.”

Buakaw kicking down trees, as Buakaw does

Buakaw kicking down trees, as Buakaw does

As a disclaimer, these comments usually come from those who know little about the sport itself. It also rarely comes from martial artists in other sports with a strong emphasis on grappling techniques, such as BJJ, Wrestling, Judo and Sambo.

And in all honesty, clinching by two people who don’t really know what they are doing, does tend to look like an awkward cuddle-fest, with a lot of groaning, weird facials and clashing body parts. It is important to distinguish the difference between using brute force and skill.  A flurry of misplaced knees, or ineffective punches certainly makes for boring viewing and should get broken up by the ref fast.

However, to be a true Muay Thai fighter, is to have a strong knowledge of the clinch. A clinch without Muay Thai is not true Muay Thai. It is an art-form in itself, and the lack of a clinch is one of key differences between Western Kick Boxing and Muay Thai. Clinching in Thailand is so important that a fighter who specialises has their own category – called “Muay Khao” (Knee fighter). While a good fighter will be able to pull off many styles, they usually have one signature style which they excel in and are known for.

Our very own Wimbledon JAI made his name known for being a Muay Khao fighter. But early in his career, he thought it was cooler to dabble in Muay Femur (a technical style). This style of fighter (like Saenchai) tends to be a more all-round crowd pleaser as it involves more striking and traditionally beautiful and fancy movements.

As a teenager, he recalls: “I had won all four rounds of my fight, in Muay Khao style, so I decided for the last round, I would change to Muay Femur. I was keeping my distance doing beautiful defensive teeps and kicks. Even though my trainer was screaming “what are you doing!” from the corner, I thought I had already done enough to win for sure. I ended up losing the fight, and I got into big trouble after that”.

Examples of famous Muay Kao fighters are:

  • Petchboonchu FA Group “Deadly Knee Of The Mekong”
  • Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukar
  • Lamnamoon Sor Sumalee

In Thailand, walking into a fight and not knowing how to clinch is like walking into a fight without knowing how to kick properly. (ie. a major handicap) When understood and executed correctly, the clinch can result in devastating KOs, bloody injuries and spectacular sweeps and throws.

So what is the clinch all about? Also known outside Thailand as the grapple, it is when two fighters come close enough to grab each other by the neck, or put their arms around the body.

In such close range, punches and kicks are difficult to execute and usually lack power. However, in close quarters, accurately thrown knees and elbows are incredibly deadly.

What looks like “hugging” is actually a test of skills and a quest for control. In Thailand, clinching is
such an important part of Muay Thai that fighters usually dedicate a portion of their daily sparring to clinching, which can be for up to an hour straight. Our trainers like it because when done with control, there is little chance of injury, (include no impact to the head).  So unlike boxing or regular kick sparring, it can be done often without any danger.

clinchingAfter your first few clinch sessions, don’t be surprised to wake up the next morning unable to lift your head off your pillow. Don’t panic. You will regain some feeling after a day, and from there, regular clinching will make your neck stronger.

A regular clincher will be more able to avoid having their neck pulled down (and therefore are less likely to be kneed in the face).

You will also be able to show off party tricks like swinging large people around in circles using your neck strength alone.


When you see a Thai fighter doing weights, it is usually for a functional purpose. Here, a Thai fighter lifts weights with his mouth using a string attached to a weight to strengthen his neck for clinching.

Quite often you will see Thai fighters doing endless repetitions of pull-ups to increase their clinch strength. Or strengthening their necks by lifting weights held in the mouth by strings. Formula 1 drivers do similar neck strengthening exercises to counter the G-force when accelerating.

Formula 1 drivers do similar neck strengthening exercises to counter the G-force when accelerating. And MMA and BJJ fighters also strengthen their necks to prepare for ground grappling movements.

When you understand the clinch, you will be able to appreciate how much skill goes into being able to use it effectively in your fight game. Like a chess game, every attack invokes a risk of a counterattack. When you’re cheek to cheek with an opponent, it’s not so romantic when you drop your hand to sweep them – and in response, receive an elbow in the face.

In the clinch, size and strength are not as important as skill. A skilled Thai can take on a much larger foreign fighter and throw him around the ring like a rag-doll. Even if the larger fighter is experienced, if he lacks clinching knowledge, his opponent can read his movements and time his attacks to throw him using minimal strength and effort. It doesn’t take a lot of power, to end a fight with a well-placed knee or elbow to the face.

Top Thai fighters are extremely well conditioned. They toughen their bodies by clinching without body armour on a daily basis. However, below you can see how perfectly-timed and placed knee results in an instant KO

Being thrown on the ground not only makes you lose power and makes you look bad. In Thailand, it makes you lose points. However, being thrown on the ground in the clinch is usually only a “final insult”. It is done AFTER being kneed and elbowed, so as to maximise the points scored. An “easy” way to finish a fight is also to cut your opponent above the eye with an elbow, (not painful, but a gusher). If the blood flows freely enough to obstruct your opponent’s vision, it is declared a TKO.

While a great Muay Thai fighter makes clinching look like a piece of cake, it is anything but. It’s not something that can be mastered in a year of training, even if you are living and training in Thailand. The best way to learn it is with someone who has been doing it most of their life. Practicing it, being thrown on the floor, practicing it more, and being thrown on the floor more is a tried and proven way of getting better.

Be humble. Just because you can lock the neck of everyone in your class, remember there will be a lot of other people who make you look like a clinching newbie in a heartbeat. The more skilled your classmates become, the better they are as a training buddy. If you need to keep your ego in check, a visit to any Thai camp and get thrown around by one of the teenagers there.

Practicing clinching is not about dominating or proving your strength to your partner, but taking turns to let them test their skills against you and your own movements on them. And not worrying about looking “cool”.

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