Of the myriad martial arts out there, Muay Thai is always one of the first mentioned when it comes to the question of applicability to MMA. As a proven and multifaceted combat sport, there is little question that Muay Thai fits nicely into the toolkit of any mixed martial artist, and yet we rarely see a true representation of Muay Thai in MMA. More often, we are treated to some other region's interpretation of Muay Thai. The styles of Jose Aldo, Anderson Silva, Thiago Alves, Alistair Overeem, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua and Donald Cerrone, while undeniably effective, bear little more than a superficial resemblance to the real Art of Eight Limbs.
In fact, there is only one big-league fighter who comes to mind as an example of relatively pure Muay Thai in MMA: Matt Brown.
Yes, Brown punches a lot more than your average Nak Muay, and his kicks aren't nearly as powerful or as frequent as you'd expect from a true Thai stylist -- but the moment the fight goes to close range, Brown exhibits the purest Thai approach to in-fighting in the sport. Knees, elbows, dumps -- even kicks and punches between ranges -- Brown's close-range striking is archetypal Muay Thai, and it is this clinch game that makes him such an offensive dynamo.
Fortunately for fans of striking technique (or just violence in general), Brown put every bit of his Muay Thai game on display against Erick Silva on Saturday. Let's break down his best tricks and techniques.
Throws and sweeps are quite possibly the most neglected aspect of the Thai clinch in MMA. Even fighters who know their way around striking in the clinch tend to switch to wrestling or judo tactics when it comes to takedowns. Even "The Immortal's" throws and sweeps have been referred to as "judo" on more than one occasion (perhaps due to the erroneous notion that he possesses a belt in judo, which he doesn't), but Matt Brown's clinch is all Muay Thai, and that includes the takedowns.
Takedowns are well established in the sport of Muay Thai. A throw, or "dump" in Muay Thai nomenclature, is effective for a number of reasons, even in a striking-only context. First, it establishes dominance over the opponent, both for the sake of the judges and the opponent himself. Second, it tires the opponent out -- this was clearly at play in Brown vs. Silva, wherein Erick Silva got up slower after each and every takedown. Finally, the dump can expose the opponent to a powerful strike. In Muay Thai, this is usually a kick or knee as the fighter falls, but in MMA there is the added advantage of having an opponent on his back and vulnerable to a grappling-based attack or extended ground strikes.
Brown's first dump was remarkable in its effortlessness.
(Click to enlarge)
1. As Silva charges in with a combination of punches, Brown stands his ground and slides into the clinch.
2. Brown pulls Silva in close with a left underhook. His right hand (not visible) controls Silva's left biceps (an inside tie, in wrestling terminology).
3. Pulling with his underhook and pushing with his inside tie, Brown steps slightly forward with his right foot and swings the arch of his left foot into Silva's left leg.
4. His leg swept out of position, Silva cannot re-base to save himself, and falls flat on his back.
There are about a million tutorials of Thai dumps online, and any instructor worth his salt could probably teach you a few dozen different set-ups and executions, but these takedowns are better viewed conceptually rather than focusing overmuch on the specific "moves."
There is an almost infinite number of throws from the Thai clinch, but virtually all of them contain the following elements:
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1) A push
2) A pull
3) A bump, block, or sweep
The push and the pull are basics. Most throws require some variety of this "steering wheel" concept, turning the opponent with both arms to off-balance them for the throw. Thus components 1 and 2 are set-ups for the throw.
As for the third component, these are the three basic tools that Nak Muay use to complete the dump.
A bump knocks the opponent's leg out of position. This is most often done with a knee to the inner thigh, which disrupts the stance of the opponent and renders him incapable of stopping the throw. A block can be done with any part of the leg, and requires one to place an obstacle in the way of the opponent's movement, thereby preventing him from moving his leg in that direction to recover his balance. A sweep denotes a pulling or pushing movement with the instep, shin, calf, or arch of the foot (the last two are technically illegal under full Thai rules, but are still seen in Muay Thai), and Brown's dump above was of that variety.
Takedowns like this do not exist in a vacuum, however. They need some context to be truly appreciated.
PICK YOUR POISON
The genius of Matt Brown's clinch lies in his adaptability. You may be able to defend a knee, but in doing so you invariably open yourself up for at least one other technique, and you can bet that Matt Brown knows it. The Thai clinch is as much about mental manipulation as it is about physical leverage. By threatening the opponent you force him to react, and by limiting his options you can accurately predict his reaction in order to catch him off guard and capitalize.
Brown creates the classic Muay Thai double threat: strikes and takedowns. In the Thai clinch, one can fight either with one's hips close to those of the opponent, or at a distance while the upper bodies remain tied together. With the hips separated, the opponent is vulnerable to strikes, particularly knees and kicks (rare, but effective in the clinch). This GIF of Anderson Silva kneeing Rich Franklin is a good example -- note how Silva pulls his hips back to throw his knees. This is because good knee strikes require space to build the momentum necessary for meaningful impact.
To counter this, the opponent might be tempted to bring his hips in close to his opponent's, but now he's handed his foe his center of gravity on a platter. The closer the hips, the easier it is to off-balance the opponent.
1. With space to do so, Brown yanks down on his left collar tie, pulling Silva into a hard left knee to the chest.
2. To deny Brown the space to strike, Silva steps in close. Brown tightens his collar tie to make sure he stays there, and places his right hand (circled) on Silva's ribs, under his left armpit.
3. Now Brown places his left leg (circled) against Silva's left thigh, blocking that leg with his knee.
4. Pulling down with his collar tie and shoving up under Silva's left armpit, Brown tips Silva headlong into the canvas.
It is this seamless transition between grappling and striking that truly marks Brown's clinch game as a Thai style. No judo here -- this is pure Muay Thai.
The interesting thing about this block dump is that it works against the inside leg. In Brown's first throw above, he swept Silva's right foot (outside foot), the one nearest the direction of the throw, thereby taking away the support that kept him on his feet. In this dump, however, Brown attacks the left leg, opposite the direction of the throw. This works anyway because, at the start of his dump, Brown forced Silva's weight onto his right leg by pulling him in that direction with his collar tie.
At that point, Brown blocked Silva's left leg and continued the twisting, steering wheel motion of the throw, pulling Silva's weight even farther toward his right, to the point where he would need to move his right foot to save himself from falling. In order to reposition that foot, however, he would need to place weight briefly on his left foot, which was already leaving the ground due to the explosive force of the throw. Unable to plant his left foot, Silva teetered past his supporting right leg and face-first onto the floor, where he fell victim to some nasty ground and pound from Brown, including a crafty soccer kick to the arm/ribs.
BONUS: GROUND STRIKING
Okay, I generally like to do these articles along a theme of some kind. Focusing on Brown's Muay Thai dumps seemed like a great idea, but this fight was just too full of captivating sequences to ignore what I think is the most underrated aspect of "The Immortal's" game, namely his ground striking.
In the past I have controversially stated that Matt Brown's Thai clinch is better than Anderson Silva's (it is), but I'll further my blasphemy by comparing Brown to "The Spider" in this aspect as well. Matt Brown's ground striking is, if not wholly the equal of Anderson Silva's, remarkably similar. Both Silva and Brown are extremely potent finishers, and this is because they both select their strikes very intelligently on the ground.
In this, too, Brown's approach is very Thai. No, there is no ground striking in Muay Thai, beyond the occasional gray-area knee or kick as the opponent falls, but the mentality behind Brown's ground & pound is consistent with his approach on the feet. He cleverly uses the threat of submissions and positional changes to create openings for his strikes, and when he does strike, he picks his strikes very carefully and draws from a shockingly deep bag of tricks (consider the elbows he used to finish Jordan Mein: GIF).
The best thing about Brown's ground striking is that, like all of his offense, it is very calculated. Brown's not kidding about the "technical" part in his "technical brawler" label, and this part of his game is no exception.
Basically, Brown's strategy on the ground is to gain a position of leverage above his opponent, either by simply posturing up or preferably by getting to his knees or standing completely, and then to free his hands to strike. Once his hands are loose, he wastes little time in pressing the attack, but never in the haphazard, energy-wasting manner so common in MMA. Observe.
1. Brown pins Silva's shoulders to the ground by stiff-arming both of his armpits.
2. Silva acquires wrist control, but Brown keeps his weight on Silva's shoulders as he gets to his feet.
3. Silva throws up his legs to entangle Brown, and the Immortal chooses this time to strike, given that Silva's shoulders and head are now the only parts of his body touching the mat, and thus unable to be moved. He rips his arm straight up, sliding out of Silva's wrist control...
4. ...and drops down to one knee, smashing Silva with a right hand like a Karateka breaking a stack of bricks.
We tend to think of mount as the premiere striking position on the ground, but Brown's best work is done in the guard of his opponent. From guard, Brown is not only able to stand, giving his strikes much more distance to build momentum, but his opponents are virtually incapable of defending themselves once they lose control of his hands. Barring an extremely crafty and quickly applied knee-shield from Silva, nothing could interrupt the meteor that is Brown's downward straight right above, and Silva is positioned horribly to absorb the strike, which slams the back of his head into the canvas as it lands.
Brown's ground striking, like his standup, is opportunistic in nature, but surprisingly technical. Unlike the sloppy punches to which so many fighters resort once the fight hits the ground, Brown's ground striking is uncannily like technical standup in execution.
1. Brown stands up out of a loose triangle attempt from Silva who, sensing what comes next, covers up.
2. Brown drops a thunderous right between Silva's arms.
3. Trying vainly to avoid the straight punches, Silva rolls to his left, and Brown adjusts by switching to some looping lefts around his guard.
4. Silva reacts after a handful of these left hooks, and as Brown switches back to the right hand he gets his feet on Brown's hips.
5. Silva manages to push Brown back, but without controlling Brown's hands or immediately wrapping up his legs to disrupt his balance, he is still in danger from an MMA classic: Brown hits a leg drag, throwing Silva's legs aside...
6. ...and stepping into a right hand that catches Silva on the temple as he rolls away, prompting Herb Dean to stop the fight.
Who else throws straight punches with such accuracy on the ground? Anderson Silva is, quite literally, the only other fighter who comes to mind that possesses such an uncanny understanding of precision ground striking. Just as with his standup, Brown masterfully mixes his strikes with grappling, not only controlling Silva's body, but allowing Silva to compromise his own position (throwing up the legs to set up the diving punch or a crushing stacked guard position).
It was a glorious way to cap off a great night of organized violence. As fantastic as this fight was for those of you who watched on TV, it was incomparably better live. I was lucky enough to enjoy this career-defining performance from Brown, and I can tell you that, more than anything else, this fight told us about the sheer force of will that makes his style so effective. Sitting in the stands, we didn't even notice that Silva hurt Brown several more times after the knockdown in the first round. It didn't seem to any of us like a back-and-forth fight. This fight was a Matt Brown fight all the way, and that's because, no matter what Erick Silva threw, it wasn't enough to stop Matt Brown's aggression. True to his name, Matt Brown gave off an aura of sheer invulnerability.
When all's said and done, Brown is one of the best offensive fighters out there. No, he's not perfect by any means, and there are many aspects of his game that could still use a lot of work. But when it comes to dishing out beatings, Matt Brown definitely has a knack. Elbows, knees, throws, submissions, strikes on the ground ... no matter which poison you pick, it's all deadly.
For more analysis, as well as fighter and trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face punching. Check out this week's special interviews with UFC Fight Night: Cincinnati fighters Lorenz Larkin and Soa Palelei from the week leading up to the event.