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Up Close And Personal: Going Into The Clinch

Welcome to Fighting Words; thoughts and theories on martial arts in the modern world. In today’s post I’ll be considering the use of a clinch in sparring and competitive fights. Ignored by some styles and respected by others – this is why you need to learn how to deal with the clinch…

Anyone with a background or interest in Muay Thai will be familiar with the clinch and the damage that you can do with, providing that its used properly. Unlike in boxing where it can be used to provide a brief tactical break in the action, the clinch in Muay Thai is when knees and elbows come into play. The fighters do not get to pause in the middle of the match when the clinch goes down. The move allows us to catch the opponent off guard, giving us the opportunity to move them around the ring as well as dropping in knee and elbow strikes. It’s a fantastic addition to your arsenal and can change the course of a fight by either winding them with hits to the ribs and sides, or by scoring a possible knock down with a quick slashing elbow.

In part due to the rise of mixed martial arts and also because of pre-conceived notions of what constitutes a fighting style, most traditional styles are split between striking and ground based ones with the view that they are completely isolated from each other and have no crossover. But Karate can feature sweeps and take downs which lead into the ground game and Brazilian Jujitsu incorporates the Pisao shin kick to help immobilise the other person before engaging a hold or throw. So already we can see that the striking arts have techniques to use when their rival is ready to be finished and that the grappling based approach also has options to use to put the other person at a disadvantage to make them vulnerable to a grab.

Many MMA fighters show an affinity for one of these methods over the other, and with good reason – we all start with a base style, one that we most likely learned first or for the longest period of our training. This leads to us thinking in the way of this style; watch as a wrestler’s guard drops low in preparation for the shoot to lead into a takedown, or see how a kickboxer’s guard stays high to protect the body and head at all times. Switching between the two is one of the great challenges of MMA and those that can do so can excel by keeping their opponents off balance; Khabib used this to great effect against McGregor in their UFC match, drawing McGregor’s guard down due to his reputation as a world class wrestler but then throwing some heavy fists instead.

But the clinch lies somewhere in between the straight up kicks and punches of a shoot fighter and the drops and continued pressure of a grappler. It keeps you on your feet at all times while also requiring you to stay in constant close contact with the other individual; shots can be thrown from it but without the full length and weight that the body can normally put into them. Even the knee strikes that can be used or thrown with your hips pressed in close, mean that there’s a brief momentary pause to realign the stance and generate enough swing to cause damage. Experienced Muay Thai fighters can learn to read the shift in stance, the sudden change in the pressure on a grip and look to step either out of the way of the blow or into it, nullifying the majority of the hit if they can’t manage to completely avoid it.

We don’t often see the clinch used much in MMA matches, unless it’s part of an attempt to take the other fighter down and they back up against the side of the cage. The two combatants then enter a sort of limbo, halfway between the stand up game and the ground game. Knee strikes are used to weaken the opponent, impeding their ability to move around quickly if they target the legs, or to help gas them if they aim for under the ribs. This can be a very effective way to slow the fight down and control the pace, but it’s not necessarily the most entertaining part of the event for the spectators – especially for those with no prior combat knowledge or experience.

The first time you encounter a clinch in sparring or training, there’s a part of you that just wants to immediately break contact and escape. The reptile part of the brain will push for you to step back, to break the hold and then fire out a jab or kick to separate you from the other person. But, as is often the case with martial training, the smart move is something that initially appears to be counter-intuitive. By stepping in closer and pushing your hips in against the opponent, you will stop them from generating enough force to hit you hard and they’ve spent energy to get into that position. Suddenly their idea of moving in close isn’t such a good idea after all. Will we be seeing this sort of technique more often in high profile contests? Promoters such as Pride and One Championship have often put Muay Thai events on the same fight card as MMA matches, which regularly feature fighters with a Muay Thai background due to its reputation as one of the most effective stand up arts in the game. If so, now is the time to get used to the clinch.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Fighting Words and will join me for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world again. So until then, be like water, and stay safe.


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