In 2014, the excellent sports writers Conor Ruebusch and Fraser Coffeen set out to break down Muay Thai. Their aim was to look at Muay Thai and how it has developed in different nations to develop slightly different styles. A great idea, so what was the issue?
Well, for a start, they never actually finished the series. Meaning the Brazilian approach to Muay Thai was never thoroughly explored. The other issue was that the article, while informative on the way Dutch kickboxers fought, also pushed along some unintentional misinformation. It didn’t give much context for how dutch kickboxing developed and how it is in fact actually, rooted in kyokushin karate more than actual Muay Thai.
I hope I’m not seeming unfair to Ruebusch and Coffeen, as their work was legitimately good and recommended. I hope however to give some more insight today as to how Muay Thai went from a niche sport, to being recognised worldwide as the most effective striking style on the planet allowing it to shape and influence other combat sports.
Thai AKA real Muay Thai, is one of several identical combat sports, masquerading at different martial arts (including Lethwei and Kun Khmer). This is also the style closest to what we see European and American fighters emulating when they compete, though usually at a much lower level.
Muay Thai, as you probably know, consists of five rounds, each three minutes in length, with punches, elbows, kicks, knees, clinch and limited throwing permitted. The sports meta varies from country to country, but generally when talking about Muay Thai, it’s a sport that scores kicks and knees higher than elbows and sweeps, and places a lot of importance on balance and the appearance of controlling a fight.
Fighters in Thailand train from very young ages, twice daily, six days a week. This means we see fighters with a very high level of technique, with superb balance and anticipation skills. Thai boxers live and die by the teep, and part of what gives traditional Muay Thai it’s distinct look is the patient probing of teeps and switch kicks to maintain an ideal distance for the fighter.
It might come as a bit of a surprise to see Japan and Holland lumped in together here. The reason for this is simple; while they have diverged more today, the history of dutch kickboxing is based in Japan. I’ve wrote about this at length in my article at Muay Thai Guy.
The short version of it is simple. In the 1960s, Kenji Kurosaki, a black belt in Kyokushin Karate took part in a series of style vs style fights against Thai boxers in Thailand. Kurosaki represented Kyokushin, and was the only fighter to lose his bout. The fights took place over mixed rules and allowed for techniques normally banned from Muay Thai, but Kurosaki was TKO’d via elbows.
Kyokushin Karate experienced a shift in this time, with Mas Oyama, the founder believing that the best way to keep Kyokushin realistic as a self defence art, was to fight bare knuckle, but this meant that punches couldn’t be thrown to the face. Kenji Kurosaki disagreed and started what we know today as kickboxing. He borrowed techniques from Muay Thai, and founded the Mejiro Gym. His student Toshio Fujiwara became the first ever non-Thai Lumpinee stadium champion using his approach.
The approach is not exactly Muay Thai. Japanese boxers are known for their high speed combination punching, and their approach to kickboxing is much the same. While kickboxers from Japan do kick, the influence from Muay Thai appears more in their approach to knee strikes than it does the rhythm of their fighting.
Takeru Segawa, a black belt in shin karate (essentially kickboxing in a gi), keeps a high work rate of punches and simple, but effective kicks. He crowds his opponent with hooks, and uses a mixture of round kicks, front kicks and chudan mawashi geri (a round kick using the ball of the foot). These techniques are all simple, but they compliment and disguise each other.
Takeru is the finest Japanese kickboxer currently fighting, though, and his style differs from old greats like Masato who practically fought an identical style to the dutch of his era.
So, where does Holland come in?
Dutch karate pioneer Jon Bluming, a friend of Kurosaki, would send his students from Holland to Japan and learn the Mejiro style. As kickboxing spread throughout Holland, we saw this karate/muay thai hybrid develop into it’s own thing. Lots of punches, and lots of low kicks. But until very recently, we used to call it ‘dutch muay thai’.
The reason is quite simple; Dutch fighters fought under Thai rules, using their own kickboxing style. Despite their style not reaaaally being Muay Thai, they had enough influence from the art of eight limbs, and competed enough in the sport, that the idea stuck.
The Dutch approach in it’s most stereotypical form is based around combinations of punches and low kicks. The idea is to bring the guard up with punches, to open up hooks to the body and kicks to the leg, those low shots will in turn bring the opponents guard down in order to hit the head. Defence is based more around keeping your gloves high and shelling up to defend a volley of punches, before returning with your own.
That’s not to say that it’s without craft, as Ernesto Hoost was a master technician using these few skills:
While he wasn’t known for a wide array of kicks, Ernesto Hoost had pin pointed the key moments where landing a leg kick is optimal, while the opponent is blocking a punch, or while the opponent is mounting an attack. This, combined with a solid punch and clutch game, allowed him to dominate truly impressive opponents.
In Japan and Holland, we saw Muay Thai’s influence create an entirely new sport, and a new approach to fighting. Kickboxing was developed with the idea of being able to defeat Muay Thai, something it’s never actually been able to do, as Thai’s routinely dominate kickboxing competitions whenever they enter them.
While in Japan, Muay Thai served as the influence for a new style of kickfighting, Brazilian Muay Thai is interesting because it’s mostly been expressed and utilised in Mixed Martial Arts competition.
Nelio Naja, was the founder of Muay Thai in Brazil. A taekwondo black belt, Naja travelled to Thailand and after training there, brought back his own interpretation of Thai Boxing. When you look at the Wikipedia entry for any Brazilian MMA fighter, you’re quite likely to see ‘black belt in Muay Thai’ come up. This is obviously a head scratcher if you’re not from Brazil, as Muay Thai doesn’t have a grading system. In Brazil it does, and it’s adopted from the taekwondo grading system.
Two of Nelio Naja’s prominent students were Rudimar Fedrigo and Fabio Noguchi. These two are best known for the early Chute Box days, where they began coaching Brazilian MMA striking pioneers like Wanderlei Silva, Shogun Rua and Anderson Silva. Legendary striking coach Rafael Cordeiro also got his start training in Chute Boxe, before forming Kings MMA in 2010.
The name of the game with Brazilian striking is mouth frothing aggression. Wild combinations, hard low kicks and usually lacking in defence, the classic style of chute boxe was based around trying to kill your opponent before you gas out, or gas out in the process.
The influence of Taekwondo, as well as the popularity of kyokushin karate in Brazil (Brazil having a huge Japanese immigrant population) meant that in addition to the punches and knees you’d recognise from Muay Thai, there are a lot more spinning kicks than in Thailand.
Perhaps the most notable example would be Edson Barboza, a man who can obliterate your legs, but happily throws spinning head kicks up with shocking ease.
Rafael Cordeiro himself throws a wide and unusual array of kicks.
Then of course we have the monster puncher Alex Pereira. I recall watching his losing effort in the ‘Last Man Standing’ Tournament in the early days of Glory Kickboxing. At that time he fell short, but was clearly an impressive raw talent, I remember thinking he would probably be champion one day. I can only imagine I somehow cast a spell on him, as he is now Glory’s Middleweight and Light-Heavyweight champion – and currently rather famous for knocking out UFC Middleweight Champion Israel Adesanya.
Unlike most of his countrymen, Pereira has actually made a career in kickboxing. Brazilian strikers do exist in the world of kickboxing and Muay Thai, but they’re not common. Pereira and Cosmo Alexandre are the two most famous examples, but it would be a shame not to highlight Felipe Lobo, who is currently fighting in Thailand – having already fought in Rajadamnnern Stadium.
Of course when writing this article, I have to paint in broad strokes. There are Japanese, Dutch and Brazilian fighters who compete in traditional Muay Thai, rather than kickboxing and MMA. Equally there are fighters from Thailand like Buakaw, who made their name specifically in kickboxing, using Muay Thai.
But hopefully from this you’ll be able to see how Muay Thai has influenced the martial arts scenes of multiple countries across the world, and you’ll be able to implement elements from each of these approaches into your own game. Regardless of whether it’s kickboxing, or MMA, or whether it’s combined with karate, taekwondo or boxing – Muay Thai remains the most devastating striking art on the planet.