Posted by: B Gourley | November 20, 2012

My Week at the Muay Thai Institute: Is it Jissen?

Hey, this kind of looks familiar.

This is my second post resulting from a recent experience at the Muay Thai Institute in Rangsit, Thailand, and I warn you that it’ll be more controversial than the first. First, let me get some vocabulary out of the way. Jissen is a Japanese word that is often translated as “real fighting,” and it speaks to how pragmatic a style is for real world combat encounters. It’s not my intention to be controversial, provocative, or disrespectful, but rather to objectively consider both the strengths and weaknesses of Muay Thai as a means of defense. However, many people have strong feelings about their martial art, and may believe their’s to be the definitive end-all-be-all fight science. I’m in no position to condemn this attitude, as I was once guilty of it. I trained many years before I was capable of seeing the limitations and weaknesses in my own training. One’s attachment to an art is not that different from falling in love with a person; there’s a honeymoon period in which one can’t see the faults, and then, hopefully, a lifetime in which you love that person in spite of his/her faults.

There’re many reasons people study martial arts: to protect oneself or others, for sport, for non-sport entertainment (i.e. to become the next kung fu film star), to develop one’s mind, or to improve one’s health and fitness.  I wouldn’t presume to suggest that any one of those objectives is superior to the others. If fact, I believe that all of them have great value and are laudable pursuits.

(Here begins the controversy.) However, A martial art optimized to one of these raison d’être will be deficient for one or more of the other purposes. In particular, the first three objectives (jissen, sport, or entertainment) all call for different approaches to technique and training. I wouldn’t disagree that mental/spiritual development may be compatible with any of the three. Depending upon what type of health and fitness one is interested in pursuing, this goal may be compatible with any others as well. However, if one has severe arthritis that one would like to cure, tai chi is probably a good choice, but judō or jujutsu – not so much. Conversely, if one needs cardio fitness, tai chi is probably not the answer.

I don’t know how much controversy there is that (non-sport) entertainment and jissen don’t go hand in hand. It seems self-evident to me, but there are many people who seem to believe their martial art is the end-all-be-all in all domains. Most of the choreographed moves used by Jackie Chan or Jet Li, which are extremely entertaining and show supreme athleticism, are not the least bit useful in real fighting. It goes the other way as well, movie viewers don’t want to see knees the groin, eye gouges, fish-hooks, or headbutts. They rightfully want heroes that can do things that they can’t even imagine an ordinary person being able to do; they want “ooo” and “ahhh.”  (Although, I guess the Bourne trilogy showed people can be entertained by something that looks like two guys gutting it out in the chaos of a slug-fest.)

(The controversy increases.) Here’s the crux of this post –a martial art can be optimized for sport or for jissen, but there are fundamental trade-offs that put these goals in conflict. Three such trade-offs jump to mind.

1.) Endurance v. Coup de Grace mindset: anyone who has sparred for three minutes straight (the length of a round in many pugilistic sports, including Muay Thai) knows it can be exhausting. Delivering attacks, fending off attacks, and just taking hits for that long will wear one out. Unless a sport fighter is cocky enough to think he can consistently end bouts with first round knock-outs, he has to pace himself or risk being overwhelmed as the fight continues. The jissen mindset is to end the fight as quickly as possible. The longer a fight goes on, the more chances there are for it to end badly. The more licks the opponent gets in,  the more likely one of  them will be overwhelming. The longer the fight, the more likely the opponent’s friends will show up.

2.) The huge domain of real fighting:  If one wants to be ready for real fights, there’s a huge domain of skills that one needs to master, including: striking, grappling, receipt of strikes and throws, counters, unarmed receipt of armed attacks, weapon retention, weapon disarms, the use of weapons of various ranges, fighting multiple attackers, ground-fighting, and handling attacks from behind. It wouldn’t make a for very good sport if a competitor had to contend with all these elements. Among the problems are: how would one score the fight?; how would one ensure that it was safe enough that it wasn’t always lethal?; how would spectators know what the hell was going on?; and how would Las Vegas know how to set odds? There are advantages to the limited domain of sports. There’re fewer techniques to practice, and so one can focus on perfection of a short list of techniques. An old saying comes to mind. “I don’t fear the man who has practiced 10,000 techniques once, but the one who has practiced one technique 10,000 times.” Having said that, if one’s domain is severely limited, a skilled opponent will make sure one has to fight outside it.

3.) The need to recycle sport fighters: What do I mean by that? In a sport, one has to outlaw certain maneuvers in order to make it safe enough that fighters can have a career rather than having a fight or two before each is completely crippled. When competition is part of the equation, kinetic intensity increases, and fighters need to be conditioned to eliminate certain maneuvers. One does what one trains to do. I was watching a “comparative sport” fight on YouTube between a Muay Thai (MT) fighter and a Tae Kwon Do (TKD) practitioner. They apparently agreed to a rule of no punches or elbows to the head. This is par for the course for the TKD fighter but MT fights allow these strikes. The TKD competitor kept getting miffed when he’d get busted in the head, but once the fight got underway, and each man had to act at the speed of instinct, the MT fighter did what he’d conditioned himself to do through both training and previous fights. In jissen training, competition has to be removed from the equation  –otherwise one can’t safely practice the crippling techniques that must be part of the jissen practice.

So the aforementioned three areas are where I see Muay Thai‘s limitations as a form of jissen, and –of the three– I think MT’s limited domain is the most crucial. An endurance mindset is not all bad. As I wrote about in my previous post, Muay Thai builds high levels of fitness, and it can’t be denied that fitness matters in a fight. Strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular vigor are all potential advantages in fighting. [Of course, it’s not just athleticism but also mindset that matters for fight endurance. I’ve seen a person in great shape who was exhausted by a little sparring, and another in less than great shape who could go a long time without being winded. This is a matter of how a person holds (or doesn’t hold) tension.]

The need to put certain strikes off-limits matters, but –relative to other sports– Muay Thai allows quite a range of techniques. Allowing elbows to the head shows a willingness to accept a high level of damage to the body. The fact that Thai boxers are acclimated to taking a lot of abuse means that they’re likely to do better than average when it comes to a need to withstand a wide variety of strikes. That said, let’s consider an example of how the sport restrictions of MT might be detrimental in a real world fight. In close, the go-to technique of  Muay Thai fighters is to rely on knees to the outer torso and thigh (and takedowns if possible.) Because crotch shots are illegal in MT, they don’t train to take this target off-line or to deliver the more potent crotch/inner thigh shot. One does what one trains to do, and –unless you wear a cup everywhere you go– loitering with your crotch open to a knee or kick is likely to end badly.

Within their limited domain, I think Thai boxers are a force to be reckoned with and a match for any other system. However, that domain is narrowly limited by the rules and the structure of the sport. Long-range in Muay Thai consists of jab punches, roundhouse kicks, and straight kicks. Therefore, the footwork of MT, which is great in that close/intermediate range, won’t necessarily serve one well in dealing with an armed opponent. Another limitation is on the ground. MT rules allow for and reward takedowns, and some practitioners are quite good at them, but then there is a reset. Therefore, the MT fighter is not likely to be in his or her element on the ground. I heard a Thai boxer rationalize that taking the opponent down shows one can end the fight. But we know this isn’t true. One can see MMA fights in which one fighter dominates the stand up fight, but loses to submission on the ground. There’re fighters whose strategy is to just not get knocked out so that they can take the fight to the ground as quickly as possible.

Another way to look at this is to say that if MT is both a sport and a system of self-defence as many practitioners claim, it’s definitely a sport first and a method of defense second.

Guards up.

Having talked about the trade-offs between sport and jissen, practitioners of some sports are more prepared for combat than others. I think MT is more practical than many. I mentioned watching TKD v MT contest videos. MT seems to dominate in these matches. Except one that I saw that took place in Seoul in which the TKD guy won. In that case, it seemed to be a confident TKD master against a timid Korean MT student (if he had even studied MT and wasn’t just wearing the shorts.) This isn’t to disrespect TKD as a sport. There’s another trade-off to consider. The closer a system is to jissen, the less successful it’s likely to be as a sport. By that I mean that TKD is an Olympic event. While Thais would love MT to be an Olympic event and there’s a big push to make it one, I don’t see it happening. If it ever does, the sport will be fundamentally changed (i.e. more protective gear than just gloves and a cup or greater limitation in the types of strikes or –and this is most likely– both.) The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is not going to risk accepting a sport in which someone could have a brain bleedout. The IOC is ever concerned about the image of the games, and is a bureaucratic entity after all.  If Bangkok ever wins an Olympic bid (and this is a distinct possibility as it’s a large vibrant city with growing wealth), they may get it in as an exhibition, but I doubt it would go further than that.

So what are MT’s strengths as a system of defense? First, I’ve already mentioned the importance of fitness building. Second, I’ve also mentioned how practitioners are accustomed to taking a hit, and the importance of that cannot be denied. Combat is chaos and the idea that one is going to get through it without having a hand (or foot) laid on one –even if one is significantly more skilled than one’s opposition– is a fiction. If you’ve never had your bell rung, you’re not practicing jissen.  I had a teacher who used to say –as many of you may have heard,  “one shouldn’t make the goal to not be hit, but rather to not be hit in such a way that it ends the fight.”  MT practitioners embody this motto. At the range at which they fight, getting hit is inevitable. Therefore, emphasis on a strong guard and technique that will keep one from being knocked out or worn down is emphasized.

Third, the effective is valued over the fancy. I will readily admit that I don’t know that much about Tae Kwon Do, and I do realize that Olympic TKD may not be the norm for the sport. Having said that, from what I saw of the Olympic TKD matches and heard from the commentators about the rules, it seems to be a sport that rewards the fancy over the effective. Spinning kicks got awarded more points than direct kicks, and higher kicks (head) received more points than lower (torso) kicks. However, while kicks technically have to be on balance and “powerful,” a really solid kick didn’t seem to earn more than what looked like grazing kicks in the slow motion replays. Most of the competitors I saw seemed to only use their arms for counter-balance during kicks. It was odd to see competitors didn’t have guards up. I know their ranges are long because it’s all about the kicks (punches are allowed to the torso only but either because they are scored less or because they must be done inside the danger zone of kicking range they seem to be a rarity), but it’s still a bit shocking. Again, this isn’t to disrespect competition Tae Kwon Do which is a fine and entertaining sport, but one that bears little resemblance to jissen.

The Wai Kru in progress

Fourth, and this is where the few readers who have been nodding their heads in agreement so far may fall off and think I’m a crackpot, I think the value that MT puts on the mental piece through activities like the Wai Kru bodes well for a Thai boxer in a real fight. At the beginning of each fight, contestants perform what is called the Wai Kru. While this pre-fight ritual serves many purposes, an important one among them is to help the fighter get in the right state of mind. As I mentioned in the first post, there’s a great deal of emphasis on respect in Muay Thai. So the reader might say, “What on earth could these rituals have to do with effectiveness in a real fight?” Rituals seem anything but practical. I’ve spent some time thinking about this myself. I was reading a book on mindfulness by the famous Vietnamese Zen (Cha’an) Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, recently. He wrote that when he was a novice he was taught to handle incense sticks with two hands. Why should one use two hands for something so light as an incense stick? Because it conditioned one to put one’s whole being into the task at hand. I think that’s a good explanation of the value of ritual activities and rites of respect; it gets one into the habit of putting one’s entire being into the task at hand.

In summation, if one’s primary objective in studying a martial art is to prepare oneself for real combat, I can’t say that Muay Thai would be the system that I would recommend. However, if one wants to practice a sport, get fit, and –as an aside– improve one’s chances of defending oneself, one could do a lot worse than Muay Thai.


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