A recent issue of Black Belt Magazine contained a story I wrote on clinch fighting in Burmese martial arts. But due to space considerations, some of the text and most of the pictures had to be cut when it was printed. I thought it might be of interest to some to see the original story and all the accompanying pictures so I’m posting it here in two parts. This part contains the text and the first two sets of pictures. Part 2 will contain the rest of the pictures and should be up in the next week or so…
Use Your Head: Clinch Fighting in Burmese Martial Arts
As anyone who has watched mixed martial arts can attest, an important – and sometimes overlooked – phase of a fight is the clinch. Frequently, in MMA contests, you will see two fighters locked tightly together, holding on to each other as they trade short strikes or look to execute a takedown from the clinch position.
The prime influences of this modern MMA clinch game have been muay Thai, a style known for it’s use of knees and elbows in close, and Greco-Roman wrestling, known for it’s clinch positioning and upper body throws. But while highly effective, both of these sports – and modern MMA for that matter – have rules which prohibit the use of headbutts and groin strikes, two very dangerous weapons which may play a vital role in the clinch during a self-defense situation. Certain things encouraged by all three sports might, in fact, leave you more vulnerable to headbutts and groin strikes in the street.
But there is one sport that does effectively address these concerns: lethwei, a Burmese form of bareknuckle kickboxing.
Burma (now called Myanmar) sits at a cross roads in Southeast Asia, bordered by India to the west, China to the north and Thailand to the east. Home to various tribes with a history of internal warfare, the region became a breeding ground for effective – and highly brutal – martial arts which are sometimes known by the generic terms “thaing” or “bando.”
“There are similarities between the martial arts of each region of the country because the various tribes were always fighting each other, so they learned from each other. But each tribal art will often have it’s own particular characteristics. For example, the Mon region is near Thailand and their fighters seem to use more kicks like they do in muay Thai,” said Phil Dunlap, who teaches an art called hkyen, which is native to the Kachin region of the country.
Bordering on India, the Kachin martial arts appear to have a heavy influence from their neighbor to the West incorporating a good deal of grappling into their style, said Dunlap. Additionally, while the military junta that’s run Myanmar for 50 years has made an effort to standardize the rules of lethwei, in some cases limiting the use of groin strikes and other more dangerous techniques, areas like the Kachin have resisted this effort staying closer to the origins of the sport. Those origins, said Dunlap, may go back more than 1000 years to the Pyu Empire that once ruled parts of Burma.
“They have reliefs painted on ancient temple walls that show people doing a form of Burmese boxing, so these arts have very deep roots,” he said.
The ancient forms of thaing appear to have been primarily war arts incorporating the use of striking, grappling and weapons, a tradition styles like hkyen still maintain. Sporting aspects like lethwei and naban (a type of wrestling called gamu hkyen in Jinghpaw, the main language of the Kachin region), eventually came about to be performed at local festivals and as a way of safely practicing arts meant for the battlefield.
But safety is a relative concept, particularly in the Kachin version of lethwei (known as htwi hkyen in the Kachin state). Besides allowing headbutts and groin strikes, standing submission holds like guillotine chokes are allowed as are any type of throw and even quickly stomping on a downed opponent’s head before the referee breaks the action. Under Kachin-style rules, if a fighter is knocked out, he is allowed a minute to recover and continue fighting. If he is knocked out a second time, he is allowed another minute. It is only on the third knockout that a fight is stopped.
“The style was developed to prepare you for the battlefield,” said Dunlap, who lived and competed in the Kachin area for several years.
Among the things that make lethwei technically different from a sport like muay Thai are the use of headbutts which change the spatial relation in a clinch, the use of groin strikes which change the leg and hip placement, the use of full body throws and the bareknuckle aspect of the sport. This last difference allows for certain striking techniques like “the door knocker”, which are not possible with protective gloves. The door knocker is done by using the hand in the same way you would rap your knuckles on a door when knocking. Done over the eye, it can cause cuts. It can, in some cases, even be done directly into the eye.
When it comes to the use of headbutts and how they change the clinch in a fight, lethwei competitors make less use of the two handed head tie-up, known as “the plum” in muay Thai, often preferring to keep one arm free to defend against headbutts by holding off the opponent. Lethwei competitors, instead, will frequently make use of the collar and elbow tie-up commonly seen in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. But in the Lethwei version of the collar and elbow tie-up, a fighter will typically keep his head pressed in tightly against the side of the opponent’s head so as not to create space for the opponent to butt him.
Such butting, as with any strike, is meant to be done with very specific parts of the body. The New Jersey-based Dunlap said that if you can imagine your head as a square block, you would look to butt primarily with the edges that run around the top side of the block. For strikes with the front of the head, he looks to hit with the top of the forehead, near the hair line.
“You never want to hit with the forehead near the eyes because you can cut yourself and the blood will effect your vision,” he said.
Strikes are also done with the upper side portions of the skull and even with the very top of the skull when looking to ram the top of your head straight into an opponent’s face. Dunlap said the best targets for such attacks are the hollow portions of the face, below the opponent’s cheekbones. You would never want to hit directly against the opponent’s skull since that could hurt you as much as it does them.
There may still be some negative effect on you, even when you headbutt to a softer part of the opponent’s head. But Dunlap said the effects are generally no worse than getting hit with a good punch and will usually be much more severe for the opponent. He estimates that, in lethwei matches, when someone is caught flush with a headbutt, they are knocked down from the blow about 80% of the time, which should illustrate the potential power such a blow can generate and why it is so important to defend against them properly.
Defending against groin strikes, too, requires some adjustment in the Kachin version of lethwei. The standard stance most MMA fighters use in a clinch, while effective for throwing powerful rear leg knee strikes or providing a stable base for defending takedowns, frequently has the legs spread apart a bit, making the groin more vulnerable. Lethwei fighters who compete with groin strikes tend to stand with their legs in a more narrow stance and their lead foot centered between their opponent’s legs. They will also turn their hips somewhat to the side. This makes it much more difficult for the opponent to slip a kick or knee up in between your legs and strike your groin. For offensive purposes, your weight can be shifted back and your lead leg kept lightly on the floor, almost like a karate cat stance. This allows you to quickly raise your own lead leg between the opponent’s legs and strike at his groin. Though this can be done as a knee lift into the groin, Dunlap also likes to lift the foot straight up into the groin striking with the top of the instep near the ankle. This is not done as a snapping kick, which would require chambering, but instead as a simple lifting motion where you raise your knee straight up directly in front of the opponent until your instep is lifted up into their groin.
“I tell my students you may end up hitting with the ankle or the shin. But it doesn’t really matter,” said Dunlap. “As long as you’re catching him in the groin.”
Though very technical in their own way, the Burmese systems, perhaps because of the realistic way they are practiced, seem to believe the most important thing is making a technique work, rather than making it look picture perfect. This can sometimes give the impression lethwei is a less technical style of fighting than other systems, as can its power oriented approach to striking.
“Because it was a battlefield art and the idea was to try and take out the enemy right away, they don’t do things like throw quick jabs to set up a power punch,” said Dunlap. “Instead, lethwei fighters will throw a power jab, then a power punch, and maybe follow up with a headbutt. If they miss, this tends to make them look more awkward than other styles.”
But looks can sometimes be deceiving. Certainly, for anyone seeking to add some self-defense wrinkles to their clinch game, these arts are well worth investigating.
PHOTOS (Courtesy of Michael Stewart, featuring Phil Dunlap and Pat Albani):
figure 1a – Dunlap (right) squares off with his opponent
figure 1b – He steps forward slapping the opponent’s hands down while leading with his head
figure 1c – Striking with the top of his forehead, near the hairline, to the opponent’s face
figure 2a – Against an opponent who attempts to clinch him behind the head with both hands
figure 2b – Dunlap places his right forearm across the front of the opponent’s neck to stop a headbutt
figure 2c – With his hand on the back of the opponent’s shoulder, he straightens his arm crossfacing the opponent to break his clinch.
figure 2d – He then rams his own head forward into the opponent’s face