To excel in muay Thai, you need to develop all your main weapons, Alex Gong said, and although the legs are used more than the arms, punching skills shouldn’t be neglected.
“Your hands are useful because you can quickly punch somebody in the head, and if you land one hard shot, you may knock him out or set him up for a knockout blow,” he said. “Your kicks set up your punches initially, and then your punches can set up your kicks — but that’s not to say you should rely on one more than the other.”
First, work on mastering your straight punches, Gong said. Understand how to do them and how to defend against them.
“I like to use a lot of same-side attacks,” he said. “That means you punch with your left hand and kick with your left leg, or you knee with your left leg and punch with your left hand. Same-side attacks don’t always leave you vulnerable to that centerline of fire.”
The counterpart of the same-side attack is the cross-attack, he said. “You jab with your left hand and kick with your right, or you punch with your right hand and kick with your left. Those are nice combinations, but as you throw from one side and switch to the other, your body’s in the line of fire. Using same-side attacks helps you avoid that.”
Gong advised students to throw various hand and foot techniques at different parts of their opponent’s body to create new opportunities to launch follow-up attacks. Whenever an opponent adjusts to your attack and counters it, he inadvertently creates new opportunities for you to launch another attack, he said. Eventually, this barrage should wear him down enough for you to finish him.
“In muay Thai, you assume that your opponent will block your attacks,” he said. “In fact, he may block most of your techniques. So when you kick at his body, you’re not necessarily looking to land right into the body but to hit the outside shell.
“I like to teach the ‘walnut philosophy’: You have to crack the shell to get to the nut. You hit him on the outside of the shell to make him react. Assuming he can take the shot, he will adjust and fire back, creating opportunities for you to break down his outer shell.”
When you’re beginning a walnut-philosophy combination, Gong said, it doesn’t matter where your blows land. If you kick his arms, it’s good because it can keep him from punching. If he punches simultaneously and you slam your shin into his body, it’s good because you can do some damage. If you kick his leg, you may prevent him from raising that limb to block a follow-up kick. If you kick higher and target his head, that’s also great, Gong said, because of the knockout potential.
When you begin a bout, Alex Gong said, you might feel more comfortable using muay Thai’s boxing methodology: “When your opponent tries to attack, you get out of the way and counterattack. You’re constantly on the move. When he comes to one side of the ring, you move; and when he comes again, you attack.”
That mobility-based approach enables you to create openings to inflict damage on your opponent while you protect yourself from his attacks, Gong added. But as you expend energy, you may not be as quick to maneuver and counterattack. That’s when many kickboxers switch to the “walking and fighting” methodology.
You basically march forward and defend yourself, Gong said. “You don’t move around too much. Your opponent attacks and you block. If he comes in, you kick him. You meet his force and constantly move forward.”
Neither methodology is superior; the “right” one depends on your preference and the situation you are in, he said.
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Winning is about strategy more than anything else, Alex Gong said. Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques, focus on how and when you will use them. “You have to find your own internal rhythm, your own balance and your own movement, then apply that knowledge to make your opponent go off his movement,” he said. “Even if you have only one technique — let’s say, a jab — but you have great timing and great strategy, you can make it work.
“My personal fighting style has evolved over the years,” Gong continued. “I came into the game with the ‘big stick’ mentality: Kick him with a big, heavy weapon. And that’s a great way to start as a muay Thai fighter. But as I evolved, my timing and combinations got better. I could play with my sense of movement and set my opponent up by sucking him in. Things started changing for me, and I was able to grow as a fighter.”
Alex Gong said the optimal way for any fighter to grow is to adopt a simple philosophy: Every fight you have is like a semester of schooling. Just as each course you take in school focuses on a particular topic, each time you prepare for a bout and actually step into the ring should be viewed as an opportunity to improve a particular part of your performance.
“Don’t focus on a whole bunch of things,” he said. “Instead, you should think, ‘I’m gonna make this technique better, and by the end of this training session — which might be 10 weeks of six-hour days — I’m going to have another technique to put in my bag of tricks.’”
You may have a list of skills you’d like to master, but you must set realistic goals, Gong said. “For each fight, you should say, ‘This is what I’m going to improve.’ For each training session, you should think, ‘This is what I’m going to accomplish.’
“That way, you will get better every day. You should focus not on trying to learn a whole bunch of things at the same time, but on learning one or two things very well.”
Editor’s note: In 2003 the martial arts world was saddened when Alex Gong was shot and killed at age 32. Obviously, the interview that led to this article was conducted before his death.