Beginner’s Guide to Muay Thai in MMA
Nearly every MMA gym in the world teaches three specific martial arts: Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling and muay Thai.Occasionally, you also find boxing classes on the schedule. In the Pride/Tapout era of MMA, it was thought that these four martial arts were the only styles that worked.
There wasn’t much representation for judo, sambo or karate at the time, and to this day, only a handful of karatekahave been successful in MMA. So martial artists went crazy training in muay Thai, BJJ, wrestling and boxing in their quest to become a “complete” MMA fighter.
The majority of pro fighters in that era did the same thing. Their striking was muay Thai on paper, but there weren’t and still aren’t many examples of muay Thai fighters in MMA who actually look like muay Thai fighters. While muay Thai is objectively the most popular striking style in MMA, it seems to be that fighters learn basic muay Thai pad drills and then put them to the test in the cage.
In this post, I will examine four MMA fighters who actually do resemble muay Thai fighters. But first, let’s talk about what’s not muay Thai.
Anderson Silva’s use of the double-collar tie is not muay Thai. He simply uses the most basic hold in all of Thai boxing, one that doesn’t even really work in Thai competition. His counter-striking, while excellent, comes from his background in boxing, the sport in which he now competes professionally. His kicking comes mostly from taekwondo.
This is the case for a lot of Brazilian “muay Thai fighters.” You can learn more about this in my article on Cosmo Alexandre. Speaking of which …
Cosmo Alexandre is a fine Brazilian muay Thai fighter known for his MMA crossovers and fearsome power. He is notable not necessarily because of his pristine muay Thai but because of how he’s able to work muay Thai into a style that most people would say more strongly resembles MMA or kickboxing.
Having experience in all three sports, Cosmo Alexandre is something of a chameleon, able to disappear and perform well under whichever rule set is necessary. As a result, while he has ferocious striking, he doesn’t always appear to be a clear example of muay Thai in MMA.
This is rather ironic, considering that he’s far and away the most accredited muay Thai fighter on this list. Even the actual Thai fighter who happens to be here — we’ll get to her in a moment — doesn’t have the quality of muay Thai opponents that Cosmo Alexandre has.
You can read a full post on Cosmo Alexandre here.
I’ve discussed why many think Matt Brown has the best muay Thai in MMA. While I recommend you read that article for an in-depth breakdown as to what makes him the best, I’ll review the basics here.
Matt Brown is the only fighter to use advanced muay Thai techniques at the highest levels of MMA. The rest of the fighters on this list compete in the women’s divisions and while they’re brilliant, their opponents generally are not.
Matt Brown has a style that focuses on closing the gap, getting the clinch and exhausting his opponent via sweeps, trips, elbows and knees. His best showing was certainly against Erick Silva, who came into the bout seemingly larger, more athletic and more explosive. Matt Brown, however, used his skills in the clinch to sap the giant of all his energy, then wore him down for the victory.
Loma Lookboonmee, whose real name is Suphisara Konlak, is without a doubt the finest technician on this list of fighters who use pure muay Thai. Having competed in Thai boxing from age 7, she’s the first Thai fighter ever signed by the UFC.
Competing in the women’s strawweight division, Loma Lookboonmee hasn’t shown herself to be anything particularly notable in MMA yet, but that seems to have less to do with her muay Thai skills and more to do with her grappling skills, which need improving. The pace and distance of MMA is different, and she still needs to find her feet in that area.
Where Loma Lookboonmee is particularly strong in MMA is her clinch work. Much like Matt Brown, she looks to off-balance, knee and elbow her opponents.
What Loma Lookboonmee demonstrates with her performances is that the kick- and clinch-heavy styles of muay Thai are perfectly applicable to MMA, provided the person has the balance and coordination expected of a muay Thai fighter.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Valentina Shevchenko
These two MMA champions come from amateur muay Thai backgrounds. Both Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Valentina Shevchenko competed extensively in amateur bouts and eventually had pro careers before switching to MMA.
The reason they’re listed together is these women have shared an arena four times, having fought three times in amateur muay Thai and having battled in MMA for the women’s strawweight title.
Valentina Shevchenko won all four contests and has the “prettier” style with impressive kicks and great defense. While she has great technique, she isn’t a particularly adept finisher. She can control the pace of a fight well, but unless she’s facing a horribly outmatched opponent, she usually goes to a decision and there won’t be much of a struggle. She’s able to comfortably control an opponent but rarely puts the other person in any real danger.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk, on the other hand, is a more effective fighter. She focuses more on punching combinations and chopping low kicks, with the occasional elbow and knee to dig at her opponent. She was probably best-known as the first real women’s flyweight champion. She wasn’t technically the first — that honor goes to Carla Esparza, but Esparza lost the title to Jedrzejczyk in her first non-TUF bout. Joanna Jedrzejczyk held onto the belt for a rather long time.
If you’re looking for a great fighter who can give you a clear idea of what traditional muay Thai looks like in MMA, look no further than Matt Brown and Loma Lookboonmee.
If you’re looking for a good example of muay Thai that has been specifically adapted to MMA but that retains some of what makes muay Thai a great martial art, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Valentina Shevchenko are the fighters you want to watch.
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