Saenchai in his prime was one of the best, if not the best, Thai boxers to ever glove up. While most martial artists consider Samart Payakaroon to be the greatest kickboxer of all time, Saenchai’s record is impeccable, and he has had the kind of longevity that very few athletes get to enjoy. In recent years, he has stepped down in competition and largely fights non-Thai kickboxers for easy paydays.
While Saenchai’s opponents today aren’t as strong as those he faced in his prime, they are usually a good deal larger than he is. Yet he’s still able to overcome them. How does he do this? In our search for answers, we must look at the concept of “no man’s land” and examine how Saenchai controls distance.
No Man’s Land
Cliff Bura, founder of the original Diesel Gym in London, used the term “no man’s land” in reference to the spatial gap between two fighters. The reference comes from the European theater during World War I. The opposing armies were stationed in mile-long trenches. They lived, trained and slept in those trenches, and the only way to reach the enemy was to go “over the top” and cross a large, deadly gulf of mud and barbed wire called No Man’s Land.
Crossing no man’s land was a perilous task because you had to essentially waltz through an open field with no cover while the enemy fired at you. Such is also true of fighting in the ring — although in far cushier conditions.
To make an attack in the ring, you need to cross no man’s land, and in doing so, you give away your intention. Those who have trained in a combat sport can probably remember the first time they sparred full contact and how it was hard to even step forward and land a shot. They would be stopped, countered or flat-out evaded, and it’s tough for beginners to figure out why. The reason beginners are unable to hit more-experienced sparring partners is they haven’t learned how to cross no man’s land at all.
Invading no man’s land requires an unpredictable offense. Double and triple jabs and hand traps are all good ways to control an opponent’s guard while closing the gap. These are skills that take time to learn, and unfortunately for beginners in that scenario, it’s actually a lot easier to control no man’s land defensively than it is to invade.
When it comes to controlling no man’s land defensively, Saenchai is a master. His fights are at precisely two ranges: extremely close and extremely far. If he was to stay in a midrange, he would be in danger because he is primarily a reflexive fighter who likes to evade attacks and, although he does have knockout victories, he is not a particularly powerful fighter.
Saenchai instead plays the very unusual game of being the out-fighter — but with a shorter reach than his opponents. He stays on the very edge of his opponents’ range to the point where should they throw a kick or punch, he only has to pull back slightly before leaping in with a quick counterkick, then pivot and force his opponent to turn.
Saenchai in Action
In this video, we see a classic example of Saenchai’s tactics. His opponent Shan is considerably larger than he is. Saenchai makes quick entries with straight lefts or snappy switch kicks. He closes the distance fast, and as soon as he makes contact, he is back on the outside again. Those who come from point-based karate styles like shotokan will probably find a lot in common with Saenchai because this is the same principle of blitzing seen in those competitions.
Saenchai’s entries into no man’s land, while being quick and snappy, are also hard to predict because he attempts to sweep Shan on entry. These don’t usually succeed, but they give Shan something else to worry about. When Shan is ready to mount his own attack, he comes in from distance, and Saenchai has time to react and land his counters.
It’s often said that Saenchai appears to be sparring with his opponents, rather than fighting them, because of how relaxed he is at all times. While no one can truly speak about what’s happening in his mind when he fights, it’s fair to say his sense of distance and timing is so good that he doesn’t need to stress about his opponents’ attacks.
Lerdsila, a former stablemate of Saenchai, has a similarly slippery style. However, Lerdsila is known for being toofocused on evading and not on attacking, which has caused him to lose decisions he could have won.
How You Can Do This
If you have access to a gym and a hula hoop, you can start practicing this idea with a clear visual indicator of no man’s land. Place the hula hoop between you and your partner. Ensure that both of you are outside the perimeter of the hoop.
When your partner steps forward with a jab, you will see his foot cross into the hula hoop. From there, you check the jab and pivot around the edge. The hoop will serve as a guide you can easily circle around. When your partner has to step to reset, make your counter. He then steps back outside the hoop, and you do the drill again, swapping places.
The next drill, which also uses the hula hoop, has one person place his lead foot just inside the hoop while the other stays a step outside. When the partner steps into the hoop to make a move, you step backward, leading with your rear foot, before drawing your lead foot outside the hoop. Once you are outside, once again circle around the hoop.
This drill helps you build the habit of stepping back and thenaround because ideally you shouldn’t take more than two steps backward while retreating before circling out. Practicing the drill builds good habits and helps prevent you from accidentally running into the ropes or cage while trying to evade your opponent.
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