Editor’s Note: In Searching for Tony Jaa: The Hottest Martial Arts Movie Star Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Part 3), international correspondent Antonio Graceffo talked and trained with Tony Jaa’s first martial arts teacher, Sak Chai, covering topics such as muay Thai boran’s striking techniques and knee strikes, as well as delving into a comparison of modern muay Thai vs. boxing. In Part 4, the author of Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist Through Asia continues that conversation with an exploration of muay Thai boran’s grappling techniques.
Delving into the seldom-seen dimensions of muay Thai boran, Sak Chai teaches me some grappling. He demonstrates a number of techniques in which he catches my leg and throws me. In some cases, he scoops or pushes my base leg. In other instances, he uses my kicking leg for leverage and tosses me to the ground. Sometimes he pushes with his shoulder and sends me tumbling. In one very cool technique, he ducks under my kick and comes up just as it passes overhead. He stands, trapping the leg on his shoulder. When he rises, the power and strength of his body are pitted against my extended leg, and I have no choice but to fall.
Most muay Thai grappling consists of seizing at the neck and head, but Sak Chai also grapples from the waist. When I try to grab his head, he ducks under my arms and wraps his arms around my midsection. He’s careful to set his head off to the side, with his face against my hip, where it’s out of range of knee strikes. In an impressive display of flexibility, he lifts his knee over his head and smashes me in the face. A variation involves first bending at the waste and grabbing the back of the opponent’s leg, then raising his knee over his head and striking the enemy in the face.
This is the technique Tony Jaa used to defeat the huge bare-knuckle fighter in the dirty basement in Bangkok at the beginning of Ong-Bak. Sak Chai asks me to punch him. When I oblige, he uses his elbow to push the punch down so it doesn’t hit him. Then he rotates his elbow across my forearm, gains control of my arm and pushes me to the ground. It’s similar to a hapkido technique, but it’s all done using the elbow for leverage, instead of grabbing the wrist or forearm. Certain martial arts espouse a theory that when you grab a man’s wrist, you commit yourself and tie up one of your hands. By using the elbow to gain control, but not grab, you’re still free to fight with both hands.
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Muay Thai Boran Training
The next day, we talk about defense. A brilliant defense against a kick is to step off at a 45-degree angle and kick the base leg, sweeping the man to the ground, Sak Chai says. In a muay Thai boran fight, you’d strike the side of the knee, which is illegal in sport muay Thai. You could also step off at the same 45-degree angle and punch the man in the blind side of his head. Or you could wait until a punch comes, then step in with your forearm close to your face, guarding your head. Once inside, you could attack the man’s deltoid with an elbow strike. Make sure you strike with the point, not the flat of the elbow, he warns.
The children arrive for their training, portaging the mats Tony Jaa donated all the way from Sak Chai’s house to the practice field. While they’re lined up at the edge of the mat, Sak Chai and his assistant stretch the kids one by one. They twist them in every direction, tying them up like pretzels. They capture a boy by the head and feet, then lift him into the air and pull him as if he’s on a medieval rack. It must work because the flexibility of all the kids is incredible. A 14-year-old shows how he can put one leg behind his head and hop around on the other.
“When Tony was training with me, we didn’t have any mats or safety [equipment],” Sak Chai says. “That’s one reason he’s so good and so strong today — because he trained on the hard ground.”
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Sak Chai says the kids need to use acrobatics for exciting film fights, so he has them practice backbends, walkovers…