Tony Jaa Movies

Searching for Tony Jaa: The Hottest Martial Arts Movie Star Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Part 4)

Martial arts movie star Tony Jaa in The Protector. 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…

Searching for Tony Jaa: The Hottest Martial Arts Movie Star Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Part 3)

Tony Jaa martial arts teacher Sak Chai with Black Belt magazine's Antonio Graceffo.
Editor’s Note: In Searching for Tony Jaa: The Hottest Martial Arts Movie Star Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Part 2), international correspondent Antonio Graceffo sought — and found — an audience with Tony Jaa’s first martial arts teacher, Sak Chai. In Part 3, the author of Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist Through Asia continues that conversation and delves into a discussion regarding Tony Jaa’s muay Thai.

The neighborhood where Sak Chai lives is poor, and he worries that local kids might become drug users. “I invite them to my house and train them for free,” he says. “We train long staff, sword, gymnastics, contortion and muay Thai boran mixed with krabi krabong. I also teach them self-defense. I want them to learn so they’ll be good people, not so they can fight professionally. However, if they chose to fight, I support that, too. I don’t train them specifically to be actors, but the top four students went to Bangkok to live with Tony Jaa and be in the movies.

“Tony didn’t make it on physical strength. He made it because he’s respectful and helps his teachers and their students and his family. He meditates a lot in the forest with monks from the temple. The monks taught him special meditation for universal strength and the power of earth, water, air and fire. It was this spiritual power that allowed him to make Ong-Bak.”

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Every time Tony Jaa visits, he donates money to the kids. “The gymnastics mats were paid for by him,” Sak Chai says.

I ask him for more information about how Tony Jaa’s brand of muay Thai differs from what we see in the ring. “Muay Thai and muay Thai boran both practice striking, breaking, throwing and wrestling, but muay Thai boran has more wrestling,” he says. “One more difference is that muay Thai boran includes the spirit. The focus is on hitting one time and killing. It’s like the samurai warriors in Japan. They would swing one time and cut you in half.”

Sak Chai begins explaining the difference between film fighting in martial arts movies and real fighting: “Movies are just effects, but in the ring, if you’re not ready, someone can really hurt you. And both of these are different from fighting on the street. Someone can be an excellent fighter in the ring but lose on the street.

“Throughout Thailand, teachers become famous because their students win fights. Then they develop their own styles. In the old days, when two people fought, you could see by the style where each came from. Today, however, when you watch fights, it’s not as evident because the modern style is becoming more universal.

“When I was learning, we put sand in the bag and hit it and kicked it with our shins. When we got tough enough, we added cement. After that, we kicked banana trees. In the final phase, we stood in water up to our necks and kicked a banana tree, under water, until it broke. After we finished the last step, we could open a club. It took about 20 years. No one trains like that anymore.”

Moments later, he says, “Come back tomorrow, and I’ll teach you the basics.”

I ask how much he wants me to pay.

“Teaching is a form of conservation,” he says. “It’s good that a foreigner wants to learn our art. So the payment is up to you.”

Muay Thai Boran’s Striking Techniques

“Tony Jaa is so good because he has good fundamentals — a good mind and good spirit,” says adjan Sak Chai, one of Jaa’s most influential martial arts teachers. “You must also have a strong body, balance and focus. Use the gym to make your body strong. Meditate to strengthen your mind and spirit.”

Learn muay Thai techniques from one of America’s
top instructors in this FREE download!
Master Toddy’s MMA-Tested Muay Thai Techniques:
3 Elbow Attacks That Can Improve Your Fighting Game

On the training field, Sak Chai mounts a tightrope and walks along it to demonstrate his point. “Balance,” he grunts before jumping down and launching into a routine that entails twirling a staff around his body and tossing it into the air. He repeats the sequence with a flag tied to a pole, which spins like a propeller.

My martial arts lesson begins with kicks. Modern muay Thai effectively has two kicks. There are others, but for the most part, you see the roundhouse and the push kick, Sak says, then launches into a demonstration of muay Thai boran’s arsenal.

He starts with …

Searching for Tony Jaa: The Hottest Martial Arts Movie Star Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Part 2)

Tony Jaa martial arts teacher Sak Chai with Black Belt magazine's Antonio Graceffo.

Editor’s Note: In Searching for Tony Jaa: The Hottest Martial Arts Movie Star Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Part 1), international correspondent Antonio Graceffo took you into Bangkok and into a conversation about Tony Jaa’s childhood and young adult life with none other than the Ong-Bak star’s parents. In Part 2, the author of Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist Through Asia seeks — and finds — an audience with Tony Jaa’s first martial arts teacher, Sak Chai.

Searching for Tony Jaa … and Finding His Martial Arts Teacher

The next stop on my search is the home of Tony Jaa’s first martial arts teacher, adjan Sak Chai. His front walk is flanked by a shrine to Vishnu and Shiva, and the wall around his yard is decorated with hand-painted murals. The first panel depicts Sak Chai in his signature tiger-striped pajamas. To the right is an image of a spirit teacher wearing a many-headed naga (serpent) around his shoulders.

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When Sak Chai comes out to greet us, his hair, which has to be at least 6 feet long, is in dreadlocks tied up behind his back. He has a long mustache and beard composed of a few exceptionally long hairs. Just like in the mural, he’s wearing striped pajama pants and no shirt. His upper body is lean and well-muscled.

The Strength of Tony Jaa’s Martial Arts Teacher

Although he’s 47, Sak Chai possesses the most incredible strength-to-bodyweight ratio I’ve seen. Within minutes of meeting me, he’s doing circus tricks he used in the movies he made with Tony Jaa. He dives onto his hands and presses up into a frog stand, then into a handstand. “I can walk 100 meters (yards) on my hands,” he says. “Do you want to see?”

“Well, I did drive all the way out here,” I answer, uncertain of what to say.

He takes off at a dead run, on his hands, all the way up his street. It’s all I can do to keep up with him to shoot photos.

Back at his house, he walks down a flight of stairs on his hands. Next, he does splits between two chairs, then begins to juggle — plates and bowls using his hands, then bowls using his feet.

“This is a good exercise because it teaches us balance and concentration,” Sak Chai says. “It will make you a better fighter.”

Learn how a karate legend conditioned his students
to become better fighters in this FREE download!
History of Karate: Inside Mas Oyama’s Hard-Core
Kyokushin Karate Conditioning Program

For his next trick, he balances a 66-pound barbell on his nose. The only way to top that, apparently, is to juggle real swords — which I photograph from under a table. The juggling done, he balances a 40-pound head-chopper’s sword on his nose.

“This all relates to meditation,” he explains. “If you don’t meditate, you cannot protect yourself. If we do the sword balancing wrong, we can get injured or blinded. In a muay Thai ring, if we lose concentration, we can get injured.”

To strengthen his jaw, Sak Chai bites a rope and raises a 40-pound can of concrete. “This protects us from getting knocked out,” he says.

Inside the Home of Tony Jaa’s Martial Arts Teacher

The interior of his house is a clutter of animal bones, rusty weapons and religious amulets. Several swords are stuck in the wall at haphazard locations. The centerpiece is a massive shrine that features the bones of dead monks.

Sak Chai’s wife brings us water, and we sit down to talk. While we chat, he’s making religious amulets — faded Buddhas — by hand. “After they’ve dried, I’ll do a ritual to bless them,” the holy man says.

The Buddhists refer to Sak Chai as an ascetic, a follower of the direct teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. They’re not monks but laypeople who follow a strict set of precepts and abstain from most earthly pleasures. Strict vegetarians, they eat only one meal per day. They spend their time reading scriptures, chanting and meditating. Much of their focus is on suffering and hardening their bodies.

Sak Chai on Tony Jaa’s Movies and Ambitions

Sak Chai tells us he’s made a lot of martial arts movies, including several with his former student, Tony Jaa.

“Tony learned his [martial arts basics] here,” he says. “Then he went to learn other styles. He had many teachers. At the sports university, he learned taekwondo and gymnastics. Eventually, he made up his own style.”

There are rumors that Tony Jaa studied in Cambodia and that his martial art is actually …

Searching for Tony Jaa: The Hottest Martial Arts Movie Star Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Part 1)

Tony Jaa, martial arts movie star in Ong-Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior, as published in Black Belt magazine. Just when most moviegoers were ready to abandon all hope that a fresh face would ever appear in martial arts cinema, we got Tony Jaa, star of 2003’s Ong-Bak. As an added bonus, he brought with him a deadly new fighting style. In the blink of an eye, the sacred Thai art of pounding a person senseless with the knees and elbows was introduced to the world.

Aside from having the most incredible fight scenes ever and showing us Bangkok rather than Hong Kong, Ong-Bak is an important movie for two reasons. It was the first major film to feature muay Thai and the first Thai movie to have wide distribution in the States — all thanks to a high-flying martial artist from the jungles of Southeast Asia.

And now Tony Jaa is making the leap from Bangkok to Hollywood thanks to his recent casting in the upcoming Fast & Furious 7, helmed by Saw director James Wan and starring Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker and veteran actor Kurt Russell. Watch a video of Vin Diesel and Tony Jaa training:

Tony Jaa and Vin Diesel Train for Fights in the Upcoming Fast & Furious 7

— From the Fast & Furious 7 Fan Channel (unofficial)

And now on to the search for Tony Jaa …

Tony Jaa’s Hometown

Walking down Silom, one of Bangkok’s main shopping areas, I see Tony Jaa posters and DVDs of Tony Jaa movies everywhere. Even in remote villages, children wear T-shirts bearing photos of Jaa Pnom, as he’s called in Thailand. The locals know that he’s been an action hero for 15 years — which prompts my muay Thai instructor to ask, “Why did it take you guys so long to realize how great he is?”

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Being a movie star, Tony Jaa lives in the capital, but my first stop is a village in Surin province, seven hours north of Bangkok. Here, Tony Jaa was born and given the name Pnom Yeerum, which he later changed to Jaa Pnom.

At the bus station, everyone knows Tony Jaa and loves to talk about him. They’re proud of the local boy who made it big in America, and they’re grateful that he hasn’t forgotten his roots. They tell stories of his frequent visits to the region and the money he donates to schools and temples.

A driver agrees to hire out his bus for $25 a day, and he says he’ll take me to see Tony Jaa’s house. After driving for an hour, we arrive at a beautiful, two-story home surrounded by a brick wall. The driver says this is the mansion that Tony Jaa had built for his parents.

“But they don’t answer when people ring the bell,” he adds. “Too many reporters come to bother them.”

He motions for me to get back on the bus, and I begin suspecting that I’ve been had. He could have driven to any big house, pointed at it and said it was Tony Jaa’s place. I discuss the matter with two Cambodian monks, friends who elected to tag along to translate, when an elderly man and woman come out to greet us.

They’re Tony Jaa’s parents.

Searching for Tony Jaa: Meeting His Parents

“We don’t usually answer the door, but we saw the monks,” the mother says, bowing.

As we enter the compound, the father gives me a sly look: “Say ‘thank you’ to your friends — you would never have gotten in here if it wasn’t for them.”

Mr. and Mrs. Jaa and I sit barefoot and cross-legged on the floor, drinking ice tea. The monks perch on a bamboo platform above us. Being taller than most Thais, I have to make sure my head isn’t higher than the monks’ — I don’t want to offend the Jaas, who are known to be very religious.

The parents speak at length with the monks. They’re curious to know how a foreigner came to be friends with the Cambodians. The monks explain that we met in Cambodia several years ago while I was studying the martial arts there.

The father signals me to start the interview. I compliment them on the beauty of their house. It’s strange to see a mansion beside all the tiny two-room affairs. “After he became famous, Tony bought this house for us,” the mother says with pride. “It cost 10 million baht.”

“Where did you live before?” I ask.

“In that house,” she says, pointing.

Upon entering the compound, I noticed a dilapidated wooden shack and wondered why they kept it on the grounds. Now, I understand. “Every day, we look out the window and …

Ong Bak 2 Review | Vintage Tony Jaa Movies

You won’t find the term “death defying” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, but if the editors were to add it to the next edition, it would be fitting to place a picture of Tony Jaa next to the definition. That’s because Tony Jaa shocked the world in 2003 when he performed acrobatic muay Thai and jaw-dropping stunts for Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior. Even Jackie Chan, one of Tony Jaa’s childhood heroes, expressed his admiration.

Now, Tony Jaa’s back with the far more ambitious Ong Bak 2. Don’t let the number fool you, though, because it’s not really a sequel. The film is set in 15th-century feudal Thailand, where Lord Rajasena hungers for more power. First stop on the road to total domination: Kill a regional commander, Lord Sihadecho, and his family.

Learn more about the original martial arts movie star with our FREE guide—Our Bruce Lee Movies List: Little-Known Trivia From Bruce Lee’s Pictures.

But Sihadecho’s teenage son, Tien, survives the massacre and is rescued by Chernung, chief of a group of outlaws. Impressed by the kid’s fighting spirit and sensing his higher calling, Chernung allows Tien to live among them and learn their martial arts—and, boy, do they know a lot of martial arts.

Chernung’s village is made up of masters from around the world. By the time Tien is fully grown (and now played by Tony Jaa), he’s the only one to successfully combine their litany of styles, including Chinese drunken fist, Indonesian pentjak silat, Japanese jujutsu, Polynesian wrestling and the predecessor to muay Thai, muay boran.
Did the Thai practitioners of that era cross-train with warriors from other nations? Yes, because open trade routes allowed for the exchange of military culture, as well. But did a kind of Olympic village of masters exist? Probably not.

Still, Tien is a joy to watch. It’s such a treat for me as a martial arts addict to dissect each brawl, linking each move that Jaa uses to a specific style and studying how he melds them together.

In the climactic set piece, Tien takes on dozens of ninja-like assassins, and he smoothly switches from the tiger and crane strikes of hung gar and the leg trapping of harimau silat to the blade art of krabi krabong and the deadly swordplay of kenjutsu.

Speaking of blades, Tony Jaa cooks up an all-you-can-eat buffet of weapons combat, which includes the three-sectional staff and rope dart. Although he might not be as crisp with the Chinese weapons as Jet Li, Tony Jaa definitely shows a maturity and willingness to take creative risks. That gives me hope that he’ll someday craft the kind of martial arts epic that will make him a global household name.

Unfortunately, Ong Bak 2 is not quite that film.

Don’t get me wrong: Tony Jaa’s directing is deft. Mirroring the way he uses a range of fighting styles, he flows from one filming technique to another—crane, dolly, hand-held and wide shots—without ever obscuring the action. And his co-director, Tony Jaa’s longtime stunt mentor Panna Rittikrai, works seamlessly behind the scenes to showcase his star pupil. But no matter how amazing their talents, they’re not enough to mask the screenplay flaws.

Ong Bak 2’s plotline is pretty obvious, the main villain is a cartoon character, the supporting cast is loaded with cardboard cutouts and Tien lacks any real character development. Plus, it offers up a weak, last-minute thematic connection to the first Ong Bak, feeling more like a “hurry up, we’re running out of film stock” conclusion than a well-written cliffhanger ending.

Still, fans will enjoy this ambitious import. The action style is a real ode to martial arts movie classics but still packs plenty of modern stunts to push the genre further. Let’s hope Ong Bak 3, which is in production, will be Tony Jaa’s true magnum opus.

(Patrick Vuong is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and martial artist based in Orange County, California.)