Let’s take a look at a Muay Thai technique called the Front Clinch, or the “Plum Clinch”, and its potential effectiveness as a self-defense technique or as a defensive tactic in the modern world.
What is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) is a combat sport that can be traced to the middle of the 18th century. It has always been a combat sport involving empty handed one-on-one combat between two fighters. It’s known as the art of eight limbs because it uses eight points of contact to strike the opponent: hands, elbows, feet and knees. Striking the legs as well as clinching and tripping are legal techniques.
Because Muay Thai is a striking combat sport, the techniques and strategies that lead to victory for a fighter are such that both fighters must risk standing directly in front of one another in order to throw combinations of legal strikes. While certain types of clinching is allowed, striking from behind is not. If a fighter falls or is thrown to the ground the action is stopped and the fighter is allowed to stand back up to continue the fight.
For 200 years or more, Muay Thai has been developing, evolving and improving on the techniques and strategies for it’s specific sport. It’s arguable that Muay Thai and its variants (Muay Boran, Lethwei, Pradal Serey, Tomoi, Muay Lao) are some of the most effective striking systems in the world.
What is the Muay Thai Front Clinch?
The Muay Thai Front Clinch (MTFC) involves pulling the head of the opponent downwards, which is easier if the hands are locked behind the back of the head instead of behind the neck. Furthermore, the arms should be putting as much pressure on the neck as possible. A correct clinch also involves the fighter's forearms pressing against the opponent's collar bone while the hands are around the opponent's head.
The Front Clinch keeps both the fighters facing each other so that the dominant fighter can throw strikes (usually knees and elbows) at their opponent’s head, torso and legs.
While this is all well and good for a combat sport, it doesn’t necessarily support what we should be doing in a self-defense situation.
Primer on Modern Self-Defense Situations
If you’re in an altercation with another person and you are attempting to use force against them, you need to be legally justified to do so. In most States this is written into the criminal code as “Use of Force” statutes. I’ll write more on this topic later, but what I want you to first consider is that in terms of using force on another person, there are times when you legally can and times when you legally can not use force against them. Understanding the difference between these two situations can shape not only the tactics you might need to utilize, but it can shape what you train and how you train it.
Types of scenarios you might find yourself legally using reasonable force against another person are: To prevent an assault against your person; To prevent a criminal assault against you or another; To prevent a felony from being committed against you or another person; To prevent the loss of life, limb, eyesight or permanent physical injury against yourself or another person.
What I didn’t mention was using force to see if you were the biggest, baddest, toughest monkey in your local bar; or using force or intimidation against another because they cut you off in traffic. So if we can eliminate these types of social violence scenarios out of the realm of things we are willing to fight over, then the actual list gets shorter and we can focus on the more serious issues of criminal assaults and felonies possibly being committed against us.
The Criminal Assault Paradigm
In regards to criminal assaults, felonies and other types of Asocial (AS) crimes that could be committed against us we can look at the data and research about these crimes and notice some commonalities. These commonalities can help us choose not only our tactics in how we might best deal with these situations and survive them, but how we should focus our very limited time training and preparing for them.
One core theme with most criminal assaults is an unequal initiative between the victim and the criminal. This means that the criminal will set the time and the place for when the assault will kick off. In essence, this is an ambush, but it can at times contain an element of social deception. It is the intention of the criminal to catch you off guard and in a vulnerable state or position. This means that it is unlikely you will find yourself going toe to toe with a violent criminal actor (VCA). The VCA doesn't want to have a fair or honorable fight with you. In fact, they don't want a fight at all. They want either what you have or they want to do very bad things to you that you might not walk away from.
Another core theme with a criminal assault is unproportional armament. There usually is a weapon involved in most criminal assaults. Even while you may be armed yourself, the criminal will usually have their weapon in hand when they make contact with you, or will produce their weapon at such a close range to you, that you will not be able to produce and employ your weapon without a very serious risk to your life.
In addition to the two core themes of a criminal assault, research has found three common elements to most of these assaults:
Training for defending against a criminal assault must take the core themes and common elements into consideration.
The Purpose of the MTFC
The purpose of the MTFC is to control the head of the opponent as well as their range from you. The force applied to the the opponents’ head can be downward, lateral or with torque. The forearms in the chest can be used to push the opponent into a corner or up against an obstacle so as to pin them and inhibit their movement. As discussed earlier, the clincher’s primary options are to throw knee strikes at the head, body and legs as well as to throw their opponent to the ground.
Entanglement and In Fight Weapons Access
The MTFC is a clinching technique, or more generally known as a type of entanglement. When entangled with a threat at close range the primary concern must be about weapons being introduced into the fight. You must be concerned with this from both your perspective and theirs. By that I mean, your tactics must address their ability to access any weapons on their person, their ability to access any weapons on your person, and their ability to inhibit or foul your access to your weapons.
One of the best ways to address all three issues is to effectively control the hands and/or arms of the threat so they can’t access any weapons or inhibit your access to your weapons.
Unfortunately, the MTFC isn’t able to address this issue because the clinchers’ arms are committed to controlling the threats’ head, all the while the threats’ hands are free to access weapons and use them against the clincher. The number one reason why the MTFC fails at this level is because it was never meant to deal with a real self-defense situation involving weapons. It’s a sporting technique for a combat sport that has historically never used or dealt with any weapons.
I recently made two videos with the ICBJJ Muay Thai & Combat Jiu-Jitsu coach Damien Roth. In these videos we demonstrate some of the shortcomings to the MTFC being used in a self-defense situation for civilians as well for Law Enforcement attempting to use the MTFC as a defensive tactic.
You should begin to see an alarming theme in the videos regarding the dangers of not controlling the hands of the threat from accessing weapons. At the end of each video I demonstrate an alternative entanglement to the MTFC, which does address the critical issue of in fight weapons access.
These videos are a must watch for civilians who are concerned about self-defense, especially civilians who are legally carrying a knife or a firearm (CCW/CPL) for personal protection. Police/Law Enforcement will also want to watch both videos so as to see the full scope of this topic.
Video 1: Using the MTFC in self defense
video 2: le defensive tactics: limitations of the MTFC
Here’s the scenario: You’re curious about training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) for one reason or another. You contact an academy and set up a trial class so you can get on the mats and see what you think about it. Afterwards, the Instructor or Program Manager sits down with you to go over the schedule and membership rates. You may be unsure of how often you're expected to train, or how often you should be training for the best rate of progression. Or, you could be one of those people who are either "All In or All Out". In any case, let me shed some light on starting out in BJJ and optimal training frequency for new students.
The All In/All Out Student
After the staff member goes over the schedule with you, you realize that you’ll only be able to make it to four out of the 16 different classes they offer each week. Seeing as how you can only attend 25% of the classes they offer you make the decision that it’s not worth it to you. As an "All In or All Out" type of person there’s no way you're going to go into this sort of training with anything less than a full commitment on your part. But here’s the problem with your logic: You have no idea what you don’t know about training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It’s called Unconscious Ignorance, and it happens to the best of us.
To begin with, very few people in the world who train BJJ have the luxury of being able to attend every class that their academy offers. At my academy, Iowa City Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we offer 13 classes per week to Adults as well as 11 Open Mat sessions and one Competition Training Session per week. Nobody has ever attended every session available to them in one week.
The average person doesn’t have the time available to train 25 sessions per week, nor should they. Doing so would increase your chance of injuries and lead to a rapid onset case of Burn Out due to over training.
That’s just looking at the physical aspect. There are two other dimensions not being accounted for by most new students - the mental aspect and their ability to learn and retain complex information that is being taught to them both verbally and visually.
When you first start at a BJJ academy as a new student, you are stepping into another world. You will be doing things you’ve probably never done before, wearing a uniform you’ve probably never worn before, trying to follow etiquette you’re unfamiliar with, and hearing words and terms you’ve probably never heard before. You might as well have been kidnapped, thrown on a plane and dropped off in another part of the world. Needless to say, the odds are you’re going to be completely overwhelmed by all of this and will need some time to let it all sink in and understand it. So go slow at first and let yourself get comfortable with things.
Ultimately, it’s not about how many days per week you come to class. It’s about how much you can retain. With so much else going on at the academy that’s new to you, the actual lesson can seem like just one small wave in a sea of the new and unfamiliar. It might be a while until it’s the only thing that’s new for you in the academy to remember.
The new student who tries to train too much won’t get the time necessary to think deeply about what they’ve learned that week because their mind will be flooded with far too much for them to digest. The tsunami of information that never gets properly digested, understood and retained accumulates in the brain, and unless it can be properly categorized, serves only as cluttered static to block new information from being processed. These students remain scatter-brained for the majority of their short time on the mats and never really understand any one technique at a basic level of competency. This leads to frustration for them, obviously, and when it’s combined with the physical fatigue and injuries they’ve possibly accumulated, it’s little wonder that they no longer see the value in training. They've burned out.
On the other side of this “All In” coin is the “All Out” component. Some of these prospective students won’t have an opportunity to go All In because their schedule doesn’t allow them to. In these cases they figure that if they can’t go All In they just won’t train at all.
What happens in the All Out scenario is a completely missed opportunity for the individual to better themselves at all. In the beginning of a person’s Jiu-Jitsu journey, any opportunity to be on the mats will likely lead to a dramatic increase in their familiarity, competency, understanding, proficiency and confidence in their Jiu-Jitsu. These gains may seem small to those who have yet to start training, but those of us who have spent a few months or more on the mats know that progress made at this stage is happening at an incredible rate.
However, the All Out prospective student is unable to see this version of their future or even understand it. They truly have no idea what they are missing out on. Because they are unwilling to even begin training, they will never achieve the benefits for which they initially sought out Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. They will wake up the next day in their beds the exact same people they were the day before. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Your Best Approach to Beginning Training
I recommend that for the first six months to one year of training that the average person attend two classes per week on average. Some students may be able to handle three days per week quite early on, but two days per week seems to be the best for most people.
Two days of training per week will allow you to focus on learning a small set of moves each class, and then spend time between classes to reflect and think deeply about what you’re learning. I also recommend attending one to two Open Mat sessions per week. I prefer Open Mat sessions over Sparring sessions for students because it gives them the freedom to either practice techniques, do drills or spar. I don’t like to force sparring on new students or have new students neglect an opportunity for deliberate practice for the excitement of sparring.
By the time you reach one year of training you should look to add an extra day to your regular training schedule. By now you’re probably proficient with basic movements (hip escape, forward roll, etc.) and are getting pretty decent at escapes and maybe some submissions. Adding another day is probably the right choice for you at this point. If you’ve been consistently training two days per week you’re probably about a year out from your Blue Belt. Adding another day at this point will really help increase your competency and proficiency. This is where being a student at an academy with a lot of training options in the schedule is great.
As you increase in experience you will be able to add more and more classes to your weekly schedule. You will be very familiar with all things Jiu-Jitsu and you’ll be training a lot smarter - which will hopefully help prevent silly injuries and keep you on the mats.
It's Called Life
Those of us who reach a high level in BJJ are not special or leading a particularly blessed life. We have the same crammed schedules and difficult situations that everyone has. In the 20+ years of my Journey, I've gotten injured, been sick many times, been deployed, gone to school, worked three jobs at once, had friends and family members pass away, moved several times, had relationships start and end, as well as innumerable other commitments and constraints that I had to deal with and work around in order to train. It's just life; and we all have to live it. Some weeks you can't get on the mats. Sometimes you're out for a month or more. Other times your schedule opens up and you're on the mats every day. At times it can be feast or famine. Peaks and Valleys. But, if Jiu-Jitsu is something you want in your life then you'll find a way to get it and keep it. If it's not something you really want, you'll find an excuse as to why you can't start or why you can no longer continue.
The Journey & A Better Version of You
In the end, regardless of how long you’ve been training Jiu-Jitsu - first class or your 500th class, pace yourself. Just try to improve yourself by 1% every time you’re on the mats. Avoid the trap of comparing yourself to other students. Only compare your current self to the person you were the moment before you walked into the academy for your very first time. Because that’s the only comparison that matters. After a year of training twice per week (2 x 48 training weeks per year), you ought to be close to a 100% better version of yourself from a year ago.
Jiu-Jitsu is a journey we undertake in an effort to improve our lives and accomplish our goals. You owe it to yourself to train smart so you can stay the course of this journey and see it through. You can be this current version of you now - a police officer, a banker, a cook, a doctor, a store owner, a venture capitalist, a stay at home mom. Or, you can be you, but with a Blue Belt, a Purple Belt, a Brown Belt, or a Black Belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I know which version of myself I prefer.
Good luck to you on your Journey!
Owner & Head Instructor, ICBJJ