Fan Questions | Training Tips

Does Muay Thai Have Grappling?

If you’ve ever seen a Muay Thai match, you know that it mostly consists of brutal strikes back and forth from both fighters. However, you may be wondering what to make of the clinch work used in Muay Thai. Is this intentional? What is the purpose? Is this considered grappling? Today, I’m going to delve into and explain the grappling aspect of Muay Thai.

Although it is not as vast as Jiu-Jitsu or wrestling, Muay Thai does have a grappling aspect, as Muay Thai fighters work extensively on their ability in the clinch. A Muay Thai fighter is able to control their opponents in very close range. Muay Thai practitioners are also masters at sweeping their opponents, although they are not allowed to finish their opponents on the ground.

However, there are a lot more questions that arise when trying to explain grappling in Muay Thai. What techniques are considered grappling? Are sweeps a part of grappling? Of all the techniques taught in Muay Thai, the ones that are not considered striking techniques are the clinch, trips, and sweeps.

In the next section, we are going to study these three techniques and understand whether or not these are also considered grappling techniques, as well as the reasons why.

Grappling Techniques used in Muay Thai

So as stated, the Muay Thai techniques that may be considered grappling are trips, sweeps, and clinching. First, we will look at the clinch. In Muay Thai competition, fighters are allowed to clinch and to continue fighting in the clinch, as opposed to a combat sport such as boxing, where fighters are separated upon clinching.

When combined with strikes, the clinch can be used to effectively land hard strikes from very close range. Aside from just landing strikes, a fighter can effectively control their opponent in the clinch if they obtain the dominant position, and are knowledgable in clinch fighting.

The most prominent clinch in Muay Thai is one referred to as the Muay Thai ‘plum’. The Thai plum is a clinched position in which one fighter has their hands clasped together behind the opponent’s neck.

The reason this clinch is seen most often is because it is the most effective clinch for landing strikes with the legs, particularly skipping knees, which can be landed in quick succession and can cause significant damage. If you want to learn more about the Muay Thai Plum, check out a post I made explaining everything about it which you can find here.

Also, there isn’t much use for other forms of clinching, such as using underhooks, because these clinches are better suited for completing a takedown, something which doesn’t hold value in Muay Thai competition.

Fighter on the left successfully lands a knee on his opponent in the clinch.
Fighter on the left successfully lands a knee on his opponent in the Thai plum/clinch.

However, to see if this form of Thai clinch falls under grappling, we would have to first define what we consider grappling. Based on a description that is accurate for both wrestling and jiu-jitsu, I would say that grappling is best defined as, “a very close fighting style that is used to control and injure the opponent without the use of strikes”. Based on this description, the Muay Thai clinch would fall under grappling, for its ability to control the opponent when used correctly.

Now it’s time to take a look at sweeps and trips. I will look at these techniques together, as they are very similar. Both a sweep and a trip are executed with the purpose of getting the opponent to the ground, and are usually not expected to cause real damage to the opponent. Sweeps and trips generally only have a defensive property to them in Muay Thai, aside from the small moral victory received by the fighter executing said sweep or trip.

They are much more valuable in MMA competitions, where the fighter can continue to attack their opponent after grounding them with a trip or sweep. Now although I did say that I would compare trips and sweeps together, it can be a bit tricky.

A trip is usually executed in the clinched position. The fighter executing the trip will use the momentum of his upper body to shift his opponent’s weight on to one foot. After this he will pull the opponent’s standing leg with his own leg, simultaneously pushing the opponent in the opposite direction, resulting in the opponent landing on his back with the fighter who executed the trip on top.

Fighter in black is attempting a trip in the clinch. Notice her upper body shift, and the position of her leg.
Fighter in black is attempting a trip in the clinch. Notice her upper body shift, and the position of her leg.

This is different from a sweep, which is executed outside of the clinch by cupping the opponent’s lead leg with your own foot, and swinging the lead leg out from under them, while sometimes also holding the opponent’s other leg after catching a kick.

Based on these descriptions of a trip and a sweep, I would be less inclined to call a sweep a grappling technique, because it is not in close range. Also, a trip is commonly seen in other grappling martial arts, such as judo and wrestling, while sweeps are not.

Fighter in white shorts is holding one of his opponent's legs while sweeping the other.
Fighter in white shorts is holding one of his opponent’s legs while sweeping the other.

Muay Thai Grappling in MMA

Muay Thai has become a very prominent part of MMA competition, with most of the top fighters training Muay Thai in some form, and some of them even going to Thailand for training. One of the most important aspects of Muay Thai which is used in MMA is the clinch, as mentioned earlier.

I also mentioned that this clinch is more useful in MMA because of the ability to continue fighting a downed opponent, which is against the rules in Muay Thai. This is especially useful when combined with a martial art like jiu-jitsu, which is a submission based grappling art.

There are additional factors at play when using the clinch on MMA. For one, a clinch usually occurs when one fighter attempts a takedown, and is prevented from doing so. The clinch is a continuation of the takedown attempt, and because of this, trips can be used to finish the takedown.

Also, MMA competitions are typically held inside a cage, unlike Muay Thai matches which are held in a ring bounded by ropes. In Muay Thai matches, your opponent cannot pressure you on the ropes without accidentally pushing you out of the ring.

Also, pushing an opponent up on the ropes does not create nearly as much leverage as pushing the opponent against a hard cage. In MMA, having your back against the cage during the clinch is unfavorable, as your opponent can easily apply pressure by leaning his weight on you as the cage supports him.

Here you see UFC Champion Kamaru Usman (green) pressing Tyron Woodley against the cage while in the clinch.
Here you see UFC Champion Kamaru Usman (green) pressing Tyron Woodley against the cage while in the clinch.

In the image above you can see a perfect example of the use of the cage in clinch work. Although this is very different from the traditional Muay Thai plum, where the arms go around the neck of the opponent, it is a clinch nonetheless.

Even so, clinches of many forms are seen in Muay Thai matches, and we’ll take a look at use of the Muay Thai plum in MMA next. An excellent example of someone who uses the Thai plum successfully in MMA, is former UFC champion Anderson Silva.

Anderson Silva is well known for his dominant performances in the octagon during his reign as the middleweight champion. He is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, and also a very skilled kickboxer who is extremely experienced in Muay Thai.

He is a master of the Thai plum in MMA, seen by his many knockouts due to knees. In the next paragraph, I’m going to talk about his fight with former champion Michael Bisping, a fight Anderson did very well in despite losing the decision.

Anderson Silva (right) holds Michael Bisping in the Thai plum.
Anderson Silva (right) holds Michael Bisping in the Thai plum.

In particular, I’m going to talk about the image above. In this sequence, Silva has managed to clinch up with Bisping, and is effectively controlling his opponent. Bisping is aware of the knees that are soon to come, which is why he has his left leg up, in an attempt to block them.

After this, Bisping manages to break from the clinch, but he is now back up against the cage. Silva takes advantage of this, and lands a flying knee on Bisping, scoring a knockdown as the round ends. Sequences like this make Silva’s use of the Thai clinch one of his most dangerous weapons.

In conclusion, Muay Thai contains aspects of grappling that are very useful when both fighters are on their feet. As we see with Anderson Silva, these grappling techniques can set up strikes that can quickly end a fight.

Of course, a pure grappling martial art such as jiu-jitsu will go more in depth into grappling sequences while on the ground, but Muay Thai can get you comfortable in these close combat scenarios. If you’re thinking about training Muay Thai, check out the Training Tips page, as I have several posts on Muay Thai. Thanks for reading!