Loma Lookboonmee: Understanding the Muay Thai Clinch
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
The Art of Eight Limbs
Mixed Martial Arts is constantly becoming more diverse. The onset of the UFC’s modern era saw a surge in striking based on traditional martial arts like Karate and Taekwondo, as practitioners began discovering how to adapt these arts to full-contact fighting. More recently, there’s been a small wave of Sanda practitioners making their UFC debuts. Although the best Sanda fighters aren’t yet making their way to MMA (an old and post-prime Muslim Salikhov notwithstanding), we’re already starting to see them employ unique tactics that are well-suited to wider adoption by MMA fighters.
One art that hasn’t seen much crossover with MMA is Muay Thai. You’ll often hear commentators praise a fighter’s “Muay Thai,” but there’s a useful distinction to be made between what they’re referring to and the combat sport of Muay Thai. The term “Muay Thai” has become a sort of catch-all to refer to any striking format with open rules. If you walk into a gym advertising Muay Thai training in North America, it’s far more likely than not you’ll simply be getting kickboxing with elbows and maybe a bit of clinch-work thrown in. Muay Thai as it’s practiced in North America often bears little resemblance to the Muay Thai practiced in Thailand.
The sport of Muay Thai in Thailand has its own unique meta-game which differentiates it from Western striking arts. A scoring system that prioritizes knees, elbows, and kicks changes the tactical focus of fighters. Whereas boxing tends to compose a larger part of a Western striker’s skillset, the clinch takes on a new importance in Thailand. Hands tend to be held higher up and away from the body, which both helps defend the higher-scoring kicks and allows fighters to effectively hand-fight into the clinch. That is not to say that Thai fighters can’t box. In fact, they tend to be more skilled boxers than elite Western strikers, and Nak Muays have had more success transitioning to boxing at the elite level than strikers of any other background. But the legs and elbows are the primary scoring weapons in Muay Thai.
Since they rely more on knees, elbows, and kicks to score, the set of techniques and tactics surrounding these weapons is far more developed in Muay Thai than in other striking arts. When an MMA fighter is described as having “excellent Muay Thai,” it generally means he can kick well and perhaps throw some knees in the clinch, but almost no one in MMA kicks, elbows, or knees like the Thais. The biggest gap in interaction between Muay Thai and MMA, however, is in the clinch.
You’ll often hear MMA commentators equate the “Thai clinch” with a double collar tie, but that’s a misnomer. Thai-style clinching is an entire phase of the sport containing techniques, tactics, and strategies rarely seen in MMA. Part of the reason we’ve yet to see these skills adopted in MMA is because they are largely limited to Thailand, which lacks the infrastructure to consistently develop high-level MMA fighters. MMA was banned in Thailand until recently, and even now there aren’t many avenues for Thais to get into MMA. Although there have been several accomplished Nak Muays who transitioned to MMA, most notably Rambaa Somdet and Dejdamrong Sor Amnuaysirichoke, they tend to make the transition well after their best days are over.
The MMA scene in Thailand is slowly improving, however. Tiger Muay Thai has put together an excellent MMA team, providing access to both Muay Thai training and the grappling necessary for success in MMA. For more information about Tiger’s roster of fighters, check out the work of my colleague and massive TMT fan, Ed Gallo, on Petr Yan and Rafael Fiziev.
UFC: Singapore represented a step forward in adopting Muay Thai tactics in MMA as Loma Lookboonmee made her debut. Lookboonmee is an elite Nak Muay fighting out of Tiger Muay Thai. While it’s difficult to find information on female Nak Muays, Lookboonmee is arguably the top pound-for-pound fighter in women’s Muay Thai. What makes her transition especially interesting is that she is (to my knowledge) both the only high-level Thai to transition to MMA while still in her prime, and also the only clinch specialist to make a full-time transition.
Lookboonmee put on a masterful display of clinch warfare against her debut opponent, Alexandra Albu, which demonstrates how the unique aspects of the Thai clinching metagame can be effectively applied to MMA.
What is the “Muay Thai Clinch?"
The main aspect of Thai-style clinching that distinguishes it from clinching in MMA is that it lacks a strict positional hierarchy. The clinch in Muay Thai is generally better thought of as a set of concepts and transitions. When clinching in MMA, the goal is often to achieve a specific control position and maintain that position while working towards a takedown or dealing damage. Clinch positions are more transient in Muay Thai, and a skilled clincher must be able to take advantage of rapid transitions between small sub-positions to deal damage and score.
There are several reasons for the increased focus on transitions in Muay Thai. The addition of wrestling-based takedowns to the rule-set provides an incentive for static control; wrestlers who rely heavily on the body-lock, such as Khabib Nurmagomedov, approach clinching by shutting down an opponent’s ability to transition and removing their offensive options, with the goal of achieving a position that will quickly lead to a takedown. Effectively striking in the clinch requires space, whereas wrestling benefits from the collapsing of space. The less space there is, the more opportunity for lengthy sequences of control. Extended control is also made easier in MMA by a lack of interference, as referees are much slower to separate fighters in the clinch.
The level of clinching skill also contributes to a faster-paced clinch game in Muay Thai. In MMA, the double collar tie is often used as a control position, and can even end fights once it’s locked in. Although its dominance continues to fade as clinching skill improves, everyone remembers Rich Franklin’s inability to escape or defend against the double collar tie of Anderson Silva in both of their Middleweight Championship fights. In comparison, the double collar tie is used infrequently in Muay Thai because it’s considered easy to escape. When it is used, it tends to be employed only for a brief moment, before the offensive striker transitions to something else. It’s simply more difficult to lock an experienced Nak Muay in position while hitting him. Comfort within clinch transitions still tends to be found only at the highest levels of MMA.
Lookboonmee’s fight against Albu perfectly illustrates the general thrust of the clinching meta-game in Muay Thai. She flows effortlessly between interstitial positions, using silky-smooth transitions to create and deny openings. Albu often looked confused and disoriented, unaware when an elbow was about to collide with her jaw or her foot would be effortlessly swept out from underneath her.
Rather than looking for inert control positions, Lookboonmee primarily operates from a certain staging point that offers her a variety of options. When she does lock in a more stable position, she uses it to land a few clean strikes before transitioning back to something else before her opponent can transition to their own advantage.
Here you can see the position Lookboonmee uses as her “home base” in the clinch. Her right hand is wrapped around the back of the head, controlling her opponent’s posture and pulling her in tight. The left hand is used to hand-fight and control the far arm, keeping the opponent’s hand from pummeling to inside position, blocking strikes, and landing elbows of her own. Loma’s knees are bent and her head is low, with the forehead positioned as a wedge against the opponent’s face; this tightens the hold and allows her to angle off while preventing her opponent from turning into her. Her hips are back and her back is curved slightly in a “C” shape, which gives her room to drive her hips into strong knees.
This position provides Lookboonmee with a strong frame from which to launch offense and transitions. She has openings to strike with her knees and left arm. The arm wrapped around the head allows her to turn her opponent toward the outside, while the opposite arm can be pressed into the bicep to aid the turn, or grasp the tricep to turn to the inside. Her opponent’s arms are kept to the outside and unable to do damage, while Lookboonmee is free to manipulate her opponent’s arm position and create openings for strikes.
Lookboonmee’s frame allows her to control the distance, flow, and pace of the clinch. It represents a position of comfort that she can return to when exchanges get chaotic or when her opponent is able to create offense of their own. She has a wealth of options from the position and has prepared tactics to deal with each possible reaction from her opponent. With this relatively open frame she is free to move her opponent around and look for openings to strike, or transition to a position that offers greater control.
Lookboonmee uses her forehead in the jaw of Albu to create distance, opening up her knees. She pushes off to land elbows before returning immediately to that home base position, using her left hand to control the bicep and prevent Albu from securing a tie. She then transitions to a double collar tie right before the referee steps in to warn Albu for grabbing the shirt. Note also how she secured the double collar tie - a knee to the body lowers Albu’s hand, leaving her head open for the tie. Lookboonmee is constantly chaining strikes and transitions together while manipulating her opponent’s balance and hand positioning.
The home base position, or frame, allows her to seamlessly flow in and out of control positions. Here Lookboonmee locks up a double collar tie, allowing her to drag Albu into a hard switch knee. The knee folds Albu over and she decides to duck out (a dangerous move, but one that ultimately went unpunished here). Most fighters would’ve lost or abandoned the clinch from there, but Lookboonmee steps across herself with hear rear leg and executes a gorgeous pivot to line Albu up, while maintaining control of her head. As she realigns herself, Albu frames off her face to create distance, and she uses a knee to distract Albu while stripping the frame off. After that, Lookboonmee goes for another tight lock, clinching her hands together and pulling Albu into a pair of knees.
Wrapping the arm directly around the head as Lookboonmee and other Nak Muay typically do leaves you somewhat open to an opponent’s underhook. When the arm is used as a collar tie, the forearm acts as a barrier preventing the opponent from closing distance, but the head-wrap position places their arm directly underneath your armpit, potentially allowing them to drive forward with it and manipulate your balance. Nak Muay are no stranger to underhooks however and have many ways of mitigating that threat.
Lookboonmee typically angles her body sideways, hiding her center line, which prevents opponents from getting double underhooks. Here, Albu catches her squared up and tries to transition to double underhooks, but Lookboonme deals with it effectively. Lookboonmee digs her head into the chin, changes levels, and extends her arms while pinching her shoulders together, entering a long clinch. This position allows her to drag Albu backwards, disturbing her balance and preventing her from locking underhooks. As soon as Lookboonmee feels Albu throw a knee, she pivots off to turn Albu and create an opening of her own. Then she breaks with a few strikes, before entering right back into her comfortable frame.
Albu attempts to circle around Lookboonmee with an underhook, but she demonstrates another counter. Lookboonmee pivots to stay square while whizzering to prevent Albu from leveraging the underhook. She then digs her head in and lands a series of hard elbows and knees. Albu attempts to secure double underhooks and hit an outside trip, but Lookboonmee’s head position allows her to maintain distance. She pivots on her right leg to face Albu, removing the trip, before limp-arming out of the underhooks and returning right back to her preferred frame.
Like any good Thai, Lookboonmee is excellent at manipulating her opponent’s balance. In a sense, the clinch in Muay Thai is all about balance. Maintaining a strong base with correct posture and alignment between the hips and upper body allows you to freely strike with power and manipulate your opponent’s weight in all directions. The battle for clinch position is a game of inches - fighters must be ready to react to split-second shifts in momentum and weight distribution. When one’s balance is compromised, they are out of position to react quickly, allowing them to be moved easier and leaving them open to strikes.
Footsweeps are a staple in Muay Thai and Lookboonmee uses them liberally. While the more flashy ones end up with her opponent on the ground, smaller ones that don’t finish the sweep are useful as well. They serve to momentarily disrupt the opponent’s balance, allowing Lookboonmee to get off a few strikes or turn herself off the cage/ropes. Footsweeps are also useful for countering an opponent’s offense, disrupting their base as they attempt to throw knees or elbows. After having their balance compromised whenever they attack, opponents become more hesitant in the clinch and Lookboonmee even more dominant.
Turns work similarly to trips, compromising the opponent’s balance to open them up for throws or strikes. Ideally Lookboonmee can plant them on the ground, but if not, rotating opponents removes their base and forces them to turn to face her, allowing her a brief period in which she can strike with impunity. Turns have a synergistic relationship with strikes, as opponents focused on defending strikes become open for turns and trips, and vice-versa.
Lookboonmee is somewhat unique among clinch specialists in that she’s a clearly-defined outside fighter. Most Nak Muay who favor the clinch operate off the front-foot, marching forward with hands outstretched and looking to clinch their opponents against the ropes. Lookboonmee is most comfortable moving around at long range, using her footwork to lead opponents into kicks and pot-shots. While she has some craft on the counter, she’s fairly uncomfortable in the pocket and tends to avoid drawn out boxing exchanges.
The clinch greatly aides Lookboonmee’s ringcraft, as she uses it to alleviate pressure and avoid unfavorable exchanges. Lookboonmee tends to move backwards and circle around the cage, drawing opponents into her. When they get aggressive and step into the pocket, she’ll look to slip a punch and enter the clinch. If opponents can’t compete with her at long range, they need to risk ending up where she’s best in order to force her into exchanges. Lookboonmees’ reactive clinch entries allow her to avoid the extended exchanges where she’s vulnerable and convert them to more favorable clinch exchanges.
Here’s a lovely example of how Lookboonmee uses her clinch to control her position in the cage. Albu enters with an overhand right and Lookboonmee ducks it before popping up into the clinch. As she grabs hold of Albu, she turns herself toward the center of the cage. Now she’s back in open space and Albu needs to repeat all the work she just did to close back in on her. Often we see out-fighters in MMA attempt to circle out only in wide arcs around the cage perimeter, which is doomed to failure against a crafty opponent, as the fighter nearer to the center of the cage has a much shorter distance to travel. By closing distance into the clinch before turning, Lookboonmee only has to circle around her opponent rather than the large gap of open space beside them.
Although Lookboonmee had no problem entering the clinch against Albu, her entries lacked diversity, which may pose a problem against stronger competition.
Almost all of Lookboonmee’s clinch entries were reactive, as she’d slip or duck a punch and use the opening to enter into her frame. It worked well on Albu, but Albu is sloppy both in the pocket and in the clinch. She looked clueless on how to stop Lookboonmee from having her way in the clinch and did very little to set up her offense at range.
It was easy for Lookboonmee to slip Albu’s predictable entries and sloppy, committed lead hooks and overhand rights, but a more disciplined opponent could fluster her and create barriers to the clinch entry. Someone who can work non-committally with their lead hand, jabbing and feinting, could have success closing in on Lookboonmee without exposing themselves to the clinch. Likewise, someone who could anticipate her most consistent entry and remain prepared to frame off after she slipped a punch would find themselves in better position to disengage.
It would be nice to see Lookboonmee employ a wider range of clinch entries in future fights, lest she rely too much on her opponent to do the work of entering the clinch. She punched into the clinch against Albu a few times, there’s a lot of room for her to develop more consistent proactive entries.
Lookboonmee’s size is an issue for her against more skilled Strawweights. A natural Atomweight fighting ten pounds above her natural weight class, she is likely too small to compete with the elite of the division. She’s a relative novice to grappling as well, which means that it may take a while before she’s able to compete with some of the division’s more competent grapplers.
While I don’t expect Lookboonmee to contend for a title at Strawweight, she has one of the most unique and interesting styles in MMA. Strikers have been transitioning to MMA with increasing frequency and success in recent years, with Israel Adesanya, Valentina Shevchenko, and Joanna Jędrzejczyk all leveraging backgrounds in Muay Thai or kickboxing to a UFC championship. As Muay Thai continues to see more crossover with MMA, the overall body of knowledge in the sport can only improve, and Lookboonmee’s style provides a glimpse of what may in the future prove an important addition to MMA.