When I first began training Muay Thai I watched Saenchai every single day. Warriors cannot be praised enough for challenging all of their peers and moving up in weight to find a worthy opponent. Saenchai won Lumpinee Championship titles in 4 different weight classes. A true great, on par with Roy Jones Jr.
I studied his movement and feints so I too could utilize his sleight of hand style. I loved how flashy, yet light hearted he was. His essence as a fighter helped me realize potential within myself and gave me the confidence to show off my skill set. I was blessed with the chance to train with him in Rocklin, California. Here's what I learned from the legendary YOKKAO fight team.
"Safety, Safety, Safety"
Is it any surprise that a champion with over 350 professional fights would be defensively inclined? As far as skills go, Saenchai was very clear about keeping a high guard, staying light on your feet, and only throwing flashy strikes when you have your opponent off balance.
Mood as Weapon - One of the most frustrating things to happen in a fight is landing one of your best shots, only to have the person opposite you smile. When I get hit I snarl and return, but the smiling thing is intimidating. It also serves to relax and calm the person being hit. Saenchai is the Joker, or Loki of Muay Thai. His tricky style is fun to watch, and dangerous to compete against. Dancing and smiling keeps him in his flow state. Happiness unlocks an unparalleled way to stay focused and relaxed in the fire that is unarmed combat. Many Thai's have this unlocked monastic ability, and it is worth studying at great length. I would point to Buddhism in their culture helping shape this mindset.
Leading with Rear Straights - As a very jab focused fighter, to do this seems like an impossible change in reflexes, so I use it very sparingly. However, when set up with a bunch of jabs, leading with a heavy rear straight is devastating. This works especially well vs southpaws once outside angle control is gained.
Catching Kicks - Using momentum to swing or off-balance after catching a kick is simple. Raise the foot and take a step in any direction. This will make your sweeps look effortless. Obviously avoiding or checking the kick is ideal, but a solid sweep always makes a fighter think twice about their next move. To prevent your own kicks being caught, use feints, set ups, don't overextend the leg, and quickly return while in a check position.
Hip Flexibility - Using your hips effectively is one of the biggest factors for a powerful kick. You can have all the leg strength in the world, but if you can't lift your leg above the opponent's knee, you're going get countered and out-struck. Stretching and kicking higher and higher during bag work will grant you a slow and gratifying increase in balance and power. This can all be used for set ups, feints, and faking many more movements than were possible before.
Question Mark Kick - As a set up, Saenchai likes to throw the same side, low, low, then strike high, into a rear hand finish. This is an ornamental kick that can easily back fire. The power isn't great either, so finishing with a heavy rear straight is key to maintaining respect and not just having the kick bounce off the shoulder of your amused opponent.
Jumping Switch Teep - Classic Muay Fumer style, mixing flash with grace and danger. Inside low kick x2, AND commit! Jump at them with the ferocity of a tiger, and the balance of a crane.
Tomahawk Elbow - From a clinch position, use this as you swing out, and have the opponent off balance. Or as a 12-6 from double China wall guard. If I ever go against a guy a lot taller than me again, I will definitely be climbing and elbowing from the inside with this technique.
Left Hook Liver Shot - You want to bait a high guard, so throwing a few heavy jabs, into a 1-2 ending with a 3 to the body. The loading of the hips and shoulders should come from each and every last strike, Dutch style. Move off the center line and dip. Expect a reaction. Capitalize.
Cartwheel Kick - Use at your own risk! A well placed knee or kick could turn this trick into your next hospital visit. When done right however, this is one of the flashiest and most overt showings of dominance that you can perform. To set up, Saenchai always either catches a kick, or has shoved the opponent of balance completely so that the risk of a counter is nullified.
Spinning Back Elbow - Keep guard high and tight, step through deeply, and sit on your bike.
Clinch Tricks - Hand trap as you step into range. Thigh teeps are also effective for getting to the plum. Lock up the jawline, use forehead pressure, reach for opposite side of face. To counter side knees, dip and catch over shoulder, dump. Achieving balance and positional control are key.
Actions to Actions - Feints are giving without showing, you can set up your set ups with the slightest movements. Practice the small motions, and they will get big reactions without giving up cardio or position. This goes for all ranges, power levels, and skill base. It's bluffing and it works more than the flashiest moves time and time again. This can even be in your eye contact, your voice, and your idle. Everything is a feint when you use it as one.
Taller Opponents - Saenchai is about 5'5 at 135lbs. Not the tallest fighter in the division. Nor is he the strongest, he makes up for these deficits with technique and timing. He emphasized using tons of inside low kicks, to then sweep, sweep, sweep. Once you've swept the life out of them, clinch and climb for double China wall.
To perfect any art and your own being, you must always be open to all aspects of change. There is no set Path, but on your path you must set out.
I thank Saenchai and the YOKKAO team for their wisdom.