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The Rules of Hard Sparring & Clinching: The Compromise

You may have seen the popular videos of a typical sparring session in Holland – two people exchanging bombs via heavy punches, vicious knees, and relentless low kicks.
Some think, “How violent! I could never”.
Others say, “They’re tough as hell! This is amazing”.
The rest go, “That’s trouble waiting to happen. That’s not safe.”

This hard, fight-like, to-the-KO type of sparring can be placed in contrast to the Thai style of sparring. The word for sparring in Thai is เล่นเชิง (len cheing) – the first part, เล่น (len), means “to play“, so you can guess how they perceive sparring to be: playtime! It’s usually not viewed as anything serious, and there is ZERO ego. Priority is given to technique, timing, and patience. It’s rare to see Thais spar using long combinations, and it’s even more rare to see them sparring using predominantly their hands. They take pride in delivering their shots aesthetically, and frown (and even laugh) upon those (especially foreigners) who rush their shots and look “sloppy”. During len cheing, there is not much power used at all. This is because Thai fighters often grow up fighting very often – from once a week to once every couple of days! There are some that even grow up fighting everyday for weeks so they can be “toughened up”. Thus, they don’t see any place for hard sparring as this can potentially injure them and put them out of the fight game for longer than needed.

Photo courtesy of Dragon Fight Arts in Taipei, Taiwan
Photo courtesy of Dragon Fight Art in Taipei, Taiwan

 

However, what if there could be a median between the light, playful technique-based Thai style of sparring, and the powerful, fast-paced Dutch style of sparring? Some say that there’s a time a place for hard sparring and that it can be worked into any regimen. However, it can also be argued that it’s more about the people you choose to do this with (and less about a forced environment). Controlled hard sparring and hard clinching with the right people can bring you the best of both worlds – the impeccable timing of the Thais and fearsome shots of the Dutch.

Photo by Lucka Ngo for Vogue Magazine
Photo by Lucka Ngo for Vogue Magazine

Rules

  • Hard sparring and hard clinching should ALWAYS be agreed upon both parties. This is not fair play if only one side wants to go hard and the other isn’t for it.
  • Even when throwing with power, all shots need to be calculated and controlled. Nothing should be thrown randomly or wildly. All strikes need to be aimed precisely. (Generally speaking, the more experience someone has in training, the more control their have over their own body. It’s usually the newcomers that become overly nervous and end up unintentionally hurting people because of it.)
  • Ideally, both people should be about the same size (weight-wise). If one person is bigger, that person should scale their power to an appropriate level (a basic etiquette of sparring).
  • SAFETY FIRST, which means injury prevention will be the first priority throughout training. This means
    –NO KNOCKOUTS TO THE HEAD. A liver shot to the body will still allow you to train the next session with no issue and won’t affect your general well-being. However, being knocked out with a hard hook to the side of your head will have long-term consequences, and that WILL affect your longevity in the sport. Save the KO (both giving and taking) for the fight
    –NO SHOTS DIRECTLY TO THE JOINTS, especially the knees
    –During clinching, pull back on your shots towards the ribcage when you’re using your knee cap
    –Pay careful attention your partner’s body language and facial expressions
  • The second priority should be given to LEARNING.
Photo by Matt Lucas
Photo by Matt Lucas

What To Look For in a Partner

An ideal sparring or clinching partner for some intense power work should have the following qualities:

  • They are not ego- or emotionally-driven. This means that if you catch them with a good shot, they’re not going to hit you hard right back to “prove” something to you, themselves, or to the coaches. They will hit you hard back because that’s what they’re supposed to do, but this shouldn’t be because they’re angry or ashamed. They stay calm and level-headed.
  • They want to learn (and want to help you learn in return).
  • They have good control of their body. They know where to avoid hitting and know how to control their power output. They know that they must scale their power down if they’re working with someone smaller than they are.
  • They are paying attention to how you are reacting. If you’re grimacing in pain, they will let off on the power a bit so you can recollect yourself and execute the proper technique to defend their strike. At no point are they “going for the kill” when you obviously find it hard to recover or react.

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How To be a Good Partner

It takes two to play in this game, so as important as it is to find someone who’s an ideal partner for you, YOU need to become the ideal partner for them.

  • Understand it’s nothing personal. If you get frustrated during sparring or clinching session, think of what you’re doing wrong and do what needs to be done to fix it. If you don’t know what you’re doing wrong, stop and ask your partner for help. Do not end up throwing a flurry of punches in hopes that one of them will land just because you’re frustrated.
  • If you continuously catch your partner with something, and they’re not sure of how to prevent it, tell them.
  • Communicate with your partner and read their body language. If you’re coming into training with an injury, tell them to be careful of a particular area by going light (or not hitting it at all). This doesn’t always have to be verbal – if your partner is going more technical that day, you should lighten up too.
  • Although you may think they’re the ideal partner to go hard with because of the qualities mentioned above, this doesn’t mean you both MUST go hard with each other every single session. There will be days when you just don’t got it (or they don’t got it), and that’s okay. There is no shame in saving your body a lot of unnecessary pain – training is about LEARNING, not getting hurt or hurting others….which brings up the last point:
  • Always ask yourself: ARE YOU LEARNING? Is what you’re doing helping your partner learn as well? Or are you guys just beating the living !@#$ out of each other, walking away limping but with no further knowledge on how to better yourself? Do not put learning on the back burner so you can feel like a backyard brawler.

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Currently training and fighting full time in Bangkok. Originally from NYC. instagram.com/angelasitan

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