The Golden Kick – How To Improve Your Thai Kick
This post is about the “Thai Kick” or the “Thai Round Kick,” of which there are many versions, not only in Thailand but also in how the kick is taught all over the world. What I’m writing about might very well be the kick as it was taught to you by your trainer, but a lot of people have not been taught these important aspects/details of the Thai Kick as it was used, especially, in the Golden Age. This is a very particular set of principles still used by contemporary fighters in Thailand, but there is a sense in which the fighters of the Golden Age fought with techniques that are changing, and have changed, even in Thailand itself – let alone around the world.
In many of the gyms in Thailand you aren’t going to get the kind of detailed and focused technical instruction that a lot of us from the west really want. And even if you do, you might get contradictory correction from different trainers. Both can be extremely frustrating to westerners coming to Thailand to find the “real” or “correct” way of doing a technique, which to some degree you need to let go of as well because there’s no single “right” way for any of this. This just isn’t how Thai train Thais even. There are often many techniques to be found within a single gym and Thai kids are not rigorously corrected and re-corrected over and over again until they fail to practice any mistakes. They’re showed how to do something, expected to repeat it for years and years until it is shaped by the fighter himself, as he grows and develops himself. As odd as this may sound to those in the west who suitably obsess over “correct” technique (probably an important thing to do because so far from the source), Thai kids kick and do all sorts of things “wrong” for years. Only the high repetition, the years of development, and the presence of so much elevated technique (that they can look at, copy, or lose to on a daily basis until they steal it or adapt) eventually steers these boys towards great Muay Thai. Thai kids learn from watching. So, it may be no surprise that despite my 5 years in Thailand despite training with some of the best trainers in Thailand very few krus really tried to correct my kick. And when they did they would end up saying something like: “Your kick is… slow”. This left me with only one thing to do: try to speed it up. As you’ll find below, speeding it up with extra effort may even slow it down further. It was a big mystery for me, and honestly very frustrating. I probably ended up losing confidence in my kick, even though on pads I can completely blast it with speed and power, looseness and confidence. In sparring timing, accuracy and not-telegraphing are all more important than power. And sparring is where you develop confidence.
All the same, for more than 5 years I’ve struggled with my kick, and I didn’t know what was wrong. The only thing I knew was that it was “slowwww,” and I didn’t believe in it. All that started to change this month in a series of sessions I had with Sagat, a little with Samart, and then Karuhat. In this group of incredible sessions, I finally uncovered what was wrong. And yes, you may very well have been taught what I discovered already, but many people haven’t, so this post is for those who, like me, have struggled with their kick. The answer is the Golden Kick (as it was aptly named by a commentor on my Patreon Facebook page). Note: I’m not an expert, and I don’t position myself as a teacher. I’m mostly just sharing things I’m discovering and what I’m working on. Hey, look what I discovered and am playing with – this is what I’ve found about it thus far, kind of thing.
The Golden Kick – The Rise | Part 1
It comes forward, rises up the line of the opponent’s body and does not start out wide and swinging like a baseball bat. Below is a “Sylvie’s Technique Vlog” I shot for Nak Muay Nation which really explains the principles involved in the first part of the kick, keeping the trajectory of the kick within your “frame,” which makes it harder to see, more direct, able to get through the traditional block for a kick.
As I said before, I came to this through filming my Patreon Library sessions with legends Sagat and Karuhat, and a little bit with Samart, 3 of the greatest fighters who ever lived. If you want to see these sessions and other long form sessions with legends you can find them in my Muay Thai Library for a suggested pledge of $5. See what is in the Library there.
Sagat is the inspiration for the Street Fighter character of his name, and everything that character does is “tiger” this and “tiger” that, as like a tack-on to the name of a strike. His “Tiger Uppercut” is the most famous. What’s actually and truly remarkable about the real man isn’t a move, it’s the way he moves. It’s his energy. If you weren’t to look at his incredibly smooth and knotted-with-muscles legs, the overall picture of Sagat is one of an aged movie star. He’s confident, charismatic, handsome and has this kind of sing-song way of talking when he gets excited. But to picture him as all those things is like picturing a tiger as a really big house cat. He is all those things, just as a tiger is a really big cat, but he’s also this other thing, the way a tiger is this other thing. Standing in the ring with him, when he starts to kind of prowl around and get the lightness of a fighter in his feet… it’s unnerving. There is an unconscious reflex to his presence that can best be described as, “oh fuck.” Like being all excited to be near a real life tiger, but then it gets up and you realize you’re in an enclosure with a real life tiger. Just the same way an enormous predator like that has a kind of “on” and “off” switch that lets you know whether you’re about to die or not, Sagat can kind of put on and take off his fighter focus; but when he puts it on, you can feel his excitement. So when he picked up the briefcase pad and told me to kick it, then laughed and sing-songed a “nooooo,” to let me know that wasn’t the kick he wanted, I just tried harder. With that, his eyes changed. His smile disappeared and suddenly he was focused, he was analyzing and solving. He had me kick a few more times and, again and again, I just tried to bring more power through more effort. When, ever, does a tiger look like it’s making an effort? Exactly. So Sagat shows me the trajectory of the kick in shadow and it comes up almost perfectly straight, then turns over at the last second. Almost like he kept facing forward and his leg just windshield-wipered over to the other side, or like the hand of a clock passing the center line. It was weird and my face divulged that assessment. Then he did it in real time, this time spinning himself slightly as he regained control of the kick at the end of it, to “land,” and it’s like a fucking hunting falcon whipping by your head and landing on a branch. Just this power and velocity that isn’t the same animal that you are. I tried; better trajectory, but mine was like a little pigeon flapping its way down to a park bench. Sagat reaches his arms out and pushes me to the distance he wants me at, then does the kick in hyper-slow-motion (which is still faster than most kicks in real time) and I can feel his shin touch my side and then somehow push through, simultaneously crushing and throwing me sideways off the impact. From a slow-motion kick.
Maybe five days later I’m warming up in front of my hero, Karuhat, who is about as opposite from Sagat as you can get. Karuhat feels very young, “boyish” in a way that’s charming rather than immature, and he stands with this chest-forward posture that could not be more different than Sagat’s kind of crouched, rounded shoulder way. As fighters, Sagat is all power, all the time, but absolute economy of movement. Karuhat is a chess-master playing against himself while playing against you, just to keep himself entertained. He’s all about fluidity and moving just enough out of the way, like a shadow or something. A few minutes into watching me shadowbox, he decided it was time to focus on this kick of mine that he’s hated for about a year now. His instruction: exactly the same trajectory as Sagat: gliding your leg up the side of your opponent’s stance and then turning in at the last second. I kick and Karuhat just shows me the right way again; I try again, he shakes his head “no” and shows me again. We do this a few more times and Karuhat finally speaks, “Sin, no…” and he demonstrates what I’m doing (he calls me “Sin” because ls are pronounced as “n” in Thai, I kind of love that). It looks ridiculous. It looks like if you were trying to get someone to draw a figure 7 and they kept inscribing a 0, over and over again. I laugh at his pantomime of my kick and he shows me the right way again, this kick just materializing in front of him out of nowhere. It’s so relaxed and fast that I can’t actually track it from beginning to end. Like, it goes from “not kicking” to “kicked,” with no present tense because you missed it. I try over and over again, and because of the way Karuhat teaches, he guides me patiently toward greater and greater relaxation (rather than trying harder, as I often do), and occasionally the kick would come out. Like a little apprentice wizard trying to get a flame to manifest and it’s just this little sputtering spark here and there, but at least there’s the spark.
Examples From The Golden Age
My husband Kevin became fascinated with the fact that two extremely different fighters, Sagat (a power wrecking ball) and Karuhat (a Baryshnikov of Muay) both were saying the same thing. So he started doing some film study and piecing together a bunch of ’round’ kicks from the Golden Age, out of old fight video. He didn’t cherry pick the most exemplary kicks, rather he just grabbed any kick he could find that had a good angle. It was amazing how much all these kicks shared with each other, especially in their linear, rising trajectory. The compilation is below:
above, a compilation of Golden Age kicks, with a few contemporary kicks throw in
From this he put together a graphic on the differences between the ‘Golden Kick’ and the more western version of the Thai Kick. This is what he came up with (you can see his original notes here):
I had been suffering from a “western” Thai kick, I believe. And all my attempts to speed up the kick by providing more “oomph” on the take-off actually probably slowed the kick down by pushing it out in a long arc. The trainers I’ve had have looked at it and thought: good enough. It’s powerful, I smash the pads. But in sparring and in fights it just wasn’t useful or confidence building. In fact, Karuhat told me he thinks I don’t kick because I fear being blocked. I laughed and thought that was silly, because in shin-to-shin clashes I’ve never lost and always hurt my opponent more; but then I thought about it and all those clashes are with me blocking, so maybe I am afraid of hitting a knee or something. The Golden Kick slips in over and through the block most of the time. It’s a good solution to that fear, whether it’s a conscious one or not.
There has been some discussion of this kick and the video edit on my Facebook Pages and one coach, James Poidog, talked about how he’s always taught this upward movement and even uses a wall to train his students. He put together a quick video of using the wall and it really makes clear how narrow the kick can be, and you can feel the acceleration on the end:
James teaches at Kaiju MMA & Fitness in Tarzana, California.
This is what I love. The knowledge is out there, it exists in certain coaching trees and among certain fighters. But it is not widely or uniformly spread, and even someone who has been training in Thailand for many years might not see important parts of the kick, or other technique. This is why I share whatever I discover in Thailand, to get these conversations going. And it’s why I’m documenting the great fighters and legends of Muay Thai.
The Golden Kick – The Swivel | Part 2
So the above is about the rising, linear trajectory of the Golden Kick, below is about how many of the Golden Age fighters (and Thai fighters today) put the added acceleration after the turn. There are several subtle ways that the Thais do this, after years of training they can whip a kick without the swivel of the standing foot just with their hips, but in almost all the film in the compilation there is a swivel of the standing foot, or an “open” step, which creates the stretching of the hips so explosive power can be shot through the target. Below are a few stills from the film. Often it’s a flat foot (or appears that way, probably the heel is just barely off the canvas), some go up on their toe.
To help see this standing leg action Kevin re-edited the video to show close ups of the standing leg (and when possible, the foot), a key to generating late power after the leg has risen more or less vertically.
the same video edit of the Golden Kick, but this time with focus on the standing leg (above)
As mentioned, a lot of contemporary Thai kickers do use this pop of the foot, and some westerners do too, but what I believe is the defining characteristic of the Golden Kick is the combination of the two. Thai kickers finds different ways of producing that late power, often using games with timing, but the path for my own development probably resides in pursuing these two elements: straight up, and then over. With Sagat, for example, it’s like he just put his leg up on your ribs – like how you’d casually drape your arm over someone’s shoulders – and then the kick pushes through you and you go flying like a jolt of electricity shot through you. It’s crazy. That session will be up on Patreon maybe next month.
What the Golden Kick Is Not
Below is an influential YouTube video of the kick Bas Rutten used. You’ll notice in the demo the step out, the open foot or the pivot (he does it differently a few times), never mind the fight footage:
above, Bas Rutten kicking
I’m not going to get into all the “how powerful is it?” talk or compare the effectiveness of the Thai Golden Kick (Thais have broken arms and legs) or Thai vs Dutch styles debates. I’m just bringing Bas Rutten’s kick in because it demonstrates the “baseball bat” wide arc of a certain kicking style that has no doubt influenced the west, in fact it influenced me early on, years ago. You’ll notice, though, that aside from the arc Bas is also using the foot pivot or swivel that the Golden Kick uses. Below you can see Jose Aldo on pads using a “baseball bat” like kick:
above, Jose Aldo on pads – found and shared by a redditor on this topic
So the two kicks above give clue to a variation of the kick that is far from the Golden Kick. It’s this wide, very visible, practically slow-motion trajectory that you might want to get away from. I do not study the Dutch kick at all, in any of its examples, but my husband did note that Ramon Dekkers (who had a pretty wide kick) had trouble landing his kick against top Thais in Thailand. It’s important to be aware that there are lots and lots of ways of kicking, even within Thailand, and no kick is “wrong” (unless you are attempting to match a particular technique on purpose). Kicking techniques have different strengths and weaknesses, and are used in different contexts. There are simply effective and less- effective techniques, given their purpose and use.
Another kick to think about, and something I heard when I first started sharing about the Golden Kick is the TaeKwonDo roundhouse. Several people said that the Golden Kick reminded them of the TKD kick, a kick that they tried to get rid of when they moved onto Muay Thai. Whatever I know about the Dutch kicking style I know even less about TKD, so I’ll just use the video below as my guide post, I apologize if this is not an optimum example:
There seems one important way in which the TKD kick is like the Golden Kick. They both rise up, relatively straight up. But the entire “chambering” of the kick into parts, and the snap, are missing from the Golden Kick. The Golden Kick is fluid, rising and accelerating at the end.
Again, I’m no expert. I’m just trying to provide references to help you see how the Golden Kick might fit into what you are already doing, and what you might want to change. A really gross oversimplification may be: it rises a little like the TKD kick, and it whips over like the Dutch kick. Kinda.
Keeping Everything in Frame
What is interesting is how the entire Golden Kick correction is in keeping with a larger principle I’ve found when training with legends. We in the west, for whatever reason, really like to come out of our frame when striking, but a lot of the fine technique of Thailand is about staying in your frame, and taking the most direct paths to your target. Below is a video I shot about how to keep your elbows in frame, something I learned from Yodkhunpon and others. I used a wall as a guide, like how James does above:
above, using a wall to keep your elbows in frame
And in this Sylvie’s Technique vlog I talk about how Sagat used himself (like you would use a wall) to corral my right cross, keeping it in frame:
The more I study with legends and top krus in Thailand the more I am discovering a deep emphasis on economy of movement, and keeping things in frame: hands, knees, elbows, kicks. Everything starts from, and stays relatively close, to center.
I hope this article gets some of you thinking about your kick. My advice is to watch the above film edits several times to see just how these principles play out with some of the best fighters of all time. Watch the rise, watch the standing leg. Use the wall to really feel how you can indeed kick with a more narrow trajectory. Maybe have a friend film you just so you can see, and feel your way through the technique. Already in sparring I’m landing my kick so much more frequently against my Thai sparring partners.
If you appreciate this post you might really get a lot out of my Muay Thai Library documentary project where I film long form sessions with fighters, krus and legends of Thailand, published with my commentary. A suggested pledge of $5 gives you access to the bulk of the archive (which consists in over 30 hours of video), and helps support the project itself with an aim of preserving the Muay Thai of over 100 krus over the next 5 years.
You can also follow my Preserve The Legacy Muay Thai Technique Facebook page where I share and discuss small bits of my documentary project, photos of Golden Age fighters, post Golden Age fights with commentary, and other technical videos I discover.