Lessons from Rousey: Fight Stacks and Sylvie’s Muay Thai Clinch Game
Guest post – A Husband’s Point of View
This article will be more informative if you read the two articles from which it stems. The first is a theoretical flight across the big ideas that might be involved in Ronda Rousey’s fall from grace as a dominant grappler in MMA from Bloody Elbow: So Meta: Ronda Rousey and the decline of the grappler, by Phil Mackenzie, and the article he cites as a prominent influence on his thinking, where Greg Jackson’s conceptual fight strategy in terms nodes and edges: Cage Match: How science is transforming the sport of MMA fighting. Both are well-written explorations into the structure of fighting and I highly recommend reading them. Plus, it will just make everything that I have to say below more clear.
Leaving aside Mackenzie’s interesting, if admittedly fantastical, evolutionary biology analogies what really grabbed me was the way he abstracted Jackson’s thought to talk about the downfall of Rousey’s grappling prominence. To be brief about it, he conceives of the forward progress towards more and more dominant positions or scores as moving through a “stack” of moves, a stack which is composed of nodes, each of which produces what I would call a valence (or direction of freedom), or more commonly: a decision. He simplifies Rousey’s game in a hypothetical fight to look something like this. The stack starts with the initial node “Jab”, and she works down the stack from there:
As he points out about Rousey – and he uses Cain Velasquez as an example as well – the top half of her stack is her “A game”, in which she is relatively weak. She must pass through her A Game to get to her B Game in which she is dominant. His analytical claim is that because of Ronda’s undeveloped A Game, there are bottlenecks (a lack of a degree of freedom, or choice) and breaking points. Holm identified these nodal limitations and attacked them, looking something like this:
What a striker like Holm wants to do is to force Rousey to start her stack all over again…again, and again and again. To stay in her A Game, and never (or seldom) get to her B Game. Nunes did the same, but in a very different way, and Mackenzie goes into this with satisfying detail.
What I want to do here is talk about what this means for Muay Thai clinch, and Muay Khao fighters, because this is just a perfect analysis of what Sylvie faces in her own development, 170 fights in. I’m hoping that talking about this will open up new ways to watch the Muay Khao and clinch fight style, for just as MMA can be characterized as an arms race between “strikers” and “grapplers” this is exactly how Muay Thai has evolved and expressed itself over the decades, probably long before the King of Knees, Dieselnoi, faced the powerful-fisted Sagat a weight class up (three times, see a clip below):
We’ll blur the distinction for now, but Knee Fighting (Muay Khao) is not clinch fighting (Muay Blum), but they are closely related, often with aspects of the latter serving as the lower end of the stack of the former. It’s enough to say that the grappler (clincher) and the striker (kicker, puncher) have been in constant struggle, probably since the birth of modern Muay Thai, or even before, under Boran forms – witness the repeated grappling attempts in this fight in 1946 the year Rajadamnern opened.
The first thing I want to dispel is this very western “stand and bang” idea of what is REAL Muay Thai, or even REAL fighting. You’ll hear this from from some fighters or avid fans. If someone doesn’t want to “stand and bang” they are somehow cowards or sissies (yes, they use that word), or “they just want to grab and hug”. I just have to shake my head in this because it feels clear that these protesters don’t understand or appreciate the entire grappler vs striker arms race that defines the art of Muay Thai (and probably MMA). Yes, there are stall tactics, but they do not make up the preponderance of what is happening in grappler vs striker Muay Thai battles. And I do see that a fighter who cries out: Why don’t you just stand and bang! or, You just want to hug! wants to present that version of events. Their fight node stack may be built around the kinds of decisions that involve “stand and bang”. They don’t want to fight in a grappler/Muay Khao fighter’s nodal stack – and that is smart. They want the space and freedom to use their combinations and counters, to “trade” in space. In fact the paramount struggle of this style of fighter is to control the space enough so they can do that. Thai strikers don’t really have this kind of “real fight” issue, as they understand that the true war between them and a clinch fighter is a war of space. Who dictates the space? There are techniques for dictating space available to each.
But there is a larger, more interesting dimension to this, which is about the analysis of Rousey (or any grappler) herself. For me, as the husband of a Muay Khao/clinch fighting wife, this nodal concept of stacking is incredibly revealing and maps right on things I’ve long been focusing on. Watching Rousey lose to Nunes (and I wrote a little about this here) it looked to me that Rousey simply had no “front side”. Everyone’s talking about her lack of head movement, which her coach was dramatically calling for in the corner, but really what was apparent was that she was not strong up front. She had no power to her jab. She had no buttress of a guard or block. She was incapable of standing strong up front. As I mentioned to Sylvie, she was like a Roman Soldier without a shield. I don’t want to go into how she was trained or not trained, but if you think about a grappling fighter’s A Game, and how it is used to get to their B Game, this absent front side proved an immense issue against Nunes.
The reason I bring this up is because this is precisely the kind of thing Sylvie is working on. Front side strength. There are of course lots of ways to polish up your A Game as a grappler, but what it is really about is two fold: limiting your opponent’s stack, and imposing yourself enough to get to your dominant B Game. You probably do not want to expand your A Game (increase its nodes and structural complexity), so much as sharpen the pre-existing effectiveness, shoring up weaknesses. You want to move down the stack.
above: to illustrate the issue of A and B games: one of Sylvie’s instructors Sifu McGinnes talks about the difficulty of marrying Judo and boxing after the Holm loss: the necessity of fundamental stylistic bridges.
Watching a Muay Khao/clinch fighter evolve may be like watching paint dry. But if you aren’t keeping your eye on the stack you won’t see the beautiful and dynamic things that are changing. Again and again Sylvie is wrestling with entry. Techniques of entry, timing of entry, control of entry. This is a huge, but largely unseen aspect of clinch fighting. To most there is a moment when there is no clinch, and then…bampf…they are clinching. It’s not that way. Prior to clinch there is a A Game vs A Game war going on, over the control of space. It’s not exciting to watch. There may not be a lot of points scored, but it’s significant. Developing guard, stinging attacks, the shrinking of space, node variety leading to grab and lock, all part of it.
This leads to another interesting point that Mackenzie brought up. When facing a striker the thing that striker wants to do most often (aside from score) is to get the grappler to start their stack all over again. Cus D’Amato (I believe) had a memorable phrase when describing why a fighter like Tyson doesn’t want to pop out, once he got to the inside of an opponent. “You don’t want to drive through a bad neighborhood twice.” A grappler has worked hard to move through her A Game to her B Game. She does not want to go through her A Game again and again. The longer you can stay in your B Game (where you are dominant), the greater the fatigue and stress will build in your opponent, and the closer you will come to a finishing move or round-defining moment. One of the hidden skill sets that Sylvie is working on, and it isn’t very easy to see, is how to prolong the B Game, ideally to never come out of it until the ring of the bell. This involves a lot of countermeasures. To give a few examples: Clinch can die easily on the ropes, dragging off the ropes is a priority otherwise the ref will break it. Instead, clinch and knee in space where the judges can see scores and your opponent cannot rest. Bouncing can change positions in a frozen tie up. Voluntarily breaking clinch with a shove can promote an immediate re-catch allowing you to move through your deeper stack again, without ref interference. A great deal of what Sylvie faces in Thailand is a kind of anti-fighting, forcing the ref to break the clinch which in turn forces Sylvie to start at the top of her stack again. There is an entire and subtle art form in how to stay in your lower stack nodes as long as possible, and keep the ref out of the fight.
And, in your lower stack there is a priority of becoming more efficient and expanding your degrees of freedom. We’ve found that the biggest factor here is calm or ease of mind. If you are in a part of your stack where you are somewhat fluent in a host of moves or countermeasures (you have a big game there), paramount is that you keep your heat beat low and your mind at ease. An emphasis goes to transitions, and no one particular dominant node. If your mind races, your stack will shrink. Here is where you want your vocabulary to grow, and for your mind to be trained to flow between elements. This is a huge, hidden aspect of Muay Khao clinch fighting.
All this being said, given the theoretical framework of stacks and nodes, we can think more creatively about the relationship between the A Game and the B Game. Streamlining and fortifying your A Game is likely a very positive place to put your energy, but you have to be aware of creating bottlenecks as well. It makes sense to also build out alternate branches to get you deeper in the stack, but without diluting your main effectiveness. For Sylvie this has been things like Southpaw clinch entry, or a growing walk-forward ambulation into a change of stance, whole vistas to explore. So for clinch fighters out there, start thinking about your nodes and stacks.
note: drawing on classic approaches, Golden Age Muay Khao legends used different A Game fight strategies. Dieselnoi used defensive crowding and corralling in the early rounds “to make them show their weapons”, and someone like Sangtiennoi encourages fighters to “stay long” with teeps and knees both in attempts to wear their opponents down and create decisive late-fight B Game openings.