Muay Thai Aesthetics, Keto, Persistence Hunting and the Shape of Time
This is something of a series of quick meditations sewn together into a larger idea which has really captured my imagination. Be prepared, it joins together diverse topics like ancient hunting techniques, Golden Age fighting styles which have fallen out of fashion, the ketogenic diet, and the metaphysics of human Time. For a very long while I’ve pondered on the things that make Muay Thai in Thailand so very different than fighting aesthetics (and knowledge) found elsewhere in the world. I wrote some time ago about how importantly different the Thai sense of Time was, as is still reflected in its scoring. You can see my train of thought in this post The Essence of Muay Thai: 6 Core Aspects (under the heading of Time). What follows is an excavation of that thread of thought, touching on some of the deepest meanings (and efficacy) of the art and sport itself. Why don’t all the rounds count the same? What is the fundamental tension between Muay Femeu and Muay Khao? Why is the 5th round played the way it is? Why isn’t “maximum damage” the gold standard of scoring? Why do Thais run so much? Why do Muay Khao fighters traditionally train above and beyond? What’s wrong with Muay Thai clinch today? What are the hidden techniques of the Muay Khao fighting style? Why do Thais prize and reward balance so much? All these potential answers turn on the more fundamental question in any fight: Who is the hunter, who is the hunted?
Making a Net of the World
A lot of my prospective thinking on this stem from two seemingly unrelated things that have been happening in my life. I turned to a ketogenic diet to lose weight, and to regain health through some of the reported benefits of putting the body in states of repair associated with faux starvation, and in the course of filming for the Muay Thai Library, and being in the ring with absolute, untouchable legends of the Muay Khao fighting style (Dieselnoi, Yodkhunpon, Langsuan and Samson Isaan) – and you HAVE to be in the ring with them, because you have to feel the energy they are generating through their styles, a certain realization came together. The long-burn energy systems that come from fat-adaptation (the keto diet), mirror early human hunting strategies, in particular Persistence Hunting. In fact when I read this article which placed the genetic mutation which for more efficient endurance performance right at the point where human beings are thought to have turned more towards meat/hunting, it kind of clicked into place. There is a very old, long and rhythmed theme here. The Thai notion of Time, found in its scoring aesthetic, its narrative emphasis, is essential to the very structure of a run-down strategy in hunting. The human mind must have come to prize the narrative arc, the fabric of storytelling, in order to hunt a deer for half a day, never rushing to its conclusion. I was seeing this very same strategic sense when learning the Muay Khao tactics of Golden Age fighters, most explicitly in Yodkhunpon and Dieselnoi, but also in part in Samson and Langusan. While the world is seeking “damage”, the Muay Khao fighter comes out of a much, much older tradition of time, that builds a Net of the World.
This is the first step in this chain of thoughts:
I’ve been thinking a lot about Thai fighting aesthetics, human energy systems (ketogenesis), the narrative structure of time, and the nature of hunting. Persistence Hunting is really capturing my imagination at the moment, thought to be one of the oldest forms of human hunting, tied to when human beings became more prominently meat eaters. Something about Persistence Hunting resonates with, for instance, the experiences I’ve had being in the ring with Yodkhunpon “The Elbow Hunter of 100 Stitches” when he was teaching Sylvie his pressure elbow attack. I got the very same feeling from Dieselnoi, in the ring outside Lumpinee stadium, when we were filming for Patreon, as he is ever insistent about how to fight the early rounds, setting your tempo, not striking first, creating a net, hemming and hemming his prey.There is something very deep going on here. It’s why you can’t score a fight where the 1st round strikes matter as much as the 4th round strikes. It’s why you can’t just HIIT drill everything, or think in basic aesthetic terms of “maximum damage”, as so many people like to. And, it’s why Muay Khao fighters traditionally run a ton and trained to incredibly cardio kneeing levels, and why Femeu fighters became experts at recovery, spacing and conservation. It explains the inner nuances of Muay Khao technique, and why Golden Age Muay Khao fighters are dissatisfied with contemporary clinch tactics. This is a story of tracking, defeating through pressure, and taking the kill at the end, when windows open.
Here’s a Redditor’s writerly imaginative description of Persistence Hunting:
“Imagine if you will that you’re an antelope. Grazing, generally minding your own business while keeping your senses peeled for predators.
Then you catch a faint whiff of something distinctly non-antelope.
Your head pops up, you look around, listen carefully, and spy the loud biped in the grass 100 meters away. Then it starts moving towards you.
Alarm spikes through your veins as you do what your kind have been built to do for millions of years, you flee. Sprinting away from the smelly, toothy, threat in the grass. You move faster than it could ever hope to chase, and you leave it behind. After a few frantic minutes of flight you’ve lost sight of it. Heart pounding, lungs burning, and core overheated you stop your gallop, open your mouth, and begin blessed panting, slowly lowering your body temperature back to something approaching tolerable levels.
But you will have no respite today.
For not long after you stop you catch a scent, a wisp of movement, or rustle of grass on the edge of your awareness and you’re up and alert once again. Scanning for threats you again spy the ape-thing in the distance, still, impossibly, moving towards you. You freeze, in hopes that it hasn’t seen you, but as it closes to within a few dozen meters it’s intent is clear. You are tired and hot now, the burning noon-day sun not helping in the least, but if you do not move, you will die. So once again, you flee.
Sprinting. Galloping. Trying desperately to get away.
The day continues like this, one long hell of exertion, broken by those all-too-brief minutes of respite when those fur-less things are out of sight. It continues for what feels like hours…
Until you can run no more.
Nauseous and worse from heat exhaustion you hear it coming through the grass. It’s feet pounding that steady cadence you’ve learned to fear into the dirt. You try to muster one more sprint, one more flight, but your limbs betray you and it’s all you can do to lie there on the ground and try vainly to pant the heat away.
Half mad-with fear and too hot to think you scrabble weakly at the ground as it comes into view, picks up a rock and closes those final few meters.
It raises it’s stone to the sky, and, with a flash of pain, everything turns black.”
Here’s a NYTimes interview of a man who in 1978 decided to run down a deer on his property, something Mohawk Native Americans did at the turn of the century:
“…The country I did it in was quite open, with occasional willow thickets and fairly gentle hills. It was almost always possible to see for hundreds of yards. Deer are like sprinters, and a conditioned distance runner should be able to exhaust one if the country is open enough. It took about four hours, and I estimate I ran about 15 miles. It was also about 80 degrees on that day, which probably helped because deer do not do well in the heat…”
What is perhaps super interesting about this is that in the traditional Muay Khao vs Muay Femeu iconography, the Muay Khao fighter is figuratively painted as the somewhat stupid bull (there are sociopolitical dimensions to this figure), all brawn and instinct, while the Muay Femeu fighter is the Matador, with IQ and art on his side. But, if we take up the Persistence Hunting analogy it reverses itself. The Femeu fighter is the delicate deer, blessed with athleticism, ever the ability to escape the slower, seemingly cruder hunter, but the hunter is not really trying to “catch” the deer, so much as to reduce it, strategically position it in a way that it can no longer escape, it no longer has the resources of its nervous system. The Hunter in this case is making a Net of the World…artfully.
This is why the 5th round is scored the way it is in Thailand.
It is also why Balance and composure is a primordial scoring criteria in traditional Muay Thai.
You can find a thread of thought on how persistence hunting embodies, and perhaps even encoded a Form of Time and how we experience desire in the last speaking part of this clip from “Fair Chase”, a documentary film on distance runners who sought to prove the theory through reenactment:
Now that you have a pretty good idea of what Persistence Hunting is, and even how it might have structured our very thoughts, bear with me for a moment. I want to provide an exquisite example of Persistence Hunting in Muay Thai, but built out of the failure of such a hunt. This is timely because we just added a Silapathai session to the Muay Thai Library (watch that here), and our experiences with him also played into my appreciation of the fundamental difference between Muay Femeu and Muay Khao (or more generally, pressure) fighting. Watch this fight between Silapathai and Lakhin. It’s so beautiful, so artful, I urge you to watch the entire fight.
Lakhin is more properly thought of as a Muay Maat fighter (a puncher, slugger), but he is definitely a pressure fighter. In this fight you can see the almost quintessential Bull vs Matador figures, as Lakhin becomes more and more frustrated, and eventually is forced to exert more and more power, while Silapathai just basically juggles him in space. In the usual framing of fighting styles Silapathai is pure IQ, masterfully using his teep, his jab, his turns, as if he’s painting a masterpiece. He fought the fight exactly at his distance, and was forever untaxed.
Think about it though. If we take the pressure fighting of Muay Thai to be Persistence Hunting, Lakhin lacked – it seems – a fundamental awareness of what he was doing. He did not really stalk his prey, attempting to degrade it over time, in a narrative sense. His thoughts were more about “getting to his prey”. At least that is what Silapathai was able to sculpt. He exposed Lakhin.
Now take another example of pressure fighting, Yodkhunpon vs Namtaotong Sor. Sirikul, in this “watch with me” version, which involves Sylvie and I watching the fight. Yodkhunpon is a quintessential persistence hunter. He will escalate attacks if given the window, but his eye is ever on the the long game. For those familiar with the narrative structure of Muay Thai scoring (favoring how fights end), you can see how the two fit to match each other. It’s a shame we don’t have much footage of Dieselnoi fights, I suspect he fought in a similar manner, and that much of the Golden Age Muay Khao aesthetic wove persistence hunting into the equation.
What Muay Thai Says about Western Explosive Fighting Style – and the Ketogenic Diet
The next step in this thinking comes from my Instagram post on the ketogenic diet – a diet which seeks to essentially ‘trick’ the body into becoming a fat burning, rather than sugar burning, machine, taking advantage of evolutionary capacities that came out of surviving starvation or extended fasting. The diet holds that this avails us of certain health benefits, and is favored by some ultra or endurance athletes. In this post though I take on some of the concerns fighters have with the diet, in particular worry that while endurance (aerobic energy systems) may be improved, muscle-burning, explosive (anaerobic) energy systems may not be “optimized”. And western fighters often seem to have physical optimization in mind. You can see and comment on the original post here.
This will be a bit of a run-on about the #keto diet and fighting. Where diet and aesthetics meet. I’m not sure that anyone will be interested in this, but hey, it’s a chain of thoughts. “Hack” oriented people like to talk about how while there is evidence that a ketogenic diet can aid performance is serious aerobic endurance exercise and competition, there is also evidence that fat-adapted athletes might not be optimized for anaerobic activity (condensed, short burst, power maximization)…and therefore is questionable as a dietary base for fighting. What I find so interesting in this often repeated Internet truism, is the idea that fighting itself is imagined to be FULL of anaerobic activity. The video game vision of fighting is rife with explosive, hold-your-breath and explode moments, as if a fighter is a power-lifter or something. What I would find interesting would be for someone to take a bunch of western style fight film and mark out just what percentage of time is (likely) spent in aerobic and anaerobic states. I suspect that overall fighting, even in the aggro West, is still principally an aerobic en-devour, in which aerobic recovery plays a very important part. Yes, there are bursts, but the activity overall is not one of bursting. And there is evidence that bursts shorter than 3 seconds fall under the advantage of the ketogenic diet (if I read right). But, even more interesting that in the Thai model of fighting, even among the most aggressive fighting styles of the country like Yodkhunpon, etc.the movement is always towards efficiency and continuity. You do not remain in a state of strain, even while grinding your opponent down. I suspect that in these relentless fighting styles you are in aerobic states 99% of the time, and most of your Thailand training styles are focused on expanding your aerobic thresholds and shrinking recovery times. The entire “fighting is bursting” concern of anaerobic worry is evaded, by fighting style and ethic. It simply does not apply. I suspect as well – and no, this hasn’t been tested or proven – that because the ketogenic diet is essentially harvesting the benefits of a body that believes it is starving of food (fasting in some way), there is very little chance that this would leave the body in an anaerobic capacity deficit. If a starving animal has to fight and struggle to capture food, or avoid becoming food, I imagine that fight-or-flight scenarios (which fighting more or less simulates) would provide more than enough hormone response to unleash powers to survive. These benefits would not be seen in, let’s say, power lifting training tests. Instead, fights are usually about 15 minutes or 20 minutes long. This is a very short time window. I suspect that the 3 or 4 adrenaline and cortisol surges in a fight more than enough compensates for any slight dip in laboratory anaerobic capacity (engineered by evolution), while the over all ketogenic diet and Thai style aggression protocols would provide the necessary expanded aerobic canopy to master the fight in general.. In short, evolution probably takes care of bursts, and Thai aesthetics + ketogenic fat adaption takes care of everything else.
You can read Sylvie’s thoughts on the keto diet and being a Muay Thai fighter as a patron.
What I’m fundamentally saying in these two extended passages is that I can see a brute overlap between Thai fighting aesthetics, Persistence Hunting, the Narrative (non-mechanized) view of Time, and interestingly enough, the ketogenic diet, which is often framed as a kind of return to the proto- or promodial powers of the body. I cannot argue that they are connected in any way, but in the art of Muay Thai, in it’s Thai version, these aspects do reflect back on each other and illuminate. Fighterly concerns about “anaerobic energy systems” belie the failure to grasp just how radically different Thai fighting techniques are. Muay Thai is often portrayed as excessively violent, but it is quite often a stalking game of techniques, exerting pressure on space and time, until the kill can happen. At it’s highest, I suggest, it is “building a net of the world”, which is why Muay Femeu and Muay Khao stylistics are in eternal tension. Who becomes the prey? The Philosopher in me makes me want to draw out sweepingly appreciation for the notion that in the art of Muay Thai there is an argument about the very nature of Time itself, Human time, the time that predates modern human anatomy, and that this is notion of Time, its shape, is born out of agonistic (combat) realities. The reason why Muay Thai expresses this is very likely because it’s techniques and glory has been woven out of so many real, full contact fights, in the tens of thousands, while remaining connected to the agrarian, and perhaps very likely also hunter lineage of culture. Narrative time is the time of the Hunt. It’s not about “damage”. When we shorten rounds, when we shorten fights. When we clip highlights together, and through that aesthetic start training “hold your breath and go” combos over and over, and cue our calculations into summations we are losing something really very precious.