A Private Session with Burklerk Pinsinchai – The Control of Space
Because I’m small, I think everyone is “tall.” Burklerk is not a big man and, in fact, it wasn’t until actually watching the footage we shot that I saw how similar we are in height, but he registers with a kind of “larger than life” quality that is perhaps typical of accomplished fighters, but it somehow complements his rather quiet disposition, rather than standing in contrast to it. And while Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles,” it stands out to me that Burklerk is always smiling, even if it doesn’t reach his mouth, it’s always in his eyes. When trainers do a move on you that’s utterly dominant, like something that flips you or things that look like they’re out of an Action Movie, it’s humorous – sometimes it can feel like you’re being mocked – whereas the expression that flashes across Ajarn Burklerk’s face is not unlike a magician marveling at his own slight of hand. It’s kind of amazing.
The man is a superstar with his own legacy: 2 times Lumpinee Champion (1986 and 1987), 2 times Thailand Champion (Rajadamnern, 1983; Lumpinee 1984), and the prestigious Yod Muay “Fighter of the Year” award. What’s perhaps most impressive to me, personally, is the length of his fighting career. He began fighting for Pinsinchai at the age of 12 and retired from fighting in his early 30s; 20-22 years of fighting is a long career for Thai fighters of his time.
Burklerk’s gym has been in his family home in Lampang for the past 10 years or so, which is where I visited him for this session. I’ll be doing a full review of the gym with video walk through and even a note on how you can teach English and train there for a year. It’s a very nice area, tucked away in a residential enclave behind the train station – it’s quiet and the gym itself has nice light and shade, there are no westerners. This is a very Thai, maybe middle class neighborhood, with high walls and narrow alleyways.
My Vlog Update from Arjan Burklerk’s Lampang Gym
Ajarn Burklerk himself is very sweet (the “ajarn” title means a higher level of teacher, like a professor or master, and it’s how he calls himself perhaps through his years of experience of teaching westerners; so if you work with him I suggest you use this title when addressing him, but for purposes of this post I’ll simplify with either “Burklerk” or “Ajarn”). He’s very even-keel and welcoming. He didn’t know who I was or really what I wanted, despite some online discussion, but he was immediately very open-armed and willing. Once we’d spoke face to face he realized what I was after. Filming for Nak Muay Nation, I basically wanted to experience the “Burklerk style” and he gave me really kind, attentive and valuable instruction, packing into an hour an entire framework and philosophy to work from, a style that fits well with much of what I already am as a fighter – I’ve been practicing elements of what he taught for a month now, I value them. Addition to all this knowledge he was passing, something about Burklerk’s disposition, as I mentioned, just makes it mutually funny when he sweeps you to the floor, rather than horrifying. That said, he also has this ability to “pull” his turns and sweeps, which are power moves, in such a way that you just find yourself on the floor suddenly after a kind of delicate fall rather than what his opponents must have experienced, which is like an elevator plummeting from the upper floors of a building. I’m on the ground quite a bit in this hour. But the most present aspect of it all is that it’s a lot of fun; Burklerk is a lot of fun. I’ve trained with a lot of very experienced fighters, and some of the best in history, and he’s the most accessible and light-hearted Legend I’ve ever met – this is him (below) in his NYC t-shirt having just return from a month at 5 Points Academy.
The First 10 Minutes of Our Session
Above are the first 10 minutes with commentary, the full 1 hour session is available to Nak Muay Nation members.
His style is very distinct and you’d recognize it in fighters he’s trained, but only in pieces. There’s nobody who moves quite like him, which is the case for every fighter but when there are fantastic moves involved, like with Burklerk, it’s not a subtle distinction. He started me out with just some shadowboxing to make a diagnostic, which is pretty standard practice for a private session (or even just going to a new gym) with someone who doesn’t know what you do, what your level is, what your tendencies and weaknesses are. Pretty quickly he noted I’m a low-idle fighter, meaning I don’t jump around much and just kind of move forward. So he immediately started off by showing me how to create space for myself out of close proximity. I’m short and Ajarn’s not a big guy, so his methods for creating space for himself from an inside-fighter position are really valuable. He showed me how to 1) push your opponent off; 2) push myself back; or 3) step out and turn the opponent. Each of these is a fast and simple response that, with some repetition and drilling to make them automatic, can be applied really quickly – very practical. And “picking” which one to do is pretty intuitive: if your opponent is moving forward or pushing against you, do the step back or turn and let their energy work against them. Below is a GIF of a simple turn of forward movement, from Burklerk’s basic stance framework:
If they’re pretty much standing there, maybe preparing to clinch or strike, push them off. Mainly the things you have to focus on is hand position. For the push off or push back the hands can be on the opponent’s chest, shoulders or arms. If you want to turn you need to slip your glove behind their head as they come forward to get leverage for that turn. You can see in the video I fail to really grip the neck and arms, so I move out of the way okay but I don’t hurl him in the other direction as I could if I’d grabbed him. The important thing is the next step, which is to attack immediately. Choosing which attack depends largely on range (knee vs. kick according to distance) or where your weight lands after the initial move (punch vs. kick according to your balance).
The Pinsinchai style guard (the camp where Burklerk grew up) is very high. The elbows are up at almost chin-level and the shoulders are pinched and angled to protect everything. He keeps the lead arm almost straight, but up, not out, so that the shoulder protects the jaw and neck and the forearm can “catch” any strikes coming from that side at a higher angle. He consistently hassled me about this guard, which is actually really good – if we new each other a bit bitter I reckon he’d just hit me, which expedites that learning process. You don’t stay in this guard all the time, but you need to be able to shoot into it very quickly and especially when moving forward, as I tend to do. But you can see in his teaching style how he lays out a basic concept, then drills it and elaborates and expands on it – slowly but progressively – as you go. It makes everything very applicable.
His style is a bit “Boran” to me in how structured it is. You can see the formation of his body into a kind of action figure, with the angles of his limbs making his guard pretty impenetrable, and ambidextrous – these are Muay Boran traits. Older Muay Thai styles have this kind of moving, edged, composite way of fighting in which you seem to be simultaneously defending and attacking. Kru Lek of Muay Chaiya told me once “Defend, defend, defend”.
Kicking the Standing Leg Out
You can see an example of his attack/defend style when he shows me how to kick out the standing leg of the opponent while s/he’s kicking (it’s in the 10 minute excerpt above). This is one of the more spectacular techniques he taught me, but again it’s very practical. He clarified that you cannot do this every time and he even demonstrated how you block a few times first to keep the kick high and then duck under it on the next one. It’s important to keep your swinging arm as a guard, your guard hand up high in protection, and to kick low enough on the standing leg to clean the sweep instead of up higher where you might hurt someone, but the aim is to kick the leg out. Note, he makes a hook out of his foot, something he does in other sweeps. He did this all pretty gently to me and I could tell it would dissuade a kicker from kicking.
Here he shows me exactly where on the leg to kick:
Here he is correcting me, and guiding me to the best form:
Here is a GIF of his technique:
Now check out the move in real, high level action:
Above is Lawrence Kenshin’s analysis of the same move from Burklerk in the ring.
He also had me kicking as an attack after my push-off, then showed me the next phase which is on his end, moving out of the way of the kick. This is pretty standard, taking a side-step to take the power out of the kick. But Ajarn has his own trick for catching the kick, which involves going southpaw as you catch on the right side. It’s awesome and probably my favorite thing he taught me.
When you catch a kick on that side you have to step back a bit to be able to throw it, just to clear your own hips, but by catching at the same time you go southpaw you not only take out a bit of the power of the kick (I think it’s the small step taking reach out of the kick), but you save time and can do a number of different strikes immediately, or even in succession. And again, it’s practical. Part of what impressed me so much about Burklerk and his style is that it’s kind of flashy – in that the moves make you go, “oooooohhh!” – but none of them seems like a difficult move. Sometimes you see a fancy jumping move or a eye-catching elbow and it would just require a lot of conditions to be right before you could even attempt it, let alone land it. They’re cool, but they’re things you do to show off at the gym, not stuff you could really implement in a fight. But despite Burklerk’s stuff looking really cool, you could do it in the ring tomorrow. It’s really fight accessible because it comes from a solid foundational base, which makes me excited because when he’s doing it I can see it working. And they’re fun to work on as well.
There were tons of golden details, for instance this simple turnout on the very common and frequent swim-in move in basic clinch. At that moment the opponent, due to focus, may be susceptible:
By turning toward the arm that’s attempting to swim in (my right arm in the GIF), even if you kind of botch the pressure on the head a little bit you’ll still get yourself to an angle where that grip is lost (my right arm cannot catch his neck once he’s stepped out). And because my left arm is already controlled by his right arm, with his hand in the crook of my elbow, he can pull that arm down as he turns and further off-balance me. Look at how sharp his turn is though. It’s not even quite a step so much as just pivoting out from where he’s already standing, which makes this a perfectly simple and quick move.
The turnout of the caught kick (above) as well as what follows, is further into the Nak Muay Nation material, but here are some GIFs of things that were cool. Below is a counter to an extremely common move by female Thai fighters in Thailand. It’s not as common among male fighters in part because there are counters to it at the higher levels, but lots of female fighters use it as a defensive styling. If you can freeze your opponent’s aggression with this it’s a very solid score. So I was pretty happy to be shown this effective turn out and throw:
You can see that he does a kind of “practice push” the the first time, which is lower down my arm, but the leverage is still such that it causes me to lurch forward. He then repositions me so that he can show what he wanted to do, which is put his forearm much higher up, to the back of my shoulder, which is what allows him to really get my head falling forward and then just do his turn to spin me all the way to the floor.
And here are a series of one-hand jab counters that Burklerk reels off like a Kung Fu master, like “I could kill you like this… this… or maybe this”:
Going To Train Under Burklerk in Lampang
If you want to train with Ajarn Burklerk it’s best to contact him through his Facebook page (this is a personal page, there are other Burklerk Facebook pages, but he is not directly connected to them), just to make sure that he is in town (he does travel to seminars), and to set things up. I’ll be writing a gym review post soon, but his gym is about an hour and a half from the Chiang Mai airport, and almost across the street from the Lampang train station. Here are Google Map directions from the airport. You can always contact me on Facebook if you need help:
And if you want to view the full hour it will be available to members of Nak Muay Nation.