Round Kicks: The Good, The Bad and the F’Ugly
Not all muay thai round kicks are created equal. There are obvious differences in the speed, fluidity and power of top rank muay thai pros and journeyman fighters. Not only are their kicks more efficient and aesthetically pleasing, they are also far more effective in the crucible of combat.
In an earlier article, I went over some concepts to improve your round kick. Muscle elasticity, balance, weight transfer, follow through, and timing are all important elements which determine the power and effectiveness of your round kick.
Let’s have a look at some clips of a few muay thai legends known for their kicking prowess to see how to see how these concepts apply to their technique. We’ll then compare their kicks with a couple up and coming MMA fighters. Lastly, enjoy a few laughs at the expense McDojo instructors and reality TV stars.
Yodsanklai Fairtex has the best round kick technique amongst active fighters. He is nicknamed the boxing computer for his consistently flawless technique.
Yod is a 2 time Lumpinee Stadium Champion with titles at flyweight and welterweight. He has also held gone on to hold WBC, WMC, WMPF Toyota Marathon, Thai Fight and Lion Fight titles at various weight classes. He has fought and defeated many skilled foreigners including John Wayne Parr, Artem Levin, and Chike Lindsay. He also has many notable wins with tough Thai opponent’s including KO wins over former teammate Kem Sitsongpeenong and Lamsongkram Chuwattana and a decision win over fellow Thai legend, Samkor Kiatmontep.
Yod is fully in control of his posture throughout the kick because mechanics of this kick are always sound and incredibly smooth. He maintains an upright posture, a straight support leg, and is high up on the ball of his support foot. He is able to maximize the torque in his kick by straightening his kicking leg, turning his hip and rotating his support foot.
While Yod’s body may look relaxed, his round kicks are incredibly powerful. I’ve seen him do pad work in person at Fairtex Gym and it sounds like gunshots when he hits the pads.
Power vs Balance
What I find to be exceptional about his technique is that he is always able to find the perfect equilibrium between power and and balance. You can amplify the power of your kick with more weight transfer and muscle tension. However, there are measurable tradeoffs. Putting too much weight forward will leave you out of position after the kick, make it more difficult to recover your fighting stance. Too much muscle tension will slow down your strike and may cause you to telegraph, rendering the round kick less effective.
Yodsanklai has knock out power in all of his strikes. It is very rare that his fights to go to a decision. From 2012 onwards, he has won all 15 of his fights with all but 4 coming by way of stoppage.
He usually finishes his opponents with punches and elbows but he sets it up by hurting them and backing them up with rounds kicks.
Saenchai PK Saenchai Muay Thai Gym
Saenchai PK Saenchai Muay Thai Gym is a muay thai virtuoso and a living legend. He is know for his fight IQ, playful and charismatic fighting style and incredible agility and reflexes. He won his first Lumpinee championship at age 15 and is still fighting at the age of 34.
Saenchai is a 4 time Lumpinee stadium champion at Super Flyweight, Bantamweight, Super Featherweight and Lightweight. He was named the sports writer’s fighter of the year in 1999 and 2008. Saenchai has also held various other titles including Toyota Cup, Toyota Marathon, WMC, WBC, and WPMF.
Although Saenchai has been taking international fights against tough and much larger foreigners, he still fights top echelon Thai fighters. Over the last couple years, Saenchai has wins over Kongsak and Nong-O (current Raja lightweight champ). He traded wins and losses with tough veteran Singdam (current Lumpinee super lightweight champ). He’s also had a few decision losses to young guns Yodwicha, Petboonchu (current Raja super lightweight champ) and Petmorakot (current Lumpinee super featherweight champ).
Fluidity of Motion
Saenchai has incredibly fluid and graceful movement. His fight footage and pad work are simply poetry in motion. You could say Saenchai is the Marcelo Garcia of Muay Thai, just as you might say, Marcelo is the Saenchai of brazilian jiu jitsu. Both men stand hand and shoulder above their respective peers at controlling the way their body moves through space – genius level proprioception.
Saenchai is able to move and react with exceptional speed because he uses minimal muscle tension and keeps his body loose and supple. He relies on the speed of his perfectly co-ordinated movements to generate the rotational force for his kicks. This also helps him get good height on his kicks – crucial when routinely fighting much taller opponents.
Saenchai never “muscles” any of his kicks, only tensing slightly before the moment of contact. By keeping his muscles relaxed and elastic, Saenchai is able evade and counter with seemingly superhuman agility and even modify his technique mid-strike.
Impeccable Timing and Precision
Saenchai uses his feints and movement to frustrate and dazzle his opponents. Whether transfixed or confounded by Saenchai’s spell, his opponents eventually offer up openings for him and Saenchai exploits them with remarkable speed and accuracy.
He often concedes both a height and weight advantage to both foreign and thai opponents. To land a medium range strike like a round kick, Saenchai will often need to defend or evade a strike from his longer opponent just to get in range.
Occasionally, he will also use lateral movement to find new angles of attack.
With amazing kinesthetic awareness and impeccable timing, one might even say Saenchai a master of space and time.
Samkor Kiatmontep is known for having an unstoppable rear round kick. His left leg is like a bull whip on a hair trigger. He fires it no telegraph, perfect form and brutal power every time.
Samkor is a 3 time Lumpinee Champion at Super-bantamweight, Super-Featherweight and Lightweight. He has also held Toyota Marathon and WMC titles. Dominated Thai Stadium circuit in the 90s and early oughts. He also spent a good part of his later career fighting and defeating various Japanese champions. He currently works as a muay thai trainer in Hong Kong.
Unparalleled Follow Through
The mechanics of Samkor’s rear round kick are a bit different than Yod’s and Saenchai’s. His kick is very fast, hard and effective but do not look as fluid and effortless and Yod’s or Saenchai’s.
Yod and Saenchai rely more on the push off from their rear foot to generate power and momentum for the kick. Whereas Samkor relies more on a well timed explosive hip turn at the end of the kick. This allows him to torque his body to the side and really drive his shin to his opponent’s ribs.
This gives his exceptional follow through on his kicks and allows him to knock his opponents off balance even if they are able to correctly block it.
The Sledgehammer Shin
If Saenchai is a sniper, Samkor is more akin to a sherman tank. While Saenchai uses feints and movement to set up kicks, Samkor will keep hammering at you with with kicks until you fall.
Although this may seem like a simple brute force approach at first blush, there is method. When firing off repeated round kicks, Samkor will closely watch his opponent and break his rhythm with little stutter steps to make if more difficult for his opponent to defend.
Pain compliance and battle fatigue also plays an important role. Defending round kicks with a knee shield will damage both the attacker and defender. By throwing repeated round kicks, Samkor can turn the fight into a contest of pain tolerance where the one who has better conditioned shins usually comes out better off.
Samkor’s good judgement of range also allows him to consistently make contact with the thickest part of his shin minimizing the damage to his own leg. Samkor’s superior conditioning and placement allows him to consistently get the better of these exchanges.
Samkor’s relentless attack will often puts his opponents on the back foot, moving away from his kicks. With his opponents out of position, Samkor will aggressively chase them around the ring and mercilessly bludgeons them with his shin.
Samkor is by no means a one dimensional fighter. Even when his round kicks fail to land, he has many other weapons at his disposal to finish his opponents.
Apidej Sit-Hirun is said to have been one of the hardest kickers in history. Although he doesn’t have the prettiest kicking technique by today’s standards, Apidej broke both of his opponent’s arms with round kicks during a fight.
Apidej was a legend from the golden era of muay thai and was named fighter of the century by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He held 7 titles in the 1960s. After retiring from fighting, he worked as a trainer at Fairtex gym until his death in 2013.
Maximizing Weight Transfer
Apidej relies heavily on weight transfer to generate power for his kicks. He tends to jump upwards and fling his body weight towards his opponent. As a result, his kicks are comparatively slow and thus, do not generate as much rotational force.
This is not to say that his kicks are not powerful or damaging. Rather, in the process of force production, Apidej emphasizes mass at the expense of acceleration.
A problem with kicking with excessive weight transfer is that it takes a long time to recover your fighting stance. To maintain his balance, Apidjej also needs to throw his rear hand to the side thus exposing his chin.
With this technique, I’m not so sure Apidej would be a dominant champion when pitted against the best fighters of the the modern era. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to see how Muay Thai technique has evolved over a fairly short period of time.
CM Punk (a.k.a Phil Brooks)
By now, most MMA fans have heard that the UFC signed CM Punk, a former professional wrestler with no MMA fights, kickboxing matches or jiu-jitsu tournament experience.
While skilled fighters kick with a single continuous graceful motion, Punk’s kicks on this “heavy bag” are tense, uncoordinated and herky jerky.
Square Hips, Insufficient Rotation, Incorrect Angle of Attack
Although we can’t see his footwork, it is quite apparent Punk is not stepping outward and rotating his supporting right foot. This prevents him from turning his hip inward in the latter phase of the kick. You can see his foot is pointing upwards when he makes contact.
In a real fight, his kick would graze the opponent’s midsection with the meaty part of his calf. Correctly executed, the kick should turn inward on a 70-80 degree upward angle, driving the hard bony blade of the shin directly into his opponent’s ribs.
Poor Posture, Lack of Hip Thrust
Square hips also prevent him from maintaining an upright posture through the kick. His spine is rounded and bent forward throughout the movement. This prevent him from thrusting his hips to generate power for the kick.
Open Chin, Incorrect Hand Position
To add a little snap to the kick, CM Punk jerks his left arm downwards and violently contorts his body, twisting it to the right. He actually throws himself off balance with this jerking motion and compensates by throwing his right hand upwards and out of the side. In a real fight, this would leave his chin very open to counters.
Loading Hips, Over-Tension
At the beginning of each kick, you can see Punk rotating his hips outwards to load them. This is a common telegraph and an experienced opponent would be able to read him like a children’s book.
The high degree of tension throughout his body also slows down his kick and causes him to expend a lot of energy.
I hope CM Punk’s grappling is a lot better than his kicking technique here. I can’t see him doing well in the UFC unless they decides to match him with Mickey Rouke’s last boxing opponent.
While professional wrestlers well trained in taking dramatic falls after slaps and glancing blows, most UFC fighters lack such advanced “diving” skills.
The Green Power Ranger (a.k.a David Frank)
The Green Power Ranger graciously offered to welcome CM Punk to the cage soon after he was signed to the UFC.
The Green Power Ranger actually has a few MMA fights and so considers himself to be more “legit” than Punk.
Failure to Launch
The Green Power Ranger’s kicks are very stiff, slow and telegraphed. He does not push off the ground with his rear foot and relies on his hip flexor and abdominal muscles to lift his leg.
Failure to Rotate
His hips also stay pretty square through the movement. Since he doesn’t rotate in his supporting foot or turnover his hip, there is hardly any torque in the kick.
Failure to Transfer Weight
With this awkward and inefficient motion, he needs to lean back to keep his balance. As a result, he cannot bring his weight forward into his kicks.
Failure to Measure Distance
The Green Power Ranger also has a poor sense of timing and range. He attempts a left kick when his opponent to too far away and a right kick when his opponent is too close and gets taken down for his efforts.
Lifting your leg in air is not the same as kicking. The Green Power Ranger’s kicks are the equivalent of arm punches. He relies solely on the power from his extremities instead of harnessing the entire kinetic chain. They are merely glancing blows without any “ranger power.”
Robert Weeks “MMA Fighter”
I find this “instructional video” to be particularly offensive because it can confuse and mislead earnest martial arts students.
Robert Weeks, a self-described “MMA fighter,” has some of the worst kicking technique on the interwebs. He manages to do almost everything incorrectly, a feat in of itself.
Flat Supporting Foot Impeding Rotation and Follow Through
Where to start… There is absolutely no follow through on his kicks. His shin barely reaches the bag and only manages to give it a gentle love tap. One key reason for this is that his supporting left foot is always flat. A flat support foot creates a lot of friction and impedes the rotation of your body.
You can decrease friction by reducing the surface area. And so, getting up on your toes enables rotation at a higher speed and great angle. This in turn allows for much more acceleration and follow through in the kick.
Kicking with a flat support foot at high speed can result in serious damage the joints and ligaments of the knee. By keeping your foot planted while twisting your body, you are effectively heel hooking yourself.
Too Much Hip Turnover, Incorrect Angle of Attack
Although Mr. Weeks does turn his hips over, he turns them too far. This causes the angle of his kicks to be too horizontal.
The kicks from the muay thai legends above have a much more vertical trajectory, coming at around 70-80 degree upwards angle from the ground. This enables them to maintain a balanced upright posture throughout and drive their weight forward into the kick.
Failure to Transfer Weight
To compensate for this technical flaw, Weeks twists his torso back to his left side to maintain balance. Leaning to the side means he’s unable to put much weight forward into his kicks. This also leaves off balance at the end of his kicks and so he takes an eternity to regain his fighting stance.
Incorrect Arm and Hand Position
Further to this, as Weeks desperately tries maintain balance through this hideous kicking technique, his arm and hand position is simply wrong on both sides.
The left hand should stay by the chin to protect against counters. However, Weeks keeps it up high and almost smacks himself on the side of the head with it when he turns his him to kick. He may be doing this to offset the flicking motion of his lower leg – more on this later.
The right arm should always be pulling downwards. However, given Weeks’s exaggerated horizontal lean, he flicks his right arm upwards to stop his body from falling too far to his left.
Most amusingly, he chooses a limp wrist, pinky extended pose with his right hand. Although this has no direct bearing on kicking technique, it’s not the hand position of a man who punches people for a living.
Hinging at the Knee
Mr. Weeks also bends his kicking leg and flicks it at the end of his kick. He cross breeds the karate roundhouse kick (mawashi geri) and the muay thai round kick in a deformed monstrosity of martial arts technique. Even CM Punk and the Green Power Ranger know to keep their legs straight when executing a round kick.
Bending the knee reduces the rotational power of the round kick – a shorter lever means less torque. You should only be hinging at the knee if you are striking with the ball of the foot.
Incorrect Breathing Patterns
If you look closely, you can see Weeks is closing his mouth and holding his breath when he kicks and exhaling afterwards. Real fighters do the exact opposite.
There is much more comedic gold on Mr. Weeks’ full playlist.
Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino
Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of Jersey Shore fame claims to be able to “jump and kick like Van Damme.” Well, let’s have a look.
From the bizarre hand position, he could be taking lessons from Mr. Weeks. The Situation may also be getting a little of his inspiration from Daniel-San’s Crane Kick.
But frankly, “the Sitch” looks much more like a flightless bird attempting to fly.
Here, Yodsanklai demonstrates how to properly execute a jumping round kick. The technique begins with a deep lunge which allows to you propel your body forward and rotate your kicking leg.
This is either a hilarious comic or a pernicious imposter. Not much needs to be said as words cannot do it justice.
See the full length video here.
Parting Shots and Random Thoughts
There is much more to a muay thai round kick than lifting and swinging your leg. While I do not propose an “ideal” form for the round kick, we do see the range of variation is quite narrow amongst the best. The gap between the muay thai legends and the rest is however quite sizable. The difference one of kind, not degree.
The round kick is a complex system where errors in one part of the movement have a knock on effect throughout. CM Punk will not kick like Yod simply with more repetition. Practice makes permanent, not perfect. To kick like the pros, novices will need to first deconstruct and correct mechanical flaws before solidifying and mastering this skill with practice.
50 Shades of Shin
Amongst the best kickers, the concepts of muscle elasticity, balance, weight transfer, follow through, and timing all contribute to power and effectiveness of their round kicks. However, each fighter emphasizes these elements in varying degrees, largely dependent on their fighting style.
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” ― Bruce Lee
Yodsanklai fights with measured aggression and solid defense. He likes to lead but is patient and methodical and so Yod prioritizes his balance and form in his round kicks. With his flawless technique, he is always in a strong fighting stance where he can defend, counter and best absorb damage.
Saenchai is a slick counter striker and relies on his feints, movement and accuracy to score and do damage. Saenchai prioritizes speed and timing in his round kick technique over raw power.
Samkor is an aggressive pressure fighter with a devastating rear round kick. Although he is not a brawler per se, Samkor can choose turn fights into contests of will and pain tolerance by repeating bludgeoning his opponents with his shin. In his kicking technique, Samkor emphasizes follow through to maximize the power and damage of each kick.
Outside of the fighters mentioned here, Are there any you feel should considered to have good bad or fugly round kicks? Please leave a comment below.