Tournaments in the sport will always be a mixture of luck and skill. If you’re fortunate, you’ll get a good pick in the draw. If you have the skill, you’ll move on.
A great example is Matthew Stevens. The Pro Muay Thai Fighter gets to the final stages of tournaments regularly. He recently fought in the Qest Infrastructure X Rebellion 8 Man Eliminator and shared four of his insights on his performance:
“This is my third time doing an eight-man in Australia,” Stevens said.” I've won two of them and I got to the final this time. I've been tournament fighting since I was 10 years old.”
So, what did Stevens learn? How does he get to the final moments that matter? What steps did he take on his journey? Here are four key lessons to success in a tournament:
1. Get An Early Knockdown
Scoring a win at the beginning of the tournament shoots you to success.
“I always try and get a knockdown in my first fight or a second fight early on,” Stevens said.
There are two major advantages of a knockdown or a knockout. The first is the fight is over early. There’s more time for recovery and less potential damage. While the other fighters are banging on you are relaxing. There is tremendous emotional momentum built around you.
The second advantage of scoring the knockdown is it puts you up on the scorecard.
“In a three-round fight, if you get a knockdown, It's very hard to lose unless you do something stupid. I pride myself on not being a stupid fighter.” Stevens said.
The math is easy. A knockdown sways the round heavily to 10-8. If you squeeze out another winning round you’re in the lead. In the final round, you can coast and protect your points.
2. Have A Weapon To Make The KO Happen
Getting that knockdown requires a weapon and Stevens’ choice was the hook. He went two for two with it at the Quest Infrastructure 8-man.
First, he cracked Damon Nelson in the first bout Nelson, from Perth, was aggressive. He came forward.
“We thought he was going to come out and look to clinch. To try and close the gap quickly,” Stevens said.
During one of Nelson’s attempts to knee, he dropped his hand. Stevens turned his hook over. It landed flush on Nelson’s chin and dropped him.
“It was just instinct that I threw the shot. It wasn't a premeditated shot at all. But I managed to kind of get the shoulder all the way across,” he said. “It was so devasting because Damon was closing the gap.”
While the shot wasn’t planned, the skill was. Stevens practices hooks. There are two coaches at Riker’s Gym in Adelaide, a Muay Thai coach and a boxing coach. Both made Stevens practice this punch.
And this shot was somewhere between a check hook and a regular hook.
A check hook creates distance. When the opponent tries to close in the check left hook is thrown. It is a pivoting shot. The arm comes up, slaps the opponent, and you turn to create space.
“You want to pivot away and create some room to kick or throw a knee yourself. But this one, I dipped and the shoulder came through, so it wasn't really a check hook. It was a hook on the spot,” Stevens said.
The second knockdown was more meditated. Stevens fought the formidable Jonathan Aiulu. Aiulu is a powerful fighter.
“I was trying to stick and move a lot with the jab because I knew that he was looking for that right hand,” Stevens said.
While Aiulu was loading up the powerful rear hand, Stevens went to work.
“I went jab, overhand, left hook,” Stevens said. “We both threw the left hook at the same time. But his chin was up slightly, whereas mine was a bit more down.
Tucking the chin saved Stevens. It was the basics that secured him the knockdown. It was a moment that defined the fight. He kept control. He took the points win to move on to the final bout.
3. Understand The Key Moments In The Fight
Knockdowns are obvious moments that matter. But there are other moments as well.
Thailand’s moments are easy to understand. The gamblers will roar with each moment that matters. For example, a fourth round sweep could seal the deal for a fight. The mood of the corners changes from wanting their winning fighter to be aggressive to being defensive.
Other moments will include significant shots. When a fighter gets hurt and shows their pain. For example, if an athlete’s back is taken in the clinch, or if their posture collapses in the clinch. These are defining moments.
In his last fight against Kongthailand Kao Sok there was an inflection point.
“Towards the end of the first round, there was a moment where I kicked and I missed him and he got a kick on me,” Stevens said. “It scored on the back, scored very highly on the points.”
It was that first kick exchange that set the tone for the fight.
From there Kongthailand started to control the game.
คุมเกม – Koom Game – Control the game
Stevens put the pressure on and the Thai athlete retaliated.
“I landed more shots.” He said. “He landed the more efficient scoring shots and the higher scoring shots with the kicks.”
In judging a fight the effective shots are the ones that matter. A fighter that maintains volume loses to a fighter that scores more damage. Simply put effect trumps volume.
Regardless of what Kongthailand was doing, Stevens had another weapon, his mindset. It’s what’s taken him to the final podium regularly.
4. Have An Unshakeable Self-Belief
Everyone going into the fight needs to believe that they will win. If you don’t believe, you will fall faster and harder. But even when you believe the future is not guaranteed.
“It's not just about being a skillful fighter, it's about resilience and grit,” Stevens said.
The bouts were pushing on into the evening. The last fight was in the ring close to midnight.
“That saps your energy and you have to be able to deal with that. You have to love getting in there and doing that,” he said.
The love and the confidence aren’t easy. It’s made through repeated action. By doing the hard work of getting into the ring, of grinding it out, confidence grows.