Muaythai is an art. And the artist, the fighter, uses all eight of their limbs to punch, kick, knee, and elbow. The ring becomes the canvas and the fight is the Nak Muay’s portrait. It is a depiction of their style.
Rebellion Hall Of Famer Roy Wills knows about style. He is a classical Muay Dte (kicker) from The Pit in Perth. Wills kicked his way into history books. His unique style of fighting caught audiences’ attention. He built a strong career in Australian Muaythai. As his fight career developed, Wills discovered why style is so important, where it comes from, and how to buil it in others.
More Than Art
There’s the adage that styles make fights. Classic examples are when a clinch and knee fighter clashes with a technical fighter or when a young and hungry boxer faces off against an experienced veteran. These match ups are as old as time. The way it plays out though is what causes the excitement.
For Wills, it’s styles that create the fight.
“It’s not the skill level of the person,” Wills said. ”You see it happening at the highest level now. Clean technical fighters that on paper should destroy the other boxer, it ends up as a close fight.”
Athletes have styles that work for them, and they do well against them. For example, the Muay Mat (heavy puncher) might do well against a technical fighter (Muay Fimeu). But they fall apart when faced with a clinch and knee fighter (Muay Khao).
Identifying Styles Early
Every fighter’s journey to the canvas is different. Along the way their trainers, their sparring partners and even their personalities influence them. It is in personalizing the style that the Nak Muay starts to transcend mere fighting into art.
For Wills, he wasn’t deliberate about this, he just began fighting.
“I didn't identify a style for myself until I had 10 to 15 fights. Even in my first fight on Rebellion against Bryan Hasse, I kicked a lot. But I punched, I kneed, I threw elbows and I was aggressive that fight as well. My style hadn't even taken shape at that point.”
The experience of trying everything out led him to learn what he liked and didn’t. He realized that he liked kicking and that his kicks were strong. Wills went back to the gym and focused on different scenarios to use his favorite weapon.
“I went in depth around the 15 to 25 fight mark and honed in my kicking style,” Wills said.
His experience in the ring gave Wills the necessary understanding of how kicks worked like the strokes of a brush.
Just as an artist would study Monet, Man Ray, Picasso, or Tristan Tzara, Wills began to study other fighters.
“I am a very visual learner, I would watch a lot of Muaythai. I would watch a lot of fights and it so happened that my favorite fighters were some of the best kickers ever. I used to watch Singdam Kiatmuu9 religiously. That played a huge role in why I ended up gravitating toward the kick so much.”
Kickers such as Singdam, Samkor Kiatmontep, Apidej Sit-Harun, Kaensak Sor Ploenjit, and more recently Superlek Kiatmuu9 have built off each other’s styles.
Sculpting A Style For Others
Like the legends of the past built off each other, Wills is building his athletes. There are two factors to considering building a fighter's style: their body type and their personality. But first, the athlete must be tested to see what they can do.
“The only kind of way I can continue to train people is almost like I trained. We throw them in to highlight what skills they should be working toward.”
This initial trial period gets the athlete used to handling the tools of the trade. They begin to learn how to punch, kick, knee, and elbow.
From there the style is built around their body type and personality.
Tall fighters often become Muay Khao fighters. Their long limbs allow for puncturing knees and dominant positions in the clinch. Medium build athletes become kickers or technical fighters. Short stocky boxers develop into Muay Mat. Their frames lead them to powerful punches and hard leg kicks.
“I do it all the time in the gym. We'll see one of the people in the intermediate class come through and they'll be tall and quite long. Bony but strong. Blair Smith (The Pit founder) and I always look at each other and go, ‘Oh my God, he should come to the fighter's class because he'd be a destroyer with the knees.’ Or if they've got strong looking legs they're a kick fighter,” Wills said.
Frame and build is a primary factor but it is something that can be worked around. This is especially true if the athlete’s personality is something different.
He begins to train athletes like that to move in and wear down the opponents with superior fitness.
Personality impacts learning as well.
“Some people pick it up fast. They understand the complexities of advanced Muay Thai quicker than others. And in that case, you can be a bit smarter and sit back on the ropes. They use feints and tricks earlier than someone who is crazier and wants to charge forward recklessly,” Wills said.
Breaking The Mold
Some athletes can’t be typecast. Their frames and their personalities don’t match. This mismatch doesn’t mean it’s impossible to develop a certain type of style, but it does mean that choices need to be made.
“We have a fighter at the moment, Moo, who's quite stocky. He fights at 54 kilos and he's very, short for that weight. Moo loves punching, but also he has excellent dumps in the clinch,” Wills said.
Wills taught Moo to punch in with his hands. To use a flurry of attacks to get in close. This helps him get into the clinch. While his frame doesn’t fit a natural Muay Khao, his center of gravity is lower. This helps him with his sweeps.
“He has a lot of leverage against tall opponents in the clinch where he can get good sweeps,” Wills said.
Having a new direction as a base, Moo can look at other athletes who have broken the mold like Liam Harrison or Pornsanae Sitmonchai.
Muay Thai is a living art.
Paintings that were famous yesterday fade and can be redone to form something new. It is entering the ring again, in taking to the canvas, that new patterns emerge. And it is in these new creations that styles come to life. Because style is the heart and soul of art, it defines who fighters are as individuals.