Secret Masters and TMA vs. Muay Thai

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2011 at 2:48 am

It’s no contest. Pro-fighting is real fighting.

By Antonio Graceffo

There is a mystique surrounding martial arts; rumors and legends about secret styles, hidden schools, and mystical masters. People ask me all the time about learning from old men, living alone in the swamp, like Yoda. And this is my answer:

If you want a traditional, cultural experience, go train with a master who lives in a cave at the top of a mountain. But if you want to fight in a ring, go find a modern gym.

Watching Robert Clyne’s video, “The Gods of Muay Thai,” about Sor Kingstar, Saenchai, and Orono: some of the greatest Muay Thai fighters who ever lived. Training with them, I don’t understand how any traditional martial artist; karate, Silat, Vo Vinam or other, believes they could stand up to these guys. Fighters come from all over the world to train at Thirteen Coins gym, because the trainers have had thousands of fights as both fighters and trainers. The gym is home to some great champions. Training with them brings your level up.

An old man in a cave can’t do that for you.

Like the Amazing Randi, head of the James Randi educational foundation, who offers a one million dollar bounty for any “evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.,” I am offering a cash prize of 100,000 Vietnam Dong, for anyone who can point out a champion boxer, Muay Thai, or MMA, who trained alone or on a mountain, with a master, over the age of 70, and never set foot in a real fighting gym.

On a youtube video, entitled, Martial Arts Odyssey: Boxing in Cholon, I stated that because there is no professional fighting Vietnam and Muay Thai is brand new, with the first school having opened about a year ago, I have never met a good fighter in the country.

A traditional martial arts (TMA) guy, a westerner, living in Hanoi, wrote to me, arguing that the reason I never met great fighters in Vietnam was because the best fighters train at home, with private teachers and then don’t go into competition. This makes no sense. Why wouldn’t they go fight pro and win money? Vietnamese are very nationalistic, so why don’t they go join the national team and help Vietnam win in the Asian Games, SEA Games, or Olympics? Maybe it’s because these super great fighters, who never set foot in a gym, simply don’t exist.

Shooting Martial Arts Odyssey, and writing my books and articles, I have trained with masters who lived in hovels, tiny little villages, on mountains, in the jungle…and it was a very interesting experience. I learned a lot about local culture and history. BUT, none of these guys had even a single student who could have fought with a student training in a fighting gym in the city.

Filming in those rural locations, I often brought my sparring gear, thinking we could get some action shots, but there was no one to spar with. People eating a low calorie, low protein diet, working in the rice fields, training under a tree with an old man who had never had a single professional fight simply aren’t prepared to get in the ring with a top athlete. (I am not calling myself a top athlete. Remember, I am over forty years old, over weight, and haven’t had a pro-fight in years, and YET, they couldn’t even spar with me.)

Forget about the Yoda-cave type masters for a moment. Let’s concentrate on city people who study traditional martial art (TMA) and then tell me they believe they can beat real fighters.

One of my many issues with TMA guys claiming they can fight and beat pro fighters, apart from the fact that they never actually do it, is that they don’t work bag rounds or pad rounds. In fact, they don’t even train in rounds. Watch a Muay Thai or boxing gym and you will see that everything, every evolution of training, apart from jogging, is timed by rounds. So many rounds of heavy bag, so many rounds of light bag, so many rounds of pad work…So many rounds of sparring.

All of that hitting serves to build up the muscles, condition the body, harden the shins and knuckles, and refine the technique. How could you fight if you aren’t doing all of these types of exercises?

If you watch a TMA class, and I don’t care if it is Tae Kwan Do or Kuk Sul Wan, 90% of them are the same. They don’t have “training”. They have “class”. The students stand in rows, with a senior student in front, leading them in exercises and stretches, as a warm up to their class. Next, they might do kicking drills in the air or do katas (forms). Frequently, the students get in a straight line and a senior student holds a kick target. The first student walks up, kicks, and goes to the back of the line. Then the next student kicks, and goes to the back of the line. Then repeat. If you have twenty students, each student kicks one of twenty times.

In a fight gym you work the bag anywhere from four to ten rounds per day. And every kick or punch is just you. You are not waiting in line to throw the next technique. Also, you don’t throw kicks in isolation. You do combinations, punches, kicks, multiple kicks, this is what working the bag is about.

Every single round in a pro gym is spent working on fighting, training, refining, and honing the skills and techniques one needs to fight and win. In a TMA class, you also do forms and drills and all sorts of things that have nothing at all to do with fighting. In fact, when I used to go around fighting in TMA gyms, I always found it strange that during practice they did the flying-monkey-tiger stance, but when they sparred they just kickboxed, badly. Pro-fighters practice their fighting techniques in training, and then those are the exact techniques they use when they get in the ring to fight.

Sparring: A lot of TMA schools have Friday night sparring. Some of them put on full body armor, others think they are hard core by not using the armor…It doesn’t matter. This isn’t how sparring is done in Thai gyms. In Thai and Khmer gyms you spar every day, but you go very easy. You don’t want to get hurt during sparring. You want the freedom to be able to practice your techniques, and take chances, without the fear of injury. Also, if you don’t get injured today, you can train again tomorrow. Getting hurt in training is not beneficial.

Each day, you decide what you are actually working on that day. If you are working combinations, do that. If you are working defense, work that. If you want to go at 70% power, because that is what you need to do that day, then you do it. And you make it a hard sparring day. But so many TMA schools seem to just full on hard, to show how tough they are. Or, like Tae Kwan Do, they cover their bodies head to toe with armor and they do point fighting.

Point fighting is not fighting.

Kyokushin is the one huge exception to the rules of TMA and pro fighting. Kyokushin seems to be somewhere between the two. Kyokushin classes look very much like TMA classes, except that they do tons of drills where you are hitting or kicking your partner at full power. Even pros don’t do that. They don’t actually work the bag and pads in class, but they are strongly recommended to do so outside of class. And all of the people who compete in and win international competitions spend a lot of time working pads and makiwara boards and kicking bamboo poles. But even for as much as I respect Kyokushin, they have had very mixed results in fighting professionally against Muay Thai.

The guy who was arguing with me on youtube claimed that his style of karate was as good as pro- fighting. He claimed that in their training they did 70% sparring. Now this is just silliness. If you train 4 rounds per day, that is 15 minutes (if you use 3 minute rounds). If 70% of your training is only 15 minutes, this means you are training about 20 minutes a day.

That’s not really enough to make a champion.

The new argument that some of the internet warrior are using to prove that TMA can stand up to pro-fighting is that Lyoto Machida, a champion MMA fighter from Brazil, is a former karate champion. While it is true that he has a background in karate, he also has extensive knowledge of Brazilian Jiu jitsu, the cornerstone of most MMA fighting systems. He also won Sumo competitions in Brazil (true story, look it up). To say that Machida is a karate fighter who beats MMA guys, wouldn’t be exactly honest. Even if it were true, it would still be just one, the only example ever of TMA beating real fighting in fight competition.

Finally, when the internet warriors, the false gurus or the TMA guys claim that they can do this or that, the question I always raise is, why don’t you go on TV, win the UFC or win the K-1, or win the King’s Cup, and prove it. If they would do that, the argument would be over, once and for all. But they always claim that they aren’t after fame or they aren’t after fortune or the rules of professional fighting are too restrictive, I guess because they want to eye-gauge or kick in the groin…

As for the rules hampering them from winning, a lot of TMA guys said that to me, but in pro fighting you are allowed to do pretty much anyting except groin strikes, eye gauging, kicking the spinal cord…But, when I visit TMA gyms, I don’t see people using these techniques either. In fact, I am willing to bet money that none of them have EVER intentionally kicked someone in the throat or popped an opponent’ s eye from its socket.

And why is it that only TMA people, with no fight record site the rules as being too restrictive? And why can’t they adjust to them? I covered a fightnight in Malaysia a few weeks ago where Kyokushin fought Muay Thai, where boxing fought Muay Thai, where MMA fought Muay Thai…All of those fighters were willing to modify their art to fit the rules of the tournament., but TMA claims they can’t.

The argument that upsets me most, though, is that there are secret masters, holding clandestine classes, training secret fighters, who don’t fight, but they are better than I could ever be. This one is really unfair, because it means that no matter how much I train, I will never be better than these secret warriors, no one has ever seen. I can watch Saenchai train and say, “Wow! He is better than me. I better get in the gym and work.” Now, I have a goal. He inspires me. I have seen the finish line and it is up to me to get there. But the secret martial arts, or the ones who won’t fight or demonstrate their techniques, are setting an unattainable goal for the rest of us.

Sometimes, I simply get angry that I have to train so hard, for real, but people who don’t exist are still better than me.

My two theories on people who believe in secret martial arts are: First, emotionally, they are still eleven years old and need the magic. Or, by admitting that the top rungs of martial arts are impossible to reach, they relieve themselves of responsibility when they fail to reach that level.

If you have any questions about what it takes to be a real fighter, or you want to see how real fighters train, check out Robert Clyne’s video, The Gods of Muay Thai, for free on youtube

Antonio Graceffo is self-funded and needs donation to continue his writing and video work. To support the project you can donate through the paypal link on his website,

Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.




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