Searching for Tony Jaa: The Hottest Martial Arts Movie Star Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Part 4)

Tony-Jaa-The-Protector-1by Antonio Graceffo
Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Editor’s Note: In Searching for Tony Jaa: The Hottest Martial Arts Movie Star Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li (Part 3), international correspondent Antonio Graceffo talked and trained with Tony Jaa’s first martial arts teacher, Sak Chai, covering topics such as muay Thai boran’s striking techniques and knee strikes, as well as delving into a comparison of modern muay Thai vs. boxing. In Part 4, the author of Warrior Odyssey: The Travels of a Martial Artist Through Asia continues that conversation with an exploration of muay Thai boran’s grappling techniques.

Delving into the seldom-seen dimensions of muay Thai boran, Sak Chai teaches me some grappling. He demonstrates a number of techniques in which he catches my leg and throws me. In some cases, he scoops or pushes my base leg. In other instances, he uses my kicking leg for leverage and tosses me to the ground. Sometimes he pushes with his shoulder and sends me tumbling. In one very cool technique, he ducks under my kick and comes up just as it passes overhead. He stands, trapping the leg on his shoulder. When he rises, the power and strength of his body are pitted against my extended leg, and I have no choice but to fall.

Most muay Thai grappling consists of seizing at the neck and head, but Sak Chai also grapples from the waist. When I try to grab his head, he ducks under my arms and wraps his arms around my midsection. He’s careful to set his head off to the side, with his face against my hip, where it’s out of range of knee strikes. In an impressive display of flexibility, he lifts his knee over his head and smashes me in the face. A variation involves first bending at the waste and grabbing the back of the opponent’s leg, then raising his knee over his head and striking the enemy in the face.

This is the technique Tony Jaa used to defeat the huge bare-knuckle fighter in the dirty basement in Bangkok at the beginning of Ong-Bak. Sak Chai asks me to punch him. When I oblige, he uses his elbow to push the punch down so it doesn’t hit him. Then he rotates his elbow across my forearm, gains control of my arm and pushes me to the ground. It’s similar to a hapkido technique, but it’s all done using the elbow for leverage, instead of grabbing the wrist or forearm. Certain martial arts espouse a theory that when you grab a man’s wrist, you commit yourself and tie up one of your hands. By using the elbow to gain control, but not grab, you’re still free to fight with both hands.

Muay Thai Boran Training

The next day, we talk about defense. A brilliant defense against a kick is to step off at a 45-degree angle and kick the base leg, sweeping the man to the ground, Sak Chai says. In a muay Thai boran fight, you’d strike the side of the knee, which is illegal in sport muay Thai. You could also step off at the same 45-degree angle and punch the man in the blind side of his head. Or you could wait until a punch comes, then step in with your forearm close to your face, guarding your head. Once inside, you could attack the man’s deltoid with an elbow strike. Make sure you strike with the point, not the flat of the elbow, he warns.

The children arrive for their training, portaging the mats Tony Jaa donated all the way from Sak Chai’s house to the practice field. While they’re lined up at the edge of the mat, Sak Chai and his assistant stretch the kids one by one. They twist them in every direction, tying them up like pretzels. They capture a boy by the head and feet, then lift him into the air and pull him as if he’s on a medieval rack. It must work because the flexibility of all the kids is incredible. A 14-year-old shows how he can put one leg behind his head and hop around on the other.

“When Tony was training with me, we didn’t have any mats or safety [equipment],” Sak Chai says. “That’s one reason he’s so good and so strong today — because he trained on the hard ground.”

Sak Chai says the kids need to use acrobatics for exciting film fights, so he has them practice backbends, walkovers and handsprings. Then they line up, and one by one Sak Chai “kicks” them in the chin with a fake technique that’s designed to look deadly from the right angle. The kids flip into the air and land on their backs as if dead.

Back at Sak Chai’s house, the mats are set out under a concrete wall. The kids scale the wall and jump off it, executing a flip on the way down. “This is one of the first things you have to learn to be a stuntman,” he explains. I find watching kids as young as 8 dive off a high wall a bit frightening, which makes Sak Chai add, “The children decide what they want to do; I don’t push them.”

It’s time for me to become the next Tony Jaa. I’m about to learn how to do a movie fight with weapons. The only weapon I’ve used is arnis sticks, so picking up one of Sak Chai’s longer versions feels foreign.

He teaches me some techniques from krabi krabong, the Thai art of sword and stick fighting. To demonstrate, he attacks a tire that’s mounted on a pole. The long stick is similar to the staff used in other arts, but it’s heavy and inflexible. Sak Chai snatches one by the end and swings it like a baseball bat.

Even the short sticks are heavier and longer than arnis sticks. The important thing to remember, he says, is that they aren’t sticks at all; they’re supposed to be swords. He shows me a basic sequence in which I strike the left shoulder, right shoulder and top of the head. When you swing a sword in krabi krabong, you have to start with a windup, twisting your body and reaching far behind you. Then you let it fly, and the weapon cuts your opponent in half.

After doing the basic three-strike combo on the tire, I’m permitted to practice with a live partner. I attack, stepping forward with each strike. He defends, stepping back at a 45-degree angle and blocking as he goes. Then he attacks, and I retreat and block. We practice again and again until we can do the pattern at full speed.

To rehearse for the movie fight, we do the same basic pattern. On film, however, you use a lot more energy and add some shouting and snarling. It looks really mean — like two guys are beating the crap out of each other.

For the unarmed film fight, Sak Chai shows me how to use the deadliest kicks without injuring the other guy. First, the opponent swings, and Sak Chai ducks the punch and comes up behind the man, after which he kicks him in the back. The trick lies in hitting him with the entire bottom of the foot instead of the heel or ball. And in lieu of slamming the foot into the spine, which could be lethal, he plants his across the man’s shoulder blades, missing the vital areas but making an impressive sound. When attacking from the front, he explains, he must hit the man across the chest rather than the solar plexus.
Meditating on Muay Thai’s Philosophy

Practice over, Sak Chai takes me back to his house. At the top of the stairs that lead to his prayer room stands a massive shrine decorated with magical objects and photos of deceased monks. He opens a canister and shows me its content. “These are bones from a dead monk,” he says. “They were very small when I first got them, but I have been praying every day and they grew bigger.

“After training, I bring all the children up here to pray and meditate so they don’t get hooked on drugs or drink alcohol. My teachers taught me that the martial arts are only one part of the process. Most important is purifying the mind. Tony Jaa meditates and prays regularly. That’s why he’s a good martial artist. He always shows gratitude to the spirits, teachers and parents. Every holiday, he comes to the temple to make offerings. Training the body is only one step. We have to train the spirit, and all the parts will become strong.”

Just as I’m leaving, I notice that one of the amulets Sak Chai is wearing bears an image of King Jayvaraman VII, the ruler of the Cambodian empire of Angkor and the patron saint of bokator, the Khmer martial art. I ask him if he believes that the Cambodian fighting arts could have been the origin of the Thai arts.

“There were a lot of styles in the past,” he says. “Some have similarities because they all originated from nature, but we developed these styles from their natural base until they became unique and beautiful arts. The transformation occurred according to our imaginations and the culture of the country which created them. In judo in Japan, they have wrestling and throwing. We also have wrestling and throwing, but we do it differently. Muay Thai has kicking and karate has kicking, but they are different.”

Sak Chai leaves me with a single phrase that sums up my six-year quest in Asia: “If we want to know about a culture, we can go learn their martial arts. And that will tell us who the people are and what they’re about.”

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