PUNISHMENT Inside The Clinch

Mayweather vs. Hatton: A Blueprint For Clinch Work

Nak muay cross-training boxing is beautiful, but sparring can get ugly when you’re forced to use two out of eight limbs against a hand-fighting specialist.

You can’t use your elbows, knees nor shins, but did you know that a large percentage of your clinch-fighting techniques can be applied LEGALLY and EFFECTIVELY in the boxing ring? This boxing talk is going to focus on head control and clinching – two concepts that nak muays know plenty about.

Of course, no Western boxer is going to tell you how to rock a clinch any better than you already know. However, what we can do is show you some examples of high-level boxing clinch fighting. In doing so, we hope to inspire you to apply your Muay Thai technique in creative (and 100% legal) ways to help you hang in boxing sparring or competition.

If you’ve ever struggled sparring or fighting under pure boxing rules to the point where you almost started chopping legs and dumping fools, this article’s for you. Read to learn how your clinch-fighting game can be applied in the square circle, courtesy of the Warrior Punch team.

Head Control 101

Beginner boxers use their hands for two things: punching and defending. But as you get deeper into the sport, and the level of competition gets higher, new hand-fighting possibilities will open up, many of which have surprising carryover in kickboxing, Muay Thai and MMA. Feints, trapping, posting, clinching, and head control are just a few of the things you can do with your hands in any combative sport.

As its name suggests, head control involves using the hands, forearms and shoulders to control the opponent’s head. Excessive head control is prohibited in amateur boxing, which is why this skill is frequently underdeveloped, but it’s an essential pro tactic that has a number of offensive and defensive functions.

From an offensive standpoint, head control makes it much easier to land punches. Beyond acting as a rangefinder, the controlling hand can be used to push or pull the head into strikes, something we see all the time with uppercuts from the single collar tie position. That same hand can be used to disrupt head movement or pry open the guard for an off-hand attack, as Badr Hari did to Alistair Overeem in K-1 in 2009:

Head control is also a great defensive strategy. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, we learn to “control the head to control the body,” and this principle applies to striking arts as well.

Having a hand on the opponent’s head lets you feel punches coming before you see them. Once you feel their weight committing forward, a small shove is often all it takes to off-balance an attack. If you can break their posture, you completely shut down their offense – they’ll be blind, bent out of position, and forced to carry your weight until the referee steps in.

Head control is also a great option for nak muay who struggle against counter punchers. If your opponent likes to slip and counter over the top, quick transitions from punch to head control can keep you safe.

Let’s suppose you throw a jab, which your opponent slips – what do you do? Though you could race their hand back to your face to try and block the shot, it’s risky.

Alternatively, you could use your glove/forearm, which is now over their shoulder, to make contact and drive them off-balance. This instantly disrupts the counter shot and puts them back into a reactive state, keeping you in control as they fight to regain their footing. This is an advanced technique, but it’s something that nak muay tend to pick up quickly with their clinching backgrounds.

Clinch Case Study  

Floyd Mayweather vs. Ricky Hatton

Now that we’ve established a working definition, plus outlined some offensive and defensive functionality, let’s spotlight some high-level examples of head control in boxing. We look to Floyd Mayweather’s dismantling of Ricky Hatton, a dangerous inside fighter with a reputation for big body punches.

a. Breaking Posture On The Inside – Fight On Your Terms!

Nak muays eat boxers up at short range in open rules combat, but may struggle inside when sweeps, knees and elbows aren’t allowed.

If you find yourself being overwhelmed by a superior inside fighter under boxing rules, it might be best to stop the exchange entirely and live to fight another day. Breaking posture with head control can buy you the time you need to get your bearings and make space.

Mayweather shows us one option against Hatton:


ABOVE: Floyd uses a left hook to initiate head control. The punch loops behind Hatton and hooks him in. Punching your way into the clinch is like this standard practice in Muay Thai and is equally important in a boxing context.

Floyd has head control but he wants to break posture, which requires a little extra work. The moment the left hook makes contact, Floyd’s right glove grabs Hatton behind the head. This two-handed control position gives Floyd the strength and leverage he needs to break Hatton’s posture.

From here, Floyd’s got a lot of options. Escapes are easy since Hatton’s eyes are on the floor; a simple pivot in any direction would get Floyd wherever he wants to be, and in perfect position to follow up with offense. Borrowing again from BJJ with the “push-pull” principle, Floyd could abruptly ease off the pressure and start punching, letting Hatton’s upward momentum to stand him right up into the line of fire. Floyd could also just ride it out here and force Hatton to carry his weight until the ref steps in, which is tiring as it is demoralizing.

In this case, Floyd is hyper-aware of Hatton’s body punching prowess, so he decides to grab an over-hook with his left hand and walk his hips in, eliminating the space Ricky needs to work.

To review:

  • Using head control to break posture is a great way to deny a boxer their inside fighting advantage. You simply refuse to fight on their terms.
  • Reaching for head control is possible if you set it up with feints and offensive threats, but it’s usually better to punch your way in.
  • Breaking posture often requires both hands, but not always. This technique is great against boxers who like to bob under hooks – throw your hook anticipating the bob, then drop your weight down on them through the hooking arm as they duck under the firing line.
  • Once you break the opponent’s posture, you have options: wear them out and stall until the ref breaks it up, angle off to escape or follow-up, or, if they’re resisting hard, use the “push-pull” to setup some surprising short-range shots.

b. Punch-To-Post For Safer Pot Shots

Like the previous technique, this move is great when you’re trying to avoid an inside fight under boxing rules. If that’s the case, take a page out of Floyd’s book and pot-shot from long range:


ABOVE: Floyd cashes in with his signature lead right hand but doesn’t wait around for his receipt. Instead, he switches the function of his right hand from punching to posting the moment after impact. Though he doesn’t actually manipulate Hatton’s head, this move uses the same head control principles. Rather than retracting the hand to guard and waiting to block a counter shot, Floyd makes sure the counter-punch never comes, shoving Hatton off-balance and speeding up his own exit with the push-off.

Though Floyd darts right back out of range, you always have the option of staying in the pocket behind your posting arm with the chin tucked behind the shoulder. Sean’s long guard video has some great tips for this option.

This basic in-and-out pot-shotting approach will take you far against dedicated inside fighters. If they slip the shot entirely, transition to head control and work a posture break to stuff their counter, then make space safely and start again. If they block or eat the shot, use the post to back out safely or follow-up from the long guard.

BELOW: Of course, advanced fighters don’t have to go straight out off of a post. Floyd is a master of using punch-to-post transitions to control the head, create sharp inside angles, and follow up immediately with more offense:

c. Dirtier Boxing = Cleaner Offense

While explaining how to land the roundhouse out of the clinch in Muay Thai, Sean stresses the importance of exiting with offense to keep the opponent occupied. When done right, the opponent is usually so preoccupied with the hand-fight that they’re wide open for a shot. This is a fundamental Muay Thai principle that you can use in boxing to great effect, especially when you start to blend your punches with your head control physicality.

BELOW: Notice Floyd’s seamless transitions from punching to head control:


This is especially effective in nak muay vs. boxer match-ups because Western boxers don’t log the same volume of clinching hours. Sure, a boxer might out-finesse you in a punch-off when they’ve got room to slip, roll, side-step, and shoe-shine, but they’re surprisingly hittable when you’re rag-dolling them around the ropes.  They may have some dirty boxing skills, but nak muay have the clinching IQ and fitness to get even dirtier!


Control The Clinch, Control The Outcome

Boxing head control and hand-fighting is a complex system that gets nowhere near the attention it deserves. Though you won’t see these techniques in the amateurs, they’re essential for high-level pros, and deserve a place in boxing, Muay Thai and MMA training.

Give these techniques a try the next time you spar with boxing rules – you may be surprised by just how much of your clinching skill set carries over to the squared circle.

For more boxing tips and tech talk, be sure to visit http://www.warriorpunch.com for weekly content, or follow us on Facebook for exclusive daily training tips!


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Brandon Ray
Bran MacRea has been an enthusiastic coach and competitor in the amateur boxing, Muay Thai, and kickboxing community for over 15 years. Breakdown requests, training questions, and hate mail can be directed to [email protected]

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