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Cambodian Bokator Elbow Strikes

By Antonio Graceffo

Grand Master San Kim Saen performs jumbing downward elbow strike to Antonio Graceffo’s head.

Cambodian Bokator was the origin of Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) and Bradal Serei (Khmer boxing). The modern sports art of kick boxing is similar, but without dangerous elbow techniques. (1) Where kick boxing contains less than 20 techniques, Bokator contains thousands. Many of these ancient techniques are excellent for modern fighting. Whether you are doing kick boxing, Muay Thai, or Mixed Martial Arts, learning to strike with your elbows is invaluable.

This elbows technique can be deadly. The attacker moves in with a knee kick that is followed by a downward strike by the elbow into the opponent’s throat or solar plexus.

A downward elbow strike can also be used in close grappling.

Use of a right elbow hook during close in grappling.

Kicks are your longest range weapons in unarmed combat. Punches are medium range, and elbows are for extremely close range. (Leaps and shoots may be used from even further out than kicks, as illustrated above, but they require a lot of specialized training, and not everyone can use them.)
Bokator punches and elbows are designed to travel a distance of only three inches, for maximum power. But, a skilled Bokator fighter can kick, punch, or elbow from any position.

Another useful technique is the rear elbow. Step past the opponent and throw the elbow backwards, the elbow technique here shown against a bag.

There are more than twenty elbow techniques in Bokator. If you are proficient in elbows, you can use them the same way you use punches in boxing. You can train on a bag doing elbow combinations, just as you would with your fists. There are hooks, upper cuts, jabs, downward strikes and many more. The advantages of the elbow, over a punch, is that the elbows are much harder, making it easier to get a knock out. Elbows are sharper, making it much easier to cut the opponent, especially since you are never required to wear boxing gloves on your elbows. Elbows can come from more directions than punches, including spinning elbows, upward, downward, and leaping.

Antonio Graceffo hits the bag with a straight elbow strike similar to a straight jab. Notice that the forearm is not folded back, but is held up and forward of the elbow.

The first elbow strike maneuver is the straight elbows. Start with the left side. Standing in fighting position, the arm is extended in front of the body with the elbow bent at about 70 degrees. The tricep is facing the ground, the hand is up, almost the same as a normal fighting position. The forearms should be like the prow of a ship cutting through the air. The hand will be over the target. The strike starts with the hips and ends with the shoulder popping forward. The elbow will hit the opponent in the face, and the hand will be over his head. Lead with the hand.
It is important to remember to twist your hip into the strike and at the last second push with the shoulder. The elbow goes straight from start to the finish. The hand must lead, it must not be angling back towards you when you strike. It must be pointing forward, over the target.
The right side is the same as the left. Twist your hip, turn and push your shoulder. The straight elbow is the jab in boxing. If you hit without pushing the shoulder you can still hurt someone, but the real strength comes from that last second, pushing the shoulder into it.
You can stand at the bag and practice: one, one-two, again and again. In Bokator we can have the left hand in front or right hand in front, and do the same techniques. So, you can do one round on the bag, leading with your left side and one round leading with your right side.

This right elbow circular strike, demonstrated here against a bag, is similar to a hook in boxing, but is closer in and needs only to travel a few inches to be devastating. Notice the opposite forearm is raised to protect the face.

The second elbow strike technique is the hook. The elbow swings around, hitting the opponent in the knock out zones. You turn your hip and twist into the hook. Don’t let the forearm drop or rise. Keep it at the same shoulder height. The forearm must be perfectly even, parallel to the ground, moving in a smooth path from your body to the target. Keep it straight and even or you will lose power, and also you could hurt your shoulder.
It’s important to keep your body soft and relaxed. Don’t use tense muscle power, use relaxed speed. Let your body be soft during the movement. Then, right before you hit, use (tensed muscle) power. All the punches and elbows of Bokator are close, in-fighting techniques, which should only travel three inches. The power comes from the speed and the air. You breath in before you hit, and when you hit, you release your breath outward. If you hold your breath when you hit, you will lose power and you could possibly damage your lungs.
It is extremely important to twist the hips, twist the knee and ankle, and rotate on the ball of the foot as the elbow comes around. If you fail to twist your knee you can injure it. The master becomes subtle, relaxed; his elbow shoots out and snaps like a whip and strikes the bag.
When Grand Master San Kim Saen demonstrates the elbow technique on the bag, he says, “feel my muscle before and after the strike.” Both times, it is completely relaxed.
After I practiced the elbow several times, the master told me again about the young rice. He said that I had too much tension in my shoulders and this is holding me back and reducing my power when I strike. Weighing more than 95 kgs (approximately 209 pounds), I am much bigger and stronger than most of the Khmer students. My additional size is actually a disadvantage in much of the Bokator training, since the secret to Bokaor is whip-like speed and flexibility. My muscles and body weight actually acted against my power.
The hook elbow can be used on the temple, the hinge of the jaw, the point of the jaw, the abdomen, or the ribs. If you hit the jaw and turn the shoulder into it, you will shatter bone or get a knock out. If you do not push with the shoulder you will not get a knock out, but the elbow will act like a knife, slicing the face open. So, the exact technique you use depends on the outcome that you want.
The first combination to work on is the one-two. This means hitting the bag with the jab, the straight elbow first left, the right. A combination should be extremely fast, with no break in between the two hits. It should sound like pop-pop. Not pop---------pop. The strikes should be quick. After each strike, the hands must come immediately back to fighting position to protect your face and head. After the second hit, don’t just stand there, staring at your opponent, get out. Hit twice and move out.
Next, work on the one-two hook. In Bokator, the master said, the first strike should not be very powerful. The second one, however, is the money shot, which could end the fight. Start your hook series by dropping, as if ducking a punch. The first elbow hits in the center of the abdomen, the second one is a bone shattering strike to the floating ribs. Strike once, then just slide the foot in and to the side of your opponent, to set yourself up for the second strike to the floating ribs. If you really step into that second strike, pushing your shoulder, you will knock the man down.
In Bokator it is always important not just to hit the man and cut him or break bones but also to knock him down. In a ring fight, judges will give you a higher score of you knock the man down. In a street fight, there is always a chance the man will crack his head on the pavement when you knock him down. You could also take advantage of him while he is on his back and use a stop, a leap or a soccer kick. If nothing else, knocking him down will demoralize him and take away his will to fight. Fighters feel humiliated when they get knocked down. They will come back their feet looking for blood. They won’t be thinking at this point, just swinging wild. The fighter who is cool, collected, and calm will always have the advantage over the fighter who is angry. Just sit back, relax, circle, and strike at will.
You can practice a four elbow combination of one-two jabs, followed by one-two hooks as you back out. Eventually you can build up to a six elbow combination of one-two jabs, one-two hooks, followed by one-two jab, as you are backing out.
The advantage of Bokator fighting is that the fighter can move in three dimensions, up down, and side to side, and attack from anywhere. Never reach back to get more power, just use your three inches rule and really pop your hip and shoulder into it. Keep your stance relaxed so it burns no energy. The same goes for the blocks and punches. In Bokator you go from relaxed, soft to, striking, and back to soft. (2) Bokator uses less energy so a student can go a long time without getting fatigued. The relaxed Bokator stance and striking techniques also have long-term health benefits. Using all that muscle power all the time in other martial arts can be quite damaging.
In the Bokator club, in Phnom Penh, Grand Master San Kim Saen doesn’t use ring timers. But, if you are learning Bokator so you can fight in competition, you will need to time your work out. Set your ring timer for three minutes on and one minute rest. If you don’t have a ring timer, just use your stereo. Hit the bag for the length of the first song. Rest for one minute (either by counting backwards from 100 or looking at a clock). Then hit the bag till the end of the next song. Rest for one minute, hit the bag till the end of the next song. This method isn’t perfect, but it is pretty good. Most pop songs are about 3-4 minutes. So, your first round might be a little long and the others a little short, but it is close enough.
Begin practice by standing in front of your punching bag in your relaxed fighting stance. Remember to be soft, completely lose, until the exact moment you strike.
Practice combinations
2 rounds of one-two jab, move out
2 rounds of one-two hook, move out
1 round of one-two jab, slide the foot in, one-two hook, move out
1 round of one-two jab, slide the foot in, one-two hook, followed by one two jab, move out
For more practice, reverse your stance, right foot in front, and do it all again. It could take months to build up to this level of cardio fitness. But don’t worry, that is why it is called training. Remember, the more you sweat in the gym, the less you bleed in the fight.

Editor's Footnotes by Christopher Caile:

(1) Kick boxing has been inspired, at least in the West, by a combination of karate (karate type above the waist type kicks) combined with boxing hand techniques. 

(2) Some Shorin-ryu styles of karate, however, do use similar methods of developing power.

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About The Author:

Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available on ”The Monk from Brooklyn”, ”Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves”, ”The Desert of Death on Three Wheels” and”Adventures in Formosa.” Antonio was the first foreign student of Bokator, in Cambodia. Contact him see his website

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Grand Master San Kim Saen,Bokator Boxing, Muay Thai,Thai Boxing,Bradal Serei,Khmer boxing

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