One of the many criticisms of Taekwondo is that it’s not a complete striking system. I wrote previously refuting this idea. One area that I missed was the so-called clinch. The clinch is a close-range grapple technique which either immobilizes the arms or places the players at a position of control to execute elbows, knees, and/or take-downs. Sports that include its use include, but are not limited to, Boxing, Muay Thai, Kickboxing, various Wrestling styles, and yes, to some extent, even Taekwondo.
Muay Thai clinching:
In boxing, the clinch is more of a survival technique; if you are hurt, you burst in and immobilize the opponent, trying to regain your bearings. You can also attack from there but it’s close range punches which in relation to other techniques might not be maximally effective. In Muay Thai, it is more of a strategic offensive position, with several distinct clinching positions, and a full range of elbows, knees, and take-downs permissible.
Despite there being a clinch in Taekwondo, I don’t consider a sophisticated clinching game to be a necessary prerequisite for a striking system to be considered complete. I would define a complete striking system, in relation to self-defense, as any coherent collection of pugilistic techniques and tactics able to deal with any unarmed attack from an unskilled or moderately skilled enemy. “Completion,” therefore, is relative to the purpose of a particular art and the plasticity of its techniques in dealing with common attacks found in day-to-day violence.
In Olympic Taekwondo sparring, it serves as a way to avoid a fading counter kick after you’ve made your own attack. You can’t lock your arms together and you can’t work much from there except to throw a crescent kick over top or to jump backwards (fade) with a kick.
But there is a serious disconnect between the sport of Olympic Taekwondo and the martial art taught in the Kukki Taekwondo poomsae.
The former is a long-range game of flashy, elaborate kicks and nothing but the occasional straight punch. Few blocks are employed since evasive footwork is more advantageous. It’s a game of agility, speed, and reach.
The latter is an obviously Karate-based mid-range system full of blocks, stuffs, and mid-to-close range strikes, very few of those kicks. Because it favors the punching/arms-length range, it is immediately more practical for self-defense. The Olympic sparring clinch is nowhere found (to my knowledge) in the classical Kukkiwon curriculum. (In this article, notable Karate blogger Dan Djurdjevic makes the case that Karate — and this includes the system taught in the Karate-based Taeguk series — is meant to be used in the medium/punching range and is not meant to get entangled in a situation that requires good clinching skills.)
Instead, you find what I call a “transient clinch:” a skill that only facilitates or enhances a technique until it finishes, not in itself a control position or a place to work from. The principle is found in what the Kukkiwon classifies as “japgi” (grabbing). They are, according to the website, “[…] auxiliary skills to interfere with the opponent’s movement or seize him or her by grabbing a part of his or her body with the performer’s hands.” The principle can also be found in the elbow target strike, which consists of grabbing behind the head with one hand, to arrest it, and then slamming the other elbow into it (palkup pyojeok-chigi). This technique is found in Taeguk Oh Jang and Chil Jang.
But the most recognizable case of this transient clinch is toward the end of Taeguk Chil Jang, the wenbal mureup-chigi.
The arms grab the shoulders or behind the head and pull the opponent into the knee. This is the perfect example of how the transient clinch concept operates in Taekwondo. From there the Taekwondoin follows up with more strikes or executes a take-down or hold rather than keeping the opponent in that position and working there for any length of time. Arm bars and take-downs can be executed at or put you back into a sort of “arms length” medium range and so it makes perfect sense that a Karate-based art would favor those sorts of tactics.
Cross-training in more extensive, sophisticated clinching skills can do nothing but enhance your fighting abilities. However, it is not a necessary skill to make Taekwondo complete and effective. This is simply because poomsae-based Taekwondo is designed to operate in a medium range rather than a clinching/grappling range. Despite this, Taekwondo does include a sportive clinch and the concept of a transient clinch, both of which have uses for sport combat and self-defense.