Combat sports lost a hero last week. Wednesday, February 27, 2013 Muay Thai legend Ramon Dekkers passed away after an afternoon bike ride at the age of 43. The world of fightsport expressed their grief and condolences as one following the unexpected news. And though it might seem absurd to some for so many to mourn the death of a man they never knew, Ramon Dekkers’ impact on the world of combat sports was immeasurable.
Though in the wake of his passing it will go mostly unmentioned, some considerable controversy has surrounded Dekkers’ status as an all-time great in the sport of Muay Thai. As is often the case with celebrated people, many critics have striven over the years to damage Dekkers’ legacy by calling into question his opposition and his skill.
Asking whether or not Ramon fought the best, or was the best, is a meaningless question. Or rather, the answer is meaningless. It is irrelevant. We may as well ask whether or not Fedor Emelianenko always fought the greatest competition (he didn’t), or whether Muhammad Ali always displayed the cleanest technique (he didn’t). These men are not judged by the finite aspects of their fights, but by their incalculable impact on their respective sports and the world. And Ramon Dekkers belongs in this Pantheon, among these men, for bringing the sport of Muay Thai to the biggest international stage it had ever known at his time. For fighting every fight like it might be his last. And for being ever willing to face whatever opposition stood before him.
So let’s celebrate the deeds of the great Ramon Dekkers with a brief look at some of his finest exhibitions of talent and skill. Today we’ll be examining his fighting methods, and how he utilized his proto-typical Dutch style and trademark aggression in four of his most legendary bouts--those with his longstanding rival, fellow great Coban Lookchaomaesaitong. Let’s start at the beginning.
(Note: If you hadn't guessed, it's bound to be another long one. But I promise, this one deserves the in-depth treatment. Each fight's description will be liberally sprinkled with times to help you find the correct moment in the fight. I will be referring to the timestamps of the embedded videos, not the times on the fight clocks.)
DEKKERS VS. COBAN I
The first matchup shows us a very young-looking Dekkers against a very confident-looking Coban. In some very ridiculous shoes.
It doesn't last long.
Immediately after the bell rings, Ramon switches his stance. The first time I watched this fight, I was taken aback by this. Stance-switching is not something that Dekkers was known for, or at least not to this degree, and he doesn't look particularly comfortable doing it in this fight. His motive seems to be to match Coban's southpaw stance so that he can use his jab and outside low kicks as he normally would on an orthodox opponent. But in reality, the serial switching only causes him to become less cognizant of his defense and his positioning.
2:14 is the perfect example of this. Dekkers steps outside Coban's lead foot to line up his straight right to the body. This is basic orthodox vs. southpaw technique, and it's executed well at first. But Dekkers' doesn't add any shots to the head with his lead hand as he exits, which would have dissuaded Coban from countering. Worse, he exits straight back to his starting position, standing straight up and leaving his right hand lowered. He pays the price for it, and is knocked out by a titanic left from Coban before the end of the first round.
This first bout shows us a tentative Dekkers, looking unsure about himself and not-so confident against his experienced Thai opponent. There are glimpses of the overwhelming fighter that Dekkers would become, such as the all-power combination at 0:35, but all the pieces were not quite in place. Despite rumors that something else was wrong with Dekkers that night, we can chalk this one up to inexperience and anxiety losing out to experience and confidence. Coban would prove the only Thai to ever knock Dekkers out, and he would never be able to do so again.
DEKKERS VS. COBAN II
Though it came not four months after their first meeting, Dekkers came into his second round with Coban looking like a much different fighter. Gone is the constant switching of stances--and the silly shoes as well. The fight begins and Dekkers meets Coban in the center of the ring, justifiably patient and reserved for the first few seconds.
Wait, never mind. Dekkers immediately tests Coban's defense with a lead right and a graceful high kick.
Of the four Coban bouts, this one gives us our first real look at the dichotomy that was Ramon Dekkers. In his time as a fighter, Dekkers was called by two names. One, the title of this article, "the Diamond." Not so much an intimidating fighter name as much as a compliment to the fighter's prowess. His other name, however, is a different story. They also called him "the Turbine from Hell."
Polished and clean, but hard and unbreakable, like a diamond. Dekkers had great technique and skill, and you can see that in this fight. Unlike his last bout, he seems very cognizant of his position at all times. He is constantly circling away from Coban's powerful left hand, jockeying for the outside position with his foot. At 4:39 he changes levels as if to strike the body and, when Coban covers up, he shoots an uppercut between the gloves followed by a left hook that catches the Thai off-guard, trying to throw the same counter that ended their last fight.
And then we see how the Dutchman earned his other name. He smells blood, and the Turbine from Hell whirrs to life. At 4:42 Coban, still stunned by the left hook, tries to force the fight with Dekkers in an attempt to regain the advantage. Dekkers is having none of it. As Coban leans in to shoeshine the body, Dekkers grabs him by the neck. And though the Dutch style is well known to be inferior to the Thai style in terms of clinching, Dekkers knee and follow-up left hook are beautifully done. Coban staggers back into the corner, trying to tough it out in typical Thai fashion, refusing to step back without giving Dekkers a shot of his own. But the Turbine from Hell cannot be stopped. He pummels Coban mercilessly. No longer the young fighter that switches stance to land with his dominant hand as lead, he pounces with left hook after left hook, using his right hand as a jab to pin Coban against the ropes between shots.
Mercifully, at 5:02, the referee gives Coban a standing count. And Coban, to his credit, strides boldly after Dekkers as he returns to the neutral corner, staring at him steadily while the count is given. But confidence can't save him. 5:13, and Dekkers walks calmly from the corner to meet his opponent and catches Coban, still busy posturing, out of position. A glancing right hand sets up the killing blow, a vicious left hook that has Coban crumpling into the ropes on rubber legs. A final right hand lands, but it's mostly academic, and Coban spills to the floor like a corpse.
Finesse when desired, and unstoppable aggression when necessary. This was Ramon Dekkers fighting his fight.
DEKKERS VS. COBAN III
Now we get to Dekkers' and Coban's pair of decision fights. Obviously there is a lot more to break down in a five rounder than in a first round knockout affair, so I will just focus on a few highlight moments.
As in most Thai fights, the first and second rounds of this bout are largely throw-aways. If you scored every Thai fight with the first two rounds as draws, effectively none of the final verdicts would be different. This is just the way the Thais fight, and Dekkers obliged in this match. But rounds three through five are a must-see--start at 6:53 for the good stuff.
Perhaps Dekkers' most impressive attribute in this fight is his incredible toughness. He sticks his chin out at Coban multiple times despite being laid on the canvas in the fourth. But there are some interesting techniques at play. Ramon incorporates a right-handed high block several times throughout the fight--8:10 and 8:15 for just a couple of examples. Apparently prepared at first to fight a cautious fight, he seems to expect Coban to respond to this with that looping left he's so fond of--the same punch that floored Dekkers in their first encounter. But the Thai frequently lands a chopping left low kick whenever this bait presents itself, and Dekkers is usually unable to counter with punches as he hopes to do.
At 11:33, Dekkers pounces on the cornered Coban with a combination of punches, but forgets his positioning, and allows the Thai a slight angle. Much like in their first fight, Coban responds to Dekkers' carelessness with a blistering left hand that plants Dekkers about three feet into the canvas and plywood. But the Dutchman stands and clinches, covers up, and survives the round.
At 15:54 Dekkers powers forward with a barrage of punches, using his new high block to defend against counters, and timing his right hands so that they enter inside of Coban's looping lefts, forcing the Thai to clinch for protection. Watch as Dekkers does something next that I'm sure no one expected from the Dutch stylist: he dumps Coban with a slick throw, the Muay Thai equivalent of a back-arch suplex. He squares himself with Coban and drops his hips beneath those of his opponent. At 15:59 he bumps Coban's thigh with his left knee and steps around the outside with his right foot, pivoting and pulling the off-balance Coban to the ground.
Coban takes the decision this time around. True, this fight saw Dekkers soundly outmatched, but the fire and talent was still there. And the story would be different for their final meeting.
DEKKERS VS. COBAN IV
(via Dan Ivanov)
One of Ramon's finest performances, this fight really highlights his excellent kicks, and he shows some of his most technical boxing. At 5:37 he launches into a beautiful high kick that catches Coban on the arm, and then throws a punch with the same-side hand. Coban is caught off guard trying to counter the kick, and his hesitant right hook whistles past Dekkers' head. This is a fine example of how to properly kick with the head off-center, and Dekkers brilliantly utilizes the right hand following the right kick throughout the fight to keep Coban from closing on him and countering with his own rear hand.
There's another moment that many would overlook at first glance, beautiful in its subtlety. Readers of my blog will have heard me mention positioning before, and here is a fine example of what I mean by that term. At 6:25, Coban and Dekkers are standing before one another, jockeying for position. Watch their feet. Using typical southpaw vs. orthodox strategy (Jack Slack has popularized the term "open guard" for this type of engagement), Coban is vying to get his right foot outside of Dekkers' left. But Dekkers is comfortable keeping the inside position here, and as he senses his opponent stepping to the outside, he lifts his front leg and effortlessly knocks Coban to the canvas with a perfectly placed teep. This demonstrates that, even with 110 fights under his belt, Dekkers was still learning and improving. Dominating the center line is key to controlling space, and sets the opponent up for the outside step and following rear hand or kick. And whereas Coban is simply trying to walk into that position, Dekkers is utilizing strategy to work his way there intelligently.
This willingness to take the inside also opens up angle for the rear inside leg kick, which Dekkers utilizes beautifully throughout the bout in conjunction with his middle and high kicks and his rear teep, constantly keeping Coban guessing and waiting on Dekkers to initiate. This fight gets a lot of criticism because of the fact that Coban was allegedly duped into fighting Dekkers, and the fact that elbows were not allowed. But Dekkers showed that, despite the lack of elbows, he was fully able to beat Coban in a more kicking-focused, Thai-style engagement. He showed that he knew when to switch on the turbine, and when to keep his attacks clean and polished like the diamond.
There is a sort of poetic symmetry to Dekkers' four matches with Coban. A knockout replied with a knockout, a decision loss followed by a decision win. And though he returned to kickboxing briefly in 2005, Dekkers never challenged Coban to a fifth, deciding match. I’d like to imagine that he didn’t care about proving that he was the best, so long as the score was even, and so long as he got to fight. And you'd be hard-pressed to deny that Ramon Dekkers did that like nobody else.
So here's to you, Mr. Dekkers. You gave us some of the greatest fights this sport has ever seen and inspired generations of fighters with your skill, your toughness, and your indomitable will. You survived more than two hundred wars against some of the best in the world. Now it's time rest in peace. Thanks for everything, Ramon.
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