If you've just tuned in for round four, you're in for a treat as Bloody Elbow brings you the latest installment of 'The Beginners Guide to Muay Thai'. Whilst this part will take us back to the beginning of the sport, I'd recommend going back and reading the rest of the series to give you a better grounding on the themes of the series.
Part one was an overview of what is holding the Bangkok Muay Thai scene back from being a mainstream sport. Part two looked at the journey from rural farm boy to Bangkok prizefighter. And part three looked at the way fighters are treated and their career options after hanging up their gloves.
In this part, we will take a look at the mythical beginnings of Muay Thai, as well as travelling through the 20th century and witnessing the development of Muay Thai into the fully-fledged sport it is today.
I will be mentioning a lot of fighters in this article. If there is a link when they're mentioned, it may offer more information or videos you won't see embedded in this article. If they're good enough to be mentioned here, it's very likely they will receive an article focused just on their careers before long, so if it is a little light on information about their story, bear with me: This series is just the beginning of Bloody Elbow's Muay Thai coverage!
The Roots of Muay Thai
It's very hard to establish just where Muay Thai comes from. As someone who has only a basic understanding of South East Asian history, I only have an overview of Indo-Chinese martial arts.
Even scholars have admitted it's difficult to get a rounded picture of the timeline, as invading countries sacking lands for centuries meant documentation was destroyed, and we rely on a mainly oral history.
The idea is that Chinese and Indian combat styles influenced the middle ground of lands that would become Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia and Thailand.
There are instances of art from the middle ages that demonstrate a knowledge of attacks that would comprise Muay Thai, such as temples in Cambodia. The below example, of a kick to fend off a demon (the Hindu/Buddhist Sun-swallower Rahu) likely dates from the 12th-13th century.
These techniques were used on the battlefield in close quarters combat. Burma, Thailand and Cambodia were warring with each other for centuries, and they honed their fighting skills on the battlefield.
Ask your standard Westerner who the greatest boxer is of all time, and even if they're not a fan of the sport they will likely have an answer for you. Your grandma will know who Muhammad Ali is, and the fairweather fan will likely be able to provide you with the name of either of the 'Sugar' Ray's, or Mike Tyson. Whether they have a grounding in the history of boxing or not, most people will know at least one great boxer.
Outside of the hardcore Muay Thai fans and gamblers, most people don't know who the best Muay Thai fighters are. There aren't many household names, as I showed in part three.
Ask any average Thai who the greatest Muay Thai fighter is of all time and they'll likely mention a folk hero who is known to every Thai.
The story starts during the war between neighbouring countries Ayutthaya (Siam, which in time would become Thailand) and the Konbaaung Dynasty (Burma) between 1765-67.
At the time of the 1765 war, Ayutthaya was a burgeoning empire acquiring new territories and solidifying wide-reaching trade relationships. Just half a decade removed from their last major conflict with the Burmese, the land which would become Thailand had in fact been at war with it's neighbour for centuries.
This war wasn't close to a victory for the Thai's. The Burmese invaded and secured a victory, smashing the Ayutthaya Kingdom and ending it once and for all. A style which is now known as Muay Boran was practised by the Thay's (Thai) as military self defence, though to what extent is hard to establish as the Burmese destroyed historical records.
This is where the legend comes into play. The tale, which cannot be corroborated, says that Nai Khanom Tom, a Thai prisoner of the Burmese and a practitioner of Muay Boran fighting techniques, defeated no less than nine of the Burmese fighters in a row, and was rewarded by the Burmese king for his bravery and skill.
That is the gist of things, but as I say, pretty much impossible to know to how much of it is true or the finer details. What is known, is that Nai Khanom Tom is still revered to this day, with a statue built to honour him and every year the Thai's remember him with a day of celebration.
He certainly embodies the spirit of Muay Thai. Aggressive, respectful and downright nails. The ancient techniques of Muay Boran can still be seen in theatrical exhibitions, for tourists, such as this one at Lumpinee Stadium.
Nai Khanom Tom was not to be the last of the great Siamese warriors. The Chinese invaded Burma, and with their forces over stretched the Burmese had to pull back behind their lines.
By 1782 Siam had been reconciled, with a new lineage of monarchy established which lasts to this day, and the capital moved from Thonburi on the West side of the Chao Phraya River, to Bangkok, on the East Side.
Game of Thrones
The Chakri Dynasty has ruled Thailand since the relocating of it's capital to Bangkok. The first monarch of the Chakri Dynasty was Phraphutthayotfa Chulalok, a military general under the previous King, Taksin.
Buddha Yodfa Chulalok the Great (Rama 1) the King of Siam (1782-1809) via upload.wikimedia.org
Taksin was a King Lear figure, and with his sanity in question he was removed from power by a coup. It's hard to get a grip on what actually happened as accounts vary, but what is certain is that Chulalok, away fighting in Cambodia, came back, crushed the coup, seized power and relocated the capital to Bangkok.
Whether the coup was his doing, and what happened to Taksin after Yodafa Chulalok took over is the subject of debate.
How much Yodfa Chulalok knew of (or influenced) Muay Thai is impossible to estimate, but as a military general it must be assumed that he would've been trained in the Siamese form of hand-to-hand combat.
Later generations gave him the title of Rama I. Each successive king takes on that title (followed by their number) and Thai's believe that this lineage will end with the next King (the current, King Bhumibol being the penultimate King of the Chakri Dynasty, more on him later)
The King who was the most instrumental in developing Muay Thai is King Chulalongkorn, or Rama V.
Chulalongkorn (Rama V) King of Siam (1868-1910) via upload.wikimedia.org
A King who was loved by the people (given a moniker that translates as 'The Great Beloved King') Chulalongkorn abolished slavery in Thailand and brought in a number of social reforms that made the country a safer place to live.
Because of this, Muay flourished. The King was a fan of Muay (at this point still more in line with ancient Muay Boran, with groin strikes permitted and the hands of the fighters bound in rope), and would organise fights for his entertainment, with scouts sent out to the different regions on Thailand to find the best fighters, a tradition which continues to this day. There were no weight classes or time limits, and the fighters would engage each other until one of them dropped.
The King gave honourary titles to those fighters who impressed him the most, and his love of the sport influenced his son, Prince Abhakara, who trained fighters himself.
Chulalongkorn's legacy in Thailand continues to this day; the first University was named after him, and his death is still celebrated in Bangkok on the 23rd October every year.
Chulalongkorn's attempts to make Muay into a sport with rules would continue to be worked on over the decades following his death.
This scene from a fight outside the Sanphet Prasat Palace (Date unknown) may have been how Muay Thai looked before modernisation via upload.wikimedia.org
King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) pushed Thailand closer to democracy and forged closer ties with the British, still a global super power at the turn of the 20th Century, by expelling German and Austrian officials from Thailand during World War One. He also worked hard to further Siamese Nationalism, which saw Central Thai's become the dominant force and language in the country, and the ethnic Khmer and Laotian people marginalised (see part two for more information on this).
Thai boxing continued to progress in this stage, with a bout taking place between Young Hantalay of Siam (who according to Wikipedia at least had been trained by the aforementioned Prince Abhakara) and a Chinese Kung Fu practitioner called Chin Chang. I can find no concrete sources for this, but most tell the story as Hantalay winning by a head kick knockout. Some sources say this is a photograph of the contest (the Siamese boxer being on the right).
King Prajadhipok (Rame VII) succeeded King Vajiravudh. In Prajadhipok's reign, Muay Boran came closer to what we know today, taking its cue from Western boxing and staging contests in a ring.
King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) King of Siam (1925-1935) via upload.wikimedia.org
This footage was likely filmed between 1927-30. Note how the style of fighting is archaic, and how the fighters are not yet using gloves as in boxing, but still the traditional rope binding. I would go as far to say this is likely an exhibition for the cameras rather than a legitimate fight, but it's an interesting curio for the connoisseur, in particular the use of music to accompany the fight, which continues to this day.
I have read that an exhibition of boxing from a fighter from the Philippines opened up the Thai's eyes to the use of boxing gloves. This is feasible. It is true that they were far more well versed in Western boxing than the Thai's, and a Filipino impressing the Thai's with a display of technique is definitely a possible way they came about changing their rule set. The Philippines had already had some quality boxers in the 1920's, such as World flyweight champion Pancho Villa, who had been a big star in the United States, and Clever Sencio, who had challenged him and earned a reputation as a quality operator in the U.S. Tragically, both boxers would die after bouts, Villa due to a tooth infection that he carried into his contest with the all time great Jimmy McLarnin, and Sencio at the hands of the murderous punching 'Bud' Taylor.
Still, boxing gloves were seen as the safer alternative to the traditional rope-binding of Muay Boran. Weight classes would be introduced, and time limits. Ten years or so after boxing had brought itself from a sport illegal in most states to a fully-fledged and regulated sport, Siam was doing what they could to make Muay a reputable sport.
Unfortunately for King Prajadhipok, the burgeoning sport of his country was not high on his list of priorities. Though he attempted to bring a constitution to the people, he was overruled by his own court. When the constitution arrived, it was via a military-backed coup in the Siamese Revolution of 1932 whilst the King was on holiday. This set a precedent, as although there had been attempts to overthrow the absolute monarchical rule in Siam, this was the first time that the Chakri Dynasty had been overruled. Since 1932, there have been twelve coups in Thailand.
King Prajadhipok did manage to fuse the severed ties with his people, but he never really recovered. Relations with the new regime deteriorated, and in 1935 he abdicated the throne, the first, and last King of the Chakri Dynasty to do so.
Prajadhipok had no true heir, so his successor was debated by the cabinet.
His nephew Ananda Mahidol was chosen as his successor, becoming Rama VIII.
King Ananda was schooled in Switzerland, as was his brother, Bhumibol. This continued the process that Rama VI had set, with Thai hierarchy travelling abroad to get a better level of education and learn of Western ways.
Prince's Ananda, left, and Bhumibol, right, as children in 1938 via upload.wikimedia.org
The start of Ananda's reign was against a background of turmoil, as World War II played out. Initially not involving the Thai's, the invasion of Japanese forces brought Thailand into the fray, siding with the Japanese against the Allied Forces. Never officially signed off by Ananda, the Thai's eventually distanced themselves from the Japanese, supplying information to the British and Americans, who had been bombarding Bangkok with air strikes. The Thai people fought back against the Japanese themselves, with King Ananda's predecessor's widow (exiled in Britain, where Prajadhipok had died in 1941) worked with the Allied Forces to arm thousands of Thais to aid resistance against the Japanese.
The Japanese tried to stabilise their troops to prepare for Thai resistance. But before they could, the war was over, with the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the Japanese to their knees. Thailand signed a truce with the English, and King Ananda could return to his homeland at long last.
King Ananda (Rama VII) via upload.wikimedia.org
With a law degree on his resume, Ananda was clearly a smart and educated King. Foreign observers however, were not too sure of his long-term potential at ruling a country suffering the fallout of World War II.
Lord Mountbatten, who had done it all in war and politics, described Ananda as thus:
"...a pathetic and lonely figure....his nervousness increased to such an alarming extent that I came very close to support him in case he passed out."
It may not have been a surprise when six months after that statement that the young King Ananda was found dead in his bedroom from a gunshot wound to the head. What followed is arguably the murkiest case in modern Thai history, with the death eventually ruled as murder. King Ananda's death remains unexplained to this day.
Bhumibol, Ananda's younger brother, became King Bhumibol (Rama IX) and is still the King today, making him the longest-reigning Monarch in the World.
It would be a few years before Bhumibol's official coronation. He continued to study in Switzerland, and upon his arrival back home Siam had once and for all been renamed Thailand (it had briefly become Thailand in the '30s).
You may wonder why all this talk of Kings and politics is to be found in a Muay Thai piece? Simple fact is, that King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the most influential person in Thailand, and the love the Thai's have for him resonates in the world of Muay Thai. The fighters fight for him, they offer their respects to him, and he has bestowed honour upon them just as Rama V did when Muay Boran was being formed into a sport from a form of military combat.
The BBC published a pretty decent view of why King Bhumibol is so revered by his people. Read it here.
I will try and summarise though; A jazz-loving saxophonist with a good sense of humour who is viewed by his people as a fair King who has mucked in during times of strife, King Bhumibol has evaded political problems with his smart approach. Likely waning in his old age and with his public appearances few and far between nowadays, his influence is still felt; go to Thailand and you will see portraits of the King in every shop, bar, hotel, and the Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok is a shrine to his rule. Not a cult of personality like North Korea, the King has invited criticism and freed people that were imprisoned for speaking out against him.
Monuments of King Bhumibol are commonplace in Thailand via upload.wikimedia.org
A keen sailor and lover of sport, he is the anchor that helped Muay Thai stabilise itself into a fully-fledged sport in the middle of the 20th Century. In a fitting coincidence, the year his brother died and Bhumibol was primed to take over as King was the year Rajadamnern Stadium was built.
Making a name for themselves
The early days of Muay Thai resembling the sport we know today is hard to get much information on. There is scant information in the West. What we do have are the fighters that were awarded 'Fighter of the Year', by the sports writers in Thailand. This is still a prestigious award to this day, and from 1930 onwards we can use this information to ascertain who the prominent fighters were at the time.
It was in the the 1940s that the Siamese fighters really started making their mark internationally, gaining respect for their gameness.
This footage from 1946 shows a scrappy contest, though with no knowledge of who the competitors are I cannot assess whether this was indicative of the quality of fighters at the time. Note the spinning back elbow at 0:22.
Phol Prapadaeng, one of the best Muay Thai fighters of the 1930s (he was named 'Fighter of the Year' in 1937) was already past his best when he moved into traditional Western boxing, but in Singapore he was lauded for his toughness.
Excerpt from The Straits Times (16th December, 1949) prior to Prapadaeng's fight with Speedy Cabanela of the Philippines, who was a ranked contender from flyweight to lightweight:
Four months ago Singapore fight fans were thrilled Prapadaeng's great fight against the Java Chinese Bobby Njoo....he showed himself to be a tough, experienced fighter with a variety of punches
Phol Prapadaeng (public domain)
Prapadaeng lost on points to Cabanela, but continued to display his durability. Notably, he was never dropped or stopped in either his Muay Thai or boxing career.
Before Cabanela, Prapadaeng proved his quality, winning and drawing against former World bantamweight title claimant David Kui Kong Young, who was a World class operator. This win earned Prapadaeng a number 8 ranking with The Ring magazine backed when those ratings meant something, which as far as I can establish was the highest ranked any Thai fighter had been up until that point.
Prapadaeng also displayed a quality that Thai's are known for to this day in fighting much larger fighters than himself, such as Nai Sompong, who was among the best welterweights in South East Asia. True to form, Prapadaeng went the distance over ten rounds. He was also engaging in Muay Thai bouts parallel to his boxing matches, which is another thing Thai's still do to this day.
It seems Prapadaeng was as active in the ring as Thai's are today. The Singapore Free Press reported on the 15th August, 1949:
Phol has had more than 200 ring battles in his 15 years' in the ring
Whilst Prapadaeng did well to gain a top ten ranking as shopworn as he likely was, Thailand next sent a fighter truly in his prime into boxing, the 1949 'Fighter of the Year' in Muay Thai, Chamrern Songkitrat.
This footage from 1950 (participants unknown) was a year after Songkitrat won the award, and a year before he turned over to pro' boxing. Again a scrappy contest, see the brutal knockout and the nonchalant way the unconscious fighter is carried from the ring.
A Thai policeman, Songkitrat was a similarly scrappy come forward fighter with a wealth of Muay Thai experience who was ready to be pushed up the ranks. Being thrown in with top-notch boxers off the back of a Muay Thai career is a recurring theme with Thai's, as we'll see as we move through history.
Songkitrat had an inauspicious start to his pugilistic career, going 0-1-1 with top ten ranked bantamweights Tanny Campo and Larry Baatan, both who were seasoned against top level opposition. This seemed to give Songkitrat the experience in hands-only combat he needed, as he went 6-0 after that, winning the OBPF lightweight title (beating Phol Prapadaeng's old foe Speedy Cabanela over 12 rounds) and earning a 10-round decision over Olympic alternate 'Pappy' Gault, who had fought undefeated World bantamweight champion Jimmy Carruthers to a 15 round decision one bout prior.
The stage was set of Songkitrat to fight for the 118lb championship. Aussie' Jimmy Carruthers, a 1948 Olympian, was undefeated in 18 bouts, and had picked up the vacant World bantamweight title in 1952 with a first round knockout of South African Vic Toweel, who had beaten the all time great Manuel Ortiz for the title.
Carruthers had been battling a tapeworm prior to his fight with Songkitrat, and was coming off a hard-fought victory over domestic rival Bobby Sinn (footage of the bout via Associated Press).
Set for 15 rounds at the National Stadium in Bangkok, a monsoon rain storm put the bout in jeopardy. With the 60,000 strong crowd happy to watch the World title bout regardless, the fight went on, shortened to 12 rounds and with the combatants forced to fight barefoot, a first and last for World title fights in boxing history. The ring lights even exploded under duress, and there was glass in the ring, rendering Songkitrat's barefoot experience redundant.
Carruthers won the hard-fought decision, and the humble Thai had no arguments about the decision:
"I am very proud to have been able to bring fame to my country by becoming the first Thai boxer to contend for the World title...and I am personally satisfied that the decision was fair and beyond doubt."
Songkitrat would not have to wait long for another shot at the title, as Carruthers' tapeworm forced him into an early retirement.
French-Algerian Robert Cohen was the first of Songkitrat's opponents for the now vacant bantamweight championship.
A Sports Illustrated article published on August 16th, 1954 in the build-up to Songkitrat's fight with Cohen described the fervour over fighting in Thailand at the time, as well as the West still getting to grips with the idiosyncrasies of Thai fighters:
Songkitrat is not, as some of you may imagine, a seaport town on the Gulf of Siam. It's the name of a fist fighter (a reconverted foot-or la savate-fighter) who seems to have captured the Siamese imagination. To the 20 million Thais, Songkitrat is a national hero. Some 60,000 admirers of this little king of Siam-a bigger crowd than Marciano and Charles drew a month ago-sat through a tropical downpour in an outdoor park to cheer him on
A few things are clear from the above quote. That Thailand was still referred to as Siam in parts of the Western World and that their particular brand of combat had not yet distinguished itself as an inherently Thai (or Siamese) product (it's lumped in with French Savate here). What we can also see, is that there was a huge amount of interest in combat sports in Thailand.
Songkitrat lost on points to Cohen over 15 rounds, but in his next fight after that got another shot, as the title was splintered following Carruthers' retirement. Hard-fisted Mexican boxer-puncher Raul Macias gave Songkitrat the first stoppage loss of his career, beating Thailand to the punch in becoming the first boxing champion from Mexico.
The footage of this bout shows Songkitrat's style. You'll find that former Muay Thai fighters that turn over to boxing display more lateral movement than they would in the confines of the Muay Thai rule set, and that appears to be what is happening here.
Songkitrat doesn't look ill-equipped, nor one of the wild brawlers we've seen in the other clips so far in this article. He shows good awareness of head and upper body movement and is good on the inside as well. Unfortunately for him, Macias was better at everything. You can see the stoppage here.
Thailand had not yet got to the stage of world beaters in boxing just yet (Somdej Yontrakit was 1951 'Fighter of the Year' in Muay Thai who also got to OBPF level in pugilism) but they would have their first World champion in the first year of the '60s, which funnily enough was Pone Gingpet, one of the few boxers from Thailand who didn't have a Muay Thai background.
It was a good start to the decade, which was also when they put their fighting style on the map once and for all.
See this footage from 1961, which looks far less stylistically archaic than the other fights I've included thus far. Though there is still less of an emphasis on technique (check out the sequence about a minute in which pre-empts Diego Sanchez Vs Clay Guida by nearly half a Century) this fight was an indication of the high quality action the 1960s would bring.
Taking on all comers
If the early days of the UFC was to see which martial art was the most versatile style, the Oriental martial artists had got there much earlier.
Muay Thai was viewed in the West at the end of the '50s through the same eyes as MMA was in the early days of the UFC, as the commentary in this clip shows:
"Thailand boxing is halfway to murder. The rule book is a bunch of blank pages...Let's hope it doesn't make it's way to the West"
It's understandable that those raised on 'The Sweet Science' of boxing would see Muay Thai as a far more violent sport due to the additional (and unpadded) arsenal available to it's participants. The stately-sounding English chap in the clip above also remarks as to how the style looks deadlier than the style popularised in the West:
"Western boxers who think they're tough better stay well away from the Far East."
Those already in the Far East were less shy about testing their mettle against the Thai's. In 1963 the Japanese sent three of their best Kareteka to Thailand to test their style of combat against Muay Thai.
This was a great era for Muay Thai, featuring the first batch of bona fide all time greats that we have enough information to get a good grasp on. Some of the best of this era were Detrit Ittianuchit, Ravee Dechachai, Payap Sakuelsek, Poodpardnoi Worawoot (who would fight into the '70s and achieve all time great status) and one of the very greatest of all time, Apidet Sit Hirun, who was awarded a special 'Fighter of the Century' award from King Bhumibol.
The Japanese Karate stylists had their work cut out for them.
Some accounts say that the Japanese won the series two victories to one loss. Black Belt Magazine summarised the thoughts of the Japanese promoters thoughts on the fights:
The karate men, Noguchi thought, had made a creditable showing, even though the opposition had not represented Thailand's strongest.
Although indeed one of the Thai's was a top fighter. Their is footage of Ravee brutalising Kenji Kurosaki, finishing him with nasty looking elbows.Looking at Kurosaki, he looks more like a judoka who has taken some karate lessons.
After this series they brought Thai's over to Japan. On away turf, we have footage of a Thai (according to Black Belt Magazine Sama Adisong) battering Tadashi Sawamura, a third degree black belt in Karate who would go on to become a legendary fighter back in Japan. This spurred the Japanese on to further their own full-contact sport (more details about this in part one) and Sawamura himself went on to build up an immense record of victories with a high K.O percentage, although judging by the footage of Sawamura I'd argue (with conviction) that some of these bouts were not on the level.
The Japanese had found out first hand how strong the Thai style was, but they wouldn't be the last nationality to experience the pain of facing a Nak Muay Thai.
It didn't help that the best Thai's in the late '60s and early '70s rank among the very best of all time. Poot Lorlek and Vicharnnoi Porntawee are two of the very greatest Nak Muay Thai of all time. Saensak Muangsurin is arguably one of the very hardest punchers of all time, not just in Muay Thai, but in boxing, where he won a major title in just three fights, a record that has only been equalled since (by legendary amateur boxer Vasyl Lomachenko).
When some Singaporean martial artists rolled into Bangkok to take on the challenge of the Muay Thai fighters, Muangsurin didn't even need his hands.
A September 1974 issue of Black Belt Magazine gives us some telling info' as to the growing reputation of Muay Thai as a deadly martial art.
Disturbed by the losses of kung-fu fighters from Hong Kong at the hands (and feet) of Thai boxers during a number of recent challenge contests, and annoyed at the increasing arrogance of Muay Thai followers who claim that their style is "unbeatable", a group of martial artists from Singapore offered a challenge to fight the Thais
This shows us that other stylists and nationalities other than the Japanese Karate practitioners had tried their luck against the Thais, and failed. These fighters from Singapore were apparently 'chan tung stylists' which was reported as a 'mixture of tae kwon do and kung-fu and is supposed to be one of the more popular styles practised in Singapore'.
Whatever the style, it was clear once the bouts commenced at Rajdamnern Stadium that the Singaporeans were not going to conquer Thailand. It is the write-up of Saensak Muangsurin's bout that is most telling.
Fighting a man called Tae Yien-Chen who was known as the 'Black Killer' for allegedly killing an opponent in a tournament (comically, from what I can gather, with a Karate chop), this report is most useful as it refers to the competitiveness, or lack thereof, of the other recent challenge matches of various martial arts to Muay Thai:
A high left kick to the jaw felled Tae, who at one minute and 20 seconds into the second round had lasted longer than any other non-Thai stylist in any of the recent grudge matches.
The other bouts that night apparently lasted only 90 seconds and not past the first round. If this was how the other martial artists were being dispatched, it's no wonder the efficiency and deadliness of Muay Thai was starting to spread internationally.
Later that year the Hong Kong Kung-Fu fighters (among the stylists referenced as being wiped out in prompt fashion in the above quote) came back to try their luck again. This time, their manager, Wai Chin, negotiated for the Kung-Fu practitioners to be able to fight bareknuckle. Black Belt Magazine reported:
"Our trained hands are our most effective weapon" Wai Chin told reporters. "We will have our revenge, all right," he said confidently.
While the contests would be scored by Muay Thai criteria, the Thai's gave the Kung-Fu fighters more leeway in what they could use in the bouts, with a few exceptions:
The only illegal tactics would be biting; finger stabs to the eyes, ears and nostrils, scratching; and attacking a downed opponent. Said Col. Suthi Promjairak, chairman of Lumpinee Boxing Stadium's technical committee, "We want to keep this contest under control. We are sportsmen, not animals".
15,000 fans packed the Hua Mark Stadium to see the fights. Despite some of their demands being met, the Kung-Fu fighters fared no better. In five fights, the accumulated total ring action was reportedly only six minutes.
The manager of the Hong Kong team had none of his pre-fight bluster after the fights:
"I've had enough. Never again. Muay Thai is too dangerous to be a sport."
The Japanese felt differently. They had regrouped after learning lessons from their losses to the Thai's in the '60s.
In 1972, a team from Japan took on a Thai team led by Kru Yodtong Senenan, one of the most successful Muay Thai trainers of all time.
In Black Belt Magazine it said that the Japanese were 'reportedly fielding their top fighters'. However, at the end of the article it said that 'the kick-boxing experience of the visitors averages two years'.
Whatever the true quality of the Japanese team, the Thai's had made their selections carefully:
Thailand had chosen its team after a careful study of the Tokyo kick-boxers. Curiously, not one champion was included by the Thai selectors, who claimed they deliberately picked lower-rated boxers in order to demonstrate the superiority of Thai boxing.
The top-ranked bantamweight challenger, the number 10-ranked lightweight won decisions against their Japanese opponents. The fifth ranked super featherweight won via elbow kayo in the 2nd round. The third-rated welterweight won by fifth round stoppage in a 'lively performance' from both men. The 'most interesting match' was between the Thai rated eighth in the super featherweight rankings and an 'undismayed' Japanese fighter who 'was not to be subdued' until the final round when he was saved from further punishment after three knockdowns.
For me, the most interesting match is the one the Thai team failed to emerge victorious from, between 'unrated but popular lightweight' Rungnapa, and Toshio Fujiwara, which after reading the account of the fight seems a bizarre contest:
Rungnapa Sitsomsak fought an even battle with Japan's Toshio Fujiwara until the third round, when the Thai started clowning in the ring. Dropping his guard, Sitsomsak walked straight into Toshio's attacks, trying to humiliate the Japanese by laughing off his punches. His behaviour became so ridiculous that referee Prasit Kawbboon stopped the fight and disqualified the Thai.
A Thai being chucked out by a Thai referee? My theory, supported by little, is that the Japanese was getting the better of his opponent, and that the Thai was disqualified to save face, gifting a victory to the Japanese fighter instead of letting him earn it.
The main reason I have this hunch, is that within a few years, Fujiwara was going tit-for-tat with the very best Thailand had to offer, and him getting the better of an unranked fighter in 1972 does not seem out of the question.
Fujiwara had sharpened his blades under the tutelage of those Japanese fighters that had first traveled over to Thailand in the early '60s, as well as under the (basically Muay Thai rules) All Japan Kickboxing Federation in his homeland. Even if the Japanese only had an average of two years experience going into their 1972 challenge matches, Fujiwara was clearly a quick learner, and he was able to be competitive with Srimongkol Looksiriprat, the 1972 'Fighter of the Year' and one of the very best fighters of the '70s.
Fujiwara kept plugging away, and in 1978 completed a real coup for the Japanese kickboxers, becoming the first non-Thai to win a Rajadamnern Stadium championship. Winning it at lightweight, which historically has always been one of the strongest weight classes in Thailand, makes it even more impressive The following footage shows Fujiwara training and fighting that year, though the finish in the fight looks a little strange.
Thailand had been invaded many times over the years, but had never been colonized, and the Japanese weren't about to be the first. In 1978, the same year Fujiwara won the Rajadamnern title, Poot Lorlek, the 1976 Fighter of the Year' and who has a solid claim to being the greatest Nak Muay Thai of all time, defeated the much larger Japanese fighter Hikari Kenchu by knockout (head kick), which I'd recommend watching as not only is the knockout aesthetically pleasing, Poot is a stylistic anomaly in Muay Thai, employing lateral movement to great effect.
Eventually, foreign invaders would touch down on Thai soil that could stand up to their "unbeatable" style with more consistent success. But they would have to take on arguably the greatest roster of fighters ever assembled in the Far East.
The Golden Age
Some Muay Thai aficionados will tell you the 'golden age' of the sport was in the 1980s, while others will point to the 1990s. What that should indicate is that those two decades were the pinnacle of Muay Thai combat. Viewing any footage from these decades will show that the major stadiums were absolutely packed to the brim with loud and excited spectators, and that the fights were extremely violent as well as technical. Power and damage were the most important scoring factors, so the fighters tended to use their strongest techniques and went to war, and with television stations more eager to showcase the sport than ever before the top fighters were in the ring regularly.
To list the most prolific fighters in this article would take an age. To even list the fighters considered to have earned all-time great status during these decades would be time consuming enough, so the following list, which will likely have some glaring omissions, is just a glimpse of the strength in numbers the Thai's had at this time.
Samart Payakaroon is my personal pick for the greatest of all time. A four-weight Lumpinee Stadium champion and three time 'Fighter of the Year', Samart needs to be seen to be believed. His brother Kongtoranee is an all time great in his own right.
Samart also won the WBC super bantamweight title in boxing, and his brother Kongtoranee twice contested for super flyweight titles. This coincided with the Thai's having a 'golden age' in boxing. Sot Chitalada, who Samart Payakaroon had beaten multiple times in Muay Thai, was the long-reigning lineal champion at flyweight. Khaosai and Khaokor Galaxy, not notable for their experience in their native sport, were the first ever twin brothers to win championships in boxing.
Dieselnoi Chor Thanakasurn was a six foot tall lightweight known as the 'Sky Piercing Knee Kicker', and so formidable he ran out of challengers, but the much smaller Samart Payakaroon stepped up to face him in the highest-grossing fight of the era. Here, see Dieselnoi take on a Taekwondo practitioner, with predictable results.
Sakad Petyindee was one of the most prolific knockout artists in combat sports history, and with 150 KOs to his name still holds the record in Muay Thai for the most wins by that means. He was one of the few that could beat Dieselnoi, and also took his particularly form of violence on the international stage. He was stopped just once in his entire career, against a prime Wilfredo Gomez in a boxing match for the super bantamweight title.
Somrak Khamsing was so good the gamblers made sure he never got a title fight, despite him beating the champions in non-title bouts. The best Nak Muay Thai to never win a stadium championship, he moved over to amateur boxing, winning Thailand their first ever Olympic Gold medal.
Veeraphol Sahaprom was one of the most formidable fighters of the era. He moved over to boxing after running out of challenges, and was a longtime bantamweight champion. One of the greatest punchers in Muay Thai history, he found a worthy adversary in Samson Issan, a popular action fighter who was named 'Fighter of the Year' in 1991. Samson went on to have a boxing career himself, retiring undefeated with a 43-0 record, but at a much lower level than Veeraphol. Given their punching prowess, it's little wonder that they blended for action-packed fights, trading punches and knockouts. The following clip shows both knockouts.
Rambo Por Ruamradee, about as aggressive a fighter as you'll ever see, was so popular that Lumpinee Stadium had to be extended to meet the demand to see him fight.
Chamuekpet Hapalang was a master of knees, and fought his way to legendary status in the 'Golden Age' of Muay Thai, winning a truly astonishing nine Stadium championships!
Jomhod 'King of the Ring' Kiatadisak has held pretty much every title available in his long and illustrious career, which continues to this day, where in his mid-forties he has more ring years than Bernard Hopkins. He has fought in Bangkok for twenty five years alone, where he has won titles in two weight classes, as well as taking on the best international fighters.
Hippy Singmanee was the kingpin of the lower weight classes, winning Stadium titles at 105 and 108lbs. He took on much larger fighters, with mixed success, but solidified himself as a pound for pound great by taking on those challenges. Here he takes on one of the more underrated European fighters, Jaid Seddak of France. Note Hippy's impeccable technique.
Both Sakmongkol Sithchuchok and Jongsanan Fairtex were truly great fighters, and they met in an epic seven fight series (which is a common number in Muay Thai rivalries). Their fifth fight, known to connoisseurs as simply 'The Elbow Fight', is an exhilarating battle that stands among the very greatest of all time.
As I said before, there is no way to fit everyone in, and you can be sure that all of these fighters mentioned in this article from the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s will get their own articles sometime in the near future.
Perhaps the most prominent gym of the late '80s was the Sor Thanikul gym. This gym produced some awesome fighters, with stadium champions such as Boonlai Sor Thanikul, Sombat Sor Thanikul, Komkiet Sor Thanikul and many more.
Such was the gym's prominence that Jean-Claude Van Damme filmed scenes there in his 1989 star vehicle 'Kickboxer', which featured Van-Damme fighting Paulo Tocha, himself training at Sor Thanikul.
This was a major breakthrough for the Thai fight scene, being featured in a Hollywood action movie at the height of Van-Damme's career, and offered the Thai fight scene the exposure that Bruce Lee gave to martial arts in the '70s.
Other Europeans, based not far from JCVD's native Brussels, where actually in Thailand taking on Thailand's best. We'll get to them soon enough.
Let's stick with Sor Thanikul for the moment, and see why even though the fighters where representing their King when achieving their accolades, they were being maneuvered by the King of the underworld.
In some ways, the sport of Muay Thai reflects Bangkok itself. Well known for a seedy nightlife living alongside beautiful Buddhist monuments and temples, The Thai underworld works among the Muay Thai scene just as Frankie Carbo did with boxing in the 1940s.
The best example of this would be Klaew Thanikul, the real-life Thai Don Corleone, the man who made things happen in Bangkok and who would've had Tony Jaa's character in Ong-Bak murdered in the opening scene with no fuss, negating any possible revenge-driven plot.
The Thai Mafia was run by the 'Jao Pho' ('Big Brothers') and Klaew Thanikul was the leader, as powerful as Lucky Luciano after the Atlanti City Conference.
The President of the Amateur Boxing Association in Thailand, Klaew Thanikul orchestrated both an ever-improving amateur program as well as one of the most successful Muay Thai camps of the time.
Lording over the gambling scene, as well as allegedly having ties to drugs and prostitution, went hand in hand with his undeniable place at the top of the Muay Thai totem pole.
Trying to clear the path for your own success was not an option when Klaew Thanikul ran the show.
From the LA Times, March 29th, 1988:
Chaiwat Palangwattanakij, a boxxing promoter and rising Thai gambling boss, got his in a ringside shoot-out this month and went out gangland style.
While the gunman was arrested, the fingers pointed to a higher power ordering the hit. Klaew's response to his accusers spoke louder of his power than if he had admitted to ordering the assassination.
"If I really wanted to (kill Chiawat), I don't have to make any order. I could just say 'I don't want to walk with him' and he would be in big trouble."
In his position, Klaew was not without enemies. The target of numerous hits, if Klaew Thanikul didn't strike first he made sure to strike back.
See the footage below of the aforementioned Chamuekpet, of Hapalang Gym, versus Languan (another tremendous 'Golden Era' fighter). At the beginning of the footage from 00.06 to 00.13 you'll see a taller gentleman in a brown shirt. That is Klaew Thanikul. At the end of the fight, when Dieselnoi steps on the ring apron to congratulate Chamuekpet, a gunshot rings out, and the footage freezes. This was an attempt on Chamuekpet's manager, supposedly a former business associate of Klaew Thanikul.
There are accounts of grenades being thrown into the crowd from ringside, gang wars at the major Bangkok Stadiums, and talk of Sor Thanikul fighters taking dives, which would've been orchestrated by Klaew and his gambling racket.
Klaew Thanikul, with a reported fortune (which I imagine isn't even the tip of the iceberg) of $11 million USD, was riding waves Tony Montana had been swept away by. But he was about to meet a similarly grisly end.
In February of 1991, the Thai Military overthrew the government. As I've mentioned in previous installments of 'The Beginners Guide to Muay Thai' the military are very powerful in Thailand. More powerful than Klaew Thanikul, and second only to King Bhumibol himself.
In April of the same year, Klaew Thanikul's luck ran out. The United States publication The Economist reported:
Klaew Thanikul died as any self-respecting gangster should-in a hail of bullets. At dusk on April 5th, his car was overtaken by a pick-up truck as it was passing through Nakhon Pathom, a small town west of Bangkok. Gunmen in the truck opened fire on the car, killing Klaew and his bodyguard and injuring dozens of people in a nearby restaurant. The intriguing question is, did the army order the hit?
Whether or not the army had Klaew assassinated, or whether one of his gangland rivals finally caught up to him is irrelevant; the King of crime had been removed from the throne, going out more like Sonny than Don Corleone. I've heard some say that an RPG was what finally finished off Klaew's run at the top, as his enemies chugged through a more varied method of execution than the Russians used to finish off Rasputin. This only adds to the legend of Klaew Thanikul, and take it as you will.
Songchai Ratanasuban took the reigns from Klaew Thanikul (at the top of the heap in Muay Thai at least) and led the sport into an equally prosperous time period.
As for the (then) latest military coup, King Bhumibol had the leaders of the military and the opposition locked in with him, and forced them to settle their dispute in front of a live television audience. The King put them in their place, and an agreement was hashed out.
On that day, King Bhumibol told them both:
The Nation belongs to everyone, not one or two specific people. The problems exist because we don't talk to each other and resolve them together. The problems arise from 'bloodthirstiness'. People can lose their minds when they resort to violence. Eventually, they don't know why they fight each other and what the problems they need to resolve are. They merely know that they must overcome each other and they must be the only winner. This no way leads to victory, but only danger. There will only be losers, only the losers. Those who confront each other will all be the losers.
In Muay Thai there could be winners amongst the violence and 'bloodthirstiness'. And it wasn't just the Thai's who wanted in on the violence.
Professional kickboxing was popular in Holland and France in the '70s and '80s, and in the UK towards the end of the latter decade. Some of the best Thai's went on a World Tour of sorts during this time, demonstrating the strength of Muay Thai despite often fighting under modified rules that stripped away some of their best assets, such as elbow attacks. Even then the Thai's confounded the (often larger) foreign fighters. Note that international judges sometimes scored a draw despite the home fighters being outgunned and not really approaching the fight in a way that should earn points in the scoring system of Muay Thai.
Ronnie Green was one of the leading kickboxers in England, and he inspired many British fighters to take the flight to old Siam and train in Muay Thai. Green, despite being less well-versed in the art than the battle hardened Thai's, was no joke, and fought the likes of Sakad Petyindee (fight video here) and Sombat Sor Thanikul, one of Klaew Thanikul's many stadium champions. Note how the English commentators are clearly analysing Muay Thai in a traditional boxing sense, giving a lot of credit to Green's stick and move style. Under full Thai rules, this was not a good game plan, although Sombat only earned draw with his forward movement and harder strikes.
But it was the Netherlands who grasped Muay Thai the best. They arrived on the big stage in the late '80s and paid little respect to the vaunted skills of their Thai counterparts.
The Flying Dutchmen
Forms of kickboxing were not new to Europe when the germ spread to the Netherlands. Savate had been a popular style of combat in France for at least a century before, and had been demonstrated at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris.
An overview of French Savate techniques from 1910 via upload.wikimedia.org
Savate would influence the Dutch style of kickboxing, when Thom Harinck met a French Savateur aboard a cruise ship. Harinck would go on to learn Kyokushin Karate and open his own gym, Chakuriki. Here he fused Kyokushin, Savate and Western boxing to form his own style.
It was Kyokushin Karate that was the most influential to the Dutch. As aforementioned, the Japanese were the first to take home scalps from Thailand, and in a roundabout way they would continue to as the decades since their initial victories rolled on by.
Jan Plas may have been the most influential of the early Dutch masters. Learning Kyokushin from the combat savant Jon Bluming, who was the head trainer of the Dutch Judo program for many years and produced Olympic Gold medallists. Bluming had met Kenji Kurosaki, who had been beaten so badly by Ravee during the 1963 Japan Vs Thailand challenge matches. Inspired by Kurosaki's full-contact kickboxing style, Bluming would send his own students to Japan to train with Kurosaki, such as Jan Plas.
Clearly Kurosaki had refined his technique since the disastrous matchup with Ravee, as Plas was influenced enough by his education at Kurosaki's Mejiro Gym in Tokyo to open his own branch back in his homeland.
Along with Thom Harinck, he founded the Dutch Kickboxing Association, and their shows, in which their own fighters would oppose each other, were to be very influential in developing Dutch kickboxing and inspiring the next generation.
One of those fighters was Cor Hemmers, who after hanging up his gloves would go on to be an influential trainer himself. He had professional kickboxing bouts and had trained in Kyokushin, pro' boxing and Pencak Silat, an Indonesian martial art. Hemmers would go on to found the famous Golden Glory Gym and is now one of the bigwigs of the GLORY kickboxing promotion.
With these experienced minds passing on their teachings to the next generation, Dutch kickboxing was about to plateau. And in the late '80s and early '90s it did, culminating in thrilling bouts which saw the Dutch consistently push the Thai's like no other nation had before.
Europe Vs Thailand
Just like my proviso when listing the best Thai's from the 'Golden Era', listing all of the best Dutch kickboxers from the late '80s and early '90s would add too much length to what is already getting to be a Joycean ramble.
Rob Kamen, Ivan Hippolyte, Gilbert Ballantine, Tommy Van De Berg, Peter Smit and Michael Lieuwfat were just some of gutsy fighters with good hands and powerful low kicks that Holland was producing, and they stood up to the Thai's with some success. Whilst the Dutch fighters were generally larger than the Thai's they faced off against, being the smaller fighter has never been much of an issue with the technical Thai's except when facing one of their own in a clinch battle, and the Dutch weren't coming to clinch!
Ivan Hippolyte pulled off a major coup at the turn of the '90s when he stopped 'King of the Ring' Jomhod, in a bout staged in the United States. A bizarre finish with a supposedly Taiwanese referee not getting any response from Jomhod, but he did give the future all-time great plenty of time to get back into the fight. Hippolyte's blistering combinations where too much for Jomhod in this fight, though the Thai would avenge the loss later on. Hippolyte was one of the very best Dutch fighters, and he took part in a thrilling series with Mongkoldet Kiatprasanchai, fighting a trilogy in just six months! The first fight can be seen here and the third fight here (Hippolyte was stopped in the second bout between them)
In the second month of 1990, the Thai's travelled to Amsterdam, in a night of fights exclusively pitting Dutch fighters against Thai's.
Rob Kamen fought Changpuek Kiatsongkrit. Changpuek had already beaten Kamen once before, and looked to be on his way to another victory against his much larger foe when a crunching left hook (16:00) saw Kamen drop his rival and win the fight in a stunning turnaround.
The Dutch were fighting as regularly as the top Thai's, and Changpuek avenged this loss shortly after, ending a trilogy which took place over just four months! They would later fight again in K-1, in which the Thai won again.
Michael Lieuwfat was one of the smaller Dutch fighters, and drew the immovable object Rambo Pongsiri. Liuewfat showed tremendous heart, but also showed distress after a few rounds, a perfectly natural reaction to Rambo's onslaught. Rambo won the decision, and you can see the fight here.
Kongtoranee Payakaroon, multi-weight stadium champion and cast iron all-time great, destroyed John Fortes. Unlike previous challenge matches, it was clear to see that Thailand was sending over their very best fighters. The one-sided beatdown can be seen here.
Perhaps the fighter who left the lasting impression on fight fans was a young blonde-haired kid called Ramon Dekkers. Only 20 years old, Dekker's demonstrated a wide array of punches and took the fight to the much more experienced Nampon Nongkeepahayuth, and although the Thai used Dekker's glaring weakness in the clinch against him, Dekkers took the decision win. If a legend wasn't yet born with this performance, it soon would be, as Dekkers would travel to Thailand two months later to rematch Nampon.
Although the Thai won the decision in the rematch, Dekkers demonstrated his skill, bravery and determination in an incredible fight which endeared him to the partisan Thai crowd.
The Thai's would continue to travel to Holland in 1990, with a follow-up to the February super show in April.
This card also saw the first bout between a Dutch fighter and a Thai who would become intertwined with fighters of that nationality. Two-time Lumpinee Stadium champion Coban Lookchaomaesaitong was a short southpaw who utilised a balanced and patient style, but who packed vicious power into his left hand. His first opponent, Joao Vierra, was a Gold medalist at the W.A.K.O full-contact kickboxing championships and had beaten Ramon Dekkers earlier in their careers, but had little for Coban, losing the decision.
Coban fought again in Amsterdam just a month later, and this time he unleashed his full power on the unsuspecting Tommy Van De Berg (2:55)
Dekkers had continued to fight in Thailand to mixed success. He defeated the legendary Superlek Sornesarn (highlight video of Superlek here) at Lumpinee Stadium, but failed to win the Lumpinee lightweight title against Issara Sakkeerin. He then lost two bouts in Japan (again versus Thai's) before returning to Bangkok to defeat the former champion Sombat Sor Thanikul (fight video here)
In April of 1991, Dekkers met Coban in Paris, France. The French had taken to kickboxing with much the same passion as the Dutch had, which wasn't surprising seeing their Savat roots and success in boxing in the 20th Century. A bout between two international fighters of the repute of Dekkers and Coban was fairly common in Paris at the time.
Dekkers, still only in his early twenties, and known for his iron chin and will, had size on Coban, who at this stage was a wily veteran in his mid-twenties. Fireworks would surely have been expected by the Parisian faithful, but maybe not the sort that were provided.
Dekkers never had a chance to get into the fight. Stepping into a right straight to the body, he lazily came back up for a left hook, one of his money punches, and Coban crushed him with an overhand left counter. Dekkers got up, was couldn't continue, and his up-and-down run against Thai's continued.
With the majority of his bouts against Thai's decision losses, and now finished inside a round by one of the smaller opponents he faced, any chance of Dekkers doing what no European fighter had and establishing himself among the very top fighters in Muay Thai was surely over.
As combat sports connoisseur should know, you can never make assumptions.
Dekkers wasn't out of it at all. In fact, the European stand against the Thai's had only just begun.
Dekkers didn't look depleted at all in his next fight, back on the Lumpinee battleground. Although he lost the decision to Superlek, who he'd previously beaten,the fight was a war and Dekkers showed no signs of being gun shy.
This boded well for his rematch with Coban, also at Lumpinee Stadium, just four months after Dekkers had been wasted by the efficient Thai.
Dekkers didn't just give a good account of himself, he evened up the score, destroying Coban in the first stanza and reaffirming the European fighters' claim to be truly World class Nak Muay Thai.
Coban and Dekkers were well matched, and when it was all said and done they would even up their series with two wins apiece, with both winning a decision against each other as well as scoring first round knockouts.
Over the years an erroneous claim that Dekkers was awarded the coveted 'Fighter of the Year' award from Thai journalists has been taken as truth, but this isn't the case. 1992, when Dekkers allegedly won the award, was the brilliant Charoensap Kietbanchong's year. year.
Dekkers would continue to be a great action fighter despite not earning any particularly meaningful accodales. He would fight many other phenomenally talented Thai's, such as the all-time great Orono Por Muang Ubon, and the seemingly omnipresent Jomhod, as well as the best European fighters, like the Frenchman Dida Diafat, and the French-Cameroonian Dany Bill, who came the closest to pure Muay Thai technique out of all the European fighters of that era.
While Dekkers, nor any of his countrymen, could repeat Toshio Fujiwara's feat of winning a Bangkok stadium championship, they broke down walls and helped to establish Muay Thai and kickboxing as internationally renowned and practised combat sports. No longer was Muay Thai a national sport, and no longer were foreigners deemed to be grossly outmatched. The Europeans finally broke through in 2010 when Damien Alamos, a Frenchman, won the Lumpinee Stadium 140lb championship.
The Dutch and French would find more consistent success in the higher weight classes, in particular when fighting for K-1, who established themselves as the premier kickboxing promotion as the '90s rolled on. The Thai's were well outmatched for size there, but still gave a good a great account of themselves, perhaps even more so due to their reliance on pure technique.
Take a look at the veteran Nokweed Davy giving up what must've been at least 100lbs to French behemoth Jerome Le Banner and make a fight out of it!
Eventually K-1 would bring in lighter weight classes, and Thailand would have their own kickboxing star, the internationally famous Buakaw Por Pramuk, known for his devastating kicks. Things had come full circle, and Muay Thai again had the reputation of being the most formidable style of stand-up combat.
Back in Bangkok, under the 'full Thai rules', the game had changed.
Muay Thai in the modern era
At the start of the noughties, the scoring criteria in Muay Thai underwent changes. With more leisure options available to the Thai's with internet and television access becoming more readily available, attendance in the major Bangkok stadiums started to wane.
Those that could be relied upon to show up were the gamblers, and Muay Thai purists today argue that the changes in scoring criteria were to cater to the gambling contingent.
This didn't stymie international expansion. In 2008 Muay Thai was the focus of 'The Contender' reality television series, which had previously been a big success featuring boxing. This featured an international cast of middleweight fighters, showcasing Muay Thai's international expansion and popularity in larger weight divisions. Even then, the tournament was won by a Thai, the modern great Yodsanklai Fairtex.
Yodsanklai was a great fighter, but the greatest fighter of the first decade of the new millennium made his mark in the last year of the 'Golden Age'. The 1999 'Fighter of the Year' was a young Thai called Saenchai, then under the tutelage of 1996 Olympic Gold medallist Somak Sor Khamsing.
Saenchai's style was ageless, but also worked perfectly with the new scoring criteria, and he dominated the past era, winning a further award for best fighter in 2008, as well as stadium championships in four weight classes.
In part 5, we'll see why Saenchai was so successful, as we look at the scoring criteria in Muay Thai today, and which styles find the most success.