Eddy Nait-Slimani (62-1, 17 KO's) faces the biggest challenge of his young career this Saturday night when he faces the "living legend" Saenchai at GLORY 31 Amsterdam. Saenchai needs little introduction to fight fans. A genuine Muay Thai prodigy, he has spent two decades fighting and winning against top-level opponents at home and abroad and is frequently name-checked by kickboxers and UFC fighters as an influence.
His credits include Lumpini Stadium titles at four different weights, an almost unprecedented feat. But what makes Saenchai extra special is not just that he has done this mostly against opponents heavier than himself, but that in all his fights his technique has been pinpoint perfect, a masterclass of Muay Thai. It is no exaggeration to say that Saenchai (315-43-2, 55 KO's) is regarded by many as the Michael Jordan of his sport, a once-in-a-lifetime talent whose like may never be seen again.
"When GLORY called at the end of May to tell us [original opponent] Mosab Amrani was injured, we were really disappointed," says Nait-Slimani, 22, who debuted at GLORY 28 Paris earlier this year with a tricky masterclass performance of his own, overwhelming Maykol Yurk of Brazil.
"Then they said that Saenchai was an alternative opponent. They offered us the chance to defer the fight because of the late notice but I believe if you want to be a champion you have to beat champions, so we accepted without delay. Saenchai is a legend. I have a lot of respect for him, but trust me I'll give my all to win on June 25."
Muay Thai and kickboxing look similar but there are crucial differences; the clinch is heavily limited in kickboxing, as are techniques such as catching a kick and sweeping the standing leg. The idea is to keep the action flowing and to place more emphasis on striking and damage than on clinch-based fighting. Kickboxing also prohibits elbow strikes in a bid to avoid fights being ended early because of a cut.
"Kickboxing is my discipline so I will try to take advantage of that, but I think Senchai is a fighter who adapts to any type of rules. This isn't just any fight; a win would make my name and popularity increase a lot. I would love to beat a legend like Saenchai in Amsterdam, a mythical place for the sport. It is a big fight but I feel very good physically and especially mentally. Saturday June 25 will be a very important day in my career and also in my life, I can't wait."
Muay Thai fighters are well known for starting their careers at a young age; fights under professional rules at the age of ten or eleven are not uncommon. Saenchai started at the age of 14, relatively late by the standards of Thai champions. Nait-Slimani was ahead of him by two years, first lacing up the gloves at the age of 12. He wa hooked instantly.
"I grew up in a southern suburb of Lyon, which is the second biggest city in France after Paris. There are traps for everyone growing up in such areas, my childhood had some ups and downs because of these. But also I was kind of in my own world a lot of the time, a bit of a dreamer. I was not good in school, my mind was elsewhere. I was restless and couldn't focus. My parents were often summoned to the school because of my behavior and one teacher told them I would never amount to anything," he recalls.
"As a youngster I had tried several sports - football, basketball, judo - but nothing really grabbed my attention. Boxing made a stronger impact on me but my parents did not approve; my grandfather was a boxer in the 1940's and 50's and my mother remembered the injuries he would come home with, so that's why. But later my brother started with full-contact kickboxing; I went along and that very first session was a revelation. I knew this was it for me.
"I think it was literally a matter of days that my attitude changed. I found something to focus on and suddenly I had discipline, respect and self-control instilled in me. My parents could see this and so they accepted my training, despite their reservations. By the age of 13 I was often to be found travelling alone on the train, sometimes a full day's ride away, to take part in a kickboxing competition.
"I bought all the specialist martial arts magazines and read them over and over. I spent my nights online watching the fights of great champions such as Ramon Dekkers and Jerome Le Banner. Really I became like an addict and my dream was to become like them. By the time I turned professional, my amateur record was 150 fights with 146 wins and 4 losses. I won National, European and World Championships in various global federations such as WKN, ISKA and WAKO."
Now a professional and already impressing people who have been around the sport a long time, Nait-Slimani retains his championship goals. This time his sights are set on the GLORY World Featherweight Championship, currently held by Ukrainian standout Serhiy Adamchuk.
"Saturday I will fight the greatest Thai fighter ever, and in Amsterdam, a very special place for kickboxing. It is amazing. I feel good with that. GLORY is an amazing organisation. I just have to focus on my performance," he says.
"For the moment I go step by step. Fight after fight. Nobody is invincible, so I think that I am able to fight and defeat any fighter in this weight division. I'm humble and respectful, but I'm ambitious too. The GLORY Featherweight Championship is my goal and I'll have it! I am Eddy Nait-Slimani - remember my name!"
Glory 31 airs live Saturday, June 25 with a fight time of 4:00 p.m. ET for the main card on ESPN3. Before that, the Glory Superfight Series will air live on UFC Fight Pass from 1:30 p.m. ET.