The Martial Artist’s Guide to Watching Muay Thai

Muay Thai
Shutterstock / nattanan726
Muay Thai is a hard sport to keep up with if you don’t live in Thailand. Much of the news doesn’t get translated into English, and unless you’ve got a good amount of patience, it can be easy to get lost with respect to what’s happening in the stadiums. So here’s a simple guide to what you should be looking at right now in the world of muay Thai and how you can get into muay Thai if you’re not sure where to start.

The Stadiums

Muay Thai is less about promotions like the UFC and Bellator MMA and more about which stadium a fighter competes in. The two most respected stadiums are Lumpinee and Rajadamnern. Both have belts for each division. The competitions are commonly called the Lumpinee World Championship and the Rajadamnern World Championship, but this is incorrect. It’s hype used by non-Thai promoters.

The titles don’t need “world” in front of them because in the sport of muay Thai, being the champion of either stadium says far more about a martial artist’s ability as a boxer than does being a “world champion” in an American promotion.

If you see a fighter who is the champion of either stadium, you’re looking at one of the most elite strikers on the planet.

Modern Muay Thai

It should be stated in advance that this list is far from exhaustive — it just wouldn’t be possible to break down every great fighter in Thailand in one post. So these are my recommendations. I believe these guys are the best of the best and have fought so many great fighters that checking them out will no doubt expose you to other great fighters.

• Superlek: Every generation of muay Thai has had a fighter who was considered the undisputed best. In the golden era, it was Samart. In the 2000s, it was Saenchai. In the past decade or so, it’s been harder to call, but most would probably argue for Superlek.

Superlek is a stellar technician with a very rare skill: While orthodox muay Thai fighters normally succeed via having a very active lead leg — which they use to poke and prod their opponent and set up switch kicks — Superlek is all about the right kick.

Right, or rear-leg, kicks are typically harder to land successfully when you’re an orthodox fighter. The reason is they’re harder to hide, and while they’re great for low targets, there isn’t much to hit on the left side of the opponent’s body. The left kick usually hits the liver, but the right kick usually lands on the opponent’s back.

Superlek is able to mix up a variety of right kicks with lightning-fast speed. He constantly harasses his opponent by changing levels. He throws kicks to the leg, the body and the head, and he will even throw quick teeps from the right leg.

• Panpayak: Having shared the ring with Superlek multiple times, Panpayak stands as one of the greatest fighters in the world. A tall, rangy and exceptionally springy fighter, Panpayak should be shown to any fight fan who believes the myth of muay Thai being flat-footed.

Panpayak’s ability to spring into long teeps to the chest and snappy high kicks makes him a dangerous fighter. Often, fighters are discouraged from throwing high kicks because they are seen as high-risk-high-reward and less reliable than kicks to the body or legs. When you’re Panpayak, however, you can kick to the head as easily as you can punch.

Panpayak excels on the counter, waiting for his opponent to step in with a strike. He often uses that moment to interrupt with a kick, jostle his opponent’s balance and cause some damage.

• Tawanchai: Beginning his career as Petchrungrang (where Sylvie von Duuglas Ittu, of 8limbs.us spent the majority of her career training), Tawanchai is now a stablemate of the great Saenchai, fighting out of Saenchai’s own gym. Needless to say, Tawanchai is an outstanding technical fighter, having enjoyed success in both muay Thai and kickboxing.

Although he’s yet to win a major title, he won Lumpinee’s Fighter of the Year award at just 22 years of age — a horrifying thought. Something that I’ve rarely seen talked about with Tawanchai is his rather unique approach to kicking.

Typically, muay Thai fighters rise onto the ball of their foot while throwing kicks. This gives them some extra height, along with extra speed and range. Tawanchai, however, keeps a flat foot, similar to how prominent Dutch fighters throw their kicks.

While this is by no means inventing the wheel — or even necessarily superior to the typical way of kicking — it’s interesting. In a landscape where monstrous power-kickers seem to be disappearing, Tawanchai kicks hard like a mule.

Honorable Mentions: Modern Fighters

• Muangthai: A phenomenal close-range fighter, he’s built an intricate game off hand traps and arm control that allows him to throw vicious elbow strikes.

• Rodtang: A thunderous puncher with a chin made of titanium, he’s known for the work he’s done in ONE Championship while taking time off from stadium competition.

• Petchmorrakot: He’s a tall, technical fighter who seems to be able to do everything well. Whether he’s using elbows or kicks, Petchmorrakot is able to end fights.

Classic Muay Thai

The general opinion is that muay Thai today isn’t as good as it used to be. While this is probably nostalgia, there is a definite difference between modern and classic muay Thai.

When watching classic muay Thai, it’s important to know that there was less influence from gamblers who, for the past decade or so and until very recently, had a lot of influence over bouts. Muay Thai was also known for a more diverse range of fighters with a wider array of skills. It’s commonly thought that the most exciting era of muay Thai was the 1990s, and it’s easy to see why.

Here, we will look at two fighters, martial artists you absolutely must seek out. Then I will give the honorable mentions.

• Samart Payakaroon: Considered the greatest fighter of all time, Samart Payakaroon is one of few to hold legitimate elite championships in two sports. He’s both a four-division Lumpinee Stadium champion and a WBC boxing champion.

Known for his highly technical style built on fluid motion and slick punching, Samart Payakaroon amassed more than 200 career wins against a who’s who of muay Thai. While there will always be debate among fans and fighters regarding who is the best, Samart Payakaroon is undeniably the “Muhammad Ali” of the sport in terms of the global recognition.

• Dieselnoi: Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way first. Dieselnoi was 6 foot 2 and 130 pounds when he competed. That is obscene. Once we move along from that point, we have the finest and most devastating knee fighter to ever walk the planet.

Dieselnoi had to retire because nobody would risk fighting him — especially after he defeated the likes of Samart Payakaroon and Sagat Petchyindee. While Dieselnoi is often discredited purely for being taller than his opponents, there simply is no fighter who was better at being tall than Dieselnoi. There have been plenty of tall men who were not able to effectively use their frame, and ultimately they became mediocre fighters. Dieselnoi was not one of them.

Dieselnoi’s teeps kept him far away — until he needed to crash in with thunderous knee strikes. Truly, he was one of a kind.

Honorable Mentions: Classic Fighters 

  • Sagat: My personal favorite, he’s known for his fearsome boxing and pure economy of motion. Sagat was a fine-tuned machine with every minute detail of his technique giving his strikes ferocious power.

• Yodkhunpon: Known as “The Elbow Hunter,” he’s a great example of how a muay Thai fighter can build an entire style around some very simple techniques. While he could punch, kick and certainly knee, Yodkhunpon had a game that was fine-tuned around getting close enough to slash up his opponents with elbows.

Now that you have an idea of where to get started, go forth and seek out great Thai boxing. Then be sure to come back and tell us about your favorites.

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