In the sunny and shady kingdom of Thailand, old kickboxers never die; they just fade away.
Yes, it’s been an awful month for the noble art of Muay Thai. Another week goes by and yet another lofty figure from the golden era of the competitive sport goes up to the great gig in the sky. Nampon Nongkeephahuyut, the knee-flogging and leg-cracking superstar of the 80s and 90s, died on September 19th after a long battle with lung cancer and tuberculosis. He was only 47-years-old.
A Lumpinee champion at 112llbs and 126llbs respectively, he fought Samart Payakaroon and every other top domestic fighter in his weight class from 1988 to 1996. Though he was a recognizable face and much liked superstar, his death has gone largely unnoticed by the middle class newspapers and publications of Thailand. Not so in the blue-collar sporting press of the kingdom—who published big glowing tributes to this late and much lamented knee fighter from Buriram province.
Outside of Thailand, the iron-jawed nak muay (kickboxer) is best remembered for his two 1990 humdingers against the late Dutch legend Ramon Dekkers. Nampon, the reigning Lumpinee light-welterweight champ at the time, lost the first bout in Amsterdam and narrowly won the rematch in Bangkok on cards. The controversy of scoring judges in Thailand and Europe aside, middle-aged cab drivers in Bangkok still talk about those two momentous rucks with shock and awe reverence. It put Dekkers on the fight map in Thailand as a newly minted Songchai promoted asset, and Nampon on the radar elsewhere as one of those tough-as-nails Thais to be extremely wary of.
Stepping into a ring with Nampon was like talking a stroll in a minefield: one false step and boom! He wasn’t just accurate with those sledgehammer knees in the clinch; he was equally adept with his other fighting limbs, too. Nampon had a piston of a left jab (that usually found its mark), and was a superb kicker off either leg. His crushing and devastating leg kicks in the 1990 featherweight championship bout against the mullet headed figure of Swedish challenger Dennis Sigo immediately brings to mind the old Thai proverb, “The man who cannot stand, cannot fight.” He wiped the floor with the hapless and outclassed Swede in three memorable rounds at Oldham Leisure Center in England. It was a salutary lesson for any up and coming European kickboxer in the crowd who wanted to go head-to-head with a Thai fighter.
As per lessons: for MMA strikers looking to improve their mid-section knees in the clinch, look no further than Nampon’s form and fight archive on YouTube on how to (try and) do the very same to your opponents in the cage. Nampon was able to tie up boxers with his arms and break them at close proximity with big scoring knees to the ribs—which is what you are supposed to do with your opponent in the clinch, let’s face it.
Out of the ring and beyond the fading roar of the stadium crowds, the champ’s biggest battle was to begin in retirement. An incurable lung disease struck down Nampon and he went from virile kickboxer to a stick thin has-been nursed round-the-clock by attendant family and loyal friends. It’s a salutary lesson for any would be pugilist full of his (or her) own hubris—illness makes mortals of us all, even those remote and glistening gods of the four squared ring up there on the TV set.
And whilst it may be true that old nak muay have a tendency to fade away in the Kingdom of Thailand, Nampon will never be forgotten by those of us who knew him as a fighter, and those of us who knew him as a humble human being. RIP Nampon the knee flogging sensation from Buriram. His death might not be one of the headlines in the Thai press this week, but Nampon leaves this ignoble earth with the full knowledge that he did his bit for king, country and the noble art of eight limbs.
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