The greats come and go in Muay Thai but one name in the pantheon of eight-limbed legends rings out loud from all of the rest, the all-singing, all dancing, king of the kickboxers and the so-called best of the best, Samart Payakaroon.
Even now, far from the “golden age of Muay Thai,” many fighters and pundits still believe that the “Baby Face Tiger,” was the most gifted, most talented, kick fighter to ever grace the four squared corners of a ring.
Like most fighters of his generation, Samart came up the hard way. Born in 1962 in Chachoengsao Province in south-central Thailand, Samart took up Muay Thai boxing when he was 10-years-old. Moving to the seaside city of Pattaya in 1975, he fought under the tutelage of the late, great Yodtong Senanan at Sityodthong camp. Not a gifted athlete in the traditional sense, the slight, gangly youth impressed his new handlers as a “feemue” (technical boxer), who had good hand-eye coordination and supernatural reflexes to compensate for the lack of natural, physical ability.
Under the wing of famed Thai promoter Songchai Ratanasuban, he quickly made a name for himself as the best fighter on the Bangkok stage. Using his teep as a marker, slipping and blindsiding opponents with angular attacks, the switch hitter became the thinking man’s pugilist, and won his first Lumpinee belt when he was 17. Thereafter, between 1980 and 1981, the unstoppable teenager bagged every Lumpinee title from pin-weight (105lbs) to featherweight (116lbs).
Samart’s opponents’ are a roster of Muay Thai titans. He was the first to scalp the unconquered Nongkhai Sor Prapasorn, won close bouts with hardy fellas like Nampon Nongkeephahuyut and lost grueling (but honorable) ones on points against the likes of Wanjannoi Sor Palangchai and Dieselnoi Chor Thanasukarn, probably the greatest muay khao (knee fighter) of all time. Sadly, recordings of some of these epic tears ups are missing presumed scrubbed.
But this is where the story takes an interesting turn. Unable to progress any further in Muay Thai, in 1982 Samart made a lateral move to western boxing. It wasn’t all plain sailing for the precocious youth. The transition to boxing from Muay Thai was difficult. During fights, Samart had to stop himself from instinctively wanting to kick, knee and elbow, and had to limit himself to hands only and bob and weave footwork.
The Muay Thai switch hitter settled on southpaw for his hands-only style, and, after working his way up the rankings, won the WBC super bantamweight with a fifth round demolition of Mexican warrior Lupe Pintor in 1986. His tenure as a boxing champ was brief. Samart successfully defended the title against Juan Meza but lost it via KO in his second match to the tough as nails Australian boxer Jeff Fenech in 1987. Short but sweet, nonetheless, Samart had bridged the gap between Muay Thai and western boxing, and proved to the world at large that guys from the art of eight limbs could compete against guys from the art of two.
Not many pro nak muay (Thai kickboxers) have got the skill set and the ring smarts to cross over to boxing. That feat aside, what made Samart so special as a stand up fighter, so one of a kind? The best have always got style. And a big repertoire. Take Samart’s Muay Thai trademark the “Thai side kick.” You hear a lot of malarkey from fight folks and pot-bellied pundits about “no such thing as a side kick in Muay Thai,” yada- yada-yada. Well, those mealy-mouthed experts and armchair gladiators must have missed old Samart’s knock out contribution to that well-worn debate, the side teep.
Speed. Power. Timing. Movement. Samart was a conglomeration of fighting talents. A master of deception and attack by drawing, he was able to bait opponents with drunken, wobbly movements before using their own momentum to unleash a hammer to the head. Possessed with an innate, uncanny ability to see-it-coming, Samart used his knees and elbows for defense against strikes; and used the teep, and the infamous side teep, to prevent clinches (and preserve his pretty boy looks).
And what about his boxing style? It has long been argued that nak muay who make the transition to western style often have the same problem. They can punch, can’t box, and tend not to move the head. This wasn’t the case with Samart. In his finest performance as a two-fisted pug, the “great baiter” dazzled Juan Meza in their 1986 encounter with his evasive skills before sinking the granite jawed veteran to the canvas with a well placed left for a thrilling win by TKO in the twelfth round.
Not just a performer in the ring, Samart moonlighted as a singer (his voice is better than Tyson Fury’s), and as an actor in various, high-octane action movies. Yet the toll of the fight bell was too loud to ignore. With mitts sharpened in the world of western boxing, he carried on kickboxing and got to beat up a new generation on the Thai and international stage. These later bouts against Samransek Muengsurin, Gilbert Ballantine and Murat Comert are still much discussed by fight aficionados today. Not one to rest on the laurels, the charming killer resumed his parallel boxing career but finally knocked it on the head after getting KO’d in the eighth round of a WBA championship bout by featherweight maestro Eloy Rojas of Venezuela. He wasn’t too gutted. He had Muay Thai to fall back on. And the new career as a pop singer.
Despite the blips, mishaps, and the critics who criticized his perceived lack of “power,” and discipline, Samart lives in the hearts and minds of Thai people as a champion forever; a king of the ring, an out-and-out sporting superstar, still unable to walk the noisy streets of Bangkok without being recognized by the taxi drivers and food vendors. He was, is, and will always be, the fighting deity of the fighting people, their hero, their choice, their herald to whup farangs (foreigners of European descent), and other forms of non-Thai human garbage.
Into memory, his fight record isn’t just respectable: it’s remarkable. In Muay Thai, Samart had 150 fights, 129 wins (30 by KO), 19 losses and 2 draws; in boxing, 23 bouts, 21 wins (12 by KO) and 2 losses. Nowadays you can find the boxing genius at Popteeratham Muay Thai camp in outer Bangkok grooming a new generation of fighters, both domestic and foreign. The king of the kickboxers laments the passing of his era, the lack of artistry in the ring, the incomprehensible scoring of judges and the prevalence of gangsters and gamblers at ringside blighting the sport. Maybe the old champ is getting too sentimental about the good old days and the so-called golden age of Muay Thai. ‘Twas ever thus in boxing, and always thus will be.
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